On March 28, 1863 the Athenæum, the very exclusive social club located at Carlton House Pall Mall London whose members included politicians, clergymen, gentlemen of fortune, journalists and naturalists, published an anonymous review of the Introduction to the Study of the Foraminifera that the distinguished physician and naturalist Walter Benjamin Carpenter had written the year before. That very same day Hooker mailed a copy to Darwin. The review was soon shown to have been written by Richard Owen, who argued in it that foraminifera and other microscopic organisms could periodically form spontaneously in mud due to an undefined “general polarizing force”, and harshly criticized Darwin by stating that he “could only express” the creative force responsible for the origin of life “in Pentateuchal terms as the primordial form into which life was first breathed!”.
The next day Darwin sent a letter to Hooker thanking him for the copy of the Athenæum publication, and commented ironically on Owen’s arguments [www.darwinproject.ac.uk/] [Letter 4065],
«[…] Many thanks for Athenæum, received this morning & to be returned tomorrow morning. Who would have ever thought of the old stupid Athenæum taking to Oken-like transcendental philosophy written in Owenian style! It will be some time before we see “slime, snot or protoplasm” (what an elegant writer) generating a new animal. But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process.—It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter».
Three weeks later, Darwin (1863) finished a sharp response to Owen’s criticism, and submitted it to the Athenæum, which promptly published it [www.darwinproject.ac.uk/] [Letter 4108]
«Down, Bromley, Kent, April 18.
I hope that you will permit me to add a few remarks on Heterogeny, as the old doctrine of spontaneous generation is now called, to those given by Dr. Carpenter, who, however, is probably better fitted to discuss the question than any other man in England. Your reviewer believes that certain lowly organized animals have been generated spontaneously—that is, without pre-existing parents—during each geological period in slimy ooze. A mass of mud with matter decaying and undergoing complex chemical changes is a fine hiding-place for obscurity of ideas. But let us face the problem boldly. He who believes that organic beings have been produced during each geological period from dead matter must believe that the first being thus arose. There must have been a time when inorganic elements alone existed on our planet: let any assumptions be made, such as that the reeking atmosphere was charged with carbonic acid, nitrogenized compounds, phosphorus, &c. Now is there a fact, or a shadow of a fact, supporting the belief that these elements, without the presence of any organic compounds, and acted on only by known forces, could produce a living creature? At present it is to us a result absolutely inconceivable. Your reviewer sneers with justice at my use of the “Pentateuchal terms”, “of one primordial form into which life was first breathed”: in a purely scientific work I ought perhaps not to have used such terms; but they well serve to confess that our ignorance is as profound on the origin of life as on the origin of force or matter. Your reviewer thinks that the weakness of my theory is demonstrated because existing Foraminifera are identical with those which lived at a very remote epoch. Most naturalists look at this fact as the simple result of descent by ordinary reproduction; in no way different, as Dr. Carpenter remarks, except in the line of descent being longer, from that of the many shells common to the middle Tertiary and existing periods.
The view given by me on the origin or derivation of species, whatever its weaknesses may be, connects (as has been candidly admitted by some of its opponents, such as Pictet, Bronn, &c.) by an intelligible thread of reasoning a multitude of facts: such as the formation of domestic races by man’s selection,—the classification and affinities of all organic beings,—the innumerable gradations in structure and instincts,—the similarity of pattern in the hand, wing or paddle of animals of the same great class,—the existence of organs become rudimentary by disuse,—the similarity of an embryonic reptile, bird and mammal, with the retention of traces of an apparatus fitted for aquatic respiration; the retention in the young calf of incisor teeth in the upper jaw, &c.,—the distribution of animals and plants, and their mutual affinities within the same region,—their general geological succession, and the close relationship of the fossils in closely consecutive formations and within the same country; extinct marsupials having preceded living marsupials in Australia, and armadillo-like animals having preceded and generated armadilloes in South America,—and many other phenomena, such as the gradual extinction of old forms and their gradual replacement by new forms better fitted for their new conditions in the struggle for life. When the advocate of Heterogeny can thus connect large classes of facts, and not until then, he will have respectful and patient listeners.
Dr. Carpenter seems to think that the fact of Foraminifera not having advanced in organization from an extremely remote epoch to the present day is a strong objection to the views maintained by me. But this objection is grounded on the belief—the prevalence of which seems due to the well-known doctrine of Lamarck—that there is some necessary law of advancement, against which view I have often protested. Animals may even become degraded, if their simplified structure remains well fitted for their habits of life, as we see in certain parasitic crustaceans. I have attempted to show (Origin, 3rd edit. p. 135) that lowly-organized animals are best fitted for humble places in the economy of nature; that an infusorial animalcule or an intestinal worm, for instance, would not be benefited by acquiring a highly complex structure. Therefore, it does not seem to me an objection of any force that certain groups of animals, such as the Foraminifera, have not advanced in organization. Why certain whole classes, or certain numbers of a class, have advanced and others have not, we cannot even conjecture. But as we do not know under what forms or how life originated in this world, it would be rash to assert that even such lowly endowed animals as the Foraminifera, with their beautiful shells as figured by Dr. Carpenter, have not in any degree advanced in organization. So little do we know of the conditions of life all around us, that we cannot say why one native weed or insect swarms in numbers, and another closely allied weed or insect is rare. Is it then possible that we should understand why one group of beings has risen in the scale of life during the long lapse of time, and another group has remained stationary? Sir C. Lyell, who has given so excellent a discussion on species in his great work on the ‘Antiquity of Man’, has advanced a somewhat analogous objection, namely, that the mammals, such as seals or bats, which alone have been enabled to reach oceanic islands, have not been developed into various terrestrial forms, fitted to fill the unoccupied places in their new island-homes; but Sir Charles has partly answered his own objection. Certainly I never anticipated that I should have had to encounter objections on the score that organic beings have not undergone a greater amount of change than that stamped in plain letters on almost every line of their structure. I cannot here resist expressing my satisfaction that Sir Charles Lyell, to whom I have for so many years looked up as my master in geology, has said (2nd edit. p. 469):—“Yet we ought by no means to undervalue the importance of the step which will have been made, should it hereafter become the generally received opinion of men of science (as I fully expect it will) that the past changes of the organic world have been brought about by the subordinate agency of such causes as Variation and Natural Selection”. The whole subject of the gradual modification of species is only now opening out. There surely is a grand future for Natural History. Even the vital force may hereafter come within the grasp of modern science, its correlations with other forces have already been ably indicated by Dr. Carpenter in the Philosophical Transactions; but the nature of life will not be seized on by assuming that Foraminifera are periodically generated from slime or ooze.
It is somewhat surprising to see that historians of science have largely overlooked Darwin’s extensive response, which is the direct antecedent to the “warm little pond” letter that he sent in 1871 to Hooker. In any case, Darwin had enjoyed so much preparing his rebuttal of Owen, that two days later after mailing it to the Athenæum he wrote to Asa Gray that [www.darwinproject.ac.uk/] [Letter 4110],
«[…] We have had lately sharp sparring in the Athenæum. Did you see the article on Heterogeny or Spontaneous generation, written I believe, certainly by Owen!! it was in Review on Carpenter, who seems to have been sillily vexed at Owen calling me Carpenter’s master; it was like his clever malignity. Under the cloak of a fling at Heterogeny I have sent a letter to Athenæum in defence of myself, & I take sly advantage to quote Lyells amended verdict on the Origin.—I suppose my letter will appear next week: it is no great thing. […]»