Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/October 1877/Bathybius and the Moners
"BATHYBIUS, about which so much has been said, has no existence; the assumption of its existing rested on illusions. It will be the same with the rest of the Moneres; these supposed primordial organisms, too, will prove to be the product of erroneous observation. So has one of the main supports of the modern development doctrine fallen, and it will yet be found that all its other supports rest upon illusions and on error. The whole fabric of Darwinism is simply an air-castle, the theory of natural selection is a soap bubble, and the doctrine of descent is not true."
Such is the gist of many an article published during the past year in all sorts of periodicals. Simply and solely from the supposed non-existence of Bathybius it is rashly inferred that there is no such thing at all as Moneres, and that the doctrine of evolution is badly hit. This assertion is of course made with most gusto by the opponents of the development theory. The clergy is already rejoicing over the utter downfall of the theory of descent. But even among the adherents of the theory of evolution, the non-existence of Bathybius is held to be proved, and from this fact a series of conclusions is drawn which suggests more or less weighty objections against some of the main principles of Darwinism, These circumstances, as also the confusion of the public mind as to the actual state of the case, have induced me to consider the Moneres question with special reference to Bathybius. It would appear to be specially my right, nay, even my duty, to discuss this question, inasmuch as it was my dubious luck to have stood godfather to this "ill-famed primordial slime of the sea-depths." When, in 1868, my friend Thomas Huxley gave to it in baptism the name Bathybius Haeckelii, he of course could not have foreseen that the poor neophyte would, like another Icarus, in a very short time become a biological celebrity, ascending to the heaven of terrestrial fame, and then before the end of its first decennium tumbling down into the gloomy Hades of mythology. Let us see, then, whether it is really dead, and whether it has ever existed at all. And supposing we have to admit its merely mythological apparition-existence, let us see what consequences result for the Moneres.
I. History of the Moneres.—In the spring of 1864 I observed in the Mediterranean, at Villafranca, near Nice, little floating globules of slime, one millimetre or half a line in diameter, which interested me very much. Under the microscope each of these globules looked like a little star, its centre consisting of a far smaller, structureless globule, while from the outer surface radiated several thousand exceedingly fine threads. Close examination with high powers showed that the whole body of the star-shaped thing consisted of simple albuminous cell-substance—sarcode, or protoplasm; and that the threads radiating on all sides from the surface were not permanent organs, but constantly variable, in number, size, and shape. They were seen to be changing and non-persistent processes of the central protoplasmic body, like the "false feet," or pseudopodia, which constitute the only organs of the Rhizopods. But while in the Rhizopods cell-nuclei are scattered through the protoplasm, and hence their bodies, morphologically considered, are made up of one or of many cells, nothing of the kind is to be seen in the protoplasmic globules observed at Villafranca. For the rest, no difference was to be found between the two with respect either to the motions of the filaments or to the manner in which they were employed as organs of touch for sensation, or as organs of nutrition for taking in food. To complete the natural history of the little protoplasm-globule, which I had studied with great minuteness, all that was still needed was a knowledge of its mode of propagation. In this, too, I was finally successful. After some time the little creature broke up into two halves by simple division, and each of these went on living like the original one. Thus I had learned the whole life-cycle of what I had to regard as one of the simplest organisms conceivable, and I gave it, in recognition of its fundamental significance, the name of Protogenes primordialis, "first-born of primeval time." An accurate description of it was published by me in vol. xv. of the Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie (p. 360, Plate XXVI., Figs. 1 and 2).
The very next year two distinct, extremely simple organisms, very closely resembling Protogenes, were described by the distinguished microscopist Cienkowski. In vol. i. of the Archiv für mikroskopische Zoologie (p. 203, Plates XII.-XIV.) he published very interesting "Contributions to the Knowledge of Monads." Among the various Protista here associated by Cienkowski under the old, ambiguous term "Monads" occur two microscopic inhabitants of fresh water, which in the perfectly simple and structureless constitution of their unnucleated, radiate protoplasmic body resemble Protogenes—the genera Protomonas (Monas amyli) and Vampyrella (the latter in three different species); they differ, however, from Protogenes in their mode of propagation. Whereas Protogenes, after it has grown to a certain size, does not gain any further increase of mass, but directly breaks up into two fragments, Protomonas and Vampyrella retract their rays, and pass into the inactive state, and meanwhile the little protoplasmic globule becomes encysted, or surrounded with an envelope (cyst). While so encysted, Protomonas breaks up into a great number of smaller globules, and Vampyrella into four fragments (tetraspores). All of these afterward become free, and by a simple process of growth are developed into the perfect form.
In the mean time I had myself observed, in fresh water at Jena, a fourth allied genus of extremely simple organisms, in all respects like the common Amœba, but distinguished from it by having no cell-nucleus, and no contractile vesicular envelope; hence I named it Protamœba primitiva. While in the first-named three slime-globules (Protogenes, Protomonas, and Vampyrella) numerous filaments radiate from the entire surface of the central protoplasmic body, in Protamœba, on the contrary, just as in the common Amœba, there are only a few short, finger-shaped processes, which are constantly changing, being now retracted, and again pushed out in some other place. When Protamœba has, by taking in food—which operation it performs after the manner of Amœba—attained a certain size, it breaks up by division into two parts. I first published my observations of Protamœba in the "Generelle Morphologie," vol. i., p. 133. Afterward I published figures of Protamœba primitiva, which are to be found in my "Natural History of Creation," sixth German edition, p. 167, and in my "Anthropogenic," third edition, p. 414,
Backed by these observations, which were still further prosecuted afterward by other investigators, and also by myself, I, in 1866, in the "Generelle Morphologie," established a special class, that of Moneres (i. e., simple), for all these organisms of most simple constitution, la the first volume of that work I wrote as follows:
For some years after this the circle of our experiences with these strange "organisms without organs" was considerably widened. During my voyage to the Canary Islands in 1866-'67 I very naturally directed my whole attention to these organisms, and was so fortunate as to discover many new forms of Moneres. On the white calcareous shells of a remarkable Cephalopod (Spirula Peronii), found in thousands on the coasts of the Canaries, I have sometimes noticed numerous little red points, which under the magnifying-glass looked like ornamental stars, and, when highly magnified, like orange-red protoplasmic disks or globules, from the circumference of which radiated numerous tree-shaped filaments, with branches. Closer observation showed that these (comparatively colossal) protoplasmic bodies, too, were unnucleated and structureless, and that they propagated after the same manner as Protomonas, the globular, encysted body breaking up into a great number of little fragments. To this new genus of Moneres I gave the name of Protomyxa aurantiaca, and it is figured in Plate I. of the "Natural History of Creation." I then, during the same year (1867), found a like magnificent Moneres form in the mud of the harbor of Puerto del Arrecife, the port-town of the island of Lanzarote, and to it gave the name of Myxastrum radians. Its distinguishing mark is this, that the fragments or spores into which the globular body breaks up in the act of propagation arrange themselves in lines radiating from the centre of the globule, and exude spindle-shaped, siliceous envelopes, from which the young Moneres afterward drops out.
On the strength of all these observations, I, in 1868, published in the Jenaische Zeitschrlft für Naturwissenschaft an extended "Monograph of the Moneres" (vol. iv., p. 64, Plates II. and III.). In this monograph both my own observations and those of others are set forth at length and discussed. At that time the number of known genera of Moneres was seven. By later observations it has been increased to sixteen, as is stated by me in my "Supplement to the Monograph of the Moneres" (Jenaische Zeitschrift für Naturwissenschaft, 1877, vol. vi., p. 23). The differences between these Moneres come simply from the fact that the soft, slimy mass expands and moves in different forms, and that the asexual propagation (by division, spore formation, etc.) takes place in different ways.
II. History of Bathybius.—The great interest possessed by the Moneres morphologically as well as physiologically was further heightened when, in 1868, the foremost zoölogist of England, the celebrated Thomas Huxley, described, in the Journal of Microscopical Science (vol. viii., new series, p. 1, Plate IV.), a new and quite peculiar species of Moneres, giving it the name of Bathybius Haeckelii. Unlike the rest of the Moneres, this Bathybius had included in it certain peculiarly-formed microscopic, calcareous corpuscles—coccospheres and coccoliths; but its formless masses of protoplasm, of very different sizes, were said to cover in enormous quantities the profoundest abysses of the sea, from 5,000 to 25,000 feet depth. With this formless primordial organism of the simplest kind, which, occurring in thousands of millions, covers the sea-bottom with a living layer of slime, a new light seemed to be thrown upon one of the most difficult and most obscure problems of the history of creation—namely, the question of the origin of life upon the earth. With Bathybius, the ill-famed "Urschleim" (primordial slime) appeared to have been found, of which it had been prophetically affirmed, fifty years before, by Oken, that from it was sprung the whole world of organisms, and that this "Urschleim" itself had sprung from inorganic matter at the sea-bottom in the course of planetary development.
The deep-sea ooze containing the masses of Bathybius was first discovered during the deep-sea soundings made in 1857 for the Atlantic cable. The Atlantic Telegraph Plateau, which stretches from Ireland to Newfoundland at a mean depth of 12,000 feet, was found to be covered everywhere with a peculiar gray, very finely-pulverized ooze. This ooze was remarkable for its tough, sticky nature, and under the microscope showed masses of little calcareous-shelled Rhizopods, particularly Globigerinæ, and also, as one of its main constituents, those minute corpuscles known as coccoliths. But it was not till eleven years later, in 1868, that Huxley, with the aid of a very powerful microscope, made a new and thorough investigation of this ooze, calling in also the aid of chemical analysis. He discovered the naked, free, formless protoplasm-masses, which, together with the Globigerinæ and the coccoliths, make up the great bulk of the ooze. "These masses are of different sizes, some being visible to the naked eye, others extremely minute. Subjected to microscopical analysis, they showed, imbedded in a transparent, colorless, structureless matrix, nuclei, coccoliths, and occasionally foreign bodies."
Living Bathybius was first observed in 1868, by Sir Wyville Thomson and Prof William Carpenter, two practised and sagacious zoölogists, during a deep-sea exploring expedition to the North Atlantic, in the war-ship Porcupine. Of the living deep-sea ooze they write: "This ooze was actually living; it collected in lumps as though albumen had been mixed with it; and under the microscope the sticky mass was seen to be living sarcode" (Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 1869, vol. iv., p. 151); and Sir Wyville Thomson, in his very interesting work, "The Depths of the Sea," second edition, 1874, p. 410, adds:
My own researches on Bathybius-ooze had to do, like those of Huxley, only with dead substance in alcohol. The bottle in which it had been sent to me from the Faroe Islands bore this label: "Dredged of Prof. Thomson and Dr. Carpenter with the steamer Porcupine, in 2,435 fathoms. 22. July 1869. — Latitude 47° 38', longitude 12° 4'." Thus this Bathybius-ooze was the same on which the observers named above had made their investigations of the amœboid movements. The results of my own investigations I have stated fully in my "Beiträge zur Plastiden-Theorie" (II. "Bathybius and the Free Protoplasm of the Sea-Depths," Jenaische Zeitschrift für Naturwissenschaft, 1870, vol v., p. 499, Plate XVII.). The eighty figures I there give of the different formless protoplasm-masses of Bathybius, and of the little calcareous bodies included in the same, were copied with the utmost exactness from very highly-magnified images of those organisms taken with the aid of the camera lucida. Some of the fissures have also been used in my paper on "Life in the Profoundest Depths of the Sea," which was published in 1870, in the Virchow-Holzendorff Collection (No. 110).
This specimen of Bathybius-ooze, which had been very well preserved in strong alcohol, I examined as minutely as possible, employing the newest methods of research, and in particular the excellent method — not employed by Huxley in his investigation — of staining with carmine and iodine, my purpose being, above all, to determine more accurately the quantity and quality of the amorphous protoplasmic matter. This albuminous substance, which was reddened by carmine, was very evenly distributed through the ooze, and in most of the specimens examined constituted at least one-tenth to one-fifth of the whole volume; in many instances it was as much as one-half. The same protoplasmic masses which, on treatment with carmine, became of a more or less deep-red tint, took from iodine and pure nitric acid a yellow color; and with other chemical reagents they exhibited precisely the same properties as the protoplasm of animal and vegetal cells. The form of most of the little masses was irregular, roundish, or provided with obtuse processes resembling those of an Amœba; others took the form of irregular reticulations of sarcode, like those of the Myxomycetæ.
Whether the little calcareous frustules—coccoliths and cocco-spheres—which occur so abundantly in Bathybius-ooze, both within and between the protoplasm-masses, actually belong to it or not, I was unable to determine, especially as I had already observed the very same kinds of calcareous frustules in the bodies of sundry pelagic Radiolaria which live at the surface of the ocean off the Canaries ("Myxobrachia of Lanzarote"). These strange calcareous bodies, occurring now in the form of a simple concentrically stratified disk, again resembling a shirt-button, anon assuming the shape of a sphere made up of several disks, and so on, were as likely to be secretions of the Bathybius sarcode as foreign bodies accidentally (or in the process of taking up food) introduced into the protoplasm. Of late the second hypothesis has come to appear the more probable, and biologists now hold that all these corpuscles are microscopic calcareous algæ—calcareate unicellular plants.
These investigations, confirmed as they have been by sundry other observers, seemed to show that at the bottom of the Atlantic, between the depths of 5,000 and 25,000 feet, there exists a sort of ooze which, with its other characteristics, contains a great quantity of a peculiar and as yet hardly individualized species of Moneres. The error into which we now fell consisted in over-hastily generalizing the results of these deep-sea soundings in the North Atlantic, and supposing the bed of the deep sea to be everywhere covered with similar Moneres. This inference was flatly negatived by later research. During the cruise of the Challenger, which extended over three and a half years, though careful search was made for Bathybius in the depths of various seas, it was nowhere found. We have no ground for calling in question the diligence and accuracy of the eminent naturalists attached to the famous Challenger Expedition; and all the less because its director, Sir Wyville Thomson, had been himself the first to observe the movements of the living Bathybius. Hence we must suppose that, in the portions of the deep-sea bottom explored by the Challenger, there were no Bathybius Moneres. But does it hence follow that all previous observations and inferences were incorrect?
As is very usual in such cases, exaggerated and one-sided views were at once given up, and no less exaggerated and one-sided contrary views adopted. Once it was supposed that Bathybius occurred in masses at the bottom of every sea; now its existence anywhere was denied. The Bathybius-ooze preserved in alcohol, which had been the subject of prior investigations, was now held to be nothing but a gypsum precipitate, such as is found wherever sea-water is mixed with spirits of wine. This hypothesis was first put forward by certain naturalists of the Challenger Expedition, and therefore Prof. Huxley recanted—prematurely, as I believe—his earlier views concerning Bathybius. In Nature (August 19, 1875), and in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopic Science (1875, vol. xv., p. 392), he writes as follows:
These words of Prof. Huxley's awakened marked interest, and were pretty generally thought to be the death-blow of poor Bathybius. But, in proportion as the real parents of Bathybius show a disposition to abandon their child as being beyond hope, the more do I consider it to be my duty as its godfather to defend its rights and, if possible, to restore its expiring vital spark. Here, as luck would have it, I find a variable ally in the person of a traveled German naturalist, who quite recently observed living Bathybius off the coast of Greenland. The well-known north-polar explorer, Dr. Emil Bessels, who fortunately returned safe after the wreck of the Polaris, writes as follows of the Haeckelina gigantea, a giant Rhizopod, probably identical with Astrorhiza, previously described by Sandahl:
In Packard's "Life-Histories of Animals" is to be seen a figure (published by Bessels) of the protoplasm-net of Protobathybius. From this figure I conclude that Protobathybius is the same as our Bathyhius.
III. A Critique of Bathybius.—Having now presented to the reader the historic facts relating to Bathybius, we next address ourselves to a critique of this subject. We will endeavor, by impartially weighing the facts, to form an unprejudiced judgment on Bathybius, now so decried and so generally discredited.
With respect to dead Bathybius—deep-sea ooze brought from the North Atlantic and preserved in spirits of wine—all the observers who have studied it closely agree in saying that it contains greater or smaller masses of coagulated protoplasm, which, in their morphological and chemico-physical properties, bear the closest resemblance to certain Moneres. The results obtained by Huxley from material examined by him—results which I myself have been able to confirm and enlarge have been admitted as correct by all the other observers who studied the same ooze.
With respect to living Bathybius, we have positive testimony as to its characteristic, Rhizopod-like movements from three competent observers, namely, Sir Wyville Thomson, Prof. William Carpenter, and Dr. Emil Bessels. All three made their observations on deep-sea ooze from the North Atlantic. On the other hand, the attempts made by members of the Challenger Expedition in various seas to repeat and confirm these earlier observations on the movement phenomena led only to negative results.
What follows now from this testimony, all of which we mast recognize as of equal credibility, but which, nevertheless, is self-conflicting? Simply that the Bathybius-ooze has a limited geographical distribution, and that it was an over-hasty generalization to people all deep-sea abysses with that organism. But from the fact that the Challenger Expedition did not rediscover living Bathybius it surely does not follow that the observations made in other localities by the Porcupine Expedition were faulty. Or, from the fact that the Challenger Expedition found Radiolarian ooze only in a comparatively limited area in the Pacific and nowhere else, must we draw the conclusion that no such thing exists? We know that the vast majority of organic species have a limited distribution; why, then, should not the distribution of Bathybius be limited too?
Hence I confess I cannot understand why Huxley should have so suddenly and so totally changed his views about Bathybius. Still less do I understand how, at the last meeting of the German Naturalists' Association at Hamburg (September, 1876), Bathybius could ever have been publicly interred. In the Berlin Nationalzeitung I find the following notable report (dated Hamburg, September 21st) of a paper by Prof. Möbius, on "Marine Fauna and the Challenger Expedition:"
Verily, this is a remarkable kind of logic. Because spirits of wine mixed with sea-water precipitates gypsum, therefore Bathybius-ooze kept in spirits of wine is precipitated gypsum! And this demonstration "fairly startled" the members of a German Association of Naturalists! That strong spirits of wine mixed with sea-water produces a light, flocculent gypsum precipitate is known to every one that has preserved marine animals in spirits of wine. But so, too, is it known to every man who, like Huxley and myself, has closely examined the Bathybius-ooze collected by the Porcupine Expedition, that the Moneres-like, albuminous bodies found therein consist actually of albuminous substance and not of gypsum. Carmine stains them red, nitric acid and iodine yellow; sulphuric acid decomposes them, and they give all the other reactions of protoplasm, which is not the case with gypsum, as every one knows.
If we finely pulverize certain kinds of chalk, or chalky marl, we obtain a fine white flour, that might easily be mistaken for the remarkable Radiolarian ooze found by the Challenger Expedition in a limited area of the Pacific (and there only), at a depths ranging from 12,000 to 26,000 feet. This Radiolarian ooze, which I am at present engaged in studying, consists almost exclusively of the most beautiful and varied forms of siliceous Radiolarian shells. But with the naked eye we cannot distinguish this dried ooze—a wonderful microscopic museum of Radiolaria—from pulverized chalk-marl containing not a single Radiolarian shell. I now propose that at their meeting in Munich next September (1877) the Naturalists' Association experimentally demonstrate that these enormous Radiolarian deposits, discovered by the Challenger Expedition at the bottom of the Pacific, have no real existence. "The experiment is a very simple one." Let the lecturer bray in a mortar, in sight of the assembled naturalists, a bit of chalk-marl containing no Radiolaria. The white powder so obtained does not contain a single Radiolarian; therefore the Pacific ooze (consisting exclusively of Radiolarians) does not exist, since these two substances cannot be distinguished from each other by the naked eye—quod erat demonstrandum. We are confident that this striking experiment will "fairly startle" the beholders, and make an end of Radiolarian ooze.
IV. A Critique of the Moneres.—From the foregoing, we think it clearly appears that the non-existence of Bathybius is not proved. Nay, it is highly probable that the observations of Wyville Thomson and Carpenter and Bessels on the movements of living Bathybius were correct. We will, however, for the nonce, suppose the contrary to be the fact, and will grant that Bathybius is not a Moneres, nor even an organism. Does it follow from this that the Moneres too have no existence? Or must we say that, as the familiar great sea-serpent of fable does not exist, therefore there is no such thing as a sea-serpent? We know that there are many sea-serpents belonging to the family of the viviparous and highly-venomous Hydrophidæ (Hydrophis, Platurus, Æpysurus, etc.), which chiefly inhabits the Indian Ocean and the Sunda Archipelago, but none of which attain any considerable size.
It were useless here again to quote my own researches which have demonstrated the existence of upward of a dozen different species of Moneres, some living in fresh, others in salt water. I would, however, state that these observations have since been repeated and confirmed by a number of competent investigators. Some of these Moneres appear to be very widely distributed in fresh water, as for instance the genera Protomœba and Vampyrella. Protamœba agilis and Vampyrella spirogyræ may be observed almost any summer at Jena. P. primitiva and V. vorax have been seen by sundry observers in very diverse localities. Other new Moneres forms have been quite recently discovered by Cienkowski and Oskar Grimm. When the attention of microscopists has been more generally directed to these extremely simple organisms, we may hope that our knowledge of them will be considerably widened and deepened.
Whether Bathybius is or is not a true Moneres, at all events we already know with certitude a number of true Moneres whose fundamental importance is quite independent of Bathybius. We know that even now there exist in the waters of our planet a number of very low forms of life, which are not only the simplest of all actually observed organisms, but even the simplest imaginable of living things. Their whole body, in the fully-developed and reproductive condition, consists of nothing but a little mass of structureless protoplasm, whose changing, variable processes all at once discharge the various life functions—movement, sensation, transmutation of matter, nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Morphologically considered, the body of a Moneres is as simple as an inorganic crystal. We cannot distinguish in it separate parts; or, rather, each part is equivalent to each other. These facts and their far-reaching consequences apply to all Moneres without exception—with or without Bathybius!—and hence it does not affect the theory at all whether Bathybius exists or not.
When we describe these Moneres as "absolutely simple organisms," we of course only express their morphological simplicity, the absence of distinct organs. Chemico-physically, they may be highly composite; indeed, we must in any case ascribe to them, as to all albuminous bodies, a highly-complex molecular structure. Many regard the slime-like albuminous body of Moneres as a single chemical albumen combination, while others see in it a multitude of such combinations; others, again, regard it as an emulsion or intimate blending of albuminous and fatty particles. For a general biological view of the Moneres this is of subordinate interest; for, however the case may be, the creature is at all events, from the anatomical point of view, perfectly simple—an organism without organs. It proves incontrovertibly that life does not depend on the coöperation of different organs, but on a certain chemico-physical constitution of amorphous matter—on that albuminous substance which we call sarcode or protoplasm—a nitro-carbon compound in the semi-fluid state.
Hence, life is not a result of organization, but vice versa. Amorphous protoplasm gives rise to organized forms. Having already, in previous writings, called attention to the high importance of the Moneres from this and other points of view, I can here only refer to those papers. At present I must content myself with pointing out the importance of the Moneres in connection with the great question of the origin of life. The oldest organisms, sprung by spontaneous generation (Urzengung) from inorganic matter, must have been Moneres.
It is precisely the general importance of the Moneres for the solution of the greatest of biological problems that makes them a stumbling-block and a scandal to the opponents of the doctrine of evolution. These men, of course, take every opportunity to dispute the existence of Moneres, exactly as was done in the case of Eozoön Canadense, the much-disputed oldest fossil of the Laurentian formation. The most experienced and competent students of the class Rhizopoda—at their head Prof. Carpenter, of London, and the distinguished anatomist Max Schultze, of Bonn, deceased—are firmly convinced that the American Eozoön is a genuine Rhizopod—a Polythalamium, near akin to Polytrema. I have myself for several years made a special study of Rhizopods. I have minutely examined several fine preparations of Eozoön made by Carpenter and Schultze, and I have not the slightest doubt that it is a genuine Polythalamium, and not a mineral.
But, just because of the extraordinary fundamental importance of Eozoön, and because the discovery of that fossil adds several millions of years to the earth's organic history, making the primitive Silurian formations to appear recent by comparison, and rendering a great service to the doctrine of evolution, therefore it is that the opponents of that doctrine so stoutly affirm that it is not of organic origin at all, but purely mineral. But as the high importance of Eozoön was placed in its proper light by these unavailing attacks of ill-informed opponents, so is it, too, with the Moneres—with or without Bathybius. The true Moneres remain, forming an immovable foundation-stone of the doctrine of evolution.—Kosmos.
- Translated from the German, by J. Fitzgerald, A.M.