In the August number of this Magazine, in an essay entitled “Two Thousand Years Ago,” I endeavoured to show that all that is vital and formidable in the theories of modern materialism existed, either latent or developed, in the civilization of the Roman Empire under the Cæsars, before that in Greece, and earlier still in Egypt and India.
The conclusion that a hasty abandonment of ancient faiths and cherished hopes,—as a consequence of materialistic deductions,—not only from the imperfect nature of these theories, but also from the fact that their existence has never during ages impeded the outflow of the soul in religion,—that such abandonment of faith is an inconsiderateness little short of folly, I tried to press home.
To make the subject complete, it only remains to sketch the outlines of materialistic science, as I have sought to do in the present article.
Perhaps it is unnecessary to remind our readers that the arguments, theories, and deductions I bring forward are those of materialism, which I have sought only faithfully to mirror.
Our own views are sufficiently well-known to our readers, therefore I shall simply endeavour to give a fair presentiment of the theories of my opponents, without note or comment. To turn then to my subject:
Conspicuous as leader of the revolt against the philosophy and methods of Aristotle appears Francis Bacon: and his Novum Organum was the gospel of the new-born school of scientists who surrounded him, fully convinced of the truth of his inductive philosophy, and impatient to put it in force, unchecked by prohibitory laws or dogmatic intolerance.
The year 1662 saw the foundation of the Royal Society. The great invasion of Nature’s realms which followed, and which has continued for two centuries with unabated zeal, has produced two great scientific generalizations; the Nebular hypothesis, explaining the formation of the planets and solar system, and the Evolution theory, which claims to show how the worlds came subsequently to be inhabited by thousands of species of animals and plants.
And these two generalizations have done more than anything else to break up the old traditional theory of the universe which we call theology, and to cast discredit on its views.
To trace the gradual development of either hypothesis up to its present position is unnecessary; their conclusions only need be summarized.
The Nebular hypothesis, in order to account for the formation and present condition of the solar system, begins by postulating all space full of atoms of matter, in motion.
In their earliest condition these diffused atoms seem to have resembled the recently discovered “radiant matter” of Professor Crookes.
The atoms, at first spread evenly throughout all space, in a condition of almost infinite tenuity, became gradually congregated together, into vast and hardly defined vapourous masses; still of a consistency probably many times more attenuated than the rarest gas.
The forces of attraction and repulsion which animated them acting on these immense indefinite masses, gradually caused them to assume the form of a loose gigantic gaseous sphere, with a more condensed central region, or nucleus.
Laplace, the chief formulator of this theory (to use the word of Nasmyth):
“conceived the sun to be at one period the nucleus of a vast nebula, the attenuated surrounding matter of which extended beyond what is now the orbit of the remotest planet of the system.
“He supposed that this mass of matter in process of condensation possessed a rotatory motion round its centre of gravity, and that the parts of it that were situated at the limits where the centrifugal force exactly counterbalanced the attractive force of the nucleus, were abandoned by the contracting mass, and thus were formed successively a number of rings of matter concentric with, and circulating around, the central nucleus.
“As it would be improbable that all the conditions necessary to preserve the stability of such rings of matter in their annular form could in all cases exist, they would break up into masses which would be endued with a motion of rotation, and would in consequence assume a spheroidal form. These masses, which have constituted the various planets, in their turn condensing, after the manner of the parent mass, and abandoning their outlying matter, would become surrounded by similar concentric rings, which would break up and form satellites surrounding the various planetary masses; and, as a remarkable exception to the rule of the instability of the rings, and their consequent breakage, Laplace cited the case of Saturn as the only instance of unbroken rings that the whole system offers us, unless indeed we include the zodiacal light, that cone of hazy luminosity which is frequently seen streaming from our luminary shortly before sunrise and after sunset, which Laplace supposed to be of formed molecules of matter, too volatile to unite either with themselves or with the planets, and which hence must circulate about the sun in the form of a nebulous ring, and with such an appearance as the zodiacal light actually presents.”
Nasmyth only announces the common opinion when he says:
“this hypothesis has never been overthrown, but remains the only probable, and, with our present knowledge, the only possible explanation of the cosmic origin of the planets of our system.”
One of the many evidences for this theory is that all the planets as well as their satellites lie almost in the same plane, and that all spin round the sun in the same direction, the satellites also spinning round their primaries in the same direction (with one exception, which, however, like Saturn’s ring system, only proves the rule); and the planets spinning each round his own axis in the same direction. At the point where astronomy leaves off, geology takes up the cooling globes, and shows them gradually contracting and solidifying; an external crust forming and hardening; this gradually cracking, from the shrinkage of the internal mass; molten matter from the uncooled interior filling the cracks; this hardening; the hardened surface pierced by the expansive gases of the interior, the outlets forming volcanoes; the crust changing its form; water condensing, falling on it and wearing its surface away; air abrading through rough edges and projections; strata formed of the abraded particles; coal levels formed; the ocean-bed hardening to sandstone; chalk formed of myriads of little shellfish; and so on till we have the globe as we now find it; seas and rivers, mountains and hills, rock and deserts, rich valleys and fertile plains. Where the geologist leaves off, the biologist takes up the theme, and substituting for the millions of details and isolated cases of his predecessor, the natural historian, the one general rule of Evolution, proceeds to explain and describe the formation of each species and genus of planets and animals.
The biologist’s work has already been the subject of so many masterly summaries and eulogiums that to summarize here the Doctrine of Evolution is almost unnecessary.
This evolutionary doctrine postulates that, at some period during the gradual cooling of the globe, the combinations of the various elements formed, amongst other compounds, a substance of a certain chemical constitution to which the name of protoplasm has been given.
Further forces of attraction and repulsion acted on this substance and gradually formed in it certain local centres of activity, just as the nucleus of the nebula was formed before, matter congregating round those centres, gradually produced a certain definite form endowed with some rudimentary capacity for expansion and contraction. A division of the substance caused the formation of a new centre of activity in each of the pieces, just as a fractured magnet breaks up into small magnets, each endowed with a similar polarity. To the centralized protoplasm scientists give the name of Monera; the division of a single moneron producing two new individuals. Having taken the step from a particular compound of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and one or two other elements to protoplasm, and thence to the moneron, we are prepared to suppose a layer of sand sticking to the moneron, which gradually hardening produced a rudimentary shellfish. Various circular motions of the moneron would give to the shell its spiral markings, similar in cause and appearance to the markings of the spiral nebula. Various changes, expansions, protractions, gradually caused small protrusions on the surface of the monera; these by slow degrees became feelers or arms.
And so the gradual process may be followed through all the lower kingdoms, vegetable as well as animal, the lowest representatives of each being unassignable definitely to either class, and forming a sort of neutral territory between them, until we reach the more complex structures of the higher kingdoms. To illustrate the gradual formation of the different species, let us take two examples.
If we examine the flower of an ordinary dandelion, we find it composed of a great number of little flowering, each having its five petals joined together almost to the top; the sepals have taken the form of hairs or down, giving the withered flower its well known form, the children’s “what’s-o-clock;” and the pistils and stamen, ovary and ovum, of each little flowerlet are all perfect and complete; so that the familiar yellow disk of the dandelion, is really a colony of perhaps hundreds of tiny yellow flowerlets.
Flowers, say the Evolutionists, serve to attract to the plant various insects, without whose intervention the seeds would not be duly fertilized; the plant, therefore, with the largest flower, will have the best chance of attracting these indispensible insects. Out of a hundred seedlings from one plant, as every gardener knows, some will have larger and brighter flowers than others: these will attract more insects, and more easily than those with paler, smaller flowers; consequently they will be better fertilized, and will have a better chance of producing seed in their turn. Their peculiarities these better flowers will transmit to their own seedlings, amongst which will be variations, some better, some worse, than the parent plant; of these the best will be better fertilized as before; and so we have a gradual improvement of the flower by its interaction with insects, an entirely natural process.
This whole process is familiar to every gardener and is capable of verification by any who has access to a box of earth and a packet of seed.
Just us a larger flower gives a plant a better chance of fertilization, so a cluster will be more conspicuous than several single flowers. At first we find the flowers on a single stalk, as in the celandine and primrose; then those which have their flowers closer together attract more insects, and getting better fertilized, more seeds inheriting their tendencies will germinate. Of these, as before, some will have their flower-stems closer together, some less so than the parent flower. Those more clustered together will outshine the others; and as gradually this process will pick out the plants whose flowers approach each other, till we come to a stage at which all grow from a single main stalk as in the lily. By the action of the same process in each generation the flowers will approach nearer to the top of the stalk than their predecessors, for the sake of conspicuousness, as in the geranium. Finally, this form gives place to that of the daisy, on whose head a colony of little flowerets are gathered together, the outer row having only having yet lost their perfect, bell-like form; till at last we reach the form of the dandelion, where all the little flowerets have become one-sided by pressing against each other. This example will show how it is conceived that all the species of flowers and of the whole vegetable kingdom were gradually produced from a few primitive forms; themselves the offspring of the indefinite lower kingdoms.
To illustrate the same idea from the animal kingdom, let us take as an example the bat, as furnishing a good text, on account of its strongly marked peculiarities.
Amongst the smaller animals, many have their home in the trees, as monkeys, squirrel, marmosets. To escape from their enemies, some swing from branch to branch, some are forced to leap to the ground and take refuge in flight. Their pursuer then leaps after them to the ground, and an exciting chase ensues.
In a race, to get the start in everything; and if the little fugitive can escape far enough by his initial leap, his chance of safety is considerably augmented. Of all the offspring of a single pair, those whose skin is a little loose, with perhaps slight folds upon the sides, will be the better leapers, and will have the better chance of escape; the loose fold of skin aiding them as the feather does the arrow. These loose folds will appear again more strongly in some of the offspring of their first possessors, till at last we come to the flying lemur, whose membranes merely enable him to skim obliquely to the ground, his gliding leap bearing to true flight the same relation as the parachute bears to the balloon.
Let the same peculiarity be exaggerated by an almost imperceptible amount in each successive generation; let the claws gradually grow longer and wither apart, let the webs between them grow thinner, and in a period to nature brief, we have the bat with all his peculiarities complete.
To take another instance. The fully feathered wing of the hawk is far enough from the arm of the monkey; the bones, it is true coincide accurately; but what a difference! On the one, feathers; on the other, hair; and yet how the line of distinction becomes obliterated when we add the platypus, with the hair of the animal, and yet an unmistakeable duck bill; after him add the apterix, in which the front legs are passing into wings, so that they can hardly be called either; and whose body is covered with hair; add the cassowary and emu, where the hair is gradually passing into feathers, then the ostrich, whose wings are fully feathered, but as yet not fit for flight; and by easy gradation we come to the fully formed and unmistakeable bird of the air. And we see the same bird family approach the seal and walrus—themselves near cousins to the porpoise and the whale—in the case of auk, whose front wings are very badly disguised flippers or fins, and whose proportions make him at home only on the water.
Thus in the animal kingdom we see how the peculiarities of every species might be produced from a few primitive forms; these, as before, being developments of the indefinite lower kingdoms. These few applications of the general formula furnished by evolution, will make its main idea clearer than any detailed description of its theories.
A few gaps occur, it is true, like the case of Hugh Miller’s grandfather-less ganoid the Asterolepis, but the science is young, and nature is vast, and when almost everything around us points to the chain of evolution, are we to hastily deplore the temporary absence of a link or two?
To carry this theory on to man was the natural course which suggested itself to every one; and how successfully this has been done, those who have followed the recent progress of science on the subject know well.
The conclusion of this school of thought may be stated thus. Man is a highly developed animal, an organized form of matter produced by the action of natural forces through countless ages. From the protoplasm, and more remotely from the radiant matter of which the nebulæ were formed. Man, like all aggregations of matter, is merely a temporary circumstance, a casual grouping of atoms no more durable than a chance pattern in the kaleidoscope. During the brief space that these atoms hold together, in the case of each man, it is only prudence to get the greatest quantity of enjoyment possible, irrespective of other atom-groups who call themselves our fellowmen. Life is short, let us at least have pleasure while it lasts. The practical conclusion is—“Let us cat and drink, for to-morrow we die.”