Saturday, 7 March 2015


(From the Spectator, September 15.)   

These essays by the Oxford Savilian Professor exhibit profound and extensive scientific knowledge, a keen and sensible logic of the highest kind, a most extensive range of subjects, and a rare liberality of mind. If the conclusions sometimes seem to stop short (for they are complete as far as they go), and the purpose or drift is not always to be distinctly seized, the defect must be ascribed to the infinite nature of most of the topics, on which distinct evidence or conclusions cannot be attained.

In a general way, Professor Powell's subject may he described as matter, inorganic as well as organic, though organised matter or animal life occupies the largest portion of the disquisition. By life must be clearly understood physical life ; including intelligence, or whatever that faculty may be which animals possess in common with man, but excluding moral qualities. The first essay is founded on two papers published some years since. Though entitled " on the Spirit of the Inductive Philosophy," yet by touching the broader subjects with which induction may become occupied, and discussing the unity of science, as well as the uniformity of Nature in her proceedings, it enters upon a large field of questions in science and natural theology, landing in the conclusion of proofs of design by the existence of order rather than utility.

The whole tenour of the preceding argument is directed to show that the inference and assertion of a Supreme Moral Cause, distinct from and above nature, results immediately from the recognition of the eternal and universal maintenance of the order of physical causes, which are its essential external manifestations.

Of the mode of action or operation by which the Supreme Moral Cause influences the universal order of physical causes, we confess our utter ignorance. But the evidence of such operation, where nature exists, can never be lost or interrupted. And in proportion as our more extended researches exhibit these indications more fully and more gloriously displayed, we cannot but believe that our contemplations are more nearly and truly approaching their source.

The second essay is on the Plurality of Worlds ; and was suggested by the revived interest in the subject produced by the publications of Brewster, Whewell, and others. It may not be found so entertaining as some treatises, simply because it is more philosophical. The Savilian professor does not give the rein to his imagination by peopling other worlds, or indulge in theological declamations as to the manner in which the moral dignify of man may be affected, or the impossibility of removing the difficulties connected with the Fall and Redemption should they be peopled. He confines himself to stating the true nature of the case—which is not so much the existence of life in other planets, as of life analogous to man's ; and to explaining what we really know, which is necessary to the determination of the question, as well as how much we have yet to learn, with very small probability of learning it. This caution necessarily gives an uncertainty to the conclusions, which militate against popularity; for the mass like something positive—it is or it is not. The essayist, however, travels over a wide field of knowledge and speculation, connected with the universe and space; discussing, among other things, the nebular hypothesis, to the probability of which he leans.

The third essay is on "The Philosophy of Creation :" it embraces the question whether the progression of the universe, so far as we are able to trace it, is the result of successive acts of creation, as the generality of reasoners upon the subject maintain, or whether this progression is the result of innate properties of matter, acted upon by external conditions as is conceived by a few men of speculative minds. In discussing this question, the author takes a rapid but comprehensive view of the evidence, if evidence it can be called where all is inference at best, as furnished by the fossil remains of geology and some of the more remarkable facts of physiology ; he brings forward some " general considerations, arising out of geological and physiological arguments ; in a closing section he quietly and gravely exposes the unphilosophical proceedings of those writers who mingle theology with philosophy, and assail the views of their antagonists on religious grounds, when religion has really nothing to do with the matter, but only their interpretations of it. The essay, perhaps, more remarkably than either of the others exhibits the extensive range, the wide and various learning, and the acute reasoning of the author, as well as the clearness and closeness of his philosophic style. The essay wants the higher eloquence which some of the topics legitimately admit ; and from the impossibility of obtaining proof, and the cautious, impartial, balancing nature of the author, it may seem unsatisfactory in its conclusions. The preponderance of the arguments are in favour of progression by laws originally impressed, not by successive creations ; and Mr. Powell defends the Vestiges of Creation from the charges of Atheism, and what not, that have been brought against that book. The real issue, stripped of all extraneous matter, is thus neatly stated.

It may, perhaps, be argued, If organic life had a beginning, there must have been some stage at which there took place a first evolution of animal life out of inorganic elements ; and the question, more precisely stated, then becomes, at various, repeated, subsequent intervals, corresponding to certain epochs in the history of the globe, in order to give rise to new species, did similar fresh evolutions take place out of inorganic matter ? or was it the case that, when certain primitive stocks had been thus constituted at first, they were also subjected to certain laws of modification of form, to come into operation under the particular combinations of external conditions which were to mark future epochs, and that so new species were to be evolved out of the old ? The choice between two such hypothetical ideas is a perfectly legitimate subject of conjectural discussion and difference of opinion, but it is inconsistent with all inductive principles not to admit that one or the other must be supposed. But if the idea of a formation of organized beings out of their inorganic elements were to be preferred, still on any such hypothesis the process is imagined to be carried on through such a series of steps of gradual evolution as to differ rather in name than in essential nature from the idea of development out of pre-existing organic forms.

The question to some extent turns upon the possibility of what is called a variety in the breed of animals becoming permanent as a sub-species, and finally as a species. In fact, is transmutation possible ? In Professor Powell's opinion, the inference is rather in favour of the possibility, as in the case of some domestic animals ; but the question is difficult of proof, from the great length of time and change of external conditions requisite to establish the transmutation. The theological view denounces this possibility in any organic thing, and insists more especially upon the unity of race in man. The Professor inclines to the opposite opinion.

" Much discussion, as is well known, has arisen on the question whether the different races of men are varieties of one species, or distinct species ; and it seems to be at present the prevailing opinion that they are varieties merely. But the question how, by what steps or processes, did such large and fundamental differences arise, entails more important consequences than many in their zeal to maintain a single origin seem to perceive. It is clear that these differences are fully as great as those which in many other cases are allowed to constitute distinct species.

" If in the case of man they have occurred a transitional varieties, how comes it that they have become so inevitably permanent? And if those changes have all occurred within the lapse of a few thousand years of the received chronology, it cannot with any reason be denied that similar changes might occur among inferior animals, and become just as permanent. And if so, changes to an indefinitely greater extent might occur in indefinite lapse of time. If these changes take place by the gradual operation of natural causes, it would be preposterous to deny the possibility of equal or greater changes by equally natural causes in other species in equal or greater periods of time. The advocates of the fixity of species would argue that the single spot on a butterfly's wing, which constitutes a species, never has changed, and never can change, without a miracle ; and yet the vast differences between an European and a Negro or Australian are mere modifications of one parent stock by natural causes in the lapse of few thousand years ! 

" The peculiar characters of the Negro race are recorded as prominently marked as at present, in the ancient Egyptian paintings, which may go back three thousand years or more. Here, then, is a variety which has been permanent for at least that long period ; a period, too, which has been expressly relied on by many to prove the permanence of species by appeal to these very monuments. And then we have to ask, how long must it have taken, at this rate of imperceptible progress, to have been developed out of the original stock?

"Another instance has been much dwelt upon—the so called 'varieties' of the dog, presumed to be derived from a common stock ; but how long since, is undetermined. Yet in these varieties (in which even the form of the cranium greatly differs) it would be difficult to deny that the distinctive characters are permanent, at least under the continuance of the same external conditions ; and that each race, when preserved isolated under such conditions, would remain permanently distinct."

The late appearance of man upon the globe is another doctrine of most people. To the certainty of this Mr. Powell demurs, as well as to its religious necessity. The passage will furnish an example of his own views upon the theology of the whole question.

To the same kind of misapprehension may be traced ; but even with less appearance of reason—the zeal with which the belief in man's recent origin on the earth has been maintained, and the suspicion and animosity excited by even a hint or conjecture at any possible higher antiquity of the race. The prevalent belief in the very recent origin of man, geologically speaking, depends wholly on negative evidence. And there seems no reason, from any good analogy, why human remains might not be found in deposits corresponding to periods immensely more remote than commonly supposed, when the earth was in all respects equally wall suited for human habitation. And if such remains were to occur, it is equally accordant with all analogy to expect that they might be those of an extinct and lower species. The only real distinction in the history of creation which marks a supposed "human epoch" is not the first introduction of the animal man in however high a state of organisation, but the endowment of that animal with the gift of a moral and spiritual nature. It is a perfectly conceivable idea that a lower species of the human race might have existed destitute of this endowment.

" The belief in the recent date of man is usually adopted from the received Hebrew chronology, itself (as is well known) open to critical difficulties. But, indeed, to those who imagine the Old Testament authoritative in matters of philosophy or chronology, there is no limit to inferences of this kind. There are some, even, who believe that the "permanence of species" is a Scriptural doctrine, because it is said that plants "after their kind" "have their seed in themselves !"

" But the idea of a physical process of origination of organic life has enacted more peculiar opposition, on the ground that it would include man and his descent in the general category; and represent the human race as at some remote period gradually developed out of an inferior species, which, it is alleged, savours of materialism, and lowers the moral dignity of man. Now, agreeably to what was advanced in a former essay, it must, I conceive, appear, that in proportion as man's moral superiority is held to consist in attributes not of material or corporeal kind or origin, it can signify little how his physical nature may have originated. The same moral superiority may equally belong to him whether originally evolved out of any form of earlier organic life or out of a clod of earth. All truths relative to man's moral or spiritual nature, in proportion as that nature is held to be of an immaterial kind, must be allowed to be entirely independent of any theories of the origin of his animal existence.   

"The difficulties felt on this subject by some seem mainly to arise out of the belief with respect to man's primeval state of innocence. But the Scripture account, it will surely be admitted, altogether refers, not to man's physical constitution, but to the peculiar spiritual nature given to him ; expressly described as breathed into him by a special act, and which is generally conceived by divines to have constituted "the image of God," in which he was made, in which he stood, and from which he fell ; all which can surely in no way be affected by what may have been his animal nature or origin prior to that spiritual creation ; as it refers to that part of his nature which is spoken of expressly as distinct from and independent of his physical constitution and material organization."

* Essays on the Spirit of the Inductive Philosophy, the Unity of Worlds, and the Philosophy of Creation. By the Rev. Baden Powell, M.A., F.R S., &c, &c. Savilian Professor of Geometry in the University of Oxford. Published by Longman and Co.

 The Sydney Morning Herald 28 December 1855,

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