Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 March 2021
Look down here, Zeus,
Upon my world: it lives,
And I have formed it after my own image,
A race that shall resemble me,
To grieve and weep, to enjoy and to delight, And heed you as little as I.Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Prometheus (c.1772)
Just as in the vegetable and animal kingdoms an individual begins, so to speak, grows, continues to exist, degenerates, and is no more, so it might well be with species in their entirety. If faith did not teach us that animals spring from the hands of their Creator just as we now see them and if it were permissible to entertain the slightest doubts about their beginning and their end, might the philosopher not suspect, having given himself up entirely to his own conjectures, that the particular elements needed to constitute animal life had existed from all eternity, scattered and mixed in with the whole mass of matter; that these elements, happening to come together, had combined because it was possible for them to do so; that the embryo formed by these elements passed through an infinite number of structural changes and developments; that it acquired, successively, motion, sensation, ideas, thought, reflection, conscience, feelings, passions, signs, gestures, sounds, articulated sounds, a language, laws, sciences, and arts; that millions of years elapsed between each of these developments; that, unknown to us, it may have further developments still to undergo and further accretions to acquire; that it has experienced, or will experience, a period of stability; that it is moving out of, or will move out of, that period into a long decline, during which it will lose its faculties just as it acquired them; that it will disappear from nature forever or, rather, that it will continue to exist in nature but in another form and with faculties quite other than those we observe in it at the present moment of its duration? Religion spares us many wanderings and much labor. If it had not enlightened us as to the origin of the world and universal order that governs phenomena, think how many different hypotheses we should have been tempted to accept as the secret of nature. And those hypotheses, since they are all equally false, would all have seemed to us more or less equally probable.