The mystery of mysteries - early naturalistic views of species origins

In the very first page to the Origin, Darwin writes:

WHEN on board H.M.S. 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species - that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.

Who is this greatest philosopher, and what did he mean by that phrase?

I was moved to follow this up when I was challenged on my claim in a forum that creationism, in particular "special creationism", or the view that each species was created specially in a single act by God, was not the ruling view of natural history in Britain before Darwin.

It is worth noting that there was considerable agreement that God created the natural world among these scientists. Some held that God's creative power was a once-and-for-all thing at the beginning, and that everything that had happened since did so through "secondary causes", or through the outworking of natural laws. But the traditional history says that before Darwin biology was creationist. Is this true or not?

There were many people who held that, at the (Linnaean) species level, there had been considerable transformism since creation. Buffon in the late 18th century, who may or may not have been an atheist (if so, he didn't seem to make much of it), held in his series the Histoire Naturelle that there was a "first stock" (premiere souche) from which all groups of present species had been modified by the action of soil, climate and geography. He believed (and did actual experiments to prove, with limited success) that they were all interfertile, and that crossbreeding them would give you that first stock again, by a process of averaging out the modifications. Buffon's views were influential for over a century, as evidenced by this lovely satire written in the 1880s by Flaubert:

They opened Buffon again and went into ecstasies at the peculiar tastes of certain animals.


They wanted to try some abnormal mating.


They made fresh attempts with hens and a duck, a mastiff and a sow, in the hope that monsters would result, but quite failing to understand anything about the question of species. This is the word that designates a group of individuals whose descendants reproduce, but animals classified as different species may reproduce, and others, included in the same species, have lost the ability to do so. (Flaubert 1976: 87)

It is clear that the species concept is not much less confusing now as it was then.

Lamarck famously published an evolutionary account in 1802, and a fuller version in 1809, which was, of course, in French. It had some influence on the British debate, as every educated person (including Darwin, later on) read French fluently, but more influential was Cuvier, who wrote of species that they were

the individuals who descend from one another or from common parents and those who resemble them as much as they resemble each other.

Thus, we call varieties of a species only those races more or less different which can arise from it by reproduction. Our observations on the differences among the ancestors and the descendants are therefore for us the only reasonable rule, because all others would take us back to hypotheses without proofs. [Règne Animal, i, 19 (Cuvier 1812)]

Cuvier's unwillingness to speculate on the origins of new species, which he did accept arose in epochal turnover, was a great brake on theoretical speculations by naturalists in general.

However, and this is where our "greatest philosopher" steps in. Charles Lyell had written a three volume Principles of Geology, which Darwin received the second volume of while en route on the Beagle in 1832. That volume was almost entirely devoted to Lamarck's dismissal of species - he thought they must be illusions because if they were real they could not evolve. Lyell affirmed that species were real, but that they changed he neither affirmed nor denied, merely tried to show that there was no need for them to have.

Lyell's book much affected the astronomer Sir John Herschel, son of William Herschel, and then in South Africa undertaking astronomical observations. He wrote Lyell a letter, which was subsequently circulated amongst leading naturalists, and eventually published in an appendix to Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837), in which he said:

I am perfectly ashamed not to have long since acknowledged your present of the new edition of your Geology, a work which I now read for the third time, and every time with increased interest, as it appears to me one of those productions which work a complete revolution in their subject, by altering entirely the point of view in which it must thenceforward be contemplated. You have succeeded, too, in adding dignity to a subject already grand, by exposing to view the immense extent and complication of the problems it offers for solution, and by unveiling a dim glimpse of a region of speculation connected with it, where it seems impossible to venture without experiencing some degree of that mysterious awe which the sybil appeals to, in the bosom of Æneas, on entering the confines of the shades - or what the Maid of Avenel suggests to Halbert Glendinning,

'He that on such quest would go, must know nor fear nor failing;

To coward soul or faithless heart the search were unavailing.'

Of course I allude to that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others. Many will doubtless think your speculations too bold, but it is as well to face the difficulty at once. For my own part, I cannot but think it an inadequate conception of the Creator, to assume it as granted that his combinations are exhausted upon any one of the theatres of their former exercise, though in this, as in all his other works, we are led, by all analogy, to suppose that he operates through a series of intermediate causes, and that in consequence the origination of fresh species, could it ever come under our cognizance, would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process - although we perceive no indications of any process actually in progress which is likely to issue in such a result.

This passage must have greatly affected Darwin. It was written in 1836, before he returned from the voyage, and before he began his evolutionary speculations. Herschel later became an acquaintance of his, and he must have expected that Herschel would applaud his account of the "intermediate causes" of the origin of species. He was to be disappointed, as Herschel dismissed Darwin's mechanism of species - natural selection - as "the law of the higgeldy piggeldy". Not the theory that species evolved, mark you. Just the mechanism.

Herschel was not the only one to speculate in contradiction to Cuvier. Apart from the disciple of Geoffroy in Scotland, who Darwin had studied under briefly, John Grant at Edinburgh, Richard Owen himself had proposed that there was a law of the origination of species from other species, a "law of crystalisation". As Hooker wrote to Darwin:

If I understand him [Richard Owen], he thinks the "Becoming" of species (I suppose he means the producing of species) a somewhat rapid and not a slow process - but he seems to think them progressive organised [sic] out of previously organized beings - analogous (?) to minerals (simple and compound) out of ± 60 Elements. [Letter to Darwin, 5 May 1860 (Barlow 1967))

And in his Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1858, after the Darwin-Wallace papers had been read, Owen noted

No doubt the type-form of any species is that which is best adapted to the conditions under which such species at the time exists; and so long as those conditions remain unchanged, so long will the type remain; all varieties departing therefrom being in the same ratio less adapted to the evironing conditions of existence. But, if those conditions change, then the variety of the species at an antecedent date and state of things will become the type-form of the species at a later date, and in an altered state of things. [Presidental Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1858 (Basalla, Coleman, and Kargon 1970:329)]

but by 1860, in an infamous anonymous review of the Origin, he wrote

The scientific world has looked forward with great interest to the facts which Mr. Darwin might finally deem adequate to the support of his theory on this supreme question in biology, and to the course of inductive original research which might issue in throwing light on 'that mystery of mysteries.' But having now cited the chief, if not the whole, of the original observations adduced by its author in the volume now before us, our disappointment may be conceived. Failing the adequacy of such observations, not merely to carry conviction, but to give a colour to the hypothesis, we were then left to confide in the superior grasp of mind, strength of intellect, clearness and precision of thought and expression, which raise one man so far above his contemporaries, as to enable him to discern in the common stock of facts, of coincidences, correlations and analogies in Natural History, deeper and truer conclusions than his fellow-labourers had been able to reach.

He rails against Hooker that

it is assumed, as by Mr. Darwin, that no other mode of operation of a secondary law in the foundation of a form with distinct specific characters, can have been adopted by the Author of all creative laws that the one which the transmutationists have imagined. Any physiologist who may find the Lamarckian, or the more diffused and attenuated Darwinian, exposition of the law inapplicable to a species, such as the gorilla, considered as a step in the transmutative production of man, is forthwith clamoured against as one who swallows up every fact and every phenomenon regarding the origin and continuance of species 'in the gigantic conception of a power intermittently exercised in the development, out of inorganic elements, of organisms the most bulky and complex, as well as the most minute and simple.' Significantly characteristic of the partial view of organic phenomena taken by the transmutationists, and of their inadequacy to grapple with the working out and discovery of a great natural law, is their incompetency to discern the indications of any other origin of one specific form out of another preceding it, save by their way of gradual change through a series of varieties assumed to have become extinct.


We would ask Mr. Darwin and Dr. Hooker to give some thought to these queries, and if they should see the smallest meaning in them, to reconsider their future awards of the alternative which they may be pleased to grant to a fellow-labourer, hesitating to accept the proposition, either that life commenced under other than actually operating laws, or that 'all the beings that every lived on this earth have descended,' by the way of 'natural selection,' from a hypothetical unique instance of a miraculously created primordial form.


We do not advocate any of these hypotheses in preference to the one of 'natural selection,' we merely affirm that this at present rests on as purely a conjectural basis. The exceptions to that and earlier forms of transmutationism which rise up in the mind of the working naturalist and original observer, are so many and so strong, as to have left the promulgation and advocacy of the hypothesis, under any modification, at all times to individuals of more imaginative temperament; such as Demaillet in the last century, Lamarck in the first half the present, Darwin in the second half. The great names to which the steady inductive advance of zoology has been due during those periods, have kept aloof from any hypothesis on the origin of species. One only, in connexion with his palæontological discoveries, with his development of the law of irrelative repetition and of homologies, including the relation of the latter to an archetype, has pronounced in favour of the view of the origin of species by a continuously operative creational law; but he, at the same time, has set forth some of the strongest objections or exceptions to the hypothesis of the nature of that law as a progressively and gradually transmutational one.

That "one only" is Owen himself. Hence Hooker's snarky comment above.

So far from it being the case that species were supposed to have been created by all British naturalists, not to mention the German and French proponents of transformism, it appears to have been a widespread view if not the consensus, that species transformed. What was at issue is whether the means by which they were transformed was something that could be uncovered by science (of the day) or not. Herschel was a widely cited example of the view that secondary causes could be assumed to have originated new species, and even Owen cites him in that review, but he was not the only, nor even the first. Time to retire another myth.

Why are such myths so common? In part it has to do with the role that Darwin plays as the Hero of Science. We like our Great Men to be original, not indebted to their forerunners, and mavericks made good. But Darwin was a member of the establishment. He was clear in his indebtedness to other writers, and even wrote, though it was not included until the third edition of 1861, a "Historical Sketch" in which he mentions those on whom he relied and who had similar ideas before him.

The Heroic View of Science was employed by the leaders of the Modern Synthesis at and around the time of the Centenary of the publication of the Origin in 1959. One of the rhetorical moves they made was to use Darwin as the solitary genius, allowing that Wallace was equally so, who changed forever the way science was done. It's a beguiling myth, but ever since Dov Ospovat's (1981) study, and in fact well before this, we have known it was not true. As unique and gifted as Darwin was, his views were part of a larger movement, and it turns out that people were not stupid before he came along; in fact, they could do very good natural history. Moreover, before Darwin, naturalists knew that there were transitional forms, variation in species, including polytypy, and that species were not always infertile in hybridisation.

My point is really this: Darwin did not redefine science; he did science as it was understood at the time. He innovated, yes, but so too did all scientists - in fact that is one of the identifying things about science. Its practitioners are not following a preset Method or Protocol. They are instead expected to contribute not only to the data, but to the methods and ideas of science. Without either downplaying Darwin's contribution or exaggerating it, we can say, Darwin was a scientist in a context, arguing problems set out by others. What else should we have expected?

Barlow, Nora, ed. 1967. Darwin and Henslow: the growth of an idea; letters, 1831-1860. London: Murray [for] Bentham-Moxon Trust.

Basalla, George, William Coleman, and Robert H. Kargon, eds. 1970. Victorian science: a self-portrait from the presidential addresses of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.

Cuvier, Georges. 1812. Discours sur les révolutions du globe (Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Earth). Translated by I. Johnston. Paris.

Flaubert, Gustave. 1976. Bouvard and Pécuchet, with the Dictionary of Received Ideas. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Original edition, 1881.

Ospovat, Dov. 1981. The development of Darwin's theory: natural history, natural theology, and natural selection, 1838-1859. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.


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I think that it is worth mentioning that "species creation" is to be distinguished from "individual creation", and that we should be careful not to read the former when an early author was speaking of the latter. While every good Christian would hold that God was the Creator, that does not entail creation of *species* - there are a couple of major steps that have to be taken to get to that.

As is often or even mostly the case an excellent and highly stimulating essay Mr Wilkins.

I'm currently reading Carl Zimmer's "Evolution," and this fits right in with his chapter on the how Darwin slowly developed his concept; but it necessarily passed rather lightly over the intellectual scene of the time. Thanks for deepening my understanding.

I guess I'd better go over to T.O. and see how RM has responded to this. I bet he doesn't retract and claims you're a victim of the Romans 3:16 blinding penalty!

By Martin D Hutton (not verified) on 31 Mar 2007 #permalink

Tom, the term for species creationism is "special creationism" - whether because "special" is the adjectival form of "species" or because each species is created in a special act I am not sure. Creationism sensu lato is of course the view that God is the creator, which is what Dobzhansky said he believed in that famous essay.

Ray Martinez has gone strangely silent on this matter, threatening me with his famous essay.