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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/October 1914/The Progress of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | October 1914

THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE

THE ADDRESS OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE

The meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Canada, in South Africa and now in Australia exhibits those national traits which led to the founding and development of these dominions, and year after year the president of the association represents the leadership in science which the British races have so continuously maintained since the time of Roger Bacon. Recent advances in biological science are scarcely parallel in importance to the newer developments in physics, recounted before the association by Dr. Lodge last year, but the experimental and quantitative methods now being applied in genetics, as clearly explained by Professor Conklin in the present issue of this journal, are a beginning from which much may be expected. Professor William Bateson has been a leader, perhaps the chief leader, in this work, and his presidential address deserves attention both for the advances which he recounts and for the speculations in which he indulges.

The address—which in this country has been printed in full in Science—was divided into two parts, or it may rather be said that two addresses were made, one at Melbourne and one at Sydney. The first describes Mendelian genetics with special reference to its evolutionary aspects and its destructive side, the second is largely concerned with applications to man and to society. Professor Bateson tells us that in biological science we are just about where Boyle was in the nineteenth century; we can dispose of alchemy, but we can not make more than a quasi-chemistry. Still, he is pretty positive, not only in his destructive criticism, but also about the wide implications of his quasi chemistry.

If, as Professor Bateson tells us, genetic research can only obtain new varieties by crossing, and if new traits can only be exhibited by the loss of inhibiting factors, we are certainly put to ignorance in regard to the entire process of evolution. This is doubtless where we have always been, for no biologist now supposes that natural selection can account for the origin of variations. Darwin did not, but assumed variability to be a natural function of organisms. Mendelism is supplying a vast amount of new and exact knowledge in regard to the results of crossing and hybridization, but in so far as it can not explain the origin of those variations which have led to new species and organic evolution, it only exhibits our failure in this direction. Professor Bateson says: "We have to reverse our habitual modes of thought. At first it may seem rank absurdity that the primordial forms of protoplasm could have contained complexity enough to produce the diverse types of life." But this is what the mechanical theory of life presupposes, and how we are helped by assuming, as Professor Bateson does, that the differentiation that gives rise to new species is due entirely to the loss of factors rather than to the addition of factors, it is difficult to see. The proposition that we all have the genius of Shakespeare and Newton, but that they were able to exhibit it owing to the loss of inhibiting elements appears to be purely mythological.

Professor Bateson and other Mendelians are doubtless correct in regarding the doctrine of natural selection and the survival of the fittest as a kind of philosophical truism, but it is not clear why this is more true of separate traits than of the organism as a whole, or how the theory is affected by modern work in experimental genetics. Indeed, the occurrence of mutations makes it easier to understand the results of natural selection, for the larger variations may have a definite value to the species when the smaller variations which might have lead up to them would not.

In his second address Professor Bateson says that at every turn the student of political science is confronted with problems that demand biological knowledge for their solution, but it does not appear that most of Professor Bateson's own generalizations—whether correct or not—are based on genetic research. For example, he urges that it can not be granted without qualification that the decline in the birth-rate of the intelligent and successful part of the population is to be regretted. He says that if the upper strata of the community produce more children than will recruit their numbers, some must fall into the lower strata and increase the pressure there. But it is by no means certain that there is too great pressure of population in France, Germany, England and the United States, and it would seem that an increase of intelligence and energy in the so-called lower classes would be a gain.

In so far as the small birth-rate of the upper classes is not so disastrous as some authors urge, it is because these classes owe their position to privilege rather than to ability, and if the privileged classes do not produce enough children to fill the positions of influence, men of greater ability may be found.

Professor Bateson says: "Modern statesmanship aims rightly at helping those who have got sown as wildlings to come into their proper class; but let not any one suppose such a policy democratic in its ultimate effects, for no course of action can be more effective in strengthening the upper classes whilst weakening the lower." Here and elsewhere Professor Bateson seems to misunderstand the proper meaning of democracy, which is not that all individuals are equal, but that each should have opportunity according to his ability.

 

A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF A DESERT BASIN

The making of the modern Salton lake in the sink of the Cahuilla basin in 1905 and 1906 was due directly to the opening of canals for irrigation from the Colorado River leading into the bowl and a coincidence of flood water from the main tributaries of the river. The director of the Desert Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. D. T. MacDougal, formulated a plan for systematic measurement of the various physical and biological changes accompanying the recession of this lake and the results of the activities of the members of the staff of the Desert Laboratory and other collaborators are given in Publication 193 of the Institution.

Scarcely had the level of the lake begun to fall and the salts to become more concentrated, when it was noted (in 1911 that calcium was being lost from a solution not near the saturation point for carbonate, and in 1911 a distinct coating of lime was recognized on the branches of submerged trees. Such deposition seemed to be associated with the activities of certain bacteria and algæ, and to constitute the first stage in the formation of the travertine left by previous lakes. Investigation of this matter is still in progress, as well as that of the disappearance of potassium from the lake water which is now plainly apparent. The principal changes in plant tissues submerged in the Salton were studied by President M. A. Brannon, of the University of Idaho, who found bacteria of the Amylobacter group were present, which produced a hydrolyzing action on the unlignified uarts of vegetable tissues. Coincidently, Professor G. J. Peiree, of Stanford University, followed the behavior of some of the organisms which endure the entire range of variation from fresh to brackish water and finally to brine in

PSM V85 D418 Saltorn at bottom of salton sink in the cahiulla basin.png

Saltorn at Bottom of Salton Sink in the Cahuilla Basin, February, 1903.

the pools around San Francisco Bay, with a view to anticipating events in the slower concentration of the Salton, which has now reached a stage of slightly more than one per cent, brine. It is eloquent of the arid conditions of the Cahuilla that the sink, or the region formerly occupied by Blake Sea, with an area of over two thousand square miles, bears only 8 species of trees, 33 shrubs and woody plants, and 81 herbs, or a total of 122 species, about the number that might be expected in a square mile in the Mississippi Valley, or on the eastern sea-board. Small as this number may be, the stage seems to be set for the appearance of new ones, as evidenced by the number of endemic forms. Striplex Saltonensis, Sphæralcea orcuttii, Cryptanthe costata, Astragalus limatus, A. aridus and Clæmæsyce Saltonensis occur so far as known in this sink, which must have been occupied by Blake Sea within four or five centuries. That they have ever lived elsewhere or before this can not be demonstrated, and their occurrence suggests most strongly a recent localized origination. The modifications in Aster exilis, Prosopis glandulosa, Striplex canescens, and Seirpua paludosus shown by individuals on emerged

PSM V85 D418 Vegetation on terrace formed by the recession of salton lake.png

Rank of Vegetation at Upper Margin of Terrace Formed by Recession of Salton Lake During 1911.

PSM V85 D419 Desert formation near travertine point.png

Desert Formation on Strand Three or Four Hundred Years Old near Travertine Point. Ancient high level shore-line of Blake Sea on cliffs.

strands and abandoned shores of the present lake are additional facts of interest in this connection.

Not since the sterilization of the island of Krakatoa by a volcanic explosion has an opportunity been offered for the study of the biological reoccupation of such an area, and in this case the entire course of change has been kept under careful observation. Sixty species of plants appeared in dense strand formations on the beaches during the first seven years. Successions were rapid toward the desert, and within three years after the emergence some strands bore two species which were characteristic of the beach ranks four centuries old.

Even greater interest attaches to the revegetation of hills emerging as islands and which had been seed-sterilized. To these were borne seeds by winds and waves, but not with certainty by birds. Conjoined observation and experiment showed that the seeds for many plants which float or sink germinate, and the buoyant seedlings float for weeks, when stranded by chance their active roots strike into the mud within a few hours, making this an effective type of dissemination which appears to have escaped attention hitherto.

 

SCIENTIFIC ITEMS

We record with regret the death of James Ellis Gow, professor of botany in Coe College; of Mr. Alfred John Jukes-Brown, F.R.S., lately of the English Geological Survey; of Dr. Edouard Reyer, professor of geology at Vienna, and of Lieutenant Sedoff, while leading an Arctic expedition to Franz Josef Land.

The American Chemical Society is unable to hold the meeting which had teen planned for Montreal in September. Nearly all international scientific congresses and conferences, including the International Congress of Americanists, which was to have met in Washington in October, have been postponed. The New Zealand meeting of the British Association has been abandoned. A number of distinguished American men of science went to attend the meeting as guests of the New Zealand government.

PSM V85 D420 Physiologists hugo kronecker and henry pickering bowditch.png

This photograph, taken on the summit of Mount Washington twenty years ago, shows Professor Hugo Kronecker, the distinguished physiologist of the University of Berne, whose recent death is deplored by many students throughout the world, feeling the pulse, at that time intermittent, of Professor Henry Pickering Bowditch, of Harvard University, long the leader of physiology in the United States.

—It is announced that the British universities will open as usual in the autumn, though about half the students have enlisted in the army. The Rhodes scholars from the United States and from the British colonies are expected to be in attendance at Oxford.—It is said that all German universities will be closed.

In future the distribution of the Nobel prizes will take place on June 1 instead of in December, as hitherto. The next distribution has been fixed for June 1, 1915.