Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Agassiz and Evolution

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AGASSIZ AND EVOLUTION.[1]

By Professor JOSEPH LE CONTE.

IN order to clear up the conception of evolution, it is necessary to give a brief history of the idea, and especially to explain the relation of Louis Agassiz to that theory. This is the more necessary, because there is a deep and wide-spread misunderstanding on this subject, and thus scant justice has been done our great naturalist, especially by the English and Germans; and also because this relation is an admirable illustration of an important principle in scientific philosophy.

Like all great ideas, we find the first germs of this in Greek philosophy, in the cosmic speculations of Thales and Pythagoras. Next (about 100 b. c.) we find it more clearly expressed by the Roman thinker, Lucretius, in his great philosophic poem entitled "De Rerura Natura." After a dormancy of nearly eighteen centuries it next emerges with still more clearness in the theological speculations of Swedenborg and the philosophical speculations of Kant. All these we pass over with bare mention, because these thinkers approached the subject from the philosophic rather than the scientific side—in the metaphysical rather than the scientific spirit.

The first serious attempt at scientific presentation of the subject was by the celebrated naturalist, Lamarck, in a work entitled "Philosophic Zoölogique," published in 1809. It is not necessary, in this rapid sketch, to give a full account of Lamarck's views. Suffice it to say that the essential idea of evolution, viz., the indefinite variability and the derivative origin of species, was insisted on with great learning and skill, and illustrated by many examples. With Lamarck, the factors of evolution or causes of change of organic forms were—1. Modification of organs in function and therefore in structure, by a changing environment—external factor; and, 2. Modification of or- gans by itse and disuse—internal factor. In both eases the modifica- tions are inherited and increased from generation to generation, with- out liroit. This second factor seems to have taken, in the mind of Lamarck, the somewhat vague and transcendental form of aspiration or upward striving of the animal toward higher conditions. These are acknowledged to-day as true factors of evolution, but the distinct- ively Darwinian factor, viz., "divergent variation and natural selec- tion," was not then thought of. The publication of Lamarck's views produced a powerful impression, but only for a little while. Pierced by the shafts of ridicule shot by nimble wits of Paris, and crushed beneath the heavy weight of the authority of Cuvier, the greatest nat- uralist and comparative anatomist of that or perhaps of any time, it fell almost still-born. I believe it was best that it should thus perish. Its birth was premature; it was not fit to live. The world was not yet prepared for a true scientific theory. Nevertheless, the work was not without its effect upon some of the most advanced thinkers of that time; upon Saint-Hilaire and Comte in France, and upon Goethe and Oken in Germany. It was good seed soM-n and destined to spring up and bear fruit in suitable environment; but not yet.

The next attempt worthy of attention in this rapid sketch is that of Robert Chambers, in a little volume entitled "Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation," published in 1844. It was essentially a repro- duction of Lamarck's views in a more popular form. It was not a truly scientific work nor written by a scientific man. It was rather an appeal from the too technical court of science to the supposed wider and more unprejudiced court of popular intelligence. It was there- fore far more eloquent than accurate; far more specious than profound. It was, indeed, full of false facts and inconsequent reasonings. Nevertheless, it produced a very strong impression on the thinking, popular mind. But it also quickly fell, pierced by keen shafts of ridicule, and crushed beneath the heavy weight of the authority of all the most prominent naturalists of that time, with Agassiz at their head. The question for the time seemed closed. I believe, again, it was best so, for the time was not yet fully ripe.

I know full well that many think with Haeckel that biology was kept back half a century by the baneful authority of Cuvier and Agassiz; but I can not think so. The hypothesis was contrary to the facts of science as then known and understood. It was conceived in the spirit of baseless speculation, rather than of cautious induction; of skillful elaboration rather than of earnest truth-seeking. Its general acceptance would have debauched the true spirit of science. I repeat it: the time was not yet ripe for a scientific theory. The ground must first be cleared and a solid foundation built; an insuperable obstacle to hearty rational acceptance must first be removed, and an inductive basis must be laid. The obstacle in the way of the acceptance of the derivative origin of species was the then prevalent notion concerning the nature of life. We must briefly sketch the change which has taken place in the last forty years in our ideas on this subject.

Until about forty years ago, the different forces of Nature, such as gravity, electricity, magnetism, light, heat, chemical affinity, etc., were supposed to be entirely distinct. The realm of Nature was divided up into a number of distinct and independent principalities, each subject to its own sovereign force and ruled by its own petty laws. About that time it began to be evident, and is now universally acknowledged, that all these forces are but different /bn?*s of one, universal, omnipresent energy, and are transmutable into one another back and forth without loss. This is the doctrine of correlation of forces and conservation of energy, one of the grandest ideas of mod- ern times. But one force seemed still to be an exception. Life-force was still believed to be a peculiar, mysterious principle or entity, stand- ing above other forces and subordinitting them; not correlated with, not transmutable unto, nor derivable from, other and lower forces, and therefore in some sense supernatural. Now, if this be true of living forces, it is perfectly natural, yea, almost necessary, to believe that living forms are wholly different from other forms in their origin. New forms of dead matter may be derived, but new living forms are underivecl. Other new forms come by natural process, new organic forms by supernatural process. The conclusion was almost unavoidable. But soon vital force also yielded to the general law of correlation of natural forces. Vital forces are also transmutable into and derivable from physical and chemical forces. Sun-force, falling on the green leaves of plants, is absorbed and converted into vital force, disappears as light to reappear as life. The amount of life-force generated is measured by the amount of light extinguished. The same is true of animal life. As in the steam-engine the locomotive energy is derived from the fuel consumed and measured by its amount, so in the animal body the animal heat and animal force are derived from and measured by the food and tissue consumed by combustion. Thus, vital force may be regarded as so much force withdrawn from the general fund of chemical and physical forces, to be again refunded without loss at death. This obstacle is, therefore, now removed. If vital force falls in the same category as other natural forces, there is no reason why living forms should not fall into the same category in this regard as other natural forms. If new forms of dead matter are derived from old forms by modification, according to physical laws, there is no rea- son why new living forms should not also be derived from old forms by modification according to physiological laws. Thus, at last, the obstacle was removed—the ground was cleared.

But Science is not content with removal of a priori objections. She must also have positive proofs. The ground must not only be cleared, but a true inductive basis of facts, and especially of laws and methods, must be laid. This was the life-work of Agassiz. Yes, as strange as it may seem to some, it is nevertheless true that the whole inductive basis, upon which was afterward built the modern theory of evolution, was laid by Agassiz, although he himself persistently re- fused to build upon it any really scientitic superstructure. It is plain, then, that all attempts at building previous to Agassiz's work must, of necessity, have resulted in an unsubstantial structure—an edifice built on sand, which could not and ought not to stand. I must stop here in order to explain somewhat fully this important point, and thus to give due credit to the work of Agassiz.

The title of any scientist to greatness must be determined, not so much by the multitude of new facts he has discovered as by the new laws he has established, and especially by the new methods he has in- augurated or perfected. Kow, I think it can be shown that to Agassiz, more than to any other man, is due the credit of having established the laws of succession of living forms in the geological history of the earth—laws upon which must rest any true theory of evolution. Also, that to him, more than to any other man, is due the credit of having perfected the method (method of comparison) by the use of which alone biological science has advanced so rapidly in modem times. This is high praise. I wish to justify it. I begin with the method.

Scientific methods bear the same relation to intellectual progress that tools, instruments, machines, mechanical contrivances of all sorts, bear to material j^rogress. They are intellectual contrivances—indi- rect ways of accomplishing results far too hard for bare-handed, un- aided intellectual strength. As the civilized man has little or no advantage over the savage in bare-handed strength of muscle, and the enormous superiority of the latter in accomplishing material results is due wholly to the use of mechanical contrivances or machines; even so, in the higher sphere of intellect, the scientist makes no pretension to the possession of greater unaided intellectual strength than belongs to the uncultured man, or even perhaps to the savage. The amazing intellectual results achieved by science are due wholly to the use of intellectual contrivances or scientific methods. As in the lower sphere of material progress the greatest benefactors of the race are the in- ventors or perfecters of new mechanical contrivances or m,achines, so also in the higher sphere of intellectual progress the greatest bene- factors of the race are the inventors or perfecters of new intellectual contrivances or methods of research.

To illustrate the power of methods, and the necessity of their use, take the case of the method of notation, so characteristic of mathematics, and take it even in its simplest and most familiar form: Nine numeral figures, having each a value of its ow^n, and another depend- ent upon its position; a few letters, a and 5, and x and y, connected by symbols, -(- and—and =: that is all. And yet, by the use of this simple contrivance, the dullest school-boy accomplishes intel- lectual results which would defy the utmost efforts of the unaided strength of the greatest genius. And this is only the simplest tool- form of this method. Think of the results accomplished by the use of the more complex machinery of the higher mathematics!

Take next the method of experiment so characteristic of physics and chemistry. The phenomena of the external world are far too complex and far too much affected by disturbing forces and modifying conditions to be understood at once by bare, unaided intellectual insight. They must first be simplified. The physicist, therefore, con- trives artificial phenomena under ideal conditions. He removes one complicating condition after another, one disturbing cause and then another, watching meanwhile the result, until finally the necessary condition and the true cause are discovered. On this method rests the whole fabric of the physical and chemical sciences.

But when we rise still higher, viz., into the plane of life, the phe- nomena of Nature become still more complex and difficult to under- stand directly; and yet just here, where we are the most powerless without some method, our method of experiment almost wholly fails tis. The phenomena of life are not only far more complex than those of dead matter, but the conditions of life are so nicely adjusted, the equilibrium of forces so delicately balanced, that, when we attempt to introduce our clumsy hands in the way of experiment, we are in danger of overthrowing the equilibrium, of destroying the conditions of the experiment, viz., life; and then the whole problem falls imme- diately into the domain of chemistry. "What shall we do? In this dilemma we find that Nature herself has already prepared for us, ready to hand, an elaborate series of simplified conditions equivalent to experiments. The phenomena of life are, indeed, far too complex to be at once understood—the problem of life too hard to be solved— in the higher animals; but, as we go down the animal scale, compli- cating conditions are removed one by one, the phenomena of life be- come simpler and simpler, until in the lowest microscopic cell or spherule of living protoplasm we finally reach the simplest possible expression of life. The equation of life is reduced to its simplest terms, and now, if ever, we begin to understand the true value of the unknown quantity. This is the natural history series, or TaxoJiomic series, already spoken of. Again, Nature has prepared, and is now preparing daily before our eyes, another series of gradually simplified conditions. Commencing with the mature condition of one of the higher animals—for example, man—and going backward along the line of individual history through the stages of infant embryo, eg£^, and germ—we find again the phenomena of life becoming simpler and simpler, until we again reach the simplest conceivable condition in the single microscopic cell or spherule of living protoplasm. This, as already explained, is the embryonic or Ontogenic series. Again, that there be no excuse for man's ignorance of the laws of life, Nature has prepared still another series; and this the grandest of all, for it is the cause of both the others. Commencing with the plants and ani- mals of the present epoch, and going back along the track of geologi- cal times, through Cenozoic, Mesozoic, Paleozoic, Eozoic, to the very dawn of life—the first syllable of recorded time—and we find again a series of organic forms growing simpler and simpler, until, if we could find the very first, we would undoubtedly again reach the simplest condition in the lowest conceivable forms of life. This, as we have already seen, is the geologic or evolution, or Phylogenic series. "We have already explained these three series, only in this connection it suits our purpose to take the terms backward.

Now, it is by comparison of the terms of each of these series going up and down, and watching the first appearance, the growth, and the perfecting of tissues, organs, functions, and by the comparison of the three series with one another, term by term—I say it is wholly by comparison of this kind that biology has in recent times become a true inductive science. This is the '^method of comparison.^ It is the great method of research in all those departments which can not be readily managed by the method of experiment. It has already re- generated biology, and is now applied with like success in sociology under the name of historic method. Yes; anatomy became scientific only through comparative anatomy, physiology through comparative physiology, and embryology through comparative embryology. May we not add, sociology will become truly scientific only through com- parative sociology, and psychology through comparative psychology?

Now, while it is true that this method, like all other methods, has been used, from the earliest dawn of thought, in a loose and imperfect way, yet it is only in very recent times that it has been organized, systematized, perfected, as a true scientific method, as a great instru- ment of research; and the prodigious recent advance of biology is due wholly to this cause. Now, among the great leaders of this modern movement, Agassiz undoubtedly stands in the very first rank, I must try to make this point plain, for it is by no means generally understood.

Cuvier is acknowledged to be the great founder of comparative anatomy. He it was that first perfected the method of comparison, but comparison only in one series—the Taxonomic. Yon Baer and Agassiz added to this, comparison in the ontogenic series also, and comparison of these two series with each other, and therefore the ap- plication of embryology to the classification of animals. If Yon Baer was the first announcer, Agassiz was the first great practical worker by this method. Last and most important of all, in its relation to evolution, Agassiz added comparison in the geologic or phylogenic series. The one grand idea underlying Agassiz's whole life-work was the essential identity of the three series, and therefore the light which they must shed on one another. The two guiding and animating principles of his scientific work were—1. That the embryonic develop- ment of one of the higher representatives of any group repeated in a general way the terms of the taxonomic series in the same group, and therefore that embryology furnished the key to a true classification; and, 2. That the succession of forms and structure in geological times in any group is similar to the succession of forms and structure in the development of the individual in the same group, and thus that em- bryology furnishes also the key to geological succession. In other words, during his whole life, Agassiz insisted that the laws of embry- onic development (ontogeny) are also the laws of geological succession (phylogeny). Surely this is the foundation, the only solid foundation, of a true theory of evolution. It is true that Agassiz, holding as he did the doctrine of permanency of specific types, and therefore reject- ing the doctrine of the derivative origin of species, did not admit the causal or natural relation of phylogenic succession to embryonic suc- cession and taxonomic order as we no vv believe it—it is true that for him the relation between the three series was an intellectual not a physical one—consisted in the preordained plans of the Creator, and not in any genetic connection or inherited property; but evidently the first and greatest step was the discovery of the relation itself, however ac- counted for. The rest was sure to follow.

But more. Not only did Agassiz establish the essential identity of the geologic and embryonic succession, the general similarity of the two series, phylogenic and ontogenic, but he also announced and enforced all the formal laws of geologic succession (i. e., of evolution) as we now know them. These, as already stated and illustrated, are the law of differentiation, the law of progress of the whole, and the law of cyclical movement, although he did not formulate them in these words. No true inductive evidence of evolution was possible without the knowledge of these laws, and for this knowledge we are mainly indebted to Agassiz. He well knew also that they were the laws of embryonic development and therefore of evolution; but he avoided the word evolution, as implying the derivative origin of species, and used instead the word develojyment, though it is hard to see in what the words differ. Thus, it is evident that Agassiz laid the whole foun- dation of evolution, solid and broad, but refused to build any scien- tific structure on it; he refused to recognize the legitimate, the scien- tifically necessary outcome of his own work. Nevertheless, without his work a scientific theory of evolution would have been impossible. Without Agassiz (or his equivalent), there would have been no Darwin.

There is something to us supremely grand in this refusal of Agas- siz to accept the theory of evolution. The opportunity to become the leader of modern thought, the foremost man of the century, was in his hands, and he refused, because his religious, or, perhaps better, his philosophic intuitions, forbade. To Agassiz, and, indeed, to all men of that time, to many, alas! even now, evolution is materialism. But materialism is atheism. Will some one say, the genuine Truth-seeker follows where she seems to lead, whatever he the consequences? Yes; whatever be the consequences to one's self, to one's opinions, preju- dices, theories, philosophies, but not to still more certain truth. Kow, to Agassiz, as to all genuine thinkers, the existence of God, like our own existence, is more certain than any scientific theory, than anything can possibly be made by proof. From his standpoint, therefore, he was right in rejecting evolution as conflicting with still more certain truth. The mistake which he made was in imagining that there was any such conflict at all. But this was the universal mistake of the age. A lesser man would have seen less clearly the higher truth and accepted the lower. A greater man would have risen above the age, and seen that there was no conflict, and so accepted both. All think- ing men are coming to this conclusion now, but none had done so then.

Now, then, at last, the obstacle of supernaturalism in the realm of Nature having been removed by the establishment of the doctrine of correlation of natural forces, and the extension of this doctrine to embrace also life-force; and now also a broad and firm basis of care- fully-observed facts and well-established laws of succession of organic forms having been laid by Agassiz, when again, for the third time, the doctrine of origin of species "by derivation with modifications" was brought forward by Darwin in a far more perfect form, with more abundant illustrative materials, and with a new and most potent fac- tor of modification—viz., divergent variations and natural selection— it found the scientific world already fully prepared, and anxiously wait- ing. I say ff;ea:eo?/s/y waiting—for the supposed supernatural origin of species had been the one exception to the otherwise universal law of cause and effect, or the law of continuity. It was therefore an open contradiction to the whole drift of scientific thought for five hundred years. Is it any wonder, then, that the derivative origin of species was welcomed with joy by the scientific world? For five hundred years, scientific thought, like a rising tide which knows no ebb, had tended thitherward with ever-increasing pressure, but kept back by the one supposed fact of the supernatural origin of species. Darwin lifted the gate, and the in-rushing tide flooded the whole domain of thought.

What, then, is the place of Agassiz in biological science? What is the relation of Agassiz to Darwin—of Agassizian development to Darwinian evolution? I answer, it is the relation of formal science to physical or causal science. Agassiz advanced biology to \}a^ formal stage; Darwin carried it forward, to some extent at least, to the phys- ical stage. All true inductive sciences in their complete development pass through these two stages. Science in the one stage treats of the laws of phenomena; in the other, of the causes or explanation of these laws. The former must precede the latter, and form its foundation; the latter must follow the former, and constitute its completion. The change from the one to the other is always attended with prodi- gious impulse to science.

To illustrate: Until Kepler, astronomy was little more than an accumulation of disconnected facts concerning celestial motions— abundant materials, but no science; piles of brick and stone, but no building. Kepler reduced this chaos to beautiful order and musical harmony by the discovery of the three great laws which bear his name, and therefore he has been justly called the legislator of the heavens— the lawgiver of space. But, had he been asked the cause of these beau- tiful laws, he could only have answered, "The first cause—the direct will of the Deity." A good answer and a true, but not scientific; be- cause it places the question beyond the domain of science, which deals only with second or physical causes. But Newton comes forward and gives a physical cause. He shows that all these beautiful laws are the necessary result of gravitation; and thus astronomy becomes a phys- ical science. So, until Agassiz, the facts of geological succession of organic forms were in a state of lawless confusion. Agassiz by estab- lishing the three great laws of succession, which ought to bear his name, reduced this chaos to order and beauty; and, therefore, he might justly be called the legislator of geological liistory—the laio- giver of time. But, when asked the cause of these laws, he could only answer, and did indeed answer, "The plans of the Creator." A noble answer and true, but not scientific. Darwin now comes forward and gives, partly at least, the cause of these laws. He shows that all these beautiful laws are explained by the doctrine of "origin of species by derivation with modifications"; that these laws are not ultimate, but derivative from more fundamental laws of life; and thus biology is advanced one step, at least, toward the causal stage. Newton and Darwin substituted second causes for first cause—natural for super- natural. They each in his own department broke the bonds of super- naturalism in the domain of Nature.

One more important reflection: There are two, and only two, fun- damental conditions of material existence—space and time. There are, therefore, two, and only two, cosmoses—space-cosmos and time- cosmos. These have been redeemed from confusion and reduced to law and order and beauty—changed from chaos to cosmos—by science. For this result we are chiefly indebted, in the one case, to Kepler and Newton; in the other, to Agassiz and Darwin. The universal law, in the one cosmos, is the law of gravitation; in the other, the law of evolution. Traced by analysis to its deepest roots of philosophic truth, the one law may be called the divine mode of sustentation; the other, the divine process of creation.

Or, again: we have all heard of the "music of the spheres"— a beautiful and significant name used by the old thinkers for the di- vine order of the universe—a music heard not by human ear, but only by the attentive human spirit. Harmonic relation apprehended by reason we call Law and its embodiment Science; the same apprehended by the imagination and æsthetic sense, we call Beauty, and its embodiment Art, music. Now, in music there are two kinds of harmony, simultaneous and consecutive—chordal harmony and melody. These must be combined to produce the grandest effect. So in cosmic order, too, there are two kinds of harmonic relation—the coexistent in space and the consecutive in time. The law of gravitation expresses the universal harmonic interrelation of objects coexistent in space, the law of evolution, the universal harmonic relation of forms successive in time. Of the divine spheral music, the one is the chordal harmony, the other the consecutive harmony or melody. Combined they form the divine chorus which "the morning stars sang together."


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  1. From advance sheets of Professor Le Conte's work on "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought," in preparation by D. Appleton & Co.