Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life/The Nature of Life/Part 5

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But before we proceed further, it behoves us to answer the objections contained in the following passage, or withdraw ourselves in time from the bitter contempt in which it would involve us. Acting under such a necessity, we need not apologise for the length of the quotation.

1. “If,” says Mr. Lawrence, “the properties of living matter are to be explained in this way, why should not we adopt the same plan with physical properties, and account for gravitation, or chemical affinity, by the supposition of appropriate subtile fluids? Why does the irritability of a muscle need such an explanation, if explanation it can be called, more than the elective attraction of a salt?”

2. “To make the matter more intelligible, this vital principle is compared to magnetism, to electricity, and to galvanism; or it is roundly stated to be oxygen. ’Tis like a camel, or like a whale, or like what you please.”

3. “You have only to grant that the phenomena of the sciences just alluded to depend on extremely fine and invisible fluids, superadded to the matters in which they are exhibited, and to allow further that Life, and magnetic, galvanic, and electric phenomena correspond perfectly; the existence of a subtile matter of Life will then be a very probable inference.”

4. “On this illustration you will naturally remark, that the existence of the magnetic, electric, and galvanic fluids, which is offered as a proof of the existence of a vital fluid, is as much a matter of doubt as that of the vital fluid itself.”

5. “It is singular, also, that the vital principle should be like both magnetism and electricity, when these two are not like each other.”

6. “It would have been interesting to have had this illustration prosecuted a little further. We should have been pleased to learn whether the human body is more like a loadstone, a voltaic pile, or an electrical machine; whether the organs are to be regarded as Leyden jars, magnetic needles, or batteries.”

7. “The truth is, there is no resemblance, no analogy, between Electricity and Life; the two orders of phenomena are completely distinct; they are incommensurable. Electricity illustrates life no more than life illustrates electricity.”[1]

To avoid unnecessary description, I shall refer to the passages by the numbers affixed to them, for that purpose, in the margin.

In reply to No. 1, I ask whether, in the nature of the mind, illustration and explanation must not of necessity proceed from the lower to the higher? or whether a boy is to be taught his addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, by the highest branches of algebraic analysis? Is there any better way of systematic teaching, than that of illustrating each new step, or having each new step illustrated to him by its identity in kind with the step the next below it? though it be the only mode in which this objection can be answered, yet it seems affronting to remind the objector, of rules so simple as that the complex must even be illustrated by the more simple, or the less scrutible by that which is more subject to our examination.

In reply to No. 2, I first refer to the author’s eulogy on Mr. Hunter, p. 163, in which he is justly extolled for having “surveyed the whole system of organized beings, from plants to man:” of course, therefore, as a system; and therefore under some one common law. Now in the very same sense, and no other, than that in which the writer himself by implication compares himself as a man to the dermestes typographicus, or the fucus scorpioides, do I compare the principle of Life to magnetism, electricity, and constructive affinity,—or rather to that power to which the two former are the thesis and antithesis, the latter the synthesis. But if to compare involve the sense of its etymon, and involve the sense of parity, I utterly deny that I do at all compare them; and, in truth, in no conceivable sense of the word is it applicable, any more than a geometrician can be affirmed to compare a polygon to a point, because he generates the line out of the point. The writer attributes to a philosophy essentially vital the barrenness of the mechanic system, with which alone his imagination has been familiarised, and which, as hath been justly observed by a contemporary writer, is contradistinguished from the former principally in this respect; that demanding for every mode and act of existence real or possible visibility, it knows only of distance and nearness, composition (or rather compaction) and decomposition, in short, the relations of unproductive particles to each other; so that in every instance the result is the exact sum of the component qualities, as in arithmetical addition. This is the philosophy of Death, and only of a dead nature can it hold good. In Life, and in the view of a vital philosophy, the two component counter-powers actually interpenetrate each other, and generate a higher third, including both the former, “ita tamen ut sit alia et major.”

As a complete answer to No. 3, I refer the reader to many passages in the preceding and following pages, in which, on far higher and more demonstrative grounds than the mechanic system can furnish, I have exposed the unmeaningness and absurdity of these finer fluids, as applied even to electricity itself; unless, indeed, they are assumed as its product. But in addition I beg leave to remind the author, that it is incomparably more agreeable to all experience to originate the formative process in the fluid, whether fine or gross, than in corporeal atoms, in which we are not only deserted by all experience, but contradicted by the primary conception of body itself.

Equally inapplicable is No. 4: and of No. 5 I can only repeat, first, that I do not make Life like magnetism, or like electricity; that the difference between magnetism and electricity, and the powers illustrated by them, is an essential part of my system, but that the animal Life of man is the identity of all three. To whatever other system this objection may apply, it is utterly irrelevant to that which I have here propounded: though from the narrow limits prescribed to me, it has been propounded with an inadequacy painful to my own feelings.

The ridicule in No. 6 might be easily retorted; but as it could prove nothing, I will leave it where I found it, in a page where nothing is proved.

A similar remark might be sufficient for the bold and blank assertion (No. 7) with which the extract concludes; but that I feel some curiosity to discover what meaning the author attaches to the term analogy. Analogy implies a difference in sort, and not merely in degree; and it is the sameness of the end, with the difference of the means, which constitutes analogy. No one would say the lungs of a man were analogous to the lungs of a monkey, but any one might say that the gills of fish and the spiracula of insects are analogous to lungs. Now if there be any philosophers who have asserted that electricity as electricity is the same as Life, for that reason they cannot be analogous to each other; and as no man in his senses, philosopher or not, is capable of imagining that the lightning which destroys a sheep, was a means to the same end with the principle of its organization; for this reason, too, the two powers cannot be represented as analogous. Indeed I know of no system in which the word, as thus applied, would admit of an endurable meaning, but that which teaches us, that a mass of marrow in the skull is analogous to the rational soul, which Plato and Bacon, equally with the “poor Indian,” believe themselves to have received from the Supreme Reason.

It would be blindness not to see, or affectation to pretend not to see, the work at which these sarcasms were levelled. The author of that work is abundantly able to defend his own opinions; yet I should be ambitious to address him at the close of the contest in the lines of the great Roman poet:

“Et nos tela, Pater, ferrumque haud debile dextrâ Spargimus, et nostro sequitur, de vulnere sanguis.”

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. Many of the least tenable phrases may be fairly interpreted as illustrations, rather than precise exponents of the author’s meaning; at least, while they remain as a mere suggestion or annunciation of his ideas, and till he has expanded them over a larger sphere, it would be unjust to infer the contrary. But it is not with men, however strongly their professional merits may entitle them to reverence, that my concern is at present. If the opinions here supported are the same with those of Mr. Abernethy, I rejoice in his authority. If they are different, I shall wait with an anxious interest for an exposition of that difference.

Having reasserted that I no more confound magnetism with electricity, or the chemical process, than the mathematician confounds length with breadth, or either with depth; I think it sufficient to add that there are two views of the subject, the former of which I do not believe attributable to any philosopher, while both are alike disclaimed by me as forming any part of my views. The first is that which is supposed to consider electricity identical with life, as it subsists in organized bodies. The other considers electricity as everywhere present, and penetrating all bodies under the image of a subtile fluid or substance, which, in Mr. Abernethy’s inquiry, I regard as little more than a mere diagram on his slate, for the purpose of fixing the attention on the intellectual conception, or as a possible product, (in which case electricity must be a composite power,) or at worst, as words quæ humana incuria fudit. This which, in inanimate Nature, is manifested now as magnetism, now as electricity, and now as chemical agency, is supposed, on entering an organized body, to constitute its vital principle, something in the same manner as the steam becomes the mechanic power of the steam-engine, in consequence of its compression by the steam-engine; or as the breeze that murmurs indistinguishably in the forest becomes the element, the substratum, of melody in the Æolian harp, and of consummate harmony in the organ. Now this hypothesis is as directly opposed to my view as supervention is to evolution, inasmuch as I hold the organized body itself, in all its marvellous contexture, to be the PRODUCT and representant of the power which is here supposed to have supervened to it. So far from admitting a transfer, I do not admit it even in electricity itself, or in the phenomena universally called electrical; among other points I ground my explanation of remote sympathy on the directly contrary supposition.

But my opinions will be best explained by a rapid exemplification in the processes of Nature, from the first rudiments of individualized life in the lowest classes of its two great poles, the vegetable and animal creation, to its crown and consummation in the human body; thus illustrating at once the unceasing polarity of life, as the form of its process, and its tendency to progressive individuation as the law of its direction.

Among the conceptions, of the mere ideal character of which the philosopher is well aware, and which yet become necessary from the necessity of assuming a beginning; the original fluidity of the planet is the chief. Under some form or other it is expressed or implied in every system of cosmogony and even of geology, from Moses to Thales, and from Thales to Werner. This assumption originates in the same law of mind that gave rise to the prima materia of the Peripatetic school. In order to comprehend and explain the forms of things, we must imagine a state antecedent to form. A chaos of heterogeneous substances, such as our Milton has described, is not only an impossible state (for this may be equally true of every other attempt), but it is palpably impossible. It presupposes, moreover, the thing it is intended to solve; and makes that an effect which had been called in as the explanatory cause. The requisite and only serviceable fiction, therefore, is the representation of CHAOS as one vast homogeneous drop! In this sense it may be even justified, as an appropriate symbol of the great fundamental truth that all things spring from, and subsist in, the endless strife between indifference and difference. The whole history of Nature is comprised in the specification of the transitional states from the one to the other. The symbol only is fictitious: the thing signified is not only grounded in truth—it is the law and actuating principle of all other truths, whether physical or intellectual.

Now, by magnetism in its widest sense, I mean the first and simplest differential act of Nature, as the power which works in length, and produces the first distinction between the indistinguishable by the generation of a line. Relatively, therefore, to fluidity, that is, to matter, the parts of which cannot be distinguished from each other by figure, magnetism is the power of fixity; but, relatively to itself, magnetism, like every other power in Nature, is designated by its opposite poles, and must be represented as the magnetic axis, the northern pole of which signifies rest, attraction, fixity, coherence, or hardness; the element of EARTH in the nomenclature of observation and the CARBONIC principle in that of experiment; while the southern pole, as its antithesis, represents mobility, repulsion, incoherence, and fusibility; the element of air in the nomenclature of observation (that is, of Nature as it appears to us when unquestioned by art), and azote or nitrogen in the nomenclature of experiment (that is, of Nature in the state so beautifully allegorized in the Homeric fable of Proteus bound down, and forced to answer by Ulysses, after having been pursued through all his metamorphoses into his ultimate form.[2]) That nothing real does or can exist corresponding to either pole exclusively, is involved in the very definition of a THING as the synthesis of opposing energies. That a thing is, is owing to the co-inherence therein of any two powers; but that it is that particular thing arises from the proportions in which these powers are co-present, either as predominance or as reciprocal neutralization; but under the modification of twofold power to which magnetism itself is, as the thesis to its antithesis.

The correspondent, in the world of the senses, to the magnetic axis, exists in the series of metals. The metalleity, as the universal base of the planet, is a necessary deduction from the principles of the system. From the infusible, though evaporable, diamond to nitrogen itself, the metallic nature of which has been long suspected by chemists, though still under the mistaken notion of an oxyde, we trace a series of metals from the maximum of coherence to positive fluidity, in all ordinary temperatures, we mean. Though, in point of fact, cold itself is but a superinduction of the one pole, or, what amounts to the same thing, the subtraction of the other, under the modifications afore described; and therefore are the metals indecomposible, because they are themselves the decompositions of the metallic axis, in all its degrees of longitude and latitude. Thus the substance of the planet from which it is, is metallic; while that which is ever becoming, is in like manner produced through the perpetual modification of the first by the opposite forces of the second; that is, by the principle of contraction and difference at the eastern extreme—the element of fire, or the oxygen of the chemists; and by the elementary power of dilatation, or universality at its western extreme—the ὑδωρ ἐν ὑδατι of the ancients, and the hydrogen of the laboratory.

It has been before noticed that the progress of Nature is more truly represented by the ladder, than by the suspended chain, and that she expands as by concentric circles. This is, indeed, involved in the very conception of individuation, whether it be applied to the different species or to the individuals. In what manner the evident interspace is reconciled with the equally evident continuity of the life of Nature, is a problem that can be solved by those minds alone, which have intuitively learnt that the whole actual life of Nature originates in the existence, and consists in the perpetual reconciliation, and as perpetual resurgency of the primary contradiction, of which universal polarity is the result and the exponent. From the first moment of the differential impulse—(the primæval chemical epoch of the Wernerian school)—when Nature, by the tranquil deposition of crystals, prepared, as it were, the fulcrum of her after-efforts, from this, her first, and in part irrevocable, self-contraction, we find, in each ensuing production, more and more tendency to independent existence in the increasing multitude of strata, and in the relics of the lowest orders, first of vegetable and then of animal life. In the schistous formations, which we must here assume as in great measure the residua of vegetable creations, that have sunk back into the universal life, and in the later predominant calcareous masses, which are the caput mortuum of animalized existence, we ascend from the laws of attraction and repulsion, as united in gravity, to magnetism, electricity, and constructive power, till we arrive at the point representative of a new and far higher intensity. For from this point flow, as in opposite directions, the two streams of vegetation and animalization, the former characterised by the predominance of magnetism in its highest power, as reproduction, the other by electricity intensified—as irritability, in like manner. The vegetable and animal world are the thesis and antithesis, or the opposite poles of organic life. We are not, therefore, to seek in either for analogies to the other, but for counterpoints. On the same account, the nearer the common source, the greater the likeness; the farther the remove, the greater the opposition. At the extreme limits of inorganic Nature, we may detect a dim and obscure prophecy of her ensuing process in the twigs and rude semblances that occur in crystallization of some of the copper ores, and in the well-known arbor Dianæ, and arbor Veneris. These latter Ritter has already ably explained by considering the oblique branches and their acute angles as the result of magnetic repulsion, from the presentation of the same poles, &c. In the CORALS and CONCHYLIA, the whole act and purpose of their existence seems to be that of connecting the animal with the inorganic world by the perpetual formation of calcareous earth. For the corals are nothing but polypi, which are characterised by still passing away and dissolving into the earth, which they had previously excreted, as if they were the first feeble effort of detachment. The power seems to step forward from out the inorganic world only to fall back again upon it, still, however, under a new form, and under the predominance of the more active pole of magnetism. The product must have the same connexion, therefore, with azote, which the first rudiments of vegetation have with carbon: the one and the other exist not for their own sakes, but in order to produce the conditions best fitted for the production of higher forms. In the polypi, corallines, &c., individuality is in its first dawn; there is the same shape in them all, and a multitude of animals form, as it were, a common animal. And as the individuals run into each other, so do the different genera. They likewise pass into each other so indistinguishably, that the whole order forms a very network.

As the corals approach the conchylia, this interramification decreases. The tubipora forms the transition to the serpula; for the characteristic of all zoophytes, namely, the star shape of their openings, here disappears, and the tubiporæ are distinguished from the rest of the corals by this very circumstance, that the hollow calcareous pipes are placed side by side, without interbranching. In the serpula they have already become separate. How feeble this attempt is to individuate, is most clearly shown in their mode of generation. Notwithstanding the report of Professor Pallas, it still remains doubtful whether there exists any actual copulation among the polypi. The mere existence of a polypus suffices for its endless multiplication. They may be indefinitely propagated by cuttings, so languid is the power of individuation, so boundless that of reproduction. But the delicate jelly dissolves, as lightly as it was formed, into its own product, and it is probable that the Polynesia, as a future continent, will be the gigantic monument, not so much of their life, as of the life of Nature in them. Here we may observe the first instance of that general law, according to which Nature still assimilates her extreme points. In these, her first and feeblest attempts to animalize organization, it is latent, because undeveloped, and merely potential; while, in the human brain, the last and most consummate of her combined energies, it is again lost or disguised in the subtlety[3] and multiplicity of its evolution.

In the class immediately above (Mollusca) we find the individuals separate, a more determinate form, and in the higher species, the rudiment of nerves, as the first scarce distinguishable impress and exponent of sensibility; still, however, the vegetative reproduction is the predominant form; and even the nerves “which float in the same cavity with the other viscera,” are probably subservient to it, and extend their power in the increased intensity of the reproductive force. Still prevails the transitional state from the fluid to the solid; and the jelly, that rudiment in which all animals, even the noblest, have their commencement; constitutes the whole sphere of these rudimental animals.

In the snail and muscle, the residuum of the coral reappears, but refined and ennobled into a part of the animal. The whole class is characterised by the separation of the fluid from the solid. On the one side, a gelatinous semi-fluid; on the other side, an entirely inorganic, though often a most exquisitely mechanised, calcareous excretion.

Animalization in general is, we know, contra-distinguished from vegetables in general by the predominance of azote in the chemical composition, and of irritability in the organic process. But in this and the foregoing classes, as being still near the common equator, or the punctum indifferentiæ, the carbonic principle still asserts its claims, and the force of reproduction struggles with that of irritability. In the unreconciled strife of these two forces consists the character of the Vermes, which appear to be the preparatory step for the next class. Hence the difficulties which have embarrassed the naturalists, who adopt the Linnæan classification, in their endeavours to discover determinate characters of distinction between the vermes and the insecta.

But no sooner have we passed the borders, than endless variety of form and the bold display of instincts announce, that Nature has succeeded. She has created the intermediate link between the vegetable world, as the product of the reproductive or magnetic power, and the animal as the exponent of sensibility. Those that live and are nourished, on the bodies of other animals, are comparatively few, with little diversity of shape, and almost all of the same natural family. These we may pass by as exceptions. But the insect world, taken at large, appears as an intenser life, that has struggled itself loose and become emancipated from vegetation, Floræ liberti, et libertini! If for the sake of a moment’s relaxation we might indulge a Darwinian flight, though at the risk of provoking a smile, (not, I hope, a frown) from sober judgment, we might imagine the life of insects an apotheosis of the petals, stamina, and nectaries, round which they flutter, or of the stems and pedicles, to which they adhere. Beyond and above this step, Nature seems to act with a sort of free agency, and to have formed the classes from choice and bounty. Had she proceeded no further, yet the whole vegetable, together with the whole insect creation, would have formed within themselves an entire and independent system of Life. All plants have insects, most commonly each genus of vegetables its appropriate genera of insects; and so reciprocally interdependent and necessary to each other are they, that we can almost as little think of vegetation without insects, as of insects without vegetation. Though probably the mere likeness of shape, in the papilio, and the papilionaceous plants, suggested the idea of the former, as the latter in a state of detachment, to our late poetical and theoretical brother; yet a something, that approaches to a graver plausibility, is given to this fancy of a flying blossom; when we reflect how many plants depend upon insects for their fructification. Be it remembered, too, that with few and very obscure exceptions, the irritable power and an analogon of voluntary motion first dawn on us in the vegetable world, in the stamina, and anthers, at the period of impregnation. Then, as if Nature had been encouraged by the success of the first experiment, both the one and the other appear as predominance and general character. THE INSECT WORLD IS THE EXPONENT OF IRRITABILITY, AS THE VEGETABLE IS OF REPRODUCTION.

With the ascent in power, the intensity of individuation keeps even pace; and from this we may explain all the characteristic distinctions between this class and that of the vermes. The almost homogeneous jelly of the animalcula infusoria became, by a vital oxydation, granular in the polypi. This granulation formed itself into distinct organs in the molluscæ; while for the snails, which are the next step, the animalized lime, that seemed the sole final cause of the life of the polypi, assumes all the characters of an ulterior purpose. Refined into a horn-like substance, it becomes to the snails the substitute of an organ, and their outward skeleton. Yet how much more manifold and definite, the organization of an insect, than that of the preceding class, the patient researches of Swammerdam and Lyonnet have evinced, to the delight and admiration of every reflecting mind.

In the insect, for the first time, we find the distinct commencement of a separation between the exponents of sensibility and those of irritability; i.e. between the nervous and the muscular system. The latter, however, asserts its pre-eminence throughout. The prodigal provision of organs for the purposes of respiration, and the marvellous powers which numerous tribes of insects possess, of accommodating the most corrupted airs, for a longer or shorter period, to the support of their excitability, would of itself lead us to presume, that here the vis irritabilis is the reigning dynasty. There is here no confluence of nerves into one reservoir, as evidence of the independent existence of sensibility as sensibility;—and therefore no counterpoise of a vascular system, as a distinct exponent of the irritable pole. The whole muscularity of these animals, is the organ of irritability; and the nerves themselves are probably feeders of the motory power. The petty rills of sensibility flow into the full expanse of irritability, and there lose themselves. The nerves appertaining to the senses, on the other hand, are indistinct, and comparatively unimportant. The multitude of immovable eyes appear not so much conductors of light, as its ultimate recipient. We are almost tempted to believe that they constitute, rather than subserve, their sensorium.

These eye-facets form the sense of light, rather than organs of seeing. Their almost paradoxical number at least, and the singularity of their forms, render it probable that they impel the animal by some modification of its irritability, herein likewise containing a striking analogy to the known influence of light on plants, than as excitements of sensibility. The sense that is nearest akin to irritability, and which alone resides in the muscular system, is that of touch, or feeling. This, therefore, is the first sense that emerges. Being confined to absolute contact, it occupies the lowest rank; but for that very reason it is the ground of all the other senses, which act, according to the ratio of their ascent, at still increasing distances, and become more and more ideal, from the tentacles of the polypus, to the human eye; which latter might be defined the outward organ of the identity, or at least of the indifference, of the real and ideal. But as the calcareous residuum of the lowest class approaches to the nature of horn in the snail, so the cumbrous shell of the snail has been transformed into polished and moveable plates of defensive armour in the insect. Thus, too, the same power of progressive individuation articulates the tentacula of the polypus and holothuria into antennæ; thereby manifesting the full emersion and eminency of irritability as a power which acts in, and gives its own character to, that of reproduction. The least observant must have noticed the lightning-like rapidity with which the insect tribes devour and eliminate their food, as by an instinctive necessity, and in the least degree for the purposes of the animal’s own growth or enlargement. The same predominance of irritability, and at the same time a new start in individuation, is shown in the reproductive power as generation. There is now a regular projection, ab intra ad extra, for which neither sprouts nor cuttings can any longer be the substitutes. We have not space for further detail; but there is one point too strikingly illustrative and even confirmative of the proposed system, to be omitted altogether. We mean the curious fact, that the same characteristic tendency, ad extra, which in the males and females of certain insect tribes is realized in the functions of generation, conception, and parturiency, manifests and expands itself in the sexless individuals (which are always in this case the great majority of the species), as instincts of art, and in the construction of works completely detached and inorganic; while the geometric regularity of these works, which bears an analogy to crystallization, is demonstrably no more than the necessary result of uniform action in a compressed multitude.

Again, as the insect world, averaging the whole, comes nearest to plants, (whose very essence is reproduction,) in the multitude of their germs; so does it resemble plants in the sufficiency of a single impregnation for the evolution of myriads of detached lives. Even so, the metamorphoses of insects, from the egg to the maggot and caterpillar, and from these, through the nympha and aurelia into the perfect insect, are but a more individuated and intenser form of a similar transformation of the plant from the seed-leaflets, or cotyledons, through the stalk, the leaves, and the calyx, into the perfect flower, the various colours of which seem made for the reflection of light, as the antecedent grade to the burnished scales, and scale-like eyes of the insect. Nevertheless, with all this seeming prodigality of organic power, the whole tendency is ad extra, and the life of insects, as electricity in the quadrate, acts chiefly on the superficies of their bodies, to which we may add the negative proof arising from the absence of sensibility. It is well known, that the two halves of a divided insect have continued to perform, or attempt, each their separate functions, the trunkless head feeding with its accustomed voracity, while the headless trunk has exhibited its appropriate excitability to the sexual influence.

The intropulsive force, that sends the ossification inward as to the centre, is reserved for a yet higher step, and this we find embodied in the class of fishes. Even here, however, the process still seems imperfect, and (as it were) initiatory. The skeleton has left the surface, indeed, but the bones approach to the nature of gristle. To feel the truth of this, we need only compare the most perfect bone of a fish with the thigh-bones of the mammalia, and the distinctness with which the latter manifest the co-presence of the magnetic power in its solid parietes, of the electrical in its branching arteries, and of the third greatest power, viz., the qualitative and interior, in its marrow. The senses of fish are more distinct than those of insects. Thus, the intensity of its sense of smell has been placed beyond doubt, and rises in the extent of its sphere far beyond the irritable sense, or the feeling, in insects. I say the feeling, not the touch; for the touch seems, as it were, a supervention to the feeling, a perfection given to it by the reaction of the higher powers. As the feeling of the insect, in subtlety and virtual distance, rises above the solitary sense of taste[4] in the mollusca, so does the smell of the fish rise above the feeling of the insect. In the fish, likewise, the eyes are single and moveable, while it is remarkable that the only insect that possesses this latter privilege, is an inhabitant of the waters. Finally, here first, unequivocally, and on a large scale, (for I pretend not to control the freedom, in which the necessity of Nature is rooted, by the precise limits of a system,)—here first, Nature exhibits, in the power of sensibility, the consummation of those vital forms (the nisus formativi) the adequate and the sole measure of which is to be sought for in their several organic products. But as if a weakness of exhaustion had attended this advance in the same moment it was made, Nature seems necessitated to fall back, and re-exert herself on the lower ground which she had before occupied, that of the vital magnetism, or the power of reproduction. The intensity of this latter power in the fishes, is shown both in their voracity and in the number of their eggs, which we are obliged to calculate by weight, not by tale. There is an equal intensity both of the immanent and the projective reproduction, in which, if we take in the comparative number of individuals in each species, and likewise the different intervals between the acts, the fish (it is probable) would be found to stand in a similar relation to the insect, as the insect, in the latter point, stands to the system of vegetation. Meantime, the fish sinks a step below the insect, in the mode and circumstances of impregnation. To this we will venture to add, the predominance of length, as the form of growth in so large a proportion of the known orders of fishes, and not less of their rectilineal path of motion. In all other respects, the correspondence combined with the progress in individuation, is striking in the whole detail. Thus the eye, in addition to its moveability, has besides acquired a saline moisture in its higher development, as accordant with the life of its element. Add to these the glittering covering in both, the splendour of the scales in the one answering to the brilliant plates in the other,—the luminous reservoirs of the fire-flies,—the phosphorescence and electricity of many fishes,—the same analogs of moral qualities, in their rapacity, boldness, modes of seizing their prey by surprise,—their gills, as presenting the intermediate state between the spiracula of the grade next below, and the lungs of the step next above, both extremes of which seem combined in the structure of birds and of their quill-feathers; but above all, the convexity of the crystalline lens, so much greater than in birds, quadrupeds, and man, and seeming to collect, in one powerful organ, the hundred-fold microscopic facettes of the insect’s light organs; and it will not be easy to resist the conviction, that the same power is at work in both, and reappears under higher auspices. The intention of Nature is repeated; but, as was to have been expected, with two main differences.

First, that in the lower grade the reproductions themselves seem merged in those of irritability, from the very circumstance that the latter constitutes no pole, either to the former, or to sensibility. The force of irritability acts, therefore, in the insect world, in full predominance; while the emergence of sensibility in the fish calls forth the opposite pole of reproduction, as a distinct power, and causes therefore the irritability to flow, in part, into the power of reproduction. The second result of this ascent is the direction of the organizing power, ad intra, with the consequent greater simplicity of the exterior form, and the substitution of condensed and flexible force, with comparative unity of implements, for that variety of tools, almost as numerous as the several objects to which they are to be applied, which arises from, and characterises, the superficial life of the insect creation. This grade of ascension, however, like the former, is accompanied by an apparent retrograde movement. For from this very accession of vital intensity we must account for the absence in the fishes of all the formative, or rather (if our language will permit it) fabricative instincts. How could it be otherwise? These instincts are the surplus and projection of the organizing power in the direction ad extra, and could not, therefore, have been expected in the class of animals that represent the first intuitive effort of organization, and are themselves the product of its first movement in the direction ad intra. But Nature never loses what she has once learnt, though in the acquirement of each new power she intermits, or performs less energetically, the act immediately preceding. She often drops a faculty, but never fails to pick it up again. She may seem forgetful and absent, but it is only to recollect herself with additional, as well as recruited vigour, in some after and higher state; as if the sleep of powers, as well as of bodies, were the season and condition of their growth. Accordingly, we find these instincts again, and with them a wonderful synthesis of fish and insect, as a higher third, in the feathered inhabitants of the air. Nay, she seems to have gone yet further back, and having given B + C = D in the birds, so to have sported with one solitary instance of B + D = A in that curious animal the dragon, the anatomy of which has been recently given to the public by Tiedemann; from whose work it appears, that this creature presents itself to us with the wings of the insect, and with the nervous system, the brain, and the cranium of the bird, in their several rudiments.

The synthesis of fish and insect in the birds, might be illustrated equally in detail with the former; but it will be sufficient for our purpose, that as in both the former cases, the insect and the fish, so here in that of the birds, the powers are under the predominance of irritability; the sensibility being dormant in the first, awakening in the second, and awake, but still subordinate, in the third. Of this my limits confine me to a single presumptive proof, viz., the superiority in strength and courage of the female in the birds of prey. For herein, indeed, does the difference of the sexes universally consist, wherever both the forces are developed, that the female is characterised by quicker irritability, and the male by deeper sensibility. How large a stride has been now made by Nature in the progress of individuation, what ornithologist does not know? From a multitude of instances we select the most impressive, the power of sound, with the first rudiments of modulation! That all languages designate the melody of birds as singing (though according to Blumenbach man only sings, while birds do but whistle), demonstrates that it has been felt as, what indeed it is, a tentative and prophetic prelude of something yet to come. With this conjoin the power and the tendency to acquire articulation, and to imitate speech; conjoin the building instinct and the migratory, the monogamy of several species, and the pairing of almost all; and we shall have collected new instances of the usage (I dare not say law) according to which Nature lets fall, in order to resume, and steps backward the furthest, when she means to leap forwards with the greatest concentration of energy.

For lo! in the next step of ascent the power of sensibility has assumed her due place and rank: her minority is at an end, and the complete and universal presence of a nervous system unites absolutely, by instanteity of time what, with the due allowances for the transitional process, had before been either lost in sameness, or perplexed by multiplicity, or compacted by a finer mechanism. But with this, all the analogies with which Nature had delighted us in the preceding step seem lost, and, with the single exception of that more than valuable, that estimable philanthropist, the dog, and, perhaps, of the horse and elephant, the analogies to ourselves, which we can discover in the quadrupeds or quadrumani, are of our vices, our follies, and our imperfections. The facts in confirmation of both the propositions are so numerous and so obvious, the advance of Nature, under the predominance of the third synthetic power, both in the intensity of life and in the intenseness and extension of individuality, is so undeniable, that we may leap forward at once to the highest realization and reconciliation of both her tendencies, that of the most perfect detachment with the greatest possible union, to that last work, in which Nature did not assist as handmaid under the eye of her sovereign Master, who made Man in his own image, by superadding self-consciousness with self-government, and breathed into him a living soul.

The class of Vermes deposit a calcareous stuff, as if it had torn loose from the earth a piece of the gross mass which it must still drag about with it. In the insect class this residuum has refined itself. In the fishes and amphibia it is driven back or inward, the organic power begins to be intuitive, and sensibility appears. In the birds the bones have become hollow; while, with apparent proportional recess, but, in truth, by the excitement of the opposite pole, their exterior presents an actual vegetation. The bones of the mammalia are filled up, and their coverings have become more simple. Man possesses the most perfect osseous structure, the least and most insignificant covering. The whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself. Now, for the first time at the apex of the living pyramid, it is Man and Nature, but Man himself is a syllepsis, a compendium of Nature—the Microcosm! Naked and helpless cometh man into the world. Such has been the complaint from eldest time; but we complain of our chief privilege, our ornament, and the connate mark of our sovereignty. Porphyrigeniti sumus! In Man the centripetal and individualizing tendency of all Nature is itself concentred and individualized—he is a revelation of Nature! Henceforward, he is referred to himself, delivered up to his own charge; and he who stands the most on himself, and stands the firmest, is the truest, because the most individual, Man. In social and political life this acme is inter-dependence; in moral life it is independence; in intellectual life it is genius. Nor does the form of polarity, which has accompanied the law of individuation up its whole ascent, desert it here. As the height, so the depth. The intensities must be at once opposite and equal. As the liberty, so must be the reverence for law. As the independence, so must be the service and the submission to the Supreme Will! As the ideal genius and the originality, in the same proportion must be the resignation to the real world, the sympathy and the inter-communion with Nature. In the conciliating mid-point, or equator, does the Man live, and only by its equal presence in both its poles can that life be manifested!


Footnotes[edit]

  1. I apprehend that by men of a certain school it would be deemed no demerit, even though they should never have condescended to look into any system of Aristotelian logic. It is enough for these gentlemen that they are experimentalists! Let it not, however, be supposed that they make more experiments than their neighbours, who consider induction as a means and not an end; or have stronger motives for making them, unless it can be believed that Tycho Brähe must have been urged to repeat his sweeps of the heavens with greater accuracy and industry than Herschel, for no better reason than that the former flourished before the theory of gravitation was perfected. No, but they have the honour of being mere experimentalists! If, however, we may not refer to logic, we may to common sense and common experience. It is not improbable, however, that they have both read and studied a book of hypothetical psychology on the assumptions of the crudest materialism, stolen too without acknowledgment from our David Hartley’s essay on Man, which is well known under the whimsical name of Condillac’s Logic. But, as Mr. Brand has lately observed, “the French are a queer people,” and we should not be at all surprised to hear of a book of fresh importation from Paris, on determinate proportions in chemistry, announced by the author in his title-page as a new and improved system either of arithmetic or geometry.
  2. Such is the interpretation given by Lord Bacon. To which of the two gigantic intellects, the poet’s or philosophic commentator’s, the allegory belongs, I shall not presume to decide. Its extraordinary beauty and appropriateness remains the same in either case.
  3. The Anatomical Demonstrations of the Brain, by Dr. Spurzheim, which I have seen, presented to me the most satisfactory proof of this.
  4. The remark on the feeling of the antennæ, compared with the touch of man, or even of the half-reasoning elephant, is yet more applicable to the taste, which in these gelatinous animals might, perhaps not inappropriately, be entitled the gastric sense.