Virchow's Position

Warnings of this kind have come occasionally from Du Bois-Reymond, but the

true type of this group, and its mode of thought, is Virchow. It will

repay us and suffice us to make acquaintance with it through him. His

opposition to Darwinism and the theory of descent was directed at its most

salient point: the descent of man from the apes. In lectures and

treatises, at zoological and anthropological congresses, especially at the

meetings of his own Anthropological-Ethnological Society in Berlin, from

his "Vortraege ueber Menschen-und Affen-Schaedel" (Lectures on the Skulls of

Man and Apes, 1869), to the disputes over Dubois' Pithecanthropus

erectus in the middle of the nineties, he threw the whole weight of his

immense learning--ethnological and anthropological, osteological, and above

all "craniological"--into the scale against the Theory of Descent and its

supporters. Virchow has therefore been reckoned often enough among the

anti-Darwinians, and has been quoted by apologists and others as against

Darwinism, and he has given reason for this, since he has often taken the

field against "the Darwinists" or has scoffed at their "longing for a

pro-anthropos."(13) Sometimes even it has been suggested that he was

actuated by religious motives, as when he occasionally championed not only

freedom for science, but, incidentally, the right of existence for "the

churches," leaving, for instance, in his theory of psychical life, gaps in

knowledge which faith might occupy in moderation and modesty. But this

last proves nothing. With Virchow's altogether unemotional nature it is

unlikely that religious or spiritual motives had any role in the

establishment of his convictions, and in Haeckel's naive blustering at

religion, there is, so to speak, more religion than in the cold-blooded

connivance with which Virchow leaves a few openings in otherwise frozen

ponds for the ducks of faith to swim in! And he has nothing of the pathos

of Du Bois-Reymond's "ignorabimus." He is the neutral, prosaic scientist,

who will let nothing "tempt him to a transcendental consideration,"(14)

either theological or naturalistic, who holds tenaciously to matters of

fact, who, without absolutely rejecting a general theory, will not concern

himself about it, except to point out every difficulty in the way of it;

in short, he is the representative of a mood that is the ideal of every

investigator and the despair of every theoriser.

His lecture of 1869 already indicates his subsequent attitude. "Considered

logically and speculatively" the Theory of Descent seems to him

"excellent,"(15) indeed a logical moral(!) hypothesis, but unproved in

itself, and erroneous in many of its particular propositions. As far back

as 1858, before the publication of Darwin's great work, he stated at the

Naturalists' Congress in Carlsruhe, that the origin of one species out of

another appeared to him a necessary scientific inference, but----And

throughout the whole lecture he alternates between favourable recognition

of the theory in general, and emphasis of the difficulties which confront

it in detail. The skull, which, according to Goethe's theory, has evolved

from three modified vertebrae, is fundamentally different in man and

monkeys, both in regard to its externals, crests, ridges and shape, and

especially in regard to the nature of the cavity which it forms for the

brain. Specifically distinctive differences in the development and

structure of the rest of the body must also be taken into account. The

so-called ape-like structures in the skull and the rest of the body, which

occasionally occur in man (idiots, microcephaloids, &c.) cannot be

regarded as atavisms and therefore as proofs of the Theory of Descent;

they are of a pathological nature, entirely facts sui generis, and "not

to be placed in a series with the normal results of evolution." A man

modified by disease "is still thoroughly a man, not a monkey."

Virchow continued to maintain this attitude and persisted in this kind of

argument. He energetically rejected all attempts to find "pithecoid"

characters in the prehistoric remains of man. He declared the narrow and

less arched forehead, the elliptical form, and the unusually large frontal

cavities of the "Neanderthal skull" found in the Wupperthal in 1856, to be

simply pathological features, which occur as such in certain examples of

homo sapiens.(16) He explained the abnormal appearance of the jaw from

the Moravian cave of Schipka as a result of the retention of teeth,(17)

accompanied by directly "antipithecoid" characters.

The proceedings at the meetings of the Ethnological Society in 1895, at

which Dubois was present, had an almost dramatic character.(18) In the

diverse opinions of Dubois, Virchow, Nehring, Kollmann, Krause and others,

we have almost an epitome of the present state of the Darwinian question.

Virchow doubted whether the parts put together by Dubois (the head of a

femur, two molar teeth, and the top of a skull) belonged to the same

individual at all, disputed the calculations as to the large capacity of

the skull, placed against Dubois' very striking and clever drawing of the

curves of the skull-outline, which illustrated, with the help of the

Pithecanthropus, the gradual transition from the skull of a monkey to that

of man, his own drawing, according to which the Pithecanthropus curve

simply coincides with that of a gibbon (Hylobates), and asserted that

the remains discovered were those of a species of gibbon, refusing even to

admit that they represented a new genus of monkeys. He held fast to his

ceterum censeo: "As yet no diluvial discovery has been made which can be

referred to a man of a pithecoid type." Indeed, his polemic or "caution"

in regard to the Theory of Descent went even further. He not only refused

to admit the proof of the descent of man from monkey, he would not even

allow that the descent of one race from another has been demonstrated.(19)

In spite of all the plausible hypotheses it remains "so far only a pium

desiderium." The race obstinately maintains its specific distinctness,

and resists variation, or gradual transformation into another. The negro

remains a negro in America, and the European colonist of Australia remains

a European.

Yet all Virchow's opposition may be summed up in the characteristic words,

which might almost be called his motto, "I warn you of the need for

caution," and it is not a seriously-meant rejection of the Theory of

Descent. In reality he holds the evolution-idea as an axiom, and in the

last-named treatise he shows distinctly how he conceives of the process.

He starts with variation (presumably "kaleidoscopic"), which comes about

as a "pathological" phenomenon, that is to say, not spontaneously, but as

the result of environmental stimulus, as the organism's reaction to

climatic and other conditions of life. The result is an alteration of

previous characteristics, and a new stable race is established by an

"acquired anomaly."(20)

Virchow's Caution Weismann's Evolutionist Position facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail