(1881) Professor Huxley on Evolution (1881)

Professor Huxley on Evolution

Science (January 22, 1881)
[750] At a recent meeting [1880] of the Zoological Society, among the papers read was one by Professor [Thomas H.] Huxley on the application of the laws of evolution to the arrangement of the vertebrata, and more particularly mammalia. The illustrations adduced were those of the history of the horse, principally, so far as is known, from the work of Professor Marsh on the Eocene of North America. The announcement of the paper had drawn together an unusually large attendance, as it was expected that the marshalling of the facts in Professor Huxley's hands would have great interest in practically substantiating the theory of evolution, which, though foreshadowed by others, took practical shape in the work of Darwin twenty-one years ago.

Professor Huxley began by saying:–There is evidence, the value of which has not been disputed, and which, in my judgment, amounts to proof, that between the commencement of the tertiary epoch and the present time the group of the equidae has been represented by a series of forms, of which the oldest is that which departs least from the general type of structure of the higher mammalia, while the latest is that which most widely differs from that type.

In fact, the earliest known equine animal possesses four complete sub-equal digits on the fore foot, three on the hind foot; the ulna is complete and distinct from the radius; the fibula is complete and distinct from the tibia; there are 44 teeth, the full number of canines being present, and the cheek-teeth having short crowns with simple patterns and early-formed roots. The latest, on the other hand, has only one complete digit on each foot, the rest being represented by rudiments; the ulna is reduced and partially anchylosed with the radius: the fibula is still more reduced and partially anchylosed with the tibia: the canine teeth are partially or completely suppressed in the females; the first cheek-teeth usually remain undeveloped, and when they appear are very small; the other cheek-teeth have long crowns, with highly complicated patterns and late-formed roots. The equidae of the intermediate ages exhibit intermediate characters. With respect to the interpretations of these facts two hypotheses and only two, appear to be imaginable. The one assumes that these successive forms of equine animals have come into existence independently of one another. The other assumes that they are the result of the gradual modification undergone by the successive members of a continuous line of ancestry. As I am not aware that any zoologist maintains the first hypothesis, I do not feel called upon to discuss it. The adoption of the second, however, is equivalent to the acceptance of the doctrine of evolution so far as horses are concerned, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I shall suppose that it is accepted. Since the commencement of the eocene epoch, the animals which constitute the family of the equidae have undergone processes of modification of three kinds:–I, there has been an excess of development of one part of the oldest form over another; 2, certain parts have undergone complete or partial suppression; 3, parts originally distinct have coalesced. Employing the term ''law" simply in the sense of a general statement of facts ascertained by observation, I shall speak of these three processes by which the eohippus form has passed into equus as the expression of a three-fold law of evolution. It is of profound interest to remark that this law or generalized statement of the nature of the ancestral evolution of the horse, is precisely the same as that which formulates the process of individual development in animals generally, from the period at which the broad characters of the group to which an animal belongs are discernible onwards. After a mammalian embryo, for example, has taken on its general mammalian characters, its further progress towards its special form is affected by the excessive growth of one part or relation to another, by the arrest or suppression of parts already formed, and by the coalescence of parts primarily distinct. This coincidence of the laws of ancestral and individual development creates a strong confidence in the general validity of the former, and a belief that we may safely employ it in reasoning deductively from the known to the unknown....


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University