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Williams HS. A History of Science. (1904) Harper and Bros. New York.

A History of Science: Arabian Medicine | Mediaeval Science in the West | The Great Anatomists | The coming of Harvey | Leeuwenhoek Discovers Bacteria | Medicine in the 16th and 17th Century | Philosopher-Scientists and new Institutions | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 1 | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 2 | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 3 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 1 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 2 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 3 | Theories Of Evolution Part 1 | Theories Of Evolution Part 2 | 18th Century Medicine | 19th Century Medicine Part 1 | 19th Century Medicine Part 2 | Brain and Mind | Brain Structure | Embryology History
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Theories Of Evolution Part 1

Goethe and the Metamorphosis of Parts

When Coleridge said of Humphry Davy that he might have been the greatest poet of his time had he not chosen rather to be the greatest chemist, it is possible that the enthusiasm of the friend outweighed the caution of the critic. But however that may be, it is beyond dispute that the man who actually was the greatest poet of that time might easily have taken the very highest rank as a scientist had not the muse distracted his attention. Indeed, despite these distractions, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe achieved successes in the field of pure science that would insure permanent recognition for his name had he never written a stanza of poetry. Such is the versatility that marks the highest genius.

It was in 1790 that Goethe published the work that laid the foundations of his scientific reputation--the work on the Metamorphoses of Plants, in which he advanced the novel doctrine that all parts of the flower are modified or metamorphosed leaves.

"Every one who observes the growth of plants, even superficially," wrote Goethe, "will notice that certain external parts of them become transformed at times and go over into the forms of the contiguous parts, now completely, now to a greater or less degree. Thus, for example, the single flower is transformed into a double one when, instead of stamens, petals are developed, which are either exactly like the other petals of the corolla in form, and color or else still bear visible signs of their origin.

"When we observe that it is possible for a plant in this way to take a step backward, we shall give so much the more heed to the regular course of nature and learn the laws of transformation according to which she produces one part through another, and displays the most varying forms through the modification of one single organ.

"Let us first direct our attention to the plant at the moment when it develops out of the seed-kernel. The first organs of its upward growth are known by the name of cotyledons; they have also been called seed-leaves.

"They often appear shapeless, filled with new matter, and are just as thick as they are broad. Their vessels are unrecognizable and are hardly to be distinguished from the mass of the whole; they bear almost no resemblance to a leaf, and we could easily be misled into regarding them as special organs. Occasionally, however, they appear as real leaves, their vessels are capable of the most minute development, their similarity to the following leaves does not permit us to take them for special organs, but we recognize them instead to be the first leaves of the stalk.

"The cotyledons are mostly double, and there is an observation to be made here which will appear still more important as we proceed--that is, that the leaves of the first node are often paired, even when the following leaves of the stalk stand alternately upon it. Here we see an approximation and a joining of parts which nature afterwards separates and places at a distance from one another. It is still more remarkable when the cotyledons take the form of many little leaves gathered about an axis, and the stalk which grows gradually from their midst produces the following leaves arranged around it singly in a whorl. This may be observed very exactly in the growth of the pinus species. Here a corolla of needles forms at the same time a calyx, and we shall have occasion to remember the present case in connection with similar phenomena later.

"On the other hand, we observe that even the cotyledons which are most like a leaf when compared with the following leaves of the stalk are always more undeveloped or less developed. This is chiefly noticeable in their margin which is extremely simple and shows few traces of indentation.

"A few or many of the next following leaves are often already present in the seed, and lie enclosed between the cotyledons; in their folded state they are known by the name of plumules. Their form, as compared with the cotyledons and the following leaves, varies in different plants. Their chief point of variance, however, from the cotyledons is that they are flat, delicate, and formed like real leaves generally. They are wholly green, rest on a visible node, and can no longer deny their relationship to the following leaves of the stalk, to which, however, they are usually still inferior, in so far as that their margin is not completely developed.

"The further development, however, goes on ceaselessly in the leaf, from node to node; its midrib is elongated, and more or less additional ribs stretch out from this towards the sides. The leaves now appear notched, deeply indented, or composed of several small leaves, in which last case they seem to form complete little branches. The date-palm furnishes a striking example of such a successive transformation of the simplest leaf form. A midrib is elongated through a succession of several leaves, the single fan-shaped leaf becomes torn and diverted, and a very complicated leaf is developed, which rivals a branch in form.

"The transition to inflorescence takes place more or less rapidly. In the latter case we usually observe that the leaves of the stalk loose their different external divisions, and, on the other hand, spread out more or less in their lower parts where they are attached to the stalk. If the transition takes place rapidly, the stalk, suddenly become thinner and more elongated since the node of the last-developed leaf, shoots up and collects several leaves around an axis at its end.

"That the petals of the calyx are precisely the same organs which have hitherto appeared as leaves on the stalk, but now stand grouped about a common centre in an often very different form, can, as it seems to me, be most clearly demonstrated. Already in connection with the cotyledons above, we noticed a similar working of nature. The first species, while they are developing out of the seed-kernel, display a radiate crown of unmistakable needles; and in the first childhood of these plants we see already indicated that force of nature whereby when they are older their flowering and fruit-giving state will be produced.

"We see this force of nature, which collects several leaves around an axis, produce a still closer union and make these approximated, modified leaves still more unrecognizable by joining them together either wholly or partially. The bell-shaped or so-called one-petalled calices represent these cloudy connected leaves, which, being more or less indented from above, or divided, plainly show their origin.

"We can observe the transition from the calyx to the corolla in more than one instance, for, although the color of the calyx is still usually green, and like the color of the leaves of the stalk, it nevertheless often varies in one or another of its parts--at the tips, the margins, the back, or even, the inward side--while the outer still remains on green.

"The relationship of the corolla to the leaves of the stalk is shown in more than one way, since on the stalks of some plants appear leaves which are already more or less colored long before they approach inflorescence; others are fully colored when near inflorescence. Nature also goes over at once to the corolla, sometimes by skipping over the organs of the calyx, and in such a case we likewise have an opportunity to observe that leaves of the stalk become transformed into petals. Thus on the stalk of tulips, for instance, there sometimes appears an almost completely developed and colored petal. Even more remarkable is the case when such a leaf, half green and half of it belonging to the stalk, remains attached to the latter, while another colored part is raised with the corolla, and the leaf is thus torn in two.

"The relationship between the petals and stamens is very close. In some instances nature makes the transition regular--e.g., among the Canna and several plants of the same family. A true, little-modified petal is drawn together on its upper margin, and produces a pollen sac, while the rest of the petal takes the place of the stamen. In double flowers we can observe this transition in all its stages. In several kinds of roses, within the fully developed and colored petals there appear other ones which are drawn together in the middle or on the side. This drawing together is produced by a small weal, which appears as a more or less complete pollen sac, and in the same proportion the leaf approaches the simple form of a stamen.

"The pistil in many cases looks almost like a stamen without anthers, and the relationship between the formation of the two is much closer than between the other parts. In retrograde fashion nature often produces cases where the style and stigma (Narben) become retransformed into petals--that is, the Ranunculus Asiaticus becomes double by transforming the stigma and style of the fruit-receptacle into real petals, while the stamens are often found unchanged immediately behind the corolla.

"In the seed receptacles, in spite of their formation, of their special object, and of their method of being joined together, we cannot fail to recognize the leaf form. Thus, for instance, the pod would be a simple leaf folded and grown together on its margin; the siliqua would consist of more leaves folded over another; the compound receptacles would be explained as being several leaves which, being united above one centre, keep their inward parts separate and are joined on their margins. We can convince ourselves of this by actual sight when such composite capsules fall apart after becoming ripe, because then every part displays an opened pod."[1]

The theory thus elaborated of the metamorphosis of parts was presently given greater generality through extension to the animal kingdom, in the doctrine which Goethe and Oken advanced independently, that the vertebrate skull is essentially a modified and developed vertebra. These were conceptions worthy of a poet--impossible, indeed, for any mind that had not the poetic faculty of correlation. But in this case the poet's vision was prophetic of a future view of the most prosaic science. The doctrine of metamorphosis of parts soon came to be regarded as of fundamental importance.

But the doctrine had implications that few of its early advocates realized. If all the parts of a flower--sepal, petal, stamen, pistil, with their countless deviations of contour and color--are but modifications of the leaf, such modification implies a marvellous differentiation and development. To assert that a stamen is a metamorphosed leaf means, if it means anything, that in the long sweep of time the leaf has by slow or sudden gradations changed its character through successive generations, until the offspring, so to speak, of a true leaf has become a stamen. But if such a metamorphosis as this is possible--if the seemingly wide gap between leaf and stamen may be spanned by the modification of a line of organisms--where does the possibility of modification of organic type find its bounds? Why may not the modification of parts go on along devious lines until the remote descendants of an organism are utterly unlike that organism? Why may we not thus account for the development of various species of beings all sprung from one parent stock? That, too, is a poet's dream; but is it only a dream? Goethe thought not. Out of his studies of metamorphosis of parts there grew in his mind the belief that the multitudinous species of plants and animals about us have been evolved from fewer and fewer earlier parent types, like twigs of a giant tree drawing their nurture from the same primal root. It was a bold and revolutionary thought, and the world regarded it as but the vagary of a poet.

Erasmus Darwin

Just at the time when this thought was taking form in Goethe's brain, the same idea was germinating in the mind of another philosopher, an Englishman of international fame, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who, while he lived, enjoyed the widest popularity as a poet, the rhymed couplets of his Botanic Garden being quoted everywhere with admiration. And posterity repudiating the verse which makes the body of the book, yet grants permanent value to the book itself, because, forsooth, its copious explanatory foot-notes furnish an outline of the status of almost every department of science of the time.

But even though he lacked the highest art of the versifier, Darwin had, beyond peradventure, the imagination of a poet coupled with profound scientific knowledge; and it was his poetic insight, correlating organisms seemingly diverse in structure and imbuing the lowliest flower with a vital personality, which led him to suspect that there are no lines of demarcation in nature. "Can it be," he queries, "that one form of organism has developed from another; that different species are really but modified descendants of one parent stock?" The alluring thought nestled in his mind and was nurtured there, and grew in a fixed belief, which was given fuller expression in his Zoonomia and in the posthumous Temple of Nature.

Here is his rendering of the idea as versified in the Temple of Nature:

"Organic life beneath the shoreless waves Was born, and nursed in Ocean's pearly caves; First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass; These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire and larger limbs assume; Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

"Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood, Which bears Britannia's thunders on the flood; The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main; The lordly lion, monarch of the plain; The eagle, soaring in the realms of air, Whose eye, undazzled, drinks the solar glare; Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd, Of language, reason, and reflection proud, With brow erect, who scorns this earthy sod, And styles himself the image of his God-- Arose from rudiments of form and sense, An embryon point or microscopic ens!"[2]

Here, clearly enough, is the idea of evolution. But in that day there was little proof forthcoming of its validity that could satisfy any one but a poet, and when Erasmus Darwin died, in 1802, the idea of transmutation of species was still but an unsubstantiated dream.

It was a dream, however, which was not confined to Goethe and Darwin. Even earlier the idea had come more or less vaguely to another great dreamer--and worker--of Germany, Immanuel Kant, and to several great Frenchmen, including De Maillet, Maupertuis, Robinet, and the famous naturalist Buffon--a man who had the imagination of a poet, though his message was couched in most artistic prose. Not long after the middle of the eighteenth century Buffon had put forward the idea of transmutation of species, and he reiterated it from time to time from then on till his death in 1788. But the time was not yet ripe for the idea of transmutation of species to burst its bonds.

And yet this idea, in a modified or undeveloped form, had taken strange hold upon the generation that was upon the scene at the close of the eighteenth century. Vast numbers of hitherto unknown species of animals had been recently discovered in previously unexplored regions of the globe, and the wise men were sorely puzzled to account for the disposal of all of these at the time of the deluge. It simplified matters greatly to suppose that many existing species had been developed since the episode of the ark by modification of the original pairs. The remoter bearings of such a theory were overlooked for the time, and the idea that American animals and birds, for example, were modified descendants of Old-World forms--the jaguar of the leopard, the puma of the lion, and so on--became a current belief with that class of humanity who accept almost any statement as true that harmonizes with their prejudices without realizing its implications.

Thus it is recorded with eclat that the discovery of the close proximity of America at the northwest with Asia removes all difficulties as to the origin of the Occidental faunas and floras, since Oriental species might easily have found their way to America on the ice, and have been modified as we find them by "the well-known influence of climate." And the persons who gave expression to this idea never dreamed of its real significance. In truth, here was the doctrine of evolution in a nutshell, and, because its ultimate bearings were not clear, it seemed the most natural of doctrines. But most of the persons who advanced it would have turned from it aghast could they have realized its import. As it was, however, only here and there a man like Buffon reasoned far enough to inquire what might be the limits of such assumed transmutation; and only here and there a Darwin or a Goethe reached the conviction that there are no limits.

Larmarck versus Cuvier

And even Goethe and Darwin had scarcely passed beyond that tentative stage of conviction in which they held the thought of transmutation of species as an ancillary belief not ready for full exposition. There was one of their contemporaries, however, who, holding the same conception, was moved to give it full explication. This was the friend and disciple of Buffon, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. Possessed of the spirit of a poet and philosopher, this great Frenchman had also the widest range of technical knowledge, covering the entire field of animate nature. The first half of his long life was devoted chiefly to botany, in which he attained high distinction. Then, just at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he turned to zoology, in particular to the lower forms of animal life. Studying these lowly organisms, existing and fossil, he was more and more impressed with the gradations of form everywhere to be seen; the linking of diverse families through intermediate ones; and in particular with the predominance of low types of life in the earlier geological strata. Called upon constantly to classify the various forms of life in the course of his systematic writings, he found it more and more difficult to draw sharp lines of demarcation, and at last the suspicion long harbored grew into a settled conviction that there is really no such thing as a species of organism in nature; that "species" is a figment of the human imagination, whereas in nature there are only individuals.

That certain sets of individuals are more like one another than like other sets is of course patent, but this only means, said Lamarck, that these similar groups have had comparatively recent common ancestors, while dissimilar sets of beings are more remotely related in consanguinity. But trace back the lines of descent far enough, and all will culminate in one original stock. All forms of life whatsoever are modified descendants of an original organism. From lowest to highest, then, there is but one race, one species, just as all the multitudinous branches and twigs from one root are but one tree. For purposes of convenience of description, we may divide organisms into orders, families, genera, species, just as we divide a tree into root, trunk, branches, twigs, leaves; but in the one case, as in the other, the division is arbitrary and artificial.

In Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Lamarck first explicitly formulated his ideas as to the transmutation of species, though he had outlined them as early as 1801. In this memorable publication not only did he state his belief more explicitly and in fuller detail than the idea had been expressed by any predecessor, but he took another long forward step, carrying him far beyond all his forerunners except Darwin, in that he made an attempt to explain the way in which the transmutation of species had been brought about. The changes have been wrought, he said, through the unceasing efforts of each organism to meet the needs imposed upon it by its environment. Constant striving means the constant use of certain organs. Thus a bird running by the seashore is constantly tempted to wade deeper and deeper in pursuit of food; its incessant efforts tend to develop its legs, in accordance with the observed principle that the use of any organ tends to strengthen and develop it. But such slightly increased development of the legs is transmitted to the off spring of the bird, which in turn develops its already improved legs by its individual efforts, and transmits the improved tendency. Generation after generation this is repeated, until the sum of the infinitesimal variations, all in the same direction, results in the production of the long-legged wading-bird. In a similar way, through individual effort and transmitted tendency, all the diversified organs of all creatures have been developed--the fin of the fish, the wing of the bird, the hand of man; nay, more, the fish itself, the bird, the man, even. Collectively the organs make up the entire organism; and what is true of the individual organs must be true also of their ensemble, the living being.

Whatever might be thought of Lamarck's explanation of the cause of transmutation--which really was that already suggested by Erasmus Darwin--the idea of the evolution for which he contended was but the logical extension of the conception that American animals are the modified and degenerated descendants of European animals. But people as a rule are little prone to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, and in this case the conclusions were so utterly opposed to the proximal bearings of the idea that the whole thinking world repudiated them with acclaim. The very persons who had most eagerly accepted the idea of transmutation of European species into American species, and similar limited variations through changed environment, because of the relief thus given the otherwise overcrowded ark, were now foremost in denouncing such an extension of the doctrine of transmutation as Lamarck proposed.

And, for that matter, the leaders of the scientific world were equally antagonistic to the Lamarckian hypothesis. Cuvier in particular, once the pupil of Lamarck, but now his colleague, and in authority more than his peer, stood out against the transmutation doctrine with all his force. He argued for the absolute fixity of species, bringing to bear the resources of a mind which, as a mere repository of facts, perhaps never was excelled. As a final and tangible proof of his position, he brought forward the bodies of ibises that had been embalmed by the ancient Egyptians, and showed by comparison that these do not differ in the slightest particular from the ibises that visit the Nile to-day.

Cuvier's reasoning has such great historical interest--being the argument of the greatest opponent of evolution of that day--that we quote it at some length.

"The following objections," he says, "have already been started against my conclusions. Why may not the presently existing races of mammiferous land quadrupeds be mere modifications or varieties of those ancient races which we now find in the fossil state, which modifications may have been produced by change of climate and other local circumstances, and since raised to the present excessive difference by the operations of similar causes during a long period of ages?

"This objection may appear strong to those who believe in the indefinite possibility of change of form in organized bodies, and think that, during a succession of ages and by alterations of habitudes, all the species may change into one another, or one of them give birth to all the rest. Yet to these persons the following answer may be given from their own system: If the species have changed by degrees, as they assume, we ought to find traces of this gradual modification. Thus, between the palaeotherium and the species of our own day, we should be able to discover some intermediate forms; and yet no such discovery has ever been made. Since the bowels of the earth have not preserved monuments of this strange genealogy, we have no right to conclude that the ancient and now extinct species were as permanent in their forms and characters as those which exist at present; or, at least, that the catastrophe which destroyed them did not leave sufficient time for the productions of the changes that are alleged to have taken place.

"In order to reply to those naturalists who acknowledge that the varieties of animals are restrained by nature within certain limits, it would be necessary to examine how far these limits extend. This is a very curious inquiry, and in itself exceedingly interesting under a variety of relations, but has been hitherto very little attended to. . . . . . . . .

Wild animals which subsist upon herbage feel the influence of climate a little more extensively, because there is added to it the influence of food, both in regard to its abundance and its quality. Thus the elephants of one forest are larger than those of another; their tusks also grow somewhat longer in places where their food may happen to be more favorable for the production of the substance of ivory. The same may take place in regard to the horns of stags and reindeer. But let us examine two elephants, the most dissimilar that can be conceived, we shall not discover the smallest difference in the number and articulations of the bones, the structure of the teeth, etc. . . . . . . . .

"Nature appears also to have guarded against the alterations of species which might proceed from mixture of breeds by influencing the various species of animals with mutual aversion from one another. Hence all the cunning and all the force that man is able to exert is necessary to accomplish such unions, even between species that have the nearest resemblances. And when the mule breeds that are thus produced by these forced conjunctions happen to be fruitful, which is seldom the case, this fecundity never continues beyond a few generations, and would not probably proceed so far without a continuance of the same cares which excited it at first. Thus we never see in a wild state intermediate productions between the hare and the rabbit, between the stag and the doe, or between the marten and the weasel. But the power of man changes this established order, and continues to produce all these intermixtures of which the various species are susceptible, but which they would never produce if left to themselves.

"The degrees of these variations are proportional to the intensity of the causes that produced them--namely, the slavery or subjection under which those animals are to man. They do not proceed far in half-domesticated species. In the cat, for example, a softer or harsher fur, more brilliant or more varied colors, greater or less size--these form the whole extent of variety in the species; the skeleton of the cat of Angora differs in no regular and constant circumstances from the wild-cat of Europe. . . . . . . .

The most remarkable effects of the influence of man are produced upon that animal which he has reduced most completely under subjection. Dogs have been transported by mankind into every part of the world and have submitted their action to his entire direction. Regulated in their unions by the pleasure or caprice of their masters, the almost endless varieties of dogs differ from one another in color, in length, and abundance of hair, which is sometimes entirely wanting; in their natural instincts; in size, which varies in measure as one to five, mounting in some instances to more than a hundredfold in bulk; in the form of their ears, noses, and tails; in the relative length of their legs; in the progressive development of the brain, in several of the domesticated varieties occasioning alterations even in the form of the head, some of them having long, slender muzzles with a flat forehead, others having short muzzles with a forehead convex, etc., insomuch that the apparent difference between a mastiff and a water-spaniel and between a greyhound and a pugdog are even more striking than between almost any of the wild species of a genus. . . . . . . .

It follows from these observations that animals have certain fixed and natural characters which resist the effects of every kind of influence, whether proceeding from natural causes or human interference; and we have not the smallest reason to suspect that time has any more effect on them than climate.

"I am aware that some naturalists lay prodigious stress upon the thousands which they can call into action by a dash of their pens. In such matters, however, our only way of judging as to the effects which may be produced by a long period of time is by multiplying, as it were, such as are produced by a shorter time. With this view I have endeavored to collect all the ancient documents respecting the forms of animals; and there are none equal to those furnished by the Egyptians, both in regard to their antiquity and abundance. They have not only left us representatives of animals, but even their identical bodies embalmed and preserved in the catacombs.

"I have examined, with the greatest attention, the engraved figures of quadrupeds and birds brought from Egypt to ancient Rome, and all these figures, one with another, have a perfect resemblance to their intended objects, such as they still are to-day.

"From all these established facts, there does not seem to be the smallest foundation for supposing that the new genera which I have discovered or established among extraneous fossils, such as the paleoetherium, anoplotherium, megalonyx, mastodon, pterodactylis, etc., have ever been the sources of any of our present animals, which only differ so far as they are influenced by time or climate. Even if it should prove true, which I am far from believing to be the case, that the fossil elephants, rhinoceroses, elks, and bears do not differ further from the existing species of the same genera than the present races of dogs differ among themselves, this would by no means be a sufficient reason to conclude that they were of the same species; since the races or varieties of dogs have been influenced by the trammels of domesticity, which those other animals never did, and indeed never could, experience."[3]

To Cuvier's argument from the fixity of Egyptian mummified birds and animals, as above stated, Lamarck replied that this proved nothing except that the ibis had become perfectly adapted to its Egyptian surroundings in an early day, historically speaking, and that the climatic and other conditions of the Nile Valley had not since then changed. His theory, he alleged, provided for the stability of species under fixed conditions quite as well as for transmutation under varying conditions.

But, needless to say, the popular verdict lay with Cuvier; talent won for the time against genius, and Lamarck was looked upon as an impious visionary. His faith never wavered, however. He believed that he had gained a true insight into the processes of animate nature, and he reiterated his hypotheses over and over, particularly in the introduction to his Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertebres, in 1815, and in his Systeme des Connaissances Positives de l'Homme, in 1820. He lived on till 1829, respected as a naturalist, but almost unrecognized as a prophet.

Tentative Advances

While the names of Darwin and Goethe, and in particular that of Lamarck, must always stand out in high relief in this generation as the exponents of the idea of transmutation of species, there are a few others which must not be altogether overlooked in this connection. Of these the most conspicuous is that of Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus, a German naturalist physician, professor of mathematics in the lyceum at Bremen.

It was an interesting coincidence that Treviranus should have published the first volume of his Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, in which his views on the transmutation of species were expounded, in 1802, the same twelvemonth in which Lamarck's first exposition of the same doctrine appeared in his Recherches sur l'Organisation des Corps Vivants. It is singular, too, that Lamarck, in his Hydrogelogie of the same date, should independently have suggested "biology" as an appropriate word to express the general science of living things. It is significant of the tendency of thought of the time that the need of such a unifying word should have presented itself simultaneously to independent thinkers in different countries.

That same memorable year, Lorenz Oken, another philosophical naturalist, professor in the University of Zurich, published the preliminary outlines of his Philosophie der Natur, which, as developed through later publications, outlined a theory of spontaneous generation and of evolution of species. Thus it appears that this idea was germinating in the minds of several of the ablest men of the time during the first decade of our century. But the singular result of their various explications was to give sudden check to that undercurrent of thought which for some time had been setting towards this conception. As soon as it was made clear whither the concession that animals may be changed by their environment must logically trend, the recoil from the idea was instantaneous and fervid. Then for a generation Cuvier was almost absolutely dominant, and his verdict was generally considered final.

There was, indeed, one naturalist of authority in France who had the hardihood to stand out against Cuvier and his school, and who was in a position to gain a hearing, though by no means to divide the following. This was Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the famous author of the Philosophie Anatomique, and for many years the colleague of Lamarck at the Jardin des Plantes. Like Goethe, Geoffroy was pre-eminently an anatomist, and, like the great German, he had early been impressed with the resemblances between the analogous organs of different classes of beings. He conceived the idea that an absolute unity of type prevails throughout organic nature as regards each set of organs. Out of this idea grew his gradually formed belief that similarity of structure might imply identity of origin--that, in short, one species of animal might have developed from another.

Geoffroy's grasp of this idea of transmutation was by no means so complete as that of Lamarck, and he seems never to have fully determined in his own mind just what might be the limits of such development of species. Certainly he nowhere includes all organic creatures in one line of descent, as Lamarck had done; nevertheless, he held tenaciously to the truth as he saw it, in open opposition to Cuvier, with whom he held a memorable debate at the Academy of Sciences in 1830--the debate which so aroused the interest and enthusiasm of Goethe, but which, in the opinion of nearly every one else, resulted in crushing defeat for Geoffrey, and brilliant, seemingly final, victory for the advocate of special creation and the fixity of species.

With that all ardent controversy over the subject seemed to end, and for just a quarter of a century to come there was published but a single argument for transmutation of species which attracted any general attention whatever. This oasis in a desert generation was a little book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which appeared anonymously in England in 1844, and which passed through numerous editions, and was the subject of no end of abusive and derisive comment. This book, the authorship of which remained for forty years a secret, is now conceded to have been the work of Robert Chambers, the well-known English author and publisher. The book itself is remarkable as being an avowed and unequivocal exposition of a general doctrine of evolution, its view being as radical and comprehensive as that of Lamarck himself. But it was a resume of earlier efforts rather than a new departure, to say nothing of its technical shortcomings, which may best be illustrated by a quotation.

"The whole question," says Chambers, "stands thus: For the theory of universal order--that is, order as presiding in both the origin and administration of the world--we have the testimony of a vast number of facts in nature, and this one in addition--that whatever is left from the domain of ignorance, and made undoubted matter of science, forms a new support to the same doctrine. The opposite view, once predominant, has been shrinking for ages into lesser space, and now maintains a footing only in a few departments of nature which happen to be less liable than others to a clear investigation. The chief of these, if not almost the only one, is the origin of the organic kingdoms. So long as this remains obscure, the supernatural will have a certain hold upon enlightened persons. Should it ever be cleared up in a way that leaves no doubt of a natural origin of plants and animals, there must be a complete revolution in the view which is generally taken of the relation of the Father of our being.

"This prepares the way for a few remarks on the present state of opinion with regard to the origin of organic nature. The great difficulty here is the apparent determinateness of species. These forms of life being apparently unchangeable, or at least always showing a tendency to return to the character from which they have diverged, the idea arises that there can have been no progression from one to another; each must have taken its special form, independently of other forms, directly from the appointment of the Creator. The Edinburgh Review writer says, 'they were created by the hand of God and adapted to the conditions of the period.' Now it is, in the first place, not certain that species constantly maintain a fixed character, for we have seen that what were long considered as determinate species have been transmuted into others. Passing, however, from this fact, as it is not generally received among men of science, there remain some great difficulties in connection with the idea of special creation. First we should have to suppose, as pointed out in my former volume, a most startling diversity of plan in the divine workings, a great general plan or system of law in the leading events of world-making, and a plan of minute, nice operation, and special attention in some of the mere details of the process. The discrepancy between the two conceptions is surely overpowering, when we allow ourselves to see the whole matter in a steady and rational light. There is, also, the striking fact of an ascertained historical progress of plants and animals in the order of their organization; marine and cellular plants and invertebrated animals first, afterwards higher examples of both. In an arbitrary system we had surely no reason to expect mammals after reptiles; yet in this order they came. The writer in the Edinburgh Review speaks of animals as coming in adaptation to conditions, but this is only true in a limited sense. The groves which formed the coal-beds might have been a fitting habitation for reptiles, birds, and mammals, as such groves are at the present day; yet we see none of the last of these classes and hardly any traces of the two first at that period of the earth. Where the iguanodon lived the elephant might have lived, but there was no elephant at that time. The sea of the Lower Silurian era was capable of supporting fish, but no fish existed. It hence forcibly appears that theatres of life must have remained unserviceable, or in the possession of a tenantry inferior to what might have enjoyed them, for many ages: there surely would have been no such waste allowed in a system where Omnipotence was working upon the plan of minute attention to specialities. The fact seems to denote that the actual procedure of the peopling of the earth was one of a natural kind, requiring a long space of time for its evolution. In this supposition the long existence of land without land animals, and more particularly without the noblest classes and orders, is only analogous to the fact, not nearly enough present to the minds of a civilized people, that to this day the bulk of the earth is a waste as far as man is concerned.

"Another startling objection is in the infinite local variation of organic forms. Did the vegetable and animal kingdoms consist of a definite number of species adapted to peculiarities of soil and climate, and universally distributed, the fact would be in harmony with the idea of special exertion. But the truth is that various regions exhibit variations altogether without apparent end or purpose. Professor Henslow enumerates forty-five distinct flowers or sets of plants upon the surface of the earth, notwithstanding that many of these would be equally suitable elsewhere. The animals of different continents are equally various, few species being the same in any two, though the general character may conform. The inference at present drawn from this fact is that there must have been, to use the language of the Rev. Dr. Pye Smith, 'separate and original creations, perhaps at different and respectively distinct epochs.' It seems hardly conceivable that rational men should give an adherence to such a doctrine when we think of what it involves. In the single fact that it necessitates a special fiat of the inconceivable Author of this sand-cloud of worlds to produce the flora of St. Helena, we read its more than sufficient condemnation. It surely harmonizes far better with our general ideas of nature to suppose that, just as all else in this far-spread science was formed on the laws impressed upon it at first by its Author, so also was this. An exception presented to us in such a light appears admissible only when we succeed in forbidding our minds to follow out those reasoning processes to which, by another law of the Almighty, they tend, and for which they are adapted."[4]

Such reasoning as this naturally aroused bitter animadversions, and cannot have been without effect in creating an undercurrent of thought in opposition to the main trend of opinion of the time. But the book can hardly be said to have done more than that. Indeed, some critics have denied it even this merit. After its publication, as before, the conception of transmutation of species remained in the popular estimation, both lay and scientific, an almost forgotten "heresy."

It is true that here and there a scientist of greater or less repute--as Von Buch, Meckel, and Von Baer in Germany, Bory Saint-Vincent in France, Wells, Grant, and Matthew in England, and Leidy in America--had expressed more or less tentative dissent from the doctrine of special creation and immutability of species, but their unaggressive suggestions, usually put forward in obscure publications, and incidentally, were utterly overlooked and ignored. And so, despite the scientific advances along many lines at the middle of the century, the idea of the transmutability of organic races had no such prominence, either in scientific or unscientific circles, as it had acquired fifty years before. Special creation held the day, seemingly unopposed.

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Williams HS. A History of Science. (1904) Harper and Bros. New York.

A History of Science: Arabian Medicine | Mediaeval Science in the West | The Great Anatomists | The coming of Harvey | Leeuwenhoek Discovers Bacteria | Medicine in the 16th and 17th Century | Philosopher-Scientists and new Institutions | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 1 | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 2 | 18th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 3 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 1 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 2 | 19th Century Anatomy and Physiology Part 3 | Theories Of Evolution Part 1 | Theories Of Evolution Part 2 | 18th Century Medicine | 19th Century Medicine Part 1 | 19th Century Medicine Part 2 | Brain and Mind | Brain Structure | Embryology History
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