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The Darwinian Hypothesis   By: (1825-1895)

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by Thomas H. Huxley

[footnote] 'Times', December 26th, 1850.


THERE is a growing immensity in the speculations of science to which no human thing or thought at this day is comparable. Apart from the results which science brings us home and securely harvests, there is an expansive force and latitude in its tentative efforts, which lifts us out of ourselves and transfigures our mortality. We may have a preference for moral themes, like the Homeric sage, who had seen and known much:

"Cities of men And manners, climates, councils, governments";

yet we must end by confession that

"The windy ways of men Are but dust which rises up And is lightly laid again,"

in comparison with the work of nature, to which science testifies, but which has no boundaries in time or space to which science can approximate.

There is something altogether out of the reach of science, and yet the compass of science is practically illimitable. Hence it is that from time to time we are startled and perplexed by theories which have no parallel in the contracted moral world; for the generalizations of science sweep on in ever widening circles, and more aspiring flights, through a limitless creation. While astronomy, with its telescope, ranges beyond the known stars, and physiology, with its microscope, is subdividing infinite minutiae, we may expect that our historic centuries may be treated as inadequate counters in the history of the planet on which we are placed. We must expect new conceptions of the nature and relations of its denizens, as science acquires the materials for fresh generalizations; nor have we occasion for alarms if a highly advanced knowledge, like that of the eminent Naturalist before us, confronts us with an hypothesis as vast as it is novel. This hypothesis may or may not be sustainable hereafter; it may give way to something else, and higher science may reverse what science has here built up with so much skill and patience, but its sufficiency must be tried by the tests of science alone, if we are to maintain our position as the heirs of Bacon and the acquitters of Galileo. We must weigh this hypothesis strictly in the controversy which is coming, by the only tests which are appropriate, and by no others whatsoever.

The hypothesis to which we point, and of which the present work of Mr. Darwin is but the preliminary outline, may be stated in his own language as follows: "Species originated by means of natural selection, or through the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life." To render this thesis intelligible, it is necessary to interpret its terms. In the first place, what is a species? The question is a simple one, but the right answer to it is hard to find, even if we appeal to those who should know most about it. It is all those animals or plants which have descended from a single pair of parents; it is the smallest distinctly definable group of living organisms; it is an eternal and immutable entity; it is a mere abstraction of the human intellect having no existence in nature. Such are a few of the significations attached to this simple word which may be culled from authoritative sources; and if, leaving terms and theoretical subtleties aside, we turn to facts and endeavour to gather a meaning for ourselves, by studying the things to which, in practice, the name of species is applied, it profits us little. For practice varies as much as theory. Let the botanist or the zoologist examine and describe the productions of a country, and one will pretty certainly disagree with the other as to the number, limits, and definitions of the species into which he groups the very same things. In these islands, we are in the habit of regarding mankind as of one species, but a fortnight's steam will land us in a country where divines and savants, for once in agreement, vie with one another in loudness of assertion, if not in cogency of proof, that men are of different species; and, more particularly, that the species negro is so distinct from our own that the Ten Commandments have actually no reference to him... Continue reading book >>

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