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Letters to "Nature" Concerning Mr. Henry
Howorth and Darwinism (S197 & S198: 1871)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A pair of letters to the Editor in which Wallace criticizes Howorth's misappreciation of Darwinian tenets. These appeared on pages 181 and 221, respectively, of Volume 4 of Nature. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S197198.htm

A New View of Darwinism (S197)

    The very ingenious manner in which Mr. Howorth first misrepresents Darwinism, and then uses an argument which is not even founded on his own misrepresentation, but on a quite distinct fallacy, may puzzle some of your readers. I therefore ask space for a few lines of criticism.

    Mr. Howorth first "takes it" that the struggle for existence "means, in five words, the persistence of the stronger." This is a pure misrepresentation. Darwin says nothing of the kind. "Strength" is only one out of the many and varied powers and faculties that lead to success in the battle for life. Minute size, obscure colours, swiftness, armour, cunning, prolificness, nauseousness, or bad odour, have any one of them as much right to be put forward as the cause of "persistence." The error is so gross that it seems wonderful that any reader of Darwin could have made it, or, having made it, could put it forward deliberately as a fair foundation for a criticism. He says, moreover, that the theory of Natural Selection "has been expressively epitomised" as "the persistence of the stronger," "the survival of the stronger." By whom? I should like to know. I never saw the terms so applied in print by any Darwinian. The most curious and even ludicrous thing, however, is that, having thus laid down his premisses, Mr. Howorth makes no more use of them, but runs off to something quite different, namely, that fatness is prejudicial to fertility. "Fat hens won't lay," "overgrown melons have few seeds," "overfed men have small families,"--these are the facts by which he seeks to prove that the strongest will not survive and leave offspring! But what does nature tell us? That the strongest and most vigorous plants do produce the most flowers and seed, not the weak and sickly. That the strongest and most healthy and best fed wild animals do propagate more rapidly than the starved and sickly. That the strong and thoroughly well-fed backwoodsmen of America increase more rapidly than any half-starved race of Indians upon earth. No fact, therefore, has been adduced to show that even "the persistence of the stronger" is not true; although, if this had been done, it would not touch Natural Selection, which is the "survival of the fittest."

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Mr. Howorth on Darwinism (S198)

    Mr. Howorth sneers at "Survival of the Fittest" as an "identical expression" which "might have suggested itself even to a child," an axiom, in short, of which the truth cannot be disputed. This is satisfactory; but it is strange that he did not apply this axiom to his own theory, and see how they agreed together. He would probably admit, as another discovery "that might have suggested itself to a child," that as a rule the entire offspring of each animal or plant, except the one or two necessary to replace the parents, die before they produce offspring (this has never been denied since I put it prominently forward thirteen years ago). He would further admit, I have little doubt, that a great majority of animals and plants produce during their lifetime from ten to a thousand offspring, so that fifty will be a low average, but the exact number is of no importance. Forty-nine, therefore, of every fifty individuals born, die before reaching maturity; the fiftieth survives because it is "best fitted to survive," because it has conquered in the struggle for existence. Will Mr. Howorth also admit as self-evident, that this one survivor in fifty is healthy, vigorous, and well nourished, not sickly, weak, or half-starved? If he maintains that it is the latter, I shall ask him to prove it; if the former, then what becomes of his theory as an argument against Natural Selection? For, admitting as a possibility that his theory of the greater fecundity of the weak, &c., is true, how are these weak or sickly parents to provide for and bring up to maturity their offspring, and how are the offspring themselves (undoubtedly less vigorous than the offspring of strong and healthy parents) to maintain themselves? The one in fifty who survives to leave descendants will inevitably be the strong and healthy offspring of strong and healthy parents; the forty-nine who die will comprise the weaker and less healthy offspring of weak and sickly parents; so that, as Mr. Darwin and myself have long ago shown, the number of offspring produced is, in most cases, the least important of the factors in determining the continuance of a species.

    I have thought it better to go thus into the heart of the question, rather than defend myself from the charge of dogmatism, for stating as a fact that the most vigorous plants and animals are the most fertile. I repeat the statement, however, referring to Mr. Darwin's observations, and especially to those in which he demonstrates by experiment that cross-breeding produces the most vigorous and luxuriant plants, which again produce by far the largest quantity of seed. The facts that wild animals and plants are, as a rule, healthy and vigorous, that the head of the herd is the strongest bull, and that weak and sickly carnivora are rarely found because they must inevitably starve to death, sufficiently refute Mr. Howorth's theory as against Natural Selection. If he can point to any district upon the earth where the animals and plants are in a state of chronic debility, disease, and starvation, I may admit that there his theory holds good; but such a district has not yet come under my observation, or, as far as I am aware of, been recorded by any traveller.

    I still maintain (Prof. Jowett's authority notwithstanding) that the phrase "Persistence of the Stronger" does not truly represent "Natural Selection" or the "struggle for existence;" and, though it may often be true, is not the whole truth. The arguments of Mr. Howorth from the history of savages will, I think, not have much weight, if we may take as an example his putting together as cause and effect the extinction of the Hottentots and their now obtaining enough to eat.

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