Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/Another World Down Here

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



WHAT a horrible place must this world appear when regarded according to our ideas from an insect's point of view! The air infested with huge flying hungry dragons, whose gaping and snapping mouths are ever intent upon swallowing the innocent creatures for whom, according to the insect, if he were like us, a properly constructed world ought to be exclusively adapted. The solid earth continually shaken by the approaching tread of hideous giants—moving mountains—that crush out precious lives at every footstep, an occasional draught of the blood of these monsters, stolen at life-risk, affording but poor compensation for such fatal persecution.

Let us hope that the little victims are less like ourselves than the doings of ants and bees might lead us to suppose; that their mental anxieties are not proportionate to the optical vigilance indicated by the four thousand eye-lenses of the common house-fly, the seventeen thousand of the cabbage-butterfly and the wide-awake dragon-fly, or the twenty-five thousand possessed by certain species of still more vigilant beetles.

Each of these little eyes has its own cornea, its lens, and a curious six-sided, transparent prism, at the back of which is a special retina spreading out from a branch of the main optic nerve, which, in the cockchafer and some other creatures, is half as large as the brain. If each of these lenses forms a separate picture of each object rather than a single mosaic picture, as some anatomists suppose, what an awful army of cruel giants must the cockchafer behold when he is captured by a schoolboy!

The insect must see a whole world of wonders of which we know little or nothing. True, we have microscopes, with which we can see one thing at a time if carefully laid upon the stage; but what is the finest instrument that Ross can produce compared to that with twenty-five thousand object-glasses, all of them probably achromatic, and each one a living instrument with its own nerve-branch supplying a separate sensation? To creatures thus endowed with microscopic vision, a cloud of sandy dust must appear like an avalanche of massive rock-fragments, and everything else proportionally monstrous.

One of the many delusions engendered by our human self-conceit and habit of considering the world as only such as we know it from our human point of view is that of supposing human intelligence to be the only kind of intelligence in existence. The fact is, that what we call the lower animals have special intelligence of their own as far transcending our intelligence as our peculiar reasoning intelligence exceeds theirs. We are as incapable of following the track of a friend by the smell of his footsteps as a dog is of writing a metaphysical treatise.

So with insects. They are probably acquainted with a whole world of physical facts of which we are utterly ignorant. Our auditory apparatus supplies us with a knowledge of sounds. What are these sounds? They are vibrations of matter which are capable of producing corresponding or sympathetic vibrations of the drums of our ears or the bones of our skull. When we carefully examine the subject, and count the number of vibrations that produce our world of sounds of varying pitch, we find that the human ear can only respond to a limited range of such vibrations. If they exceed three thousand per second, the sound becomes too shrill for average people to hear it, though some exceptional ears can take up pulsations, or waves, that succeed each other more rapidly than this.

Reasoning from the analogy of stretched strings and membranes, and of air vibrating in tubes, etc., we are justified in concluding that the smaller the drum or tube the higher will be the note it produces when agitated, and the smaller and the more rapid the aërial wave to which it will respond. The drums of insect-ears, and the tubes, etc., connected with them, are so minute that their world of sounds probably begins where ours ceases; that what appears to us as a continuous sound is to them a series of separated blows, just as vibrations of ten or twelve per second appear separated to us. We begin to hear such vibrations as continuous sounds when they amount to about thirty per second. The insect's continuous sound probably begins beyond three thousand. The blue-bottle may thus enjoy a whole world of exquisite music of which we know nothing.

There is another very suggestive peculiarity in the auditory apparatus of insects. Its structure and position are something between those of an ear and of an eye. Careful examination of the head of one of our domestic companions—the common cockroach or black beetle—will reveal two round white points, somewhat higher than the base of the long outer antennæ, and a little nearer to the middle line of the head. These white projecting spots are formed by the outer transparent membrane of a bag or ball filled with fluid, which ball or bag rests inside another cavity in the head. It resembles our own eye in having this external transparent tough membrane which corresponds to the cornea; which, like the cornea, is backed by the fluid in the ear-ball corresponding to our eyeball, and the back of this ear-ball appears to receive the outspreadings of a nerve, just as the back of our eye is lined with the outspread of the optic nerve forming the retina. There does not appear to be in this or other insects a tightly stretched membrane which, like the membrane of our ear-drum, is fitted to take up bodily air-waves and vibrate responsively to them. But it is evidently adapted to receive and concentrate some kind of vibration or motion or tremor.

What kind of motion can this be? What kind of perception does this curious organ supply? To answer these questions we must travel beyond the strict limits of scientific induction and enter the fairy-land of scientific imagination. We may wander here in safety, provided we always remember where we are, and keep a true course guided by the compass-needle of demonstrable facts.

I have said that the cornea-like membrane of the insect's ear-bag does not appear capable of responding to bodily air-waves. This adjective is important, because there are vibratory movements of matter that are not bodily but molecular. An analogy may help to render this distinction intelligible. I may take a long string of beads and shake it into wave-like movements, the waves being formed by the movements of the whole string. We may now conceive another kind of movement or vibration by supposing one bead to receive a blow pushing it forward, this push to be communicated to the next, then to the third, and so on, producing a minute running tremor passing from end to end. This kind of action may be rendered visible by laying a number of billiard-balls or marbles in line and bowling an outside ball against the end one of the row. The impulse will be rapidly and invisibly transmitted all along the line, and the outer ball will respond by starting forward.

Heat, light, and electricity, are mysterious internal movements of what we call matter (some say "ether," which is but a name for imaginary matter). These internal movements are as invisible as those of the intermediate billiard-balls; but if there be a line of molecules acting thus, and the terminal one strikes an organ of sense fitted to receive its motion, some sort of perception may follow. When such movements of certain frequency and amplitude strike our organs of vision, the sensation of light is produced. When others of greater amplitude and smaller frequency strike the terminal outspread of our common sensory nerves, the sensation of heat results. The difference between the frequency and amplitude of the heat-waves and the light-waves is but small, or, strictly speaking, there is no actual line of separation lying between them; they run directly into each other. When a piece of metal is gradually heated, it is first "black-hot"; this is while the waves or molecular tremblings are of a certain amplitude and frequency; as the frequency increases, and amplitude diminishes (or, to borrow from musical terms, as the pitch rises), the metal becomes dull red-hot; greater rapidity, cherry-red; greater still, bright-red; then yellow-hot and white-hot: the luminosity growing as the rapidity of molecular vibration increases.

There is no such gradation between the most rapid undulations or tremblings that produce our sensation of sound and the slowest of those which give rise to our sensations of gentlest warmth. There is a huge gap between them, wide enough to include another world or several other worlds of motion, all lying between our world of sounds and our world of heat and light, and there is no good reason whatever for supposing that matter is incapable of such intermediate activity, or that such activity may not give rise to intermediate sensations, provided there are organs for taking up and sensifying (if I may coin a desirable word) these movements.

As already stated, the limit of audible tremors is three to four thousand per second, but the smallest number of tremors that we can perceive as heat is between three and four millions of millions per second. The number of waves producing red light is estimated at four hundred and seventy-four millions of millions per second; and for the production of violet light, six hundred and ninety-nine millions of millions. These are the received conclusions of our best mathematicians, which I repeat on their authority. Allowing, however, a very large margin of possible error, the world of possible sensations lying between those produced by a few thousands of waves and any number of millions is of enormous width.

In such a world of intermediate activities the insect probably lives, with a sense of vision revealing to him more than our microscopes show to us, and with his minute eye-like ear-bag sensifying material movements that lie between our world of sounds and our other far distant worlds of heat and light.

There is yet another indication of some sort of intermediate sensation possessed by insects. Many of them are not only endowed with the thousands of lenses of their compound eyes, but have in addition several curious organs that have been designated "ocelli" and "stemmata." These are generally placed at the top of the head, the thousand-fold eyes being at the sides. They are very much like the auditory organs above described—so much so, that in consulting different authorities for special information on the subject I have fallen into some confusion, from which I can only escape by supposing that the organ which one anatomist describes as the ocelli of certain insects is regarded as the auditory apparatus when examined in another insect by another anatomist. All this indicates a sort of continuity of sensation connecting the sounds of the insect world with the objects of their vision.

But these ocular ears or auditory eyes of the insect are not his only advantages over us. He has another sensory organ to which, with all our boasted intellect, we can claim nothing that is comparable, unless it be our olfactory nerve. The possibility of this I will presently discuss.

I refer to the antennæ, which are the most characteristic of insect organs, and wonderfully developed in some, as may be seen by examining the plumes of the crested gnat. Everybody who has carefully watched the doings of insects must have observed the curiously investigative movements of the antennæ, which are ever on the alert peering and prying to right and left and upward and downward. Huber, who devoted his life to the study of bees and ants, concluded that these insects converse with each other by movements of the antennæ, and he has given to the signs thus produced the name of "antennal language." They certainly do communicate information or give orders by some means; and, when they stop for that purpose, they face each other and execute peculiar wavings of these organs that are highly sugestive of the movements of the old semaphore-telegraph arms.

The most generally received opinion is, that these antennæ are very delicate organs of touch, but some recent experiments made by Gustav Hansen indicate that they are organs of smelling or of some similar power of distinguishing objects at a distance. Flies deprived of their antennæ ceased to display any interest in tainted meat that had previously proved very attractive. Other insects similarly treated appear to become indifferent to odors generally. He shows that the development of the antennæ in different species corresponds to the power of smelling which they seem to possess.

I am sorely tempted to add another argument to those brought forward by Hausen, viz., that our own olfactory nerves, and those of all our near mammalian relations, are curiously like a pair of antennæ.

There are two elements in a nervous structure—the gray and the white; the gray or ganglionic portion is supposed to be the center or seat of nervous power, and the white medullary or fibrous portion merely the conductor of nervous energy.

The nerves of the other senses have their ganglia seated internally, and the bundles of tubular white threads spread outward therefrom, but not so with the olfactory nervous apparatus. There are two hornlike projections thrust forward from the base of the brain, with white or medullary stems that terminate outwardly or anteriorly in ganglionic bulbs resting upon what I may call the roof of the nose, and throwing out fibers that are composed, rather paradoxically, of more gray matter than white. In some quadrupeds with great power of smell, these two nerves extend so far forward as to protrude beyond the front of the hemispheres of the brain, with bulbous terminations relatively very much larger than those of man.

They thus appear like veritable antennæ. In some of our best works on anatomy of the brain (Solly, for example) a series of comparative pictures of the brains of different animals is shown, extending from man to the codfish. As we proceed downward, the hornlike projection of the olfactory nerves beyond the central hemispheres goes on extending more and more, and the relative magnitude of the terminal ganglia or olfactory lobes increases in similar order.

We have only to omit the nasal bones and nostrils, to continue this forward extrusion of the olfactory nerves and their bulbs and branches, to coat them with suitable sheaths provided with muscles for mobility, and we have the antennæ of insects. I submit this view of the comparative anatomy of these organs as my own speculation, to be taken for what it is worth.

There is no doubt that the antennæ of these creatures are connected by nerve-stalks with the anterior part of their supra-œsophageal ganglia—i. e., the nervous centers corresponding to our brain.

But what kind and degree of power must such olfactory organs possess? The dog has, relatively to the rest of his brain, a much greater development of the olfactory nerves and ganglia than man has. His powers of smell are so much greater than ours that we find it difficult to conceive the possibility of what we actually see him do. As an example, I may describe an experiment I made upon a blood-hound of the famous Cuban breed. He belonged to a friend whose house is situated on an eminence commanding an extensive view. I started from the garden and wandered about a mile away, crossed several fields by sinuous courses, climbing over stiles and jumping ditches, always keeping the house in view; I then returned by quite a different track. The blood-hound was set upon the beginning of my track. I watched him from a window galloping rapidly, and following all its windings without the least halting or hesitation. It was as clear to his nose as a graveled path or a luminous streak would be to our eyes. On his return I went down to him, and without approaching nearer than five or six yards he recognized me as the object of his search, proving this by circling round me, baying deeply and savagely though harmlessly, as he always kept at about the same distance.

If the difference of development between the human and canine internal antennæ produces all this difference of function, what a gulf may there be between our powers of perceiving material emanations and those possessed by insects! If my anatomical hypothesis is correct, some insects have protruding nasal organs or out-thrust olfactory nerves as long as all the rest of their bodies. The power of movement of these in all directions affords the means of sensory communication over a corresponding range, instead of being limited merely to the direction of the nostril-openings. In some insects, such as the plumed gnat, the antennæ do not appear to be thus movable, but this want of mobility is more than compensated by the multitude of branchings of these wonderful organs whereby they are simultaneously exposed in every direction. This structure is analogous to the fixed but multiplied eyes of insects, which, by seeing all round at once, compensate for the want of that mobility possessed by others that have but a single eyeball mounted on a flexible and mobile stalk; that of the spider, for example.

Such an extension of such a sensory function is equivalent to living in another world of which we have no knowledge and can form no definite conception. We, by our senses of touch and vision, know the shapes and colors of objects, and by our very rudimentary olfactory organs form crude ideas of their chemistry or composition, through the medium of their material emanations; but the huge exaggeration of this power in the insect should supply him with instinctive perceptive powers of chemical analysis, a direct acquaintance with the inner molecular constitution of matter far clearer and deeper than we are able to obtain by all the refinements of laboratory analyses or the hypothetical formulating of molecular mathematicians. Add this to the other world of sensations producible by the vibratory movements of matter lying between those perceptible by our organs of hearing and vision, then strain your imagination to its cracking-point, and you will still fail to picture the wonderland in which the smallest of our fellow-creatures may be living, moving, and having their being.—Belgravia.