Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
From Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844)
HYPOTHESIS OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE VEGETABLE AND ANIMAL KINGDOMS.
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 IT has been already intimated, as a general fact, that there is an obvious gradation amongst the families of both the vegetable and animal kingdoms, from the simple lichen and animalcule respectively up to the highest order of dicotyledonous trees and the mammalia. Confining our attention, in the meantime, to the animal kingdom—it does not appear that this gradation passes along one line, on which every form of animal life can be, as it were, strung; there may be branching or double lines at some places; or the whole may be in a circle composed of minor circles, as has been recently suggested. But still it is incontestable that there are general appearances of a scale beginning with the simple and advancing to the complicated. The animal kingdom was divided by Cuvier into four sub-kingdoms, or divisions, and these exhibit an unequivocal gradation in the order in which they are here enumerated:—Radiata, (polypes, &c.;) mollusca, (pulpy animals;) articulata, (jointed animals;) vertebrata, (animals with internal skeleton.) The gradation can, in like manner, be clearly traced in the classes into which the sub-kingdoms are subdivided, as, for instance, when we take those of the vertebrata in this order—reptiles, fishes, birds, mammals.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 While the external forms of all these various animals are so different, it is very remarkable that the whole are, after all, variations of a fundamental plan, which can be traced as a basis throughout the whole, the variations being merely modifications of that plan to suit the particular conditions in which each particular animal has been designed to live. Starting from the primeval germ, which, as we have seen, is the representative of a particular order of full-grown animals, we find all others to be merely advances from that type, with the extension of endowments and modification of forms which are required in each particular case; each form, also, retaining a strong affinity to that which precedes it, and tending to impress its own features on that which succeeds. This unity of structure, as it is called, becomes the more remarkable, when we observe that the organs, while preserving a resemblance, are often put to different uses. For example: the ribs become, in the serpent, organs of locomotion, and the snout is extended, in the elephant, into a prehensile instrument.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is equally remarkable that analogous purposes are served in different animals by organs essentially different. Thus, the mammalia breathe by lungs; the fishes, by gills. These are not modifications of one organ, but distinct organs. In mammifers, the gills exist and act at an early stage of the fœtal state, but afterwards go back and appear no more; while the lungs are developed. In fishes, again, the gills only are fully developed; while the lung structure either makes no advance at all, or only appears in the rudimentary form of an air-bladder. So, also, the baleen of the whale and the teeth of the land mammalia are different organs. The whale, in embryo, shews the rudiments of teeth; but these, not being wanted, are not developed, and the baleen is brought forward instead. The land animals, we may also be sure, have the rudiments of baleen in their organization. In many instances, a particular structure is found advanced to a certain point in a particular set of animals, (for instance, feet in the serpent tribe,) although it is not there required in any degree; but the peculiarity, being carried a little farther forward, is perhaps useful in the next set of animals in the scale. Such are called rudimentary organs. With this class of phenomena are to be ranked the useless mammæ of the male human being, and the unrequired process of bone in the male opossum, which is needed in the female for supporting her pouch. Such curious features are most conspicuous in animals which form links between various classes.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As formerly stated, the marsupials, standing at the bottom of the mammalia, shew their affinity to the oviparous vertebrata, by the rudiments of two canals passing from near the anus to the external surfaces of the viscera, which are fully developed in fishes, being required by them for the respiration of aerated waters, but which are not needed by the atmosphere-breathing marsupials. We have also the peculiar form of the sternum and rib-bones of the lizards represented in the mammalia in certain white cartilaginous lines traceable among their abdominal muscles. The struphionidæ (birds of the ostrich type) form a link between birds and mammalia, and in them we find the wings imperfectly or not at all developed, a diaphragm and urinary sac, (organs wanting in other birds,) and feathers approaching the nature of hair. Again, the ornithorynchus belongs to a class at the bottom of the mammalia, and approximating to birds, and in it behold the bill and web-feet of that order!
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For further illustration, it is obvious that, various as may be the lengths of the upper part of the vertebral column in the mammalia, it always consists of the same parts. The giraffe has in its tall neck the same number of bones with the pig, which scarcely appears to have a neck at all. Man, again, has no tail; but the notion of a much-ridiculed philosopher of the last century is not altogether, as it happens, without foundation, for the bones of a caudal extremity exist in an undeveloped state in the os coccygis of the human subject. The limbs of all the vertebrate animals are, in like manner, on one plan, however various they may appear. In the hind-leg of a horse, for example, the angle called the hock is the same part which in us forms the heel; and the horse, and all other quadrupeds, with almost the solitary exception of the bear, walk, in reality, upon what answers to the toes of a human being. In this and many other quadrupeds the fore part of the extremities is shrunk up in a hoof, as the tail of the human being is shrunk up in the bony mass at the bottom of the back. The bat, on the other hand, has these parts largely developed. The membrane, commonly called its wing, is framed chiefly upon bones answering precisely to those of the human hand; its extinct congener, the pterodactyle, had the same membrane extended upon the fore-finger only, which in that animal was prolonged to an extraordinary extent. In the paddles of the whale and other animals of its order, we see the same bones as in the more highly developed extremities of the land mammifers; and even the serpent tribes, which present no external appearance of such extremities, possess them in reality, but in an undeveloped or rudimental state.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The same law of development presides over the vegetable kingdom. Amongst phanerogamous plants, a certain number of organs appear to be always present, either in a developed or rudimentary state; and those which are rudimentary can be developed by cultivation. The flowers which bear stamens on one stalk and pistils on another, can be caused to produce both, or to become perfect flowers, by having a sufficiency of nourishment supplied to them. So also, where a special function is required for particular circumstances, nature has provided for it, not by a new organ, but by a modification of a common one, which she has effected in development. Thus, for instance, some plants destined to live in arid situations, require to have a store of water which they may slowly absorb. The need is arranged for by a cup-like expansion round the stalk, in which water remains after a shower. Now the pitcher, as this is called, is not a new organ, but simply a metamorphose of a leaf.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 These facts clearly shew how all the various organic forms of our world are bound up in one—how a fundamental unity pervades and embraces them all, collecting them, from the humblest lichen up to the highest mammifer, in one system, the whole creation of which must have depended upon one law or decree of the Almighty, though it did not all come forth at one time. After what we have seen, the idea of a separate exertion for each must appear totally inadmissible. The single fact of abortive or rudimentary organs condemns it; for these, on such a supposition, could be regarded in no other light than as blemishes or blunders—the thing of all others most irreconcilable with that idea of Almighty Perfection which a general view of nature so irresistibly conveys. On the other hand, when the organic creation is admitted to have been effected by a general law, we see nothing in these abortive parts but harmless peculiarities of development, and interesting evidences of the manner in which the Divine Author has been pleased to work.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We have yet to advert to the most interesting class of facts connected with the laws of organic development. It is only in recent times that physiologists have observed that each animal passes, in the course of its germinal history, through a series of changes resembling the permanent forms of the various orders of animals inferior to it in the scale. Thus, for instance, an insect, standing at the head of the articulated animals, is, in the larva state, a true annelid, or worm, the annelida being the lowest in the same class. The embryo of a crab resembles the perfect animal of the inferior order myriapoda, and passes through all the forms of transition which characterize the intermediate tribes of crustacea. The frog, for some time after its birth, is a fish with external gills, and other organs fitting it for an aquatic life, all of which are changed as it advances to maturity, and becomes a land animal. The mammifer only passes through still more stages, according to its higher place in the scale. Nor is man himself exempt from this law. His first form is that which is permanent in the animalcule. His organization gradually passes through conditions generally resembling a fish, a reptile, a bird, and the lower mammalia, before it attains its specific maturity. At one of the last stages of his fœtal career, he exhibits an intermaxillary bone, which is characteristic of the perfect ape; this is suppressed, and he may then be said to take leave of the simial type, and become a true human creature. Even, as we shall see, the varieties of his race are represented in the progressive development of an individual of the highest, before we see the adult Caucasian, the highest point yet attained in the animal scale.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The tendency of all these illustrations is to make us look to development as the principle which has been immediately concerned in the peopling of this globe, a process extending over a vast space of time, but which is nevertheless connected in character with the briefer process by which an individual being is evoked from a simple germ. What mystery is there here—and how shall I proceed to enunciate the conception which I have ventured to form of what may prove to be its proper solution! It is an idea by no means calculated to impress by its greatness, or to puzzle by its profoundness. It is an idea more marked by simplicity than perhaps any other of those which have explained the great secrets of nature. But in this lies, perhaps, one of its strongest claims to the faith of mankind.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The whole train of animated beings, from the simplest and oldest up to the highest and most recent, are, then, to be regarded as a series of advances of the principle of development, which have depended upon external physical circumstances, to which the resulting animals are appropriate. I contemplate the whole phenomena as having been in the first place arranged in the counsels of Divine Wisdom, to take place, not only upon this sphere, but upon all the others in space, under necessary modifications, and as being carried on, from first to last, here and elsewhere, under immediate favour of the creative will or energy. The nucleated vesicle, the fundamental form of all organization, we must regard as the meeting-point between the inorganic and the organic—the end of the mineral and beginning of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, which thence start in different directions, but in perfect parallelism and analogy. We have already seen that this nucleated vesicle is itself a type of mature and independent being in the infusory animalcules, as well as the starting point of the fœtal progress of every higher individual in creation, both animal and vegetable. We have seen that it is a form of being which electric agency will produce—though not perhaps usher into full life—in albumen, one of those compound elements of animal bodies, of which another (urea) has been made by artificial means. Remembering these things, we are drawn on to the supposition, that the first step in the creation of life upon this planet was a chemico-electric operation, by which simple germinal vesicles were produced. This is so much, but what were the next steps? Let a common vegetable infusion help us to an answer. There, as we have seen, simple forms are produced at first, but afterwards they become more complicated, until at length the life-producing powers of the infusion are exhausted. Are we to presume that, in this case, the simple engender the complicated? Undoubtedly, this would not be more wonderful as a natural process than one which we never think of wondering at, because familiar to us—namely, that in the gestation of the mammals, the animalcule-like ovum of a few days is the parent, in a sense, of the chick-like form of a few weeks, and that in all the subsequent stages—fish, reptile, &c.—the one may, with scarcely a metaphor, be said to be the progenitor of the other. I suggest, then, as an hypothesis already countenanced by much that is ascertained, and likely to be further sanctioned by much that remains to be known, that the first step was an advance under favour of peculiar conditions, from the simplest forms of being, to the next more complicated, and this through the medium of the ordinary process of generation.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Unquestionably, what we ordinarily see of nature is calculated to impress a conviction that each species invariably produces its like. But I would here call attention to a remarkable illustration of natural law which has been brought forward by Mr. Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. The reader is requested to suppose himself seated before the calculating machine, and observing it. It is moved by a weight, and there is a wheel which revolves through a small angle round its axis, at short intervals, presenting to his eye successively, a series of numbers engraved on its divided circumference.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Let the figures thus seen be the series, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, &c., of natural numbers, each of which exceeds its immediate antecedent by unity.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “Now, reader,” says Mr. Babbage, “let me ask you how long you will have counted before you are firmly convinced that the engine has been so adjusted, that it will continue, while its motion is maintained, to produce the same series of natural numbers? Some minds are so constituted, that, after passing the first hundred terms, they will be satisfied that they are acquainted with the law. After seeing five hundred terms few will doubt, and after the fifty thousandth term the propensity to believe that the succeeding term will be fifty thousand and one, will be almost irresistible. That term will be fifty thousand and one; and the same regular succession will continue; the five millionth and the fifty millionth term will still appear in their expected order, and one unbroken chain of natural numbers will pass before your eyes, from one up to one hundred million.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 “True to the vast induction which has been made, the next succeeding term will be one hundred million and one; but the next number presented by the rim of the wheel, instead of being one hundred million and two, is one hundred million ten thousand and two. The whole series from the commencement being thus,—
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¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “The law which seemed at first to govern this series failed at the hundred million and second term. This term is larger than we expected by 10,000. The next term is larger than was anticipated by 30,000, and the excess of each term above what we had expected forms the following table:—
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 being, in fact, the series of triangular numbers, each multiplied by 10,000.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 “If we now continue to observe the numbers presented by the wheel, we shall find, that for a hundred, or even for a thousand terms, they continue to follow the new law relating to the triangular numbers; but after watching them for 2761 terms, we find that this law fails in the case of the 2762d term.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 “If we continue to observe, we shall discover another law then coming into action, which also is dependent, but in a different manner, on triangular numbers. This will continue through about 1430 terms, when a new law is again introduced which extends over about 950 terms, and this, too, like all its predecessors, fails, and gives place to other laws, which appear at different intervals.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 “Now it must be observed that the law that each number presented by the engine is greater by unity than the preceding number, which law the observer had deduced from an induction of a hundred million instances, was not the true law that regulated its action, and that the occurrence of the number 100,010,002 at the 100,000,002nd term was as necessary a consequence of the original adjustment, and might have been as fully foreknown at the commencement, as was the regular succession of any one of the intermediate numbers to its immediate antecedent. The same remark applies to the next apparent deviation from the new law, which was founded on an induction of 2761 terms, and also to the succeeding law, with this limitation only—that, whilst their consecutive introduction at various definite intervals, is a necessary consequence of the mechanical structure of the engine, our knowledge of analysis does not enable us to predict the periods themselves at which the more distant laws will be introduced.”
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 It is not difficult to apply the philosophy of this passage to the question under consideration. It must be borne in mind that the gestation of a single organism is the work of but a few days, weeks, or months; but the gestation (so to speak) of a whole creation is a matter probably involving enormous spaces of time. Suppose that an ephemeron, hovering over a pool for its one April day of life, were capable of observing the fry of the frog in the water below. In its aged afternoon, having seen no change upon them for such a long time, it would be little qualified to conceive that the external branchiæ of these creatures were to decay, and be replaced by internal lungs, that feet were to be developed, the tail erased, and the animal then to become a denizen of the land. Precisely such may be our difficulty in conceiving that any of the species which people our earth is capable of advancing by generation to a higher type of being. During the whole time which we call the historical era, the limits of species have been, to ordinary observation, rigidly adhered to. But the historical era is, we know, only a small portion of the entire age of our globe. We do not know what may have happened during the ages which preceded its commencement, as we do not know what may happen in ages yet in the distant future. All, therefore, that we can properly infer from the apparently invariable production of like by like is, that such is the ordinary procedure of nature in the time immediately passing before our eyes. Mr. Babbage’s illustration powerfully suggests that this ordinary procedure may be subordinate to a higher law which only permits it for a time, and in proper season interrupts and changes it. We shall soon see some philosophical evidence for this very conclusion.
The text of these excerpts from Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) is taken from Gutenberg.org.