Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/31

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

this simple contrivance, the dullest school-boy accomplishes intellectual results which would defy the utmost efforts of the unaided strength of the greatest genius. And this is only the simplest tool-form of this method. Think of the results accomplished by the use of the more complex machinery of the higher mathematics!

Take next the method of experiment so characteristic of physics and chemistry. The phenomena of the external world are far too complex and far too much affected by disturbing forces and modifying conditions to be understood at once by bare, unaided intellectual insight. They must first be simplified. The physicist, therefore, contrives artificial phenomena under ideal conditions. He removes one complicating condition after another, one disturbing cause and then another, watching meanwhile the result, until finally the necessary condition and the true cause are discovered. On this method rests the whole fabric of the physical and chemical sciences.

But when we rise still higher, viz., into the plane of life, the phenomena of Nature become still more complex and difficult to understand directly; and yet just here, where we are the most powerless without some method, our method of experiment almost wholly fails us. The phenomena of life are not only far more complex than those of dead matter, but the conditions of life are so nicely adjusted, the equilibrium of forces so delicately balanced, that, when we attempt to introduce our clumsy hands in the way of experiment, we are in danger of overthrowing the equilibrium, of destroying the conditions of the experiment, viz., life; and then the whole problem falls immediately into the domain of chemistry. What shall we do? In this dilemma we find that Nature herself has already prepared for us, ready to hand, an elaborate series of simplified conditions equivalent to experiments. The phenomena of life are, indeed, far too complex to be at once understood—the problem of life too hard to be solved—in the higher animals; but, as we go down the animal scale, complicating conditions are removed one by one, the phenomena of life become simpler and simpler, until in the lowest microscopic cell or spherule of living protoplasm we finally reach the simplest possible expression of life. The equation of life is reduced to its simplest terms, and now, if ever, we begin to understand the true value of the unknown quantity. This is the natural history series, or Taxonomic series, already spoken of. Again, Nature has prepared, and is now preparing daily before our eyes, another series of gradually simplified conditions. Commencing with the mature condition of one of the higher animals—for example, man—and going backward along the line of individual history through the stages of infant embryo, egg, and germ—we find again the phenomena of life becoming simpler and simpler, until we again reach the simplest conceivable condition in the single microscopic cell or spherule of living protoplasm. This, as already explained, is the embryonic or Ontogenic series. Again,