The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 3/Agassiz's Natural History
AGASSIZ'S NATURAL HISTORY.
The Great Professor has given the first Monograph of his Magnum Opus to the Great Republic and the wider realm of Science. The learned world resolves itself into committees to consider every important work; claiming leave to sit for as long a time as they choose,—for years, or for a whole generation. Every alleged fact is to be verified or cancelled or qualified, every inference to be measured over and over again by its premises, every proposition to be tried by all the tests that can prove its strength or weakness, and the whole to be marshalled to the place it may claim in the alcoves of the universal library. No hasty opinion can anticipate this final and peremptory judgment. Its elements must of necessity be gathered slowly from many and scattered sources. The accumulated learning of the great centres of civilization, the patient investigation of plodding observers, the keen insight of subtile analysts, the jealous clairvoyance of dissentient theorists, the oblique glances of suspicious sister-sciences, the random flashes that skepticism throws from her faithless mirror to dazzle all eyes that seek for truth; through such a varied and protracted ordeal must every record that embodies long and profound observation, large and lofty thought, reach the golden Imprimatur which is its warrant for immortality.
The work of Mr. Agassiz, if we may judge it by the portion now before us, has a right to challenge such a matured opinion, and to wait for it. Not the less does a certain duty belong to us as literary journalists with reference to these stately volumes, which are in the hands of thousands, learned and unlearned, and of which there are scores of thousands waiting to hear. Our duty we consider to be four-fold: first, that of recognition in terms of fitting courtesy; secondly, of analysis for the general reader; thirdly, of accentuation, so to speak, of what seems most widely applicable or interesting; and lastly, of making such comments as so pregnant a text may suggest.
And first, of recognition. Here are the fruits of ten years of patient labor, taken out of the heart of life, in the age of vigor, which is that of ambition,—to use the phrase of another great observer,—by a man of large endowments and of vast knowledge, assisted by skilful collaborators, by finished artists, by the counsels and liberality of the learned few, and the generous countenance of the intelligent many. Before analysis, before criticism, there should be uttered a welcome; not grudging, not envious of an overshadowing reputation, not over-curious in searching for qualifications to abate its warmth, not carefully taming down its enthusiasm to tepid formalisms; but full-souled and free-spoken, such as all noble works and deeds should claim.
The learned men of past centuries have left us an example of this treatment of authors, in those gratulatory verses with which they were wont to hail every considerable literary or scientific performance. They knew human nature well. They knew that the author, when he quenches the lamp over which he has grown haggard and pale, and steps from his cell into daylight and the chill outside air, longs, longs unutterably, for kind words, and the cheering fellowship of kindred souls; and with instinctive grace they chose the poetical form of expression, simply because this alone gives full license to the lips of friendship.
This old folio which stands by us is not precious only because it contains the quaint wisdom and manifold experience of Ambroise Paré, mingled with his credulous gossip, and again sweetened by his simple reverence; not precious alone because it contains the noblest words ever uttered by one of his profession,—Ie le pensay et Dieu le guarit; but also because Pierre Ronsard, the "Poet of France," has left his deathless name thrice inscribed in its earlier pages at the foot of tributes to its author.
And here in the next century comes Schenck of Grafenberg, staggering under his monstrous volume of "Casus Rariores,"—ready to fall fainting by the wayside, when lo! the shining ones meet him too, and lift him and lighten him with the utterance of these fifty-one distinct poems which we see hung up on so many votive tablets at the entrance of this miniature Babel of Science.
Even so late as the last century the genial custom survived; for our worthy Stalpart van der Wiel, whose little pair of volumes was published in 1727, can boast of twenty-two pages of well-ordered commendatory verse, much of it in his native Dutch,—a little of which goes a good way with all except Batavian readers.
But as the "Arundines Cami," musical as they are, have lent no prelude to these harmonies of science, we must say in a few plain words of prose our own first thought as to the work the commencement of which lies before us. We believe, that, if completed according to its promise, it is to be one of the monumental labors of our century. Comparisons are not to be lightly instituted, and especially under circumstances that do not allow a fair survey of the whole field from which the objects to be compared are to be taken. We suppose, however, it will be conceded that the sunset continent has never witnessed anything like the inception of this mighty task in the way of systematic natural science. And if, since Cuvier, the greatest of naturalists, as Mr. Agassiz considers him, slept with the fossils to which he had given life, there has been any other student of Nature who has attempted a task so immense, with the same union of observing, reflecting, analyzing, and coördinating power, we cannot name him. Our civilization has a right to be proud of such an accession to its thinking and laboring constituency; it is also bound to be grateful for it, and to express its gratitude.
It is just one hundred years since another Swiss, the magnificent Albert von Haller, gave to the world the first volume of the "Elementa Physiologiæ Corporis Humani." Nine years afterwards, in 1766, the last of the eight volumes appeared; and the vast structure, which embodied his untiring study of Nature, his world-wide erudition, his deepest thought, his highest imaginings, his holiest aspirations, stood, like the Alps whose shadow fell upon its birthplace, the lovely Lausaune, pride of the Pays de Vaud. The clepsydræ that measure the centuries as they drop from the dizzy cliffs—the glaciers, by the descent of which "time is marked out, as by a shadow on a dial," and which thunder out the high noon of each revolving year with their frozen tongues, as they crack beneath the summer's sun—have registered a new centennial circle, and at the very hour of its completion, Switzerland vindicates her ancient renown in these fair pages, at once pledge and performance, of another of her honored children. May the auspicious omen lead to as happy a conclusion!
Lovingly, then, we lay open the generous quarto and look upon its broad, bright title-page. It tells us that we have here the first of a series of "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America." We see that one of its three parts embraces the largest generalities of Natural Science, under the head of an "Essay on Classification." We see that the other two parts are devoted to the description and delineation of a single order of Reptilia,—the Testudinata, or "Turtles."
If Mr. Agassiz had intentionally chosen the simplest way of proving that he had naturalized himself in New England, he could not have selected more fortunately than he has done by adopting our word Turtle to cover all the Testudinates. To an Englishman a turtle is a sea-monster, that for a brief space lies on his back and fights the air with his useless paddles in the bow-window of a provision-shop, bound eventually to Guildhall, there to feed Gog and Magog, or his worshippers, known as aldermen. For him a land-testudinate is a tortoise. When his poets and romancers speak of turtles, again, they commonly mean turtle-doves.
"Not half so swift the sailing falcon flies
That drives a turtle through the liquid skies."
The only flight of a testudinate which we remember is that downward one of the unfortunate tortoise that cracked the bald crown of Æschylus. But turtle, as embracing all chelonians, or, as liberal shepherds call it, "turkle," is unquestionably Cisatlantic. The distinguished naturalist has made himself an American citizen by adopting our own expression, and should have the freedom of all our cities presented to him in the shell of a box-turtle.
It is singular to recall the honors which have been bestowed on the testudinates from all antiquity. It was the sun-dried and sinew-strung shell of a tortoise that suggested the lyre to Mercury, as he walked by the shore of Nilus. It was on the back of a tortoise that the Indian sage placed his elephant which upheld the world. Under the testudo the Roman legions swarmed into the walled cities of the orbis terrarum. And in that wise old fable which childhood learns, and age too often remembers, sorrowing, it was the tortoise that won the race against the swiftest of the smaller tribes, his competitor.
And here once more we have his shell strung with vibrating thoughts that repeat the harmonies of nature. Once more his broad back stoops to the weighty problems which the planet proposes to its children. Once more the great cities are stormed—by science—beneath his coat of mail. Once more he has run the race, not against the hare only, but the whole animal kingdom, and won it, and with it the new fame which awaits him, as he leads in the long array of his fellows that are to come up, one by one, in these enduring records. And so we turn the leaf, and come to the Dedication.
The Dedication of a work like this, destined to preserve all the names it enrols in the sculpture-like immortality of science, naturally delays us for a moment. Of the foreign teacher and friend to whom the author owes some of his earliest lessons, and of that group of our own citizens, most of them still living, who lent their united efforts to the enterprise of publication after it was commenced, we need not speak individually. But we cannot pass over the name of Francis Calley Gray without a word of grateful remembrance for one who was the friend and adviser of the author in planning the publication of the work before us. We who remember his varied culture, his large and fluent discourse, with its formidable accuracy of knowledge and gracious suavity of utterance, his taste in literature and art, which made his home a suite of princely cabinets, his generous and elegant hospitality, which scholars and artists knew so well,—counting him as the peer, and in many points the more than peer of such as the wide world of letters is proud to claim,—are pleased to see that his cherished name will be read by the students of unborn generations on the first leaf of this noble record of the science of our own.
The Preface which follows the Dedication is full of grateful acknowledgments to the many friends of science, in all parts of the country, who came forward to lend their aid in various forms, especially in collecting and transmitting specimens from the most widely remote sections of the continent. The pious zeal of Mr. Winthrop Sargent, who brought a cargo of living turtles more than a thousand miles to the head-quarters of testudinous learning at Cambridge, is only paralleled by the memorable act of the Pisans in transporting ship-loads of holy soil from Palestine to fill their Campo Santo. Genius is marked by nothing more distinctly than that it makes the world its tributary. He from whose lips it speaks has but to look calmly into the eyes of dull routine, of jaded toil, of fickle childhood, and utter the words, "Follow me." Custom-house officials close their books, tired fishermen leave their nets, riotous boys forsake their play, to do the master's bidding. Is he making collections for some great purpose of study? Piece by piece the fragmentary spoils flow in upon him, of all sizes, shapes, and hues; a chaos of confused riches, perhaps only a wealth of rubbish, as they lie at his feet. One by one they fall into harmonious relations, until the meaningless heap has become a vast mosaic, where nothing is too minute to fill some interstice, nothing too angular to fit some corner, nothing so dull or brilliant of tint that it will not furnish its fraction of light or shadow. Such has been the history of those years of labor the results of which these volumes present to us. Whatever may have been said of the devotion of our countrymen to material interests, the wise and winning lips had only to speak, and such a currency of plastrons and carapaces was set in circulation, that the contemplative stranger who saw the mighty coinage of Chelonia flowing in upon Cambridge might well have thought that the national idea was not the Almighty Dollar, but the Almighty Turtle.
Mr. Agassiz places a high estimate on the intelligence as well as the kind spirit of his adopted countrymen. "There is not a class of learned men here," he says, "distinct from the other cultivated members of the community. On the contrary, so general is the desire for knowledge, that I expect to see my book read by operatives, by fishermen, by farmers, quite as extensively as by the students of our colleges, or by the learned professions; and it is but proper that I should endeavor to make myself understood by all."
The deficiencies of our scientific libraries, and the want of a class of elementary works upon Natural History, such as are widely circulated in Europe, are adverted to and alleged as a reason for entering into details which the professional naturalist might think misplaced.
We quote one paragraph entire from the Preface, as not susceptible of being abridged, and as briefly stating those general facts with regard to the work which all our readers must desire to know.
"I have a few words more to say respecting the two first volumes, now ready for publication. Considering the uncertainty of human life, I have wished to bring out at once a work that would exemplify the nature of the investigations I have been tracing during the last ten years, and show what is likely to be the character of the whole series. I have aimed, therefore, in preparing these two volumes, to combine them in such a manner as that they should form a whole. The First Part contains an exposition of the general views I have arrived at thus far, in my studies of Natural History. The Second Part shows how I have attempted to apply these results to the special study of Zoölogy, taking the order of Testudinata as an example. I believe, that, in America, where turtles are everywhere common, and greatly diversified, a student could not make a better beginning than by a careful perusal of this part, specimens in hand, with constant reference to the second chapter of the First Part. The Third Part exemplifies the bearing of Embryology upon these general questions, while it contains the fullest illustration of the embryonic growth of the Testudinata."
The Preface closes with honorable mention of the gentlemen who have furnished direct assistance in the preparation of the work, and especially of Mr. Clark in microscopic observation and illustration, and of Mr. Sonrel in drawing the zoölogical figures.
The List of Subscribers is not without its special meaning and interest. If, as has been said, the grade of civilization in any community can be estimated by the amount of sulphuric acid it consumes, the extent to which a work like this has been called for in different sections of the country may to some extent be considered an index of its intellectual aspirations, if not of its actual progress. This is especially true of those remoter regions where personal motives would exercise least influence. But without instituting any comparisons, we may well be proud of this ample list of twenty-five hundred subscribers, most of them citizens of the republic,—"a support such as was never before offered to any scientific man for purely scientific ends, without any reference to government objects or direct practical aims."
Our analysis must confine itself mainly to the first of the three parts into which these two volumes are divided. This first part it is that contains those large results which every thinker must desire to learn from one whose life has been devoted to the searching and contemplative study of Nature. It is in the realm of thought here explored, that Natural Science, whose figure we are wont to look down upon, crouching to her task, like him of the muck-rake, as he painfully gathers together his sticks and straws, rises erect, and lifts her forehead into the upper atmosphere of philosophy, where the clouds are indeed thickest, but the stars are nearest. The second and third parts belong more exclusively to the professed students of Natural History in its different special departments. Our notice of these divisions of the work must therefore be comparatively brief.
The first chapter of the first part has for its title, "The fundamental relations of animals to one another and to the world in which they live, as the basis of the natural system of animals."
Certain general doctrines, the spirit of which runs through all the scientific works of Mr. Agassiz, are distinctly laid down in the first section of this chapter. It is headed with the statement, "The leading features of a natural zoölogical system are all founded in nature." The systems named from the great leaders of science are but translations of the Creator's thoughts into human language. "If it can be proved that man has not invented, but only traced this systematic arrangement in nature,—that these relations and proportions which exist throughout the animal and vegetable world have an intellectual, an ideal connection in the mind of the Creator,—that this plan of creation, we have done, once and forever, with the desolate theory which refers us to the laws of matter as accounting for all the wonders of the universe, and leaves us with no God but the monotonous, unvarying action of physical forces, binding all things to their inevitable destiny."
One more extract must be given from this section, for it is the key to the general argument which follows.
"I disclaim every intention of introducing in this work any evidence irrelevant to my subject, or of supporting any conclusions not immediately flowing from it; but I cannot overlook nor disregard here the close connection there is between the facts ascertained by scientific investigations, and the discussions now carried on respecting the origin of organized beings. And though I know those who hold it to be very unscientific to believe that thinking is not something inherent in matter, and that there is an essential difference between inorganic and living and thinking beings, I shall not be prevented by any such pretensions of a false philosophy from expressing my conviction, that, as long as it cannot be shown that matter or physical forces do actually reason, I shall consider any manifestation of thought as evidence of the existence of a thinking being as the author of such thought, and shall look upon an intelligent and intelligible connection between the facts of nature as direct proof of the existence of a thinking God, as certainly as man exhibits the power of thinking when he recognizes their natural relations."
We must content ourselves with the most general statement of the nature and bearing of the series of propositions which follow. They are illustrated by a large survey of the material universe in its manifestations of life, and of the relations between the various forms of life to each other and to the inorganic world. These propositions, thirty-one in number, might be called an analysis of the qualities of the Infinite Mind exhibited in the realm of organized and especially of animal being. Nothing but want of space prevents our reproducing at full length the very careful recapitulation to be found at the close of the chapter, or the analysis to be found in the Table of Contents. With something more of labor than the task of copying would have been, we have attempted to compress the truths already crowded in these brief and pregnant sentences into the still narrower compass of a few lines in our straitened pages.
The harmony of the universe is a manifestation of illimitable intellect, displaying itself in various modes of thought, as these are shown in the characters and relations of organized beings: unity of thought, manifesting itself independently of space, of time, of known material agencies, of special form,—illustrated by repetition of similar types in different circumstances, by identities, or partial resemblances, or serial connections, found under varying conditions of being; power of expressing the same idea in innumerable forms, as in those instances of essential identity of parts in the midst of formal differences known as special homologies; power of combination, as in the adjustment of organized beings to each other and to the inorganic world, or in the harmonious allotment of the most varied gifts to different beings; definite recognition of time and space, as in the life of individuals, of species, in the stages of growth, in the geographical limitation of types; prescience and omniscience, as shown in the _prophetic_ types of earlier geological ages; omnipresence, by the adjustment of the whole series of animal organisms to the various parts of the planet they inhabit.
The final résumé of Mr. Agassiz is as follows:—
"We may sum up the results of this discussion, up to this point, in still fewer words.
"All organized beings exhibit in themselves all those categories of structure and of existence upon which a natural system may be founded, in such a manner, that, in tracing it, the human mind is only translating into human language the Divine thoughts expressed in Nature in living realities.
"All these beings do not exist in consequence of the continued agency of physical causes, but have made their successive appearance upon earth by the immediate intervention of the Creator. As proof, I may sum up my argument in the following manner:—
"The products of what are commonly called physical agents are everywhere the same, (that is, upon the whole surface of the globe,) and have always been the same (that is, during all geological periods); while organized beings are everywhere different, and have differed in all ages. Between two such series of phenomena there can be no causal or genetic connection.
"The combination in time and space of all these thoughtful conceptions exhibits not only thought, it shows also premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence. In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must, in good time, become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe, as manifested in the animal and vegetable kingdoms."
To this statement we must add two paragraphs from the pages just preceding, (pp. 130, 131.)
"If I have succeeded, even very imperfectly, in showing that the various relations observed between animals and the physical world, as well as between themselves, exhibit thought, it follows that the whole has an Intelligent Author; and it may not be out of place to attempt to point out, as far as possible, the difference there may be between Divine thinking and human thought."
"Taking nature as exhibiting thought for my guide, it appears to me, that, while human thought is consecutive, Divine thought is simultaneous, embracing at the same time and forever, in the past, the present, and the future, the most diversified relations among hundreds of thousands of organized beings, each of which may present complications, again, which to study and understand even imperfectly, as, for instance, man himself, mankind has already spent thousands of years. And yet, all this has been done by one Mind, must be the work of one Mind only, of Him before whom man can only bow in grateful acknowledgment of the prerogatives he is allowed to enjoy in this world, not to speak of the promises of a future life."
Chapter Second is entitled, "Leading Groups of the existing systems of animals."
Its nine sections treat successively of the great types or branches of the animal kingdom, of classes, orders, families, genera, species, other natural divisions, successive development of characters, and close with some very significant conclusions on the importance of the study of classification.
Mr. Agassiz has attempted to give definiteness to the terms above enumerated, which have been used with various significance, by limiting each one of them to covering a single category of natural relationship. Thus:—
Branches or types are characterized by their plan of structure.
Classes, by the manner in which that plan is executed, so far as ways and means are concerned.
Orders, by the degrees of complication of that structure.
Families, by their form, so far as determined by structure.
Genera, by the details of the execution in special parts.
Species, by the relations of individuals to one another and to the world in which they live, as well as by the proportions of their parts, their ornamentation, etc.
"And yet there are other natural divisions which must be acknowledged in a natural zoölogical system; but these are not to be traced so uniformly in all classes as the former,—they are, in reality, only limitations of the other kinds of divisions."
This chapter must be studied in the original text, the arguments by which its conclusions are supported hardly admitting of brief analysis. The most superficial reader will be interested in Mr. Agassiz's account of the mode in which he sought for the natural boundaries of the various divisions, by observing the special point of view in which various eminent naturalists have considered their subject; as, for instance, Audubon, among the biographers of species,—Latreille, among the students of genera,—and Cuvier, at the head of those who have contemplated the higher groups, such as classes and types. The most indifferent reader will be arrested by the opinions boldly promulgated with reference to species.
"The evidence that all animals have originated in large numbers is growing so strong, that the idea that every species existed in the beginning in single pairs may be said to be given up almost entirely by naturalists." "If we are led to admit as the beginning of each species the simultaneous origin of a large number of individuals, if the same species may originate at the same time in different localities, these first representatives of each species, at least, were not connected by sexual derivation; and as this applies equally to any first pair, this fancied test criterion of specific identity must at all events be given up, and with it goes also the pretended real existence of the species, in contradistinction from the mode of existence of genera, families, orders, classes and types; for what really exists are individuals, not species." (pp. 166-167.)
Chapter Third is headed, "Notice of the principal systems of Zoölogy." It is divided into the six following sections: General remarks upon modern systems; Early attempts to classify animals; Period of Linnaeus; Period of Cuvier, and Anatomical systems; Physiophilosophical systems; Embryological systems.
This chapter is invaluable to the general student, as giving him in a single view not only a conspectus, of the most important attempts at classification in Zoölogy, but an examination of the principles involved in each, by the one among all living men most fitted to perform the task. No cultivated person who desires to know anything of Natural Science can pass over this portion of the work without careful study. Those who are not prepared to follow the author through the details of the Second Part will yet consider these volumes as indispensable companions for reference, as containing this brief but comprehensive encyclopedia and commentary, covering the whole philosophical machinery of zoölogical science.
For the first section of this chapter Mr. Agassiz adopts the fundamental divisions (branches) of Cuvier, introducing such changes among the classes and orders as the progress of science demands. The second section gives a short account of the early attempts to classify animals, more particularly of the divisions established by Aristotle. The third section embraces the period of Linnaeus, and gives his classification. The fourth, that of Cuvier, and Anatomical systems, with the classifications of Cuvier, Lamark, De Blainville, Ehrenberg, Burmeister, Owen, Milne-Edwards, Von Siebold and Stannius, Leuckart. The fifth section includes the Physiophilosophical systems, with diagrams of Oken's and Fitzinger's classifications, and a special article for the circular groups of McLeay. The sixth and last section is devoted to Embryological systems, and presents diagrams of the classifications of Von Baer, Van Beneden, Kölliker, and Vogt.
The Second Part of the Monograph introduces us to the consideration of a special subject of Natural History,—the North American Testudinata. Its three chapters treat successively of this order of Reptiles,—of its families,—of its North American genera and species.
The Third Part, contained in the second volume, is entitled, "Embryology of the Turtle." It consists of two chapters: "Development of the Egg, from its first appearance to the formation of the embryo." "Development of the Embryo, from the time the egg leaves the ovary to that of the hatching of the young." Then follow the explanation of the plates and the plates themselves, thirty-four in number.
We need not attempt to give any account of the parts devoted to the development of these particular subjects. This we must necessarily leave to the journals devoted to scientific matters, and the class of students most intimate with these departments of Natural Science.
Yet the American who asks for a model to work by in his investigations will find a great deal more than the "North American Testudinata" in the part to which that title is prefixed. The principles of classification exemplified, the methods of description illustrated, the rules of nomenclature tested,—what matter is it whether the gran maestro has chosen this or that string to play the air upon, when each has compass enough for all its melody?
Still more forcibly does this comment apply to the elaborate and ample division of the work embracing the Embryology of the Turtle. He who has mastered the details of this section has at his feet the whole broad realm of which this province holds one of the key-fortresses. Ex testudine naturam.
We are unwilling to speak of the illustrations comparatively without more extended means of judgment than we have at hand. But that they are of superlative excellence, brilliant, delicate, accurate, life-like, and nature-like, is what none will dispute. Look at these turtles, models of real-estate owners as they are, Observe No. 13, Plate IV.,—"Chelydra Serpentina,"—"snapper", or "snappin' turtle," in the vernacular. He is out collecting rents from the naked-skinned reptiles, his brethren; in default thereof, taking the bodies of the aforesaid. Or behold No. 5, Plate VI., bewailing the wretchedness of those who have no roofs to cover them. Or No. 2, of the same plate, bestowing an archiepiscopal benediction on the houseless multitudes, before he retires for the night to slumber between his tessellated floor and his frescoed ceiling.
Of the smooth, white eggs, with their rounded reliefs and tenderly graduated light and shadow, all eyes are judges. But of the exquisite figures showing the various stages of development and the details of structural arrangement, the uninitiated must take the opinions of a microscopic expert: and if they will accept our testimony as that of one not unfamiliar with the instrument and the mysteries it reveals, we can assure them that these figures are of supreme excellence. The hazy semitransparency of the embryonic tissues, the halos, the granules, the globules, the cell-walls, the delicate membranous expansions, the vascular webs, are expressed with purity, softness, freedom, and a conscientiousness which reminds us of Donné's microscopic daguerreotypes, while in many points the views are literally truer to nature,—just as a sculptor's bust of a living person is often more really like him in character than a cast moulded on his features.
We have attempted to give a slight idea of the contents of these two volumes, in the compass of a few pages. We have called the reader's attention to various points of special interest, as we were going along. It remains to make such comments as suggest themselves to us, either in our character of "the scholiast," or in our own right as a freed citizen of the intellectual as well as the political republic.
Whence? Why? Whither? These are the three great questions that arise in the soul of every race and of every thinking being. He who looks at either of them with the least new light, though he whisper what he sees ever so softly, has the world to listen to him. No matter how he got his knowledge nor what he calls it; it belongs to mankind. But "Science" has been mainly engaged with another question, in itself of very inferior interest, namely, How?
We must be permitted to speak of "Science" in our freest capacity, and will endeavor not to abuse our liberty. The study of natural phenomena for the sake of the pleasing variety of aspects they present, for the delight of collecting curious specimens, for the exercise of ingenuity in detecting the secret methods of Nature, for the gratification of arranging facts or objects in regular series, is an innocent and not a fruitless pursuit. Many persons are born with a natural instinct for it, and with special aptitudes which may even constitute a kind of genius. We should do honor to such power wherever we find it; honor according to its kind and its degree; but not affix the wrong label to it. Those who possess it acquire knowledge sometimes so extensive and uncommon that we regard them with a certain admiration. But knowledge is not wisdom. Unless these narrow trains of ideas are brought into relation with other and wider ranges of thought, or with the conduct of life, they cannot aspire to that loftier name.
We must go farther than this. The study of the How? in Nature, or the simple observation of phenomena, is often used as an opiate to quiet the higher faculties. There can be no question of the fact that many persons pass much of their lives working in the in-door or out-door laboratories of science, just as old women knit, just as prisoners carve quaintly elaborate toys in their dungeons. The product is not absolutely useless in either case; the fingers of the body or of the mind become swift and cunning, but the soul does not grow under such culture. We are willing to allow that many of those who browse in the sleepy meadows of aimless observation,—loving to keep their heads down as they gaze at and gather their narcotic herbs, rather than lift them to the horizon beyond or the heaven above,—act in obedience to the law of their limited natures. Still, let us recognize the limitation, and not forget that the pursuit which may be fitting and praiseworthy toil for one class of minds may be ignoble indolence for another. We must remember, on the other hand, that, however humble may be the intellectual position of the man of science or knowledge, in distinction from wisdom, the results of his labors may be of the highest importance. The most ignorant laborer may get a stone out of the quarry, and the poorest slave unearth a diamond. These intellectual artisans come to their daily task with hypertrophied special organs, fitted to their peculiar craft. Some of them are all eyes; some, all hands; some are self-recording microscopes; others, self-registering balances. If a man would watch a thermometer every hour of the day and night for ten years, and give a table of his observations, the result would be of interest and value. But the bulbous extremity of the instrument would probably contain as much thought at the end of the ten years as that of the observer.
Clearly, then, "Science" does not properly belong to "scientific" men, unless they happen also to be wise ones; not more to them than honey to bees, or books to printers. The bee may, certainly, feed on the honey he has made, and the printer read the books he has put in type. But Vos non vobis is the rule. "Science" is knowledge, it is true, but knowledge disarticulated and parcelled out among certain specialists, like Truth in Milton's glorious comparison. He who can restore each part to its true position, and orient the lesser whole in its relations to the universe, he it is to whom science belongs. He must range through all time and follow Nature to her farthest bounds. Then he can dissect beetles like Straus Derekheim, without becoming a myope. But even this is not enough. Let us see what qualities would go to make up the ideal model of the truly wise student of Nature.
He must have, in the first place, as the substratum of his faculties, the power of observation, with the passion that keeps it active and the skilful hand to serve its needs. Secondly, a quick eye for resemblances and differences. Thirdly, a wide range of mental vision. Fourthly, the coördinating or systematizing faculty. Fifthly, a large scholarship. Lastly, and without which all these gifts fall short of their ultimate aim, an instinct for the highest forms of truth,—a centripetal tendency, always seeking the idea behind the form, the Deity in his manifestations, and thence working outward again to solve those infinite problems of life and its destinies which are, in reality, all that the thinking soul most lives for.
It is as easy to find all these qualities separate as it is to turn beneath the finger one of the letters of a revolving padlock. But they must all be brought together in line before the grand portals of Nature's hypaethral temple will open to her chosen student. How incomplete the man of science is with only one or two of these endowments may be seen by a few examples.
The power and instinct of observation combined with the most consummate skill do not necessarily make a great philosophical naturalist. Leeuwenhoek had all these. They bore admirable fruits, too. We cannot but read the old man's letters to the Royal Society, written, if we remember right, after the age of eighty, with delight and admiration. Those little lenses in their silver mountings, all ground and set and fashioned by his own hand, showed him the blood-globules, and the "pipes" of the teeth, which Purkinje and Retzius found with their achromatic microscopes a century later. We honor his skill and sagacity as they deserve; but a little trick of Mr. Dollond's, applied to the microscopic object-glass, has left all his achievements a mere matter of curious history.
Few have been more remarkable for perceiving resemblances and differences than Oken. This is the poetical side of the scientific mind; and he shares with Goethe the honor of that startling and far-reaching discovery, the vertebral character of the bones of the cranium. At this very time the four vertebral cranial bones recognized by Owen are the same Oken has described. But notwithstanding the generous tribute of Mr. Agassiz to his great merits, the writer who assigns special colors to the persons in the Trinity, (red, blue, and green,) and then allots to Satan a constituent of one of these, (yellow,) has drifted away from the solid anchorage of observation into the shoreless waste of the inane, if not amidst the dark abysses of the profane.
If the widest range of mental vision, joined, too, with great learning, could make a successful student of Nature, Lord Bacon should have stood by the side of Linnæus. But open the "Sylva Sylvarum" anywhere and see what Bacon was as a naturalist. "It was observed in the Great Plague of the last yeare, that there were scene in divers Ditches and low Grounds about London, many Toads that had Tailes, two or three inches long, at the least: Whereas Toads (usually) have no Tailes at all. Which argueth a great disposition to Putrefaction in the Soile and Aire." This in that "great birth of time," the "Instauration of the Sciences"!
The systematizing or coördinating power is worse than nothing, unless it be supported by the other qualities already mentioned. Darwin had it, and something of what is called genius with it; but where is now the "Zoönomia"?
And what is erudition without the power to correct errors by appealing to Nature, to arrange methodically, to use wisely? It would be a shame to mention any name in illustration of its insignificance. Our shelves bend and crack under the load of unwise and learned authorship. There are two stages in every student's life. In the first he is afraid of books; in the second books are afraid of him. For they are a great community of thieves, and one finds the same stolen patterns in all their pockets. Though often dressed in sheep's clothing, they have the maw of wolves. When the student has once found them out, he laughs at the pretensions of erudition, and strides gayly up and down great libraries, feeling that the most blustering folio of them all will turn as pale as if it were bound in law-calf, if he only lay his hand on its shoulder.
Nor, lastly, can any elevation of aim, any thirst for the divine springs of knowledge, enable a man to dispense with the sober habits of observation and the positive acquirements that must give him the stamina to attempt the higher flights of thought. The eagle's wings are nothing without his pectoral muscles. It is not Swedenborg and his disciples that legislate for the scientific world; they may suggest truth, but they rarely prove it, and never bring it into such systematic forms as narrow-minded Nature will insist on laying down.
That all these qualities which go to make up our ideal should exist in absolute perfection in any single man of mortal birth is not to be expected. But there are names in the history of Science which recall so imposing a combination of these several gifts, that, comparing the men who bore them with the civilization of their time, we can hardly conceive that uninspired intellect should come nearer the imaginary standard. Such a man was Aristotle. The slender and close-shaven fop, with the showy mantle on his ungraceful person and the costly rings on his fingers, who hung on the lips of Plato for twenty years, and trained the boy of Macedon to whatever wisdom he possessed,—whose life was set by destiny between the greatest of thinkers and the greatest of conquerors,—seems to have borrowed the intellect of the one and the universal aspirations of the other. But because he invaded every realm of knowledge, it must not be thought he dealt with Nature at second-hand. He was a collector and a dissector. He could display the anatomical structure of a fish as well as write a treatise on the universe or on rhetoric, or government or logic, or music or mathematics. Dethroned we call him; and yet Mr. Agassiz quotes his descriptions with respect, and confesses that the systematic classification of animals makes but one stride from Aristotle to Linnæus.
Cuvier was such a man. Alone, and unapproached in his own spheres of knowledge, his "Report on the Progress of the Natural Sciences" is only an index to the wide range of his intellect. In one point, however, we must own that he seems slow of apprehension or limited by preconceived opinions,—in his reception of the homologies pointed out by Oken and the Physiophilosophical observers.
In the same range of intellects we should reckon Linnæus and Humboldt, and should have reckoned Goethe, had he given himself to science.
We do not assume to say where in the category of fully equipped intelligences Mr. Agassiz belongs. But if the union of the most extraordinary observing powers with an almost poetic perception of analogies, with a wide compass of thought, the classifying instinct and habit, large knowledge of books, and personal intimacy with the leaders in various departments of knowledge, and with this the upward-looking aspect of mind and heart, which is the crowning gift of all,—if the union of these qualities can give to the man of science a claim to the nobler name of wisdom, it is not flattery, but justice, to award this distinction to Mr. Agassiz.
To him, then, we listen, when, after having sounded every note in the wide gamut of Nature, after reading the story of life as it stands written in the long series of records reaching from Cambrian fossils to ovarian germs, after tracing the divine principle of order from the starlike flower at his feet to the flower-like circle of planets which spreads its fiery corolla, in obedience to the same simple law that disposes the leaves of the growing plant,—as our eminent mathematician tells us,—he relates in simple and reverential accents the highest truths he has learned in traversing God's mighty universe. For him, and such as him,—for us, too, if we read wisely,—the toiling slaves of science, often working with little consciousness of the full proportions of the edifice they are helping to construct, have spent their busy lives. All knowledge asserts its true dignity when once brought into relation with the grand end of knowledge,—a wider and deeper view of the significance of conscious and unconscious created being, and the character of its Creator.
We shall close this article with some remarks upon the great doctrines that dominate all the manifold subordinate thoughts which fill these crowded pages. The plan of creation, Mr. Agassiz maintains, "has not grown out of the necessary action of physical laws, but was the free conception of the Almighty Intellect, matured in his thought before it was manifested in tangible, external forms." Before Mr. Agassiz, before Linnæus, before Aristotle, before Plato, Timæus the Locrian spake; the original, together with the version we cite, is given with the Plato of Ficinus:—"Duas esse rerum omnium causas: mentem quidem, earum quae ratione quadam nascuntur, et necessitatem, earum quae existunt vi quadam, secundum corporum potentias et faculitates. Harrum rerum, id est, Natunae bonorum, optimum esse quoddam rerum optimarum principium, et Deum vocari. . . . .Esse præterea in hac Naturæ universitate quiddam quod maneat et intelligible sit, rerum genitarum, quæ quidem in perpetuo quodam mutationum fluxu versantur, exemplar, Ideam dici et mente comprehendi. . . . .Permanet igitur mundus constanter talis qualis est creatus a Deo . . . . proponente sibi non exemplaria quædam manuum opificio edita, sed illam Ideam intelligibilemque essentiam."—So taught the half-inspired pagan philosopher whom Plato took as his guide in his contemplations of Nature.
We trace the thought again in Dante, amidst the various fragments of ancient wisdom which he has embodied in the "Divina Commedia":
Ciò che non muore e ciò che può morire
Non è se non splendor cli quella idea
Che partorisco, amando, il nosfro Sire.
Paradiso, XIII. 52-54.
Two thousand years after the old Greek had written, the Christian philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne, repeats the same doctrine in a new phraseology:—"Before Abraham was, I am, is the saying of Christ; yet it is true in some sense, if I say it of myself; for I was not only before myself, but Adam, that is, in the idea of God, and the decree of that Synod held from all eternity. And in this sense, I say, the World was before the Creation, and at an end before it had a beginning; and thus was I dead before I was alive; though my grave be England, my dying place was Paradise; and Eve miscarried of me before she conceived of Cain."
The slender reed through which Philosophy breathed her first musical whisperings is laid by, and the sacred lyre of Theology is silent or little heeded. But the mighty organ of Modern Science with its hundred stops, each answering to some voice of Nature, takes up the pausing strain, and as we listen we recognize through all its mingling harmonies the simple, sublime, eternal melody that came from the lips of Timaeus the Locrian! The same doctrine reappears in various forms: in the popular works of Derham and Paloy and the Bridgewater Treatises; in the learned and thoughtful pages of Burdach, and in the mystical rhapsodies of Oken. But never, we believe, was it before enforced and illustrated by so imperial a survey of the whole domain of Natural Science as in the volumes before us.
We are not disposed to discuss at any length the opinion maintained by Mr. Agassiz, that life has not grown out of the necessary action of the physical laws. If we accept the customary definitions of the physical laws, we accede most cordially to his proposition. As opposed to the fancies of Epicurus and his poet, Lucretius, or to modern atheistic doctrines of similar character, we have no qualification or condition to suggest which might change its force or significance. When we remember that the genius of such a man as Laplace shared the farthest flight of star-eyed science only to "waft us back the tidings of despair," we are thankful that so profound a student of Nature as Mr. Agassiz has tracked the warm foot-prints of Divinity throughout all the vestiges of creation.
There is danger, however, that, in accepting this doctrine as a truth, we may be led into an inexact conception of the so-called physical laws, unless we closely examine the sense in which we use the expression. The forces which act according to these laws, and the various forms of the so-called matter, or concrete forces, are often spoken of as if they were blind agencies and existences, acting by an inherent fate-like power of their own. But if everything outside of our consciousness resolves itself, in the last analysis, into force, or something capable of producing change, and if force existing by the will of an omniscient and omnipresent Being, to whom time has no absolute significance, is simply God himself in action, then we shall find it impossible to limit the causal agency of the physical forces. All we can say is, that commonly they appear to move in certain rectilinear paths, in which they manifest a degree of uniformity and precision so amazing that we are lost in the infinite intelligence they display,—unless we become perfectly stupid to it, and think, as in the old fable, there is no music in it because we are made deaf by its continued harmony. No single leaf ever made a mistake in falling, though in so doing it solved more problems than were ever held in all the libraries that have changed or are changing into dust or ashes.
We are willing to accept the belief of Mr. Agassiz, "that matter does not exist as such, but is everywhere and always a specific thing, as are all finite beings." But we must extend the same idea to the physical forces, and believe them to be specific agencies, and their acts specific acts,—in other words, each one of them a Divine manifestation. Theology is close upon us in these speculations. "Perhaps," says Mr. Robertson, in the volume of admirable sermons just republished, "even the Eternal himself is more closely bound to his works than our philosophical systems have conceived. Perhaps matter is only a mode of thought." Looking, then, at our recognized forms of matter and physical force as expressions of a self-limiting omnipotence, we concede that the uniform lines of action in which human observation has hitherto traced them do not, and, so far as we can see, cannot, shape the curves of the simplest organism.
It is time for us to close these volumes, to which we cannot even hope to have done justice, and leave them to those graver tribunals that will in due season award their well-weighed decisions. We have taken the Master's hand, and followed Nature through all her paths of life. We have trod with him the shores of old oceans that roll no more, and traced the Providence that orders the creation of to-day engraved in every stony feature of their obsolete organisms. We have broken into that mysterious chamber, the chosen studio of the Infinite Artist, where, beneath its marble or crystalline dome, he fashions the embryo from its formless fluids. And as we turn reluctantly away, the accents we have once already heard linger with us: "In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must, in good time, become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe, as manifested in the animal and vegetable kingdoms."
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.