When Cuvier spoke of the “combination of organs in such order that they may be in consistence with the part which the animal has to play in Nature,” his opponent, Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, rejoined, “I know nothing of animals which have to play a part in Nature.” The discussion was a notable one in its day. From that time to this, the reaction of morphology against “final causes” has not rarely gone to the extent of denying the need and the propriety of assuming ends in the study of animal and vegetable organizations. Especially in our day, when it became apparent that the actual use of an organ might not be the fundamental reason of its existence— that one and the same organ, morphologically considered, was modified in different cases to the most diverse uses, while intrinsically different organs subserved identical functions, and consequently that use was a fallacious and homology the surer guide to correct classification—it was not surprising that teleological ideas nearly disappeared from natural history. Probably it is still generally thought that the school of Cuvier and that of St.-Hilaire have neither common ground nor capability of reconcilement.
In a review of Darwin’s volume on the “Fertilization of Orchids” * (too technical and too detailed for reproduction here), and later in a brief sketch of the character of his scientific work (art. IX, p. 234), we expressed our sense of the great gain to science from his having brought back teleology to natural history. In Darwinism, usefulness and purpose come to the front again as working principles of the first order; upon them, indeed, the whole system rests.
To most, this restoration of teleology has come from an unexpected quarter, and in an unwonted guise; so that the first look of it is by no means reassuring to the minds of those who cherish theistic views of Nature. Adaptations irresistibly suggesting purpose had their supreme application in natural theology. Being manifold, particular, and exquisite, and evidently inwrought into the whole system of the organic world, they were held to furnish irrefragable as well as independent proof of a personal designer, a divine originator of Nature. By a confusion of thought, now obvious, but at the time not unnatural, they were also regarded as proof of a direct execution of the contriver’s purpose in the creation of each organ and organism, as it were, in the manner man contrives and puts together a machine—an idea which has been set up as the orthodox doctrine, but which to St. Augustine and other learned Christian fathers would have savored of heterodoxy.