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The Belfast Address - Pt. 7

( Originally Published 1916 )

In our day grand generalizations have been reached. The theory of the origin of species is but one of them. Another, of still wider grasp and more radical significance, is the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy, the ultimate philosophical issues of which are as yet but dimly seen—that doctrine which "binds nature fast in fate," to an extent not hitherto recognized, exacting from every antecedent its equivalent consequent, from every consequent its equivalent antecedent, and bringing vital as well as physical phenomena under the dominion of that law of causal connection which, so far as the human understanding has yet pierced, asserts itself everywhere in nature. Long in advance of all definite experiment upon the subject, the constancy and indestructibility of matter had been affirmed; and all subsequent experience justified the affirmation. Mayer extended the attribute of indestructibility to energy, applying it in the first instance to inorganic,' and afterward with profound insight to organic nature. The vegetable world, though drawing all its nutriment from invisible sources, was proved incompetent to generate anew either matter or force. Its mat-ter is for the most part transmuted gas; its force trans-formed solar force. The animal world was proved to be equally uncreative, all its motive energies being referred to the combustion of its food. The activity of each animal, as a whole, was proved to be the transferred activity of its molecules. The muscles were shown to be stores of mechanical energy, potential until unlocked by the nerves, and then resulting in muscular contractions. The speed at which messages fly to and fro along the nerves was determined by Helmholtz, and found to be, not, as had been previously supposed, equal to that of light or electricity, but less than the speed of sound—less even than that of an eagle.

This was the work of the physicist: then came the conquests of the comparative anatomist and physiologist, revealing the structure of every animal, and the function of every organ in the whole biological series, from the lowest zoophyte up to man. The nervous system had been made the object of profound and continued study, the wonderful and, at bottom, entirely mysterious controlling power which it exercises over the whole organism, physical and mental, being recognized more and more. Thought could not be kept back from a subject so profoundly suggestive. Besides the physical life dealt with by Mr. Darwin, there is a psychical life presenting similar gradations, and asking equally for a solution. How are the different grades and orders of Mind to be accounted for? What is the principle of growth of that mysterious power which on our planet culminates in Reason ? These are questions which, though not thrusting themselves so forcibly upon the attention of the general public, had not only occupied many reflecting minds, but had been formally broached by. one of them before the "Origin of Species" appeared.

With the mass of materials furnished by the physicist and physiologist in his hands, Mr. Herbert Spencer, twenty years ago, sought to graft upon this basis a system of psychology; and two years ago a second and greatly amplified edition of his work appeared. Those who have occupied themselves with the beautiful experiments of Plateau will remember that when two spherules of olive-oil, suspended in a mixture of alcohol and water of the same density as the oil, are brought together, they do not immediately unite. Something like a pellicle appears to be formed around the drops, the rupture of which is immediately followed by the coalescence of the globules into one. There are organisms whose vital actions are almost as purely physical as the coalescence of such drops of oil. They come into contact and fuse themselves thus together. From such organisms to others a shade higher, from these to others a shade higher still, and on through an ever-ascending series, Mr. Spencer conducts his argument. There are two obvious factors to be here taken into account—the creature and the medium in which it lives, or, as it is often expressed, the organism and its environment. Mr. Spencer's fundamental principle is, that between these two factors there is incessant interaction. The organism is played upon by the environment, and is modified to meet the requirements of the environment. Life he de-fines to be "a continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations."

In the lowest organisms we have a kind of tactual sense diffused over the entire body ; then, through impressions from without and their corresponding adjustments, special portions of the surface become more responsive to stimuli than others. The senses are nascent, the basis of all of them being that simple tactual sense which the sage Democritus recognized 2,300 years ago as their common progenitor. The action of light, in the first instance, appears to be a mere disturbance of the chemical processes in the animal organism, similar to that which occurs in the leaves of plants. By degrees the action be-comes localized in a few pigment-cells, more sensitive to light than the surrounding tissue. The eye is incipient. At first it is merely capable of revealing differences of light and shade produced by bodies close at hand. Followed, as the interception of the light commonly is, by the contact of the closely adjacent opaque body, sight in this condition becomes a kind of "anticipatory touch." The adjustment continues; a slight bulging out of the epidermis over the pigment-granules supervenes. A lens is incipient, and, through the operation of infinite adjustments, at length reaches the perfection that it displays in the hawk and eagle. So of the other senses; they are special differentiations of a tissue which was originally vaguely sensitive all over.

With the development of the senses, the adjustments between the organism and its environment gradually extend in space, a multiplication of experiences and a corresponding modification of conduct being the result. The adjustments also extend in time, covering continually greater intervals. Along with this extension in space and time the adjustments also increase in speciality and complexity, passing through the various grades of brute life, and prolonging themselves into the domain of reason. Very striking are Mr. Spencer's remarks regarding the influence of the sense of touch upon the development of intelligence. This is, so to say, the mother-tongue of all the senses, into which they must be translated to be of service to the organism. Hence its importance. The parrot is the most intelligent of birds, and its tactual power is also greatest. From this sense it gets knowledge, unattainable by birds which cannot employ their feet as hands. The elephant is the most sagacious of quadrupeds—its tactual range and skill, and the consequent multiplication of experiences, which it owes to its wonderfully adaptable trunk, being the basis of its sagacity. Feline animals, for a similar cause, are more sagacious than hoofed animals—atonement being to some ex-tent made, in the case of the horse, by the possession of sensitive prehensile lips. In the Primates the evolution of intellect and the evolution of tactual appendages go hand in hand. In the most intelligent anthropoid apes we find the tactual range and delicacy greatly augmented, new avenues of knowledge being thus opened to the animal. Man crowns the edifice here, not only in virtue of his own manipulatory power, but through the enormous extension of his range of experience, by the invention of instruments of precision, which serve as supplemental senses and supplemental limbs. The reciprocal action of these is finely described and illustrated. That chastened intellectual emotion to which I have referred in connection with Mr. Darwin is not absent in Mr. Spencer. His illustrations possess at times exceeding vividness and force; and from his style on such occasions it is to be inferred that the ganglia of this Apostle of the Under-standing are sometimes the seat of a nascent poetic thrill.

It is a fact of supreme importance that actions, the performance of which at first requires even painful effort and deliberation, may, by habit, be rendered automatic. Witness the slow learning of its letters by a child, and the subsequent facility of reading in a man, when each group of letters which forms a word is instantly, and with-out effort, fused to a single perception. Instance the billiard-player, whose muscles of hand and eye, when he reaches the perfection of his art, are unconsciously coordinated. Instance the musician who, by practice, is enabled to fuse a multitude of arrangements, auditory, tactual, and muscular, into a process of automatic manipulation. Combining such facts with the doctrine of hereditary transmission, we reach a theory of Instinct. A chick, after coming out of the egg, balances itself correctly, runs about, picks up food, thus showing that it possesses a power of directing its movements to definite ends. How did the chick learn this very complex coordination of eyes, muscles, and beak ? It has not been individually taught; its personal experience is nil; but it has the benefit of ancestral experience. In its inherited organization are registered the powers which it displays at birth. So also as regards the instinct of the hive-bee, already referred to. The distance at which the insects stand apart when they sweep their hemispheres and build their cells is "organically remembered." Man also carries with him the physical texture of his ancestry, as well as the inherited intellect bound up with it. The defects of intelligence during infancy and youth are probably less due to a lack of individual experience than to the fact that in early life the cerebral organization is still incomplete. The period necessary for completion varies with the race, and with the individual. As a round shot outstrips the rifled bolt on quitting the muzzle of the gun, so the lower race, in childhood, may outstrip the higher. But the higher eventually overtakes the lower, and surpasses it in range. As regards individuals, we do not always find the precocity of youth prolonged to mental power in maturity; while the dulness of boyhood is sometimes strikingly contrasted with the intellectual energy of after years. New ton, when a boy, was weakly, and he showed no particular aptitude at school; but in his eighteenth year he went to Cambridge, and soon afterward astonished his teachers by his power of dealing with geometrical problems. During his quiet youth his brain was slowly preparing itself to be the organ of those energies which he subsequently displayed.

By myriad blows (to use a Lucretian phrase) the image and superscription of the external world are stamped as states of consciousness upon the organism, the depth of the impression depending on the number of the blows. When two or more phenomena occur in the environment invariably together, they are stamped to the same depth or to the same relief, and indissolubly connected. And here we come to the threshold of a great question. Seeing that he could in no way rid himself of the consciousness of Space and Time, Kant assumed them to be necessary "forms of intuition," the molds and shapes into which our intuitions are thrown belonging to ourselves, and without objective existence. With unexpected power and success, Mr. Spencer brings the hereditary experience theory, as he holds it, to bear upon this question. "If there exist certain external relations which are experienced by all organisms at all instants of their waking lives—relations which are absolutely constant and universal—there will be established answering internal relations that are absolutely constant and universal. Such relations we have in those of Space and Time. As the substratum of all other relations of the Non-ego, they must be responded to by conceptions that are the substrata of all other relations in the Ego. Being the constant and infinitely repeated elements of thought, they must become the automatic elements of thought—the elements of thought which it is impossible to get rid of—the `forms of intuition.' "

Throughout this application and extension of Hartley's and Mill's "Law of Inseparable Association," Mr. Spencer stands upon his own ground, invoking, instead of the experiences of the individual, the registered experiences of the race. His overthrow of the restriction of experience to the individual is, I think, complete. That restriction ignores the power of organizing experience, furnished at the outset to each individual; it ignores the different degrees of this power possessed by different races, and by different individuals of the same race. Were there not in the human brain a potency antecedent to all experience, a dog or a cat ought to be as capable of education as a man. These predetermined internal relations are in-dependent of the experiences of the individual. The human brain is the "organized register of infinitely numerous experiences received during the evolution of life, or rather during the evolution of that series of organisms through which the human organism has been reached. The effects of the most uniform and frequent of these experiences have been successively bequeathed, principal and interest, and have slowly mounted to that high intelligence which lies latent in the brain of the infant. Thus it happens that the European inherits from twenty to thirty cubic inches more of brain than the Papuan. Thus it happens that faculties, as of music, which scarcely exist in some inferior races, become congenital in superior ones. Thus it happens that out of savages unable to count up to the number of their fingers, and speaking a language containing only nouns and verbs, arise at length our Newtons and Shakespeares."

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