The Origin of Species

The Origin of Species
[Review Article]

[A review by Fleeming Jenkin, published in The North British Review, June 1867, 46: 277-318]


The text below is a small section of Jenkin’s very long and perceptive review of Darwin’s book.  Most of the scientific critics of Darwin were biologists who challenged his facts. Jenkin was an engineer and mathematician who began his review by saying that he would accept the facts but wanted to explore the thinking and reasoning used to develop the theory.  In this section he takes issue with Darwin’s notion that a sudden new variation which appeared and which conferred an important survival advantage to the individual could be passed on to its progeny and thus, over time, change the basic nature of the species.

In this selection the paragraphs have been broken up and numbered for ease of reference.

Those who would like to read the entire review may access a copy of it through this link: Jenkin.

1.      Efficiency of Natural Selection. Those individuals of any species which are most adapted to the life they lead, live on an average longer than those which are less adapted to the circumstances in which the species is placed. The individuals which live the longest will have the most numerous offspring, and as the offspring on the whole resemble their parents, the descendants from any given generation will on the whole resemble the more favoured rather than the less favoured individuals of the species. So much of the theory of natural selection will hardly be denied; but it will be worth while to consider how far this process can tend to cause a variation in some one direction. It is clear that it will frequently, and indeed generally, tend to prevent any deviation from the common type. The mere existence of a species is a proof that it is tolerably well adapted to the life it must lead; many of the variations which may occur will be variations for the worse, and natural selection will assuredly stamp these out. A white grouse in the heather, or a white hare on a fallow would be sooner detected by its enemies than one of the usual plumage or colour. Even so, any favourable deviation must, according to the very terms of the statement, give its fortunate possessor a better chance of life; but this conclusion differs widely from the supposed consequence that a whole species may or will gradually acquire some one new quality, or wholly change in one direction and in the same manner.

2.      In arguing this point, two distinct kinds of possible variation must be separately considered: first, that kind of common variation which must be conceived as not only possible, but inevitable, in each individual of the species, such as longer and shorter legs, better or worse hearing, etc.; and, secondly, that kind of variation which only occurs rarely, and may be called a sport of nature, or more briefly a 'sport,' as when a child is born with six fingers on each hand. The common variation is not limited to one part of any animal, but occurs in all; and when we say that on the whole the stronger live longer than the weaker, we mean that in some cases long life will have been due to good lungs, in others to good ears, in others to good legs. There are few cases in which one faculty is pre-eminently useful to an animal beyond all other faculties, and where that is not so, the effect of natural selection will simply be to kill the weakly, and insure a sound, healthy, well-developed breed. If we could admit the principle of a gradual accumulation of improvements, natural selection would gradually improve the breed of everything, making the hare of the present generation run faster, hear better, digest better, than his ancestors; his enemies, the weasels, greyhounds, etc., would have improved likewise, so that perhaps the hare would not be really better off; but at any rate the direction of the change would be from a war of pigmies to a war of Titans.

3.   Opinions may differ as to the evidence of this gradual perfectibility of all things, but it is beside the question to argue this point, as the origin of species requires not the gradual improvement of animals retaining the same habits and structure, but such modification of those habits and structure as will actually lead to the appearance of new organs. We freely admit, that if an accumulation of slight improvements be possible, natural selection might improve hares as hares, and weasels as weasels, that is to say, it might produce animals having every useful faculty and every useful organ of their ancestors developed to a higher degree; more than this, it may obliterate some once useful organs when circumstances have so changed that they are no longer useful, for since that organ will weigh for nothing in the struggle of life, the average animal must be calculated as though it did not exist.

4.   We will even go further: if, owing to a change of circumstances some organ becomes pre-eminently useful, natural selection will undoubtedly produce a gradual improvement in that organ, precisely as man's selection can improve a special organ. In all cases the animals above the average live longer, those below the average die sooner, but in estimating the chance of life of a particular animal, one special organ may count much higher or lower according to circumstances, and will accordingly be improved or degraded. Thus it must apparently be conceded that natural selection is a true cause or agency whereby in some cases variations of special organs may be perpetuated and accumulated, but the importance of this admission is much limited by a consideration of the cases where it applies: first of all we have required that it should apply to variations which must occur in every individual, so that enormous numbers of individuals will exist, all having a little improvement in the same direction; as, for instance, each generation of hares will include an enormous number which have longer legs than the average of their parents although there may be an equally enormous number who have shorter legs; secondly, we require that the variation shall occur in an organ already useful owing to the habits of the animal. Such a process of improvement as is described could certainly never give organs of sight, smell or hearing to organisms which had never possessed them. It could not add a few legs to a hare, or produce a new organ, or even cultivate any rudimentary organ which was not immediately useful to any enormous majority of hares. No doubt half the hares which are born have longer tails than the average of their ancestors; but as no large number of hares hang by their tails, it is inconceivable that any change of circumstances should breed hares with prehensile tails; or, to take an instance less shocking in its absurdity, half the hares which are born may be presumed to be more like their cousins the rabbits in their burrowing organs than the average hare ancestor was; but this peculiarity cannot be improved by natural selection as described above, until a considerable number of hares begin to burrow, which we have as yet seen no likelihood of their doing. Admitting, therefore, that natural selection may improve organs already useful to great numbers of a species, does not imply an admission that it can create or develop new organs, and so original species.

5.   But it may be urged, although many hares do not burrow, one may, or least may hide in a hole, and a little scratching may just turn the balance in his favour in the struggle for life. So it may, and this brings us straight to the consideration of 'sports,' the second kind of variation above alluded to. A hare which saved its life by burrowing would come under this head; let us here consider whether a few hares in a century saving themselves by this process could, in some indefinite time, make a burrowing species of hare. It is very difficult to see how this can be accomplished, even when the sport is very eminently favourable indeed; and still more difficult when the advantage gained is very lights, as must generally be the case. The advantage, whatever it may be, is utterly outbalanced by numerical inferiority. A million creatures are born; ten thousand survive to produce offspring. One of the million has twice as good a chance as any other of surviving; but the chances are fifty to one against the gifted individuals being one of the hundred survivors. No doubt, the chances are twice as great against any one other individual, but this does not prevent their being enormously in favour of some average individual. However slight the advantage may be, if it is shared by half the individuals produced, it will probably be present in at least fifty-one of the survivors, and in a larger proportion of their offspring; but the chances are against the preservation of any one 'sport' in a numerous tribe.

6.   The vague use of an imperfectly understood doctrine of chance has led Darwinian supporters, first, to confuse the two cases above distinguished; and, secondly to imagine that a very slight balance in favour of some individual sport must lead to its perpetuation. All that can be said, is that in the above example the favoured sport would be preserved once in fifty times. Let us consider what will be its influence on the main stock when preserved. It will breed and have a progeny of say 100; now this progeny will, on the whole, be intermediate between the average individual and the sport. The odds in favour of one of this generation of the new breed will be, say 1 to 1, as compared with the average individual; the odds in their favour will therefore be less than that of their parent; but owing to their greater number, the chances are that about 1 of them would survive. Unless these breed together, a most improbable event, their progeny would again approach the average individual; there would be 150 of them, and their superiority would be say in the ratio of 1 to 1; the probability would now be that nearly two of them would survive, and have 200 children, with an eighth superiority. Rather more than two of these would survive; but the superiority would again dwindle, until after a few generations it would no longer be observed and would count for no more in the struggle for life, than any of the hundred trifling advantages which occur in the ordinary organs.

7.   An illustration will bring this conception home. Suppose a white man to have been wrecked on an island inhabited by negroes, and to have established himself in friendly relations with a powerful tribe, whose customs he has learnt. Suppose him to possess the physical strength, energy, and ability of a dominant white race, and let the food and climate of the island suit his constitution; grant him every advantage which we can conceive a white to possess over the native; concede that in the struggle for existence his chance of a long life will be much superior to that of the native chiefs; yet from all these admissions, there does not follow the conclusion that, after a limited or unlimited number of generations, the inhabitants of the island will be white. Our shipwrecked hero would probably become king; he would kill a great many blacks in the struggle for existence; he would have a great many wives and children, while many of his subjects would live and die as bachelors; an insurance company would accept his life at perhaps one-tenth of the premium which they would exact from the most favoured of the negroes. Our white's qualities would certainly tend very much to preserve him to good old age, and yet he would not suffice in any number of generations to turn his subjects' descendants white. It may be said that the white colour is not the cause of the superiority. True, but it may be used simply to bring before the senses the way in which qualities belonging to one individual in a large number must be gradually obliterated. In the first generation there will be some dozens of intelligent young mulattoes, much superior in average intelligence to the negroes. We might expect the throne for some generations to be occupied by a more or less yellow king; but can any one believe that the whole island will gradually acquire a white, or even a yellow population, or that the islanders would acquire the energy, courage, ingenuity, patience, self-control, endurance, in virtue of which qualities our hero killed so many of their ancestors, and begot so many children; those qualities, in fact, which the struggle for existence would select, if it could select anything?  Here is a case in which a variety was introduced, with far greater advantages than any sport every heard of, advantages tending to its preservation, and yet powerless to perpetuate the new variety.

8.   Darwin says that in the struggle for life a grain may turn the balance in favour of a given structure, which will then be preserved. But one of the weights in the scale of nature is due to the number of a given tribe. Let there be 7000 A's and 7000 B's, representing two varieties of a given animal, and let all the B's, in virtue of a slight difference of structure, have the better chance of life by 1/7000th part. We must allow that there is a slight probability that the descendants of B will supplant the descendants of A; but let there be only 7001 A's against 7000 B's at first, and the chances are once more equal, while if there be 7002 A's to start, the odds would be laid on the A's. True, they stand a greater chance of being killed; but then they can better afford to be killed. The grain will only turn the scales when these are very nicely balanced, and an advantage in numbers counts for weight, even as an advantage in structure. As the numbers of the favoured variety diminish, so must its relative advantage increase, if the chance of its existence is to surpass the chance of its extinction, until hardly any conceivable advantage would enable the descendants of a single pair to exterminate the descendants of many thousands if they and their descendants are supposed to breed freely with the inferior variety, and so gradually lose their ascendancy. If it is impossible that any sport or accidental variation in a single individual, however favourable to life, should be preserved and transmitted by natural selection, still less can slight and imperceptible variations, occurring in single individuals be garnered up and transmitted to continually increasing numbers; for if a very highly-favoured white cannot blanch a nation of negroes, it will hardly be contended that a comparatively very dull mulatto has a good chance of producing a tawny tribe; the idea, which seems almost absurd when presented in connexion with a practical case, rests on a fallacy of exceedingly common occurrence in mechanics and physics generally. When a man shows that a tendency to produce a given effect exists he often thinks he has proved that the effect must follow. He does not take into account the opposing tendencies, much less does he measure the various forces, with a view to calculate the result. For instance, there is a tendency on the part of a submarine cable to assume a catenary curve, and very high authorities once said it would; but, in fact, forces neglected by them utterly alter the curve from the catenary. There is a tendency on the part of the same cables, as usually made, to untwist entirely; luckily there are opposing forces, and they untwist very little. These cases will hardly seem obvious; but what should we say to a man who asserted that the centrifugal tendency of the earth must send it off in a tangent? One tendency is balanced or outbalanced by others; the advantage of structure possessed by an isolated specimen is enormously outbalanced by the advantage of numbers possessed by the others.

9.   A Darwinian my grant all that has been said, but contend that the offspring of 'sports' is not intermediate between the new sport and the old species; he may say that a great number of offspring will retain in full vigour the peculiarity constituting the favourable sport. Darwin seems with hesitation to make some such claim as this, and though it seems contrary to ordinary experience, it will be only fair to consider this hypothesis. Let an animal be born with some useful peculiarity, and let all his descendants retain his peculiarity in an eminent degree, however, little of the first ancestor's blood be in them, then it follows, from mere mathematics, that the descendants of our gifted beast will probably exterminate the descendants of his inferior brethren. If the animals breed rapidly the work of substitution would proceed with wonderful rapidity, although it is a stiff mathematical problem to calculate the number of generations required in any given case. To put this case clearly beside the former, we may say that if in a tribe of a given number of individuals there appears one super-eminently gifted, and if the advantage accruing to the descendants bears some kind of proportion to the amount of the ancestor's blood in their veins, the chances are considerable that for the first few generations he will have many descendants; but by degrees this advantage wanes, and after many generations the chances are so far from being favourable to his breed covering the ground exclusively, that they are actually much against his having any descendants at all alive, for though he has a rather better chance of this than any of his neighbours, yet the chances are greatly against any one of them. It is infinitely improbable that the descendants of any one should wholly supplant the others. If, on the contrary, the advantage given by the sport is retained by all descendants, independently of what in common speech might be called the proportion of blood in their veins directly derived from the first sport, then these descendants will shortly supplant the old species entirely, after the manner required by Darwin.

10.  But this theory of the origin of species is surely not the Darwinian theory; it simply amounts to the hypothesis that, from time to time, an animal is born differing appreciably from its progenitors, and possessing the power of transmitting the difference to its descendants. What is this but stating that, from time to time, a new species is created? It does not, indeed, imply that the new specimen suddenly appears in full vigour, made out of nothing; but it offers no explanation of the cause of the divergence from the progenitors, and still less of the mysterious faculty by which the divergence is transmitted unimpaired to countless descendants. It is clear that every divergence is not thus transmitted, for otherwise one and the same animal might have to be big to suit its father and little to suit is mother, might require a long nose in virtue of its grandfather and a short one in virtue of its grandmother, in a word, would have to resume in itself the countless contradictory peculiarities of its ancestors, all in full bloom, and unmodified one by the other, which seems as impossible as at one time to be and not to be. The appearance of a new specimen capable of perpetuating its peculiarity is precisely what might be termed a creation, the word being used to express our ignorance of how the thing happened. The substitution of the new specimens, descendants from the old species, would then be simply an example of strong race supplanting a weak one, by a process known long before the term 'natural selection' was invented. Perhaps this is the way in which new species are introduced, but it does not express the Darwinian theory of the gradual accumulation of infinitely minute differences of every-day occurrence, and apparently fortuitous in their character.

[End of the Section from Fleeming Jenkin]


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