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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Chapter II. — The Dawn of Humanity

Chapter II.

The Dawn of Humanity.

In the previous study, I have presumed or asserted that matter, under certain conditions, may become a living organism, such active life being the sequence of an initial impulse which we may hope eventually to trace and solve. I have further asserted that matter to which such an impulse has been once conveyed, may continue or even increase that impulse under suitable conditions. These assertions cover two of the most advanced theories yet deduced from our knowledge of to-day—viz., Spontaneous Generation, and the Development or Origin of Species. In plain words, the theory of Spontaneous Generation declares that, under certain conditions of matter, life will be initiated and living organisms will be evolved or spontaneously generated; and the theory of Development is that these organisms once evolved will not only have the power of continuing the impulse, i.e. of propagating themselves, but also of developing further and higher capabilities under favouring conditions, and thereby of becoming higher organisms—organisms, in fact, such that we could no longer page 11 readily accept the supposition of their being in that condition spontaneously generated.

The theory of Spontaneous Generation has as yet but a limited acceptance, owing to the difficulty at present of producing positive argument and irrefutable experiment in its support, and owing, moreover, to its entire antagonism to any biblical or other revelation, or to belief in any super-natural power. But it seems to me that the position may be conclusively proved and justified even by negative argument; and it may be useful so to justify it before going further.

Evidently all primary generation (or initiation of life) must either be spontaneous, or else the act of some creative power foreign to the organism itself. In other words, life is either the natural, innate, and inevitable result of certain conditions of matter, or it is the act of a creator external to the matter. Such a presumed creator is usually styled God, and we may therefore conveniently use this term in the sense specified. Nor shall we in so using the word be doing any wrong to the somewhat numerous class who seem disinclined to accept the theory of spontaneity of life, while yet rejecting the inconsistencies which become every day more palpable in the theory of God and his creation of life. For indeed there is no logical halting-place between the two conclusions. Either all phenomena (life included) are attributable to certain natural properties and sequences, or they are due to an extra-natural power, a God.

Let us shift our questioning, then, from matter to its presumed "Creator." Let us inquire into the origin of God. How came he into existence? Did he create himself? If so, we have a notable instance of the spontaneous generation which his believers deny. Had God himself a creator outside himself? If so, we may apply the same questioning as to his creator. We only get the elephant and tortoise fable over again.

There is but one resource left, and that is the assertion that God has existed for ever. This is but a begging of the question, for no proof is given of the truth of the assertion; and being unverified and unverifiable, it has not the least tangible claim to assent from our intellect.

The God theory is then placed in this dilemma: that it must either acknowledge spontaneity of life (which renders the God theory itself unnecessary), or take refuge in an unverified assertion utterly beyond the ken of our senses and intellect.

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Against such a course of argument as this the constant objection of Theists or supernaturalists is, that there are more things existent than can be brought to the evidence of our senses; but on that perfectly allowable position they base the startling affirmation that therefore we must not reason about God, or, at any rate, must not accept any conclusion of out reason which leads to his rejection! Yet in all the assertions that they make in support of the God theory, it is to these very senses of ours that they ultimately appeal; they have recourse with confidence to our senses and our reason for acknowledgment of what they call the works of a God, and thereby of a God himself, and yet they deny to our senses and reason any right to evidence of, or faculty to criticise, the hypothetical being whom they expect our reason to recognise!

The words reason and senses may in this connection be used as of the same meaning, for reason is but the collected and developed experience of our senses. Now, if this reason and these senses may be safely appealed to, and their evidence be received in the case of results, materialists hold that the questionings of reason may be and must be extended to causes, and that indeed the conclusions of reason are the only ones that can validly be accepted by the organism that has given birth to it, and, as it were, delegated to it the care and power of the guidance and government of the organism.

It is to this reason and to these senses that Materialism appeals, for it sees in man's being no evidence of any higher tribunal. Nor need it care to do so, since it also sees in the reason and the senses, and the self-responsibility of man, a faculty of development, of power, and of harmony with nature, far beyond the feeble dreams and dulcet cajoleries of any God theory, ancient or modern.

And Materialism claims for itself and for its evidence a higher character and a greater worth of acceptance than it holds due to any religious or supernatural or ultra-intellectual theory And this on several grounds. For Materialism appeals to no select few, but to senses and faculties which all possess. It does not recognise that any special clique or class of man has received a supernatural revelation of things in which all men have a joint and equal concern. Its evidences are facts which have been gathered with care and painstaking by close observers and lovers of nature, not dark fancies evolved from the tortured and ascetic brains of page 13 men who have begun their system with the assumption that nature is an abhorrent and unholy thing. Materialism, claims the higher character, because it comes into the light and courts the examination and aid of all, not shrouding and hiding itself in impenetrable unintelligibleness, and hurling threats and cursings and thunderings at those who shall dare to deny its infallibility, analyse its inconsistency, or despise its degrading sycophancy and terrorism.

Though I have spoken of Spontaneous Generation as not having been to the consent of all irrefutably proved, it must not be forgotten that there are men who decisively affirm that they have to the evidence of the senses produced organic life where it was previously non-existent. The evidence of Bastian and others is convincing that living organisms are constantly evolved in liquids which have been hermetically sealed in flasks while boiling, or submitted to still greater heat, and carefully preserved from all extraneous influence of the atmosphere.

The arguments used by opponents to explain or contradict these experiments, is what is known as the "germ" theory—an assertion that there are countless seeds of living organisms floating in the air, and ever ready to develop themselves into active life when favourable conditions of matter are presented. It is true that these germs may be invisible in even the most powerful microscope, and so imperceptible as to elude the subtlest chemical test, yet the theory has the convenient property of continuing to refer the initiation of life to some primary act on the part of a creator. It is to such germs, also, that many forms of disease, epidemic or otherwise, are attributed; so that if the theory of the creation of germs be correct, it will follow that the appearance of certain new and previously unknown forms of disease, such as diphtheria or rinderpest, is an evidence that the creation was not an act once accomplished and done with, but that the Creator still busies himself from time to time with doubtful benefits to his creatures.

Let it be understood that Materialists do not deny that low organisms may propagate themselves by germs, as well as by other means more clearly visible to our senses. Materialism simply denies any extra-natural creation or origin of these germs, and the materialistic explanation of a new form of parasitic disease would be that certain novel conditions of matter had evolved or developed into a new form some low type of organism, which, once generated, might propagate page 14 itself either by cell-growth or by germs. The Germ theorists would say, that if all the germs or sporules of small-pox, typhoid fever, &c., could once be destroyed, we should never see those diseases more; the Evolutionist says that similar unsanitary conditions to those that now exist where those dis-eases are rife, would again evolve them.

It must not be forgotten that it would be no refutation of spontaneous generation even if men had not yet succeeded in producing it. It is the action of nature that is in question, rather than man's power, to evoke that action. And certainly, whether by spontaneous generation or otherwise primitive and extremely simple organisms are, under favourable circumstances, everywhere readily and plentifully generated, and in an ascending scale from them we have a series of ever higher developments.

As instances of fairly low (though not the lowest) animal and vegetable organisms, I may take the amæba and the alga, previously referred to as "masses of gelatinous substance, or of vegetable growth, scarce differing from rust." The amæba is but a floating speck of jelly that absorbs or covers other floating particles of matter which can afford sustenance to it. It has no defined organs of nutrition, or of any other function; it simply lets the floating particle sink into its jelly-like substance, and then, by a process no more vital than chemical affinity, or even simple attraction of cohesion, it absorbs what there may be in the floating particles analogous to its own substance, and lets the remainder again sink or drop through. Its action seems no more a living one than is the action of the isinglass used in "fining" beer. The isinglass that is there introduced falls gradually to the bottom of the cask, enfolding in its own substance, and bearing down with it, every floating speck of turbid matter, and leaving the beer clear. And, undoubtedly, any particle of isinglass or other gelatinous matter that might previously have existed in the floating specks would be absorbed from out them into the homogeneous mass of the isinglass itself. Why this action of the isinglass is to be set down as mechanical action, while that of the amoeba is to be exalted to the dignity of living action, it is not for me to say, since I do not believer in the distinction.

Some forms of the algæ are a sort of grey-green mould or rust: they "vegetate exclusively in water or in damp situations; they require no nutriment, but such as is supplied by page 15 water and the air dissolved in it, which they absorb equally by every part of their surface." These are the words of one of the most strenuous advocates of the God theory. Yet if for algæ we substitute the word rust, how perfect a description we get of the action of moisture or water on iron. And what is the difference between the two actions? As far as I can see, it is simply this, that the algæ form a compound of three lements, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, while the iron merely absorbs oxygen from the air or water, and so forms a compound of only two elements, oxygen and iron. No one disputes the spontaneous evolution of rust, that is, of a compound of iron and oxygen: strange that men should find it so hard to credit the spontaneous evolution of a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen!

Two objections may here be raised: firstly, that rust will only appear or propagate itself where there is iron or some other metal to feed it; and, secondly, that the action of algæ, or, at any rate, of other living organisms, is more vivid than that of rust. To the first objection it is a sufficient answer that neither will algæ nor any other organisms appear or propagate themselves where there is not suitable food for them; and to the second, I would reply that I am not asserting an equal degree of vital action in both the cases, but simply that both instances are but different degrees of the same natural and spontaneous action; the dragging of one stick across another may seem to be action remote enough from that of combustion, yet we know that combustion is but an enhanced form of such action, and is, under given circumstances, educible thereby.

In the lower living organisms, the distinction between animal and vegetable is frequently so confused as to render the organisms incapable of being classified with certainty; some motionless and apparently vegetable growths having other well-defined animal properties, whilst some actively moving organisms are, in other respects, as undoubtedly vegetable. One would almost say, that on the threshold of life the organisms are debating and undecided as to which of the two great channels they will follow. When this choice is made, the same indecision seems extended again somewhat to choice of species; the mass of the primitive organisms being involved in a hazy mist, to which only a very self-confident man could venture to assign defined limits and arbitrary classifications.

In these lower forms of life, the methods of extension or page 16 spreading, or repetition of both animal and vegetable organisms are, as might be presumed, identical; and are visibly effected by either gemmation, or fissure, or both. Gemmation is only another word for budding; buds form on the original organism, which break off and become independent organisms. Fissure means that the original organism, when grown, splits into two or more independent organisms. Some of the lowest organisms are asserted to consist of single cells of animated organic matter, and it is, of course, the development of further cells that renders practicable either gemmation or fissure. Yet we may soon find organisms with a considerable accretion of cells not separating from each other, but remaining with the parent organism, and, as it were, helping in the mutual and better development of each; and we then begin to find special groupings of these cells fulfilling certain definite functions in the economy of the organism, becoming, in point of fact, the organs for the support and growth and propagation of the organism.

Here, too, we begin to come on clearer distinctions between animal and vegetable; whose main difference has been roughly, but fairly well-defined in the observation that with a vegetable the food is mainly applied to continually increasing its fabric throughout its life, whereas, with the animal, the food is only applied to growth till the adult form is attained, and is then simply used to maintain that condition in efficiency.

We then go on to find special and peculiar formations and growths of ceils for various purposes in the structure of the organism; so that, eventually, we have cells whose special purpose is to form the tissue or flesh of a plant, while others of different structure form the bark or fruit and in animals we have cells which form the fibres of the muscle, somewhat different ones forming the bone, and others yet different forming the brain or nerve matter, &c., &c.

This development of different cells and functions is but one form of the variations which are taking place, of which, perhaps, the most important is the adaptation of the organisms themselves to altered circumstances in which they may find it convenient or necessary to live, and the development of varied forms and powers which will render that life more acceptable and enjoyable to them. And it may fairly be said that this variation or development is a fact in which page 17 all classes of observers agree, though not all are willing to allow to it the same great ultimate results. It is the reasoning out of such of these results as we have undoubted cognizance of to their possible and logical conclusions, and the acceptance of those conclusions, that constitutes the theory already referred to of development or origin of species.

In the lower forms of organisms this development or variation is, as I have previously intimated, very conspicuous, so that fructification or generation has frequently to be waited for and observed before the organisms can with any certainty be assigned to a definite class. And this question of fructification or generation brings us to one of the most vexed and evaded questions in the whole history of physio logy or development—that of alternate generation, which will be presently discussed.

For a further phenomenon has manifested itself in the course of these developments—the difference of sexes; and to this I shall need to draw your careful attention, since in his own case man has based on that difference a series of artificial and arbitrary, and therefore unjust, distinctions which have done more than any other act to retard the progress and hinder the happiness of the human race.

We noticed that in the extension or propagation of the lower forms of life, the growth or birth of further cells was followed by a constant budding or splitting off from the parent organism, but that in somewhat higher forms we find cells remaining and allotting themselves to various special functions, and forming special organs for those purposes. As might naturally be supposed, a substitute is at once provided for the superseded actions of gemmation or fissure; so that among the first definite organs we find those for the extension or propagation of the species, and with such a: specialized function we also find, as we might anticipate, a .more methodical manner of fulfilling that function. The cells or germs which will form the infant organisms are no longer indiscriminately severed as soon as formed; but are stored in assigned receptacles to await what shall seem to the organism a fitting time for their evolvement and extrusion. To convey this fitness and impulse for extrusion is the function of a further organ, which in its turn has secreted special cells.

In these two sets of organs and their difference of cells we have the first glimpse of separate male and female functions. To distinguish the two classes of cells, the latter are page 18 usually called germ cells, and the former sperm cells. The secretion of sperm cells, and their application, in due time, to the germ cells, is the function of the male organs; the secretion of the germ cells, and the care of their development after impregnation, is the female function. For a long time we find both these organs existing in the same creature; and this arrangement is very general throughout vegetable life, from the lowest forms to the very highest. It also extends into some fairly high grades of animal life, the oyster being a notable instance of hermaphroditism, as this union of the two organs in one being is termed.

At first, too, both these functions may be performed within the one being without any extraneous aid; but presently it would seem that a better result is attained by some intermingling of possible slight variations, and we find two individual organisms uniting in a mutual and utterly reciprocatory act of parentage, each being having fulfilled the functions of father, and accepted the responsibilities of mother, to an ensuing progeny. But this intermingling does not seem an inevitable necessity, for there is evidence that many such organisms have the capacity of both self and reciprocal impregnation. Here, too, the strange fact may be noted that in some organisms the co-operation of three individuals is necessary to effect the generative act.

The change from gemmation to sexual generation is by no means an invariable or fixed one, for we have here intervening the strange phenomenon of alternate generation just referred to. Various organisms may propagate a progeny by means of sexual organs, and the members of this progeny will be of a totally different type to their parents in nature, appearance, and capabilities, and having no sexual organs, but giving birth to their progeny by the primitive methods of gemmation or fissure; yet this further progeny will be fully developed like the first set of parents, having sexual organs, yet giving birth in turn to organisms that differ in type, and only propagate by gemmation. It is, as it were, an inheritance from grandparent to grandchild, with an intervening generation of an utterly different and inferior organism. In some instances this descent seems to run through three forms of organisms before reverting to the original type.

This phenomenon is affected to be made somewhat light of and readily explained away by the holders of the God theory; apparently because it militates somewhat against page 19 their idea of a creation, and is equally strong evidence in favour of the materialistic theory of development or origin of species. If, as is the case, a stationary and, in so far, vegetable-like polyp can give birth to an independent and totally different swimming creature (a form of medusa), which lives its life and gives birth again to stationary polyps, it is easy enough to say that the one is but a latent or intervening form of the other; but this does not explain the difference, nor destroy the evident fact that some organisms under certain circumstances do evolve an utterly different form of being. It were perhaps to "consider too curiously" to ask the God theorists which of the types was the one originally created, and whence came the other?

It is too much the habit of the God theorists to play fast and loose with species; holding, when it suits their purpose, to the idea of the special creation of each individual species, and dropping that idea when the conclusions become at all inconvenient. Yet there are only two possible ways of accounting for species. Either they are the results of the development of accidental or beneficial natural variations; or they must be the result of distinct creative acts. In the first case the materialistic theory of development must be accepted with all its consequent inductions (summarized towards the end of this paper); in the second case all the logical consequences of special creation must be accepted, of which consequences we may readily find an exemplification. It is a definite and accepted fact, for instance, that there are various species of entozoa or internal parasites finding a congenial habitat in the flesh and organs of special animals and incapable of existence elsewhere. There are also varied species of external parasites which make their dwelling-place on the skin of animals, and live by extracting the grateful juices from within, nor can they exist on other than specified animals. In the case of man, we may instance psoriasis (as the itch is technically called), the presence of exceedingly small but irritating animalculæ, without troubling to refer to larger easily remembered insects. With the creation theory, or with the germ theory as propounded by non-evolutionists, we must accept the conclusion that the first man and animals had within and without them all the various types of the parasitic organisms with which their descendants are still troubled.