On The Genesis Of Species by St. George Jackson Mivart (1871)

Source: Wiki
Source: Wiki

“St. George Jackson Mivart PhD M.D. FRS (30 November 1827 – 1 April 1900) was an English biologist. He is famous for starting as an ardent believer in natural selection who later became one of its fiercest critics. Mivart attempted to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and finished by being condemned by both parties”(Wikipedia)

On The Genesis Of Species (Gutenberg link) is a fairly short work that criticizes the sufficiency of Darwinian “Natural Selection” to fully account for life. Mivart argued not for its rejection but for its “subordination” to a larger theory that sounds like some sort of theistic-evolutionary-punctuated-equilibrium. While he did not use many of the terms employed by many modern camps, he anticipated many of the arguments and frameworks still used today.

Chapter 1. Introductory

The first chapter defines “Natural Selection” as described by Darwin and Wallace. Mivart offers supportive remarks about its “remarkable” ability to explain limited variability among species [“microevolution”?] as well as critical remarks about the “peculiar difficulties” of its attempts to explain more general variety [“macroevolution”?].

“As error is almost always partial truth,” Mivart suggests that evolution and Christianity are not necessarily incompatible, criticizing those on both sides who “erect a doll utterly incapable of self-defence and then, with a flourish of trumpets and many vigorous strokes, overthrow the helpless dummy they had previously raised.” [i.e. straw man]

The succeeding chapters iterate through Mivart’s objections to the explanatory power of Natural Selection, touching on concepts such as irreducible complexity, convergent evolution, epigenetics, transitional fossils, homology, morality, and pangenesis.

Chapter 2. The Incompetency of “Natural Selection” To Account For The Incipient Stages of Useful Structures. [i.e. irreducible complexity]

“Natural Selection,” simply and by itself, is potent to explain the maintenance or the further extension and development of favourable variations, which are at once sufficiently considerable to be useful from the first to the individual possessing them. But Natural Selection utterly fails to account for the conservation and development of the minute and rudimentary beginnings, the slight and infinitesimal commencements of structures, however useful those structures may afterwards become.

“Some of the cases which have been brought forward” as examples of structures that would be useful in incipient stages “seem less satisfactory when carefully analysed.”

Mivart notes examples of “mimicry” where “some insects which imitate leaves extend the imitation even to the very injuries” of insect attacks or fungi, questioning “how the first faint beginnings” of such an imitation could develop.

Sea-urchins (Echinus) present us also with structures the origin of which it seems impossible to explain by the action of Natural Selection only… not even the sudden development of the snapping action could have been beneficial without the freely moveable stalk, nor could the latter have been efficient without the snapping jaws, yet no minute merely indefinite variations could simultaneously evolve these complex co-ordinations of structure.

“It may be objected, perhaps, that these difficulties are difficulties of ignorance [i.e. God of the gaps]… but… it is not that we merely fail to see how Natural Selection acted, but that there is a positive incompatibility between the cause assigned and the results… utterly insufficient to explain the incipient, infinitesimal beginnings of structures which are of utility only when they are considerably developed.”

Let us consider the mammary gland, or breast. Is it conceivable that the young of any animal was ever saved from destruction by accidentally sucking a drop of scarcely nutritious fluid from an accidentally hypertrophied cutaneous gland of its mother?

Mivart discusses “the mode of formation of both the eye and the ear of the highest animals.” The more “parts that co-operate,” the “more useless be any variation whatever unless it is accompanied by corresponding variations in the co-operating parts,” thus “the less will be the probability of their all occurring at once.”

Mivart considers the ear’s refined ability to perceive the beautiful tones of Beethoven and Mozart unexplainable by Natural Selection, since “it it can hardly be contended that the preservation of any race of men in the struggle for life ever depended on such an extreme delicacy and refinement of the internal ear.”

Chapter 3. The Co-Existence of Closely Similar Structures of Diverse Origin. [i.e. parallel/convergent evolution]

In this chapter Mivart discusses “striking likenesses between different animals, not due to inheritance.”

Mivart contends for the exceeding improbability of “exactly similar structures to have ever been independently developed,” since “the number of possible variations is indefinitely great, and it is therefore an indefinitely great” probability against “a similar series of variations occurring and being similarly preserved in any two independent instances.”

While this difficulty applies to “pure Darwinism” and its “indirect modifications,” “other theories” “admit the direct action of conditions upon animals and plants  – in ways not yet fully understood.” “A peculiar but limited power of response” would explain similar variations taking place “not by merely haphazard, indefinite variations in all directions, but by the concurrence of some other and internal natural law or laws co-operating with external influences.” (Mivart returns to this “other” theory to answer every difficulty he raises, eventually fleshing his speculations out in more detail.)

Mivart lists many examples of what I believe is now called “convergent evolution,” such as the “resemblance between the anterior molars of the placental dog with those of the marsupial thylacine,” the “saltatory insectivores of Africa (Macroscelides)” which “not only resemble the kangaroo family (Macropodidæ) in their jumping habits and long hind legs” but also in their teeth, and distinct yet “homogenous” classes of birds alleged to have a “double reptilian origin.”

The difficulty does not tell against the theory of evolution, but only against the specially Darwinian form of it.

Mivart discusses evidence that “in the fish and the cephalopod not only the eye, but at one and the same time the ear also similarly evolved, yet with complete independence… Cuttle-fishes… formed upon a type of structure utterly remote from that on which the animals of the higher division provided with a spinal column are constructed,” there being “no transitional form” yet discovered. “Nevertheless, in the two-gilled Cephalopods” we find in their craniums the same two complex auditory membranous sacs we find in the “higher classes.”

Here, then, we have a wonderful coincidence indeed; two highly complex auditory organs, marvellously similar in structure, but which must nevertheless have been developed in entire and complete independence one of the other! It would be difficult to calculate the odds against the independent occurrence and conservation of two such complex series of merely accidental and minute haphazard variations.

Such being the case with regard to the organ of hearing, we have another yet stronger argument with regard to the organ of sight, as has been well pointed out by Mr. J. J. Murphy. He calls attention to the fact that the eye must have been perfected in at least ‘three distinct lines of descent… In the cuttle-fishes we find an eye even more completely constructed on the vertebrate type than is the ear. Sclerotic, retina, choroid, vitreous humour, lens, aqueous humour, all are present…

Moreover, we have here again the same imperfection of the four-gilled cephalopod, as compared with the two-gilled, and therefore (if the latter proceeded from the former) a similar indication of a certain comparative rapidity of development. Finally, and this is perhaps one of the most curious circumstances, the process of formation appears to have been, at least in some respects, the same in the eyes of these molluscous animals as in the eyes of vertebrates. For in these latter the cornea is at first perforated, while different degrees of perforation of the same part are presented by different adult cuttle-fishes—large in the calamaries, smaller in the octopods, and reduced to a minute foramen in the true cuttle-fish sepia.

Mivart noted the potential objection that “the conditions requisite for effecting vision are so rigid” that “similar results” “must be arrived at.” But he argued by examples that “Nature herself has demonstrated that there is no such necessity…”

So great, however, is the number of similar, but apparently independent, structures, that we suffer from a perfect embarras de richesses. Thus, for example, we have the convoluted windpipe of the sloth, reminding us of the condition of the windpipe in birds; and in another mammal, allied to the sloth, namely the great ant-eater (Myrmecophaga), we have again an ornithic character in its horny gizzard-like stomach. In man and the highest apes the cæcum has a vermiform appendix, as it has also in the wombat!

Mivart’s comments on one attempted explanation:

We have here, then, a structure hypothetically explained by an uncertain property induced by a cause the presence of which is only conjectural.

Mivart seemed very struck by a report that “twenty-nine kinds of American trees all differ from their nearest European allies in a similar manner, leaves less toothed, buds and seeds smaller, fewer branchlets,” etc.

Mivart was also struck by comparisons to the inorganic world.

As Mr. G. H. Lewes well observes, “We do not suppose the carbonates and phosphates found in various parts of the globe—we do not suppose that the families of alkaloids and salts have any nearer kinship than that which consists in the similarity of their elements, and the conditions of their combination. Hence, in organisms, as in salts, morphological identity may be due to a community of causal connexion, rather than community of descent.

This organic comparison would form a key piece of Mivart’s alternative theory.

Chapter 4. Minute And Gradual Modifications

Mivart begins to develop his theory “in favour of the view that new species have from time to time manifested themselves with suddenness, and by modifications appearing at once… the species remaining stable in the intervals of such modifications: by stable being meant that their variations only extend for a certain degree in various directions, like oscillations in a stable equilibrium.”

Mivart claims Darwin himself gives examples of such suddenness under human observation or direction:

the young oysters already mentioned [in chapter 2], which were taken from the shores of England and placed in the Mediterranean, and at once altered their mode of growth and formed prominent diverging rays, like those of the proper Mediterranean oyster

…Mr. Darwin tells us, that there has been an occasional development (in five distinct cases) in England of the “japanned” or “black-shouldered peacock” (Pavo nigripennis), a distinct species… he observes, “The case is the most remarkable ever recorded of the abrupt appearance of a new form”

Mivart also refers to “curious jaw appendages” that “often characterize Normandy pigs”

Mr. Darwin observes, “As no wild pigs are known to have analogous appendages, we have at present no reason to suppose that their appearance is due to reversion; and if this be so, we are forced to admit that somewhat complex, though apparently useless structures may be suddenly developed without the aid of selection.”

Mivart runs with this:

There are, then, abundant instances to prove that considerable modifications may suddenly develop themselves, either due to external conditions or to obscure internal causes in the organisms which exhibit them..  it is somewhat startling to meet with Mr. Darwin’s dogmatic assertion that it is “a false belief” that natural species have often originated in the same abrupt manner. The belief may be false, but it is difficult to see how its falsehood can be positively asserted.

Mr.Wallace has replied by “objecting that sudden changes could very rarely be useful.” However, if these changes are not simply random, but, as Mivart supposes, the result of “an innate tendency to deviate at certain times, and under certain conditions” that we simply do not yet understand, “it is no more unlikely that that innate tendency should be an harmonious one, calculated to simultaneously adjust the various parts of the organism to their new relations.”

On a lack of transitional forms in the fossil record:

Professor Huxley… himself says… “We greatly suspect that she” (i.e. Nature) “does make considerable jumps in the way of variation now and then, and that these saltations give rise to some of the gaps which appear to exist in the series of known forms.”

Mivart’s discussions about animals appearing “fully developed” in the fossil record, and the expectation that ancestral forms should have been preserved, reminds me of arguments advocated over a hundred years later by Stephen Meyer in Darwin’s Doubt:

…the great group of whales (Cetacea) was fully developed at the deposition of the Eocene strata… we may pretty safely conclude that these animals were absent as late as the latest secondary rocks, so that their development could not have been so very slow… they are animals, the remains of which are singularly likely to have been preserved had they existed, in the same way that the remains were preserved of the Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri, which appear to have represented the Cetacea during the secondary geological period.

He also reminds me of modern creationist claims about the fossil record:

all naturalists now admit that certain animals, which were at one time supposed to be connecting links between groups, belong altogether to one group, and not at all to the other…

this early degree of excessive specialization tells to a certain, however small, extent against a progress through excessively minute steps… as also does the distinctness of forms formerly supposed to constitute connecting links. For, it must not be forgotten, that if species have manifested themselves generally by gradual and minute modifications, then the absence, not in one but in all cases, of such connecting links, is a phenomenon which remains to be accounted for.

[While Mivart’s “suddenness” sounds closer to “saltationism” than Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” the modern notion of “stasis” is remarkably reminiscent of Mivart’s “species remaining stable in the intervals of such modifications“]

Chapter 5. As To Specific Stability.

Mivart describes his elaborate analogy about limited variability within species:

the organic world consists…. of many facetted spheroids, each of which can repose upon any one facet, but, when too much disturbed, rolls over till it finds repose in stable equilibrium upon another and distinct facet…

A given animal or plant appears to be contained, as it were, within a sphere of variation: one individual lies near one portion of the surface; another individual, of the same species, near another part of the surface; the average animal at the centre…

it seems that a certain normal specific stability in species, accompanied by occasional sudden and considerable modifications, might be expected a priori from what we know of crystalline inorganic forms and from what we may anticipate with regard to the lowest organic ones

Mivart believed there was evidence to warrant such a belief:

The proposition that species have, under ordinary circumstances, a definite limit to their variability, is largely supported by facts brought forward by the zealous industry of Mr. Darwin himself”…

“he distinctly affirms the existence of a marked internal barrier to change in certain cases… [“the goose seems to have a singularly inflexible organization.”] ….And if this is admitted in one case, the principle is conceded, and it immediately becomes probable that such internal barriers exist in all, although enclosing a much larger field for variation in some cases than in others

Chapter 6. Species And Time

Mivart returns to discussing transitional forms in the fossil record, claiming that “not only are minutely transitional forms generally absent, but they are absent in cases where we might certainly a priori have expected them to be present.”

He tries to address a common explanation:

Mr. Darwin attempts to show cause why we should believe a priori that intermediate varieties would exist in lesser numbers than the more extreme forms; but though they would doubtless do so sometimes, it seems too much to assert that they would do so generally, still less universally. Now little less than universal and very marked inferiority in numbers would account for the absence of certain series of minutely intermediate fossil specimens. The mass of palæontological evidence is indeed overwhelmingly against minute and gradual modification. It is true that when once an animal has obtained powers of flight its means of diffusion are indefinitely increased, and we might expect to find many relics of an aërial form and few of its antecedent state—with nascent wings just commencing their suspensory power. Yet had such a slow mode of origin, as Darwinians contend for, operated exclusively in all cases, it is absolutely incredible that birds, bats, and pterodactyles should have left the remains they have, and yet not a single relic be preserved in any one instance of any of these different forms of wing in their incipient and relatively imperfect functional condition!

Discussing theories of fossil evidence on the ancestry or birds: “though it harmonizes well with “Natural Selection,” it is equally consistent with the rapid and sudden development of new specific forms of life.”

Mivart was not impressed by transitional horse fossils: These extinct forms, as Professor Owen, remarks, “differ from each other in a greater degree than do the horse, zebra, and ass.”

Not only, however, do we fail to find any traces of the incipient stages of numerous very peculiar groups of animals, but it is undeniable that there are instances which appeared at first to indicate a gradual transition, yet which instances have been shown by further investigation and discovery not to indicate truly anything of the kind….

Now, however, it is considered probable that the soft back-boned Labyrinthodont Archegosaurus, was an immature or larval form, while Labyrinthodonts with completely developed vertebræ have been found to exist amongst the very earliest forms yet discovered. The same may be said regarding the eyes of the trilobites, some of the oldest forms having been found as well furnished in that respect as the very last of the group which has left its remains accessible to observation.

Recalling Stephen Meyers and Darwin’s Doubt again with references to “completely developed” features in the “very earliest forms,” and also later in the chapter when discussing the amount of time required for the earliest deposits:

when those Upper Silurian strata were formed, organic evolution had already run a great part of its course, perhaps the longest, slowest, and most difficult part of that course… We have in all these animal types nervous systems differentiated on distinctly different patterns, fully formed organs of circulation, digestion, excretion, and generation, complexly constructed eyes and other sense organs…

Mivart makes one interesting concession:

Some instances… are of course explicable on the Darwinian theory, provided a sufficiently enormous amount of past time be allowed

However, Mivart believed “all geological history showing continuity of life, must be limited within some such period of past time as one hundred million years,” and he calculated two billion years as the amount of time required, extrapolating speculatively with “increasing ratio” from periods of “ten thousand years” for the evolution of small differences between species:

it is not easy to believe that less than two thousand million years would be required for the totality of animal development by no other means than minute, fortuitous, occasional, and intermitting variations in all conceivable directions. If this be even an approximation to the truth, then there seem to be strong reasons for believing that geological time is not sufficient for such a process…

[Interestingly, scientists now believe life has been on Earth for well over two billion years.]


Chapter 7. Species And Space.

Claims about the difficulty of similar species developing in geographically distinct locations. Again:

All geographical difficulties of the kind would be evaded if we could concede the probability of the independent origin, in different localities, of the same organic forms in animals high in the scale of nature. Similar causes must produce similar results, and new reasons have been lately adduced for believing, as regards the lowest organisms, that the same forms can arise and manifest themselves independently… though highly improbable, this cannot be said to be impossible… if there is an innate law of any kind helping to determine specific evolution…”

Chapter 8. Homologies

Claims about the difficulties of slow development of homologous (similar, symmetrical, repeated) parts within individuals and across species.

if the annulose animals have been formed by aggregation, we ought to find this process much less perfect in the oldest form. But a complete development, such as already obtains in the lobster, &c., was reached by the Eurypterida and Trilobites of the palæozoic strata…

it is surely inconceivable that indefinite variation with survival of the fittest can ever have built up these serial, bilateral, and vertical homologies, without the action of some special innate power or tendency so to build up, possessed by the organism itself in each case. By “special tendency” is meant one the laws and conditions of which are as yet unknown, but which is analogous to the innate power and tendency possessed by crystals similarly, to build up certain peculiar and very definite forms…

Chapter 9. Evolution and Ethics

Mivart argues for Natural Selection’s insufficiency to explain the development of morals. He critiques Darwin’s speculations as to how the “ill effects of close interbreeding” could reasonably lead to an “abhorrence” of incest over time. Mivart then offers a counterexample:

Care of… the aged and infirm are actions on all hands admitted to be “right;” but it is difficult to see how such actions could ever have been so useful to a community as to have been seized on and developed by the exclusive action of the law of the “survival of the fittest.”

Chapter 10. Pangenesis.

Fairly uninteresting remarks on a now-discarded hypothesis “that each living organism is ultimately made up of an almost infinite number of minute particles, or organic atoms, termed ‘gemmules,’ each of which has the power of reproducing its kind.”

Chapter 11. Specific Genesis

Having hinted throughout the previous chapters at a theory of “innate powers” to explain the diversity of life, Mivart describes this theory more fully in the eleventh chapter. He seemed fixated on the way “minerals become modified suddenly and considerably by the action of incident forces – as. e.g., the production of hexagonal tabular crystals of carbonate of copper by sulphuric acid.”

We have thus a certain antecedent probability that if changes are produced in specific manifestation through incident forces, these changes will be sensible and considerable, not minute and infinitesimal.

Consequently, it is probable that new species have appeared from time to time with comparative suddenness, and that they still continue so to arise if all the conditions necessary for specific evolution now obtain…

[Mivart’s idea of “innate tendencies,” while not necessarily borne out in the way he expected, does remind me of the little I understand of epigenetics, which refers to “variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off.”]

Mivart believed “these ‘jumps’ are considerable in comparison with the minute variations of ‘Natural Selection,’ which he saw as merely refining and improving on the species that appeared by “jumps.”

By some such conception as this, the difficulties here enumerated, which beset the theory of ‘Natural Selection’ pure and simple, are to be got over….

Again, as to the independent origin of closely similar structures, such as the eyes of the Vertebrata and cuttle-fishes, the difficulty is removed if we may adopt the conception of an innate force similarly directed in each case, and assisted by favourable external conditions.

Mivart hints at the source of these capacities:

the conviction forces itself on many minds that the organic world is the expression of an intelligence of some kind… This intelligence, however, is evidently not altogether such as ours, or else has other ends in view than those most obvious to us. For the end is often attained in singularly roundabout ways, or with a prodigality of means which seems out of all proportion with the result…

Mivart claims “this view of evolution harmonizes well with Theistic conceptions,” of which he elaborates more fully in the final chapter.

Chapter 12. Theology and Evolution

Returning to the theme of the opening chapter, Mivart expounds more fully upon the relation of evolution to Christianity and its potential compatibility.

He argues against “some of the objections to the Christian conception of God,” and not without some sharp wit:

It is to be regretted that before writing on this matter Mr. Spencer did not more thoroughly acquaint himself with the ordinary doctrine on the subject.

Mivart touches on “first cause” arguments, relevant to those who question why an uncaused universe is any less unreasonable than an uncaused God:

the difficulty as to a self-existent Creator being in his opinion equal to that of a self-existent universe. To this it may be replied that both are of course equally unimaginable…

But, Mivart argues, while “we have these primary intuitions” that are “perfectly harmonious” with “a self-existent Creator,” “the notion of a self-existent universe… in addition to being unimaginable,” also “contradict our primary intuitions.”

Mivart sees an important distinction between “absolute creation and derivative creation,” quoting Dr. Asa Gray as

Agreeing that plants and animals were produced by Omnipotent fiat, does not exclude the idea of natural order and what we call secondary causes. The record of the fiat—’Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed,’ &c., ‘let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind‘—seems even to imply them,” and leads to the conclusion that the various kinds were produced through natural agencies.

“It is plain that physical science and ‘evolution’ can have nothing whatever to do with absolute or primary creation.” He claims older “theological authorities” in support of this distinction, which “thus harmonize with all that modern science can possibly require,” adding that “it may indeed truly be said with Roger Bacon, ‘The saints never condemned many an opinion which the moderns think ought to be condemned.'”

Again analogizing with “crystalline” structures building on “definite lines” and “directions of development,” Mivart contrasted his theory with the atheist’s undirected, unguided, random process:

It is not collected in haphazard, accidental aggregations, but evolves according to its proper laws and special properties.

Mivart argues further against the idea that theology and evolution are incompatible. Acknowledging that “physical nature” and the “moral and religious worlds” initially appear to have a “discrepancy,” he says,

God is indeed inscrutable and incomprehensible to us from the infinity of His attributes, so that our minds can, as it were, only take in, in a most fragmentary and indistinct manner (as through a glass darkly), dim conceptions of infinitesimal portions of His inconceivable perfection… apparently conflicting views arise from our inability to apprehend Him… The difference and discrepancy, however, which is at first felt, is soon seen to proceed not from the reason but from a want of flexibility in the imagination.

On the origin of man:

This animal body must have had a different source from that of the spiritual soul which informs it…

Scripture seems plainly to indicate this when it says that “God made man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This is a plain and direct statement that man’s body was not created in the primary and absolute sense of the word, but was evolved from pre-existing material (symbolized by the term “dust of the earth”), and was therefore only derivatively created, i.e. by the operation of secondary laws. His soul, on the other hand, was created in quite a different way, not by any pre-existing means, external to God himself, but by the direct action of the Almighty, symbolized by the term “breathing:” the very form adopted by Christ, when conferring the supernatural powers and graces of the Christian dispensation, and a form still daily used in the rites and ceremonies of the Church.

That the first man should have had this double origin agrees with what we now experience. For supposing each human soul to be directly and immediately created, yet each human body is evolved by the ordinary operation of natural physical laws.

In conclusion,

the Author ventures to hope that this treatise may not be deemed useless, but have contributed, however slightly, towards clearing the way for peace and conciliation and for a more ready perception, of the harmony which exists between those deductions from our primary intuitions before alluded to, and the teachings of physical science, as far, that is, as concerns the evolution of organic forms—the genesis of species.

The aim has been to support the doctrine that these species have been evolved by ordinary natural laws (for the most part unknown) controlled by the subordinate action of “Natural Selection,” and at the same time to remind some that there is and can be absolutely nothing in physical science which forbids them to regard those natural laws as acting with the Divine concurrence and in obedience to a creative fiat originally imposed on the primeval Cosmos, “in the beginning,” by its Creator, its Upholder, and its Lord.

2 thoughts on “On The Genesis Of Species by St. George Jackson Mivart (1871)

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