On the Genesis of Species Informative Summary


St. George Mivart, a prominent British biologist in the 19th century, penned a book titled “On the Genesis of Species,” in which he took a critical look at Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. While acknowledging the theory’s significance in explaining some aspects of evolution, Mivart argued that it was insufficient to account for the origin of all species. He focused on the perceived shortcomings of Darwin’s theory, such as its failure to explain the initial development of complex structures, the existence of similar structures in unrelated organisms, and the absence of transitional fossil forms. Mivart proposed a different model, one that incorporated the idea of inherent tendencies and powers within organisms, suggesting that evolution is not solely driven by random variations and survival of the fittest. He contended that natural selection works in concert with these intrinsic forces, shaping species along specific lines of development.

Mivart further delved into the implications of evolution for ethics and religion. He challenged the prevailing utilitarian view of morality, arguing that it couldn’t fully explain the origin of the concept of “right” or account for the existence of moral intuitions in humans, even in the most primitive cultures. He suggested that moral principles might be rooted in a deeper, innate understanding of the good, rather than simply arising from accumulated experiences of utility. Mivart also explored the potential compatibility of evolution with a theistic view of creation, proposing that God might have established the laws governing evolution, allowing for a harmonious unfolding of life through time.

Key Findings:

  • Natural Selection’s Limitations: Mivart argued that natural selection alone cannot explain the development of complex structures, especially in their initial stages.
  • Independent Origins of Similar Structures: He presented multiple examples of similar structures arising independently in unrelated organisms, highlighting the challenge to Darwin’s theory.
  • Lack of Transitional Fossils: Mivart pointed to the absence of certain transitional fossil forms, indicating that evolution might not always proceed in gradual, minute steps.
  • Specific Stability: He argued for the existence of inherent limits to variability in species, suggesting that evolution occurs in bursts of change, followed by periods of relative stability.
  • Ethical Implications: Mivart questioned the utilitarian explanation of morality, arguing for the existence of innate moral intuitions that cannot be solely explained by experiences of utility.


  • Natural Selection’s Role: Readers will learn that natural selection plays a crucial role in shaping species but might not be the sole driver of evolution. Other factors, such as internal powers and tendencies, likely contribute to the process.
  • Complexity of Evolution: The text sheds light on the complexity of evolutionary processes, showcasing that evolution is not necessarily always gradual and might involve sudden, significant changes.
  • Understanding Homology: Readers will gain a deeper understanding of homology, the concept of shared ancestry reflected in similar structures, and its implications for evolutionary research.
  • Ethical Intuitions: The text challenges simplistic utilitarian views of morality, suggesting that moral intuitions might be rooted in a deeper understanding of good and bad, rather than simply being derived from experiences of utility.

Historical Context:

Mivart wrote “On the Genesis of Species” in 1871, a time when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was rapidly gaining acceptance within the scientific community. However, the book’s publication also reflects the ongoing debates about the implications of evolution for religious belief, and Mivart’s work aimed to bridge the perceived divide between science and theology.


  1. Giraffe Neck: The giraffe’s long neck is thought to have evolved through natural selection, favoring individuals with longer necks who could reach higher foliage during droughts.
  2. Mimicry: Certain animals evolve to resemble other creatures or inanimate objects, providing protection from predators.
  3. Flat-fishes’ Eyes: Flatfishes have both eyes on the same side of their head, a unique adaptation for bottom-dwelling life. This adaptation developed gradually, making it difficult to explain through natural selection.
  4. Whalebone: Whalebone (baleen) allows whales to filter food from water. Its initial development is difficult to explain through gradual, incremental changes.
  5. Kangaroo’s Larynx: The elongated larynx of young kangaroos prevents choking during milk injection by their mothers.
  6. Sea-urchin Pedicellariæ: Sea-urchins have specialized, snapping structures called pedicellariæ, which may help them remove debris, but their origin is unclear.
  7. Echinoderm Metamorphosis: Some echinoderms undergo a complex metamorphosis, involving a secondary larva that consumes the primary larva.
  8. Fly Metamorphosis: Certain flies undergo a unique developmental process called imaginal disk metamorphosis, where the adult form emerges from specialized patches of tissue.
  9. Sitaris Beetle: The sitaris beetle undergoes a unique life cycle involving multiple transformations, including a grub-like stage and a fully-fledged beetle form.
  10. Mammary Gland: The mammary gland is thought to have evolved from a hypertrophied cutaneous gland, but its initial development is unclear.
  11. Apes’ Sexual Differences: The different external sexual characteristics of male and female apes are difficult to explain through sexual selection.
  12. Rattlesnake’s Rattle: The rattle of a rattlesnake serves as a warning to potential prey, but its origin through natural selection is questionable.
  13. Cobra’s Hood: The expanding hood of the cobra is another warning mechanism, and its origin is not easily explained.
  14. Eye’s Complex Structure: The formation of the eye involves a complex interplay of ingrowths and outgrowths, making its gradual development highly unlikely.
  15. Ear’s Internal Structure: The ear’s complex internal structure, including the fibres of Corti, is another example of intricate complexity that poses a challenge to natural selection.
  16. Shellfish’s Beauty: Bivalve shellfish exhibit colorful and elegant shells, but this is not thought to be directly related to their survival or reproduction.
  17. Orchid Mimicry: Certain orchids, such as the bee, fly, and spider orchids, resemble insects, but their pollination is not strongly dependent on those particular insects.
  18. Orchid’s Elaborate Adaptations: Orchids exhibit intricate adaptations for insect pollination, which are difficult to explain through natural selection.
  19. Ant Social Structure: Ant colonies with multiple, specialized castes pose a challenge to understanding their evolution through natural selection.
  20. Oyster Shell Formation: Oysters can change their shell formation based on environmental conditions, demonstrating the potential for rapid changes.


  1. Fantail Pigeon: The fantail pigeon has more tail feathers than any other known bird species (over 340).
  2. Pouter Pigeon: The pouter pigeon has a more dilatable œsophagus than any other bird species.
  3. Pigeon Variation: The variations in beak size and form in domestic pigeons are greater than those seen in all known pigeon species.
  4. American Tree Variation: 29 kinds of American trees differ from their European counterparts in several ways, including smaller seeds and less toothed leaves.
  5. Human Variation: A new human type has developed in the United States over the past couple of centuries.
  6. Turkish Dog: The hairless Turkish dog also exhibits a correlation between hair and teeth, with a reduction in both.
  7. White Cats: White cats with blue eyes often exhibit deafness, suggesting a correlation between these traits.
  8. Bird Down: Down on young birds can indicate their future plumage color.
  9. Indian Turkey: Turkeys in India have undergone significant changes, becoming smaller, flightless, and black with long beak appendages.
  10. Broccoli Variation: A peculiar variety of broccoli emerged suddenly and continues to breed true.
  11. Maize Variation: American maize varieties have rapidly adapted and hybridized with European varieties.
  12. Ancon Sheep: The Ancon sheep breed emerged with a unique short-legged mutation.
  13. Niata Cattle: Niata cattle are characterized by a unique short-faced mutation.
  14. Turnspit Dog: Turnspit dogs were bred for their unique ability to turn a spit, highlighting the potential for rapid change in domestic animals.
  15. Pug Dog: The pug dog breed, with its flattened face, is another example of a sudden mutation.
  16. Jumper Fowls: Jumper fowls, known for their unusual jumping ability, are believed to have arisen from a single mutation.
  17. Frizzled Fowls: Frizzled fowls, with their distinctive curled feathers, are another example of a sudden change.
  18. Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons: Short-faced tumbler pigeons, known for their acrobatic flight, are believed to have originated from a sudden mutation.
  19. Hook-billed Ducks: Hook-billed ducks, with their unique beak shape, are another example of a sudden change.
  20. Black-shouldered Peacock: The black-shouldered peacock, a distinct species, appeared suddenly in a flock of common peacocks, suggesting the potential for rapid speciation.


  1. Species: A group of organisms that share a common ancestor and can interbreed to produce fertile offspring.
  2. Natural Selection: The process by which organisms with traits that better enable them to survive and reproduce in a given environment are more likely to pass on those traits to their offspring.
  3. Rudimentary Structures: Functionless or underdeveloped structures in an organism that suggest ancestry from organisms with more developed versions of those structures.
  4. Homology: The study of similarities in structure between different organisms, often indicating a shared ancestry.
  5. Mimicry: The resemblance of one organism to another, often serving as a protective adaptation.
  6. Pangenesis: A now-discredited hypothesis proposed by Darwin that suggests that organisms contain minute particles (“gemmules”) derived from their ancestors, which contribute to the development of offspring.
  7. Gemmule: A hypothetical particle, according to Darwin’s theory of pangenesis, that carries information from every part of an organism’s body and contributes to its inheritance.
  8. Evolution: The process of change in living organisms over time, often leading to the development of new species.
  9. Teratology: The study of abnormal development in organisms.
  10. Pathology: The study of disease and its effects on organisms.


  1. Giraffe Neck: The giraffe’s long neck evolved over time through natural selection, favoring individuals who could reach higher foliage during droughts. This adaptation is seen as a direct result of the environmental pressures the giraffe faced.
  2. Leaf Butterfly: The leaf butterfly mimics a dead leaf, making it difficult for predators to spot. This is an example of protective mimicry, illustrating the adaptive advantage of resemblance to another object.
  3. Walking-Leaf Insect: This insect closely resembles a twig or leaf, camouflaging itself to avoid predators. This mimicry demonstrates the effectiveness of blending into the environment for survival.
  4. Bee Orchid: This orchid has evolved a flower that resembles a bee, attracting pollinating insects, an example of mimicry for reproductive purposes.
  5. Sea-urchin Pedicellariæ: These snapping structures in sea-urchins serve as a form of defense, illustrating the evolution of specialized structures for protection.
  6. Sitaris Beetle: This beetle undergoes a complex life cycle, with several transformations, including a grub-like stage and a fully-fledged beetle, highlighting the variety of developmental pathways in nature.
  7. Black-shouldered Peacock: The black-shouldered peacock emerged suddenly in a flock of common peacocks, showcasing the potential for rapid speciation events.
  8. Oyster Shell Formation: The oysters’ ability to change their shell formation based on their environment demonstrates the plasticity of organisms to adapt to changing conditions.
  9. Fantail Pigeon: The fantail pigeon exhibits an extreme development of its tail feathers, highlighting the potential for intense artificial selection.
  10. Ancon Sheep: The Ancon sheep, with its short legs, emerged suddenly as a result of a single mutation, demonstrating the potential for dramatic changes in an organism’s form.


St. George Mivart’s “On the Genesis of Species” serves as a compelling critique of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, highlighting the limitations of the theory and introducing alternative ideas about the mechanisms of evolution. His arguments focus on the complexities of organic structures and the presence of similar features in unrelated organisms, challenging the notion of random variations as the sole driver of evolution. Furthermore, his exploration of ethical intuitions and the potential compatibility of evolution with theism raises crucial questions about the nature of life and the human condition. Mivart’s book, though published over a century ago, continues to offer valuable insights into the ongoing debate surrounding the origins of life and the complexity of the natural world.

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