At the commencement of a new season it seems incumbent on the occupant of this seat to open the proceedings by some slight review of the progress which has been made in carrying out the objects to which this Institute and its allied societies in New Zealand are specially devoted, and of the prospect which lies before it of continuing and extending the course of usefulness in which it has made so hopeful and creditable a commencement. I find, from the preamble of the Act under which the Institute is constituted, that its objects, in addition to the establishment of a public museum, laboratory, and public library, are “to promote the general study and cultivation of the various branches and departments of art, science, literature, and philosophy.”
Amongst the many subjects which this comprehensive definition embraces, the development of the natural history of these islands, in its various branches, has necessarily taken the foremost place.
The most natural and obvious work of the colonist is to explore the country of his adoption, to search out its resources, to investigate its peculiarities, to realise its possessions, and to note its wants: and if here and there one, to the ordinary energies of the early settler, adds the zeal and knowledge of a scientific explorer, the field of investigation is to such an one only enlarged and its interest intensified, but the natural bent and tendency of his researches will probably remain the same.
In the early stages of every society the practical must always preponderate over the speculative, and man has still left in him so much of the instinct of the gregarious animal that, whatever the previous habits and structure of his mind may have been, the early colonist inevitably either becomes entrainé by the materialistic tendencies around him, or abandons the colony in disgust.
So long as unexplored fields remain accessible to research they will naturally afford the strongest stimulus to the curiosity of the most active minds, and, even before the grand generalisations of modern times had given those studies the greater importance they now possess, they have always been found peculiarly fascinating in new countries.
But in our day such investigations have a far higher aim and importance than they have ever had before. The vast mass of observations and information collected in past time has in our own afforded a solid basis for general laws, and has furnished the elements of speculations the most brilliant, and results the most unexpected. The search after unknown or undescribed specimens of the fauna and flora of a new country is not now a mere dry cataloguing of long names—not simply making collections of curious individual specimens, or searching out of minute or unimportant and perhaps fantastical varieties of previously known species, interesting only to the minute student in those special sciences—but, in the expanded range which thought and investigation have taken, every new fact becomes a fresh link in the great chain of truth, and the discovery of some apparently insignificant fossil, plant, or animal in New Zealand may serve to establish or to discountenance theories of the greatest magnitude and deepest interest, not merely to a local scientific coterie, but to the whole world of science.
In the curious spectacle of the succession of species, first developed by the researches of the geologist, and which, in fact, is the very alphabet of palæontology, what can exceed the interest afforded by seeing this great law of nature, previously known only from the fossil records of the remotest past, brought down even to our own day by the recent extinction of the Struthious birds formerly so much developed in New Zealand? And again, linked in the great question of the distribution of species, and the resulting hypothesis either of the different former disposition of sea and land, or the evolution, under similar conditions, of more or less similar forms of life, who can foresee the light that may arise from complete lists, even of the most humble of the plants still growing on our coasts, and the comparisons these will afford with the productions of the islands of the north? The correlative changes too, which are occurring in infinite ramifications in our fauna and flora, and even in the configuration of the country, in consequence of the disturbance of the previously existing order of nature by the intrusion of new organisations, are so rapid that no time is to be lost if the aboriginal types and conditions are to be recorded, and the order of their extinction, hybridization, or metamorphosis noted.
The observation and collection of our natural fauna and flora, both living and fossil, are, undoubtedly, and ought to continue to be, amongst the most important and by far the most pressing objects to which the attention of these
societies can be devoted; and most of the associated societies, and our own in particular, are so fortunate as to possess indefatigable and accomplished workers in these fields, to whom the past success is almost entirely owing. Chiefly by their means are our museums becoming worthy representatives of the primeval New Zealand, instructive guides to the natural history as well as to the industrial resources of the colony; and to them we owe the interest which the two volumes of Transactions already published unquestionably possess, for they contain no ephemeral controversies or disputable theories, and very few matters of mere local interest; but they consist chiefly in undoubted records of the great truths of nature, results of painstaking research and laborious explorations, rounds in the ladder of knowledge, equally necessary for everyone who would scale its height, whether here or in the great centres of scientific knowledge in the capitals of Europe.
In these branches of scientific knowledge, it appears to me—an unscientific and therefore hardly competent witness—that the labours of the New Zealand Institute as a whole, and of our own branch of it in particular, leave nothing to be desired, save only that the labourers were more numerous. Our secretary, Mr. Kirk, Captain Hutton, and Mr. Gillies, have amply redeemed us from any imputation of failure in this province; and I trust that they will continue to enrich our museum, and to give value to our published Transactions by their contributions; and, while they do so, the interests of natural history will be safe. One other subject on which the field is still open to original research has not been so effectually laboured. I allude to that most interesting branch of ethnology which ought to be so peculiarly the object of study in this part of New Zealand—the history and peculiarities of the native race. It is curious that while many excellent papers on this subject have been read before the New Zealand Institute, not one has come from Auckland, where by far the greatest number and the most important tribes of the natives live.
But while the branches of science connected with natural history have been assidiously cultivated with so much credit to the Institute and advantage to the colony, and while some attention has been given to a few purely local topics, I apprehend that we have hitherto overlooked others in which, indeed, no opportunity of original research is open to us, and no hope of discovery affords a stimulus to the student, and in relation to which all that is left to us is the humbler duty of introducing and encouraging, or, to use the current term, of “acclimatising” lines of thought which are being pursued with such vast effect elsewhere, and which are so rapidly enlarging and revolutionising recently received ideas on such subjects, that one who should stay in these remote parts of the world, with only the ordinary manuals of chemistry, astronomy, meteorology, biology, and physics generally to refer to, would soon
fall so far behind the science of the day that even the very terminology of the most recent papers wonld become scarcely intelligible.
Long since the time when I, and many here present, first settled in this colony, arose the first notice of ozone: the explanations of Fraünhofer's lines, and the wonders which the analysis of the spectrum has revealed, are still more recent. The dynamic theory of heat, suggested indeed by Bacon and the philosophers of the succeeding age, and made demonstrable by the experiments of Count Rumford and the deductions of Davy and Faraday, can only be said to have been vivified into a fertile principle since the publication of the works of Grove and Tyndall; and without some clear knowledge of all these, to which the most assiduous study of the standard books even to a comparatively recent date would afford no clue, what conception could be formed of the objects and results of some of the most interesting investigations of the day—of the observations for instance of the two recent total eclipses of the sun, the whole interest of which depended on observations with the spectroscope and polariscope?
Now the assisting the student, under the disadvantages of colonial life, in keeping himself duly up to the intelligence of the age, appears to me an object of the Institute almost as important as the prosecution of discoveries in botany, geology, and palæontology.
While, therefore, I would desire that we should still afford the greatest place in our plans to research in natural history, I would seriously call the attention of the members of the Institute to the question, whether it is not time to attempt some regular and systematic encouragement to progress, and some opportunity of improvement in other branches of science; whether we cannot by that means enlarge the basis of support on which we rest, and secure larger and more frequent attendance at our meetings?
I find there is some danger of our being supposed to be a Society exclusively for the study of natural history, and therefore uninteresting to those unversed in the branches of science included in that term. If we do not remove that impression, and evince the catholicity of our interest in science, we may run the risk of finding ourselves without the support of that portion of the intelligent public which is not devoted to zoology, botany, and geology.
“Non omnes arbusta juvant humilesque myricœ.”
And if we would take our proper position before the public, as a point of union and a rendezvous of all persons having any taste for scientific pursuits, we must embrace, as far as we are able, all the objects which attract the attention of curious and inquiring minds. The disadvantage of attempting any contact with such subjects as astronomy, spectroscopes, theory of heat, light, and sound, meteorology, biology, chemistry, the microscope, sciences employed in manufactures, such as metallurgy, is that in their pursuit we
cannot hope much to enrich our published Transactions. As there is no room for original research, so it could rarely happen that the author of a paper would wish to see it published in our printed volumes. One paper has indeed been presented to the Institute at Wellington, containing the admirable observations for longitude made by Mr. H. Jackson, and they will be an ornament and a credit to the Transactions of the current year; but we cannot hope for many repetitions of such trains of observations as that, requiring as they did the steady persevering application of a year; and I cannot learn that even that paper has created the interest in the subject which its importance and value deserve. On such subjects it must be rarely that any new light can be thrown here. I presume not the most strenuous supporters of “local industries” would recommend any one under such difficulties as a colony presents to devote himself to the study, as a pursuit, of any of the higher branches of experimental physics; and very few indeed amongst us can even spare the leisure to follow, with accuracy and completeness, the published information on these subjects, scattered as this is through the papers and memoirs read before many different societies.
But I apprehend that it would be quite within the reach of many or most of our members to throw together, with less aim and completeness than would be required in a formal lecture, such a sketch of some branch of science as would suffice to interest the less informed on the subject, and to draw out from the more informed their contributions to the common fund of knowledge; and so we might attain to what I conceive to be the true object of societies like ours, the enabling and inducing its members to club together their several information and knowledge, and so correct and enlarge their own views by comparison with those of others.
In this manner, by announcing beforehand the subject intended for discussion, and the paper with which it would be opened by way of text, I apprehend we might have very interesting evenings, where many would join in explanation or discussion; and any one possessing instruments or drawings would be induced to make them available for the amusement and instruction of the Society. The effort which I believe the Council is about to make to obtain selections at least from the “Transactions” of the various scientific societies in England will, I trust, not a little facilitate the step I propose—one perhaps hitherto impracticable, but which the now rapid expansion of the colony in wealth and intelligence, and the new resources opening up around us, and stimulating inquiries and awakening curiosity hitherto dormant, seem to render not only possible but necessary.
A list of donations to the Library and Museum was read by the Secretary, who drew attention to several of the objects which were laid on the table.
1. “On the Flora of the Isthmus of Auckland and the Takapuna District,”
by T. Kirk, F.L.S. (See Transactions, p. 228.) This paper was the second on the flora of the district—the first, which was confined to the flowering plants and ferns, having been published in the Transactions for 1870, p. 148. The author commenced by pointing out the wide difference between the present state of our knowledge of the phænogamic portion of the flora and of the lower Cryptogams, the flowering plants and ferns being well known, while the extensive orders which form the bulk of the Acro-Thallogenic section of the flora have received but a small amount of attention.
2. “On the Occurrence of Foot-prints of a Large Bird, found at Turanganui, Poverty Bay,” by Archdeacon W. L. Williams. (See Transactions, p. 124.) The occurrence of these foot-prints was made known to the writer two or three years ago, by Mr. Millar. Being unable to remove them at the time, he took steps for their preservation by covering them with a mixture of lime and sand to preserve them from the influence of the waves, and thus obtained an excellent cast, which has been presented by him to the Museum of the Auckland Institute, together with a portion of the original impressions.
3. “On the Occurrence of Foot-prints of the Moa at Poverty Bay,” by His Honour T. B. Gillies. (See Transactions, p. 127.)
4. Mr. Kirk exhibited some Eggs of the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), from Whakatane, which showed a deviation from the ordinary type. They were of the same length as the usual form, but of greater width, and narrowed sharply towards the extremities, so that the width was rendered prominent. Mr. Kirk stated that he had seen specimens of the same form from the forest at Mareitai. Eggs of the ordinary form, also of the Albatros, from the Museum collections, were exhibited for comparison.