Evolution in General
THE last romance of Science, the most daring it has ever tried to pen, is the Story of the Ascent of Man. Withheld from all the wistful eyes that have gone before, whose reverent ignorance forbade their wisest minds to ask to see it, this final volume of Natural History has begun to open with our century's close. In the monographs of His and Minot, the Embryology of Man has already received a just expression; Darwin and Haeckel have traced the origin of the Animal-Body; the researches of Romanes mark a beginning with the Evolution of Mind; Herbert Spencer has elaborated theories of the development of Morals; Edward Caird of the Evolution of Religion. Supplementing the contributions of these authorities, verifying, criticizing, combating, rebutting, there works a multitude of others who have devoted their lives to the same rich problems, and already every chapter of the bewildering story has found its editors.

Yet, singular though the omission may seem, no connected outline of this great drama has yet been given us. These researches, preliminary reconnaissances though they be, are surely worthy of being looked upon as a whole. No one can say that this multitude of observers is not in earnest, nor their work honest, nor their methods competent to the last powers of science. Whatever the uncertainty of the field, it is due to these pioneer minds to treat their labour with respect. What they see in the unexplored land in which they travel belongs to the world. By just such methods, and by just such men, the map of the world of thought is filled in -- here from the tracing up of some great river, there from a bearing taken roughly in a darkened sky, yonder from a sudden glint of the sun on a far-off mountain-peak, or by a swift induction of an adventurous mind from a momentary glimpse of a natural law. So knowledge grows; and in a century which has added to the sum of human learning more than all the centuries that are past, it is not to be conceived that some further revelation should not await us on the highest themes of all.

The day is for ever past when science need apologize for treating Man as an object of natural research. Hamlet's "being of large discourse, looking before and after" is withal a part of Nature, and can be made neither larger nor smaller, anticipate less nor prophesy less, because we investigate, and perhaps discover, the secret of his past. And should that past be proved to be related in undreamed-of ways to that of all other things in Nature, "all other things" have that to gain by the alliance which philosophy and theology for centuries have striven to win for them. Every step in the proof of the oneness in a universal evolutionary process of this divine humanity of ours is a step in the proof of the divinity of all lower things. And what is of infinitely greater moment, each footprint discovered in the Ascent of Man is a guide to the step to be taken next. To discover the rationale of social progress is the ambition of this age. There is an extraordinary human interest abroad about this present world itself, a yearning desire, not from curious but for practical reasons, to find some light upon the course; and as the goal comes nearer the eagerness passes into suspense to know the shortest and the quickest road to reach it. Hence the Ascent of Man is not only the noblest problem which science can ever study, but the practical bearings of this theme are great beyond any other on the roll of knowledge.

Now that the first rash rush of the evolutionary invasion is past, and the sins of its youth atoned for by sober concession, Evolution is seen to be neither more nor less than the story of creation as told by those who know it best. "Evolution," says Mr. Huxley, "or development is at present employed in biology as a general name for the history of the steps by which any living being has acquired the morphological and the physiological characters which distinguish it." [1] Though applied specifically to plants and animals this definition expresses the chief sense in which Evolution is to be used scientifically at present. We shall use the word, no doubt, in others of its many senses; but after all the blood spilt, Evolution is simply "history," a "history of steps," a "general name" for the history of the steps by which the world has come to be what it is. According to this general definition, the story of Evolution is narrative. It may be wrongly told; it may be coloured, exaggerated, over- or under-stated like the record of any other set of facts; it may be told with a theological bias or with an anti-theological bias; theories of the process may be added by this thinker or by that; but these are not of the substance of the story. Whether history is told by a Gibbon or a Green the facts remain, and whether Evolution be told by a Haeckel or a Wallace we accept the narrative so far as it is a rendering of Nature, and no more. It is true, before this story can be fully told, centuries still must pass. At present there is not a chapter of the record that is wholly finished. The manuscript is already worn with erasures, the writing is often blurred, the very language is uncouth and strange. Yet even now the outline of a continuous story is beginning to appear -- a story whose chief credential lies in the fact that no imagination of man could have designed a spectacle so wonderful, or worked out a plot at once so intricate and so transcendently simple.

This story will be outlined here partly for the story and partly for a purpose. A historian dare not have a prejudice, but he cannot escape a purpose -- the purpose, conscious or unconscious, of unfolding the purpose which lies behind the facts which he narrates. The interest of a drama -- the authorship of the play apart -- is in the players, their character, their motives, and the tendency of their action. It is impossible to treat these players as automata. Even if automata, those in the audience are not. Hence, where interpretation seems lawful, or comment warranted by the facts, neither will he withheld.

To give an account of Evolution, it need scarcely be remarked, is not to account for it. No living thinker has yet found it possible to account for Evolution. Mr. Herbert Spencer's famous definition of Evolution as "a change from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity through continuous differentiations and integrations" [2] -- the formula of which the Contemporary Reviewer remarked that "the universe may well have heaved a sigh of relief when, through the cerebration of an eminent thinker, it had been delivered of this account of itself" -- is simply a summary of results, and throws no light, though it is often supposed to do so, upon ultimate causes. While it is true, as Mr. Wallace affirms in his latest work, that "Descent with modification is now universally accepted as the order of nature in the organic world," there is everywhere at this moment the most disturbing uncertainty as to how the Ascent even of species has been brought about. The attacks on the Darwinian theory from the outside were never so keen as are the controversies now raging in scientific circles, over the fundamental principles of Darwinism itself. On at least two main points -- sexual selection and the origin of the higher mental characteristics of man -- Mr Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer with Darwin of the principle of Natural Selection though he be, directly opposes his colleague. The powerful attack of Weismann on the Darwinian assumption of the inheritability of acquired characters has opened one of the liveliest controversies of recent years, and the whole field of science is hot with controversies and discussions. In his GermPlasm,' the German naturalist believes himself to have finally disposed of both Darwin's "gemmules" and Herbert Spencer's "primordial units," while Eimer breaks a lance with Weismann in defence of Darwin, and Herbert Spencer replies for himself, assuring us that "either there has been inheritance of acquired characters or there has been no evolution."

It is the greatest compliment to Darwinism that it should have survived to deserve this era of criticism. Meantime all prudent men can but hold their judgment in suspense both as to that specific theory of one department of Evolution which is called Darwinism, and as to the factors and causes of Evolution itself. No one asks more of Evolution at present than permission to use it as a working theory. Undoubtedly there are cases now before Science where it is more than theory -- the demonstration from Yale, for instance, of the Evolution of the Horse; and from Steinheim of the transmutation of Planorbis. In these cases the missing links have come in one after another, and in series so perfect, that the evidence for their evolution is irresistible. "On the evidence of Palaeontology," says Mr. Huxley in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "the evolution of many existing forms of animal life from their predecessors is no longer an hypothesis but an historical fact." And even as to Man, most naturalists agree with Mr. Wallace who "fully accepts Mr. Darwin's conclusion as to the essential identity of Man's bodily structure with that of the higher mammalia and his descent from some ancestral form common to man and the anthropoid apes," for "the evidence of such descent appears overwhelming and conclusive." [3] But as to the development of the whole Man it is sufficient for the present to rank it as a theory, no matter how impressive the conviction be that it is more. Without some hypothesis no work can ever be done, and, as everyone knows, many of the greatest contributions to human knowledge have been made by the use of theories either seriously imperfect or demonstrably false. This is the age of the evolution of Evolution. All thoughts that the Evolutionist works with, all theories and generalizations, have been themselves evolved and are now being evolved. Even were his theory perfected, its first lesson would be that it was itself but a phase of the Evolution of further opinion, no more fixed than a species, no more final than the theory which it displaced. Of all men the Evolutionist, by the very nature of his calling, the mere tools of his craft, his understanding of his hourly shifting place in this always moving and ever more mysterious world, must be humble, tolerant, and undogmatic.

These, nevertheless, are cold words with which to speak of a Vision -- for Evolution is after all a Vision -- -which is revolutionizing the world of Nature and of thought, and, within living memory, has opened up avenues into the past and vistas into the future such as science has never witnessed before. While many of the details of the theory of Evolution are in the crucible of criticism, and while the field of modern science changes with such rapidity that in almost every department the textbooks of ten years ago are obsolete to-day, it is fair to add that no one of these changes, nor all of them together, have touched the general theory itself except to establish its strength, its value, and its universality. Even more remarkable than the rapidity of its conquest is the authority with which the doctrine of development has seemed to speak to the most authoritative minds of our time. Of those who are in the front rank, of those who by their knowledge have, by common consent, the right to speak, there are scarcely any who do not in some form employ it in working and in thinking. Authority may mean little; the world has often been mistaken; but when minds so different as those of Charles Darwin and of T. H. Green, of Herbert Spencer and of Robert Browning, build half the labours of their life on this one law, it is impossible, and especially in the absence of any other even competing principle at the present hour, to treat it as a baseless dream. Only the peculiar nature of this great generalization can account for the extraordinary enthusiasm of this acceptance. Evolution has done for Time what Astronomy has done for Space. As sublime to the reason as the Science of the Stars, as overpowering to the imagination, it has thrown the universe into a fresh perspective, and given the human mind a new dimension. Evolution involves not so much a change of opinion as a change in man's whole view of the world and of life. It is not the statement of a mathematical proposition which men are called upon to declare true or false. It is a method of looking upon Nature. Science for centuries devoted itself to the cataloguing of facts and the discovery of laws. Each worker toiled in his own little place -- the geologist in his quarry, the botanist in his garden, the biologist in his laboratory, the astronomer in his observatory, the historian in his library, the archaeologist in his museum. Suddenly these workers looked up; they spoke to one another; they had each discovered a law; they whispered its name. It was Evolution. Henceforth their work was one, science was one, the world was one, and mind, which discovered the oneness, was one.

Such being the scope of the theory, it is essential that for its interpretation this universal character be recognized, and no phenomenon in nature or in human nature be left out of the final reckoning. It is equally clear that in making that interpretation we must begin with the final product, Man. If Evolution can be proved to include Man, the whole course of Evolution and the whole scheme of Nature from that moment assume a new significance The beginning must then be interpreted from the end, not the end from the beginning. An engineering workshop is unintelligible until we reach the room where the completed engine stands. Everything culminates in that final product, is contained in it, is explained by it. The Evolution of Man is also the complement and corrective of all other forms of Evolution. From this height only is there a full view, a true perspective, a consistent world. The whole mistake of naturalism has been to interpret Nature from the standpoint of the atom -- to study the machinery which drives this great moving world simply as machinery, forgetting that the ship has any passengers, or the passengers any captain, or the captain any course. It is as great a mistake, on the other hand, for the theologian to separate off the ship from the passengers as for the naturalist to separate off the passengers from the ship. It is he who cannot include Man among the links of Evolution who has greatly to fear the theory of development. In his jealousy for that religion which seems to him higher than science, he removes at once the rational basis from religion and the legitimate crown from science, forgetting that in so doing he offers to the world an unnatural religion and an inhuman science. The cure for all the small mental disorders which spring up around restricted applications of Evolution is to extend it fearlessly in all directions as far as the mind can carry it and the facts allow, till each man, working at his subordinate part, is compelled to own, and adjust himself to, the whole.

If the theological mind be called upon to make this expansion, the scientific man must be asked to enlarge his view in another direction. If he insists upon including Man in his scheme of Evolution, he must see to it that he include the whole Man. For him at least no form of Evolution is scientific or is to be considered, which does not include the whole Man, and all that is in Man, and all the work and thought and life and aspiration of Man. The great moral facts, the moral forces so far as they are proved to exist, the moral consciousness so far as it is real, must come within its scope. Human History must be as much a part of it as Natural History. The social and religious forces must no more be left outside than the forces of gravitation or of life. The reason why the naturalist does not usually include these among the factors in Evolution is not oversight, but undersight. Sometimes, no doubt, he may take at their word those who assure him that Evolution has nothing to do with those higher things, but the main reason is simply that his work does not lie on the levels where those forces come into play. The specialist is not to be blamed for this; limitation is his strength. But when the specialist proceeds to reconstruct the universe from his little corner of it, and especially from his level of it, he not only injures science and philosophy, but may fatally mislead his neighbours. The man who is busy with the stars will never come across Natural Selection, yet surely must he allow for Natural Selection in his construction of the world as a whole. He who works among star-fish will encounter little of Mental Evolution, yet will he not deny that it exists. The stars have voices, but there are other voices; the star-fishes have activities, but there are other activities. Man, body, soul, spirit, are not only to be considered, but are first to be considered in any theory of the world. You cannot describe the life of kings, or arrange their kingdoms, from the cellar beneath the palace. "Art," as Browning reminds us,

"Must fumble for

the whole, once fixing on a part,

However poor, surpass the fragment, and aspire

To reconstruct thereby the ultimate entire."


[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th Ed.

[2] Data of Ethics, p. 65.

[3] Darwinism, p. 461.

Top of Page
Top of Page