1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: English Writers of 19th Century: Charles Darwin; A. R. Wallace.

(Part 22)


English Writers—Darwin.—The honour of working out the theory of evolution on a substantial basis of fact belongs to England. Of the writers who have achieved this result Mr Darwin deserves the first notice. Though modestly himself to the problem of accounting for the evolution of the higher organic forms out of the lower, Mr Darwin had done much to further the idea of a gradual evolution of the physical world. The philosophic significance of the hypothesis of natural selection, especially associated with Mr Darwin, is due, as Professor Helmholtz points out, to the fact that it introduces a strictly mechanical conception in order to account for those intricate arrangements known as organic adaptations which had before been conceived only in a teleological manner. By viewing adaptations as condition of self-preservation, Mr Darwin is able to explain how it is that the seemingly purposeful abounds in organic nature. In so doing he has done much to eliminate the teleological method from biology. It is true that, in his conception of seemingly spontaneous variations and of correlations and of growth, he leaves room for the old manner of viewing organic development as controlled by some internal organizing principle. Yet his theory, as a whole, is clearly a heavy blow to the teleological method. Again, Mr Darwin has greatly extended the scope of mechanical interpretation, by making intelligible, apart from the co-operation of intelligent, apart from the co-operation of intelligent purpose, the genesis of the organic world as a harmonious system of distinct groups, a unity in variety, having certain well-marked typical affinities. How greatly this arrangement has helped to support the idea of an ideal plan had occasion to observe. Mr Darwin in his doctrine of the organic world as a survival refers this appearance of systematic plan to perfectly natural causes, and in so he gives new meaning to the ancient theory that the harmony of the world arises out of discord. Once more, Mr Darwin’s hypothesis is of wide philosophic interest, since it helps to support the idea of a perfect graduation in the progress of things. The variations which he postulates are slight, if not infinitesimal, and only effect a sensible functional or morphological change after they have been frequently repeated and accumulated by heredity.

Mr Darwin’s later work, in which he applies his theory of the origin of species to man, is a valuable contribution to a naturalistic conception of human development. The mind of man in its lowest stages of development is here brought into close juxtaposition to the animal, and the upward progress of man is viewed as effected by natural causes, chief among which is the action of natural selection. Mr Darwin does not inquire into the exact way in which the mental and the bodily are connected. He simply assumes, that, just as the bodily organism is capable of varying in indefinite number of ways, so may the mental faculties vary indefinitely in correspondence with certain physical changes. In this way he seeks to account for all the higher mental powers, as the use of language and reason, the sentiment of beauty, and conscience.

Finally Mr Darwin seeks to give a practical and ethical turn to his doctrine. He appears to make the end of evolution the conscious end of man’s action, since he defines the general good as "the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full health and vigour, and with all their faculties perfect under the conditions to which they are faculties perfect under the conditions to which they are subject." Further, in his view of the future of the race, Mr Darwin leans to the idea that the natural process which has effected man’s first progress must continue to be an important factor in evolution, and that, consequently, it is not well to check the scope of this process by undue restraints of population, and a charitable preservation of the incompetent.

A. R. Wallace.—Mr A. R. Wallace, who shares with Mr Darwin the honour of establishing the doctrine of natural selection, differs from the latter in setting much narrower limits to the action of this cause in the mental as well as the physical domain. Thus he would mark off the human faculty of making abstractions, such as space and time, as powers which could not have been evolved in this way. Mr Wallace leans to the teleological idea of some superior principle which has guided man in his upward path, as well as controlled the whole process of organic evolution. This law is connected with the absolute origin of life and organization.

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