Lyell’s Critique

Lyell on Lamarck’s theory in Volume II of “Principles of Geology”

We shall begin by stating as concisely as possible all the facts and ingenious arguments by which the theory has been supported, and for this purpose we cannot do better than offer the reader a rapid sketch of Lamarck’s statement of the proofs which he regards as confirmatory of the doctrine, and which he has derived partly from the works of his predecessors, and in part from original investigations.

We shall consider his proofs and inferences in the order in which they appear to have influenced his mind, and point out some of the results to which he was led while boldly following out his principles to their legitimate consequences.

The name of species, observes Lamarck, has been usually applied to ‘every collection of similar individuals, produced by other individuals like themselves.’ This definition, he admits, is correct, because every living individual bears a very close resemblance to those from which it springs. But this is not all which is usually implied by the term species, for the majority of naturalists agree with Linnæus in supposing that all the individuals propagated from one stock have certain distinguishing characters in common which will never vary, and which have remained the same since the creation of each species.

In order to shake this opinion, Lamarck enters upon the following line of argument. The more we advance in the knowledge of the different organized bodies which cover the surface of the globe, the more our embarrassment increases, to determine what ought to be regarded as a species, and still more how to limit and distinguish genera. In proportion as our collections are enriched, we see almost every void filled up, and all our lines of separation effaced; we are reduced to arbitrary determinations, and are sometimes fain to seize upon the slight differences of mere varieties, in order to form characters for what we choose to call a species, and sometimes we are induced to pronounce individuals but slightly differing, and which others regard as true species, to be varieties.

The greater the abundance of natural objects assembled together, the more do we discover proofs that everything passes by insensible shades into something else; that even the more remarkable differences are evanescent, and that nature has, for the most part, left us nothing at our disposal for establishing distinctions, save trifling and, in some respects, puerile particularities.

We find that many genera amongst animals and plants are of such an extent, in consequence of the number of species referred to them, that the study and determination of these last has become almost impracticable. When the species are arranged in a series, and placed near to each other, with due regard to their natural affinities, they each differ in so minute a degree from those next adjoining, that they almost melt into each other, and are in a manner confounded together. If we see isolated species, we may presume the absence of some more closely connected, and which have not yet been discovered. Already are there genera, and even entire orders,—nay, whole classes, which present an approximation to the state of things here indicated.

If, when species have been thus placed in a regular series, we select one, and then, making a leap over several intermediate ones, we take a second, at some distance from the first, these two will, on comparison, be seen to be very dissimilar; and it is in this manner that every naturalist begins to study the objects which are at his own door. He then finds it an easy task to establish generic and specific distinctions; and it is only when his experience is enlarged, and when he has made himself master of the intermediate links, that his difficulties and ambiguities begin. But while we are thus compelled to resort to trifling and minute characters in our attempt to separate species, we find a striking disparity between individuals which we know to have descended from a common stock, and these newly-acquired peculiarities are regularly transmitted from one generation to another, constituting what are called races.

From a great number of facts, continues the author, we learn that, in proportion as the individuals of one of our species change their situation, climate, and manner of living, they change also, by little and little, the consistence and proportions of their parts, their form, their faculties, and even their organization, in such a manner, that everything in them comes at last to participate in the mutations to which they have been exposed. Even in the same climate a great difference of situation and exposure causes individuals to vary; but if these individuals continue to live and to be reproduced under the same difference of circumstances, distinctions are brought about in them which become in some degree essential to their existence. In a word, at the end of many successive generations, these individuals, which originally belonged to another species, are transformed into a new and distinct species.

Thus, for example, if the seeds of a grass, or any other plant which grows naturally in a moist meadow, be accidentally transported, first to the slope of some neighbouring hill, where the soil, although at a greater elevation, is damp enough to allow the plant to live; and if, after having lived there, and having been several times regenerated, it reaches by degrees the drier and almost arid soil of a mountain declivity, it will then, if it succeeds in growing and perpetuates itself for a series of generations, be so changed that botanists who meet with it will regard it as a particular species†. The unfavourable climate in this case,. deficiency of nourishment, exposure to the winds, and other causes, give rise to a stunted and dwarfish race, with some organs more developed than others, and having proportions often quite peculiar.

What nature brings about in a great lapse of time we occasion suddenly by changing the circumstances in which a species has been accustomed to live. All are aware that vegetables taken from their birth-place and cultivated in gardens, undergo changes which render them no longer recognizable as the same plants. Many which were naturally hairy become smooth or nearly so; a great number of such as were creepers and trailed along the ground, rear their stalks and grow erect. Others lose their thorns or asperities; others again, from the ligneous state which their stem possessed in hot climates’ where they were indigenous, pass to the herbaceous, and, among them, some which were perennials become mere annuals. So well do botanists know the effects of such changes of circumstances, that they are averse to describe species from garden specimens, unless they are sure that they have been cultivated for a very short period.

‘Is not the cultivated wheat,’ (Triticum sativum) asks Lamarck, ‘a vegetable brought by man into the state in which ‘we now see it? Let any one tell me in what country a similar ‘plant grows wild, unless where it has escaped from cultivated ‘fields? Where do we find in nature our cabbages, lettuces, ‘and other culinary vegetables, in the state in which they ‘appear in our gardens? Is it not the same in regard to ‘a great quantity of animals which domesticity has changed ‘or considerably modified?’ Our domestic fowls and pigeons are unlike any wild birds. Our domestic ducks and geese have lost the faculty of raising themselves into the higher regions of the air, and crossing extensive countries in their flight, like the wild ducks and wild geese from which they were originally derived. A bird which we breed in a cage cannot, when restored to liberty, fly like others of the same species which have been always free. This small alteration of circumstances, however, has only diminished the power of flight, without modifying the form of any part of the wings. But when individuals of the same race are retained in captivity during a considerable length of time, the form even of their parts is gradually made to differ, especially if climate, nourishment, and other circumstances, be also altered.

The numerous races of dogs which we have produced by domesticity are nowhere to be found in a wild state. In nature we should seek in vain for mastiffs, harriers, spaniels, greyhounds, and other races, between which the differences are sometimes so great, that they would be readily admitted as specific between wild animals; ‘yet all these have sprung ‘originally from a single race, at first approaching very near ‘to a wolf, if, indeed, the wolf be not the true type which at ‘some period or other was domesticated by man.’

Although important changes in the nature of the places which they inhabit modify the organization of animals as well as vegetables, yet the former, says Lamarck, require more time to complete a considerable degree of transmutation, and, consequently, we are less sensible of such occurrences. Next to a diversity of the medium in which animals or plants may live, the circumstances which have most influence in modifying their organs are differences in exposure, climate, the nature of the soil, and other local particulars. These circumstances are as varied as are the characters of species, and, like them, pass by insensible shades into each other, there being every intermediate gradation between the opposite extremes. But each locality remains for a very long time the same, and is altered so slowly that we can only become conscious of the reality of the change, by consulting geological monuments, by which we learn that the order of things which now reigns in each place has not always prevailed, and by inference anticipate that it will not always continue the same.

Every considerable alteration in the local circumstances in which each race of animals exists, causes a change in their wants, and these new wants excite them to new actions and habits. These actions require the more frequent employment of some parts before but slightly exercised, and then greater development follows as a consequence of their more frequent use. Other organs no longer in use are impoverished and diminished in size, nay, are sometimes entirely annihilated, while in their place new parts are insensibly produced for the discharge of new functions.

We must here interrupt the author’s argument, by observing that no positive fact is cited to exemplify the substitution of some entirely new sense, faculty, or organ, in the room of some other suppressed as useless. All the instances adduced go only to prove that the dimensions and strength of members and the perfection of certain attributes may, in a long succession of generations, be lessened and enfeebled by disuse; or, on the contrary, be matured and augmented by active exertion, just as we know that the power of scent is feeble in the greyhound, while its swiftness of pace and its acuteness of sight are remarkable—that the harrier and stag-hound, on the contrary, are comparatively slow in their movements, but excel in the sense of smelling.

We point out to the reader this important chasm in the chain of the evidence, because he might otherwise imagine that we had merely omitted the illustrations for the sake of brevity, but the plain truth is, that there were no examples to be found; and when Lamarck talks ‘of the efforts of internal sentiment,’ ‘the influence of subtle fluids,’ and the ‘acts of organization,’ as causes whereby animals and plants may acquire new organs, he gives us names for things, and with a disregard to the strict rules of induction, resorts to fictions, as ideal as the ‘plastic virtue,’ and other phantoms of the middle ages.

It is evident, that if some well authenticated facts could have been adduced to establish one complete step in the process of transformation, such as the appearance, in individuals descending from a common stock, of a sense or organ entirely new, and a complete disappearance of some other enjoyed by their progenitors, that time alone might then be supposed sufficient to bring about any amount of metamorphosis. The gratuitous assumption, therefore, of a point so vital to the theory of transmutation, was unpardonable on the part of its advocate.

But to proceed with the system; it being assumed as an undoubted fact, that a change of external circumstances may cause one organ to become entirely obsolete, and a new one to be developed such as never before belonged to the species, the following proposition is announced, which, however staggering and absurd it may seem, is logically deduced from the assumed premises. “It is not the organs, or, in other words, the nature and form of the parts of the body of an animal which have given rise to its habits, and its particular faculties, but on the contrary, its habits, its manner of living, and those of its progenitors have in the course of time determined the form of its body, the number and condition of its organs, in short, the faculties which it enjoys. Thus otters, beavers, water-fowl, turtles, and frogs, were not made web-footed in order that they might swim; but their wants having attracted them to the water in search of prey, they stretched out the toes of their feet to strike the water and move rapidly along its surface. By the repeated stretching of their toes, the skin which united them at the base acquired a habit of extension, until in the course of time the broad membranes which now connect their extremities were formed.

In like manner the antelope and the gazelle were not endowed with light agile forms, in order that they might escape by flight from carnivorous animals; but having been exposed to the danger of being devoured by lions, tigers, and other beasts of prey, they were compelled to exert themselves in running with great celerity, a habit which, in the course of many generations, gave rise to the peculiar slenderness of their legs, and the agility and elegance of their forms.

The cameleopard was not gifted with a long flexible neck because it was destined to live in the interior of Africa, where the soil was arid and devoid of herbage, but being reduced by the nature of that country to support itself on the foliage of lofty trees, it contracted a habit of stretching itself up to reach the high boughs, until its fore-legs became longer than the hinder, and its neck so elongated, that it could raise its head to the height of twenty feet above the ground.”

“Another line of argument is then entered upon, in farther corroboration of the instability of species. In order it is said that individuals should perpetuate themselves unaltered by generation, those belonging to one species ought never to ally themselves to those of another: but such sexual unions do take place, both among plants and animals; and although the offspring of such irregular connexions are usually sterile, yet such is not always the case. Hybrids have sometimes proved prolific where the disparity between the species was not too great; and by this means alone, says Lamarck, varieties may gradually be created by near alliances, which would become races, and in the course of time would constitute what we term species.

But if the soundness of all these arguments and inferences be admitted, we are next to inquire, what were the original types of form, organization, and instinct, from which the diversities of character, as now exhibited by animals and plants, have been derived? We know that individuals which are mere varieties of the same species, would, if their pedigree could be traced back far enough, terminate in a single stock; so according to the train of reasoning before described, the species of a genus, and even the genera of a great family, must have had a common point of departure. What then was the single stem from which so many varieties of form have ramified? Were there many of these, or are we to refer the origin of the whole animate creation, as the Egyptian priests did that of the universe, to a single egg?

In the absence of any positive data for framing a theory on so obscure a subject, the following considerations were deemed of importance to guide conjecture.

In the first place, if we examine the whole series of known animals, from one extremity to the other, when they are arranged in the order of their natural relations, we find that we may pass progressively, or at least with very few interruptions, from beings of more simple to those of a more compound structure; and in proportion as the complexity of their organization increases, the number and dignity of their faculties increase also. Among plants a similar approximation to a graduated scale of being is apparent. Secondly, it appears from geological observations, that plants and animals of more simple organization existed on the globe before the appearance of those of more compound structure, and the latter were successively formed at later periods: each new race being more fully developed than the most perfect of the preceding era.

Of the truth of the last-mentioned geological theory, Lamarck seems to have been fully persuaded; and he also shews that he was deeply impressed with a belief prevalent amongst the older naturalists, that the primeval ocean invested the whole planet long after it became the habitation of living beings, and thus he was inclined to assert the priority of the types of marine animals to those of the terrestrial, and to fancy, for example, that the testacea of the ocean existed first, until some of them, by gradual evolution, were improved into those inhabiting the land.

These speculative views had already been, in a great degree, anticipated by Delamétherie in his Teliamed, and by several modern writers, so that the tables were completely turned on the philosophers of antiquity, with whom it was a received maxim, that created things were always most perfect when they came first from the hands of their Maker, and that there was a tendency to progressive deterioration in sublunary things when left to themselves——————omnia fatis In pejus ruere, ac retrò sublapsa referri.

So deeply was the faith of the ancient schools of philosophy imbued with this doctrine, that to check this universal proneness to degeneracy, nothing less than the re-intervention of the Deity was thought adequate; and it was held, that thereby the order, excellence, and pristine energy of the moral and physical world had been repeatedly restored.

But when the possibility of the indefinite modification of individuals descending from common parents was once assumed, as also the geological generalization respecting the progressive development of organic life, it was natural that the ancient dogma should be rejected, or rather reversed; and that the most simple and imperfect forms and faculties should be conceived to have been the originals whence all others were developed. Accordingly, in conformity to these views, inert matter was supposed to have been first endowed with life; until in the course of ages, sensation was superadded to mere vitality: sight, hearing, and the other senses, were afterwards acquired; and then instinct and the mental faculties; until, finally, by virtue of the tendency of things to progressive improvement, the irrational was developed into the rational.

The reader, however, will immediately perceive, that if all the higher orders of plants and animals were thus supposed to be comparatively modern, and to have been derived in a long series of generations from those of more simple conformation, some further hypothesis became indispensable, in order to explain why, after an indefinite lapse of ages, there were still so many beings of the simplest structure. Why have the majority of existing creatures remained stationary throughout this long succession of epochs, while others have made such prodigious advances? Why are there still such multitudes of infusoria and polypes, or of confervæ and other cryptogamic plants? Why, moreover, has the process of development acted with such unequal and irregular force on those classes of beings which have been greatly perfected, so that there are wide chasms in the series; gaps so enormous, that Lamarck fairly admits we can never expect to fill them up by future discoveries?

The following hypothesis was provided to meet these objections. Nature, we are told, is not an intelligence, nor the Deity, but a delegated power—a mere instrument—a piece of mechanism acting by necessity—an order of things constituted by the Supreme Being, and subject to laws which are the expressions of his will. This nature is obliged to proceed gradually in all her operations; she cannot produce animals and plants of all classes at once, but must always begin by the formation of the most simple kinds; and out of them elaborate the more compound, adding to them successively, different systems of organs, and multiplying more and more their number and energy.

This Nature is daily engaged in the formation of the elementary rudiments of animal and vegetable existence, which correspond to what the ancients termed spontaneous generations. She is always beginning anew, day by day, the work of creation, by forming monads, or ‘rough draughts’ (ébauches), which are the only living things she ever gives birth to directly.

There are distinct primary rudiments of plants and animals, and probably of each of the great divisions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. These are gradually developed into the higher and more perfect classes by the slow, but unceasing agency of two influential principles: first, the tendency to progressive advancement in organization, accompanied by greater dignity in instinct, intelligence, &c.; secondly, the force of external circumstances, or of variations in the physical condition of the earth, or the mutual relations of plants and animals. For as species spread themselves gradually over the globe, they are exposed from time to time to variations in climate, and to changes in the quantity and quality of their food; they meet with new plants and animals which assist or retard their development, by supplying them with nutriment, or destroying their foes. The nature also of each locality is in itself fluctuating, so that even if the relation of other animals and plants were invariable, the habits and organization of species would be modified by the influence of local revolutions.

Now, if the first of these principles, the tendency to progressive development, were left to exert itself with perfect freedom, it would give rise, says Lamarck, in the course of ages, to a graduated scale of being, where the most insensible transition might be traced from the simplest to the most compound structure, from the humblest to the most exalted degree of intelligence. But in consequence of the perpetual interference of the external causes before mentioned, this regular order is greatly interfered with, and an approximation only to such a state of things is exhibited by the animate creation, the progress of some races being retarded by unfavourable, and that of others accelerated by favourable, combinations of circumstances. Hence, all kinds of anomalies interrupt the continuity of the plan, and chasms, into which whole genera or families might be inserted, are seen to separate the nearest existing portions of the series.

Such is the machinery of the Lamarckian system; but our readers will hardly, perhaps, be able to form a perfect conception of so complicated a piece of mechanism, unless we exhibit it in motion, and shew in what manner it can work out, under the author’s guidance, all the extraordinary effects which we behold in the present state of the animate creation. We have only space for exhibiting a small part of the entire process by which a complete metamorphosis is achieved, and shall, therefore, omit the mode whereby, after a countless succession of generations, a small gelatinous body is transformed into an oak or an ape. We pass on at once to the last grand step in the progressive scheme, whereby the orang-outang, having been already evolved out of a monad, is made slowly to attain the attributes and dignity of man.

One of the races of quadrumanous animals which had reached the highest state of perfection, lost, by constraint of circumstances, (concerning the exact nature of which tradition is unfortunately silent,) the habit of climbing trees, and of hanging on by grasping the boughs with their feet as with hands. The individuals of this race being obliged for a long series of generations to use their feet exclusively for walking, and ceasing to employ their hands as feet, were transformed into bimanous animals, and what before were thumbs became mere toes, no separation being required when their feet were used solely for walking. Having acquired a habit of holding themselves upright, their legs and feet assumed insensibly a conformation fitted to support them in an erect attitude, till at last these animals could no longer go on all fours without much inconvenience.

The Angola orang, Simla troglodytes, Linn., is the most perfect of animals, much more so than the Indian orang, Simla Satyrus, which has been called the orang-outang, although both are very inferior to man in corporeal powers and intelligence. These animals frequently hold themselves upright, but their organization has not yet been sufficiently modified to sustain them habitually in this attitude, so that the standing posture is very uneasy to them. When the Indian orang is compelled to take flight from pressing danger, he immediately falls down upon all fours, shewing clearly that this was the original position of the animal. Even in man, whose organization, in the course of a long series of generations, has advanced so much farther, the upright posture is fatiguing and can only be supported for a limited time, and by aid of the contraction of many muscles. If the vertebral column formed the axis of the human body, and supported the head and all the other parts in equilibrium, then might the upright position be a state of repose; but as the human head does not articulate in the centre of gravity; as the chest, belly, and other parts, press almost entirely forward with their whole weight, and as the vertebral column reposes upon an oblique base, a watchful activity is required to prevent the body from falling. Children which have large heads and prominent bellies can hardly walk at the end even of two years, and their frequent tumbles indicate the natural tendency in man to resume the quadrupedal state.

Now, when so much progress had been made by the quadrumanous animals before mentioned, that they could hold themselves habitually in an erect attitude, and were accustomed to a wide range of vision, and ceased to use their jaws for fighting, and tearing, or for clipping herbs for food, their snout became gradually shorter, their incisor teeth became vertical, and the facial angle grew more open.

Among other ideas which the natural tendency to perfection engendered, the desire of ruling suggested itself, and this race succeeded at length in getting the better of the other animals, and made themselves masters of all those spots on the surface of the globe which best suited them. They drove out the animals which approached nearest to them in organization and intelligence, and which were in a condition to dispute with them the good things of this world, forcing them to take refuge in deserts, woods and wildernesses, where their multiplication was checked, and the progressive development of their faculties retarded, while in the mean time the dominant race spread itself in every direction, and lived in large companies where new wants were successively created, exciting them to industry, and gradually perfecting their means and faculties.

In the supremacy and increased intelligence acquired by the ruling race, we see an illustration of the natural tendency of the organic world to grow more perfect, and in their influence in repressing the advance of others, an example of one of those disturbing causes before enumerated, that force of external circumstances, which causes such wide chasms in the regular series of animated beings.

When the individuals of the dominant race became very numerous, their ideas greatly increased in number, and they felt the necessity of communicating them to each other, and of augmenting and varying the signs proper for the communication of ideas. Meanwhile the inferior quadrumanous animals, although most of them were gregarious, acquired no new ideas, being persecuted and restless in the deserts, and obliged to fly and conceal themselves, so that they conceived no new wants. Such ideas as they already had remained unaltered, and they could dispense with the communication of the greater part of these. To make themselves, therefore, understood by their fellows, required merely a few movements of the body or limbs—whistling, and the uttering of certain cries varied by the inflexions of the voice.

On the contrary, the individuals of the ascendant race, animated with a desire of interchanging their ideas, which became more and more numerous, were prompted to multiply the means of communication, and were no longer satisfied with mere pantomimic signs, nor even with all the possible inflexions of the voice, but made continual efforts to acquire the power of uttering articulate sounds, employing a few at first, but afterwards varying and perfecting them according to the increase of their wants. The habitual exercise of their throat, tongue and lips, insensibly modified the conformation of these organs, until they became fitted for the faculty of speech.

In effecting this mighty change, “the exigencies of the individuals were the sole agents, they gave rise to efforts, and the organs proper for articulating sounds were developed by their habitual employment.” Hence, in this peculiar race, the origin of the admirable faculty of speech; hence also the diversity of languages, since the distance of places where the individuals composing the race established themselves, soon favoured the corruption of conventional signs.

That was published in 1832, but it is worth noting that, in 1827, Lyell had written the following in a private letter:

I devoured Lamarck en voyage, as you did Sismondi, and with equal pleasure. His theories delighted me more than any novel I ever read, and much in the same way, for they addressed themselves to the imagination, at least of geologists, who know the mighty inferences which would be deducible were they established by observations. But, though I admire even his flights, and feel none of the odium theologicum which some modern writers in this country have visited him with, I confess I read him rather as I hear an advocate on the wrong side, to know what can be made of the case in good hands. I am glad he has been courageous enough, and logical enough, to admit that his argument, if pushed as far as it must go, would prove that men may have come from the orang-outang. But, after all, what changes species may really undergo ! How impossible will it be to distinguish and lay down a line beyond which some of the so-called extinct species have never passed into recent ones!