Wherefore, in Galileo’s time, we might have helped to proscribe, or to burn—had he been stubborn enough to warrant cremation—even the great pioneer of inductive research; although, when we had fairly recovered our composure, and bad leisurely excogitated the matter, we might have come to conclude that the new doctrine was better than the old one, after all, at least for those who had nothing to unlearn.
Such being our habitual state of mind, it may well be believed that the perusal of the new book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” left an uncomfortable impression, in spite of its plausible and winning ways. We were not wholly unprepared for it, as many of our contemporaries seem to have been. The scientific reading in which we indulge as a relaxation from severer studies had raised dim forebodings. Investigations about the succession of species in time, and their actual geographical distribution over the earth’s surface, were leading up from all sides and in various ways to the question of their origin. Now and then we encountered a sentence, like Prof. Owen’s “axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things,” which haunted us like an apparition. For, dim as our conception must needs be as to what such oracular and grandiloquent phrases might really mean, we felt confident that they presaged no good to old beliefs. Foreseeing, yet deprecating, the coming time of trouble, we still hoped that, with some repairs and makeshifts, the old views might last out our days. Apres nous le deluge. Still, not to lag behind the rest of the world, we read the book in which the new theory is promulgated. We took it up, like our neighbors, and, as was natural, in a somewhat captious frame of mind.
Well, we found no cause of quarrel with the first chapter. Here the author takes us directly to the barn-yard and the kitchen-garden. Like an honorable rural member of our General Court, who sat silent until, near the close of a long session, a bill requiring all swine at large to wear pokes was introduced, when he claimed the privilege of addressing the house, on the proper ground that he had been “brought up among the pigs, and knew all about them”—so we were brought up among cows and cabbages; and the lowing of cattle, the cackle of hens, and the cooing of pigeons, were sounds native and pleasant to our ears. So “Variation under Domestication” dealt with familiar subjects in a natural way, and gently introduced “Variation under Nature,” which seemed likely enough. Then follows “Struggle for Existence”—a principle which we experimentally know to be true and cogent—bringing the comfortable assurance, that man, even upon Leviathan Hobbes’s theory of society, is no worse than the rest of creation, since all Nature is at war, one species with another, and the nearer kindred the more internecine—bringing in thousandfold confirmation and extension of the Malthusian doctrine that population tends far to outrun means of subsistence