VI. THEORIES OF ORGANIC EVOLUTION
In Philosophie Zoologique (1809), Lamarck first explicitly formulated his ideas as to the transmutation of species, though he had outlined them as early as 1801. In this memorable publication not only did he state his belief more explicitly and in fuller detail than the idea had been expressed by any predecessor, but he took another long forward step, carrying him far beyond all his forerunners except Darwin, in that he made an attempt to explain the way in which the transmutation of species had been brought about. The changes have been wrought, he said, through the unceasing efforts of each organism to meet the needs imposed upon it by its environment. Constant striving means the constant use of certain organs. Thus a bird running by the seashore is constantly tempted to wade deeper and deeper in pursuit of food; its incessant efforts tend to develop its legs, in accordance with the observed principle that the use of any organ tends to strengthen and develop it. But such slightly increased development of the legs is transmitted to the off spring of the bird, which in turn develops its already improved legs by its individual efforts, and transmits the improved tendency. Generation after generation this is repeated, until the sum of the infinitesimal variations, all in the same direction, results in the production of the long-legged wading-bird. In a similar way, through individual effort and transmitted tendency, all the diversified organs of all creatures have been developed—the fin of the fish, the wing of the bird, the hand of man; nay, more, the fish itself, the bird, the man, even. Collectively the organs make up the entire organism; and what is true of the individual organs must be true also of their ensemble, the living being.
Whatever might be thought of Lamarck's explanation of the cause of transmutation—which really was that already suggested by Erasmus Darwin—the idea of the evolution for which he contended was but the logical extension of the conception that American animals are the modified and degenerated descendants of European animals. But people as a rule are little prone to follow ideas to their logical conclusions, and in this case the conclusions were so utterly opposed to the proximal bearings of the idea that the whole thinking world repudiated them with acclaim. The very persons who had most eagerly accepted the idea of transmutation of European species into American species, and similar limited variations through changed environment, because of the relief thus given the otherwise overcrowded ark, were now foremost in denouncing such an extension of the doctrine of transmutation as Lamarck proposed.
And, for that matter, the leaders of the scientific world were equally antagonistic to the Lamarckian hypothesis. Cuvier in particular, once the pupil of Lamarck, but now his colleague, and in authority more than his peer, stood out against the transmutation doctrine with all his force. He argued for the absolute fixity of species, bringing to bear the resources of a mind which, as a mere repository of facts, perhaps never was excelled. As a final and tangible proof of his position, he brought forward the bodies of ibises that had been embalmed by the ancient Egyptians, and showed by comparison that these do not differ in the slightest particular from the ibises that visit the Nile to-day.
Cuvier's reasoning has such great historical interest—being the argument of the greatest opponent of evolution of that day—that we quote it at some length.
"The following objections," he says, "have already been started against my conclusions. Why may not the presently existing races of mammiferous land quadrupeds be mere modifications or varieties of those ancient races which we now find in the fossil state, which modifications may have been produced by change of climate and other local circumstances, and since raised to the present excessive difference by the operations of similar causes during a long period of ages?
"This objection may appear strong to those who believe in the indefinite possibility of change of form in organized bodies, and think that, during a succession of ages and by alterations of habitudes, all the species may change into one another, or one of them give birth to all the rest. Yet to these persons the following answer may be given from their own system: If the species have changed by degrees, as they assume, we ought to find traces of this gradual modification. Thus, between the palaeotherium and the species of our own day, we should be able to discover some intermediate forms; and yet no such discovery has ever been made. Since the bowels of the earth have not preserved monuments of this strange genealogy, we have no right to conclude that the ancient and now extinct species were as permanent in their forms and characters as those which exist at present; or, at least, that the catastrophe which destroyed them did not leave sufficient time for the productions of the changes that are alleged to have taken place.
"In order to reply to those naturalists who acknowledge that the varieties of animals are restrained by nature within certain limits, it would be necessary to examine how far these limits extend. This is a very curious inquiry, and in itself exceedingly interesting under a variety of relations, but has been hitherto very little attended to. . . . . . . . .