Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/Virchow and Evolution
|←Traces of an Early Race in Japan||Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 January 1879 (1879)
Virchow and Evolution
By John Tyndall
|Astronomical Magnitudes and Distances→|
THIS world of ours has, on the whole, been an inclement region for the growth of natural truth; but it may be that the plant is all the hardier for the bendings and buffetings it has undergone. The torturing of a shrub, within certain limits, strengthens it. Through the struggles and passions of the brute, man reaches his estate; through savagery and barbarism his civilization; and through illusion and persecution his knowledge of Nature, including that of his own frame. The bias toward natural truth must have been strong to have withstood and overcome the opposing forces. Feeling appeared in the world before knowledge; and thoughts, conceptions, and creeds, founded on emotion, had, before the dawn of science, taken root in man. Such thoughts, conceptions, and creeds, must have met a deep and general want; otherwise their growth could not have been so luxuriant, nor their abiding power so strong. This general need—this hunger for the ideal and wonderful—led eventually to the differentiation of a caste, whose vocation it was to cultivate the mystery of life and its surroundings, and to give shape, name, and habitation to the emotions which that mystery aroused. Even the savage lived, not by bread alone, but in a mental world peopled with forms answering to his capacities and needs. As time advanced—in other words, as the savage opened out into civilized man—these forms were purified and ennobled, until they finally emerged in the mythology and art of Greece:
"Where still the magic robe of Poesy
Wound itself lovingly around the Truth."
As poets the priesthood would have been justified; their deities, celestial and otherwise, with all their retinue and appliances, being more or less legitimate symbols and personifications of the aspects of Nature and the phases of the human soul. The priests, however, or those among them who were mechanics and not poets, claimed objective validity for their conceptions, and tried to base upon external evidence that which sprang from the innermost need and nature of man. It is against this objective rendering of the emotions—this thrusting into the region of fact and positive knowledge, of conceptions essentially ideal and poetic—that science, consciously or unconsciously, wages war. Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on its subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain. But when, manipulated by the constructive imagination, mixed with imperfect or inaccurate historic data, and moulded by misapplied logic, this feeling traverses our knowledge of Nature, Science, as in duty bound, stands as a hostile power in its path. It is against the mythologic scenery, if I may use the term, rather than against the life and substance of religion, that Science enters her protest. Sooner or later among thinking people, that scenery will be taken for what it is worth—as an effort on the part of man to bring the mystery of life and Nature within the range of his capacities; as a temporary and essentially fluxional rendering in terms of knowledge of that which transcends all knowledge, and admits only of ideal approach.
The signs of the times point in this direction. It is, for example, the obvious aim of Mr. Matthew Arnold to protect, amid the wreck of dogma, the poetic basis of religion. And it is to be remembered that under the circumstances poetry may be the purest accessible truth. In other influential quarters a similar spirit is at work. In a remarkable article published by Prof. Knight, of St. Andrews, in the September number of the Nineteenth Century, amid other free utterances, the following is to be found:
These are all bold words to be spoken before the moral philosophy class of a Scotch university, while those I have underlined show a remarkable freedom of dealing with the sacred text. They repeat in fuller language what I ventured to utter four years ago regarding the book of Genesis: "Profoundly interesting and indeed pathetic to me are those attempts of the opening mind of man to appease its hunger for a Cause. But the book of Genesis has no voice in scientific questions. It is a poem, not a scientific treatise. In the former aspect it is forever beautiful; in the latter it has been, and it will continue to be, purely obstructive and hurtful." My agreement with Prof. Knight extends still further. "Does the vital," he asks, "proceed by a still remoter development from the non-vital? Or was it created by a fiat of volition? Or"—and here he emphasizes his question—"has it always existed in some form or other as an eternal constituent of the universe? I do not see," he replies, "how we can escape from the last alternative." With the whole force of my conviction I say, "Nor do I;" though my mode of regarding the "eternal constituent" might differ from that of Prof. Knight.
When matter was defined by Descartes, he deliberately excluded the idea of force or motion from its attributes and from his definition. Extension only was taken into account. And, inasmuch as the impotence of matter to generate motion was assumed, its observed motions were referred to an external cause. God, resident outside of matter, gave the impulse. In this connection the argument in Young's "Night Thoughts" will occur to most readers:
"Who Motion foreign to the smallest grain
Shot through vast masses of enormous weight?
Against this notion of Descartes the great deist John Toland, whose ashes lie unmarked in Putney Churchyard, strenuously contended. He affirmed motion to be an inherent attribute of matter—that no portion of matter was at rest, and that even the most quiescent solids were animated by a motion of their ultimate particles. It seems to me that the idea of vitality entertained in our day by Prof. Knight closely resembles the idea of motion entertained by his opponents in Toland's day. Motion was then virtually asserted to be a thing sui generis, distinct from matter, and incapable of being generated out of matter. Hence the obvious inference when matter was observed to move. It was the vehicle of an energy not its own—the repository of forces impressed on it from without—the purely passive recipient of the shock of the Divine. The form of logic continues, but the subject-matter is changed. "The evolution of Nature," says Prof. Knight, "may be a fact; a daily and hourly apocalypse. But we have no evidence of the non-vital passing into the vital. Spontaneous generation is, as yet, an imaginative guess, unverified by scientific tests. And matter is not itself alive. Vitality, whether seen in a single cell of protoplasm or in the human brain, is a thing sui generis, distinct from matter, and incapable of being generated out of matter." It may be, however, that, in process of time, vitality will follow the example of motion, and, after the necessary antecedent wrangling, take its place among the attributes of that "universal mother" who has been so often misdefined.
That "matter is not itself alive" Prof. Knight seems to regard as an axiomatic truth. Let us place in contrast with this the notion entertained by the philosopher Ueberweg, one of the subtilest heads that Germany has produced:
We may not be able to taste or smell alcohol in a tub of fermented cherries, but by distillation we obtain from them concentrated Kirschwasser. Hence Ueberweg's comparison of the brain to a still, which concentrates the sensation and feeling, preexisting, but diluted in the food.
"Definitions," says Mr. Holyoake, "grow as the horizon of experience expands. They are not inventions, but descriptions of the state of a question. No man sees all through, a discovery at once." Thus Descartes's notion of matter, and his explanation of motion, would be put aside as trivial by a physiologist or a crystallographer of the present day. They are not descriptions of the state of the question. And yet, it may be said in passing, a desire sometimes shows itself in distinguished quarters to bind us down to conceptions which passed muster in the infancy of knowledge, but which are wholly incompatible with our present enlightenment. Mr. Martineau, I think, errs when he seeks to hold me to views enunciated by "Democritus and the mathematicians." That definitions should change as knowledge advances is in accordance both with sound sense and scientific practice. When, for example, the undulatory theory was started, it was not imagined that the vibrations of light could be transverse to the direction of propagation. The example of sound was at hand, which was a case of longitudinal vibration. Now, the substitution of transverse for longitudinal vibrations in the case of light involved a radical change of conception as to the mechanical properties of the luminiferous medium. But, though this change went so far as to fill space with a substance possessing the properties of a solid, rather than those of a gas, the change was accepted, because the newly discovered facts imperatively demanded it. Following Mr. Martineau's example, the opponent of the undulatory theory might effectually twit the holder of it on his change of front. "This ether of yours," he might say, "alters its style with every change of service. Starting as a beggar, with scarcely a rag of 'property' to cover its bones, it turns up as a prince when large undertakings are wanted. You had some show of reason when, with the case of sound before. you, you assumed your ether to be a gas in the last extremity of attenuation. But, now that new service is rendered necessary by new facts, you drop the beggar's rags, and accomplish an undertaking, great and princely enough in all conscience; for it implies that not only planets of enormous weight, but comets with hardly any weight at all, fly through your hypothetical solid without perceptible loss of motion." This would sound very cogent, but it would be very vain. Equally vain, in my opinion, is Mr. Martineau's contention that we are not justified in modifying, in accordance with advancing knowledge, our notions of matter.
Before parting from Prof. Knight, let me commend his courage as well as his insight. We have heard much of late of the peril to morality involved in the decay of religious belief. What Mr, Knight says under this head is worthy of all respect and attention:
I have elsewhere stated that some of the best men of my acquaintance—men lofty in thought and beneficent in act—belong to a class who assiduously let the belief referred to alone. They derive from it neither stimulus nor inspiration, while—I say it with regret—were I in quest of persons who, in regard to the finer endowments of human character, are to be ranked among the unendowed, I should find some characteristic samples among the noisier defenders of the orthodox belief. These, however, are but "hand-specimens" on both sides; the wider data referred to by Prof. Knight constitute, therefore, a welcome corroboration of my experience. Again, my excellent critic, Prof. Blackie, describes Buddha as being "a great deal more than a prophet; a rare, exceptional, and altogether transcendental incarnation of moral perfection." And yet, "what Buddha preached was a gospel of pure human ethics, divorced not only from Brahma and the Brahmanic Trinity, but even from the existence of God." These civilized and gallant voices from the North contrast pleasantly with the barbarous whoops which sometimes come to us along the same meridian—shouts of the Mohawk that ought not to be heard among the groves of Academe.
Looking backward from my present standpoint over the earnest past, a boyhood fond of play and physical action, but averse to school-work, lies before me. The aversion did not arise from intellectual apathy or want of appetite for knowledge, but mainly from the fact that my earliest teachers lacked the power of imparting vitality to what they taught. Athwart all play and amusement, however, a thread of seriousness ran through my character; and many a sleepless night of my childhood has been passed, fretted by the question, "Who made God?" I was well versed in Scripture; for I loved the Bible, and was prompted by that love to commit large portions of it to memory. Later on I became adroit in turning my Scriptural knowledge against the Church of Rome; but the characteristic doctrines of that Church marked only for a time the limits of inquiry. The eternal Sonship of Christ, for example, as enunciated in the Athanasian Creed, perplexed me. The resurrection of the body was also a thorn in my mind, and here I remember that a passage in Blair's "Grave" gave me momentary rest:
". . . . Sure the same power
That rear'd the piece at first and took it down
The conclusion seemed for the moment entirely fair, but, with further thought, my difficulties came back to me. I had seen cows and sheep browsing upon churchyard grass, which sprang from the decaying mould of dead men. The flesh of these animals was undoubtedly a modification of human flesh, and the persons who fed upon them were as undoubtedly, in part, a more remote modification of the same substance. I figured the self-same molecules as belonging first to one body and afterward to a different one, and asked myself how two bodies so related could possibly arrange their claims at the day of resurrection. The scattered parts of each were to be reassembled and set as they were. But, if handed over to the one, how could they possibly enter into the composition of the other? Omnipotence itself, I concluded, could not reconcile the contradiction. Thus the plank which Blair's mechanical theory of the resurrection brought momentarily into sight disappeared, and I was again cast abroad on the waste ocean of speculation.
At the same time I could by no means get rid of the idea that the aspects of Nature and the consciousness of man implied the operation of a power altogether beyond my grasp—an energy the thought of which raised the temperature of the mind, though it refused to accept shape, personal or otherwise, from the intellect. Perhaps the able critics of the Saturday Review are justified in speaking as they sometimes do of Mr. Carlyle. They owe him nothing, and have a right to announce the fact in their own way. I, on the other hand, owe him a great deal, and am also in honor bound to acknowledge the debt. Few, perhaps, who are privileged to come into contact with that illustrious man have shown him a sturdier front than I have, or in discussing modern science have more frequently withstood him. But I could see that his contention at bottom always was that the human soul has claims and yearnings which physical science cannot satisfy. England to come will assuredly thank him for his affirmation of the ethical and ideal side of human nature. Be this as it may, at the period now reached in my story, the feeling above referred to was indefinitely strengthened, my whole life being at the same time rendered more earnest, resolute, and laborious, by the writings of Carlyle. In this relation I cared little for political theories or philosophic systems, but I cared a great deal for the propagated life and strength of pure and powerful minds. At school I had picked up some mathematics and physics; my-stock of both was, however, scanty, and I resolved to augment it. But it was really with the view of learning whether mathematics and physics could help me in other spheres, rather than with the desire of acquiring distinction in either science, that I resolved, in 1848, to break the continuity of my life, and to devote the meagre funds I had then collected to the study of science in Germany.
But science soon fascinated me on its own account; and I could see that, to carry it duly and honestly out, moral qualities were incessantly invoked. There was no room allowed for insincerity—no room even for carelessness. The edifice of science had been raised by men who had unswervingly followed the truth as it is in Nature; and in doing so had often sacrificed interests which are usually potent in this world. Among these rationalistic men of Germany conscientiousness in work was as much insisted on as it could be among theologians. And why, since they had not the rewards or penalties of the theologian to offer to their disciples? Because they assumed, and were justified in assuming, that those whom they addressed had that within them which would respond to their appeal. If Germany should ever change for something less noble the simple earnestness and fidelity to duty which in those days characterized her teachers, and through them her sons generally, it will not be because of rationalism. Such a decadent Germany might coexist with the most rampant rationalism without their standing to each other in the relation of cause and effect.
My first really laborious investigation landed me in a region which harmonized with my speculative tastes. It was essentially an inquiry in molecular physics, having reference to the curious, and then perplexing, phenomena exhibited by crystals when freely suspended in the magnetic field. I here lived amid the most complex operations of magnetism in its twofold aspect of an attractive and a repellent force. Iron was attracted by a magnet, bismuth was repelled, and the crystals operated on ranged themselves under these two heads. Faraday and Plücker had worked assiduously at the subject, and had invoked the aid of new forces to account for the phenomena. It was soon, however, found that the displacement, in a crystal, of an atom of the iron class by an atom of the bismuth class, without any change of crystalline form, produced a complete reversal of the phenomena. The lines through the crystal which were in the one case drawn toward the poles of the magnet, were driven in the other case from these poles. By such instances and the reasoning which they suggested, magne-crystallic action was proved to be due, not to the operation of new forces, but to the modification of the old ones by molecular arrangement. Whether diamagnetism, like magnetism, was a polar force, was in those days a subject of the most lively contention. It was finally proved to be so; and the most complicated cases of magne-crystallic action were immediately shown to be simple mechanical consequences of the principle of diamagnetic polarity. These early researches, which occupied in all five years of my life, and during which the molecular architecture of crystals was an incessant subject of mental contemplation, gave a tinge and bias to my subsequent scientific thought, and their influence is easily traced in my subsequent inquiries. For example, during nine long years of labor on the subject of radiation, heat and light were handled throughout by me, not as ends, but as instruments by the aid of which the mind might perchance lay hold upon the ultimate particles of matter.
Scientific progress depends on two factors which incessantly interact—the strengthening of the mind by exercise and the illumination of phenomena by knowledge. There seems no limit to the insight regarding physical processes which this interaction carries in its train. Through such insight we are enabled to enter and explore that subsensible world into which all natural phenomena strike their roots, and from which they derive nutrition. By it we are enabled to place before the mind's eye atoms and atomic motions which lie far beyond the range of the senses, and to apply to them reasoning as stringent as that applied by the mechanician to the motions and collisions of sensible masses. But, once committed to such conceptions, there is the risk of being led irresistibly beyond the bounds of inorganic Nature. Even in these early stages of scientific development I found myself more and more compelled to regard not only crystals, but organic structures, the body of man inclusive, as cases of molecular architecture, infinitely more complex, it is true, than those of inorganic Nature, but reducible, in the long-run, to the same mechanical laws. In ancient journals I find recorded ponderings and speculations relating to these subjects, and attempts made, by reference to magnetic and crystalline phenomena, to present some satisfactory image to the mind of the way in which plants and animals are built up. Perhaps I may be excused for noting a sample of these early speculations, already possibly known to a few of my readers, but which here finds a more suitable place than that which it formerly occupied.
Sitting, in the summer of 1855, with my friend Dr. Debus under the shadow of a massive elm on the bank of a river in Normandy, the current of our thoughts and conversation was substantially this: We regarded the tree above us. In opposition to gravity its molecules had ascended, diverged into branches, and budded into innumerable leaves. What caused them to do so—a power external to themselves, or an inherent force? Science rejects the outside builder; let us, therefore, consider from the other point of view the experience of the present year. A low temperature had kept back for weeks the life of the vegetable world. But at length the sun gained power—or, rather, the cloud-screen which our atmosphere had drawn between him and us was removed—and life immediately kindled under his warmth. But what is life, and how can solar light and heat thus affect it? Near our elm was a silver-birch, with its leaves rapidly quivering in the morning air. We had here motion, but not the motion of life. Each leaf moved as a mass under the influence of an outside force, while the motion of life was inherent and molecular. How are we to figure this molecular motion—the forces which it implies, and the results which flow from them? Suppose the leaves to be shaken from the birch-tree and enabled to attract and repel each other. To fix the ideas, suppose the point of each leaf to repel all other points and to attract the other ends, and the root of each leaf to repel all other roots, but to attract the points. The leaves would then resemble an assemblage of little magnets abandoned freely to the interaction of their own forces. In obedience to these they would arrange themselves, and finally assume positions of rest, forming a coherent mass. Let us suppose the breeze, which now causes them to quiver, to disturb the assumed equilibrium. As often as disturbed there would be a constant effort on the part of the leaves to reestablish it; and in making this effort the mass of leaves would pass through different shapes and forms. If other leaves, moreover, were at hand endowed with similar forces, the action would extend to them—a growth of the mass of leaves being the consequence.
We have strong reason for assuming that the ultimate particles of matter—the atoms and molecules of which it is made up—are endowed with forces coarsely typified by those here ascribed to the leaves. The phenomena of crystallization lead, of necessity, to this conception of molecular polarity. Under the operation of such forces the molecules of a seed, like our fallen leaves in the first instance, take up positions from which they would never move if undisturbed by an external impulse. But solar light and heat, which come to us as waves through space, are the great agents of molecular disturbance. On the inert molecules of seed and soil these waves impinge, disturbing the atomic equilibrium, which there is an immediate effort to restore. The effort, incessantly defeated—for the waves continue to pour in—is incessantly renewed; in the molecular struggle, matter is gathered from the soil and from the atmosphere, and built, in obedience to the forces which guide the molecules, into the special form of the tree. In a general way, therefore, the life of the tree might be defined as an unceasing effort to restore a disturbed equilibrium. In the building of crystals, Nature makes her first structural effort; we have here the earliest groping of the so-called "vital force," and the manifestations of this force in plants and animals, though, as already stated, indefinitely more complex, are to be regarded of the same mechanical quality as those concerned in the building of the crystal.
Consider the cycle of operations by which the seed produces the plant, the plant the flower, the flower again the seed, the causal line returning with the fidelity of a planetary orbit to its original point of departure. Who or what planned this molecular rhythm? We do not know—science fails even to inform us whether it was ever "planned" at all. Yonder butterfly has a spot of orange on its wing; and if we look at a drawing made a century ago, of one of the ancestors of that butterfly, we probably find the self-same spot upon the wing. For a century the molecules have described their cycles. Butterflies have been begotten, have been born, and have died; still we find the molecular architecture reproduced. Who or what determined this persistency of recurrence? We do not know; but we stand within our intellectual range when we say that there is probably nothing in that wing which may not yet find its Newton to prove that the principles involved in its construction are qualitatively the same as those brought into play in the formation of the solar system. We may even take a step further, and affirm that the brain of man—the organ of his reason and his sense— without which he can neither think nor feel—is also an assemblage of molecules, acting and reacting according to law. Here, however, the methods pursued in mechanical science come to an end; and if asked to deduce from the physical interaction of the brain-molecules the least of the phenomena of sensation or thought, we must acknowledge our helplessness. The association of both with the matter of the brain may be as certain as the association of light with the rising of the sun. But whereas in the latter case we have unbroken mechanical connection between the sun and our organs, in the former case logical continuity disappears. Between molecular mechanics and consciousness is interposed a fissure, over which the ladder of physical reasoning is incompetent to carry us. We must, therefore, accept the observed association as an empirical fact, without being able to bring it under the yoke of a priori deduction.
Such were the ponderings which ran habitually through my mind in the days of my scientific youth. They illustrate two things: a determination to push physical considerations to their utmost legitimate limit; and an acknowledgment that physical considerations do not lead to the final explanation of all that we feel and know. This acknowledgment, be it said in passing, was by no means made with the view of providing room for the play of considerations other than physical. The same intellectual duality, if I may use the phrase, manifests itself in the following extract from an article published in the Saturday Review for August 4, 1860:
"The philosophy of the future will assuredly take more account than that of the past of the dependence of thought and feeling on physical processes; and it may be that the qualities of the mind will be studied through organic combinations as we now study the character of a force through the affections of ordinary matter. We believe that every thought and every feeling has its definite mechanical correlative—that it is accompanied by a certain breaking up and remarshaling of the atoms of the brain. This latter process is purely physical; and, were the faculties we now possess sufficiently expanded, without the creation of any new faculty, it would doubtless be within the range of our augmented powers to infer from the molecular state of the brain the character of the thought acting on it, and conversely to infer from the thought the exact molecular condition of the brain. We do not say—and this, as will be seen, is all-important—that the inference here referred to would be an a priori one. But by observing, with the faculties we assume, the state of the brain, and the associated mental affections, both might be so tabulated side by side that, if one were given, a mere reference to the table would declare the other. Our present powers, it is true, shrivel into nothingness when brought to bear on such a problem, but it is because of its complexity and our limits that this is the case. The quality of the problem and of our powers are, we believe, so related that a mere expansion of the latter would enable them to cope with the former. Why, then, in scientific speculation should we turn our eyes exclusively to the past? May it not be that a time is coming—ages no doubt distant, but still advancing—when the dwellers upon this earth, starting from the gross human brain of to-day as a rudiment, may be able to apply to these mighty questions faculties of commensurate extent? Given the requisite expansibility to the present senses and intelligence of man—given also the time necessary for their expansion—and this high goal may be attained. Development is all that is required, and not a change of quality. There need be no absolute breach of continuity between us and our loftier brothers yet to come.
"We have guarded ourselves against saying that the inferring of thought from material combinations and arrangements would be an inference a priori. The inference meant would be the same in kind as that which the observation of the effects of food and drink upon the mind would enable us to make, differing only from the latter in the degree of analytical insight which we suppose attained. Given the masses and distances of the planets, we can infer the perturbations consequent on their mutual attractions. Given the nature of a disturbance in water, air, or ether—knowing the physical qualities of the medium—we can infer how its particles will he affected. In all this we deal with physical laws. The mind runs with certainty along the line of thoughts which connect the phenomena, and from beginning to end there is no break in the chain. But when we endeavor to pass by a similar process from the phenomena of physics to those of thought, we meet a problem which transcends any conceivable expansion of the powers which we now possess. We may think over the subject again and again, but it eludes all intellectual presentation. The territory of physics is wide, but it has its limits from which we look with vacant gaze into the region beyond. Let us follow matter to its utmost bounds, let us claim it in all its forms—even in the muscles, blood, and brain of man himself, it is ours to experiment with and to speculate upon. Casting the term ' vital force' from our vocabulary, let us reduce, if we can, the visible phenomena of life to mechanical attractions and repulsions. Having thus exhausted physics, and reached its very rim, a mighty mystery still looms beyond us. We have, in fact, made no step toward its solution. And thus it will ever loom, compelling the philosophies of successive ages to confess that—
. . . . ' we are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
In my work on "Heat," first published in 1863, I employ the precise language here extracted from the Saturday Review.
In this extract a distinction is revealed which I had resolved at all hazards to draw—that, namely, between what men knew or might know, and what they could never hope to know. Impart simple magnifying power to our present vision, and the atomic motions of the brain itself might be brought into view. Compare these motions with the corresponding states of consciousness, and an empirical nexus might be established; but "we try to soar in a vacuum when we endeavor to pass by logical deduction from the one to the other." Among those brain-effects a new product appears which defies mechanical treatment. We cannot deduce consciousness from motion, or motion from consciousness, as we deduce one motion from another. Nevertheless observation is open to us, and by it relations may be established which are at least as valid as the conclusions of deductive reason. The difficulty may really lie in the attempt to convert a datum into an inference—an ultimate fact into a product of logic. My desire for the moment, however, is, not to theorize, but to let fact speak in reply to accusation.
The most "materialistic" speculation for which I am responsible, prior to the "Belfast Address," is embodied in the following extract from a brief article written as far back as 1865:
"Supposing the molecules of the human body, instead of replacing others, and thus renewing a preëxisting form, to be gathered first-hand from Nature, and placed in the exact relative positions which they occupy in the body. Supposing them to have the same forces and distribution of forces, the same motions and distribution of motions—would this organized concourse of molecules stand before us as a sentient, thinking being? There seems no valid reason to assume that it would not. Or, supposing a planet carved from the sun set spinning round an axis, and sent revolving round the sun at a distance equal to that of our earth, would one consequence of the refrigeration of the mass be the development of organic forms? I lean to the affirmative."
This may be plain speaking, but it is without "dogmatism." An opinion is expressed, a belief, a leaning—not an established "doctrine," The burden of my writings in this connection is as much a recognition of the weakness of science as an assertion of its strength. In 1867 I told the working-men of Dundee that while making the largest demand for freedom of investigation; while considering science to be alike powerful as an instrument of intellectual culture, and as a ministrant to the material wants of men—if asked whether science has solved, or is likely in our day to solve, "the problem of the universe," I must shake my head in doubt. I compare the mind of man to a musical instrument with a certain range of notes, beyond which in both directions exists infinite silence. The phenomena of matter and force come within our intellectual range; but behind, and above, and around us, the real mystery of the universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution.
While refreshing my mind on these old themes I am struck by the poverty of my own thought; appearing to myself as a person possessing one idea, which so overmasters him that he is never weary of repeating it. That idea is the polar conception of the grandeur and the littleness of man—the vastness of his range in some respects and directions, and his powerlessness to take a single step in others. In 1868, before the mathematical and physical section of the British Association, then assembled at Norwich, I repeat the same well-worn note:
"In affirming the growth of the human body to be mechanical, and thought as exercised by us to have its correlative in the physics of the brain, the position of the 'materialist,' as far as that position is tenable, is stated. I think the materialist will be able finally to maintain this position against all attacks, but I do not think he can pass beyond it. The problem of the connection of body and soul is as insoluble in its modern form as it was in the prescientific ages. Phosphorus is a constituent of the human brain, and a trenchant German writer has exclaimed, 'Ohne Phospor kein Gedanke!' That may or may not be the case; but, even if we knew it to be the case, the knowledge would not lighten our darkness. On both sides of the zone here assigned to the materialist, he is equally helpless. If you ask him whence is this 'matter,' of which we have been discoursing—who or what divided it into molecules, and impressed upon them this necessity of running into organic forms—he has no answer. Science is also mute in regard to such questions. But if the materialist is confounded, and Science is rendered dumb, who else is prepared with an answer? Let us lower our heads and acknowledge our ignorance, priest and philosopher, one and all."
The roll of echoes which succeeded the lecture delivered by Prof. Virchow at Munich on September 22, 1877, was long and loud. The Times published a nearly full translation of the lecture, and it was eagerly commented on in other journals. Glances from it to an address delivered by me before the Midland Institute last autumn were very frequent. Prof. Virchow was held up to me in some quarters as a model of philosophic caution, who by his reasonableness reproved my rashness and by his depth reproved my shallowness. With true theologic courtesy I was sedulously emptied not only of "the principles of scientific thought," but of "common modesty" and "common sense." And, though I am indebted to Prof. Clifford for recalling in the Nineteenth Century for April the public mind in this connection from heated fancy to sober fact, I do not think a brief additional examination of Virchow's views, and of my relation to them, will be out of place here.
The key-note of his position is struck in the preface to the excellent English translation of his lecture—a preface written expressly by himself. Nothing, he says, was further from his intention than any wish to disparage the great services rendered by Mr. Darwin to the advancement of biological science, of which no one has expressed more admiration than himself. On the other hand, it seemed high time to him to enter an energetic protest against the attempts that are made to proclaim the problems of research as actual facts, and the opinions of scientists as established science. On the ground, among others, that it promotes the pernicious delusions of the socialists, Virchow considers the theory of evolution dangerous; but his fidelity to truth is so great that he would brave the danger and teach the theory, if it were only proved. The burden indeed of this celebrated lecture is a warning that a marked distinction ought to be made between that which is experimentally established, and that which is still in the region of speculation. As to the latter, Virchow by no means imposes silence. He is far too sagacious a man to commit himself, at the present time of day, to any such absurdity. But he insists that it ought not to be put on the same evidential level as the former. "It ought," as he poetically expresses it "to be written in small letters under the text." The audience ought to be warned that the speculative matter is only possible, not actual truth—that it belongs to the region of "belief," and not to that of demonstration. As long as a problem continues in this speculative stage it would be mischievous, he considers, to teach it in our schools. "We ought not," he urges, "to represent our conjecture as a certainty, nor our hypothesis as a doctrine: this is inadmissible." With regard to the connection between physical processes and mental phenomena he says: "I will, indeed, willingly grant that we can find certain gradations, certain definite points at which we trace a passage from mental processes to processes purely physical, or of a physical character. Throughout this discourse I am not asserting that it will never be possible to bring psychical processes into an immediate connection with those that are physical. All I say is, that we have at present no right to set up this possible connection as a doctrine of science." In the next paragraph he reiterates his position with reference to the introduction of such topics into school-teaching. "We must draw," he says, "a strict distinction between what we wish to teach and what we wish to search for. The objects of our research are expressed as problems (or hypotheses). We need not keep them to ourselves; we are ready to communicate them to all the world, and say, 'There is the problem; that is what we strive for.'. . . The investigation of such problems, in which the whole nation may be interested, cannot be restricted to any one. This is freedom of inquiry. But the problem (or hypothesis) is not, without further debate, to be made a doctrine." He will not concede to Dr. Haeckel "that it is a question for the schoolmasters to decide, whether the Darwinian theory of man's descent should be at once laid down as the basis of instruction, and the protoplastic soul be assumed as the foundation of all ideas concerning spiritual being." The professor concludes his lecture thus: "With perfect truth did Bacon say of old, ’Scientia est potential’ But he also defined that knowledge; and the knowledge he meant was not speculative knowledge, not the knowledge of hypotheses, but it was objective and actual knowledge. Gentlemen, I think we should be abusing our power, we should be imperiling our power, unless in our teaching we restrict ourselves to this perfectly safe and unassailable domain. From this domain we may make incursions into the field of problems, and I am sure that every venture of that kind will then find all needful security and support." I have emphasized by italics two sentences in the foregoing series of quotations; the other italics are the author's own.
Virchow's position could not be made clearer by any comments of mine than he has here made it himself. That position is one of the highest practical importance. "Throughout our whole German Fatherland," he says, "men are busied in renovating, extending, and developing the system of education, and in inventing fixed forms in which to mould it. On the threshold of coming events stands the Prussian law of education. In all the German states larger schools are being built, new educational establishments are set up, the universities are extended, 'higher' and 'middle' schools are founded. Finally comes the question, 'What is to be the chief substance of the teaching?' " What, in regard to science, Virchow thinks it ought and ought not to be, is disclosed by the foregoing quotations. There ought to be a clear distinction made between science in the state of hypothesis and science in the state of fact. From school-teaching the former ought to be excluded. And, inasmuch as it is still in its hypothetical stage, the ban of exclusion ought to fall upon the theory of evolution.
I now freely offer myself for judgment before the tribunal whose law is here laid down. First and foremost, then, I have never advocated the introduction of the theory of evolution into our schools. I should even be disposed to resist its introduction before its meaning had been better understood and its utility more fully recognized than it is now by the great body of the community. The theory ought, I think, to bide its time until the free conflict of discovery, argument, and opinion, has won for it this recognition. In dealing with the community great changes must have timeliness as well as truth upon their side. But, if the mouths of thinkers are stopped, the necessary social preparation will be impossible; an unwholesome divorce will be established between the expert and the public, and the slow and natural process of leavening the social lump by discovery and discussion will be displaced by something far less safe and salutary. On this count, then, I claim acquittal, being for the moment on the side of Virchow.
In a discourse delivered before the British Association at Liverpool, after speaking of the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter as belonging to "the dim twilight of conjecture," and affirming that "the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out," I sketch the nebular theory as enunciated by Kant and Laplace, and afterward proceed thus:
"Accepting some such view of the construction of our system as probable, a desire immediately arises to connect the present life of our planet with the past. We wish to know something of our remotest ancestry. On its first detachment from the sun, life, as we understand it, could not have been present on the earth. How, then, did it come there? The thing to be encouraged here is a reverent freedom—a freedom preceded by the hard discipline which checks licentiousness in speculation—while the thing to be repressed, both in science and out of it, is dogmatism. And here I am in the hands of the meeting, willing to end but ready to go on. I have no right to intrude upon you unasked the unformed notions which are floating like clouds or gathering to more solid consistency in the modern speculative mind."
I then notice more especially the theory of evolution:
"Those who hold the doctrine of evolution are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. They regard the nebular hypothesis as probable; and, in the utter absence of any proof of the illegality of the act, they prolong the method of Nature from the present into the past. Here the observed uniformity of Nature is their only guide. Having determined the elements of their curve in a world of observation and experiment, they prolong' that curve into an antecedent world, and accept as probable the unbroken sequence of development from the nebula to the present time."
Thus it appears that, long antecedent to the publication of his advice, I did exactly what Prof. Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not belong to it.
I now pass on to the "Belfast Address," and will cite at once from it the passage which has given rise to the most violent animadversion:
"Believing as I do in the continuity of Nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. At this point the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements that of the eye. By an intellectual necessity I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that 'matter' which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life."
Without halting for a moment I go on to do the precise thing which Prof. Virchow declares to be necessary:
"If you ask me whether there exists the least evidence to prove that any form of life can be developed out of matter independently of antecedent life, my reply is that evidence considered perfectly conclusive by many has been adduced, and that were we to follow a common example, and accept testimony because it falls in with our belief, we should eagerly close with the evidence referred to. But those to whom I refer as having studied this question, believing the evidence offered in favor of 'spontaneous generation' to be vitiated by error, cannot accept it. They know full well that the chemist now prepares from inorganic matter a vast array of substances, which were some time ago regarded as the products solely of vitality. They are intimately acquainted with the structural power of matter, as evidenced in the phenomena of crystallization. They can justify scientifically their belief in its potency, under the proper conditions, to produce organisms. But, in reply to your question, they will frankly admit their inability to point to any satisfactory experimental proof that life can be developed, save from demonstrable antecedent life."
Three years subsequently it fell to my lot to address the members of the Midland Institute at Birmingham, and a very few words will reveal the grounds of my reference on that occasion to the "Theory of Descent." "Ten years have elapsed," said Dr. Hooker at Norwich in 1868, "since the publication of 'The Origin of Species by Natural Selection,' and it is therefore not too early now to ask what progress that bold theory has made in scientific estimation. Since the 'Origin' appeared it has passed through four English editions, two American, two German, two French, several Russian, a Dutch, and an Italian. So far from Natural Selection being a thing of the past (the Athenæum had stated it to be so), it is an accepted doctrine with almost every philosophical naturalist, including, it will always be understood, a considerable proportion who are not prepared to admit that it accounts for all Mr, Darwin assigns to it." In the following year, at , Helmholtz took up the same ground. Another decade has now passed, and he is simply blind who cannot see the enormous progress made by the theory during that time. Some of the outward and visible signs of this advance are readily indicated. The hostility and fear which so long prevented the recognition of Mr. Darwin by his own university have vanished, and this year Cambridge, amid universal acclamation, conferred on him her Doctor's degree. The Academy of Sciences in Paris, which had so long persistently closed its doors against him, has also yielded at last; while sermons, lectures, and published articles, plainly show that even the clergy have, to a great extent, become acclimatized to the Darwinian air. My reference to Mr. Darwin in the Birmingham Address was based upon the knowledge that such changes had been accomplished, and were still going on.
That the lecture of Prof. Virchow can to any practical extent disturb this progress of public faith in the theory of evolution, I do not believe. That the special lessons of caution which he inculcates were exemplified by me, years before his voice was heard upon this subject, has been proved in the foregoing pages. It is possible to draw the coincident lines still further, for most of what he has said about spontaneous generation might have been uttered by me. I share his opinion that the theory of evolution in its complete form involves the assumption that at some period or other of the earth's history there occurred what would be now called "spontaneous generation." I agree with him that "the proofs of it are still wanting. . . . Whoever," he says, "recalls to mind the lamentable failure of all the attempts made very recently to discover a decided support for the generatio æquivoca in the lower forms of transition from the inorganic to the organic world will feel it doubly serious to demand that this theory, so utterly discredited, should be in any way accepted as the basis of all our views of life." I hold with Virchow that the failures have been lamentable, that the doctrine is utterly discredited. But my position here is so well known that I need not dwell upon it further.
With one special utterance of Prof. Virchow his translator connects me by name. "I have no objection," observes the professor, "to your saying that atoms of carbon also possess mind, or that in their connection with the Plastidule company they acquire mind; only I do not know how I am to perceive this." This is substantially what I had said seventeen years previously in the Saturday Review. The professor continues: "If I explain attraction and repulsion as exhibitions of mind, as psychical phenomena, I simply throw the Psyche out of the window, and the Psyche ceases to be a Psyche." I may say, in passing, that the Psyche that could be cast out of the window is not worth house-room. At this point the translator, who is evidently a man of culture, strikes in with a foot-note: "As an illustration of Prof. Virchow's meaning, we may quote the conclusion at which Dr. Tyndall arrives respecting the hypothesis of a human soul, offered as an explanation or a simplification of a series of obscure phenomena—psychical phenomena, as he calls them. 'If you are content to make your soul a poetic rendering of a phenomenon which refuses the yoke of ordinary physical laws, I, for one, would not object to this exercise of ideality.' " Prof. Virchow's meaning, I admit, required illustration; but I do not clearly see how the quotation from me subserves this purpose. I do not even know whether I am cited as meriting praise or deserving opprobrium. In a far coarser fashion this utterance of mine has been dealt with in another place: it may therefore be worth while to spend a few words upon it.
The sting of a wasp at the finger-end announces itself to the brain as pain. The impression made by the sting travels, in the first place, with comparative slowness along the nerves affected; and only when it reaches the brain have we the fact of consciousness. Those who think most profoundly on this subject hold that a chemical change, which, strictly interpreted, is atomic motion, is, in such a case, propagated along the nerve, and communicated to the brain. Again, on feeling the sting 1 flap the insect violently away. What has caused this motion of my hand? The command to remove the insect travels from the brain along the motor nerves to the proper muscles, and, their force being unlocked, they perform the work demanded of them. But what moved the nerve-molecules which unlocked the muscle? The sense of pain, it may be replied. But how can a sense of pain, or any other state of consciousness, make matter move? Not all the sense of pain or pleasure in the world could lift a stone or move a billiard-ball; why should it stir a molecule? Try to express the motion numerically in terms of the sensation, and the difficulty immediately appears. Hence the idea long ago entertained by philosophers, but lately brought into special prominence, that the physical processes are complete in themselves, and would go on just as they do if consciousness were not at all implicated. Consciousness, on this view, is a kind of by-product inexpressible in terms of force and motion, and unessential to the molecular changes going on in the brain.
Four years ago I wrote thus:
"Do states of consciousness enter as links into the chain of antecedence and sequence which gives rise to bodily actions? Speaking for myself, it is certain that I have no power of imagining such states interposed between the molecules of the brain, and influencing the transference of motion among the molecules. The thing 'eludes all mental presentation.' Hence an iron strength seems to belong to the logic which claims for the brain an automatic action uninfluenced by consciousness. But it is, I believe, admitted, by those who hold the automaton theory, that consciousness is, produced by the motion of the molecules of the brain; and this production of consciousness by molecular motion is to me quite as unpresentable to the mental vision as the production of molecular motion by consciousness. If I reject one result I must reject both. I, however, reject neither, and thus stand in the presence of two incomprehensibles instead of one incomprehensible."
Here I secede from the automaton theory, though maintained by friends who have all my esteem, and fall back upon the avowal which occurs with such wearisome iteration throughout the foregoing pages; namely, my own utter incapacity to grasp the problem.
This avowal is repeated with emphasis in the passage to which Prof. Virchow's translator draws attention. What, I there ask, is the causal connection between the objective and the subjective—between molecular motions and states of consciousness? My answer is: I do not see the connection, nor am I acquainted with anybody who does. It is no explanation to say that the objective and subjective are two sides of one and the same phenomenon. Why should the phenomenon have two sides? This is the very core of the difficulty. There are plenty of molecular motions which do not exhibit this two-sideness. Does water think or feel when it runs into frost-ferns upon a windowpane? If not, why should the molecular motion of the brain be yoked to this mysterious companion—consciousness? We can form a coherent picture of all the purely physical processes—the stirring of the brain, the thrilling of the nerves, the discharging of the muscles, and all the subsequent motions of the organism. We are here dealing with mechanical problems which are mentally presentable. But we can form no picture of the process whereby consciousness emerges either as a necessary link or as an accidental by-product of this series of actions. The reverse process of the production of motion by consciousness is equally unpresentable to the mind. We are here, in fact, on the boundary-line of the intellect, where the ordinary canons of science fail to extricate us from difficulty. If we are true to these canons, we must deny to subjective phenomena all influence on physical processes. The mechanical philosopher, as such, will never place a state of consciousness and a group of molecules in the relation of mover and moved. Observation proves them to interact; but, in passing from the one to the other, we meet a blank which the logic of deduction is unable to fill. This, the reader will remember, is the conclusion at which I had arrived more than twenty years ago. I lay bare unsparingly the central difficulty of the materialist, and tell him that the facts of observation which he considers so simple are "almost as difficult to be seized mentally as the idea of a soul." I go further, and say, in effect, to those who wish to retain this idea, "If you abandon the interpretations of grosser minds, who image the soul as a Psyche which could be thrown out of the window—an entity which is usually occupied, we know not how, among the molecules of the brain, but which on due occasion, such as the intrusion of a bullet or the blow of a club, can fly away into other regions of space—if, abandoning this heathen notion, you approach the subject in the only way in which approach is possible—if you consent to make your soul a poetic rendering of a phenomenon which, as I have taken more pains than anybody else to show you, refuses the joke of ordinary physical laws—then I, for one, would not object to this exercise of ideality." I say it strongly, but with good temper, that the theologian, or the defender of theology, who hacks and scourges me for putting the question in this light is guilty of black ingratitude.
Notwithstanding the agreement thus far pointed out, there are certain points in Prof. Virchow's lecture to which I should feel inclined to take exception. I think it was hardly necessary to associate the theory of evolution with socialism; it may be even questioned whether it was correct to do so. As Lange remarks, the aim of socialism, or of its extreme leaders, is to overthrow the existing systems of government. and anything that helps them to this end is welcomed, whether it be atheism or papal infallibility. For long years the Socialists saw church and state united against them, and both were therefore regarded with a common hatred. But no sooner does a serious difference arise between church and state, than a portion of the Socialists begin immediately to dally with the former. The experience of the last German elections illustrates Lange's position. Far nobler and truer to my mind than this fear of promoting socialism by a scientific theory which the best and soberest heads in the world have substantially accepted, is the position assumed by Helmholtz, who in his "Popular Lectures" describes Darwin's theory as embracing "an essentially new creative thought" (einen wesentlich neuen schöpferischen Gedanken), and who illustrates the greatness of this thought by copious references to the solutions, previously undreamed of, which it offers of the enigmas of life and organization. One point in this "popular" exposition deserves especial mention here. Helmholtz refers to the dominant position acquired by Germany in physiology and medicine, while other nations have kept abreast of her in the investigation of inorganic Nature. He claims for German men the credit of pursuing with unflagging zeal and self-denying industry, guided by ideal aims, and without any immediate prospect of practical utility, the cultivation of pure science. But that which has determined German superiority in the fields referred to was, in his opinion, something different from this. Inquiries as to the nature of life are intimately connected with psychological and ethical questions; and he claims for his countrymen a greater fearlessness of the consequences which a full knowledge of the truth may here carry along with it than reigns among the inquirers of other nations. Helmholtz points to the cause of this timidity:
"England and France possess distinguished investigators—men competent to follow up and illustrate with vigorous energy the methods of natural science; but they have hitherto been compelled to bend before social and theological prejudices, and could only utter their convictions under the penalty of injuring their social influence and usefulness. Germany has gone forward more courageously. She has cherished the trust, which has never been deceived, that complete truth carries with it the antidote against the bane and danger which follow in the train of half-knowledge. A cheerfully laborious and temperate people— a people morally strong—can well afford to look truth full in the face. Nor are they to be ruined by the enunciation of one-sided theories, even when these may appear to threaten the bases of society."
These words of Helmholtz are, in my opinion, wiser and more applicable to the condition of Germany at the present moment than those which express the fears of Prof. Virchow. It will be remembered that at the time of his lecture his chief anxiety was directed toward France; but France has since that time given ample evidence of her ability to crush, not only Socialists, but anti-Socialists, who would impose on her a yoke which she refuses to bear.
In close connection with these utterances of Helmholtz, I place another utterance not less noble, which I trust was understood and appreciated by those to whom it was addressed:
"If" (said the President of the British Association in his opening address in Dublin) "we could lay down beforehand the precise limits of possible knowledge, the problem of physical science would be already half solved. But the question to which the scientific explorer has often to address himself is not merely whether he is able to solve this or that problem, but whether he can so far unravel the tangled threads of the matter with which he has to deal as to weave them into a definite problem at all. . . . If his eye seem dim, be must look steadfastly and with hope into the misty vision, until the very clouds wreath themselves into definite forms. If his ear seem dull, he must listen patiently and with sympathetic trust to the intricate whisperings of Nature—the goddess, as she has been called, of a hundred voices—until here and there he can pick out a few simple notes to which his own powers can resound. If, then, at a moment when he finds himself placed on a pinnacle from which he is called upon to take a perspective survey of the range of science, and to tell us what he can see from his vantage-ground; if at such a moment, after straining his gaze to the very verge of the horizon, and after describing the most distant of well defined objects, he should give utterance also to some of the subjective impressions which he is conscious of receiving from regions beyond; if he should depict possibilities which seem opening to his view; if he should explain why he thinks this a mere blind alley and that an open path—then the fault and the loss would be alike ours if we refused to listen calmly, and temperately to form our own judgment on what we hear; then assuredly it is ice who would he committing the error of confounding matters of fact with matters of opinion, if we failed to discriminate between the various elements contained in such a discourse, and assumed that they had been all put on the same footing."
While largely agreeing with him, I cannot quite accept the setting in which Prof. Virchow places the confessedly abortive attempts to secure an experimental basis for the doctrine of spontaneous generation. It is not a doctrine "so discredited" that some of the scientific thinkers of England accept "as the basis of all their views of life." Their induction is by no means thus limited. They have on their side more than the "reasonable probability" deemed sufficient by Bishop Butler for practical guidance in the gravest affairs, that the members of the solar system which are now discrete once formed a continuous mass: that in the course of untold ages, during which the work of condensation went on through the waste of heat in space, the planets were detached; and that our present sun is the residual nucleus of the flocculent or gaseous ball from which the planets were successively separated. Life, as we define it, was not possible for æons subsequent to this separation. When and how did it appear? I have already pressed this question, but have received no answer. If, with Prof. Knight, we regard the Bible account of the introduction of life upon the earth as a poem, not as a statement of fact, where are we to seek for guidance as to the fact? There does not exist a barrier possessing the strength of a cobweb to oppose to the hypothesis which ascribes the appearance of life to that "potency of matter" which results in natural evolution. This hypothesis is not without its difficulties, but they vanish when compared with those which encumber its rivals. There are various facts in science obviously connected, and whose connections we are unable to trace; but we do not think of filling the gap between them by the intrusion of a separable spiritual agent. In like manner, though we are unable to trace the course of things from the nebula, where there was no life in our sense, to the present earth where life abounds, the spirit and practice of science pronounce against the intrusion of an anthropomorphic creator. Theologians must liberate and refine their conceptions or be prepared for the rejection of them by thoughtful minds. It is they, not we, who lay claim to knowledge never given to man. "Our refusal of the creative hypothesis is less an assertion of knowledge than a protest against the assumption of knowledge which must long, if not always, lie beyond us, and the claim to which is a source of perpetual confusion." At the same time, when I look with strenuous gaze into the whole problem as far as my capacities allow, overwhelming wonder is the predominant feeling. This wonder has come to me from the ages just as much as my understanding, and it has an equal right to satisfaction. Hence I say, if, abandoning your illegitimate claim to knowledge, you place, with Job, your forehead in the dust and acknowledge the authorship of this universe to be past finding out—if, having made this confession, and relinquished the views of the mechanical theologian, you desire, for the satisfaction of feelings which I admit to be in great part those of humanity at large, to give ideal form to the Power that moves all things—it is not by me that you will find objections raised to this exercise of ideality, when consciously and worthily carried out.
Again, I think Prof. Virchow's position, in regard to the question of contagium animatum, is not altogether that of true philosophy. He points to the antiquity of the doctrine. "It is lost," he says, in the darkness of the middle ages. "We have received this name from our forefathers, and it already appears distinctly in the sixteenth century. We possess several works of that time which put forward contagium animatum as a scientific doctrine, with the same confidence, with the same sort of proof, with which the 'Plastidulic soul' is now set forth."
These speculations of our "forefathers" will appeal differently to different minds. By some they will be dismissed with a sneer; to others they will appear as proofs of genius on the part of those who enunciated them. There are men, and by no means the minority, who, however wealthy in regard to facts, can never rise into the region of principles; and they are sometimes intolerant of those who can. They are formed to plod meritoriously on the lower levels of thought, unpossessed of the pinions necessary to reach the heights. They cannot realize the mental act—the act of inspiration it might well be called—by which a man of genius, after long pondering and proving, reaches a theoretic conception which unravels and illuminates the tangle of centuries of observation and experiment. There are minds, it may be said in passing, who at the present moment stand in this relation to Mr. Darwin. For my part, I should be inclined to ascribe to penetration rather than to presumption the notion of a contagium animatum. He who invented the term ought, I think, to be held in esteem; for he had before him the quantity of fact and the measure of analogy that would justify a man of genius in taking a step so bold. "Nevertheless," says Prof. Virchow, "no one was able throughout a long time to discover these living germs of disease. The sixteenth century did not find them, nor did the seventeenth, nor the eighteenth." But it may be urged, in reply to this, that the theoretic conjecture often legitimately comes first. It is the forecast of genius which anticipates the fact and constitutes a spur toward its discovery. If instead of being a spur the theoretic guess rendered men content with imperfect knowledge, it would be a thing to be deprecated. But in modern investigation this is distinctly not the case; Darwin's theory, for example, like the undulatory theory, has been a motive power and not an anodyne. "At last," says Prof. Virchow, "in the nineteenth century we have begun little by little really to find contagia animata. So much the more honor is due to those who, three centuries in advance, so put together the facts and analogies of contagious disease as to divine its root and character. Prof. Virchow seems to deprecate the "obstinacy" with which this notion of a contagium vivum emerged. Here I should not be inclined to follow him; because I do not know, nor does he tell me, how much the discovery of facts in the nineteenth century is indebted to the stimulus derived from the theoretic discussions of preceding centuries. The genesis of scientific ideas is a subject of profound interest and importance. He would be but a poor philosopher who would sever modern chemistry from the efforts of the alchemists, who would detach modern atomic doctrines from the speculations of Lucretius and his predecessors, or who would claim for our present knowledge of contagia an origin altogether independent of the efforts of our "forefathers" to penetrate this enigma.
Finally, I do not know that I should agree with Prof. Virchow as to what a theory is or ought to be. I call a theory a principle or conception of the mind which accounts for observed facts, and which helps us to look for and predict facts not yet observed. Every new discovery which fits into a theory strengthens it. The theory is not a thing complete from the first, but a thing which grows, as it were asymptotically, toward certainty. Darwin's theory, as pointed out nine or ten years ago by Helmholtz and Hooker, was then exactly in this condition of growth; and had they to speak of the subject to-day they would be able to announce an enormous strengthening of the theoretic fibre. Fissures in continuity which then existed, and which left little hope of being ever spanned, have been since bridged over, so that the further the theory is tested the more fully does it harmonize with progressive experience and discovery. We shall probably never fill all the gaps; but this will not prevent a profound belief in the truth of the theory from taking root in the general mind. Much less will it justify a total denial of the theory. The man of science who assumes in such a case the position of a denier is sure to be stranded and isolated. The proper attitude, in my opinion, is to give as nearly as possible to the theory during the phases of its growth a proportionate assent; and, if it be a theory which influences practice, our wisdom is to follow its probable suggestions where more than probability is for the moment unattainable. I write thus with the theory of contagium vivum more especially in my mind, and must regret the attitude of denial assumed by Prof. Virchow toward that theory. "I must beg my friend Klebs to pardon me," he says, "if, notwithstanding the late advances made by the doctrine of infectious fungi, I still persist in my reserve so far as to admit only the fungus which is really proved, while I deny all other fungi so long as they are not actually brought before me." Prof. Virchow, that is to say, will continue to deny the germ theory, however great the probabilities on its side, however numerous the cases of which it renders a just account, until it has ceased to be a theory at all, and has become a congeries of sensible facts. Had he said, "As long as a single fungus of disease remains to be discovered, it is your bounden duty to search for it," I should cordially agree with him. But by his unreserved denial he quenches the light of probability which ought to guide the practice of the medical man. Both here and in relation to the theory of evolution excess on the one side has begotten excess on the other.
In publishing the volume of "Fragments," to which the foregoing article is introductory, I could not entirely ignore the criticisms which one or two among them have evoked. Of such strictures, however, my knowledge is incomplete, their authorship causing me to give some of them a spacious berth. Nor as regards those with which I am acquainted have I deemed it necessary to offer direct refutations. They fall spontaneously to pieces in presence of the facts here set forth.—Author's advance sheets.
- Introductory chapter to a forthcoming volume of "Fragments of Science."
"Da der Dichtung zauberische Hülle
Sich noch lieblich um die Wahrheit wand."—Schiller.
- Prof. Knight will have to reckon with the English Marriage Service, one of whose collects begins very naively thus: "O God, who by thy mighty power hast made all things of nothing."
- Letter to Lange, "Geschichte des Materialismus," zweite Aufl., vol. ii., p. 521.
- Nineteenth Century, September, 1878.
- Is this really certain? Instead of standing in the relation of cause and effect, may not the "decay" and "relaxation" be merely coexistent—both, perhaps, flowing from common historic antecedents?
- "Natural History of Atheism," p. 136.
- "Natural History of Atheism," p. 125.
- Quoted by Clifford, Nineteenth Century, iii., p. 726.
- President's Address to the British Association.
- Published by Mr. John Murray, the English publisher of Virchow's lecture. Bane and antidote are thus impartially distributed by the same hand.
- Presidential Address delivered before the Birmingham and Midland Institute, October 1, 1877. Fortnightly Review, November 1, 1877, p. 607.
- "Geschichte des Materialismus," zweite Aufl., vol. ii., p. 538.
- In the "Apology for the Belfast Address," the question is reasoned out.
- "We feel it an undeniable necessity," says Prof. Virchow, "not to sever the organic world from the whole, as if it were something disjoined from the whole." This grave statement cannot be weakened by the subsequent pleasantry regarding "Carbon & Co."