RECORD: S155.2 Wallace, A. R. 1869. The origin of species controversy, II. Nature 1: 132-133.

REVISION HISTORY: Body text helpfully provided by Charles H. Smith from his Alfred Russel Wallace Page

[page] 132

The Origin of Species Controversy

Habit and Intelligence, in their Connexion with the Laws of Matter and Force. A series of Scientific Essays. By Joseph John Murphy. (Macmillan and Co., 1869.)


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

[page] 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.

This document has been accessed 2476 times

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (

File last updated 26 September, 2012