Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/July 1874/The Chain of Species I

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Part I.Science and Religion.

THE subject selected for this evening's entertainment—the evolution and metamorphoses of organic forms, from the genesis of life up to man—with all its difficulties, might, in skillful hands, be made amusing; but, let us rather hope for the earnestness, however dull, which will instruct, instead of the light talent which can while away an idle hour. It is a subject which has escaped from the pin-fold of the learned, and become public property, at least in part; and we see it engaging the attention of news-mongers, writers of squibs, and makers of woodcuts, as well as the graver interests of literary circles, and the thunders of the pulpit.

And here let us pause a little to place ourselves right with ourselves, and right with the rest of the world.

As it is proposed to view this matter, there is not one particle of religious interest in it, any more than there would be in a lecture on geology, chemistry, or any other pure science; and, in the name of truth, system, and logic, I must protest against the unscientific, philosophical, and irreligious manner in which sacred subjects and questions are lugged into this controversy.

Science deals only with the laws of Nature, with secondary causes only, and can never extend to first and final causes; not that these are denied, not that the supernatural is contemned, either explicitly or by implication; he is a shallow scientist that will do so; on the contrary, the supernatural, in its true sense and position, will be assumed—the supernatural that which is above—a higher than Nature, not contrary thereto, nor ever to be separated from it. "Within Nature, but not included; without, but not excluded; above it, but not taken away; underneath, and not a mere support, nor derived from it."[2] Yet it is well, and even necessary, to be sure of a safe footing upon the earth, before we lift our eyes unreservedly to the heavens.

Socrates once desired to see the day "when Nature would be explained by reason alone." This is the end and aim of all philosophy: to render all we see, and know, and think, and do, rational; to obtain rational conceptions for all things. But, remember what explanation is. No explanation removes all difficulties; solves all mysteries. Properly considered, none pretends to such a thing. Explanations only connect the unknown with the better known; the less familiar with the more familiar; new, unarranged phenomena, or ideas, with old classified facts. All classification, all science, consists of this correlation of ideas.

Now, if the scientist confines himself to the correlation of physical facts, he cannot encroach upon the domain of religion, which is devoted to supernatural beliefs and hopes; yet a skeptical religionist is always craving for some physical facts to strengthen his faith, and the superstitious scientist is always afraid of meeting with miracles. How utterly both are mistaken! No amount of wonders would impart faith to a soul already filled with doubt; nor would the scientist have the least alarm on the subject of miracles and cataclysms if he understood truly the finite and the infinite, the Creator and the creation, the reign of eternal and universal law! In going around the circle of mere cosmical relations, time and space, man finds himself bounded by the great impassable and incomprehensible Unconditioned—eternity—ubiquity. And in vain the half-learned, and all not fond of exertion, because they cannot easily comprehend the relations of the finite and the infinite, rush to the conclusion that they are in conflict, and irreconcilable; so that, in the popular mind, the human and the divine, reason and the imagination, our doubts, and hopes, and fears, have become much entangled, and like "sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harshly."

It has been beautifully remarked of the perplexing contradictions often discovered in circumstantial evidence, "We only have to get hold of the right end to be able to unwind the mystery as you would a skein of thread." Nor is the narrow fear of conservative religionists to be too harshly blamed for this misapplied and unnecessary warfare. The windmills are certainly there, although they are not giants.

Filled with natural vanity at the discovery of some new fact of this wondrous life, or arrived at some new aspect of it, some new view of Nature, such pride as stirred the soul of Nuñez de Balboa when, first of civilized men, from the Cordillera of Panama, he caught sight of the great South Sea, is not unbecoming the pioneers of thought and knowledge. The danger to be guarded against is the common one of all vanity, that of mistaking partial attainment for complete victory, the achievement of a stand-point in advance assumed as the only possible one. The error is that of forgetting, like that same first beholder of the Pacific, that the apparent trend of coast depends upon the simple fact of position, the stand-point. And like him, also, it is natural, easy, and common, to conclude that the opening of some petty gulf before us is the grand expanse of the boundless ocean.

Coming in plain terms to the point before us: When a naturalist, confining himself properly to reason and the laws of Nature, speculates on the origin of species, and attempts to show the correlation of form to form, the evolution of one from another, or the development of many distinct species from a common stock, the reverence of certain minds, which have long run in a certain groove that connects these obscure mysteries of Nature with some imagined interference of Omnipotence, is seriously shocked. These, looking only to primary and final causes, feel contempt for the laborer who is working, for his penny a day, for the sight of the next step in that endless chain of secondary, efficient causes, which is the revelation of Nature to the rational faculty.

On the other hand, the proper conservatism of religious minds is often insulted by the exclusive cultivator of mere natural science, as the reserve and resistance of ignorance and fanaticism. Vainglorious in the light of some new discovery, he sees all the rest of the world in apparent darkness. If each—the worshiper according to the old faith, and the cultivator of the new science—understood the domain of the other better, the conclusions of both would be different.

Nor is it a few tyros in science who thus forget their true vocation, and invade a province they do not understand. When we find a Spencer and a Huxley leveling their wrath, like ordinary zealots, against what they style anthropomorphism, and issuing bulls of excommunication from their self-constituted Church of Common-Sense, against all who differ with them, against all who dare to believe in what they call the "dogma of special creations"—and even Charles Darwin, most moderate and dignified as he is of all scientists, acknowledges that "the object of his earliest work was, to combat this same dogma"—it must be admitted that the religious have grounds to fear that implacable war is to be waged against them.

Those who stand on the heights of genuine faith cannot be disturbed by such misguided attacks. Being up in the mountain of vision with the Lawgiver, they take no note of those at the base, who make golden calves for gods. But we are not all as secure in our faith as the prophet, who, according to the legend, talked with God, while none of us are without some religiosity. Where faith is only an opinion, it is not unmixed with doubt; and where there is doubt there is also fear; and anger and fanaticism are only doubt and fear applied. As the poet tells us:

"There is no philosopher but sees
That rage and fear are one disease."

Our popular theologians, then, whose notion of faith is opinion, and their cherished doctrines only collections and conglomerations of opinions, may well be excused for the alarm they exhibit at the assumptions of the new lights who boast themselves the disciples of reason alone, and the possessors of a positive philosophy, definite, clear, and certain.

Now, who would imagine, after all this mustering of forces, that there is not a shadow of foundation for the conflict which is so fiercely waged?

If we liken the half-armed advocates of religion, in their heterogeneous harness, to the gallant knight of La Mancha running a tilt with the windmills, we are not the less reminded of him when we witness the triumph of the new philosophers at the overthrow of the "dogma of special creations." Here, indeed, we see exemplified, also, mutatis mutandis,[3] that other exploit when the famous representative of chivalry swooped down upon the frightened barber and captured his pewter basin for Mambrino's helmet. In attacking and carrying off this "dogma of special creations," they have made war upon a figment of their own brains, or, at most, upon the unphilosophical, and therefore unscientific and irreligious fictions of gentlemen of their own school. Where faith is wanting, superstition and credulity abound. Strange! strange! I repeat. There is no such doctrine as that of "special creations," such as they set out in their travesty under that head, contended for as a dogma by any school of religion, pagan, Jew, or Christian.

The anthropomorphic legends and poems of infant races, necessarily anthropomorphic because poetry, which is always simple, sensuous, passionate, are not formal enunciations of rational dogma. At most they contain only the philosophy of the religion (enveloped, and therefore concealed as well as revealed), under sensuous—that is, poetic—images.

We shall expect these new iconoclasts next to make war upon our nursery-rhymes. We cannot doubt they will soon insist upon calling on the babies to announce to them that there is no such person as Mother Goose; or bring up syllogisms in mood and figure to overthrow the dogma of Santa Claus. The sophomores are not confined to the lower classes in our colleges! Truly our age may be described as a post Santa Claus period—the age of our first pair of pantaloons. A little out of mere infancy and thoughtless trust, and not yet arrived at clear rational and moral ideas—not yet reached the "years which bring the philosophic mind." We are in a betwixt and between condition when we still eat our Christmas candy with childish gusto, but begin to suspect shrewdly that papa and mamma had something to do with filling the stockings. We do not exactly know, but our very superstition and doubt drive us to endeavor to find arguments to combat the story which once filled our childish imaginations with delight.

There is one point, then, we may set ourselves easy upon, and claim reconciliation with the rest of the world: There is no such dogma as that of special creations, announced as a systematic article of faith by any religious authority; nor philosophically discussed and contended for by any theologian worthy of the name. A few unwary ones, like Hugh Miller, more skilled in rocks than in the theology in which he thought he believed, may, now that the question is raised, have confounded the Genesis of Species with the more general idea of Creation; and may have followed their antagonists into blunder after blunder.

It is no reply to this position to point out the fact that eminent religious teachers, such as Balmez, or even St. Augustine, at times spoke of the creation of species. For that matter, it is not unphilosophical to speak of the creation of individuals, and that with the instrumentality of immediate parents before our eyes. But, granting these to be mistakes of said doctors of theology, nothing is concluded thereby. For even our lawyers in the ordinary practice of the courts will tell you that obiter dicta of a judge decide no law. Innumerable instances occur in their daily practice when the judges, declaring and announcing correctly the general principles of law, yet make the most absurd and illogical application to particular facts and cases, and that even on points actually before the court; much more upon questions only incidentally brought in upon their own motion. Hence the general rule of logic in such matters: that general rules take precedence of particular applications.

The same rule applies here: for it is fact that this question, exactly as we now put it, never was before the court until formally raised in this plea of evolution.

But, to go back through the literature of the case: From very remote periods, even of Greek philosophy, discriminating analysis is compelled to discover that the question is not so much of a creation, as of a rational conception of the creation—not of the fact, but of the method.

Religious faith does step in, where science fails, to say how the Cosmos began, and is ordered and sustained in perpetual harmony. Physical science, of course, has nothing to do with first and final causes, and therefore answers: "We cannot tell whether the Cosmos is eternal, or began in time." It is a higher philosophy that comes in to answer, with the irresistible definitions of a higher logic, that it began in time. According to the very terms of the proposition, matter is bounded by space and time, and exists only in, by, and through these limitations. Consequently, it is even a contradiction in terms to ask the question, whether it is eternal or not. It is the same absurdity as to ask if the finite be infinite; if the limited be ubiquitous; if the conditioned be unconditioned.

Again: Religion, sustained also by a true philosophical ontology, asserts that the relation of the infinite—to the finite of the eternal to the limited—is that of a Creator. For, if this is not so, then they must be of the same substance—that is, identical, which again is absurd by the very terms of the proposition.

Having the creation—the basement-matter—let us proceed to its metamorphoses. And here, coy as sea-born Thetis, it will take the valor, the skill, and the passionate pursuit of heroes worthy to wed immortal brides, to follow Nature through her protean form and into her concealed recesses.

These metamorphoses depending upon the elements of the Cosmos—upon the laws with which matter is endowed (and it would not be matter, remember—this Cosmos which we know—without them)—the investigation is strictly, and without the least irreverence, the legitimate province of rational physical science. It is as religiously a duty to make use of the reason to comprehend and "justify the ways of God to man," as it is, through faith and love, to adore him.

The method of creation, then, it is, and not the fact, that natural science deals with. It invites our attention to physics, simply, and leaves metaphysics to a higher school.

When, therefore, these doctors of the new school tell us that they are about to overthrow religion in one of its old dogmas—namely, as they define it themselves, that the Creator came here, and, like a potter upon his wheel, out of distinct lumps of clay, in certain definite periods, produced certain definite forms, which forms, in organic creatures, are species, and which may perish or endure, but cannot change—it is easy to see that they have not themselves risen above that anthropomorphic conception of Deity which they assume to condemn. They are still struggling with eyes half open to realize whether it is Santa Claus or papa in his nightcap. In a word, they have not arrived at the conception of the Creator as infinite and eternal, and that his acts are in eternity, not in time. Nor have they a conception of a creation by law—a creation through the Logos—that eternal Reason, that all-providing Wisdom—whose hand stretched the line upon it, and whose right hand held the plummet; a scintilla of which enlightens every man that cometh into the world. Talk of their bringing forward this doctrine of evolution as a new discovery! They have, indeed, elaborated it in many new applications, but, as to the doctrine itself as a new proposition in philosophy, it was already old when Pythagoras was a school-master. Evolution new in philosophy, and the poetic or anthropomorphic notion of special creations a dogma of theology! Why, we are almost tempted to believe, with the satirist, that "nowadays men read every thing but books!" Even the (so-called) narrow-minded, ignorant schoolmen of the dark ages (very dark to those who consult not the numerous authors of the period)—even these made a broad distinction between the act, so to speak, the moment which called matter into existence, and that which merely modifies its forms and appearances. The former they dignify with the supreme title, creation (creatio), while the latter they called eduction or evolution (eductio). Looking to the continuance of the creative energy, and yet according to the law—according to, and by, definite and fixed properties, so to speak, with which matter is endowed—the term eduction is generally preferred by them; but evolution is also used for the same thing indifferently. And a late author, but of the same school in metaphysics, summing up their cosmological doctrines, and showing a reconciliation of the controversy concerning the relation of the Creator to the universe, from their point of view, known as the doctrines of harmony and assistance, says that the advocates of the latter doctrine taught that "God works not in his creation except according to the constant and general laws determined from the beginning" (Branchereau, "Cosmology," p. 70). And the still more general doctrine, also maintained by them, that "all beings admit of evolution by gradations to perfection according to their several natures," goes as far as Mr. Spencer, or any other philosopher, has gone, in the enunciation of general principles on this subject, and from a more elevated position (Branchereau, "Ontology," p. 56).

This very fact, that the highest theological philosophers and doctors, from St. Augustine down to our own times—as shown by Mr. Mivart and others—have never had any difficulty on the subject of the abstract question of the creation of the Cosmos, and the eduction of infinite variety from primordial matter by and according to constant law, however ignorant the same authors may have been of facts in Nature, and however jejune their notions of history and physics, ought to be sufficient to quiet us as to the legitimacy of our investigations; in short, that there is no more danger to orthodoxy (as the word is) in this endeavor to discover and trace the steps and stages of the development of life, than there is in the application of chemistry to the analysis of minerals, of geology to the classification of the earth's strata, or of astronomy to the calculation of the motions and relations of the heavenly bodies.

Nor is there any more mystery in one than in the other. Of course, in biology, the process is more complicated—more difficult to comprehend—but not incomprehensible. Indeed, as will be seen at the proper time, the mysteries of daily occurrence, such as growth, budding, and reproduction, are as great as any which beset the passage from form to form, from species to species. No one who has thought of it sufficiently can deny that the ordinary facts of generation, as the necessity of the union of two cells of nearly-spent vitality to produce a third cell, or a brood of cells, endowed with primeval vigor, present difficulties more unsurpassable than the origin of the germs of living things from inorganic matter; or that the preservation of species, by like producing like, is more difficult of explanation than the beginning of new species by variations in the reproduction, which, as a fact, is more likely to occur than the resemblance. The genesis of life from the inorganic kingdom we can begin to comprehend, because it is more simple and can be referred to known physical forces; but the other—that is, reproduction—is still wrapped in impenetrable obscurity.

A glance at the history of this controversy will make the whole matter clear, and, as remarked, ought to set us right with the rest of the world.

In the dawn of science as we know it—that is to say, in the rise of the Greek philosophy—no other view of creation was thought of than that which modern induction now demands, because, happily for them, there was not in their possession any supposed revelation on the subject, and there was no school which thought of any other solution of the problem than one which could be deduced from observation and speculation. Yet they suggested little that would now be of benefit, the range of their facts and of their analysis being too much limited.

The moderns, notwithstanding that the general principles of the philosophy, and of the philosophical theology of the middle ages were, as we have seen, favorable, have cramped and trammeled themselves with many irrelevant matters. The so-called skeptics are not alone to blame for the unnecessary conflict existing between Religion and Science. In the great religious revolutions of the sixteenth century (incident to revolutions in empire and commerce), from the excitement of religious parties theology and polemics assumed the lead in literature and thought. And such was the increased importance given to individual opinion, arguments, and scholarship, that it is often difficult to separate the idiosyncrasies of the author from the general cause he advocated. In their appeals to history as the principal method of discussing divinity, it was natural that each scholar should, consciously or unconsciously, adopt some scheme of universal history; and it was also natural that there should be an almost universal concurrence in their views of primitive times, because there was nothing in their disputes about the dogmas of Christianity to bring the early ages of man and of the earth into discussion. When, therefore, the skeptics, in their profound ignorance of theology and of the higher philosophy, ran against these sand-bags of individual opinions, it was natural for them to suppose that they had discovered the very citadel of religion; although, as we have seen, these anthropomorphic schemes are no more like religion than the play-house earthworks of children, piled up some summer's day on the sandy shore, are like Fort Morgan. Yet, from this simple psychological connection in their growth, history, science, and theology, since that period have been polemical; and, when, by the application of truly rational and scientific methods, thinking men began to construct the natural history of the earth from the facts recorded in the strata of its crust, and it began to be seen that all organic forms are modeled upon one common plan and developed out of primordial types under the operation of natural laws, an alarm was sounded, as if the principles of Faith were really involved, and in danger of impending overthrow. In their alarm and trepidation the guardians of the dimly-comprehended regions of Religion, regarding all who wander out of the beaten paths of knowledge as "false knaves," begin their examinations always, like a certain famous magistrate, with the question, "Masters, do you serve God?" and insist that "God" shall be written first, "for God forbid but God should go before such villains."

On the other hand, again, as remarked, there are scientific men who would also be philosophers, who suppose the anthropomorphic, that is, the poetic expressions of religious conceptions, to be essential to and the very gist of worship. Not having arrived at any thing beyond anthropomorphic notions of the Deity themselves, they weakly imagine that no other are possible; that there is no religion, no religious worship, nothing to lift man out of and beyond himself into the contemplation of the unexpressed sublimities of the Infinite and the Almighty, except the legends of the miracles and wonders of remote ages. Hence one of them now boasts that, in the advance of science, "anthropomorphism" (by which he means religion itself) "is driven to its last intrenchment—the mind and heart of man himself." When was it ever anywhere else? When was it ever any thing else (that is the expression of it) than a development of the imagination—the faculty of faith—the æsthetical faculty—that which lifts man above the clods of earth and makes him akin to the immortal and the divine? For is not religion both a science and an art?—from the inductive point of view as truly a science as any other, and the climax and crowning glory of all the others? and also an art, a fine art, as truly as any other, and the most divinely beautiful of them all?

Alas for the philosopher who thinks it driven to the last ditch! He confesses his defeat when he sadly admits this last intrenchment impregnable; for here, he says, "it must ever remain a drawn battle." Rightly understood, not a drawn battle, but a victory to Religion, the possessor of the citadel—a victory which grows more and more decisive the more it is perceived that the "mind and heart of man himself" is the only territory it ever claimed—the only dominion it ever attempted to defend. After all, is not the simple admission of a devout mind, when it meets with some inexplicable fact—"God made it so"—more philosophical than the shallow assertion of presumptuous science, "We can never know?"

  1. An address, delivered before the Franklin Society of Mobile, June 4, 1872, by Hon. Lawrence Johnson, of Holly Springs, Mississippi.
  2. "Supernaturale igitur, perficit quidem et elevat Naturam, non vero illi contrarium esse potest" (The supernatural perfects and elevates Nature, but cannot be contrary thereto). (Branchereau, "Ontology," §11, p. 6.)
  3. The necessary changes being made.