Darwin’s “Origin of Species”: A Book Review in 1860

Charles Darwin

I like to read old periodicals. They may have their own spin, but it has the virtue of being different from the all-too-familiar spin of today. Reading them also gives you a certain smug sense of superiority, because you know how things turned out. Many of them are well written and entertaining, and the authors are much more likely to tell you things you don’t already know than today’s lot. Occasionally, you run across some remarkable stuff.

For example, a couple of days ago I was reading through a volume of the Edinburgh Review for 1859 and 1860. The Edinburgh was one of the two great British literary, scientific, and political reviews of the first half of the 19th century, representing the Whig point of view along with its alter ego, the Tory Quarterly Review. The volume in question had interesting pieces on the state of the British navy (Britain was heading towards catastrophe), memoirs of George IV (you remember him, don’t you), and a comparison of the burden British and American taxation (we got off lightly but had the unfair advantage of no national debt). Then I ran into something that really caught my eye; a book review of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” written for the April, 1860 issue, and appearing less than half a year after the book was published in November, 1859.

The review was obviously written by someone with expertise in the subject.  He was familiar with the developments and major players in the field.  Did he wonder at the revolutionary implications of the new theory?  No.  Did he applaud Darwin for the immense array of facts and personal observations he cited in support of natural selection?  No.  Did he congratulate the author on his elegant solution of problem that had puzzled generations of scientists for centuries?  Again, no.  He panned the book.

Here are some examples of the anonymous reviewer’s take on what we now know as one of the most remarkable and significant theories of all times.

…several, and perhaps the majority, of our younger naturalists have been seduced into the acceptance of the homoeopathic of the transmutative hypothesis now presented to them by Mr. Darwin, under the phrase of “natural selection.”

and, after citing a few passages in the book,

These are the most important original observations, recorded in the volume of 1859: they are, in our estimation, its real gems, – few indeed and far apart, and leaving determination of the origin of species very nearly where the author found it. (!)

Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation (Darwin’s theory), under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species, which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?

The reviewer “refutes” Darwin’s theory by pointing out that the simplest possible life forms are still on the planet, and thus could not have been the primordial life form suggested in his theory, e.g.,

…if its nature (the primordial life form) is not to be left wholly to the unregulated fancies of dreamy speculation – we should say that the form and comdition of life which are common, at one period of existence to every known kind and grade of organism, would be the only conceivable form and condition of the one primorial being from which “Natural Selection” infers that all the organisms which have ever lived on this earth have descended. Now the form in question is the nucleated cell.

Of course, we now know that these “simple,” one-celled, nucleated life forms are incredibly complex, and poor candidates indeed for a “primordial life form.”  No matter, the reviewer proclaims that, because this “simplest possible life form,” than which only “the unregulated fancies of dreamy speculation” could come up with a simpler, has not only not evolved into something more complex, but is indeed one of the dominant life forms on the planet, Darwin must be mistaken:

But do the facts of actual organic nature square with the Darwinian hypothesis? Are all the recognised organic forms of the present date, so differentiated, so complex, so superior to conceivable primordial simplicity of form and structure, as to testify to the effects of Natural Selection continuously operating through untold time? Unquestionably not. The most numerous living beings now on the globe are precisely those which offer such a simplicity of form and structure , as best agrees, and we take leave to affirm can only agree, with that ideal prototype from which, by any hypothesis of natural law, the series of vegetable and animal life might have diverged.

In a word, while it is clear from the review that the author is what passed for an expert in the field in those days, he was utterly lacking in imagination.  He couldn’t conceive of anything “simpler” than the single-celled life forms described by the microscopists of his day. 

On the strength of his non-argument, the reviewer trimphantly concludes,

Such are the signs of defective information which contribute, almost at each chapter, to check our confidence in the teachings and advocacy of the hypothesis of “Natural Selection.”

Noting the argument that, after all, changes in species had been observed in the fossil record, even in his day, the reviewer grasps at another straw;

But here lies the fallacy: it merely proves that species are changed, it gives us no evidence as to the mode of change; transmutation, gradual or abrupt, is in this case, mere assumption.

I suspect the learned author would have changed his tune had he been able to peruse Gregor Mendel’s famous paper.  Not unexpectedly, given his own apparent knowledge of previous work in the field, the author takes umbrage at the fact that Darwin hasn’t devoted enough attention to competing theories.  One such author, whose work is frequently cited as “refuting” Darwin in the article, is Richard Owen, a famous biologist and palaeontologist of the time.  For example,

We are aware that Professor Owen and others, who have more especially studied the recently discovered astounding phenomena of generation summed up under the terms Parthenogenesis and Alternation of Generations, have pronounced against those phenomena having, as yet, helped us “to penetrate the mystery of the origin of different species of animals,” and have affirmed, at least so far as observation has yet extended, that “the cycle of changes is definitely closed…”

Now, in those days, it was the fashion for the writers of reviews to remain anonymous.  Of course, it is hardly to be expected that Darwin’s biographers would have failed to notice a piece as significant as the one addressed here.  In fact, they did not fail to notice it, and, in the fullness of time, they managed to identify the anonymous author.  It was none other than Professor Owen himself!  It appears the learned professor was not at all pleased by being upstaged by an upstart like Darwin, and conceived a life-long hatred for him.

Darwin was lucky.  His theory was too compelling to be dismissed with a wave of the hand by stalwarts of the scientific establishment like Owen.  However, he represents a phenomena that has hardly disappeared in our own day.  An interesting manifestation thereof closer to our own time was the furious reaction of the prevailing experts to the announcement of cold fusion.  In that case, the result was different.  Intriguing hints of some as yet unknown nuclear process were reported from all over the world – but the experiments weren’t repeatable.  The old guard won.  Or at least they won for the time being.  Experiments continue beneath the radar of “those who know better” in the field, and new intriguing hints continue to turn up.  It may well be the cold fusion crowd has been chasing a chimera all these years.  On the other hand, there’s a finite chance that the last word has still not been spoken on the legacy of Pons and Fleischman.

I suppose the moral of the story is that it’s a good idea to keep an open mind.  Occasionally it turns out that the upstarts were right all along.

Update: Anne Sasso has some interesting thoughts on the reaction of the scientific establishment to game-changing new insights and theories at the Science Magazine website.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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