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Introduction—General Ignorance On The Subject Of Evolution At The Time The "origin Of Species" Was Published In 1850.
There are few things which strike us with more surprise, when we review the course taken by opinion in the last century, than the suddenness with which belief in witchcraft and demoniacal possession came to an end. This has been often remarked upon, but I am not acquainted with any record of the fact as it appeared to those under whose eyes the change was taking place, nor have I seen any contemporary explanation of the reasons which led to the apparently sudden overthrow of a belief which had seemed hitherto to be deeply rooted in the minds of almost all men. As a parallel to this, though in respect of the rapid spread of an opinion, and not its decadence, it is probable that those of our descendants who take an interest in ourselves will note the suddenness with which the theory of evolution, from having been generally ridiculed during a period of over a hundred years, came into popularity and almost universal acceptance among educated people.
It is indisputable that this has been the case; nor is it less indisputable that the works of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace have been the main agents in the change that has been brought about in our opinions. The names of Cobden and Bright do not stand more prominently forward in connection with the repeal of the Corn Laws than do those of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace in connection with the general acceptance of the theory of evolution. There is no living philosopher who has anything like Mr. Darwin's popularity with Englishmen generally; and not only this, but his power of fascination extends over all Europe, and indeed in every country in which civilisation has obtained a footing: not among the illiterate masses, though these are rapidly following the suit of the educated classes, but among experts and those who are most capable of judging. France, indeed —the country of Buffon and Lamarck—must be counted an exception to the general rule, but in England and Germany there are few men of scientific reputation who do not accept Mr. Darwin as the founder of what is commonly called " Darwinism," and regard him as perhaps the most penetrative and profound philosopher of modern times.
To quote an example from the last few weeks only,1 I have observed that Professor Huxley has celebrated the twenty-first year since the "Origin of Species" was published by a lecture at the Royal Institution, and am told that he described Mr. Darwin's candour as something actually "terrible" (I give Professor Huxley's own word, as reported by one who heard it); and on opening a small book entitled "Degeneration," by Professor Ray Lankester, published a few days before these lines were written, I find the following passage amid more that is to the same purport:—
"Suddenly one of those great guesses which occasionally appear in the history of science was given to the science of biology by the imaginative insight of that greatest of living naturalists—I would say that greatest of living men —Charles Darwin."—Degeneration, p. 10.
This is very strong language, but it is hardly stronger than that habitually employed by the leading men of science when they speak of Mr.
1 May 1880.
Darwin. To go farther afield, in February 1879 the Germans devoted an entire number of one of their scientific periodicals1 to the celebration of Mr. Darwin's seventieth birthday. There is no other Englishman now living who has been able to win such a compliment as this from foreigners, who should be disinterested judges.
Under these circumstances, it must seem the height of presumption to differ from so great an authority, and to join the small band of malcontents who hold that Mr. Darwin's reputation as a philosopher, though it has grown up with the rapidity of Jonah's gourd, will yet not be permanent. I believe, however, that though we must always gladly and gratefully owe it to Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace that the public mind has been brought to accept evolution, the admiration now generally felt for the " Origin of Species" will appear as unaccountable to our descendants some fifty or eighty years hence as the enthusiasm of our grandfathers for the poetry of Dr. Erasmus Darwin does to ourselves; and as one who has yielded to none in respect of the fascination Mr. Darwin has exercised over him, I would fain say a few words of explanation which may make the matter clearer to our future historians. I do this the
1 Kosmos, February 1879, Leipsic
more readily because I can at the same time explain thus better than in any other way the steps which led me to the theory which I afterwards advanced in "Life and Habit."
This last, indeed, is perhaps the main purpose of the earlier chapters of this book. I shall presently give a translation of a lecture by Professor Ewald Hering of Prague, which appeared ten years ago, and which contains so exactly the theory I subsequently advocated myself, that I am half uneasy lest it should be supposed that I knew of Professor Hering's work and made no reference to it. A friend to whom I submitted my translation in MS., asking him how closely he thought it resembled "Life and Habit," wrote back that it gave my own ideas almost in my own words. As far as the ideas are concerned this is certainly the case, and considering that Professor Hering wrote between seven and eight years before I did, I think it due to him, and to my readers as well as to myself, to explain the steps which led me to my conclusions, and, while putting Professor Hering's lecture before them, to show cause for thinking that I arrived at an almost identical conclusion, as it would appear, by an almost identical road, yet, nevertheless, quite independently. I must ask the reader, there