Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/231

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219
DEGENERATION.

fact upon us, and the history of animal development but repeats the tale. From seed to seed-leaf, from seed-leaf to stem and leaves, from simple leaves to flower, and from flower to fruit, there is exhibited a natural progress in plant-existence, which testifies eloquently enough, by analogy at least, to the existence of like tendencies in all other forms of life. Similarly, in the animal host, progressive change is seen to convert that which is literally at first "without form and void" into the definite structure of the organism. A minute speck of protoplasm on the surface of the egg—a speck that is indistinguishable, in so far as its matter is concerned, from the materies of the animalcule of the pool is the germ of the bird of the future. Day by day the forces and powers of development weave the protoplasm into cells, and the cells into bone and muscle, sinew and nerve, heart and brain. In due season the form of the higher vertebrate is evolved, and progressive change is once more illustrated before the waiting eyes of life-science. But the full meaning of most problems which life-science presents to view is hardly gained by a merely cursory inspection of what may be called the normal side of things. The by-paths of development—more frequently, perhaps, than its beaten tracks—reveal guiding clews and traces of the manner in which the progress in question has come to pass. So, also, the side-avenues of biology open up new phases of, it may be, the main question at issue, and may reveal, as in the present instance, an interesting reverse to the aspects we at first deem of sole and paramount importance. For example, a casual study of the facts of animal development is well calculated to show that life is not all progress, and that it includes retrogression as well as advance. Physiological history can readily be proved to tend in many cases toward backsliding, instead of reaching forward and upward to higher levels. This latter tendency, beginning now to be better recognized in biology than of late years, can readily be shown to exercise no unimportant influence on the fortunes of animals and plants. In truth, life at large must now be regarded as existing between two great tendencies—the one progressive and advancing, the other retrogressive and degenerating. Such a view of matters may serve to explain many things in living histories which have hitherto been regarded as somewhat occult and difficult of solution; while we may likewise discover that the coexistence of progress and retrogression is a fact perfectly compatible with the lucid opinions and teachings concerning the origin of living things which we owe to the genius of Darwin and his disciples.

A fundamental axiom of modern biology declares that in the development of a living being we may discern a panoramic unfolding, more or less complete, of its descent. "Development repeats descent" is an aphorism which cultured biology has everywhere writ large over its portals. Rejecting this view of what development teaches, the phases through which animals and plants pass in the course of their