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On the Origin of Species (1860), Louis Agassiz

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The foremost critic of Darwinism among American scientists was Louis Agassiz, a prestigious Harvard professor who steadfastly insisted that  species were created by God and were unchanging—"immutable." In 1860 he issued his challenge to Darwin's new thesis.


It seems to me that there is much confusion of ideas in the general statement of the variability of species so often repeated lately. If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary, and if individuals alone exist, how can the differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species? The fact seems to me to be that while species are based upon definite relations among individuals which differ in various ways among themselves, each individual, as a distinct being, has a definite course to run from the time of its first formation to the end of its existence, during which it never loses its identity nor changes its individuality, nor its relations to other individuals belonging to the same species, but preserves the categories of relationship which constitute specific or generic or family affinity, or any other kind or degree of affinity. To prove that species vary it should be proved that individuals born from common ancestors change the different categories of relationship which they bore primitively to one another. While all that has thus far been shown is, that there exists a considerable difference among individuals of one and the same species. This may be new to those who have looked upon every individual picked up at random, as affording the means of describing satisfactorily any species; but no naturalist who has studied carefully any of the species now best known, can have failed to perceive that it requires extensive series of specimens accurately to describe a species, and that the more complete such series are, the more precise appear the limits which separate species. Surely the aim of science cannot be to furnish amateur zoologists or collectors, a recipe for a ready identification of any chance specimen that may fall into their hands. And the difficulties with which we may meet in attempting to characterize species do not afford the first indication that species do not exist at all, as long as most of them can be distinguished, as such, almost at first sight. I foresee that some convert to the transmutation creed will at once object that the facility with which species may be distinguished is no evidence that they were not derived from other species. It may be so. But as long as no fact is adduced to show that any one well-known species among the many thousands that are buried in the whole series of fossiliferous rocks, is actually the parent of any one of the species now living, such arguments can have no weight; and thus far the supporters of the transmutation theory have failed to produce any such facts. Instead of facts we are treated with marvelous bear, cuckoo, and other stories. . . .

Had Mr. Darwin or his followers furnished a single fact to show that individuals change, in the course of time, in such a manner as to produce at last species different from those known before, the state of the case might be different. But it stands recorded now as before, that the animals known to the ancients are still in existence, exhibiting to this day the characters they exhibited of old. The geological record, even with all its imperfections, exaggerated to distortion, tells now, what it has told from the beginning, that the supposed intermediate forms between the species of different geological periods are imaginary beings, called up merely in support of a fanciful theory. The origin of all the diversity among living beings remains a mystery as totally unexplained as if the book of Mr. Darwin had never been written, for no theory unsupported by fact, however plausible it may appear, can be admitted in science.

It seems generally admitted that the work of Darwin is particularly remarkable for the fairness with which he presents the facts adverse to his views. It may be so; but I confess that it has made a very different impression upon me. I have been more forcibly struck by his inability to perceive when the facts are fatal to his argument, than by anything else in the whole work. His chapter on the Geological Record, in particular, appears to me, from beginning to end, as a series of illogical deductions and misrepresentations of the modern results of Geology and Paleontology. I do not intend to argue here, one by one, the questions he has discussed. Such arguments end too often in special pleading, and any one familiar with the subject may readily perceive where the truth lies by confronting his assertions with the geological record itself.

But since the question at issue is chiefly to be settled by paleontological evidence, and I have devoted the greater part of my life to the special study of the fossils, I wish to record my protest against his mode of treating this part of the subject. Not only does Darwin never perceive when the facts are fatal to his views, but when he has succeeded by an ingenious circumlocution in overleaping the facts, he would have us believe that he has lessened their importance or changed their meaning. He would thus have us believe that there have been periods during which all that had taken place during other periods was destroyed, and this solely to explain the absence of intermediate forms between the fossils found in successive deposits, for the origin of which he looks to those missing links; whilst every recent progress in Geology shows more and more fully how gradual and successive all the deposits have been which form the crust of our earth. . . .

He would have us believe that animals disappear gradually; when they are as common in the uppermost bed in which they occur as in the lowest, or any intermediate bed. Species appear suddenly and disappear suddenly in successive strata. That is the fact proclaimed by Paleontology; they neither increase successively in number, nor do they gradually dwindle down; none of the fossil remains thus far observed show signs of a gradual improvement or of a slow decay. . . He would also have us believe that the most perfect organs of the body of animals are the product of gradual improvement, when eyes as perfect as those of the Trilobites are preserved with the remains of these oldest animals. He would have us believe that it required millions of years to effect any one of these changes; when far more extraordinary transformations are daily going on, under our eyes, in the shortest periods of time, during the growth of animals. He would have us believe that animals acquire their instincts gradually; when even those that never see their parents, perform at birth the same acts, in the same way, as their progenitors.. . . And all these, and many other calls upon our credulity, are coolly made in the face of an amount of precise information, readily accessible, which would overwhelm any one who does not place his opinions above the records of an age eminently characterized for its industry, and during which, that information was laboriously accumulated by crowds of faithful laborers.

It would be superfluous to discuss in detail the arguments by which Mr. Darwin attempts to explain the diversity among animals. Suffice it to say, that he has lost sight of the most striking of the features, and the one which pervades the whole, namely, that there runs throughout Nature unmistakable evidence of thought, corresponding to the mental operations of our own mind, and therefore intelligible to us as thinking beings, and unaccountable on any other basis than that they owe their existence to the working of intelligence; and no theory that overlooks this element can be true to nature.

*   *   *

[Darwin's]1 mistake lies in a similar assumption that the most complicated system of combined thoughts can be the result of accidental causes; for he ought to know, as every physicist will concede, that all the influences to which he would ascribe the origin of species are accidental in their very nature, and he must know, as every naturalist familiar with the modern progress of science does know, that the organized beings which live now, and have lived in former geological periods, constitute an organic whole, intelligibly and methodically combined in all its parts. As a zoologist he must know in particular, that the animal kingdom is built upon four different plans of structure, and that the reproduction and growth of animals takes place according to four different modes of development, and that unless it is shown that these four plans of structure, and these four modes of development, are transmutable one into the other, no transmutation theory can account for the origin of species. The fallacy of Mr. Darwin's theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection, may be traced in the first few pages of his book, where he overlooks the difference between the voluntary and deliberate acts of selection applied methodically by man to the breeding of domesticated animals and the growing of cultivated plants, and the chance influences which may effect animals and plants in the state of nature. To call these influences "natural selection," is a misnomer which will not alter the conditions under which they may produce the desired results. Selection implies design; the powers to which Darwin refers the order of species, can design nothing. Selection is no doubt the essential principle on which the raising of breeds is founded, and the subject of breeds is presented in its true light by Mr. Darwin; but this process of raising breeds by the selection of favorable subjects, is in no way similar to that which regulates specific differences. Nothing is more remote from the truth than the attempted parallelism between the breeds of domesticated animals and the species of wild ones. . . .

All attempts to explain the origin of species may be brought under two categories: viz., 1st, some naturalists admitting that all organized beings are created, that is to say, endowed from the beginning of their existence with all their characteristics, while 2d, others assume that they arise spontaneously. This classification of the different theories of the origin of species, may appear objectionable to the supporters of the transmutation theory; but I can perceive no essential difference between their views and the old idea that animals may have arisen spontaneously. . . .

Until the facts of Nature are shown to have been mistaken by those who have collected them, and that they have a different meaning from that now generally assigned to them, I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.


1. Editorial insertion. (Return to text)

[From "Professor Agassiz on the Origin of Species," American Journal of Science 30 (June 1860):143-47, 149-50.]

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