Cornhill Magazine,  1 (1860), 598–607.

Studies in Animal Life Ch. 5  [5/6]

[George H Lewes]


Essay, Serial


Entomology, Descent, Evolution, Species, Taxonomy, Metaphysics, Heredity, Zoology, Analogy, Philosophy, Embryology, Science Communication, Animal Development, Hypothesis, Breeding, Commerce, Proof, Natural History, History of Science, Error, Ancient Authorities, Microscopy, Controversy

People mentioned:

George L Leclerc, comte de Buffon , Plato , Marie J P Flourens , Carl Linnaeus

Publications cited:

Wordsworth 1814 , Flourens 1856 , Burdach 1832–40

    Beginning with a humorous anecdote concerning the representation of beetles in ancient Egyptian art, Lewes goes on to refute the favourite argument of Georges Cuvier and his followers that 'Species are unchangeable' because 'the testimony of paintings and sculptures' shows that 'during four thousand years Species and Races have not changed' (598). This argument, which assumes that 'there is something above all individuals—the species—and that cannot vary' (599), does not accord with the known 'law of hereditary transmission' which involves constant 'accidental variations' in animal forms (601). When it is also remembered that 'Species have no existence' except as a certain assemblage of specific characters shared by a group of animals, it becomes clear that the fixity of species is no longer a tenable idea (603). Lewes then quotes a substantial passage from On the Origin of Species in which Charles R Darwin accounts for the hierarchical relation which all plants and all animals have with each other by 'inheritance, and the complex action of natural selection'. 'Mr. Darwin's book', he reports, 'is in everybody's hands, and my object has been to facilitate, if possible, the comprehension of his book, and the adoption of a more philosophical hypothesis, by pointing out the chief weakness of the argument on the other side'. (603) Once more, however, Lewes insists that evolution is only a 'hypothesis [...] still very far from demonstration [...] when we come to seek for the evidence of the development hypothesis, that evidence fails us. It may be true, but we cannot say that it is true'. Furthermore, the 'history of any science' affords numerous examples of erroneous hypotheses that were 'formed and accepted' and now provide only 'a laugh at credulity'. (605) Lewes concludes by detailing the mistaken ideas concerning the shells of oysters held by Pliny and others, and inquires of the reader, 'I presume you know that shells are formed by a secretion from the mantle?'. This observation is based on the kind of 'microscopic examination' demonstrated in earlier chapters. (606)


Lewes 1862

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