Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 46.djvu/56

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
46
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

age of reproduction, could enable the varied individual to clear the field of all competitors, either by slaughtering or starving them out. But unless the struggle for existence took this summary and internecine character, there would be nothing but mere chance to secure that the advantageously varied bridegroom at one end of the wood should meet the bride who by a happy contingency had been advantageously varied in the same direction at the same time at the other end of the wood. It would be a mere chance if they ever knew of each other's existence—a still more unlikely chance that they should resist on both sides all temptations to a less advantageous alliance. But unless they did so, the new breed would never even begin, let alone the question of its perpetuation after it had begun. I think Prof. Weismann is justified in saying that we can not, either with more or less ease, imagine the process of natural selection.

It seems strange that a philosopher of Prof. Weismann's penetration should accept as established a hypothetical process the truth of which he admits that he can not demonstrate in detail, and the operation of which he can not even imagine. The reason that he gives seems to me instructive of the great danger scientific research is running at the present time—the acceptance of mere conjecture in the name and place of knowledge, in preference to making frankly the admission that no certain knowledge can be attained. "We accept natural selection," he says, "because we must—because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive." As a politician, I know that argument very well. In political controversy it is sometimes said of a disputed proposal that it "holds the field," that it must be accepted because no possible alternative has been suggested. In politics there is occasionally a certain validity in the argument, for it sometimes happens that some definite course must be taken, even though no course is free from objection. But such a line of reasoning is utterly out of place in science. We are under no obligation to find a theory, if the facts will not provide a sound one. To the riddles which Nature propounds to us the profession of ignorance must constantly be our only reasonable answer. The cloud of impenetrable mystery hangs over the development and still more over the origin of life. If we strain our eyes to pierce it, with the foregone conclusion that some solution is and must be attainable, we shall only mistake for discoveries the figments of our own imagination. Prof. Weismann adds another reason for his belief in natural selection, which is certainly characteristic of the time in which we live. "It is inconceivable," he says, "that there should be another principle capable of explaining the adaptation of organisms without assuming the help of a principle of design." The whirligig of time assuredly brings its revenges.