Those who rate Lamarck no higher than did Huxley in his contemptuous phrase "buccinator tantum," will scarcely deny that the sound of the trumpet had carried far, or that its note was clear. If then there were few who had already turned to evolution with positive conviction, all scientific men must at least have known that such views had been promulgated; and many must, as Huxley says, have taken up his own position of "critical expectancy." (See the chapter contributed to the "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" II. page 195. I do not clearly understand the sense in which Darwin wrote (Autobiography, ibid. I. page 87): "It has sometimes been said that the success of the "Origin" proved 'that the subject was in the air,' or 'that men's minds were prepared for it.' I do not think that this is strictly true, for I occasionally sounded not a few naturalists, and never happened to come across a single one who seemed to doubt about the permanence of species." This experience may perhaps have been an accident due to Darwin's isolation. The literature of the period abounds with indications of "critical expectancy." A most interesting expression of that feeling is given in the charming account of the "Early Days of Darwinism" by Alfred Newton, "Macmillan's Magazine", LVII. 1888, page 241. He tells how in 1858 when spending a dreary summer in Iceland, he and his friend, the ornithologist John Wolley, in default of active occupation, spent their days in discussion. "Both of us taking a keen interest in Natural History, it was but reasonable that a question, which in those days was always coming up wherever two or more naturalists were gathered together, should be continually recurring. That question was, 'What is a species?' and connected therewith was the other question, 'How did a species begin?'...Now we were of course fairly well acquainted with what had been published on these subjects." He then enumerates some of these publications, mentioning among others T. Vernon Wollaston's "Variation of Species"--a work which has in my opinion never been adequately appreciated. He proceeds: "Of course we never arrived at anything like a solution of these problems, general or special, but we felt very strongly that a solution ought to be found, and that quickly, if the study of Botany and Zoology was to make any great advance." He then describes how on his return home he received the famous number of the "Linnean Journal" on a certain evening. "I sat up late that night to read it; and never shall I forget the impression it made upon me. Herein was contained a perfectly simple solution of all the difficulties which had been troubling me for months past...I went to bed satisfied that a solution had been found.")
Why, then, was it, that Darwin succeeded where the rest had failed? The cause of that success was two-fold. First, and obviously, in the principle of Natural Selection he had a suggestion which would work. It might not go the whole way, but it was true as far as it went. Evolution could thus in great measure be fairly represented as a consequence of demonstrable processes. Darwin seldom endangers the mechanism he devised by putting on it strains much greater than it can bear. He at least was under no illusion as to the omnipotence of Selection; and he introduces none of the forced pleading which in recent years has threatened to discredit that principle.
For example, in the latest text of the "Origin" ("Origin", (6th edition (1882), page 421.) we find him saying:
"But as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position-- namely, at the close of the Introduction--the following words: 'I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.'"
But apart from the invention of this reasonable hypothesis, which may well, as Huxley estimated, "be the guide of biological and psychological speculation for the next three or four generations," Darwin made a more significant and imperishable contribution. Not for a few generations, but through all ages he should be remembered as the first who showed clearly that the problems of Heredity and Variation are soluble by observation, and laid down the course by which we must proceed to their solution. (Whatever be our estimate of the importance of Natural Selection, in this we all agree. Samuel Butler, the most brilliant, and by far the most interesting of Darwin's opponents--whose works are at length emerging from oblivion--in his Preface (1882) to the 2nd edition of "Evolution, Old and New", repeats his earlier expression of homage to one whom he had come to regard as an enemy: "To the end of time, if the question be asked, 'Who taught people to believe in Evolution?' the answer must be that it was Mr. Darwin. This is true, and it is hard to see what palm of higher praise can be awarded to any philosopher.") The moment of inspiration did not come with the reading of Malthus, but with the opening of the "first note-book on Transmutation of Species." ("Life and Letters", I. pages 276 and 83.) Evolution is a process of Variation and Heredity. The older writers, though they had some vague idea that it must be so, did not study Variation and Heredity. Darwin did, and so begat not a theory, but a science.
The extent to which this is true, the scientific world is only beginning to realise. So little was the fact appreciated in Darwin's own time that the success of his writings was followed by an almost total cessation of work in that special field. Of the causes which led to this remarkable consequence I have spoken elsewhere. They proceeded from circumstances peculiar to the time; but whatever the causes there is no doubt that this statement of the result is historically exact, and those who make it their business to collect facts elucidating the physiology of Heredity and Variation are well aware that they will find little to reward their quest in the leading scientific Journals of the Darwinian epoch.
In those thirty years the original stock of evidence current and in circulation even underwent a process of attrition. As in the story of the Eastern sage who first wrote the collected learning of the universe for his sons in a thousand volumes, and by successive compression and burning reduced them to one, and from this by further burning distilled the single ejaculation of the Faith, "There is no god but God and Mohamed is the Prophet of God," which was all his maturer wisdom deemed essential:--so in the books of that period do we find the corpus of genetic knowledge dwindle to a few prerogative instances, and these at last to the brief formula of an unquestioned creed.
And yet in all else that concerns biological science this period was, in very truth, our Golden Age, when the natural history of the earth was explored as never before; morphology and embryology were exhaustively ransacked; the physiology of plants and animals began to rival chemistry and physics in precision of method and in the rapidity of its advances; and the foundations of pathology were laid.