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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Advance Of Science In The Last Half-century - Part 5
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The Advance Of Science In The Last Half-century - Part 5 Post by :DavidDaniels Category :Essays Author :Thomas Henry Huxley Date :May 2012 Read :2480

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The Advance Of Science In The Last Half-century - Part 5

Turning now to the great steps in that progress which the biological sciences have made since 1837, we are met, on the threshold of our epoch, with perhaps the greatest of all--namely, the promulgation by Schwann, in 1839, of the generalisation known as the 'cell theory,' the application and extension of which by a host of subsequent investigators has revolutionised morphology, development, and physiology. Thanks to the immense series of labors thus inaugurated, the following fundamental truths have been established.

(Sidenote: Fundamental truths established.)

All living bodies contain substances of closely similar physical and chemical composition, which constitute the physical basis of life, known as protoplasm. So far as our present knowledge goes, this takes its origin only from pre-existing protoplasm.

All complex living bodies consist, at one period of their existence, of an aggregate of minute portions of such substance, of similar structure, called cells, each cell having its own life independent of the others, though influenced by them.

All the morphological characters of animals and plants are the results of the mode of multiplication, growth, and structural metamorphosis of these cells, considered as morphological units.

All the physiological activities of animals and plants--assimilation, secretion, excretion, motion, generation--are the expression of the activities of the cells considered as physiological units. Each individual, among the higher animals and plants, is a synthesis of millions of subordinate individualities. Its individuality, therefore, is that of a 'civitas' in the ancient sense, or that of the Leviathan of Hobbes.

There is no absolute line of demarcation between animals and plants. The intimate structure, and the modes of change, in the cells of the two are fundamentally the same. Moreover, the higher forms are evolved from lower, in the course of their development, by analogous processes of differentiation, coalescence, and reduction in both the vegetable and the animal worlds.

At the present time, the cell theory, in consequence of recent investigations into the structure and metamorphosis of the 'nucleus,' is undergoing a new development of great significance, which, among other things, foreshadows the possibility of the establishment of a physical theory of heredity, on a safer foundation than those which Buffon and Darwin have devised.

(Sidenote: Spontaneous generation disproved.)

The popular belief in abiogenesis, or the so-called 'spontaneous' generation of the lower forms of life, which was accepted by all the philosophers of antiquity, held its ground down to the middle of the seventeenth century. Notwithstanding the frequent citation of the phrase, wrongfully attributed to Harvey, 'Omne vivum ex ovo,' that great physiologist believed in spontaneous generation as firmly as Aristotle did. And it was only in the latter part of the seventeenth century, that Redi, by simple and well-devised experiments, demonstrated that, in a great number of cases of supposed spontaneous generation, the animals which made their appearance owed their origin to the ordinary process of reproduction, and thus shook the ancient doctrine to its foundations. In the middle of the eighteenth century, it was revived, in a new form, by Needham and Buffon; but the experiments of Spallanzani enforced the conclusions of Redi, and compelled the advocates of the occurrence of spontaneous generation to seek evidence for their hypothesis only among the parasites and the lowest and minutest organisms. It is just fifty years since Schwann and others proved that, even with respect to them, the supposed evidence of abiogenesis was untrustworthy.

During the present epoch, the question, whether living matter can be produced in any other way than by the physiological activity of other living matter, has been discussed afresh with great vigor; and the problem has been investigated by experimental methods of a precision and refinement unknown to previous investigators. The result is that the evidence in favor of abiogenesis has utterly broken down, in every case which has been properly tested. So far as the lowest and minutest organisms are concerned, it has been proved that they never make their appearance, if those precautions by which their germs are certainly excluded are taken. And, in regard to parasites, every case which seemed to make for their generation from the substance of the animal, or plant, which they infest has been proved to have a totally different significance. Whether not-living matter may pass, or ever has, under any conditions, passed into living matter, without the agency of pre-existing living matter, necessarily remains an open question; all that can be said is that it does not undergo this metamorphosis under any known conditions. Those who take a monistic view of the physical world may fairly hold abiogenesis as a pious opinion, supported by analogy and defended by our ignorance. But, as matters stand, it is equally justifiable to regard the physical world as a sort of dual monarchy. The kingdoms of living matter and of not-living matter are under one system of laws, and there is a perfect freedom of exchange and transit from one to the other. But no claim to biological nationality is valid except birth.

(Sidenote: Morphology.)

In the department of anatomy and development, a host of accurate and patient inquirers, aided by novel methods of preparation, which enable the anatomist to exhaust the details of visible structure and to reproduce them with geometrical precision, have investigated every important group of living animals and plants, no less than the fossil relics of former faunae and florae. An enormous addition has thus been made to our knowledge, especially of the lower forms of life, and it may be said that morphology, however inexhaustible in detail, is complete in its broad features. Classification, which is merely a convenient summary expression of morphological facts, has undergone a corresponding improvement. The breaks which formerly separated our groups from one another, as animals from plants, vertebrates from invertebrates, cryptogams from phanerogams, have either been filled up, or shown to have no theoretical significance. The question of the position of man, as an animal, has given rise to much disputation, with the result of proving that there is no anatomical or developmental character by which he is more widely distinguished from the group of animals most nearly allied to him, than they are from one another. In fact, in this particular, the classification of Linnaeus has been proved to be more in accordance with the facts than those of most of his successors.

(Sidenote: Anthropology.)

The study of man, as a genus and species of the animal world, conducted with reference to no other considerations than those which would be admitted by the investigator of any other form of animal life, has given rise to a special branch of biology, known, as Anthropology, which has grown with great rapidity. Numerous societies devoted to this portion of science have sprung up, and the energy of its devotees has produced a copious literature. The physical characters of the various races of men have been studied with a minuteness and accuracy heretofore unknown; and demonstrative evidence of the existence of human contemporaries of the extinct animals of the latest geological epoch has been obtained, physical science has thus been brought into the closest relation with history and with archaeology; and the striking investigations which, during our time, have put beyond doubt the vast antiquity of Babylonian and Egyptian civilisation, are in perfect harmony with the conclusions of anthropology as to the antiquity of the human species.

Classification is a logical process which consists in putting together those things which are like and keeping asunder those which are unlike; and a morphological classification, of course, takes notes only of morphological likeness and unlikeness. So long, therefore, as our morphological knowledge was almost wholly confined to anatomy, the characters of groups were solely anatomical; but as the phenomena of embryology were explored, the likeness and unlikeness of individual development had to be taken into account; and, at present, the study of ancestral evolution introduces a new element of likeness and unlikeness which is not only eminently deserving of recognition, but must ultimately predominate over all others. A classification which shall represent the process of ancestral evolution is, in fact, the end which the labors of the philosophical taxonomist must keep in view. But it is an end which cannot be attained until the progress of palaeontology has given us far more insight than we yet possess, into the historical facts of the case. Much of the speculative 'phylogeny,' which abounds among my present contemporaries, reminds me very forcibly of the speculative morphology, unchecked by a knowledge of development, which was rife in my youth. As hypothesis, suggesting inquiry in this or that direction, it is often extremely useful; but, when the product of such speculation is placed on a level with those generalisations of morphological truths which are represented by the definitions of natural groups, it tends to confuse fancy with fact and to create mere confusion. We are in danger of drifting into a new 'Natur-Philosophie' worse than the old, because there is less excuse for it. Boyle did great service to science by his 'Sceptical Chemist,' and I am inclined to think that, at the present day, a 'Sceptical Biologist' might exert an equally beneficent influence.

(Sidenote: Physiology.)

Whoso wishes to gain a clear conception of the progress of physiology, since 1837, will do well to compare Mueller's 'Physiology,' which appeared in 1835, and Drapiez's edition of Richard's 'Nouveaux Elements de Botanique,' published in 1837, with any of the present handbooks of animals and vegetable physiology. Mueller's work was a masterpiece, unsurpassed since the time of Haller, and Richard's book enjoyed a great reputation at the time; but their successors transport one into a new world. That which characterises the new physiology is that it is permeated by, and indeed based upon, conceptions which, though not wholly absent, are but dawning on the minds of the older writers.

Modern physiology sets forth as its chief ends: Firstly, the ascertainment of the facts and conditions of cell-life in general. Secondly, in composite organisms, the analysis of the functions of organs into those of the cells of which they are composed. Thirdly, the explication of the processes by which this local cell-life is directly, or indirectly, controlled and brought into relation with the life of the rest of the cells which compose the organism. Fourthly, the investigation of the phenomena of life in general, on the assumption that the physical and chemical processes which take place in the living body are of the same order as those which take place out of it; and that whatever energy is exerted in producing such phenomena is derived from the common stock of energy in the universe. In the fifth place, modern physiology investigates the relation between physical and psychical phenomena, on the assumption that molecular changes in definite portions of nervous matter stand in the relation of necessary antecedents to definite mental states and operations. The work which has been done in each of the directions here indicated is vast, and the accumulation of solid knowledge, which has been effected, is correspondingly great. For the first time in the history of science, physiologists are now in the position to say that they have arrived at clear and distinct, though by no means complete, conceptions of the manner in which the great functions of assimilation, respiration, secretion, distribution of nutriment, removal of waste products, motion, sensation, and reproduction are performed; while the operation of the nervous system, as a regulative apparatus, which influences the origination and the transmission of manifestations of activity, either within itself or in other organs, has been largely elucidated.

(Sidenote: Practical value of physiological discovery.)

I have pointed out, in an earlier part of this chapter, that the history of all branches of science proves that they must attain a considerable stage of development before they yield practical 'fruits;' and this is eminently true of physiology. It is only within the present epoch, that physiology and chemistry have reached the point at which they could offer a scientific foundation to agriculture; and it is only within the present epoch, that zoology and physiology have yielded any very great aid to pathology and hygiene. But within that time, they have already rendered highly important services by the exploration of the phenomena of parasitism. Not only have the history of the animal parasites, such as the tapeworms and the trichina, which infest men and animals, with deadly results, been cleared up by means of experimental investigations, and efficient modes of prevention deduced from the data so obtained; but the terrible agency of the parasitic fungi and of the infinitesimally minute microbes, which work far greater havoc among plants and animals, has been brought to light. The 'particulate' or 'germ' theory of disease, as it is called, long since suggested, has obtained a firm foundation, in so far as it has been proved to be true in respect of sundry epidemic disorders. Moreover, it has theoretically justified prophylactic measures, such as vaccination, which formerly rested on a merely empirical basis; and it has been extended to other diseases with excellent results. Further, just as the discovery of the cause of scabies proved the absurdity of many of the old prescriptions for the prevention and treatment of that disease; so the discovery of the cause of splenic fever, and other such maladies, has given a new direction to prophylactic and curative measures against the worst scourges of humanity. Unless the fanaticism of philozoic sentiment overpowers the voice of philanthropy, and the love of dogs and cats supersedes that of one's neighbor, the progress of experimental physiology and pathology will, indubitably, in course of time, place medicine and hygiene upon a rational basis. Two centuries ago England was devastated by the plague; cleanliness and common sense were enough to free us from its ravages. One century since, small-pox was almost as great a scourge; science, though working empirically, and almost in the dark, has reduced that evil to relative insignificance. At the present time, science, working in the light of clear knowledge, has attacked splenic fever and has beaten it; it is attacking hydrophobia with no mean promise of success; sooner or later it will deal, in the same way, with diphtheria, typhoid and scarlet fever. To one who has seen half a street swept clear of its children, or has lost his own by these horrible pestilences, passing one's offspring through the fire to Moloch seems humanity, compared with the proposal to deprive them of half their chances of health and life because of the discomfort to dogs and cats, rabbits and frogs, which may be involved in the search for means of guarding them.

(Sidenote: Scientific exploration.)

An immense extension has been effected in our knowledge of the distribution of plants and animals; and the elucidation of the causes which have brought about that distribution has been greatly advanced. The establishment of meteorological observations by all civilised nations, has furnished a solid foundation to climatology; while a growing sense of the importance of the influence of the 'struggle for existence' affords a wholesome check to the tendency to overrate the influence of climate on distribution. Expeditions, such as that of the Challenger,' equipped, not for geographical exploration and discovery, but for the purpose of throwing light on problems of physical and biological science, have been sent out by our own and other Governments, and have obtained stores of information of the greatest value. For the first time, we are in possession of something like precise knowledge of the physical features of the deep seas, and of the living population of the floor of the ocean. The careful and exhaustive study of the phenomena presented by the accumulations of snow and ice, in polar and mountainous regions, which has taken place in our time, has not only revealed to the geologist an agent of denudation and transport, which has slowly and quietly produced effects, formerly confidently referred to diluvial catastrophes, but it has suggested new methods of accounting for various puzzling facts of distribution.

(Sidenote: Palaeontology.)

Palaeontology, which treats of the extinct forms of life and their succession and distribution upon our globe, a branch of science which could hardly be said to exist a century ago, has undergone a wonderful development in our epoch. In some groups of animals and plants, the extinct representatives, already known, are more numerous and important than the living. There can be no doubt that the existing Fauna and Flora is but the last term of a long series of equally numerous contemporary species, which have succeeded one another, by the slow and gradual substitution of species for species, in the vast interval of time which has elapsed between the deposition of the earliest fossiliferous strata and the present day. There is no reasonable ground for believing that the oldest remains yet obtained carry us even near the beginnings of life. The impressive warnings of Lyell against hasty speculations, based upon negative evidence, have been fully justified; time after time, highly organised types have been discovered in formations of an age in which the existence of such forms of life had been confidently declared to be impossible. The western territories of the United States alone have yielded a world of extinct animal forms, undreamed of fifty years ago. And, wherever sufficiently numerous series of the remains of any given group, which has endured for a long space of time, are carefully examined, their morphological relations are never in discordance with the requirements of the doctrine of evolution, and often afford convincing evidence of it. At the same time, it has been shown that certain forms persist with very little change, from the oldest to the newest fossiliferous formations; and thus show that progressive development is a contingent, and not a necessary result, of the nature of living matter.

(Sidenote: Geology.)

Geology is, as it were, the biology of our planet as a whole. In so far as it comprises the surface configuration and the inner structure of the earth, it answers to morphology; in so far as it studies changes of condition and their causes, it corresponds with physiology; in so far as it deals with the causes which have effected the progress of the earth from its earliest to its present state, it forms part of the general doctrine of evolution. An interesting contrast between the geology of the present day and that of half a century ago, is presented by the complete emancipation of the modern geologist from the controlling and perverting influence of theology, all-powerful at the earlier date. As the geologist of my young days wrote, he had one eye upon fact, and the other on Genesis; at present, he wisely keeps both eyes on fact, and ignores the pentateuchal mythology altogether. The publication of the 'Principles of Geology' brought upon its illustrious author a period of social ostracism; the instruction given to our children is based upon those principles. Whewell had the courage to attack Lyell's fundamental assumption (which surely is a dictate of common sense) that we ought to exhaust known causes before seeking for the explanation of geological phenomena in causes of which we have no experience. But geology has advanced to its present state by working from Lyell's(J) axiom; and, to this day, the record of the stratified rocks affords no proof that the intensity or the rapidity of the causes of change has ever varied, between wider limits, than those between which the operations of nature have taken place in the youngest geological epochs.

(FOOTNOTE J: Perhaps I ought rather to say Button's axiom. For that great naturalist and writer embodied the principles of sound geology in a pithy phrase of the _Theoris de la Terre_: 'Pour juger de ce qui est arrive, et meme de ce qui arrivera, nous n'avons qu'a examiner ce qui arrive.')

An incalculable benefit has accrued to geological science from the accurate and detailed surveys, which have now been executed by skilled geologists employed by the Governments of all parts of the civilised world. In geology, the study of large maps is as important as it is said to be in politics; and sections, on a true scale, are even more important, in so far as they are essential to the apprehension of the extraordinary insignificance of geological perturbations in relation to the whole mass of our planet. It should never be forgotten that what we call 'catastrophes,' are, in relation to the earth, changes, the equivalents of which would be well represented by the development of a few pimples, or the scratch of a pin, on a man's head. Vast regions of the earth's surface remain geologically unknown; but the area already fairly explored is many times greater than it was in 1837; and, in many parts of Europe and the United States, the structure of the superficial crust of the earth has been investigated with great minuteness.

The parallel between Biology and Geology, which I have drawn, is further illustrated by the modern growth of that branch of the science known as Petrology, which answers to Histology, and has made the microscope as essential an instrument to the geological as to the biological investigator.

The evidence of the importance of causes now in operation has been wonderfully enlarged by the study of glacial phenomena; by that of earthquakes and volcanoes; and by that of the efficacy of heat and cold, wind, rain, and rivers as agents of denudation and transport. On the other hand, the exploration of coral reefs and of the deposits now taking place at the bottom of the great oceans, has proved that, in animal and plant life, we have agents of reconstruction of a potency hitherto unsuspected.

There is no study better fitted than that of geology to impress upon men of general culture that conviction of the unbroken sequence of the order of natural phenomena, throughout the duration of the universe, which is the great, and perhaps the most important, effect of the increase of natural knowledge.

Thomas Henry Huxley's essay: Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century

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