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The Belfast Address - Pt. 6

( Originally Published 1916 )

Bishop Butler accepted with unwavering trust the chronology of the Old Testament, describing it as "con-firmed by the natural and civil history of the world, collected from common historians, from the state of the earth, and from the late inventions of arts and sciences." These words mark progress; and they must seem some-what hoary to the Bishop's successors of today. It is hardly necessary to inform you that since his time the do-main of the naturalist has been immensely extended—the whole science of geology, with its astounding revelations regarding the life of the ancient earth, having been created. The rigidity of old conceptions has been relaxed, the public mind being rendered gradually tolerant of the idea that not for six thousand, nor for sixty thousand, nor for six thousand thousand, but for eons embracing untold millions of years, this earth has been the theatre of life and death. The riddle of the rocks has been read by the geologist and paleontologist, from sub-cambrian depths to the deposits thickening over the sea-bottoms of to-day. And upon the leaves of that stone book are, as you know, stamped the characters, plainer and surer than those formed by the ink of history, which carry the mind back into abysses of past time, compared with which the periods which satisfied Bishop Butler cease to have a visual angle.

The lode of discovery once struck, those petrified forms in which life was at one time active, increased to multitudes and demanded classification. They were grouped in genera, species, and varieties, according to the degree of similarity subsisting between them. Thus confusion was avoided, each object being found in the pigeon-hole appropriated to it and to its fellows of similar morphoIogical or physiological character. The general fact soon became evident that none but the simplest forms of life lie lowest down; that, as we climb higher among the super-imposed strata, more perfect forms appear. The change, however, from form to form was not continuous, but by steps—some small, some great. "A section," says Mr. Huxley, "a hundred feet thick will exhibit at different heights a dozen species of Ammonite, none of which passes beyond the particular zone of limestone, or clay, into the zone below it, or into that above it." In the presence of such facts it was not possible to avoid the question: Have these forms, showing, though in broken stages, and with many irregularities, this unmistakable general advance, been subjected to no continuous law of growth or variation? Had our education been purely scientific, or had it been sufficiently detached from influences which, however ennobling in another domain, have always proved hinderances and delusions when introduced as factors into the domain of physics, the scientific mind never could have swerved from the search for a law of growth, or allowed itself to accept the anthropomorphism which regarded each successive stratum as a kind of mechanic's bench for the manufacture of new species out of all relation to the old.

Biased, however, by their previous education, the great majority of naturalists invoked a special creative act to account for the appearance of each new group of organisms. Doubtless numbers of them were clear-headed enough to see that this was no explanation at all—that, in point of fact, it was an attempt, by the introduction of a greater difficulty, to account for a less. But, having nothing to offer in the way of explanation, they for the most part held their peace. Still the thoughts of reflecting men naturally and necessarily simmered round the question. De Maillet, a contemporary of Newton, has been brought into notice by Professor Huxley as one who "had a notion of the modifiability of living forms." The late Sir Benjamin Brodie, a man of highly philosophic mind, often drew my attention to the fact that, as early as 1794, Charles Darwin's grandfather was the pioneer of Charles Darwin. In 1801, and in subsequent years, the celebrated Lamarck, who, through the vigorous exposition of his views by the author of the "Vestiges of Creation," rendered the public mind perfectly familiar with the idea of evolution, endeavored to show the development of species out of changes of habit and external condition. In 1813 Dr. Wells, the founder of our present theory of Dew, read before the Royal Society a paper in which, to use the words of Mr. Darwin, "he distinctly recognizes the principle of natural selection; and this is the first recognition that has been indicated." The thoroughness and skill with which Wells pursued his work, and the obvious independence of his character, rendered him long ago a favorite with me; and it gave me the liveliest pleasure to alight upon this additional testimony to his penetration. Professor Grant, Mr. Patrick Matthew, Von Buch, the author of the "Vestiges," D'Halloy, and others, by the enunciation of opinions more or less clear and correct, showed that the question had been fermenting long prior to the year 1858, when Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace simultaneously, but independently, placed their closely concurrent views before the Linnean Society.

These papers were followed in 1859 by the publication of the first edition of the "Origin of Species." All great things come slowly to the birth. Copernicus, as I informed you, pondered his great work for thirty-three years.

Newton for nearly twenty years kept the idea of Gravitation before his mind; for twenty years also he dwelt upon his discovery of Fluxions, and doubtless would have continued to make it the object of his private thought, had he not found Leibnitz upon his track. Darwin for two-and-twenty years pondered the problem of the origin of species, and doubtless he would have continued to do so had he not found Wallace upon his track.' A concentrated, but full and powerful, epitome of his labors was the consequence. The book was by no means an easy one; and probably not one in every score of those who then attacked it, had read its pages through, or were competent to grasp their significance if they had. I do not say this merely to discredit them: for there were in those days some really eminent scientific men, entirely raised above the heat of popular prejudice, and willing to accept any conclusion that science had to offer, provided it was duly backed by fact and argument, who entirely mistook Mr. Darwin's views. In fact, the work needed an ex-pounder, and it found one in Mr. Huxley. I know nothing more admirable in the way of scientific exposition than those early articles of his on the origin of species. He swept the curve of discussion through the really significant points of the subject, enriched his exposition with profound original remarks and reflections, often summing up in a single pithy sentence an argument which a less compact mind would have spread over pages. But there is one impression made by the book itself which no ex-position of it, however luminous, can convey; and that is the impression of the vast amount of labor, both of observation and of thought, implied in its production. Let us glance at its principles.

It is conceded on all hands that what are called "varieties" are continually produced. The rule is probably without exception. No chick, or child, is in all respects and particulars the counterpart of its brother and sister; and in such differences we have "variety" incipient. No naturalist could tell how far this variation could be carried; but the great mass of them held that never, by any amount of internal or external change, nor by the mixture of both, could the offspring of the , same progenitor so far deviate from each other as to constitute different species. The function of the experimental philosopher is to combine the conditions of Nature and to produce her results; and this was the method of Darwin.' He made himself acquainted with what could, without any manner of doubt, be done in the way of producing variation. He associated himself with pigeon-fanciers—bought, begged, kept, and observed every breed that he could obtain. Though de-rived from a common stock, the diversities of these pigeons were such that "a score of them might be chosen which, if shown to an ornithologist, and he were told that they were wild birds, would certainly be ranked by him as well-defined species." The simple principle which guides the pigeon-fancier, as it does the cattle-breeder, is the selection of some variety that strikes his fancy, and the propagation of this variety by inheritance With his eye still directed to the particular appearance which he wishes to exaggerate, he selects it as it reappears in successive broods, and thus adds increment to increment until an astonishing amount of divergence from the parent type is effected. The breeder in this case does not produce the elements of the variation. He simply observes them, and by selection adds them together until the required result has been obtained. "No man," says Mr. Darwin, "would ever try to make a fantail till he saw a pigeon with a tail developed in some slight degree in an unusual manner, or a pouter until he saw a pigeon with a crop of unusual size." Thus nature gives the hint, man acts upon it, and by the law of inheritance exaggerates the deviation.

Having thus satisfied himself by indubitable facts that the organization of an animal or of a plant (for precisely the same treatment applies to plants) is to some extent plastic, he passes from variation under domestication to variation under nature. Hitherto we have dealt with the adding together of small changes by the conscious selection of man. Can Nature thus select? Mr. Darwin's answer is, "Assuredly she can." The number of living things produced is far in excess of the number that can be supported; hence at some period or other of their lives there must be a struggle for existence. And what is the infallible result? If one organism were a perfect copy of the other in regard to strength, skill, and agility, external conditions would decide. But this is not the case. Here we have the fact of variety offering itself to nature, as in the former instance it offered itself to man; and those varieties which are least competent to cope with surrounding conditions will infallibly give way to those that are most competent. To use a familiar proverb, the weakest goes to the wall. But the triumphant fraction again breeds to over-production, transmitting the qualities which secured its maintenance, but transmitting them in different degrees. The struggle for food again supervenes, and those to whom the favorable quality has been transmitted in excess, will triumph as before.

It is easy to see that we have here the addition of increments favorable to the individual, still more rigorously carried out than in the case of domestication; for not only are unfavorable specimens not selected by nature, but they are destroyed. This is what Mr. Darwin calls "Natural Selection," which acts by the preservation and accumulation of small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being. With this idea he interpenetrates and leavens the vast store of facts that he and others have collected. We cannot, without shutting our eyes through fear or prejudice, fail to see that Darwin is here dealing, not with imaginary, but with true causes; nor can we fail to discern what vast modifications may be produced by natural selection in periods sufficiently long. Each individual increment may resemble what mathematicians call a "differential" (a quantity indefinitely small); but definite and great changes may obviously be produced by the integration of these infinitesimal quantities, through practically infinite time.

If Darwin, like Bruno, rejects the notion of creative power, acting after human fashion, it certainly is not be-cause he is unacquainted with the numberless exquisite adaptations, on which this notion of a supernatural Artificer has been founded. His book is a repository of the most startling facts of this description. Take the marvellous observation which he cites from Dr. Kruger, where a bucket, with an aperture serving as a spout, is formed in an orchid. Bees visit the flower: in eager search of material for their combs, they push each other into the bucket, the drenched ones escaping from their involuntary bath by the spout. Here they rub their backs against the viscid stigma of the flower and obtain glue; then against the pollen-masses, which are thus stuck to the back of the bee and carried away. "When the bee, so provided, flies to another flower, or to the same flower a second time, and is pushed by its comrades into the bucket, and then crawls out by the passage, the pollen-mass upon its back necessarily comes first into contact with the viscid stigma," which takes up the pollen; and this is how that orchid is fertilized. Or take this other case of the Catasetum. "Bees visit these flowers in order to gnaw the labellum; in doing this they inevitably touch a long, tapering, sensitive projection. This, when touched, transmits a sensation or vibration to a certain membrane, which is instantly ruptured, setting free a spring, by which the pollen-mass is shot forth like an arrow in the right direction, and adheres by its viscid extremity to the back of the bee." In this way the fertilizing pollen is spread abroad.

It is the mind thus stored with the choicest materials of the teleologist that rejects teleology, seeking to refer these wonders to natural causes. They illustrate, according to him, the method of nature, not the "technic" of a manlike Artificer. The beauty of flowers is due to natural selection. Those that distinguish themselves by vividly contrasting colors from the surrounding green leaves are most readily seen, most frequently visited by insects, most often fertilized, and hence most favored by natural selection. Colored berries also readily attract the attention of birds and beasts, which feed upon them, spread their manured seeds abroad, thus giving trees and shrubs possessing such berries a greater chance in the struggle for existence.

With profound analytic and synthetic skill, Mr. Dar-win investigates the cell-making instinct of the hive-bee. His method of dealing with it is representative. He falls back from the more perfectly to the less perfectly developed instinct—from the hive-bee to the humble-bee, which uses its own cocoon as a comb, and to classes of bees of intermediate skill, endeavoring to show how the passage might be gradually made from the lowest to the highest. The saving of wax is the most important point in the economy of bees. Twelve to fifteen pounds of dry sugar are said to be needed for the secretion of a single pound of wax. The quantities of nectar necessary for the wax must therefore be vast; and every improvement of constructive instinct which results in the saving of wax is a direct profit to the insect's life. The time that would otherwise be devoted to the making of wax is devoted to the gathering and storing of honey for winter food. Mr. Darwin passes from the humble-bee with its rude cells, through the Melipona with its more artistic cells, to the hive-bee with its astonishing architecture. The bees place themselves at equal distances apart upon the wax, sweep and excavate equal spheres round the selected points. The spheres intersect, and the planes of intersection are built up with thin laminae. Hexagonal cells are thus formed. This mode of treating such questions is, as I have said, representative. The expositor habitually retires from the more perfect and complex, to the less perfect and simple, and carries you with him through stages of perfecting—adds increment to increment of infinitesimal change, and in this way gradually breaks down your reluctance to admit that the exquisite climax of the whole could be a result of natural selection.

Mr. Darwin shirks no difficulty; and, saturated as the subject was with his own thought, he must have known, better than his critics, the weakness as well as the strength of his theory. This of course would be of little avail were his object a temporary dialectic victory, instead of the establishment of a truth which he means to be everlasting. But he takes no pains to disguise the weakness he has discerned; nay, he takes every pains to bring it into the strongest light. His vast resources enable him to cope with objections started by himself and others, so as to leave the final impression upon the reader's mind that, if they be not completely answered, they certainly are not fatal. Their negative force being thus destroyed, you are free to be influenced by the vast positive mass of evidence he is able to bring before you. This largeness of knowledge, and readiness of resource, render Mr. Darwin the most terrible of antagonists. Accomplished naturalists have levelled heavy and sustained criticisms against him —not always with the view of fairly weighing his theory, but with the express intention of exposing its weak points only. This does not irritate him. He treats every objection with a soberness and thoroughness which even Bishop Butler might be proud to imitate, surrounding each fact with its appropriate detail, placing it in its proper relations, and usually giving it a significance which, as long as it was kept isolated, failed to appear. This is done without a trace of ill-temper. He moves over the subject with the passionless strength of a glacier; and the grinding of the rocks is not always without a counterpart in the logical pulverization of the objector. But though in handling this mighty theme all passion has been stilled, there is an emotion of the intellect, incident to the discernment of new truth, which often colors and warms the pages of Mr. Darwin. His success has been great; and this implies not only the solidity of his work, but the preparedness of the public mind for such a revelation. On this head, a remark of Agassiz impressed me more than anything else. Sprung from a race of theologians, this celebrated man combated to the last the theory. of natural selection. One of the many times I had the pleasure of meeting him in the United States was at Mr. Winthrop's beautiful residence at Brookline, near Boston. Rising from luncheon, we all halted, as if by common consent, in front of a window, and continued there a discussion which had been started at table. The maple was in its autumn glory, and the exquisite beauty of the scene out-side seemed, in my case, to interpenetrate without disturbance the intellectual action. Earnestly, almost sadly, Agassiz turned, and said to the gentlemen standing round, "I confess that I was not prepared to see this theory received as it has been by the best intellects of our time. Its success is greater than I could have thought possible."

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