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Meet Samuel Haughton, Darwin’s First Scientific Critic

Neil Thomas
Photo: Samuel Haughton, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first unofficial critic of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was Whitwell Elwin, editor of the journal Quarterly Review, selected by Darwin’s publishing house to vet his manuscript in advance of possible publication. Elwin memorably advised against publication on the grounds that the work was “a wild and foolish piece of imagination” whose author would have been better advised to omit his speculative flights and confine himself to the subject of pigeons. Elwin’s magnificent bathos was in the event disregarded by the press’s trustees who went on to publish regardless. However, Elwin’s negative verdict was subsequently supported in many essentials by the great majority of formal reviewers, as David Hull has documented.1 Yet neither Elwin nor the official reviewers were the first to pass judgement on Darwin’s ideas, for they had all been preceded by an Irish academic: Professor Samuel Haughton.

Awful Force

Haughton has been down on us with awful force. 2

Charles Darwin

In his autobiography Darwin gives a short mention of Haughton,3 a professor of geology at Dublin, who had already heard of the pre-publication airing accorded to the views of both Darwin and Wallace at the fabled meeting of the Linnaean Society organized by Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker in London more than a year before the official publication of the Origin. Darwin reports Haughton’s verdict as having been that “all that was new in there was false, and what was true was old.” This was a painfully honest representation of remarks Haughton really did make to members of the Geological Society of Dublin on February 9, 1859.4 He further developed his comments in an anonymous article written for the 1860 edition of The Natural History Review.5

Taking up Haughton’s point, there is no doubt that many of Darwin’s ideas were old, some ancient. Had Darwin been able to read the ancient writers, writes Rebecca Stott, “he might have recognized in parts of Aristotle’s writings and in corners of Epicurus, Democritus and Empedocles the glimmerings of thoughts and questionings that were remarkably similar to his own.”Haughton showed a greater familiarity with ancient writings than Darwin, but had little respect for philosophical speculations he termed puerile or for their authors, whom he deemed “weavers of pleasant webs of fiction.” He showed no more respect for those moderns who resorted to the same sort of speculative habits of thoughts as their remote forbears in ancient Greece and Rome, and who, he wrote, were wont to draw “large conclusions from slender premises.”7

Not Likely to Impress

The idea of variations selected by competition was a commonplace of Victorian thought, not likely when developed in conversation to impress clever men as a dazzling ingenuity. 8

William Irvine

Yet when Haughton wrote that much of Darwin and Wallace’s presentations represented a “truism,” he was referring not so much to the ancients as to more immediate predecessors in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term “old” in his usage essentially meant “old hat.” For instance, it was well known that the 18th-century French naturalist Buffon had identified various factors later synthesized and unified by Darwin. These matters of more or less common observation included: life tends to multiply faster than its food supply; there is typically a struggle for existence; nature offsets the effects of its own over-fecundity (by culling); the fittest win out in the competition for limited resources. Such matters were taken for granted by scientists and livestock breeders alike in the following century.

Little wonder that Loren Eiseley observed that Darwin was building on sundry “premonitory beginnings” to bring about a creative synthesis of predecessors’ hints and that “natural selection was in the air, was in a sense demanding to be born.”9The distinguished Victorian writer G. H. Lewes had long since observed that Darwin supplied “an articulate expression to the thought which had been inarticulate in many minds.”10 It was doubtless for that reason that Darwin, after the publication of Origin, had some rather unwelcome accusations of plagiarism leveled at him.

The Pretenders

In the 1860s a number of persons came forward to stake a claim to having discovered the very phenomenon which Darwin always regarded as his own intellectual fiefdom, natural selection. Darwin might have fondly supposed that Wallace was his sole rival, but now others came forward with the ambition of advancing their claims.11 The claims of the Darwinian contenders were extremely modest and uncontroversial compared with those that Darwin was to advance. Take for instance the first of the contenders in chronological ranking, William Wells. In 1813 Wells read out a paper to the Royal Society of London touching on the subject of African ancestry having the advantage of conferring immunity to certain diseases. Some would bear disease better than others, he said. Those would consequently multiply, the others decrease, not only from their inability to combat the disease but also from their disadvantage in contending with their stronger peers. There is little more there than Buffon had advanced, and indeed little that might have displeased Haughton.

The same might be said for commercial horticulturalist Patrick Matthew who put forward his own survival-of-the-fittest idea in an appendix to a somewhat recondite publication called Timber and Naval Arboriculture in 1831:

As Nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing — either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.12

Matthew expressly stated that the conception of natural selection “came intuitively as a self-evident fact without the effort of concentrated thought.” It had not occurred to him that he had made a great discovery and he clearly saw his perceptions as everyday truisms for persons concerned with growing plants or rearing animalsSuch empirically observable phenomena required no special explanation, Matthew stated.

Thomas Malthus

Darwin knew little or nothing of these somewhat obscure pretenders to his crown, but instead paid tribute to the demographer Thomas Malthus for providing him with his vital spark of inspiration. Malthus’s dominant concern was competition between humans for resources to survive, what Herbert Spencer was later to lexicalize as the battle for the survival of the fittest. Reading Malthus’s work on human populations13 out of personal interest, it dawned on Darwin that he might redirect Malthus’s ideas about laissez-faire capitalist societies to the struggle for existence in the wider biological world. Using that analogy, he concluded that

favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work … I saw, on reading Malthus on population, that natural selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings [… Malthus] gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species.14

Malthus’s ideas were largely consistent with what Wells and Matthew had stated and so not startlingly novel. Even Darwin’s son, Francis, feeling the matter to be self-evident, expressed surprise that his father had found his reading of Malthus such a revelation when many others such as Erasmus Darwin, William Paley, and Charles Lyell had already described the same struggle for existence in comparable terms. Friedrich Engels too was unimpressed by the Darwin/Malthus connection, writing that it was not necessary to have consulted Malthus in order to perceive the struggle for existence since this was an idea which cohered effortlessly and intuitively with the social attitudes of the upper classes in Europe. Engels viewed the Malthusian idea as a tacit ratification of the individualist ideology of the arriviste merchants then acquiring a sphere of power in Europe.15 In fact, Malthus’s ideas hit such a chord of recognition that that they were used as leverage to alter the older but more generous Elizabethan Poor Law in Great Britain (under the new law the poor had to compete for work or else be consigned to the workhouse).

Such knowledge as that listed above would doubtless have counted in Haughton’s terms as being “old.” In fact these various disclosures from other contenders coming shortly after the publication of Origin prompted the conclusion that Darwin’s theory “was just as much the discovery of British clergymen, doctors, fruit-farmers and gentlemen-naturalists working away with microscopes in the British provinces.”16 In a limited sense this conclusion is true, but it fails to take account of Darwin’s significant extension and elaboration of his theory into areas which Haughton came to see as being “false” and “contrary to fact.” 

The Formation of New Species

What stands out as being incongruous in Darwin’s response to his reading of Malthus and hence in serious need of further explanation is the single sentence, “The results of this would be the formation of new species.” Malthus was unconcerned with biological matters and had obviously written nothing about the transmutation of species, so that, as it stands, the sentence looks to be an unheralded non sequitur — an idea Darwin chose to tack on rather than a logical entailment or corollary of anything touched upon by Malthus. Whence this anomaly?

The truth of the matter appears to be that Darwin was reading Malthus through spectacles he had “borrowed” from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Charles’s highly elliptical reasoning only becomes clear in the context of that transmutational speculation, going back more than a century, that he was privy to via his grandfather. In that preceding century a number of naturalists had mooted the possibility of one species modulating biologically into another one over vast swathes of time, what Charles’s grandfather called transmutation. His grandson clearly “picked up the ball and ran” with the theory, arguably — to employ a sporting metaphor — beyond the perimeter of the playing field and clean out of the stadium.

Hence the younger Darwin’s (Erasmian) hypothesis was that successful members of any given species would not only become stronger and fitter at the micro level but, at the macro level, might eventually develop to such an extent that they would become (over countless ages) superior forms unrecognizable as having sprung from the older, inferior biological stock. The results of this long process would be nothing less than a series of phylogenetic revolutions (as opposed to that “descent with modifications” which Charles called the process with misleading understatement). By an aggregation of small incremental differences, he proposed, like his grandfather, that this process has resulted in thoroughgoing transformation, starting from microscopic beginnings in the form of unicellular common ancestors, like bacteria, via numberless further stages up to ape-like intermediaries, thence towards the evolution of Homo sapiens. He clearly shared with his free-thinking grandfather the belief that was that this was a more probable route along which the animal world might have developed than the doctrine that all species had been created fully formed by a divine power. 

Haughton, on the other hand, would have none of this. He felt that Darwin had fallen for the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: that is, as Haughton phrased it, the delusion that mere succession necessarily implies causation.17

Edward Blyth’s Recantation

It is conspicuous that the one “pretender” who came nearest to the more ambitious claim advanced by Darwin was Edward Blyth, who wrote in the following terms about artificial selection:

When two animals are matched together, each remarkable for a certain peculiarity, no matter how trivial, there is also a decided tendency in nature for that tendency to increase; and if the produce of these animals be set apart, and only those in which the same peculiarity is apparent, be selected to breed from, the next generation will possess it in a still more remarkable degree; and so on, till at length the variety I designate a breed is formed, which may be very unlike the original type… May not, then, a large proportion of what are considered species have descended from a common parentage?18

Yet Blyth subsequently retreated from the bold conjecture he advances in the last sentence, realizing that in those circumstances living species would blend into each other in a continual process of hybridization which had never been recorded and was not observable in nature. Had not the 18th century French naturalist Cuvier stated that all animal life could not be fitted into a unilineal ascending system? Diverse animals constituted a bush rather than a ladder since they belonged to distinct groups: vertebrates, molluscs, articulates, radiata, etc. Hence there were many stairways to life rather than one. The molluscan body plan could never “transition” into the vertebrate one because the differences between the two types were insuperable. Thus concluded the French naturalist in what became known as Cuvier’s Law of Correlation. 

Today, biologists use slightly different terminology in pointing to the species barrier and the insuperable difficulties of co-adaptation if animals were to advance beyond their basic physiological contours. However, the thought may in its essentials be traced back to Cuvier. For instance, to establish a convincing evolution of ape to human it would be necessary to establish that simians could over time have increased their communicative vocabularies so as to transform inarticulate emotional cries into specific vocal symbols. But this in turn brings up the closely related problem of how to explain the rapid mental processing on which articulate speech depends. Without the simultaneous co-adaptation of the simian brain how could the facility of speech, which depends on the interdependent agency of the brain in tandem withthe specialized organs of vocal articulation, have developed by the unplanned processes of natural selection?

Difficulties with the Darwinian Theory

Blyth corrected himself when in dawned on him that what he was musing on was a physiological impossibility. Swiftly retreating from his own conjecture, he realized that, in the circumstances he had envisaged in his mind’s eye, living species would routinely evidence patterns of morphological development which were simply not recorded in nature. He corrected his initial conjecture in line with observable circumstances by the kind of reality check which Charles Darwin chose to override. It is not as if Darwin did not know of the difficulty his theory posed. He must have known as well as Blyth in his heart of hearts that the kind of transmutation he was postulating did not exist in nature. In the following admirably candid words Darwin even tacks on the correlated problem of the lack of fossil evidence as a further hindrance to the acceptance of his theory: 

Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of the species being, as we see them, well defined?19

“Why indeed,” one might ask. Haughton commented sardonically on this point, “Mr. Darwin admits that the facts of Geology are opposed to his theory, and they are pleasantly alluded to as the Geological Difficulty!”20 Turning a blind eye to such obstacles, Darwin appears to have been driven by family piety in the direction of a form of materialist confirmation bias and what was fundamentally a social/ familial construction of reality.

A New Revelation

There is no folly that human fancy can devise, when truth has ceased to be of primary importance, and right reason and sound logic have been discarded, that has not been produced, and preached as a new revelation.21

Samuel Haughton

Whether Charles Darwin’s theory of the whole biosphere having essentially developed by “natural selection” was more antecedently probable than the doctrine of divine creation remained a contentious point, much debated by scientific and lay peers. Haughton at any rate, in company with other members of the wider Victorian public22, failed to see how such a grand and exquisitely crafted symphonic whole as the terrestrial biosphere had, allegedly, been able to magic itself into existence without any empirically identifiable agency to direct it. Then as before, most were prompted by the application of humble logic to seek the solution to life’s deepest enigmas not in natural selection but in natural theology.

The grandeur and sublime subtleties of our terrestrial environment have for millennia been viewed as in and of themselves empirical markers for design. The idea of intelligent design is as much a common-sense, empirical deduction as a formal philosophical theory or religious tenet. It seems intuitively right to many without benefit of any formal elaboration of the philosophical or metaphysical kind. Hence Darwin’s theory that life on Earth could have evolved mindlessly, due to the unpredictable ministrations of Mother Nature, has never ceased to appear improbable, even impossible, to the generality of people. In short, the notion that life’s diversity could have developed by some preternaturally benign concatenation of flukes does not commend itself as an intuitive probability to unbiased observers with no stake in finding a wholly materialistic explanation for all things. 

Could Nature, without any intelligence itself, have been capable of developing creatures with immense reserves of intelligence, or is this, as opponents have persistently objected, just a freethinking donnish fantasy harbored by those who simply will there to be a materialist Grand Theory of Everything? The jury is very much still out on that one, and Samuel Haughton’s doubts have not been allayed. For as he wrote in the peroration of his review, “No progress in natural science is possible as long as men will take their crude guesses at truth for facts, and substitute the fancies of their imagination for the sober rules of reasoning.” 


  1. For a comprehensive reprint together with editor’s commentary on reviews from the 1860s, see Hull’s Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1973).
  2. Letter to Joseph Hooker, April 30, 1860.
  3. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow, (New York: Norton, 1958), p. 122.
  4. “This speculation of Mess. Darwin and Wallace would not be worthy of note were it not for the weight of authority of the names under whose auspices it has been brought forward [Lyell and Hooker]. If it means what it says, it is a truism; if it means anything more, it is contrary to fact.”
  5. http://darwin-online.org.uk/converted/pdf/1860_Review_Origin_Biogenesis_Haughton_A1128.pdf
  6. Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 40.
  7. “The Moderns have resolved, by their speculations on the past, to show that in ingenuity and oddness of conceit and, probably, also in wideness from the truth, they are in no respect inferior to the Ancients.” (Review, p. 5)
  8. William Irvine, Apes, Angels and Victorians: A Joint Biography of Darwin and Huxley (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1955), p. 105.
  9. Loren Eiseley, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X (London: Dent, 1979), p. 6.
  10. Cited by Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 22.
  11. These included the Oxford Professor of Geometry, Baden Powell, the French naturalist Charles Naudin, Robert Grant (Darwin’s Edinburgh tutor), Dr. William Wells (his claim going back to 1813), Patrick Matthew, a well-to-do Scottish farmer and fruit grower, in 1831, and Edward Blyth, a young zoologist (1835). A comprehensive account of Darwin’s predecessors is given by Rebecca Stott in the aforementioned Darwin’s Ghosts.
  12. W. J. Dempster, Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew (Edinburgh: Pentland Press, 1996), p. 245.
  13. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Human Population, edited by Anthony Flew (London: Penguin, 1970).
  14. Cited by Anthony Flew, Essay on the Principle of Population, Introduction, pp. 49-50.
  15. See on this point Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution (Chicago: Chicago Up, 1989), pp. 2-3.
  16. Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts, p. 17.
  17. Review, p. 10.
  18. Cited by Loren Eisley, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr X, pp. 55-6, 58.
  19. Origin of Species, edited by Gillian Beer (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 129.
  20. Haughton, Review, p. 6.
  21. Review, p. 7
  22. See Alvar Ellegard, Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-72 (Gothenburg: Elanders, 1958).