How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?
This quotation, from Chapter IV, compares the use of artificial selection by breeders to the process of natural selection. Darwin explains in Chapter I how breeders can shape their domestic breeds by selecting individual animals with desired characteristics and breeding them more often to perpetuate those characteristics in future generations. While breeder selection may result in a more desirable domestic species, Darwin argues in this quotation that breeder selection cannot hold a candle to the wonders of natural selection. Natural selection has “whole geological periods” in which to do its work, as opposed to the mere human lifetime a man has. In addition, natural selection creates species that are much more highly and complexly adapted to their natural environments, a feat that mere men cannot accomplish on their own. Darwin acclaims the power of nature to shape such perfect species. Still, the last phrase in this passage—“the stamp of far higher workmanship”—adds ambiguity. Is “higher workmanship” the work of nature or the work of a divine power? Darwin leaves room for interpretation here—perhaps a wise move, given the religious and scientific climate of the time.