Sunday, 17 February 2013




8. When the late Sir Henry Holland was preparing for the press the second edition of his "Essays on Scientific and other Subjects", he found that in the brief space of two months, which had elapsed since the first edition was published the rapid advance of physical science had added fresh discoveries in several departments of the great field of knowledge, rendering necessary corresponding additions and revisions in his book. This single fact furnishes a remarkable indication of the unprecedented celerity of movement that distinguishes the scientific intellect of our times. The volumes before us supply a second and still more striking illustration of the same kind. Some quarter of a century ago the reading public in Great Britain was startled by the appearance of an anonymous volume professing to give some account of certain "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation." The work was one of no great scientific pretensions, and was written in a style of singular modesty and abstinence from dogmatism. Yet it fell like a thunderbolt out of a calm sky upon the pulpit of that day, and all the churches rang with denunciations of its dangerous doctrines. The clever and amiable writer never ventured to make himself known to the world;
and so great was the outcry raised against the book, that the late Dr. Robert Chambers, of Edinburgh—despite his immense services to the cause of popular education— was debarred from the civic promotion he had fairly earned, merely on the ground of his being suspected to be the author. But time changes all. The pulpit itself accepts and teaches in 1875 the very doctrines which, in 1850 were banned as utterly heretical. No preacher of any intelligence at all, now hesitates to avow his belief in the universal and unchangeable reign of natural law. No such preacher would now refuse his assent to the main propositions set forth in the "Vestiges." But here in the volumes before us, is contained a complete, reasoned, and uncompromising exposition of the grand theory of the universe which in the "Vestiges," was only indicated in the way of remote hints and hesitating suggestions. Nevertheless the work will be quietly accepted even by the pulpit as a very just and accurate summary of the latest results of science, and not a word will be uttered about its dangerous and disturbing character. For—and the fact is really one of a most important kind—even the popular theology of the times has been obliged to submit itself to the overmastering influence of the scientific spirit.

9. The keyword of this new theory is Evolution. The idea conveyed by the phrase is that the principle of evolution, which is the grand central law of the physical universe, is sufficient to account for all the phenomena of the universe, all the varieties of organised life on our planet, and all the existing social conditions of mankind. Evolution, in fact, is for cosmical science what Newton's law of gravitation is for astronomy.

10. It completely explains, to begin with, the present constitution of the solar and planetary systems. Plateau's experiment shows precisely the law by which detached masses of fluid vapour, flying off from the primary mass, take a spherical form, rotate each about its own centre of gravity, become spheroids of rotation, and throw off rings and satellites, exactly as the planets have done. Supposing the sun to have been once a mass of nebulous vapour, extending in every direction far beyond the present limits of the solar system, the mere contraction of such a mass must inevitably have brought about just the state of things which we now find. The German philosopher Kant was the first to suggest this theory of nebular genesis; Laplace, 10 years later worked it out scientifically; Mill, in his work on "Logic," confirms it as "an example of legitimate reasoning from a present effect to a possible past cause, according to the known laws of that cause." And the beautifully ingenious experiment of M. Plateau exhibits in action the actual processes of planetary evolution first suggested as a theory by the philosopher, and theoretically confirmed by both the mathematician and the logician. This is a most admirable example of the method of genuine science.

11. The law is sufficient, in the second place, to account for the evolution of our earth. The nebular origin of the solid globe we tread on is, as we have seen a demonstrated fact. But, also, every one of the conditions which this globe exhibits, vastly complex and heterogeneous as these may appear to the eye of the observer, yields at length to the magical power of the mighty, all-pervading, and all-moulding law. The story, as told by modern science, of how
"In the beginning the heavens and the earth             
Rose out of chaos," 
transcends all romance. It is as if one were elevated whilst pursuing it,to those regions of ampler ether and diviner air wherein the angels dwell. But it is not a story to be summarised in a paragraph. It must be read in clear detail in the sixth and seventh chapters of the second part of Mr Fiske's work. Let it suffice to say here, that the grandest conceptions of Milton and Dante (as Tyndall well remarks) are dwarfed in comparison with the truths which science discloses. There is an inexhaustible world of wonders in the single doctrine—the latest and the most superb achievement of the modern experimentalist —of the conservation and transformation of energy; which proves that all those myriad forms of energy which we see in nature around us—in the flower that bedecks the garden, in the stately forest tree, in the flowing river and stupendous cataract, in the bird that flies through the air, and the fish that swims in the ocean, in the countless tribes of animated nature and in lordly man himself—are nothing but the solar heat transformed. The round globe, with all that it contains, has been built up into the splendidly-vested form it now wears by the agency of dazzling sunbeams directed at every instant by the unerring law of evolution.

12. Thirdly, this law is held to be adequate to explain the origin of life in living structures. The difference between organised and unorganised matter, viewed scientifically, is only a question of degree, not of kind. What is termed the "vital principle" is thus removed a step further back, but in that step the boundary line of science is crossed. The origination of life on a planet is held to be a "not improbable concomitant of the cooling down of the planetary body, which contains upon its surface the chemical constituents of living matter. This assumption, it is true, still wants experimental demonstration, but all the latest discoveries in biology go to confirm it. When it is considered that the temperature of the sun's surface at the present time is estimated at three million degrees Fahrenheit, a heat about 14,000 times hotter than boiling water ; and that the earth's temperature must have been at least equal to this at some far distant epoch, an enormous area in which great cosmical changes must have worked is at once established. And amongst such changes the evolution of living germs from unorganised matter may have had place. The positive proofs of this, we repeat, are still wanting ; but, in the meanwhile, the assumption of the genesis of life may take its proper place in a theory of the universe based on evolution.

13. The law is held to be adequate, fourthly, to account for all the varieties of organised life in plants and animals. In other words the theory under review assumes as established the Darwinian doctrines of natural selection and progressive development. Here, again, any condensation of the argument is impracticable, and the position is admitted to be still only partially demonstrated by the results of observation and experiment. The strong point of the Darwinian doctrine is that it accounts scientifically for an enormous mass of facts in organic life for which there is no other conceivable explanation. When placed in connexion with Mr Herbert Spencer's doctrine of life as continuous "adjustment" to surrounding external conditions, Darwinism acquires great strength, and becomes at once a tenable scientific doctrine. "The advance from lower to higher forms of life consists in the orderly establishment of relations within the organism, answering to external relations of co-existence and sequence that are continually more special, more remote in space and time, and more heterogeneous, until at last we reach civilised man, whose intelligence responds to every variety of external stimulus, whose ordinary needs are supplied by implements of amazing complexity, and whose mental sequences may be determined by circumstances as remote as the Milky Way and as ancient as the birth of the solar system." 

14. Fifthly, the law of evolution is held adequate to account for all the phenomena of mind in man and the lower animals. The proofs on which this assumption rests are necessarily of an exceedingly minute and complex kind, involving all the latest researches in the shadowy region lying between physiology and psychology. Only the conclusion can be here stated :—" While steadily refraining from the chimerical attempt to identify mind with some form of matter or motion, it has nevertheless been shown that owing to the mysterious but unquestionable co-relation which exists between the phenomena of mind and the phenomena of matter and motion, it is possible to describe the evolution of the former by the same formula which describes the evolution of the latter." But the proofs of this position, although they do not yet amount to demonstration, are truly marvellous in the insight which they afford into the wondrous processes by which nature adjusts life in all its multifarious forms and its numberless stages to physical organisation.

15. The law is held adequate finally to account for all the successive gradations in the social life of mankind. Here comes in the new science of sociology, which although but in its infancy, has already gone far to revolutionise all our ideas of history and all our conceptions of human progress. It is a science as broad as the peopled globe, and including every fact in the history of our race, from the appearance of the first man on the earth till the present hour. Of course a subject so stupendous in its range cannot be summarised in a few sentences. The question of man as a rational and volitional being ; of the laws which govern the social development of the race, in its progress from the lowest forms of barbarism up to the highest forms of civilisation; of the genesis of intellect in man; and of the genesis of moral sense and the religious sentiments—all these separately afford matter for the study and researches of an entire lifetime. In the compass of eight chapters the author of the work before us gives a clear, comprehensive, and ably-reasoned analysis of all that has been discovered and postulated by living workers in this immense and fertile domain. The story —for such it is—might well enchain the interest even of a superficial reader, and compel him to acknowledge that there are in modern science elements of such fascinating study as put all the elements of imaginative fiction completely into the shade. In tracing out the wondrous processes by which chaos, in the course of countless ages, becomes developed into the cosmos, the law of evolution is at every stage most beautifully exemplified. The degree of life, or of mind, is shown to be high in proportion not only to the extent which the adjustments cover, but also to their complexity, definiteness, and coherence. "That superadded process known as civilisation, or social progress, has also been shown to consist in a series of adjustments between the community and its environment, in the course of which society becomes ever more and more complex and more inter dependent in its various elements. That moral sense which underlies social progress and renders it possible, has been exhibited as the noble product of the slow organisation of those feelings of pleasure and pain which, in highly developed organisms, are mainly concerned in enhancing the perfectness of the adjustments in which life consists. And finally, we have witnessed the wonderful complication of co-operating processes by which humanity— the crown and glory of the universe as we know it—has been evolved from a lower type of animal life, in entire conformity to the general law." Such in sum, is the latest theory of the universe.

The author adds a third part, containing corollaries from his main theme, and comprising six chapters. In these chapters the relations of the theory of evolution to the doctrines of Theism, to the religious sentiments generally, and to the prevalent conceptions as to the origin and government of the universe, are all fully and dispassionately discussed. We have already stated that the author finds a place for religion in his system, but it must be added that he makes short work of those crude ideas of the Divine intervention in nature which are still upheld in many quarters. That expansion of mind which comes inevitably from scientific studies of this kind here dealt with completely frees the mind from all such false narrow and misleading conceptions. Law is supreme and inflexible in nature, else nature would long since have returned to its primal condition of chaos. If it be objected that such knowledge as we have been here briefly and inadequately setting forth is not of a nature to console and elevate the mind, the ready reply is, that of all guides ignorance is the most unsafe and dangerous, and that the pains of knowledge —if it have any such—are infinitely more noble than the pleasures and consolations of ignorance. All religious sentiment that has not enlightened intelligence for its basis is simply grovelling superstition. In any case the thoughtful study of such a masterly work as that now before us is itself a scientific education for any busy man of the world, to whom, from sheer force of circumstances, original researches in these departments of knowledge are rendered impossible. And as respects certainty of conviction, the concluding words of these volumes are alike true and beautiful :—" We are not the autocrats, but the servants and interpreters of nature; and we must interpret her as she is, not as we should like her to be. That harmony which we hope eventually to see established between our knowledge and our aspirations is not to be realised by the timidity which shrinks from logically following out either of two apparently conflicting lines of thought, but by the fearlessness which pushes each to its inevitable conclusion. Only when this is recognised will the long and mistaken warfare between science and religion be exchanged for an intelligent and enduring alliance. Only then will the two knights of the fable finally throw down their weapons, on discovering that the causes for which they have so long been waging battle, are in reality one and the same eternal cause—the cause of truth of goodness and of beauty—the glory of God and the relief of man's state." 

* "Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Based on the Doctrine of Evolution, with Criticisms on the Positive Philosophy." By John Fiske MA LL B assistant librarian at Harvard University. London : Macmillan and Co., 1874

The Argus 13 March 1875,

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