Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/December 1876/Editor's Table


THE devotees of rational amusement, the lovers of natural history, and the friends of scientific education, in this city, are to be congratulated on the establishment of the aquarium which was recently completed and opened to visitors. Undoubtedly the devotees of rational amusement are not so numerous as they might be, but they will increase in numbers as increasing facilities are afforded for combining agreeable recreation with instructive observation in the acquisition of pleasant knowledge without much trouble. As a means of increasing the general taste in natural history, and affording students the opportunity of familiarizing themselves with forms of life hitherto inaccessible and known chiefly in books, the aquarium is invaluable, and will be a great help in promoting the work of science. The museum shows us dead specimens, stuffed, dried, and variously preserved, and is of course not without interest. But the aquarium opens to us the living, moving curiosities and wonders that are nowhere else to be seen. What the menagerie is to the creatures of the forest, the desert, and the prairie, the aquarium is to the tenants of the lake, the river, and the ocean. But, while land-animals have long been captured and collected for inspection, the aquarium is a new and recent affair, involving great difficulties in its successful management. These difficulties can only be overcome at large expense, by persevering experience, and through special and thorough knowledge of the conditions of life of an immense variety of aquatic creatures. The opportunity such an establishment opens to the scientific observer, investigator, and experimenter, should be highly prized, and we have no doubt it will be well appreciated by this class of students.

In an educational point of view, or as a means of popular instruction, a well-stocked aquarium cannot fail to be of the highest value. Natural history is a growing subject in our schools, but is so generally pursued merely from textbooks which give no real knowledge, that a great available museum of living objects is precisely what is wanted to give reality and efficiency to this branch of study. The New York Aquarium should be brought into very close relations with the common-school system of the city. We are glad to observe that this element of its usefulness has not been overlooked in the plan and management of the enterprise. Provisions for study, instruction, and systematic observation have been incorporated with it, and this feature has been held so important as to be placed in special charge of a cultivated naturalist. Mr. W. S. Ward, who has been abroad this season and visited the chief aquariums of Europe, with a view of acquiring information that will be valuable to the scientific management, will devote himself to the educational service of the institution.

It is a noteworthy fact that we are indebted for the New York Aquarium entirely to private enterprise. There was talk that the city would establish something of the kind in the Central Park; but it came to nothing, and, after the municipal fizzle over the fossil restorations undertaken by Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, we may conclude that it was perhaps best that the city did not undertake this work. But what it was unable or disinclined to do has been projected and carried out by the persevering enterprise of Mr. W. C. Coup, who has devoted his energy to its organization, and risked his money upon his chance of success. The aquarium is an honor to this metropolis and promises a large benefit to the public, and it should be liberally patronized and well sustained. We have no doubt it will meet from all classes with the encouragement it certainly deserves.



An account comes to us of an enterprising Englishwoman who was equal to the following exploits in sharp practice: "By a series of the most extraordinary misrepresentations and cleverly carried out impostures, she raised large sums of money on no security whatever, and spent them as recklessly; imposed on jewelers so that they trusted her with goods worth many hundreds of pounds; furnished grand houses entirely at the expense of trusting upholsterers; introduced herself by sheer impudence to one great nobleman after another, and then introduced her dupes, who, on the faith of those distinguished social connections, at once disgorged more money. To one person she was a great literary character; to another, of royal descent; to another she had immense expectations; to another, she was a stern religionist."

This woman must have been as smart as she was unscrupulous. Her capacity of imposture was as marked as the deficiency of moral sense; she was as shrewd and long-headed as she was knavish. The art of her conduct, the consummate calculation, and the skillful adaptation of means to ends in dealing with others, implicate the whole intellectual sphere of action which was at the same time exempt from the control of conscience. Yet the force of moral considerations was implied throughout as she had to deal with people who were influenced by them, and to give good reasons for her various claims and representations. It was a sufficiently obvious case of cool criminal depravity, and most people would have little difficulty in deciding what was to be done about it. But current theories of conduct stop with mental effects. Mind being regarded as having a sphere of its own, and the mental world being held as an independent world, where all that goes on is purely psychical, there is no interest or requirement to look beyond the open manifestations of mind to their causes in another sphere. If we should say that this woman had something more than a mind, something more than an immaterial responsible soul, that we must look deeper than the mental manifestations displayed in conduct, that she had a brain made up of cells, fibres, tissues, and circulating blood, subject to the laws of nutrition, waste, and repair, debility, degeneration, and disease, and that all these things must be taken into account as controlling conditions of mental effects, we should be met immediately by the cry of materialism! And if we should furthermore say that these three or four pounds of nervous matter must come into consideration before society can proceed to decide upon such a case, a cry of denunciation would be raised against a destructive materialism that threatens to subvert the order of society.

Nevertheless, the question of mind in this case was an organic problem of the brain, as the further facts will show. This woman had lived a quiet but honest and uneventful life up to the time that she suddenly struck out into her sensational career. A year of lying, cheating, and scheming practices ended in the development of marked insanity and brain-disease, when she was taken to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum for the Insane, where she soon died. The victims of her cunning and mendacity were simply the dupes of a lunatic, and the question of her character and accountability resolves itself into a problem of brain-derangement, of morbid material conditions, and is therefore a question of practical materialism which the physician cannot escape.



It is significant that nearly all the divines who have spoken, in reply to Prof. Huxley, commit themselves to some form of the doctrine of Evolution. While, however, they admit that there is some truth in it, there is a common protest against the idea that it contains much truth—not by any means so much as is claimed by Prof. Huxley. He said that the evidence for it is demonstrative, and that it is as well based in its proofs as the Copernican theory of astronomy. This is thought to be quite absurd. It is said that Huxley may know a great deal about animals and fossils, but that obviously he knows very little about logic. His facts being admitted, a great deal of effort has been expended to show that he does not understand how to reason from them.

The Rev. Dr. William M. Taylor, in a letter to the Tribune, takes up Prof. Huxley on this ground, and is quite shocked at his logical incapacity. The following is a sample passage from his communication, and a very fair example, besides, of the sort of comment which his lectures have elicited:

"Indeed, to affirm, as he did, that evolution stands exactly on the same basis as the Copernican theory of the motions of the heavenly bodies, is an assertion so astounding that we can only 'stand by and admire' the marvelous effrontery with which it was made. That theory rests on facts, presently occurring before our eyes, and treated in the manner of mathematical precision. It is not an inference made by somebody from a record of facts, existing in far-off and prehistoric, possibly also prehuman ages. It is verified every day by occurrences which happen according to its laws. But where do we see evolution going on to-day? If evolution rests upon a basis as sure as astronomy, why do we not see one species passing into another now, even as we see the motions of the planets through the heavens?... We know that astronomy is true, because we are verifying its conclusions every day of our lives on land and on sea. "We set our clocks according to its conclusions, and navigate our ships in accordance with its predictions, but where have we anything approaching even infinitesimally to this, with evolution?"

The author of this passage is said to be a man of eminence and ability. That may be, but he certainly has not won his distinction either in the fields of logic, astronomy, or biology. When a man undertakes to state the evidence of a theory, and gives us proofs that equally sustain an opposite theory, we naturally conclude that he does not know what he is talking about. This is very much Dr. Taylor's predicament. In trying to contrast the evidence for evolution with the demonstrative proofs of the Copernican theory, he cites facts that are not only as good, but far better, to prove the truth of its antagonist, the Ptolemaic theory.

Dr. Taylor talks as if the Copernican theory is something that anybody can see by looking up into the sky, but the case is far from being so simple. The Copernican theory of the planetary motions assumes that they take place around the sun as their centre; the Ptolemaic theory taught that the earth is the stationary centre of the system, and that the sun, moon, and planets, revolve around it. We must not forget that the Ptolemaic theory was the fundamental conception of astronomy, and guided its scientific development for two thousand years. It was based on extensive, prolonged, and accurate observations; was elucidated and confirmed by mathematics—geometry, and trigonometry; and was verified by confirming the power of astronomic prevision. The planetary motions were traced and resolved on this theory with great skill and correctness, elaborate tables being constructed which represented their irregularities and inequalities, so that their future positions could be foretold, and conjunctions, oppositions, and eclipses, predicted. It embodied a great amount of exact knowledge, and was capable of taking in and preserving all the new results of the labors of a long series of Greek, Latin, Arabian, and modern European astronomers. Dr. Whewell says of it: "In this sense, therefore, the Hipparchian theory was a real and indestructible truth, which was not rejected, and replaced by different truths, but was adopted and incorporated into every succeeding astronomical theory, and which can never cease to be one of the most important and fundamental parts of our astronomical knowledge."

Copernicus, then, did not abolish but rather revised the old astronomy. He accepted the whole system of eccentrics and epicycles, and, so far as planetary motions are concerned, he simply recentred the solar system. He showed that the evidence in favor of that view preponderated, and his theory was a victory of refined, remote, and indirect investigation. Dr. Taylor tells us that the Copernican theory "rests on facts presently occurring before our eyes." So does the Ptolemaic theory; and not only that, but, if the test is what occurs before our eyes, then the Ptolemaic theory is a thousand times stronger than the Copernican. If the Copernican theory is so obvious, if it "rests on facts presently occurring before our eyes," why did the astronomers of twenty centuries fail to discern it? Why could not the divines of Copernicus's time see it when it was pointed out to them? And why could not Lord Bacon admit it a hundred years after Copernicus? Dr. Taylor says, "It is verified every day by occurrences that happen according to its laws." So was its opposite, the Ptolemaic theory. Our reverend logician says, furthermore: "We know that astronomy is true, because we are verifying its conclusions every day of our lives, on land and on sea. We set our clocks according to its conclusions, and navigate our ships in accordance with its predictions." And all this they did with the astronomy that preceded Copernicus. Yet the author of this rubbish airs his logical pretensions, and talks about the "effrontery" of Prof. Huxley. Where is his shame?

The Copernican theory is held as demonstrably true, but it is not because everybody can see the demonstration. There was demonstrated truth in the opposite theory, though the proof was not so complete. And in regard to this matter of demonstration, of which so much is said, we have to remember that evidence is a thing of degrees. There may be evidence for a proposition which is so small that we hardly regard its truth as possible—we do not believe it. There is a grade of proof that amounts to probability, but leaves us in uncertainty. There are higher degrees of proof that confer assured belief, and leave little room for doubt. There is, again, evidence so perfect and decisive as to give certainty of conviction, and this we call demonstration. And evidence may have a yet higher shade of intensity, as where we cannot even conceive the opposite of a proposition to be true, and this may be characterized by the frequent expression, "absolute demonstration." The best examples of demonstration are furnished by mathematics in consequence of the fewness and simplicity of mathematical ideas, but demonstration by no means necessarily involves mathematics. There is plenty of demonstrated truth that is not mathematical. The anatomist demonstrates his science by observation, and the chemist by experiment. Fossils found in the rocks demonstrate that life existed upon the globe before the rocks were formed; and the vestiges of art found in Western mounds demonstrate that a race of men superior to the savages formerly lived upon this continent. A theory is said to be demonstrated when it brings all the known facts into agreement, explains them, excludes all other interpretations, and is consistent with itself and all that is understood of the ways of Nature. Most theories of the operations of Nature have about them traces of the imperfection that belongs to all things human, difficulties that are still unresolved, while yet the evidence for them may be so overwhelming as to be held demonstrative.

How is it, now, with the proof of the theory of Evolution, which assumes that the immense diversity of living forms now scattered over the earth has arisen through a long process of gradual unfolding and derivation, within the order of Nature, and by the operation of natural laws? It involves and is built upon a series of demonstrated truths. It is a fact accordant with all observation, and to which there never has been known a solitary exception, that the succession of generations of living things upon earth is by reproduction and genetic connection in the regular order of Nature. The stream of generations flows on by this process, which is as much a part of the settled, continuous economy of the world as the steady action of gravity or heat. It is demonstrated that living forms are liable to variations which accumulate through inheritance; that the ratio of multiplication in the living world is out of all proportion to the means of subsistence, so that only comparatively few germs mature, while myriads are destroyed; that, in the struggles of life, the fittest to the conditions survive, and those least adapted perish. It is a demonstrated fact that life has existed on the globe during periods of time so vast as to be incalculable; that there has been an order in its succession by which the lowest appeared first, and the highest have come last, while the intermediate forms disclose a rising gradation. It is a demonstrated truth of Nature that matter is indestructible, and that therefore all the material changes and transformations of the world consist in using over and over the. same stock of materials, new forms being perpetually derived from old ones; and it is a fact now also held to be established, that force obeys the same laws. All these great truths harmonize with each other; they agree with all we know of the constitution of Nature; and they demonstrate evolution as a fact, and go far toward opening to us the secondary question of its method.

The reverend writer, whom we have quoted, asks, "If evolution rests on a basis as sure as astronomy, why do we not see one species passing into another now, even as we see the motions of the planets through the heavens?" To this foolish question, which has nevertheless been asked a dozen times by clerical critics of Huxley, the obvious answer is, that what requires a very long time to produce cannot be seen in a very short time. Has the writer ever seen the production of a geological formation? That he has not seen the evidences that would have prevented him from asking such a question is probably because he is not a student of Nature, and has not looked for them.

There has been much complaint that Prof. Huxley undertook to put the demonstrative evidence of evolution on so narrow a basis as the establishment of the genealogy of the horse, but this rather enhances than detracts from his merit as a scientific thinker. It has been well remarked that "the genius of the discoverer appears in his perceiving how small a number of facts, rightly considered, are sufficient to form a foundation for a theory." Kepler had to fix but a few points in the path of Mars, to demonstrate the ellipticity of his orbit, and to subvert the theory of circular planetary motions, by which the way was paved to the Newtonian astronomy. Prof. Huxley could have accumulated a far more striking display of the proofs of evolution for a popular audience, but he preferred to rest the question on evidence that was none the less decisive because it was restricted. If the horse has been derived from preceding forms in the way he pointed out, then that is the method of Nature—unless we deny the unity of its order.

And here is the vital point between Prof. Huxley and his antagonists. It is a question of the validity of the conception of the order and uniformity of Nature. Prof. Huxley holds to it as a first principle, a truth demonstrated by all science, and just as fixed in biology as in astronomy. His antagonists hold that the inflexible order of Nature may be asserted perhaps in astronomy, but they deny it in biology. They here invoke supernatural intervention. Obviously there are but two hypotheses upon the subject, that of the genetic derivation of existing species, through the operation of natural law, and that of creation by miraculous interference with the course of Nature. If we assume the orderly course of Nature, development is inevitable; it is evolution or nothing. If the order of Nature is put aside and special creation appealed to, we have a right to ask on what evidence? It was long maintained that the universe was made in a week, by a quick succession of divine fiats. This view is now abandoned, and it is maintained, as a new theory, that the millions of species which science has proved to have appeared all along the course of geological time were also the products of miraculous agency. But, as logic has been appealed to, we again press the question, on what evidence? There is no evidence. There is not a scintilla of proof that can have a feather's weight with any scientific mind. We are told that each link in the chain of ancestry of Prof. Huxley's horse was a special creation. But who tells us this, and what do they know about it? Genetic derivation is in the field as a real and undeniable cause; but what possible ground is offered for the alternative supposition? Has anybody ever seen a special creation? Do those who believe in it represent to themselves any possibility of how it could have occurred? Milton attempted to form an image of the way the thing was done, and says that the animals burst up full-formed and perfect like plants out of the ground—"the grassy clods now calved." But clods can only calve miraculously. Nature does not bring them into the world now by this method, and science certainly can know nothing of it. So far from being possible, so far from being probable, so far from being proved, this hypothesis of the origin of animal forms is simply unthinkable; it is a violation not only of the order of Nature, but of the very conditions of thought. From this point of view, therefore, the theory of evolution differs from the Copernican theory by having no alternative possibility. The Copernican theory was but the revision and modification of a preceding theory which had evidence in its favor, and could be rationally held by scientific minds; the evolution theory has a force of demonstration derived from the fact that the only alternative view cannot for a moment be entertained by any mind that recognizes the logical force of scientific evidence; in this respect, therefore, the evidence for evolution is even stronger than that for the Copernican theory.