Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/February 1878/Editor's Table
|←Correspondence|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 12 February 1878 (1878)
THE Rev. Joseph Cook seems to have attained the position of an accepted champion of orthodoxy in its conflict with the science of the time, and as such must have a degree of attention to which he is not otherwise entitled. In the delivery of the lectures which compose his volume on biology, he was listened to, we are told, by large audiences of cultivated and scholarly men, who applauded him enthusiastically; while the book has been highly praised by eminent theologians and numerous newspapers, and has had a brisk and extensive sale. Yet we observe that the tide of encomium is perceptibly falling, and shrewd orthodox people are beginning to see that they cannot too quickly relieve themselves of responsibility in regard to his work. In an able review, in the January New-Englander, the scientific charlatanry of Mr. Cook's book is thoroughly exposed; its taste and rhetoric are pronounced "execrable," and the writer closes by saying that "this production is not one for orthodoxy to be proud of, and that it is best to declare this opinion plainly and promptly."
Nevertheless there is a startling significance in the fact that such a work could have received from an intelligent Christian community the measure of commendation that has been accorded to it. Any infidel book that had gone as far toward extirpating the miraculous from Christianity would have been pitched into the flames as blasphemous by every devout believer. The grand central miracle of Christianity, among all orthodox people held as a belief too sacred to be approached in a rationalistic way, is the supernatural genesis of its divine founder. And yet this reverend biologist of Boston attacks the subject with the microscope, quotes Haeckel to prove that bees multiply without the intervention of the male, claims that this principle "extends to the higher forms of life," and, "in the presence of Almighty God," suggests that Christ may have originated in the same natural way. He even thinks that if this fact of parthenogenesis in natural history had been sufficiently known it would have been potent in saving men from skepticism by relieving their perplexities respecting the parentage of the Saviour, and he cites a conspicuous illustration, as follows: "When a great soul like the tender spirit of our sainted Lincoln, in his early days, with little knowledge, but with great thoughtfulness, was troubled with this difficulty, and almost thrown into infidelity by not knowing that the law that there must be two parents is not universal, I am willing to allude, even in such a presence as this, to the latest science concerning miraculous conception." "The latest science!" Perhaps Mr. Lincoln, after all, with his "little knowledge," was not so ignorant as our biological lecturer, who seems not to know that the Swiss naturalist, Bonnet, had established asexual multiplication, in the case of plant-lice, three-quarters of a century before Lincoln was born.
We must not, however, expect too much, and are glad of any earnest scientific discussion in theological quarters. A book from a clergyman, bearing the title of "Biology," has not only the commendable merit of novelty, but it is an encouraging sign of the times, and a promising precedent for the future. Nor should we be too exacting in regard to the quality of first efforts, as theology is certainly not the best preparation for biology. Yet when a Christian preacher takes up the science, and we allow for the imperfections of treatment to be naturally expected of an inquirer in an unfamiliar region, we are still entitled to demand candor, fairness, and conscientious painstaking honesty of statement. Though we may not get intelligence, we ought, at least, to have common morality. We propose briefly to test Mr. Cook's book by this very moderate standard, and will take his first position as a sample. We shall thus be enabled not only to get a good measure of the claims of his work, but to correct a popular misapprehension of some consequence.
It is generally known that Prof. Huxley, a few years ago, examined a substance brought up from the sea bottom, and announced it as a newly discovered form of protoplasm, to which he gave the name of Bathybius; and it is currently supposed that he afterward abandoned this view as erroneous. Mr. Cook begins his biology with an account of this matter. Its first sentence is as follows: "In 1868 Prof. Huxley, in an elaborate paper in the Microscopical Journal, announced his belief that the gelatinous substance found in the ooze of the beds of the deep seas is a sheet of living matter, extending around the globe." We have carefully read that article, and have found no such statement, and nothing equivalent to it, there. Dr. A. P. Peabody, of Harvard University, reviewing the book we are now considering, says that "Mr. Cook's reasonings are based in no instance on his own statement of physical or scientific truth or fact; but always on the expressly-quoted words of writers of universally admitted authority." This is contradicted by the very first utterance of Mr. Cook, in which Prof. Huxley's words are neither "expressly quoted" nor quoted at all, and in which the substance is not to be found in the article cited.
The second paragraph of the book opens thus: "To this amazingly strategic and haughtily-trumpeted substance found at the lowest bottoms of the oceans, Huxley gave the scientific name Bathybius, from two Greek words meaning deep and sea, and assumed that it was in the past, and would be in the future, the progenitor of all the life on the planet." It is not true that, in the article cited by Mr. Cook, Prof. Huxley made any such assumption as is alleged, any more than it is true that the word Bathybius has the derivation here assigned to it. This characterization of the announcement of Bathybius is simply a slanderous misrepresentation. That Mr. Cook intended it to apply to Huxley is obvious from the connection, and is proved by the fact that on page 69 he again refers to it as "the haughty claim of Huxley." Nothing could be more false, as we shall presently show, than the impression conveyed by this language.
On the third page we are told that "Dr. Carpenter rejected Huxley's testimony on this matter of fact," but where, or in what form, he has done so is not mentioned. The statement is entirely improbable, as Dr. Carpenter had himself observed the living Bathybius dredged up on the expedition of the Porcupine, samples of which he furnished to Huxley; while so late as 1875 he speaks in his work on the microscope "of these indefinite expansions of protoplasmic substance, which there is much reason to regard as generally spread over the deep-sea bed."
Having introduced Bathybius to the attention of his auditors, in the manner here indicated, Mr. Cook announced to them, with due rhetorical flourish, that it is now nothing but an exploded myth. We shall be better able to judge of the truthfulness, both of his former statements and of this assertion, by briefly glancing at the history of the substance.
The paper of 1868 here referred to is entitled "On some Organisms living at Great Depths in the North Atlantic Ocean." In the first part of this article he referred to a report, which he had himself drawn up, concerning the sticky mud obtained by Captain Dayman in sounding the North Atlantic in 1857; the report of Prof. Huxley being published in 1858. In his observations upon this mud he discovered some curious little microscopic bodies, which at first suggested an organic origin, but which Prof. Huxley concluded were not of this character. The language in the original report is as follows: "I find in almost all these deposits a multitude of very curious rounded bodies, to all appearance consisting of several concentric layers surrounding a minute, clear centre, and looking, at first sight, somewhat like single cells of the plant protococcus; as these bodies, however, are rapidly and completely dissolved by dilute acids, they cannot be organic, and I will, for convenience' sake, simply call them coccoliths."
Some observations made by Dr. Wallich and Mr. Sorby led them to think that Prof. Huxley had been mistaken in the conclusion here given, and that the objects which he supposed to be of a mineral nature were really of organic origin. Prof. Huxley was then led to reconsider the subject, of which he made a prolonged study with higher microscopic powers, and the result was that he came to the same conclusion as the observers referred to, that the minute microscopic objects belonged to the lowest forms of the living world. Certain minute albuminous or protoplasmic bodies of the very lowest type had been discovered by Prof. Haeckel, and named moners, and it was Prof. Huxley's opinion that the minute objects he had been studying from the sea-slime belong to this class. We quote the passages from the article in the Microscopical Journal of 1868, in which his conclusions are stated: "Such, so far as I have been able to determine them, are the facts of structure to he observed in the gelatinous matter of the Atlantic mud, and in the coccoliths and coccospheres. I have hitherto said nothing about their meaning, as, in an inquiry so difficult and fraught with interest as this, it seems to be in the highest degree important to keep the questions of fact and the questions of interpretation well apart."
Again: "I conceive that the granule-heaps and the transparent gelatinous matter, in which they are imbedded, represent masses of protoplasm. Take away the cysts which characterize the radiolaria, and the dead spherozum would very nearly resemble one of the masses of this deep-sea Urschleim, which must, I think, be regarded as anew form of those simple animated beings which have recently been so well described by Haeckel, in his 'Monographic der Moneren.' I propose to confer upon this new monera the generic name of Bathybius, and to call it after the eminent Professor of Zoölogy in the University of Jena, B. Haeckelii."
This modest and cautious statement is the whole of the announcement of Bathybius. It is made by a scientific man in the true spirit of science, and when the Rev. Mr. Cook charges Huxley with "haughtiness" in regard to it, his statement has no value except as an exemplification of the trustworthiness of his book. What the nature of the evidence was for the existence of this protoplasmic substance at the bottom of the sea will appear from the following statements:
Those eminent zoölogists, Sir Wyville Thomson and Dr. William B. Carpenter, while engaged in a deep-sea exploring expedition in the North Atlantic with the war-ship Porcupine, had abundant opportunity to examine the ooze of the ocean-bed, and they write in the Magazine of Natural History (1869), "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." The protoplasmic character of this simplest formed material of low animal life was still further attested by Sir Wyville Thomson in his "Depths of the Sea" (page 410, second edition, 1874): "If a little of the mud, in which this viscid condition is most marked, be placed in a drop of sea-water under the microscope, we can usually see, after a time, an irregular network of matter resembling white of egg, distinguishable by its maintaining its outline and not mixing with the water. This network may be seen gradually altering in form, and entangled granules and foreign bodies change their relative positions. The gelatinous matter is, therefore, capable of a certain amount of movement, and there can he no doubt that it manifests the phenomena of a very simple form of life."
Dr. Emil Bessels, who accompanied the expedition of the Polaris, writes to a German journal of natural history: "I found in Smith Sound, at the depth of ninety-two fathoms, great masses of free, undifferentiated homogeneous protoplasm," which he names Protobathybius. He adds: "I would simply say, in this place, that these masses consisted of pure protoplasm, in which calcareous particles occurred only by accident. They appeared to be very sticky, mesh-like structures, with perfect amœboid movements; they took up particles of carmine and other foreign substances, and there was active motion of the nuclei."
And now, to nullify the effect of such direct, positive, and concurrent observations made and verified, again and again, by experienced men, what have we? Only this: the ship Challenger started around the world to dredge the sea-bottom, and its observers sought Bathybius and did not find it. But this negative evidence is worth nothing, except to correct the error of those who supposed Bathybius to be universally distributed over the sea bottom. It does not touch the question of its existence. Sir Wyville Thomson, in charge of the Challenger expedition, wrote to Huxley that they had not only failed to discover Bathybius, but that it was seriously suspected that the thing to which the name had been given is little more than sulphate of lime, precipitated in a flocculent state from sea-water by spirits of wine. Prof. Huxley immediately communicated this report of Sir Wyville Thomson to Nature, and he adds: "Prof. Thomson speaks very guardedly, and does not consider the fate of Bathybius to be as yet absolutely decided. But, since I am mainly responsible for the mistake, if it be one, of introducing this singular substance into the list of living things, I think I shall err on the right side in attaching even greater weight than he does to the view which he suggests."
Let it be remembered that the sole question here is as to the interpretation to be given to observations on sea-slime. But such observations had been made elsewhere over and over again, in many places, and by numerous microscopists. The flocculent gypsum precipitate in sea-water had been, moreover, known to everybody who had preserved marine animals in alcohol. It was, of course, a proper question to raise, how-far such an effect might not be mistaken for reactions of protoplasm; but to suppose that anything was here finally decided is simply preposterous—much more so, that all previous observations on sea-bottom protoplasm were proved worthless. The "suspicion" was quite legitimate, but it was only a suspicion, and was offered as nothing more. Huxley expressed himself simply in the terms of courtesy that were suitable to the occasion. Sir Wyville Thomson spoke cautiously; and Huxley accorded to his statement all possible weight. If he had been disposed to contest the matter, this would not have been the appropriate time, as his object was nothing more than to communicate to the public what had been sent to him for that purpose. Mr. Cook makes a great ado about Huxley's "recantation," but, so far from recanting, he does not even admit that he had been mistaken. He gave Sir Wyville Thomson the fullest benefit of his doubt, and there left the matter for further investigation. The Rev. Mr. Cook, however, returns to the subject in his third lecture, and edifies his intelligent Boston audience by closing with the following whoop: "That Bathybius has been discovered in 1875 by the ship Challenger, to be—hear O heavens! and give ear, earth!—sulphate of lime. (Applause.)"
We may here note the contrast between the theological biology which so evoked the plaudits of Boston orthodoxy and biology of the common scientific kind. It was evidently a part of Mr. Cook's polemical tactics to open his course of lectures by a sensational dash that should make a breach in the scientific ranks which it was the object of the "Monday lectureship" to rout, and for this purpose nothing could be more telling than to discredit Prof. Huxley at the outset. So much had been said, and so little was really known, about "Huxley's Bathybius," that this seemed to offer the most vulnerable point of attack. But had Mr. Cook not been talking to people who know nothing about the difficulties of arriving at the truths of Nature—nothing of the inexorable disciplines of science—and who pride themselves on never giving up a dogma once professed; had he not, in short, been catering to the "closed, dogmatic" mind of a locality proverbial for pride of opinion, his effort would hardly have been greeted with the reported applause. Had Prof. Huxley been in error, would it not have been to his credit to retract it? How else have the truths of science and the laws of Nature been established, except by righting wrong conclusions, committing mistakes and then correcting them, and escaping from erroneous opinions by showing them to be false? This is the essential method, and the constant work of science, and it is exactly here that it becomes the antagonist of that method which tacitly or openly affirms infallibility of belief, and holds it to be a reproach and a disgrace to acknowledge that one has ever been mistaken. If there had been no revolt against this spirit, we should never have had any such thing as science.
We dismiss this much-landed book with one more illustration of its quality. Having got through the sixth lecture, still devoted to his main thesis the deduction of immortality from protoplasm—Mr. Cook pointed the moral of the occasion in the following characteristic way. He said: "Here is the last white and mottled bird that flew to us out of the tall Tribune tower; and softly folded under its wing are these words concerning Darwin, from Thomas Carlyle, at his own fireside in London." He then read the sensational story that has for some time past been going the rounds of the newspapers about Carlyle's declaring the Darwins to be "atheists all," with some stupid rant about the gospel of dirt, and men coming from monkeys and frog-spawn, and winding up with his standing on the brink of eternity and reviving the lessons of his catechism. Mr. Cook then calls impressively upon "Boston, and the New England colleges, and all tender and thoughtful souls, to listen to Thomas Carlyle as he stands on the brink of eternity."
Now, we never doubted that this representation, so greedily caught by press and pulpit, was essentially a lie. Not that Mr. Carlyle may not have included Darwinism among the multitudinous modern things that he has been wont to rave about, but this circumstantial statement had all the internal evidence of fabrication and falsehood. Mr. Cook says it was an "extract from a letter from Carlyle, published in Scotland, and quoted in the London Times." Yet long before Mr. Cook published his book the story was contradicted in that journal "on the best authority." The "Monday lectureship" was, however, "abreast of the times" only for the purpose of circulating the scandal. The following note, printed in the London Times of January 20, 1877, neither appears in the "Biology," nor, so far as we have observed, has appeared in the American newspapers which gave such swift passport to the first statement:
This should have been quite sufficient to stop the story, but some people are incredulous when dirty gossip is to be checked, and demand responsible names. It may, therefore, be proper to say that we happen to have been informed by Herbert Spencer that the note to the Times was communicated by Mrs. Lecky, the wife of the historian, and that she stated to Mr. Spencer before its publication that, while Mr. Carlyle, in pursuance of his practice of never noticing misstatements, would not contradict it himself, he had authorized her to make the contradiction. It thus appears that a party in England forges a libelous letter, in the interest of orthodoxy, which is made to do duty in New England in the same interest, while the solemn adjuration to listen to the libelous forgery is responded to with the usual "applause."
It is the frequent custom of clergymen to characterize much of the work of modern scientific thinkers as " pseudoscience," "sham science," and "science falsely so called;" but truly does the Rev. Joseph Cook's "Biology" answer to their ideal of a genuine thing? And must we not conclude, from the way they praise it, that our orthodox friends are rather hard pressed for championship?
It is not often that we get so much momentous thought in so narrow a compass as was furnished by Professors Eliot and Marsh, in their addresses at the recent opening of the American Museum of Natural History in this city. President Eliot, of Harvard, summed up in a few weighty words the grandest characteristic of modern science, and pointed out two of its most profound and far-reaching results. The completion of a new Museum of Natural History seemed the fitting occasion to recognize that science has given a kind of new birth to the human mind—a new method and spirit of thought in essential contrast with the old dogmatic dispensation. This grand result, not yet very widely recognized, and where recognized not yet very courageously avowed, nevertheless many times out-weighs in import all the material conquests of scientific research. The doctrine of heredity, in its comprehensive application to man and social institutions, and the doctrine of continuity in Nature, and the slow unfolding of higher and better conditions, are credited with an exalted place among the later achievements of the scientific mind. We cannot forbear expressing our gratification at so unqualified an indorsement from such a distinguished source, and on such a conspicuous occasion, of ideas which The Popular Science Monthly has earnestly sought to diffuse ever since it was started.
Prof. Marsh made a telling appeal for the encouragement of original scientific work. He called attention to the danger that such museums are liable to degenerate into mere shows, and pointed out that their higher service is to facilitate, encourage, and keep alive, that spirit of investigation by which alone knowledge is developed and perfected. His suggestions were pertinent and timely, and it is to be hoped they will be heeded, and that due provision will be made for students who wish to engage in the promotion of original work.
- See Popular Science Monthly, October, 1877, p. 648.