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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Origin of Species Controversy (S155: 1869)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review of Habit and Intelligence, In Their Connection with the Laws of Matter and Force, by Joseph John Murphy. Published in two parts in the 25 November 1869 and 2 December 1869 issues of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S155.htm

    [[p. 105]] The flood of light that has been thrown on the obscurest and most recondite of the forces and forms of Nature by the researches of the last few years, has led many acute and speculative intellects to believe that the time has arrived when the hitherto insoluble problems of the origin of life and of mind may receive a possible and intelligible, if not a demonstrable, solution. The grand doctrine of the conservation of energy, the all-embracing theory of evolution, a more accurate conception of the relation of matter to force, the vast powers of spectrum analysis on one side, showing us as it does the minute anatomy of the universe, and the increased efficiency of the modern microscope on the other, which enables us to determine with confidence the structure, or absence of structure, in the minutest and lowest forms of life, furnish us with a converging battery of scientific weapons which we may well think no mystery of Nature can long withstand. Our literature accordingly teems with essays of more or less pretension on the development of living forms, the nature and origin of life, the unity of all force, physical and mental, and analogous subjects.

    The work of which I now propose to give some account, is a favourable specimen of the class of essays alluded to, for although it does not seem to be in any degree founded on original research, its author has studied with great care, and has, in most cases, thoroughly understood, the best writers on the various subjects he treats of, and has brought to the task a considerable amount of original thought and ingenious criticism. He thus effectually raises the character of his book above that of a mere compilation, which, in less able hands, it might have assumed.

    The introductory chapter treats of the characteristics of modern scientific thought, and endeavours to show, "that the chief and most distinctive intellectual characteristic of this age consists in the prominence given to historical and genetic methods of research, which have made history scientific, and science historical: whence has arisen the conviction that we cannot really understand anything unless we know its origin; and whence also we have learned a more appreciative style of criticism, a deeper distrust, dislike, and dread, of revolutionary methods, and a more intelligent and profound love of both mental and political freedom." The first six chapters are devoted to a careful sketch of the great motive powers of the universe, of the laws of motion, and of the conservation of energy. The author here suggests the introduction of a useful word, radiance, to express the light, radiant heat, and actinism of the sun, which are evidently modifications of the same form of energy,--and a more precise definition of the words force and strength, the former for forces which are capable of producing motion, the latter for mere resistances like cohesion.

    He enumerates the primary forces of Nature as, gravity, capillary attraction, and chemical affinity, and notices as an important generalisation "that all primary forces are attractive; there is no such thing in Nature as a primary repulsive force" (p. 43). Now here there seem to be two errors. Cohesion, which is entirely unnoticed, is surely as much a primary force as capillary attraction, and, in fact, is probably the more general force, of which the other is only a particular case; and elasticity is the effect of a primary repulsive force. In fact, at p. 26, we find the author arguing that all matter is perfectly elastic, for, when two balls strike together, the lost energy due to imperfect elasticity of the mass is transferred to the molecules, and becomes heat. But this surely implies repulsion of the molecules; and Mr. Bayma has shown, in his "Molecular Mechanics," that repulsion is as necessary a property of matter as attraction.

    The eighth chapter discusses the phenomena of crystallisation; and the next two, the chemistry and dynamics of life. The reality of a "vital principle" is maintained as "the unknown and undiscoverable something which the properties of mere matter will not account for, and which constitutes the differentia of living beings." Besides the formation of organic compounds, we have the functions of organisation, instinct, feeling, and thought, which could not conceivably be resultants from the ordinary properties of matter. At the same time it is admitted that conceivableness is not a test of truth, and that all questions concerning the origin of life are questions of fact, and must be solved, not by reasoning, but by observation and experiment; but it is maintained that the [[p. 106]] facts render it most probable that "life, like matter and energy, had its origin in no secondary cause, but in the direct action of creative power." Chapters X. to XIV. treat of organisation and development, and give a summary of the most recent views on these subjects, concluding with the following tabular statement of organic functions:--

     Formative or Vegetative Functions, essentially consisting in the Transformation of Matter.
          Chemical . . . . . Formation of organic compounds.
          Structural . . . . . Formation of tissue / Formation of organs.

     Animal Functions, consisting essentially in the Transformation of Energy.
          Motor . . . . . Spontaneous / Reflex / Consensual / Voluntary.
          Sensory . . . . . Sensation / Mind.

    In the fifteenth chapter we first come to one of the author's special subjects,--the Laws of Habit. He defines habit as follows: "The definition of habit and its primary law, is that all vital actions tend to repeat themselves; or, if they are not such as can repeat themselves, they tend to become easier on repetition." All habits are more or less hereditary, are somewhat changeable by circumstances, and are subject to spontaneous variations. The prominence of a habit depends upon its having been recently exercised; its tenacity on the length of time (millions of generations it may be) during which it has been exercised. The habits of the species or genus are most tenacious, those of the individual often the most prominent. The latter may be quickly lost, the former may appear to be lost, but are often latent, and are liable to reappear, as in cases of reversion. The fact that active habits are strengthened, while passive impressions are weakened, by repetition, is due in both cases to the law of habit; for, in the latter, the organism acquires the habit of not responding to the impression. As an example, two men hear the same loud bell in the morning; it calls the one to work, as he is accustomed to listen to it, and so it always wakes him; the other has to rise an hour later, he is accustomed to disregard it, and so it soon ceases to have any effect upon him. Habit has produced in these two cases exactly opposite results. Habits are capable of any amount of charge, but only a slight change is possible in a short time; and in close relation with this law are the following laws of variation.

    Changes of external circumstances are beneficial to organisms if they are slight; but injurious if they are great, unless made gradually.

    Changes of external circumstances are agreeable when slight, but disagreeable when great.

    Mixture of different races is beneficial to the vigour of the offspring if the races mixed are but slightly different; while very different races will produce either weak offspring, or infertile offspring, or none at all. Even the great law of sexuality, requiring the union of slightly different individuals to continue the race, seems to stand in close connection with the preceding laws.

    The next seven chapters treat of the laws of variation, distribution, morphology, embryology, and classification, as all pointing to the origin of species by development; and we then come to the causes of development, in which the author explains his views as follows:--

    These two causes, self-adaptation and natural selection, are the only purely physical causes that have been assigned, or that appear assignable, for the origin of organic structure and form. But I believe they will account for only part of the facts, and that no solution of the questions of the origin of organization, and the origin of organic species, can be adequate, which does not recognise an Organising Intelligence, over and above the common laws of matter. . . . But we must begin the inquiry by considering how much of the facts of organic structure and vital function may be accounted for by the two laws of self-adaptation and natural selection, before we assert that any of those facts can only be accounted for by supposing an Organising Intelligence.


    Life does not suspend the action of the ordinary forces of matter, but works through them. I believe that wherever there is life there is intelligence, and that intelligence is at work in every vital process whatever, but most discernibly in the highest. . . . Nutrition, circulation, and respiration are in a great degree to be explained as results of physical and chemical laws;--but sensation, perception, and thought cannot be so explained. They belong exclusively to life; and similarly the organs of those functions--the nerves, the brain, the eye, and the ear--can have originated, I believe, solely by the action of an Organising Intelligence.

    Admitting Mr. Herbert Spencer's theory of the origin of the vascular system, and possibly of the muscular, by self-adaptation, he denies that any such merely physical theory will account for the origin of the special complexities of the visual apparatus:

    Neither the action of light on the eye, nor the actions of the eye itself, can have the slightest tendency to produce the wondrous complex histological structure of the retina; nor to form the transparent humours of the eye into lenses; nor to produce the deposit of black pigment that absorbs the stray rays that would otherwise hinder clear vision; nor to produce the iris, and endow it with its power of closing under a strong light, so as to protect the retina, and expanding again when the light is withdrawn; nor to give the iris its two nervous connections, one of which has its root in the sympathetic ganglia, and causes expansion, while the other has its root in the brain and causes contraction.

    Nor will he allow that Natural Selection (which he admits may produce any simple organ, such as a bat's wing) is applicable to this case; and he makes use of two arguments which have considerable weight. One is that of Mr. Herbert Spencer, who shows that in all the higher animals natural selection must be aided by self-adaptation, because an alteration in any part of a complex organ necessitates concomitant alterations in may other parts, and these cannot be supposed m occur by spontaneous variation. But in the case of the eye he shows that self-adaptation cannot occur, whence he conceives it may be proved to be almost an infinity of chances to one against the simultaneous variations necessary to produce an eye ever having occurred. The other argument is, that well-developed eyes occur in the higher orders of the three great groups, Annulosa, Mollusca, and Vertebrata, while the lower orders of each have rudimentary eyes or none; so that the variations requisite to produce this wonderfully complicated organ must have occurred three times over independently of each other. In the first of these objections, he assumes that many variations must occur simultaneously, and on this assumption his whole argument rests. He notices Mr. Darwin's illustration of the greyhound having been brought to its present high state of perfection by breeders selecting for one point at a time, but does not think it possible "that any apparatus, consisting of lenses, [[p. 107]] can be improved by any method whatever, unless the alterations in the density and the curvature are perfectly simultaneous." This is an entire misconception. If a lens has too short or too long a focus, it may be amended either by an alteration of curvature, or an alteration of density; if the curvature be irregular, and the rays do not converge to a point, then any increased regularity of curvature will be an improvement. So the contraction of the iris and the muscular movements of the eye are neither of them essential to vision, but only improvements which might have been added and perfected at any stage of the construction of the instrument. Thus it does not seem at all impossible for spontaneous variations to have produced all the delicate adjustments of the eye, once given the rudiments of it, in nerves exquisitely sensitive to light and colour; but it does seem certain that it could only be effected with extreme slowness; and the fact that in all three of the primary groups, Mollusca, Annulosa, and Vertebrata, species with well-developed eyes occur so early as in the Silurian period, is certainly a difficulty in view of the strict limits physicists now place to the age of the solar system.

[[p. 132]]

    In his chapter on "The Rate of Variation," Mr. Murphy adopts the view (rejected after careful examination by Darwin) that in many cases species have been formed at once by considerable variations, sometimes amounting to the formation of distinct genera, and he brings forward the cases of the Ancon sheep, and of remarkable forms of poppy and of Datura tatula appearing suddenly, and being readily propagated. He thinks this view necessary to get over the difficulty of the slow rate of change by natural selection among minute spontaneous variations; by which process such an enormous time would be required for the development of all the forms of life, as is inconsistent with the period during which the earth can have been habitable. But to get over a difficulty it will not do to introduce an untenable hypothesis; and this one of the rapid formation of species by single variations can be shown to be untenable, by arguments which Mr. Murphy will admit to be valid. The first is, that none of these considerable variations can possibly survive in nature, and so form new species, unless they are useful to the species. Now, such large variations are admittedly very rare compared with ordinary spontaneous variability, and as they have usually a character of "monstrosity" about them, the chances are very great against any particular variation being useful. Another consideration pointing in the same direction is, that as a species only exists in virtue of its being tolerably well adapted to its environment, and as that environment only changes slowly, small rather than large changes are what are required to keep up the adaptation. But even if great changes of conditions may sometimes occur rapidly, as by the irruption of some new enemy, or by a few feet of subsidence causing a low plain to become flooded, what are the chances that among the many thousands of possible large variations the one exactly adapted to meet the changed conditions should occur at the right time? To meet a change of conditions this year, the right large variation might possibly occur a thousand years hence.

    The second argument is a still stronger one. Mr. Murphy fully adopts Mr. Herbert Spencer's view, that a variation, however slight, absolutely requires, to ensure its permanence, a number of concomitant variations, which can only be produced by the slow process of self-adaptation; and he uses this argument as conclusive against the formation of complex organs by natural selection in all cases where there is no tendency for action to produce self-adaptation; à fortiori, therefore, must a sudden large variation in any one part require numerous concomitant variations; it is still more improbable that they can accidentally occur together; it is impossible that the slow process of self-adaptation can produce them in time to be of any use; so that we are driven to the conclusion, that any large single variation, unsupported as it must be by the necessary concomitant variations, can hardly be other than hurtful to the individuals in which it occurs, and thus lead in a state of nature to its almost immediate extinction. The question, therefore, is not, as Mr. Murphy seems to think, whether such large variations occur in a state of nature, but whether, having occurred, they could possibly maintain themselves and increase. A calculation is made by which the more rapid mode of variation is shown to be necessary. It is supposed that the greyhound has been changed from its wolf-like ancestor in 500 years; but it is argued that variation is much slower under nature than under domestication, so that with wild animals it would take ten times as long for the same amount of variation to occur. It is also said that there is ten times less chance of favourable variations being preserved, owing to the free intermixture that takes place in a wild state; so that for nature to produce a greyhound from a wolf would have required 50,000 years. Sir W. Thomson calculates that life on the earth must be limited to some such period as one hundred million years, so that only two thousand times the time required to produce a well-marked specific change has, on this theory, produced all the change from the protozoon to the elephant and man.

    Although many of the data used in the above calculation are quite incorrect, the result is probably not far from the truth; for it is curious that the most recent geological researches point to a somewhat similar period as that required to change the specific form of mammalia. The question of geological time is, however, so large and important that we must leave it for a separate article.

    The second volume of Mr. Murphy's work is almost wholly psychological, and can be but briefly noticed. It consists to a great extent of a summary of the teachings of Bain, Mill, Spencer, and Carpenter, combined with much freshness of thought and often submitted to acute criticism. The special novelty in the work is the theory as to the "intelligence" manifested in organisation and [[p. 133]] mental phenomena, and this is so difficult a conception that it must be presented in the author's own words:--

    "I believe the unconscious intelligence that directs the formation of the bodily structures is the same intelligence that becomes conscious in the mind. The two are generally believed to be fundamentally distinct: conscious mental intelligence is believed to be human, and formative intelligence is believed to be Divine. This view, making the two to be totally unlike, leaves no room for the middle region of instinct; and hence the marvellous character with which instinct is generally invested. But if we admit that all the intelligence manifested in the organic creation is fundamentally the same, it will appear natural, and what might be expected, that there should be such a gradation as we actually find, from perfectly unconscious to perfectly conscious intelligence; the intermediate region being occupied by intelligent though unconscious motor actions--in a word, by instinct. . . . The intelligence which forms the lenses of the eye is the same intelligence which in the mind of man understands the theory of the lens; the intelligence that hollows out the bones and the wing-feathers of the bird, in order to combine lightness with strength, and places the feathery fringes where they are needed, is the same intelligence which in the mind of the engineer has devised the construction of iron pillars hollowed out like those bones and feathers. . . . It will probably be said that this identification of formative, instinctive, and mental intelligence is Pantheistic. . . . I am not a Pantheist: on the contrary, I believe in a Divine Power and Wisdom, infinitely transcending all manifestations of power and intelligence that are or can be known to us in our present state of being. . . . Energy or force is an effect of Divine power; but there is not a fresh exercise of Divine power whenever a stone falls or a fire burns. So with intelligence. All intelligence is a result of Divine Wisdom, but there is not a fresh determination of Divine thought needed for every new adaptation in organic structure, or for every new thought in the brain of man. Every Theist will admit that there is not a fresh act of creation when a new living individual is born. I go a little further, and say that I do not believe in a fresh act of creation for a new species. I believe that the Creator has not separately organised every structure, but has endowed vitalised matter with intelligence, under the guidance of which it organised itself; and I think there is no more Pantheism in this than in believing that the Creator does not separately cause every stone to fall and every fire to burn, but has endowed matter with energy, and has given energy the power of transposing itself."

    I am not myself able to conceive this impersonal and unconscious intelligence coming in exactly when required to direct the forces of matter to special ends, and it is certainly quite incapable of demonstration. On the other hand, the theory that there are various grades of conscious and personal intelligences at work in nature, guiding the forces of matter and mind for their purposes as man guides them for his, is both easily conceivable and is not necessarily incapable of proof. If therefore there are in nature phenomena which, as Mr. Murphy believes, the laws of matter and of life will not suffice to explain, would it not be better to adopt the simpler and more conceivable solution, till further evidence can be obtained?

    The only other portion of the work on which my space will allow me to touch, is the chapter on the Classification of the Sciences, in which a scheme is propounded of great simplicity and merit. Mr. Murphy does not appear to be acquainted with Mr. Herbert Spencer's essay on this subject, and it is somewhat remarkable that he has arrived at so very similar a result, although less ideal and less exhaustively worked out. In one point his plan seems an improvement on all preceding ones. He arranges the sciences in two series, which we may term primary and secondary. A primary science is one which treats of a definite group of natural laws, and these are capable of being arranged (as Comte proposed) in a regular series, each one being more or less dependent on those which precede it, while it is altogether independent of those which follow it. A secondary science, on the other hand, is one which treats of a group of natural phenomena, and makes use of the primary sciences to explain those phenomena; and these can also be arranged in a series of decreasing generality and independence of those which follow them, although the series is less complete and symmetrical than in the case of the primary sciences. The two series somewhat condensed are:--

    Primary Series: 1. Logic. 2. Mathematics. 3. Dynamics. 4. Sound, Heat, Electricity, &c. 5. Chemistry. 6. Physiology. 7. Psychology. 8. Sociology.

    Secondary Series: 1. Astronomy. 2. Terrestrial Magnetism. 3. Meteorology. 4. Geography. 5. Geology. 6. Mineralogy. 7. Palæontology. 8. Descriptive Biology.

Taking the first in the list of secondary or compound sciences, Astronomy, we may define it as the application of the first five primary sciences to acquiring a knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and we can hardly say that any one of these sciences is more essential to it than any other. We are, perhaps, too apt to consider, as Comte did, that the application of the higher mathematics through the law of gravitation to the calculation of the planetary motions, is so much the essential feature of modern astronomy as to render every other part of it comparatively insignificant. It will be well, therefore, to consider for a moment what would be the position of the science at this day had the law of gravitation remained still undiscovered. Our vastly multiplied observations and delicate instruments would have enabled us to determine so many empirical laws of planetary motion and their secular variations, that the positions of all the planets and their satellites would have been calculable for a moderate period in advance, and with very considerable accuracy. All the great facts of size and distance in planetary and stellar astronomy, would be determined with great precision. All the knowledge derived from our modern telescopes, and from spectrum analysis, would be just as complete as it is now. Neptune, it is true, would not have been discovered except by chance; the nautical almanack would not be published four years in advance; longitude would not be determined by lunar distances, and we should not have that sense of mental power which we derive from the knowledge of Newton's grand law;--but all the marvels of the nebulæ, of solar, lunar, and planetary structure, of the results of spectrum analysis, of the velocity of light, and of the vast dimensions of planetary and stellar spaces, would be as completely known to us as they now are, and would form a science of astronomy hardly inferior in dignity, grandeur, and intense interest, to that which we now possess.

    Mr. Murphy guards us against supposing that the series of sciences he has sketched out includes all that is capable of being known by man. He professes to have kept himself in this work to what may be called positive science, but he believes equally in metaphysics and in theology, and proposes to treat of their relation to positive science in a separate work, which from the author's great originality and thoughtfulness will no doubt be well worthy of perusal.

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