Cornhill Magazine,  1 (1860), 438–47.

Studies in Animal Life Ch. 4  [4/6]

[George H Lewes]


Essay, Serial


Palaeontology, Taxonomy, Zoology, Comparative Anatomy, Botany, Descent, Philosophy, Natural History, Science Communication, Controversy, Chemistry, Metaphysics, Evolution, Hypothesis, Proof, Creation, Analogy, Comparative Philology

People mentioned:

Pliny , Carl Linnaeus , Carl Vogt , Georges Cuvier , Jean B P A de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck , Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Institutions mentioned:

Royal College of Surgeons—Hunterian Museum

Publications cited:

Wordsworth 1814 , Müller 1856

    The fourth chapter begins with an anecdote concerning Richard Owen's ability to identify instantly an extinct species of rhinoceros from merely a fossil of 'the third molar of the under-jaw'. This seemingly uncanny ability is in fact the product of 'the united labours of thousands of diligent inquirers [...] directed to the classification of animals'. (438) The 'anatomical investigation of the internal structure of animals' has established a system of classification, which arranges the animal kingdom into subordinate groups, and places an 'immense mass of details' in a recognisable order (439). Although it is 'imperfect, the scheme is a magnificent product of human ingenuity and labour'. In considering what is the cause of the underlying anatomical resemblance of the different animal forms compared, Lewes quotes a passage from On the Origin of Species in which Charles R Darwin proposes that it is 'propinquity of descent'. (441) Lewes then notes 'the philosophical discussion which inevitably arises on the mention of Mr. Darwin's book', and adds that it is 'at present exciting very great attention, and [...] will, at any rate, aid in general culture by opening to many minds new tracts of thought'. All 'discussion as to the origin of species', however, cannot begin properly until naturalists have 'settled what species is'. (442) Rather than existing as 'a definite concrete reality', Lewes insists, species means only 'a relation of resemblances between animals' which can change over time (443). Like animal forms themselves, species are therefore variable, and 'every new form becomes established only through the long and gradual accumulation of minute differences in divergent directions'. Lewes cautions the reader that, like those of his opponents, Darwin's 'opinions are necessarily hypothetical' and that 'there can be nothing like positive proof adduced' for them (444). At the same time, however, the evolutionary descent of animal forms is 'not a whit more improbable than the development of numerous languages out of a common parent language, which modern philologists have proved to be indubitably the case'. Without directly stating it, Lewes implies that the 'very remarkable analogy between philology and zoology in this respect' (445), seen most clearly in the work of Friedrich Max Müller, absolves Darwin and his followers from the 'absurdities' ascribed to them, and allows one to 'see what solid argument they have for the basis of their hypothesis' (447).


Lewes 1862

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