Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/A Great Confession
|A GREAT CONFESSION.|
AMONG the many distinguished men who have contributed to the world's plebiscite in favor of the Darwinian hypothesis on the origin of species, there is no one name more distinguished than that of Mr. Herbert Spencer. He has pursued the idea of development with wonderful ingenuity through not a few of its thousand ramifications. He has carried it into philosophy and metaphysics. He has clothed it in numerous and subtle forms of speech, appealing to various faculties, and offering to each its appropriate objects of recognition. He is the author of that other phrase, "the survival of the fittest," which has almost superseded Darwin's own original phrase of "natural selection." Nothing could be happier than this invention for the purpose of giving vogue to whatever it might be supposed to mean. There is a roundness, neatness, and compactness about it, which imparts to it all the qualities of a projectile with immense penetrating power. It is a signal illustration of itself. It is the fittest of all phrases to survive. There is a sense of self-evident truth about it which fills us with satisfaction. It may perhaps be suspected sometimes of being a perfect specimen of the knowledge that puffeth up, because there is a suggestion about it—not easily dismissed—that it is tautological. The survival of the fittest may be translated into the survival of that which does actually survive. But the special power of it lies in this, that it sounds as if it expressed a true physical cause. It gets rid of that detestable reference to the analogies of mind which are inseparably associated with the phrase of natural selection. It is the great object of all true science—as some think—to eliminate these, and if possible to abolish them. Survival of the fittest seems to tell us not only of that which is, but of that which must be. It breathes the very air of necessity and of demonstration. Among the influences which have tended to popularize the Darwinian hypothesis, and to give it the imposing air of a complete and satisfactory explanation of all phenomena, it may well be doubted whether anything has been more powerful than the universal currency of this simple formula of expression.
Such is the authority who has lately contributed to this Review two papers upon "The Factors in Organic Evolution." The very title is significant. The survival of the fittest is a cause which after all does not stand alone. It is not so complete as it has been assumed to be. There are in organic evolution more elements than one. There is concerned in it not one cause but a plurality of causes. A "factor" is specially a doer. It is that which works and does. It is a word appropriated to the conception of an immediate, an efficient cause. And of these causes there are more than one. Neither natural selection nor survival of the fittest is of itself a sufficient explanation. They must be supplemented. There are other factors which must be admitted and confessed.
This is the first and most notable feature of Mr. Spencer's articles. But there is another closely connected with it, and that is the emphatic testimony he bears to the fact that the existing popular conception is unconscious of any defect or failing in the all-sufficiency of the Darwinian hypothesis. He speaks of the process brought into clear view by Mr. Darwin, and of those with whom he is about to argue, as men "who conclude that taken alone it accounts for organic evolution." In order to make his own coming contention clearer, he devises new forms of expression for the hypothesis of Darwin. He calls it "the natural selection of favorable variations." Again and again he emphasizes the fact that these variations, according to the theory, were "spontaneous," and that their utility was only "fortunate," or, in other words, accidental. He speaks of them as "fortuitously arising"; and it is of this theory, so defined and rendered precise, that he admits that it is now commonly supposed to have been "the sole factor" in the origin of species.
It is surely worth considering for a moment the wonderful state of mind which this declaration discloses. When Mr. Herbert Spencer here speaks of the "popular" belief, he is not speaking of the mob. He is not referring to any mere superstition of the illiterate multitude. He is speaking of all ranks in the world of science. He is speaking of some overwhelming majority of those who are investigators of Nature in some one or other of her departments, and who are supposed generally to recognize as a cardinal principle in science, that the reign of law is universal there—that nothing is fortuitous—that nothing is the result of accident. Yet Mr. Herbert Spencer represents this great mass and variety of men as believing in the preservation of accidental variations as "the sole factor," and as the one adequate explanation in all the wonders of organic life.
Nor can there be any better proof of the strength of his impression upon this subject than to observe his own tone when he ventures to dissent. He speaks, if not literally with bated breath, yet at least with a deferential reverence for the popular dogma, which is really a curious phenomenon in the history of thought. "We may fitly ask," he says, whether it "accounts for" organic evolution. "On critically examining the evidence," he proceeds, "we shall find reason to think that it by no means explains all that has to be explained." And then follows an allusion of curious significance. "Omitting," says Mr. Spencer, "for the present any consideration of a factor which may be distinguished as primordial—" Here we have the mind of this distinguished philosopher confessing to itself—as it were in a whisper and aside—that Darwin's ultimate conception of some primordial "breathing of the breath of life" is a conception which can only be omitted "for the present." Meanwhile he goes on with a special, and it must be confessed a most modest, suggestion of one other "factor" in addition to natural selection, which he thinks will remove many difficulties that remain unsolved when natural selection is taken by itself. But while great interest attaches to the fact that Mr. Herbert Spencer does not hold natural selection to be the sole factor in organic evolution, it is more than doubtful whether any value attaches to the new factor with which he desires to supplement it. It seems unaccountable indeed that Mr. Herbert Spencer should make so great a fuss about so small a matter as the effect of use and disuse of particular organs as a separate and a newly recognized factor in the development of varieties. That persistent disuse of any organ will occasion atrophy of the parts concerned, is surely one of the best established of physiological facts. That organs thus enfeebled are transmitted by inheritance to offspring in a like condition of functional and structural decline, is a correlated physiological doctrine not generally disputed. The converse case—of increased strength and development arising out of the habitual and healthy use of special organs, and of the transmission of these to offspring—is a case illustrated by many examples in the breeding of domestic animals. I do not know to what else we can attribute the long, slender legs and bodies of greyhounds so manifestly adapted to speed of foot, or the delicate powers of smell in pointers and setters, or a dozen cases of modified structure effected by artificial selection.
But the most remarkable feature in the elaborate argument of Mr. Spencer on this subject is its complete irrelevancy. Natural selection is an elastic formula under which this new "factor" may be easily comprehended. In truth, the whole argument raised in favor of structural modification arising out of use and disuse, is an argument which implies that Mr. Spencer has not himself entirely shaken off that interpretation of natural selection which he is disputing. He treats it as if it were the definite expression of some true physical and efficient cause, to which he only claims to add some subsidiary help from another physical cause which is wholly separate. But if natural selection is a mere phrase, vague enough and wide enough to cover any number of the physical causes concerned in ordinary generation, then the whole of Mr. Spencer's laborious argument in favor of his "other factor" becomes an argument worse than superfluous. It is wholly fallacious in assuming that this "factor" and "natural selection" are at all exclusive of, or even separate from, each other. The factor thus assumed to be new is simply one of the subordinate cases of heredity. But heredity is the central idea of natural selection. Therefore natural selection includes and covers all the causes which can possibly operate through inheritance. There is thus no difficulty whatever in referring it to the same one factor whose solitary dominion Mr. Spencer has plucked up courage to dispute. He will never succeed in shaking its dictatorship by such a small rebellion. His little contention is like some bit of Bumbledom setting up for Home Rule—some parochial vestry claiming independence of a universal empire. It pretends to set up for itself in some fragment of an idea. But here is not even a fragment to boast of or to stand up for. His new factor in organic evolution has neither independence nor novelty. Mr. Spencer is able to quote himself as having mentioned it in his "Principles of Biology" published some twenty years ago; and by a careful ransacking of Darwin he shows that the idea was familiar to and admitted by him at least in his last edition of the "Origin of Species." Mr. Spencer insists that this fact is evidence of a "reaction" in Darwin's mind against the sole factorship of natural selection. Darwin was a man so much wiser than all his followers, and there are in his book so many indications of his sense of our great ignorance, that most probably he did grow in the consciousness of the necessary incompleteness and shortcomings of his own explanations. But there was nothing whatever to startle him in the idea of heredity propagating structural change, through functional use and disuse. This idea was not incongruous with his own more general conception. On the contrary, it was strictly congruous and harmoniously subordinate. He did not profess to account for all the varieties which emerge in organic forms. Provisionally, and merely for the convenience of leaving that subject open, he spoke of them as fortuitous. But to assume the really fortuitous or accidental character of variation to be an essential part of this theory, is merely one of the many follies and fanaticisms of his followers.
Although, therefore, the particular case chosen by Mr. Herbert Spencer to illustrate the incompetency of natural selection. taken alone, to explain all the facts of organic evolution, is a case of little or no value for the purpose, yet the attitude of mind into which he is thrown in the conduct of his argument leads him to results which are eminently instructive. The impulse "critically to examine" such a phrase as "natural selection" is in itself an impulse quite certain to be fruitful. The very origin of that impulse gives it of necessity right direction. Antagonism to a prevalent dogma so unreasoning as to set up such a mere phrase as the embodiment of a complete philosophy, is an antagonism thoroughly wholesome. Once implanted in Mr. Herbert Spencer's mind, it is curious to observe how admirably it illustrates the idea of development. Having first sought some shelter of authority under words of the great prophet himself, he becomes more and more aggressive against the pretenders to his authority. His grumbles against them become loud and louder as he proceeds. He speaks of "those who have committed themselves to the current exclusive interpretation." He observes upon "inattention and reluctant attention" as leading to the ignoring of facts. He speaks of "alienation from a belief" as "causing naturalists to slight the evidence which supports that belief, and refuse to occupy themselves in seeking further evidence." He compares their blindness now respecting the insufficiency of natural selection with the blindness of naturalists to the facts of evolution before Darwin's book appeared. He marshals and reiterates the obvious considerations which prove that the development of animal forms must necessarily depend on an immense number and variety of adjusted changes in many different organs, all co-operating with each other, and all nicely adjusted to the improved functional actions in which they must all partake. He reduces the practical impossibility of such changes occurring as the result of accident to a numerical computation. He tells his opponents that the chances against any adequate readjustments fortuitously arising "must be infinity to one." But more than this: he not only repels the Darwinian factor as adequate by itself, but, advancing in his conclusions, he declares that it must be eliminated altogether. On further consideration he tells us that in his opinion it can have neither part nor lot in this matter. He insists that the correlated changes are so numerous and so remote that the greater part of them can not be ascribed (even) in any degree to the mere selection of favorable variations. Then facing the opponents whose mingled credulities and incredulities he has so offended, he rebukes their fanaticisms according to a well-known formula: "Nowadays," he says, "most naturalists are more Darwinian than Mr. Darwin himself." This is most true; and Mr. Herbert Spencer need not be the least surprised. All this happens according to a law. When a great man dies, leaving behind him some new idea—new either in itself or in the use he makes of it—it is almost invariably seized upon and ridden to the death by the shouting multitudes who think they follow him. Mr. Herbert Spencer here directs upon their confusions the searching light of his analysis. He most truly distinguishes Darwin's hypothesis in itself, first from the theory of "organic evolution in general," and secondly from "the theory of evolution at large." This analysis roughly corresponds with the distinctions I have pointed out in the preceding paper; and when he points to the confounding of these distinctions under one phrase as the secret of wide delusions, he has got hold of a clew by which much further unraveling may be done. Guided by this clew, and in the light of this analysis, he brings down Darwin's theory to a place and a rank in science which must be still further offensive to those whom he designates as the "mass of readers." He speaks of it as "a great contribution to the theory of organic evolution." It is in his view a "contribution," and nothing more—a step in the investigation of a subject of enormous complexity and extent, but by no means a complete or satisfactory solution of even the most obvious difficulties presented by what we know of the structure and the history of organic forms. It is no part of my object in this paper to criticise in detail the value of that special conception with which Mr. Herbert Spencer now supplements the deficiencies of the Darwinian theory. He calls it "inheritance of functionally produced modifications," and he makes a tremendous claim on its behalf. He evidently thinks that it supplies not only a new and wholly separate factor, but that it goes a long way toward solving many of the difficulties of organic evolution. Nothing could indicate more strongly the immense proportions which this idea has assumed in his mind than the question which he propounds toward the conclusion of his paper. Supposing the new factor to be admitted, "do there remain," he asks, "no classes of organic phenomena unaccounted for?" Wonderful question, indeed! But at least it is satisfactory to find that his reply is more rational than his inquiry: "To this question, I think it must be replied that there do remain classes of organic phenomena unaccounted for. It may, I believe, be shown that certain cardinal traits of animals and plants at large are still unexplained"; and so he proceeds to the second paper, in which the still refractory residuum is to be reduced.
Whatever other value may attach, to an attempt so ambitious, it is at least attended with this advantage, that it leads Mr. Herbert Spencer to follow up the path of "further consideration" into the phrases and formulæ of the Darwinian hypothesis. And he does so with memorable results. What he himself always aims at is to obliterate the separating lines between the organic and the inorganic, and to reduce all the phenomena of life to the terms of such purely physical agencies as the mechanical forces, or as light, heat, and chemical affinity, etc. In this quest he finds the Darwinian phrases in his way. Accordingly, although himself the author and inventor of the most popular among them, he turns upon them a fire of most destructive criticism. He allows them to be, or to have been, "convenient and indeed needful" in the conduct of discussion, but he condemns them as "liable to mislead us by veiling the actual agencies" in organic evolution. That very objection which has always been made against all phrases involving the idea of creation—that they are metaphorical—is now unsparingly applied to Darwin's own phrase "natural selection." Its "implications" are pronounced to be "misleading." The analogies it points at are indeed definite enough, but unfortunately the "definiteness is of a wrong kind." "The tacitly implied 'nature' which selects, is not an embodied agency analogous to the man who selects artificially." This cuts down to the very root of the famous formula, and to that very element in it which has most widely commended it to popular recognition and acceptance. But this is not all. Mr. Herbert Spencer goes, if possible, still deeper down, and digs up the last vestige of foundation for the vast but rambling edifice which has been erected on a phrase. The special boast of its worshipers has always been that it represented and embodied that great reform which removed the processes of organic evolution once and forever from the dominion of deceptive metaphor, and founded them for the first time on true physical causation. But now Mr. Herbert Spencer will have none of this. The whole of this pretension goes by the board. He pronounces upon it this emphatic condemnation: "The words natural selection do not express a cause in the physical sense." It is a mere "convenient figure of speech." But even this is not enough to satisfy Mr. Spencer in his destructive criticism. He goes himself into the confessional. He had done what he could to amend Darwin's phrase. He had "sought to present the phenomena in literal terms rather than metaphorical terms," and in this search he was led to "survival of the fittest." But lie frankly admits that "kindred objections may be urged against the expression" to which this leading led him. The first of these words in a vague way, and the second word in a clear way, call up an idea which he must admit to be "anthropocentric." What an embarrassment it is that the human mind can not wholly turn the back upon itself! Self evisceration, the happy dispatch of the Japanese, is not impossible or even difficult, although when it is done the man does not expect to continue in life. But self-evisceration by the intellectual faculties is a much more arduous operation, especially when we expect to go on thinking and defining as before. It is conceivable that a man might live at least for a time without his viscera, but it is not conceivable that a mind should reason with only some bit or fragment of the brain. In the mysterious convolutions of that mysterious substance there are, as it were, a thousand retinæ—set to receive its own special impressions from the external world. They are all needed; but they are not all of equal dignity. Some catch the lesser and others catch the higher lights of nature; some reflect mere numerical order or mechanical arrangement, while others are occupied with the causes and the reasons and the purposes of these. Some philosophers make it their business to blindfold the facets which are sensitive to such higher things, and to open those only which are adapted to see the lower. And yet these very men generally admit that the faculties of vision which see the higher relations are peculiarly human. They are so identified with the human intellect that they can hardly be separated. And hence they are called anthropomorphic, or as Mr. Spencer prefers to call them "anthropocentric." This close association—this characteristic union—is the very thing which Mr. Spencer dislikes. Yet the earnest endeavors of Mr. Spencer to get out of himself—to eliminate every conception which is "anthropocentric"—have very naturally come to grief. "Survival"? Does not this word derive its meaning from our own conceptions of life and death? Away with it, then! What has a true philosopher to do with such conceptions? Why will they intrude their noxious presence into the purified ideas of a mind seeking to be freed from all anthropocentric contamination? And then that other word "fittest," does it not still more clearly belong to the rejected concepts? Does it not smell of the analogies derived from the mortified and discarded members of intelligence and of will? Does it not suggest such notions as a key fitting a lock, or a glove fitting a hand, and is it worthy of the glorified vision we may enjoy of Nature to think of her correlations as having any analogy with adjustments such as these? In the face of the innumerable and complicated adjustments of a purely mechanical kind which are conspicuous in organic life, Mr, Spencer has the courage to declare that "no approach" to this kind of fitness "presentable to the senses" is to be found in organisms which continue to live in virtue of special conditions. Where materials are so abundant it is hard to specify. But I am tempted to ask whether Mr. Spencer has ever heard of the ears, the teeth, above all the finger of the aye-aye, the wonderful beast that lives in the forest of Madagascar, and is very nicely fitted indeed to prey upon certain larvæ which burrow up the pith of certain trees? Here we see examples of fitting in a sense as purely mechanical as he could possibly select from human mechanism. The enormous ears are fitted to hear the internal and smothered raspings of the grub. The teeth are fitted for the work of cutting-chisels, while one finger is reduced to the dimension of a mere probe, armed with a hooked claw to extract the larvæ. The fitting of this finger-probe into the pith-tube of the forest bough is precisely like the fitting of a finger into a glove. It is strange indeed that Mr. Spencer should deny the applicability of the word fitness, in its strictest "glove" sense, to adaptations such as these. Yet he does deny it in words emphatic and precise. Neither the organic structures themselves—he proceeds to say—nor their individual movements are related in any analogous way to the things and actions in the midst of which they live. Having made this marvelous denial, he reiterates in another form his great confession—his gran rifiuto—that his own famous phrase, although carefully designed to express self-acting and automatic physical operations, is, after all, a failure. And this result he admits not only as proved, but as obviously true. His confession is a humble one. "Evidently," he says, "the word fittest as thus used is a figure of speech."
This elaborate dissection and condemnation by, Mr. Herbert Spencer of both the two famous phrases which have been so long established in the world as expressing the Darwinian hypothesis—his emphatic rejection of the claim of either of them to represent true physical causation—his sentence upon both of them that they are mere figures of speech—is, in my judgment, a memorable event. As regards Mr. Spencer himself, it is a creditable performance and an honorable admission. It is one of the high prerogatives of the human mind to be able to turn upon its own arguments, and its own imaginings, the great weapon of analysis. There are in all of us, not only two voices, but many voices, and splendid work is done when the higher faculties call upon the lower to give an account of what they have said and argued. Often and often, as the result of such a call, we should catch the accents of confession saying: "We have been shutting our eyes to the deepest truth, keeping them open only to others which were comparatively superficial. We have been trying to conceal this by the invention of misleading phrases—full of loose analogies, of vague and deceptive generalities."
Most unfortunately, however, the special peculiarity of Mr. Spencer's introspection appears to be that it is the lower intellectual faculties which are calling the higher to account. The merit of Darwin's phrase lay in its elasticity—in its large elements of metaphor taken from the phenomena of mind. Mr. Spencer's phrase had been carefully framed, he tells us, to get rid of these. His great endeavor was to employ in the interpretation of Nature only those faculties which see material things and the physical forces. Those other faculties which see the adjustments of these to purpose—to the building up of structures yet being imperfect, and to the discharge of functions yet lying in the future—it was his desire to exclude or silence. This was his aim, but he now sees that he has failed. In spite of him the higher intellectual perceptions have claimed admittance, and have actually entered. He now calls on the humbler faculties to challenge this intrusion, and to assert, their exclusive right to occupy the field. The "survival of the fittest" had been constructed to be their fortress. But the very stones of which it is built—the very words by which the structure is composed—are themselves permeated with the insidious elements which they were intended to resist. The "survival of the fittest" is a mere redoubt open at the back, or a fort which can be entered at all points from an access underground. And so, like a skillful general, Mr. Spencer has ordered a complete evacuation of the works.
But in giving up this famous phrase Mr. Spencer does not give up his purpose—which, indeed, is one of the main purposes of his philosophy—namely, to build up sentences and wordy structures which shall eliminate, as far as it is possible to do so, all those aspects of natural phenomena which are human, that is to say, those aspects which reflect at all an intellectual order analogous with or related to our own. "I have elaborated this criticism," he says, "with the intention of emphasizing the need for studying the changes which have gone on, and are ever going on, in organic bodies from an exclusively physical point of view." And so, new formulæ are constructed to explain, and to illustrate how this is to be done. "Survival" suggesting the "human view" of life and death, must be dismissed. How, then, are they to be described? They are "certain sets of phenomena." Their true physical character is "simply groups of changes." In thinking of a plant, for example, we must cease to speak of its living or dying. "We must exclude all the ideas associated with the words life or death." What we do know, physically, is thus defined: "That there go on in the plant certain interdependent processes in presence of certain aiding or hindering influences outside of it; and that in some cases a difference of structure or a favorable set of circumstances allows these interdependent processes to go on for longer periods than in other cases." How luminous! Milton spoke of his own blindness as "knowledge at one entrance quite shut out." But here we have a specimen of the verbal devices by which knowledge at all entrances may be carefully excluded. Life is certain "interdependent processes." Yes, certainly. But so is death. And so is everything else that we know of or can conceive. The words devised by Mr. Herbert Spencer to represent the "purely physical" view of life and death, are words which present no view at all. They are simply a thick fog in which nothing can be seen. Except in virtue of this character of general opacity, they are wholly useless for Mr. Spencer's own purpose as well as for every other. He seeks to exclude mind. But he fails to do so. He seems to think that when he has found a collocation of words which do not expressly convey some particular idea, he has therein found words in which that idea is excluded. This is not so. Words may be so vague and abstract as to signify anything or nothing. If under the word "fitness" human ideas of adjustment and design are apt to insinuate themselves, assuredly the same ideas not only may, but must, be comprehended under such a phrase as "interdependent processes." Painting, for example, is an interdependent process, and both in its execution and results its interdependence lies in purely physical combinations of visible and touchable materials. Yet Sir Thomas Lawrence spoke with literal truth when he snubbed a (Questioner as to the mechanics of his art by telling him that he mixed his colors with brains. The whole of chemical science consists in the knowledge of interdependent processes which are (what we call) purely physical, while the whole science of applied chemistry involves those other interdependent processes which involve the co-operation of the human mind and will.
We have, then, in this new phrase a perfect specimen of one favorite method of Mr. Herbert Spencer in his dealing with such subjects; and the weapon of analysis which he turns so successfully against his own old phrase when he wishes to abandon it, can be turned with equal success not only against all substitutes for it, but against the whole method of reasoning of which it was an example. The verbal structures of definition which abound in his writings always remind me of certain cloud-forms which may sometimes be seen in the western sky, especially over horizons of the sea. They are often most glorious and imposing. Great lines of towers and of far-reaching battlements give the Impression at moments of mountainous solidity and strength. But as we gaze upon them with wonder, and as we fix upon them a closely attentive eye, the edges are seen to be as unsteady as at first they appeared to be enduring. If we attempt to draw them we find that they melt into each other, and that not a single outline is steady for a second. In a few minutes whole masses which had filled the eye with their majesty, and with impressions as of the everlasting hills, dissolve themselves into vapor and melt away.
Such are the cloud-castles which mount upon the intellectual horizon as we scan it in the representations of the mechanical philosophy. Nothing can be more fallacious than the habit of building up definitions out of words so vague and abstract that they may signify any one of a dozen different things, and the whole plausibility of which consists in the ambiguity of their meanings. It is a habit too which finds exercise in the alternate amusement of wiping out of words which have a definite and familiar sense, everything that constitutes their force and power. Let us take, for example, the word "function." There is no word, perhaps, applicable to our intellectual apprehensions of the organic world, which is more full of meaning, or of meaning which satisfies more thoroughly the many faculties concerned in the vision and description of its facts. The very idea of an organ is that of an apparatus for the doing of some definite work, which is its function. For the very reason of this richness and fullness of meaning, in this word conjoined with great precision, it is unfitted for use in the vapory cloud-castles of definition which are the boasted fortresses of ideas purely physical. And yet function is a word which it is most difficult to dispense with. The only alternative is to reduce it to some definition which wipes out all its special signification. Accordingly, Mr. Herbert Spencer has defined function as a word equivalent to the phrase "transformations of motion"—a phrase perfectly vague, abstract, and equally applicable to function or to the destruction of it, to the processes of death or the processes of life, to the phenomena of heat, of light, or of electricity, and completely denuded of all the special meanings which respond to our perception of a whole class of special facts.
Of course the attempt breaks down completely to describe the facts of nature in words too vague for the purpose, or in words rendered sterile by artificial eliminations. It is not Darwin only, who had at least no dogma on this subject to bind him—it is Mr. Spencer himself who continually breaks down in the attempt, far more completely than he now admits he failed in the "survival of the fittest" The human element involved or suggested in the idea of fitness is nothing to the humanity, or "anthropocentricity," of the expressions into which he slips, perhaps unawares, when he is face to face with those requisites of language which arise out of the facts of observation, and out of the necessities of thought. Thus in the midst of an elaborate attempt to explain in purely chemical and physical aspects the composition and attributes of protein, or protoplasm—assumed to be the fundamental substance of all organisms—he breaks out into the following sentence, charged with teleological phraseology: "So that while the composite atoms of which organic tissues are built up possess that low molecular mobility fitting them for plastic purposes, it results from the extreme molecular mobilities of their constituents, that the waste products of vital activity escape as fast as they are formed." Now, what is the value of sentences such as this? As an explanation, or anything approaching to an explanation, of the wondrous alchemies of organic life, and especially of the digestive processes—of the appropriation, assimilation, and elimination of external matter—this sentence is poor and thin indeed. But whatever strength it has is entirely due to its recognition of the fact that not only the organism as a whole, but the very materials of which it is "built up," are all essentially adaptations which are in the nature of "purposes," being indeed contrivances of the most complicated kinds for the discharge of functions of a very special character.
What, then, is the great reform which these new papers are intended to effect in our conception of the factors in organic evolution? The popular and accepted idea of them has been largely founded on the language of Darwin and of Mr. Spencer himself. But that language has been deceptive. The needed reform consists in the more complete expulsion of every element that is "anthropocentric." In order to interpret Nature we must stand outside ourselves. The eye with which we look upon her phenomena must be cut off, as it were, from the brain behind it. The correspondences which we see, or think we see, between the system of things outside of us and the system of things inside of us, which is the structure of our own intelligence, are to be discarded. This is the luminous conception of the new philosophy. Science has hitherto been conceived to be the reduction of natural phenomena to an intelligible order. But the reformed idea is now to be that our own intelligence is the one abounding fountain of error and deception. It is not merely to be disciplined and corrected, but it is to be eliminated. It is to be hounded off and shouted down.
It is very clear what all this must end in. The demand made upon us in its literal fullness is impossible and absurd. We can not stand outside ourselves. We can not look with eyes other than our own. We can not think except with the faculties of our own intellectual nature. It is impossible, and, if it were possible, it would be absurd. We are ourselves a part of nature—born in it, and born of it. The analogies which the disciplined intellect sees in external nature are therefore not presumably false, but presumably true, or at the least substantially representative of the truth.
But the new veto on anthropocentric thought, although helpless to expel it, is quite competent to cripple and degrade it. It can not exclude our own faculties; but it may select and favor the lowest, the humblest, the most elementary, the most blunt, the least perceptive. It may silence the highest, the acutest, the most penetrating, the most intuitive, those most in harmony with the highest energies in the world around us. All this the new doctrine may do, and does.
Accordingly, the very first instance given to us of the new philosophy is a striking illustration of its effects. It fixes the attention on mere outward and external things. It seeks for the first and best explanation of organic beings in the mere mechanical effects of their surroundings. The physical forces which act upon them from outside—the water or the air that bathes them—the impacts of ethereal undulations in the form of light, the vibrations of matter in contact with them in the form of heat—these are conceived of as the agencies principally concerned. The analogies suggested are of the rudest kind. Old cannon-balls rust in concentric flakes. Rocks weather into such forms as rocking stones. But the grand illustration is taken from the pebbles of the Chesil beach. These are to introduce us to the true physical conception of the wonderful phenomena of organic life. May not the unity of the vertebrate skeleton, through an immense variety of creatures, be typified by the roundness and smoothness common to the stones rolled along the southern beaches of England from Devonshire to Weymouth? The diversities of those creatures, again, however multitudinous in character, may they not all be pictured as analogous with the varying sizes into which water sifts and sorts the sizes of rolled stones?
But presently we see in another form the work of "natural selection" by a mind deliberately divesting itself of its own higher faculties, and choosing in consequence to exert only those which are simple and almost infantile. The question naturally arises. What is the most universal peculiarity and distinction of organic forms? When we get rid of ourselves, when we stand outside of our own anthropocentric position, and consult only the faculties which are most purely physical, we shall be compelled to reply that the great specialty of organic forms is the "differentiation of their outside from their inside." They have all an outside and an inside, and these are different. They begin with a cell, and a cell is a blob of jelly with a pellicle or thin membrane on the outside. Do we not see in this the mechanical action of the surrounding medium? The skin may come from a chill on the outside, or the pressure of the medium. Does not a little oil form itself into a sphere in water, or a little water into a drop in air? And so from one step to another, can not we conceive how particles of protein become cells, and how one cell gets stuck to another, and the groups to groups—all with insides and outsides "differentiated" from each other, and so they can all be pressed and compacted and squeezed together until the organism is completed?
Such or such like are the images presented to enable us to conceive the purely physical view of the beginnings of life. Their own genesis is obvious. It is true that all or nearly all organisms have a skin. Most if not all of them begin, so far as seen by us, in a nucleated cell. The external wall of these cells is often a mere pellicle. It is true also that one essential idea of life is separation or segregation from all other things. This is an essential part of our ideas of individuality and of personality. If a pellicle or skin round a bit of protein be taken as the symbol of all that is involved in this idea of life, then "outness" and "inness" may be tolerated as a very rude image of one of the great peculiarities of all organic life. It may even be regarded as a symbol of the thoughts expressed in the solemn lines—
"Eternal form shall still divide
The eternal soul from all beside."
But if "outer" and "inner" are used to express the idea of some essential mechanical separation between different parts of the same organism, so that one part may be represented as more the result of surrounding forces than another—then this rude and mechanical illustration is not only empty, but profoundly erroneous. The forces which work in and upon organic life know nothing of outness and inness. They shine through the materials which they build up and mold, as light shines through the clearest glass. Even the most purely physical of those concerned are independent of such relations. Gravitation knows nothing of inness and outness. The very air, which seems so external to us, does not merely bathe or lave the skin, but permeates the blood, and its elements are the very breath of life in every tissue of the body. The more secret forces of vitality deal at their will with outness and inness. The external surfaces of one stage are folded in and become most secret recesses at another. Organs which are outside in one animal, and are conspicuously flourished in the face of day with exquisite ornament of color and of structure, are in another animal hid away and carefully covered up. Nay, there are many cases in which all these changes are conducted in the same animal at different periods of life, and during conscious and unconscious intervals the whole creature is reformed to fit it for new surroundings, for new media, and with new apparatuses adapted to them.
If Mr. Spencer wishes to cast any fresh light upon those factors of organic evolution respecting which he now confesses that Darwin's language and his own have been alike defective, he must fix our attention on something deeper than the differences between every organism and its own skin. His selection of this most superficial kind of difference as the first to dwell upon, is not merely wanting—it is erroneous. It hides and leads us off the scent of another kind of outsidedness and insidedness which is really and truly fundamental; namely, the insidedness, the self-containedness, of every organism as a whole with reference to all external forces. Nobody has pointed this out more clearly in former years than Mr. Spencer himself. The grand distinction between the organic and the inorganic lies in this—that the organic is not passive under the touch or impact of external force, but responds, if it responds at all, with the play of counter-forces which are essentially its own. Organic bodies are not simply moved. They move themselves. They have "self-mobility." They are so constituted that even when an external force acts as an excitement or a stimulus, the organic forces which emerge and act are much more complex and important—so much so that as compared with the results produced by these organic forces the direct results of the incident forces are "quite obscured." Mr. Spencer even confesses that these two kinds of action are so different in their own nature that in strictness they "should not be dealt with together." But he adds that "the impossibility of separating them compels us to disregard the distinction between them." This is a most lame excuse for the careless—and still worse excuse for the studied—use of ambiguous language which confounds the deepest distinctions in nature. It can not be admitted. All reasonings on nature would be hopeless unless we could separate in thought many things which are always conjoined in action; and this excuse is all the more to be rejected when the alleged impossibility of separation is used to cover an almost exclusive stress upon that one of the two kinds of action which is confessedly by far the feeblest, and of least account in the resulting work.
It seems to me, further, that there is another fatal fault in this attempt of Mr. Spencer to reform the language, and clear up the ideas of biological science. Besides the method of habitually using words so abstract as to be of necessity ambiguous—besides the further method of habitually expelling from definite words the only senses which give them value—Mr. Spencer often resorts, and does so conspicuously in this paper, to the scholastic plan of laying down purely verbal propositions and then arguing deductively from them as if they represented axiomatic truth. By the schoolmen this method was often legitimately applied to subjects which in their own nature admitted of its use, because those subjects were not physical but purely moral or religious, and in which consequently much depended on the clear expression of admitted principles of abstract truth. I will not venture to say that such verbal propositions embodying abstract ideas have absolutely no place in physical science. We know as a matter of fact that they have led some great men to the first conception of a good many physical truths; and it is a curious fact that Dr. Joule, who in our own day has been the first to establish the idea of the doctrine of the conservation of energy by proving through rigorous experiment the mechanical equivalent of heat, has said that "we might reason a priori that the absolute destruction of living force can not possibly take place because it is manifestly absurd to suppose that the powers with which God has endowed matter can be destroyed, any more than they can be created, by man's agency."
Believing as I do in the inseparable unity which binds us to all the verities of nature, I should be the last to proscribe the careful use of our own abstract conceptions. But it is quite certain and is now universally admitted that the methods of Thomas Aquinas in his "Summa" are full of danger when they are used in physical investigation. Yet as regards at least the tone of dogma and authority, and also as regards the method of reasoning, we have from Mr. Spencer in this paper the following wonderful specimen of scholastic teaching on the profoundest questions of organic structure: "At first protoplasm could have no proclivities to one or other arrangement of parts; unless indeed a purely mechanical proclivity toward a spherical form when suspended in a liquid. At the outset it must have been passive. In respect of its passivity, primitive organic matter must have been like inorganic matter. No such thing as spontaneous variation could have occurred in it; for variation implies some habitual course of change from which it is a divergence, and is therefore excluded where there is no habitual course of change." What possible knowledge can Mr. Spencer possess of "primitive organic matter"? What possible grounds can he have for assertions as to what it must have been, and what it must have done? Surely this is scholasticism with a vengeance; its words, its assumptions, and its claims of logical necessity being all equally hazy, inconclusive, and absolutely antagonistic to the spirit of true physical science.
There is a passing sentence in one of Darwin's works which will often recur to the memory of those who have observed it. Speaking of the teleological or theological methods of describing nature, he says that these can be made to explain anything. At first sight this may seem a strange objection to any intelligible method—that it is too widely applicable. But Darwin's meaning is in its own sphere as true as it is important. An explanation which is good for everything in general, is good for nothing in particular. Explanations which are indiscriminate can hardly be also special and distinguishing. In their very generality they may be true, but the truth must be as general as the terms in which it is expressed. Thus the common phrase which we are in the habit of applying to the wonderful adaptations of organic life when we call them "provisions of nature," is a phrase of this kind. It satisfies certain faculties of the mind, and these the highest, but it affords no satisfaction at all to those other faculties which ask not why, but how, these adaptations are effected. It is an explanation applicable to all adaptations equally, and to no one of them specially. It takes no notice whatever of the question. How? It does not concern itself at all with physical causes.
Darwin saw this clearly of such methods of explanation. But he did not See that precisely the same objection lies against his own. The great group of ideas metaphorically involved in his phrase of natural selection, and not successfully eliminated in the summary of it—survival of the fittest—is a group of the widest generality. It may be used to account for anything. The successful application of it to any organic adaptation, however special and peculiar, is so easy as to become a mere trick. We have only to assume the introduction of some primordial organisms—one or more—already formed with all the special powers and functions of organic life; we have only to assume the inscrutable action of heredity; we have only to assume, further, that it originates difference as well as. transmits likeness; we have only to assume, still further, that the variations so originated are almost infinite in variety, and that some of them are almost sure, at some time or another, to "turn up trumps," or in other words to be accidentally in a useful direction; we have only to assume, again, that these will be somehow continued and developed through embryotic stages until they are fit for service; we have only to assume, again, that there are adjustments by which serviceability, when transmuted into actual use, has power still further to improve all adaptations by some process of self-edification; then, making all these assumptions, we may explain anything and everything in the organic world. But in such a series of assumptions we do not speak the language of true physical causation. This is what Mr. Spencer now confesses. "Natural selection," he says, "could operate only under subjection." This is a prolific truth. It might have been discovered sooner. Natural selection could only select among things prepared for and presented to its choice. How—from what physical causes—did these come? Mr. Spencer's reply is, historically speaking, retrograde. He goes back to Lamarck, he reverts to "use and disuse," to "environment"—to surroundings—to the "medium and its contents." These again are mere phrases to cover the nakedness of our own ignorance. But I for one am thankful for the conclusion arrived at by a mind so acute and so analytical as that of Mr. Spencer, that "among biologists the beliefs concerning the origin of species have assumed too much the character of a creed, and that while becoming settled they have been narrowed. So far from further broadening that broader view which Darwin reached as he grew older, his followers appear to have retrograded toward a more restricted view than he ever expressed." The evil must have gone far indeed when this great apostle of Evolution-has to plead so laboriously and so humbly "that it is yet far too soon to close the inquiry concerning the causes of organic evolution." Too soon indeed! That such an assumption should have been possible, and that it is virtually made, is part of the Great Confession to which I have desired to direct attention. I hope it will tend to redeem the work of the greatest natural observer who has ever lived from the great misuse which has been often made of it. There is no real disparagement of that work in saying that the phrase which embalmed it is metaphorical. The very highest truths are conveyed in metaphor. The confession of Mr. Spencer is fatal only to claims which never ought to have been made. Natural selection represents no physical causation whatever except that connected with heredity. Physically it explains the origin of nothing. But the metaphorical elements which Mr. Spencer wishes to eliminate are of the highest value. They refer us directly to those supreme causes to which the physical forces are "under subjection." They express in some small degree that inexhaustible wealth of primordial inception, of subsequent development, and of continuous adjustment, upon which alone selection can begin to operate. These are the supreme facts in nature. When this is clearly seen and thoroughly understood, Darwin's researches and speculations will no longer act as a barrier to further inquiry, as Mr. Spencer complains they now do. They will, on the contrary, be the most powerful stimulus to deeper inquiry, and to more healthy reasoning.—Nineteenth Century.
|THE AMERICAN ROBIN AND HIS CONGENERS.|
OUR American robin is a thrush—the red-breasted thrush is his proper title—he occupies a high position in the scale of bird-life, and possesses some very interesting records of his family history. When our forefathers first came over they found the frank, hearty bird with the russet breast ready to make friends with them, to stay about the clearings and around their rough cabins, cheering them with the strong, hopeful song that has ever gladdened the heart with its vigor and fullness of promise. With what joy the pioneers must have welcomed the first spring that brought the robins back after the long, dreary winter! To this day the first robin of the spring creates a sensation, coming, as he often does, amid the ice and the snow and the rough wind, and not a leaf on the trees. The early settlers called him "robin" from his red breast, no doubt, and his confiding ways, after the trusty little warbler so dear to their hearts in the old home across the sea. And so it has been "robin" ever since, although our bird is but distantly related to the little robin-redbreast of the Old World, who belongs to the warblers—another branch of the family.
- Page 570. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 759.)
- Page 575. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 765.)
- Page 570. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 759.)
- Page 581. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 770.)
- Page 571. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 765.)
- Page 574. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 761.)
- Page 584. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxviii, p. 773.)
- Page 749. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 55.)
- Page 750. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 55.)
- Page 751. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 56.)
- Page 751. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 56.)
- Page 751. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 55.)
- "Principles of Biology," vol. i, p. 4.
- "Principles of Biology," vol. i, p. 24.
- Page 755. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 60.)
- Page 752. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 57.)
- Page 755. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 60.)
- Pages 756-758. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, pp. 61-63.)
- As in the nudibranchiate mollusca.
- Page 757. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 62.)
- "Principles of Biology," vol. i, p. 43.
- In a lecture delivered at Manchester, April 28, 1847. See "Strictures on the Sermon," etc., by B. St. J. B. Joule, J. P., a pamphlet published 1887 (J. Hey wood, Manchester).
- I have mislaid the reference, and quote from memory.
- Page 768. ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxix, p. 201.)