Children's Stories of the Great Scientiests - H. C. Wright

Darwin and Huxley



As, in the study of a flower, the botanist includes not only the color, form, and perfume, but the internal structure and the conditions which have produced a rose in one place and a lily in another, so it is in the study of all the natural sciences.

Behind the gem, or flower, or shell lies the force that produced it, and the flash of the diamond, the tint of the rose, and the pearly chambers that once held a living form all tell the story of the power, circumstance, and condition to which they owe their existence.

Thus, whether the naturalist studies the history of the sun, the earth, a leaf, or a drop of dew, he studies the forces which produced them; and it has been the aim of science to investigate these forces and to define their laws as clearly as possible.

Every branch of natural history records some facts that have been found out by certain special workers, and geology, botany, zoology, and physics are merely terms which express the sum of knowledge that has been gained concerning the history of the earth as related by the rocks, the laws of vegetation, of animal life, and of the hidden forces of nature as shown in electricity, chemistry, heat and other agents.

And of all these studies none have been found more interesting to naturalists than those of the forces which relate to and govern life, whether it be life as expressed in the animal or vegetable kingdoms.

The student has found that after he has counted the stamens and pistils of a flower and assigned it its place in the world, there still remains the mystery of its existence, the power that passed away from it with its separation from the stem, and allied it to the earth and stones and other dead matter around it.

And the same is true of the animal kingdom. The bird that falls by the sportsman's gun, ere the echo of its song has died away is changed in a moment of time from a creature with will, and power, and voice, to an object as senseless as the withered flower. If the dead bird were examined all its organs would be found in their places, but the mysterious force called life would have departed—flown away as invisibly as the perfume steals from the flower.

The science which treats of the life-force—its laws, limitations, and capabilities—is called biology, and is one of the latest developed of all the sciences, though even in the early ages of the world some attempt was made to grasp the meaning of life and its strange negation, death.

But, for the most part, these attempts ended in definitions which left no new light on the subject. "Life is the breath of God," said the old sages, and any effort to find out the principles governing its development would have been deemed unphilosophical in an age where all experiment was ridiculed and all questions of natural science were answered by the reason alone.

The old belief in the possibility of finding the elixir of life which would confer immortality resulted, as has been seen, in a knowledge of laws of chemistry which might have been unrevealed for ages, but for this impelling motive.

And strange as it may appear, the old alchemists, who seemed to grope blindly in the dark, were after all on the true path, for it is to chemistry that we owe much of our knowledge of the laws that govern life, and the ignis fatuus  of the Middle Ages has thus become the torch that has led modern science into the ways of truth.

In the eighteenth century Lamarck advanced some views in regard to the different forms of animal life which may be accepted as the definite beginning of modern biology.

Lamarck suggested that the varying species of animals were perhaps due to such influences as climate, soil, food, and other things, and that the appearance and instincts of animals might change just as much under special conditions as a plant may be changed at the will of a florist.

These changes would, of course, only occur at great intervals of time, as nature works slowly; and the study of fossils and their connection with living species would thus not only be useful to the biologist, but to the geologist, in determining the ages of the different strata of the earth.

Historical research, reaching back to he remotest times, can arrive at no period when wheat, the highest developed of all the cereals, was not found in its present form. And, as it is well-known that this grain must have been found originally in a wild state, whence it was rescued by the tribes that were exchanging barbarism for civilization, some idea of the length of time necessary to effect such a transformation may be obtained.

Thus the ears of wheat, sculptured on the tombs of the kings who ruled in those far-off ages, tell us that behind the nations called the oldest, stretch long vistas of time, and that Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hindoo civilization are but things of yesterday compared to the countless ages that went before.

And so the fossil found in the rock may tell its story; and, as its form differs from the living animal, we may judge of the long period of time that must have elapsed, and what vital difference of conditions must have occurred to bring about the change.

These views of Lamarck were also held in some degree by Buffon and other naturalists of the period, but they were never popularly accepted, and it remained for another generation to reap the harvest of the seed thus sown.

Chief among those who have made the subject prominent in the nineteenth century was Charles Darwin, who was born in Shrewsbury, England, in 18og. Darwin's early love for natural history was developed in a marked degree during his college life by his study of geology, which first led him to take an interest in the succession of life on the earth, and it was while he was pondering over the views of the opposing schools of geology that he began to seriously think of the great questions of the development of different forms of animal life.

His love for natural science brought him into notice; and, when he was but twenty-two years old, he was appointed naturalist of a government surveying party which intended visiting the coasts of South America and the islands of the Pacific.

This voyage occupied five years, and left Darwin with no choice of a profession, as his special work was from that time as much a necessity of his life as his love for it was deep and abiding. The Western World fascinated the young naturalist, and all the varying forms of tropical life, from the gigantic palms to the flowers which sprinkled the earth like stars, and from the huge fossils, which told of other ages, to the tiny lizards which gleamed like fire-flies in and out among the rank grass, were alike full of interest.

The collections made during this time were very important, including plants, insects, birds, reptiles, fish, fossils, and everything that could illustrate the flora and fauna of South America, Australia, and the Pacific islands, and the results of the voyage were given to the world in a book called the "Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle," of which Darwin was the editor.

The cruise of the Beagle may be said to have formed the education of Darwin as a naturalist, an education wider and broader than any vouchsafed to so young a naturalist before, as it included a study of the forms of life in regions practically unknown, and occurred at a period of life when the young student was not yet hampered by the fixed ideas of those in authority.

It was during this voyage that Darwin first began to think of the origin of the different kinds of animals, and to wonder how far circumstances and special conditions went in changing one species to another almost entirely different.

And this question, which it was the aim of his life to settle, he studied patiently for the next twenty-one years. In the grounds around his house and in the conservatories, aquariums, and rooms for collections he studied the phenomena of plant and animal life from the earliest stages to the latest; comparing his conclusions with the views of all the great modern scientists, whose works found ready welcome to his library.

These studies were so exact and thorough that Darwin gained a reputation for accuracy which was of great service to him when he brought out the great theory which was destined to meet with such bitter opposition.

As the result of his years of labor he published in 1857 his great work on the "Origin of Species," which has done more to change the current of scientific thought than any other work of the century.

Although the great central thought of the book was not original with Darwin, it was to his untiring efforts and exhaustive studies that its acceptance by the scientific world was due. His wide experience and years of careful investigation gave his words a special value, while the generalization, or summing-up of the scattered facts, developed the hint of the older naturalists into the almost impregnable theory which Darwin sought to make it.

In "The Origin of Species" all the different varieties of animals are accounted for as due to changes in circumstances, on the theory that any organ of an animal which is not used will gradually become useless, and one that is much used, or put to uses for which it was not at first intended, will grow larger and stronger, and change its appearance to suit its new work.

Thus the fishes in the Mammoth Cave are blind because the darkness there has made the eyes useless for many preceding generations; on the contrary, the eyes of the eagle, whose mode of life necessitates great strength and clearness of vision, would grow stronger and stronger with each age; and if, by some accident, the fish or bird were transferred to an entirely new element, the organs of their descendants would be so modified to suit their new life that they would be entirely changed in appearance.

It must be remembered that these changes occur at great intervals of time, and that though any observing boy would be able at once to detect the difference between a wild and carrier pigeon, these differences are only the result of conditions which have existed for a comparatively short time, while ages would elapse before the winged reptile would develop into a bird.

This theory of the development of species, which will always be connected with Darwin's name, was also advanced by Alfred Wallace, a Welshman, who was born in 1824, and who arrived at the same conclusion as Darwin, although each naturalist was ignorant of the other's views until they were matured. In 1858, before the publication of Darwin's book, Wallace sent home from the Malay Archipelago a pamphlet containing a theory of the origin of species which was practically the same as Darwin's, and the ideas of both naturalists were made known to the scientists of London at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in the same year.

Thus to both belong equal honors, and that two men, working quite independently, should arrive at the same result, is another instance of the fact that the realm of science belongs to no nation or age or individual, but is the common heritage of all.

The publication of the "Origin of Species" produced an immense sensation, and resulted in the division of scientists into many sects, who arrayed themselves as bitterly against one another as did the disciples of Aristotle against the followers of Copernicus; and we must recall the persecution of Galileo by the Inquisition to find a parallel for the vindictive enmity which followed Darwin for the next few years.

But what the telescope did for the Copernican system, geology has done for Darwinism, and in the fossils of the far-off ages we read the same story that is written in the pages of Darwin.

Two years after the publication of the "Origin of Species," a fossil was found of a creature with the wings, feathers, feet, and breast of a bird, and the head, teeth, and tail of a lizard; an unmistakable proof of the former existence of a class of animals between reptiles and birds. And further study of the fossils has revealed other intermediate forms of life just as remarkable. Fossils of reptiles standing on hind legs like those of the kangaroo, and fossils of birds with teeth have been found, while the forms of extinct quadrupeds show that the horse, with its hoofed foot, is descended from a much smaller animal with five toes, and that cats, dogs, bears, and many other animals differ as much to-day from their remote ancestry as the butterfly differs from the caterpillar. And in the vegetable world the same thing has been found true, and the plants of to-day are connected in the same mysterious way with those of past ages, the form of fern and lily being but a repetition of the forest trees, and gigantic blossoms of the older world.

And while geology has been the guiding light illuminating the past, so that its records might be thus easily read, the living world, too, adds its proofs that the changes alluded to by Darwin are still going on, and that in this as in other things the past may be studied from the present.

The animals that inhabit islands, of the same species as those of the mainland, have their habits and organs altered by their changed conditions; the birds, lizards, and insects of the desert are all of the neutral tints which correspond with the prevailing color of their surroundings—because those are the conditions which best protect them against their enemies, who would be more easily attracted to them if their color were brilliant. The fur of the same species of animal is thicker in the north than in the south, and the same kind of shells differ in depth of color as they are found in deep or shallow water. And an infinite number of other instances might be shown to prove that the same forces which changed the scale-covered reptile to the bird furnished with wings and feathers are still at work.

And thus, just as Newton and Herschel connected the earth by a magnetic chain to every star of heaven, so Darwin joined all the visible forms of life, and proved that each plant and animal is a link in the same chain, bound together by a power as subtle as that which holds the stars.

Among the great thinkers who have helped to popularize the opinions of Darwin, Professor Huxley, born in 1825, must rank first. Huxley's investigations have followed the same lines as those which mark the labors of Darwin, and his independent researches and splendid work for science have done much to place the Darwinian theory on a firm basis. This is due, first, to the fact that Huxley's original work is of such merit as to make his opinions carry great weight, and, secondly, because he has the gift of the interpreter, and whether he speaks of his own communings with nature, or translates the words of another, he is equally powerful and convincing; and the work of Darwin, which to many might have remained a sealed book, has been by the genius of Huxley rendered comprehensible, just as the works of a great composer reach the multitude through the medium of the performer, and the written notes become exquisite melody.

Huxley's own works comprise studies in almost every department of zoology, and are remarkable for their originality and depth of thought, and will ever be considered as independent and valuable supports of the new school of thought.

The studies of the forms of animal life have led to a truer knowledge of the laws of development than the older naturalists thought it possible to attain, and the mystery of life has been invested with a new interest from the discovery of the close connection between the animal and vegetable worlds.

In his careful studies of organic life the naturalist has found it difficult often to tell where the one world leaves off and the other begins. Plants have been found so closely resembling animals as to make their place in the world of nature doubtful, as for instance the Sundew, which, by a singular arrangement of its organs, is able to capture insects and digest them by a process like that of animal digestion, and to feel the effect of anesthetics. On the other hand, certain organisms, as the sponge, which have been placed in the animal kingdom, are plant-like in their habits.

Chemistry, electricity and the microscope have been effective agents in the study of the development of the different forms of life, and the results have been such as to place biology among the leading sciences of the day.

Whether future study will reveal secrets that elude the biologist of to-day and discover yet closer relations between all forms of life is a question which carries its own answer with it, as the history of science has shown that the questions which one age asks the succeeding age answers, and that the progress of scientific thought is, on the whole, as sure as the growth of the oak from the acorn.

The science of the present day has made its most far-reaching generalization in the statement that no energy is ever lost, but only changes its form; the muscular force of man may, by the rubbing together of two pieces of wood, produce heat, and the heat light, and light is absorbed and transformed again into heat, or converted into chemical energy. Thus everywhere is seen one form of energy changing to another, and all gradually tending toward heat.

As the life of man is bound up with and dependent upon the mysterious forces of nature, his interest in them can never cease, and thus the last word for science can never be written while the race endures.