Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Professor Huxley on the War-Path I
|PROFESSOR HUXLEY ON THE WAR-PATH.|
ON the boundless subject of religion it is not possible for any man, within the limits of a magazine article, to set forth his whole mind. If those who write such papers have cause to feel this, those who read them have not less occasion to remember it. Misconception is a constant danger. Beliefs which seem to be vehemently repudiated may nevertheless retain some hold when differently expressed. Doctrines which seem to be insisted on with passion may yet not be held without important modifications. These reserves may not be expressed only because the occasion for expressing them did not seem to arise. Large portions of the whole subject may be left out of view. Those which are actually dealt with may be treated, from the accidents of controversy, in a narrow and angry spirit.
It is with a sincere desire to remember all these reasons for caution that I now call attention to the article by Prof. Huxley published in this Review for the month of July, 1890. But, in full remembrance of the caution, we may fairly say that this article is an open and avowed attack upon Christianity. Nobody has any right to complain of this. But everybody has a right to identify and recognize it as a fact. That article is not a mere attack upon certain narratives and traditions of the Old Testament, on the ground that they have been incautiously admitted as integral parts of Christian belief, while in reality they need not and ought not to occupy any such position. On the contrary, this contention is repudiated expressly, and with scorn. Prof. Huxley patronizes the school which insists on the barest literalism in the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He refers to Canon Rawlinson's Bampton Lectures (1859) as asserting that "the narratives contained in the canonical Scriptures are free from any admixture of error." He praises the justice and candor of the lecturer when he asserts as distinctive of Christianity among the religions of the world, that it claims "to be historical." He represents him as insisting that Christianity is surely founded "upon events which have happened exactly as they are declared to have happened in its sacred books." He further ascribes to the lecturer the argument that the "New Testament presupposes the historical exactness of the Old," and that the demonstration of the "falsity" of the Hebrew records, especially in regard to those narratives which are assumed to be true in the New Testament, would be fatal to "Christian theology." Having thus nailed the colors of Christianity to the bare poles of the very barest and narrowest literalism, the professor jumps and leaps upon this teaching as giving him an easy fulcrum for tearing those colors down. He is enchanted by the reasoning of the Canon. He adopts it with effusion. "My utmost ingenuity," he says, "does not enable me to discover a flaw in the argument thus briefly summarized." Nor does he conceal the full sweep of the destructive work which he desires it to accomplish. Not only the whole story of Creation, the whole story of the Fall, the whole story of the Flood, the whole story of Abraham and of any special mission to the Hebrew people, but even the glorious idea and hope of a Messiah—the whole Messianic doctrine which binds the Jewish and Christian Churches—all are relegated to the same category as the Greek myths about Theseus or the Latin stories of the regal period of Rome. And, as the writers of the New Testament have believed those stories and dwelt upon them, the authority of those writers is denounced as that of a body of men who "have not only accepted flimsy fictions for solid truths, but have built the very foundations of Christian dogma upon legendary quicksands."
This language with plenty more of it is unmistakable. Its tone is that of the whole article. It must be accepted, therefore, as a pronounced attack upon Christianity all along the line.
I do not stop to inquire whether the doctrines of biblical interpretation which he ascribes to two eminent divines of the Church of England are or are not fair and correct summaries of their teaching. Fortunately, on this subject we are not at the mercy of any individual divines whether living or dead. The Christian Church, with its long and varied history of nearly two thousand years, has never been committed to it. The doctrine indeed of verbal inspiration, though never defined and never authoritatively adopted by any Christian Church, has been often widely prevalent. But even this doctrine is exaggerated, distorted, and made ridiculous by its development in the hands of Prof. Huxley. As patronized by him, the law of interpretation applied to some of the most ancient records of our race would exclude all the elements of allegory and of metaphor, of imagery, of parable, and of accommodated presentation. And this, too, when some of these records purport to set before us an idea of the origin of things. The argument is not only illogical but grotesque, that because Christianity claims to be an historical religion, therefore it follows that any accepted narrative attempting to give us some conception of the creative work, must do so in words as literal and prosaic as an account of the execution of Charles I. Creation, strictly speaking, is inconceivable to us. And yet creation is a fact. The system of visible things in which we live was certainly not the author of itself. If we are capable at all of receiving any mental impression of its beginnings we can only do so through modes of representation which are charged with allegory. In his own special science no man has declared more clearly than Prof. Huxley that the limits of our observation are not the limits of our knowledge. Biology, for example, declares as its verdict, after much evidence has been taken, that, as matters now stand, the living is never generated by the not-living. Every form of organic life comes from some other older form which has already been established. But he points out that this has no adverse bearing upon the deductive conclusion that life must have had its first beginning otherwise. On the contrary, he admits that conclusion to be certain. "If," says he, "the hypothesis of evolution is true, living matter must have arisen from not-living matter." I venture to add that whether the theory of evolution be true or false, or whether (as is more likely) it be partly true and partly false, the certainty of this conclusion is not affected. But if that beginning is to be rendered conceivable by us, it can not be expressed in the language of experience. We have no experience to go upon. Of necessity, therefore, the very idea of a beginning must be dealt with in the language of metaphor or allegory. Accordingly, even Darwin was compelled to have recourse to the familiar imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures when he had to express his idea of the origin of life. There were certain germs, he assumes, into which "life was first breathed." What should we think of the rationality of a man who interpreted Darwin to believe that there was some big Being who originated life by emptying his lungs into certain bits of protoplasmic jelly? Yet this is the law of interpretation which Prof. Huxley would impose upon the magnificent symbolism of Genesis. The events described—avowedly transcending the region of experience—must have happened "exactly as they are declared to have happened in the sacred books." When we are told that God said, "Let there be light," we are to interpret this sublime image as an assertion that the Almighty did actually address this sentence in a definite language to the brute elements of chaos. We are to understand that the words thus attributed to the Creator were actual words, like the words spoken by King Charles to Bishop Juxon on the scaffold at Whitehall. If we don't believe this, we are to believe nothing whatever coming from writers so unhistorical. In like manner, when we are told of the Almighty walking in an earthly garden "in the cool of the day," and when the narrative seems to imply that Adam saw him and hid, we are to understand this baldly and literally as an actual midday scene in a shady wood somewhere in western Asia. Such is the childish argument which is to destroy Christian theology—such is the kind of logic in which Prof. Huxley can not, for the life of him, see any flaw. St. John may perhaps be credited with knowing, at least as well as the professor, what would and what would not be fatal to Christian theology. Yet he does not seem to have been even conscious of the difficulty. Passages even stronger and more definite in the Old Testament, involving hyperbole, metaphor, and imagery, stood nothing in his way. He must have known the famous passage in Exodus in which Moses is represented as having spoken with God as a man speaketh with his friend. Yet the professor's canon of interpretation is unknown to him. "No man hath seen God at any time" is the grand sentence of the apostle. But the extension of this argument to destroy all authority as belonging to the writers in the New Testament is perhaps a still more remarkable illustration of the reasoning which the professor considers to be faultless. Men who accepted such narratives as those of Genesis are not to be trusted as themselves historically safe. If St. Paul did really believe in those primeval narratives we can not trust him when he tells us of the light which burst upon him on his way to Damascus, and which changed him from a persecutor of the faith into the great apostle of the Christian Church. And so of ourselves. If we do not consider ourselves bound to hold that an actual serpent was selected as the most persuasive advocate of evil—if we are disposed to think that there is all the air, and all the most obvious characteristics, of allegory in such words as the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil"—if we do not accept it as a literal fact that the rotation of the earth was suspended to keep the valley of Ajalon above the horizon for a longer time than was due to the season of the year, then we are equally bound to distrust the truth of the migration of Abraham, and of the sojourn in Egypt, and of the conquest of Palestine, and of the Babylonish captivity, and of the stream of prophecy pointing to some great Deliverer not for the Jews only but for all peoples—and of the life and death and teaching of our Lord. The whole argument, I confess, appears to me to be not only illogical, but irrational.
This is a subject, however, of vast extent on which we have no right or reason to expect any special light or guidance from Prof. Huxley. Even if he approached it in the careful and cautious spirit in which he has generally dealt with his own noble science of biology, it would not follow that he could deal with it as well. We know the confession which Darwin has made of the effect upon his own powerful mind of exclusive devotion to one class of ideas and to one purely physical pursuit, in rendering him comparatively insensible to the whole class of conceptions which are the warp and woof of the higher branches of philosophy. Even in this article, Prof. Huxley tells us that when he tries to follow those who walk delicately among "types" he soon "loses his way." This is a strange confession to make when even in his own special science "type" is one of the most familiar of all words, and when the suggestions connected with it—for example, on the general development of the vertebrate skeleton—are confessedly of the most profound and far-reaching interest. It is still more strange when he himself—walking so delicately as to be most difficult to follow—has tried his hand at the definition of a "type." It is, he says, a "plan of modification of animal form." He tells us he has "a passion for clearness." Is the above definition perfectly pellucid? All animal form is in itself a "plan." Each modification, we now hear, is another "plan." Is this what he means? And if so, what does he mean by a "plan "? Does he mean what all other men mean by the word—some mental conception with a view to the future? Or does he mean only some accidental pattern such as a drop of water may leave when it splashes on a window-pane? Then, what does he mean by a "modification"? Does he mean some wonderful adaptation to some special use? And if he does, how does he account for that adaptation arising exactly when and where it is needed? Was it purely accidental? Does he worship at the shrine of the great goddess Fortuity? Where is his "passion for clearness" when all these questions are evaded? If he finds such mysteries in a purely physical science, why should he sneer at conceptions also "seen through a glass darkly" in the spiritual regions of belief? He is certainly narrower than the higher aspects even of his own pursuit. But, besides the cramping effect of all specialisms when exclusive, Prof. Huxley has most clearly approached the subject under the strongest animus. "The slings and arrows of outrageous" clerics at church congresses seem to goad him on. His one desire appears to be to trample on them. If he can here and there catch some popular divine committing himself to some argument or idea which may be ridden to the death, he hugs it with effusion. He gives it the requisite dressings of his own verbal evolution. Then turning round he endeavors to tie down the whole of Christian theology to ridiculous conclusions under the choppings of a childish logic.
But there is one thing we had a right to expect from Prof. Huxley, and that is, that when in the course of his argument he comes across questions of purely physical science, he should treat them as candidly and fairly when they are supposed to bear upon "Christian theology" as when he delivers a scientific lecture or writes an article for an encyclopædia. Yet this is just what he has failed to do in the case before us. His canons of biblical interpretation are not more crude and violent than his dealings with the discoveries of geology, and still worse, if possible, his dealings with the things which geology has not yet discovered. I proceed to define and illustrate what I mean.
Prof. Huxley selects the story of the Deluge as his particular battle-horse in the fight. He is quite right, and well within his right, in doing so. That story is special in the fact that it purports to give an account of an event within the limits of human experience, and that in doing so it narrates occurrences which may to some extent be brought within the cognizance of discovery in more than one branch of physical science. Prof. Huxley has a very definite theory as to the origin of the story. He thinks it probably arose out of some terrible inundation of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia. This is quite an intelligible hypothesis, since we know from the facts of our own day, in the case of the Yellow River in China, what an enormous destruction of human life may be caused by river floods bursting in upon low, flat plains thickly peopled. But this hypothesis fails to give any adequate explanation of the universality—or nearly so—of the tradition of a great flood among all branches of the human race. The late eminent French scholar Lenormant marshaled and collated the evidence on this subject not long ago, and came to the conclusion that a tradition so wide-spread, if not actually universal, must have arisen from the memory of some great catastrophe which did actually take place, and had left an indelible impression on the progenitors of every race. Prof. Huxley takes no notice whatever of this argument, although the fact on which it rests is fairly stated in a careful and temperate article by Dr. A. Geikie, upon the Deluge, to which the professor himself refers. No hypothesis which does not take notice of this fact can rest on adequate scientific reasoning.
The question then naturally arises whether it is or is not possible that there may have been, since the birth of man, some great catastrophe far more wide-spread than the inundations of any river; and whether the narrative in Genesis of the Flood may not be the account of this catastrophe—told in its religious aspect, just as the previous narrative of Creation is an account of that (to us) inconceivable operation—told in the same connection—that is to say, in its connection with the final causes of the Divine government and action.
Now, in dealing with this question scientifically there are three things which must be done: first, there must be a careful view given of the purely physical phenomena which are really of necessity involved in the form of the narrative in Genesis as it has come down to us; secondly, there must be another view given, as careful and complete, of any conclusions relative to the subject which have been really established by geology or by any other branch of the physical sciences; and, thirdly, there must be a frank and free confession of the ignorances of science—of the problems which it sees but which hitherto it has failed to solve, and of the unexhausted possibilities of physical causation which lie wholly unknown behind them. Prof. Huxley's article does not comply with any one of these conditions. He does not state fairly, but on the contrary most unfairly, what the narrative in Genesis does of necessity involve. He does not set forth fairly what are the related facts which geology may claim to have established; while—above all—with regard to the ignorances of science, he seems wholly unconscious even of that sober estimate of his favorite agnosticism which true science impresses on us all.
He starts with songs of triumph over the very general abandonment of the idea that the Deluge could have been universal, complete, and simultaneous over the whole globe. He might as well be jubilant over the cognate fact that the six creative days in Genesis are now never thought or spoken of as compelling us to believe that the whole creative work which has been done on our planet since it was in a state of chaos, was a work accomplished within six literal days of twenty-four hours each. Or he might as well shout over the still older movement of thought which divorced the conceptions of the Christian world from the literal language of the geocentric astronomy. It is quite a mercy that Prof. Huxley has not trotted out our old friend Galileo again, and has taken refuge in such later and lesser lights as the late Canon William Harcourt, and the still living Canon Rawlinson. But even on this question of the possible universality of a deluge, Prof. Huxley takes no notice of certain features in the Hebrew narrative which manifest a most curious avoidance of the real scientific objection to a complete and universal deluge, in spite of some language which appears to assert it. It is not true, so far as I know, that any science has proved a universal deluge to be a physical impossibility. In particular, it is not true that there is any deficiency in our existing oceans of a quantity of water adequate—more than adequate—to cover the whole earth. On the contrary, it is a fact that the actual distribution of sea and of dry land on our planet is such that even a comparatively slight elevation of the floor of our oceans, together with some corresponding depression of the land, would spill over upon our continents enough water to submerge them completely, and to submerge them all. My distinguished friend Dr. John Murray (of the Challenger Expedition) has calculated that there is enough water in our existing seas to cover the whole globe with water more than two miles deep. This is the latest calculation of scientific inquiry, and it is curious. The fundamental objection to a complete and simultaneous deluge at so late a period of the earth's history is not physical but biological. It lies in its bearing upon the history and development of organic life. Even this objection applies only to the completeness, and not to the universality, of a deluge. That is to say, biological facts may be perfectly compatible with the partial and contemporaneous submergence of every continent on the globe, but not with any such submergence having ever been total or complete. As regards the lower animals, there must have been, so far as we can reason, other refuges than an ark. There must have been many areas left uncovered. But this necessity is demanded quite as much by the narrative in Genesis as by the scientific evidence of the distribution of life. The repeopling of the deluged earth by ordinary generation requires this absolutely. The universal destruction of all terrestrial life would have necessitated a complete re-creation of all its forms. And yet this is exactly the consequence which the narrative in Genesis definitely excludes. The writer ascribes the subsequent repeopling of the earth, both as regards the lower animals and men, not to any re-creative work, but to ordinary generation. The divine employment of natural means is the dominant idea of the whole narrative. But seeing that the dimensions of the ark represent a vessel considerably smaller than the Great Eastern, it is clear that without what are called miracles on the most stupendous scale—which the writer does not seem at all to contemplate—the whole creatures of all the continents of the globe could not have been represented in it, even if they could have been brought together and congregated in one spot in western Asia. The writer or writers of the narrative in Genesis, or those still older recipients of tradition in whose hands that narrative grew into its present form and through whom it was transmitted, had presumably no more knowledge of the very existence of the New World, or indeed of the extent of the Old World, and of the quantity of animal life which swarms upon both, than they had of the nature of the sun or of the orbit of the earth. What they conceived or thought upon this subject has no moral or religious significance. Whether the American mastodon and megatherium, and the European mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, and all the other huge Pleistocene mammalia, were saved at all, even in single couples—whether all the lesser mammalia which have survived could or could not be saved from drowning by the refuge afforded in a single vessel these are questions which do not seem to have been even thought of. Accordingly, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews does not even take the smallest notice of such questions, or, at all events, brushing them aside, fixes on the central conception of the whole narrative, the effect of the Deluge upon man, and the personal relations between one faithful patriarch and the Almighty Disposer of all events. He tells us that this one man "by faith, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house." Here we have the whole essence and purport of the narrative in the Old Testament condensed, and reproduced by a Christian disciple who, whatever his name, is certainly, humanly speaking, one of the most powerful among the writers of the New. It matters nothing to this view of it, whether the Deluge was or was not conceived to be literally universal, complete, and simultaneous. It matters nothing what may or may not have happened at the same time to the kangaroos of Australia, to the moas of New Zealand, to the giraffes and countless antelopes of central Africa, or to the llama and tapir world of the South American continent. If there is any good scientific reasoning, as I think there is, which seems to prove that no deluge can have been at once complete, universal, and simultaneous, over the whole globe, then there is no more reason to believe it than there is to believe in the literal interpretation of the passages involving the rotation of the sun round the earth, or the still more striking passages which we have seen so summarily dealt with by St. John.
Leaving, therefore, Prof. Huxley to his jubilations over the general abandonment of a deluge at once complete, universal, and simultaneous, let us see how he proceeds to deal with the alternative of a deluge which may have been enormously wider than the Mesopotamian Valley, and yet may have been partial only—as regards the whole area of the globe.
The device of the professor is to assume that belief in any such deluge must of necessity involve the notion that while the existing levels of the land were fixed or unmoved, the waters were heaped up over some portion of it, without any containing banks or walls to keep or hold them in their new position. Over this ridiculous idea he runs riot and enjoys quite a happy time of it. He shows triumphantly how it contradicts the fundamental laws of hydrostatics, how impossible it is to conceive any agency by which such a heaping up of loose waters could have been effected, and how tremendous must have been the outrush when any (inconceivable) restraints were removed. Now I am not concerned ' to inquire whether this conception as to the cause of a partial deluge has or has not been ever formulated or distinctly pictured by any human being. Considering the absolute and wide-spread ignorance of all the physical sciences which prevailed in the world for centuries, it is quite possible that something like this may have been one of the popular ideas concerning the Deluge. It is perfectly natural that it should have been so. That in this world of ours the solid earth is the stable, while water is pre-eminently the unstable element, is the universal prepossession of mankind. It is not overcome even in countries where the land is often trembling under earthquakes or subject to the ravages of volcanic action. Over by far the largest part of the habitable globe, where men have not even these suggestive experiences to consider, the preconception is insuperable that the land is comparatively steady and that the sea is the most liable to change. That this preconception should have governed the reasonings of prescientific ages and of ignorant men of the present day is not astonishing; but it is most astonishing indeed to see it patronized by Prof. Huxley. The very first lesson of all geological science is to teach us and to make us familiar with the idea that in all relative changes between the areas of sea and land the element of constancy is in the liquid water and the element of mutability is in the solid earth. The sea is bound by the most rigorous laws to keep its general level. The dry land is under no similar bondage to keep either its general or its local elevation. On the contrary, the same great force which keeps water with its peculiar properties in a fixed relation to its supports is the very force which ceaselessly tends to make those supports yielding and unsteady. It is true, indeed, that the ocean leans against the land with an attracted bulge. This bulge is not visible to the eye, nor can it, perhaps, be measured by any mechanical instrument; but the mind of man has recognized it as a necessary consequence of the law of gravitation. All land-masses above the water must attract more or less the sea which is beneath them. Independently of this, from ordinary hydrostatic causes, the ocean must always be lipping over along its shore—s ever ready, as it were, to take instant advantage of the smallest movement of depression. Deluges, therefore, by submergence are ever on the cards. They are the easiest and most natural operations in the world. Of course, Prof. Huxley knows all this, and, of course, he does not commit himself to any other doctrine; but he does argue against a partial deluge as if it involved of necessity the vulgar error of the sea being raised up and heaped over any area which may have been submerged. This is not ingenuous. What is the value of a scientific argument against any supposed occurrence which rests entirely on a popular delusion as to the physical causes by which that occurrence may have been brought about, while the controversialist knows all the time that the very same occurrence might very easily have been brought about by other causes perfectly natural and perfectly easy to conceive? Yet this is the way in which Prof. Huxley prances on his selected battle-horse of the Deluge. He elaborates picture after picture of the physical consequences involved in a partial deluge effected by a heaping up of unsupported waters over a fixed and steady land, and then he stamps upon the nonsense which he has himself adopted—in so far at least as it is useful to him, and has intensified where it could be made to be so.
This perverse dwelling upon an absurd physical conception, as a means of raising prejudice, is all the more gratuitous and irrelevant since, wherever else it came from, it certainly did not come from any description contained in the Hebrew narrative. On the contrary, one of the most salient and even mysterious characteristics of that narrative is that it is absolutely inconsistent with the idea of sudden, violent, and torrential action. Prof. Huxley himself, in the midst of his strained denunciation of what must have been involved in any partial deluge, stumbles on the fact that the Hebrew narrative assumes a rate of movement so slow and gradual that "if it took place in the sea, would be overlooked by ordinary people on the shore." I say he stumbles upon it, because he mentions it only in so far as it comes handy for the purpose of showing the inconsistencies of the popular notions of heaped-up waters upon a steady land. But he does not deal with it or consider it in its true connection—namely, as showing that this popular notion finds no support in the Hebrew narrative. Dr. Geikie's early paper on the Deluge, written not lately but some thirty years ago, stands, as regards this, in creditable contrast with the heedless representations of Prof. Huxley. Dr. Geikie did, indeed, fall apparently into the same strange error of holding that every partial deluge must of necessity have involved a universal one, an argument which rests wholly on the notion that any such deluge must have been caused by a heaping up of water over a stationary land. But Dr. Geikie, with characteristic sagacity, emphasizes and dwells upon the fact that the Hebrew narrative does not suppose any violent or convulsive action, and that in this respect the popular imagination of it has been quite unjustified. But even Dr. Geikie's paper, fair and candid as it intended to be, does not point out the unquestionable conclusions, that the whole idea of the narrative in Genesis assumes a deluge caused by a slow and gradual subsidence of the land, and not caused by any capture of it by some sudden assault and battery of the sea. This conclusion does not depend on the true meaning of archaic and obscure expression, such as the "breaking up of the fountains of the great deep," which are almost incapable of an exact physical interpretation. It depends on the structure of the whole narrative, and on the incidents which it includes. Its importance does not lie in any question touching the sources of that narrative, or the conceptions entertained by those who have handed it down. Its importance depends on the suggestion which arises out of it, whether intended or not, that the physical impossibility of a partial deluge is an argument founded on the most ignorant of all preconceptions, and is demonstrably the grossest of all delusions. That there can not have been partial subsidences of the crust of the earth—even on an enormous scale—would indeed be an ignorant proposition, contradicted alike by theory and observation.
But here we come to another branch of the subject, on which, if anywhere, we had a right to expect from Prof. Huxley something better than the most loose and yet the most dogmatic declamation. This branch is that which deals with the actual discoveries of modern science, so far as they bear upon the question. Geology is a science which has made such rapid and enormous progress during a period spanned by the extreme measure of a single human life, that we are all apt to be a little drunk with our own success. And yet that progress has been marked by incidents which should make us sober. The field, though a small one, on which its victories have been achieved, is strewn with the bodies of the slain. Dead theories and abandoned speculations lie thick upon the ground, while some of the most mischievous preconceptions still encumber the progress of inquiry. One of the first great general conceptions which lifted the speculations of mere cosmogony to the dignity of a science, was the Huttonian theory. One part of it was securely true. Another part of it was profoundly false. It was true as regards the continuity of causes. It was also as regards the uniformity of their effects. It was true that the rocks have been built up by the interaction of the forces of elevation, and the forces of degradation and depression. It was true that the causes which heaved the hills, have been ever met and checked by causes which wore them down again. But it was not true that the operation of higher laws is never indicated, or that all we can ascertain is limited to a perpetual seesaw of monotonous repetition. As usual, there were many minds which valued the Huttonian theory not for its truths, but mainly for its deficiencies and errors. The school of thought that delights to shut out those fountains of power from which all thought has come, were enchanted with a conception which reduced creation to the dull rounds of mechanical necessity. It was enthusiastic over the famous formula that geology saw "no trace of a beginning, no symptom of an end." In this form it may be called the great hurdy-gurdy theory. Then came the discovery of a clew by which an order of succession could be established in time, and, with time, in the perpetual introduction of new forms of life. Of course the mechanists set to work again, and they are at work still. Lyell supplied them with the only philosophical basis on which they can stand at all, and preached the doctrines of uniformity with immense knowledge and with infinite skill. As in the previous case of the theory of Hutton and of Play fair, much of what he taught was true, while the errors and exaggerations of his teachings are now being gradually but surely left behind. "The bit-by-bit theory of our friend Lyell will never account for all our facts," was the observation made to me one day by Lyell's compatriot, friend, and equal, Sir Roderick Murchison. On this subject happily there is no need of controversy with Prof. Huxley. He has himself taken a creditable part in checking extreme opinions and in showing that the doctrine of uniformity, in the only sense in which it can be rationally held, is quite consistent with any amount of catastrophe and convulsion. In fact, the recurrence of catastrophe and convulsion may be part and parcel of uniformity itself; and so in like manner, when the speculations of Darwin have furnished the mechanists with renewed passion for a new doll, Prof. Huxley has hoisted more than once a caution signal. He has uttered a warning voice against converting a scientific hypothesis into a dogmatic creed.
It was high time. The passionate enthusiasm with which an obscure and confused verbal metaphor has been accepted as solving all the mysteries involved in the origin of new forms of organic life, will one day be seen to have been—what it is—only another great warning example of the impediments which beset the progress of knowledge. That the origin of species may be ascribed to some thing called "Nature" selecting things which did not as yet exist, and could not therefore have been presented for selection, is among those mysteries of nonsense which are not uncommon in the history of the human mind. But even this delusion, prevalent as it has been, is breaking down, and assaults upon it, all too timid though they be, are nevertheless increasing day by day. I have therefore much sympathy with those who on the whole are reasonably proud of geology as regards its past, and are reasonably hopeful of it as regards its future. But its progress, and even our appreciation of its present teaching, is absolutely dependent on two conditions: first, that we bear constantly in mind the wide seas of ignorance which surround the little islands of our knowledge; and, secondly, that we rightly estimate the full sweep and significance of the facts and laws which we can clearly see. It would be difficult to say whether the science has suffered most from forgetfulness of the things that we do not know, or from failure to appreciate or exhaust the consequences flowing from the things we do know. The vision of past worlds which geology presents may be compared to the view of some land seen at a distance upon the ocean, and upon which heavy banks of cloud are resting. Above, mountains and peaks are seen here and there, with outlines cut clear against the sky. Below, capes and headlands and promontories are also seen, cut as clearly against the sea. The middle slopes are only visible at intervals, and some great plains just roughen the verge of the horizon. But all details are lost. We do not even know whether we are looking at one continuous land or at a group of islands. Hills which seem united, or separated only by some narrow valley, may be really far apart, and broad channels of the deepest water may lie between them. So it is with the vast landscapes of the past in the revelations of geology. The general outlines of geological causation are clear enough; and so in broad outline, too, is the general succession of organic life. But both the exact history of the rocks, and the exact history of the creatures which they entomb, are beset with, mystery. We talk glibly of aqueous deposit as the physical origin of stratification; but we know little indeed of the physical conditions under which this agency worked in early times. The scientific naturalists of the Challenger Expedition report as the result of their investigations that nowhere in the existing world of waters have they found going on anywhere such deposits as are necessary to account for the vast massive accumulations of the Palaeozoic sandstones.
Before such, mountains as those of the Cambrian formation on the northwest coast of Scotland—cut out of the thickness of apparently one continuous deposit—full of the ripple-marks of the sea, and yet destitute of life—the theoretical uniformitarian may well stand abashed. Similar difficulties are crowded into the conditions under which our great storages of carbon were provided for by repeated elevations and depressions of the land, each elevation giving occasion for the growth of a dense and rich vegetation; and each depression potting it up and preserving it for future use. Similar difficulties beset the equally massive limestone formations of the Secondary rocks. But even these difficulties are less serious and less profound than those which beset the progress of organic life. Only, in this case there are some great outlines which are clear and definite. We can see that organic life has advanced from less to more—from low to higher levels—from the generalized to the specialized, and from various functions performed roughly by some one rude and simple mechanism, to the same functions separated, elevated, and committed to the care of selected and adapted organs. We can see how there is some strange but profound analogy between this magnificent line of march and that along which every living creature goes in its individual growth. Just as the science of embryology has in in some measure revealed to us how—that is, in what order—"the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child," so in the embryology of this planet, as revealed to us in the rocks, we can see the steps of a process which is not only analogous but homologous. That is to say, the two pathways are not only vaguely like each, other according to some dim resemblance, but are identical as corresponding parts in one plan, and of one intellectual method. We can see that the past ages were full of prophetic germs. We can see the rise, one after another, of structures which were incipient, useless, or comparatively useless for a time, but destined in the future for some splendid service. Our physiologists, and anatomists, and morphologists are wholly unable to resist this evidence when it is their business to describe the facts. The structure of their own mind compels them to admit it, even when they struggle hard to shut their eyes against it.
Few men have used language more expressive of conceptions which agnosticism repudiates than Prof. Huxley himself in his purely scientific writings. In his descriptions of the growth of living things, from the ovum to the finished creature, we seem to be listening to a literal reading and exposition of some page out of that book in which all "our members were written when as yet there were none of them." It is surely remarkable that Nature should be so full of the spirit and of the characteristic ideas of Hebrew and of Christian theology. But so it is. In Prof. Huxley's instructive work on the Elements of Comparative Anatomy he is rich in the use of language descriptive of the preparations for that which is to be. Every change that arises in the mysterious egg-substance is explained, as it can only be explained, by its relations with the future. Does a movement begin in the formless mass, establishing a long cleft or groove? It indicates the position "of the future longitudinal axis of the body." Do the lateral boundaries of this groove at one end of it "grow up into plates"? It is that this end is the end which "will become" the interior region of the body, and these plates are the "dorsal laminae." Do these dorsal laminæ at length unite? It is that they may "inclose the future cerebro-spinal cavity." Does another portion of the mass grow downward instead of up? It is that it may "form the vertical laminæ," with a function in the future not less essential. One thing can only be understood when it is conceived as "laying the foundations" of another. A second thing can only be understood as "pre-shadowing" the form and relations of a third, and so on throughout. Nor does Prof. Huxley confine this great principle of interpretation to the development of the individual fœtus. This governing idea of referring all organic growth to the work of preparation and prevision, he extends to the whole history of life since it first began. He quotes with approbation, and adopts, the grand generalization of John Hunter, that organization is not the cause of life, but life is the cause of organization. Immense consequences are involved in this conception. Organisms are the habitations and the homes of life, but life must build them before it can settle in them and take possession. An organ is a structure for the discharge of function, but it must be shaped and made before the function can be discharged. This luminous idea sends its searching light through and through the stupidities which confound between things made for use and things that are said to be made by use. Use as an intellectual aim must precede use as a physical cause. And so the prophetic interpretation of fœtal development becomes the only possible interpretation of all organic growth so far as it is known to us. Accordingly, Prof. Huxley interprets the whole history of the vertebrate skeleton, and especially of the vertebrate shall, as the development of a "plan." This is the word he has selected, and which he uses over and over again. A plan—we must repeat—is not a mere pattern, which may arise by accident; it is a construction of which all the leading component elements are parts of one general conception having reference to a future. Such a plan, he tells us, can be traced and identified in all skulls, from the skull of a pike to the cranium of a man. The immense differences which mask this unity of plan are due to successive adaptive modifications, with which, in all their wide extent, the original plan was destined from the very first to work in harmony.
These are grand conceptions. They are scientific conceptions in the highest sense of that word, because they bring phenomena into harmonious relations with the highest faculties of the human mind. They are the conceptions which confer all its dignity and interest on geology, and on the affiliated sciences of paleontology and comparative anatomy. Although in one sense highly ideal, and in the best sense metaphysical, they are yet strictly literal, and absolutely true to fact. Hence Prof. Huxley most truly asserts that the doctrine of "all bony skulls being organized upon a common plan" is a simple generalization of the observed facts of cranial structure. It is curious that many of those who use these conceptions for the purposes of description immediately turn round and repudiate them for the purposes of philosophy. But the language which embodies them can only be useful for the purposes of explanation by reason of the similitudes which they involve between our own mental operations and those which are obvious in nature. Yet these very similitudes and intellectual homologies are most distasteful to the agnostic school; and very often, even in the mere work of description, every device is resorted to to keep them out of sight. Thus some movements of the nervous and muscular apparatus in animals which involve the most complicated adjustments are constantly spoken of as mere "reflex action"—as if they could be compared with the mere reflection—or bending back—of light from water, or of sound from a wall. So again "differentiation" is perpetually used to describe the processes of preparation by which the building up of special organs is accomplished—just as if these wonderful processes could be described by a word which is equally applicable to the processes of corruption and decay. There is no disloyalty to truth so insidious as that which leads us to sin in this way against our own intellectual integrity. What our mind sees, we must confess to—at our peril. It may have been a brave thing in Nelson to turn his blind eye to the recalling signal of his admiral. But it is not a brave thing—quite the contrary—in any man to turn a blind eye to the, instinctive perceptions of his own intelligence.
Nevertheless, it is possible to be true and faithful to the automatic workings of mind within us when it recognizes and identifies the methods of its own vaster image in the external world, and yet to be not less true and faithful to our consciousness of ignorance. The great thing to do is to put our agnosticism not in the wrong but in the right place. We may well rejoice in the clear and grand vision we have obtained through science of organic life having been developed through unnumbered ages on lines which do in themselves constitute a "plan." We may rejoice with the truest intellectual delight in our perception of the relation which this plan bore from the beginning to the future in creation. We may admire without ceasing the combination in this plan between an obvious fundamental unity and a not less obvious fundamental subordination to endless change wherever new needs had to be met and new functions had to be discharged. All this is science and science of the highest quality; but the sense of it is compatible with a constant remembrance of the enormous gaps in our knowledge which remain unfilled. That which always we are most curious to know remains always also unexplained. Geology has told us of a succession in the forms of life; but it has as yet told us nothing as to the methods by which this succession was brought about. There are, indeed, so-called "links"; but the links are never within each other's touch. The "imperfection of the record" is blamed for this; but there are portions of the record which seem continuous and complete—portions of time which were long enough to see the introduction of new species and yet the mystery remains unsolved. In the Lias, for example, and in some other formations, we have beds of great thickness following each other in orderly and undisturbed succession. New shells appear in turn, and yet we never see how or whence they came. My friend Mr. Robert Etheridge, F. R. S., F. G. S., informs me that there is one bed no thicker than an ordinary mantel-piece in which a peculiar ammonite appears and never appears again. So it is throughout the record wherever it is accessible to us. New forms come like apparitions, and like apparitions they also go. We do not know where such new forms have arisen nor how. We do know that the whole series must have begun somewhere and at some time, in some initial operation which was not that of ordinary generation. We do not know that this initial operation has never been repeated, or, if it has been repeated, how often or under what special conditions.
The abstract dicta—the vague verbal propositions on the strength of which the possibility of this repetition has been denied, are splendid specimens of those cobwebs of the brain which used to entangle thought in the meshes of the scholastic philosophy. The "law of parsimony" is the ambitious phrase under which theorists have hid the stupid notion that what Nature does once she never repeats again, or that results which she has obtained by one method at some one time must never be compassed by the same method again. Hear how magniloquently the great agnostic professor sets forth this marvelous dogma: "If all living beings have been evolved from pre-existing forms of life, it is enough that a single particle of living protoplasm should have once appeared upon the globe as the result of no matter what agency. In the eyes of a consistent evolutionist any further independent formation of protoplasm would be sheer waste." This is very grand. The limitation of the possibilities of creation by the vision of a "consistent evolutionist" is delicious. It reminds one of the American joke that the planets revolve round the sun, "always subject to the Constitootion of the United States." But, unfortunately for the dogma, it renounces the testimony of facts, while sounder reasonings upon them are dead against it. Nature is economical, but she is not miserly. The prodigality of Nature is more conspicuous than her parsimony. The habitual expenditure and repetition of all her processes is at least more clear to us than her refusals to repeat them. Her fondness for identity of principle in all her various operations is more pervading than her casting aside of any method merely because it has been used already. That bits of living protoplasm, with inconceivably complex potentialities within them, should have been called into being once, and that nothing similar should ever have been done again, may possibly be true; but it is not according to analogy and we can not accept it on the authority of Prof. Huxley. Still less can so weighty a conclusion be hung securely on a gossamer structure of abstract and empty words.—Nineteenth Century.
- Ninteenth Century, July, 1890, The Lights of the Church and the Light of Science.
- Page 7. f
- Page 8.
- Page V.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition, vol. iii, Biology, p. 689.
- Genesis, iii, 8.
- Exodus, xxxiii, 11.
- John, i, 18.
- Page 20.
- Comparative Anatomy, p. 7.
- Pages 14, 15.
- Kitto's Encycl. of Bibl. Lit. Deluge.
- Hebrews, xi, 7.
- Page 15.
- Kitto's Encylopædia of Biblical Literature, Deluge, p. 243.
- Theory of the Earth, by James Hutton, M. D., 1795.
- Pages 65, 66.
- Page 137.
- Page 142.
- Comparative Anatomy, p. 278.
- Assistant Keeper Geological Department British Museum (Natural History).
- Encyclopedia Britannica, ninth edition, Biology, p. 689.