It now only remains for me to bring my term of office to a conclusion by delivering the usual presidential address.
First of all, I must refer to the great loss which this Institute has sustained by the death of Mr. Robert Gillies. Mr. Gillies took an active share in the preliminary meeting for the establishment of the Institute, and was at once elected on the Council, continuing a member of that body until last year, when the illness which finally proved fatal prevented his attendance. In 1876 he occupied the presidential chair at a time when the Society was at the height of its prosperity.
In 1875, Mr. Gillies read a paper on “The Habits of the New Zealand Trap-door Spiders;” and in 1887 a paper “On the Nests of some Trap-door Spiders from other Localities;” and one “On recent Changes in the Fauna of Otago,” all three papers being published in the “Transactions.” Of late years Mr. Gillies's spare time was chiefly given to astronomy, and he spared no expense in furnishing his private observatory with the latest and best instruments.
I may mention some matters in which Government assistance is urgently needed in the cause of science. One is the adequate protection of native birds, especially of the kiwi, kakapo, and weka. Lately, by some unaccountable blunder, some of the ferrets so rashly introduced to keep down the rabbits have been liberated on the western side of Lake Manapouri, where there are no rabbits but large numbers of flightless birds. I am told, on good authority, that the wekas in the Manapouri District have already visibly decreased; and unless vigorous measures are taken to counteract this foolish—nay, criminal act, the most interesting members of our unique avifauna will be doomed to speedy extinction.
A second subject to which I wish to draw attention is the advisability of establishing a Fisheries Board for the Colony. Our marine fisheries ought to be among our most important industries; but to make them so, accurate information as to the habits, food, and reproduction of the food-fishes is absolutely necessary. At present I believe I am correct in saying that we know nothing, or next to nothing, of the life-history of a single one of them, and much of our knowledge as to their food and habits is derived from the frequently untrustworthy and always inexact information of fishermen.
What is wanted for the purpose of developing our fisheries is a marine laboratory, presided over by a competent naturalist who has been trained for this particular work, and furnished with aquaria and breeding grounds, a small steamer for dredging and trawling, etc. In such an institution systematic observations would be made and recorded from year to year, and a series of exact statistics compiled, which would serve as the basis for
legislation on the preservation of native or the introduction of foreign fishes. As far as I have been able to make out, some locality in Cook Strait—say in the neighbourhood of Wellington—would be the most suitable place for such an institution. Perhaps, when the Wellington University College is established, it may be found possible to combine the Professorship of Biology with the Directorship of the Colonial Marine Laboratory.
As you are aware, attempts have been made this year towards a sort of federation of learned societies in the British Empire, a movement which may be said to have commenced when the British Association met at Montreal two years ago. The Royal Society of New South Wales has called a preliminary meeting of the proposed “Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,” and has invited the British Association to send delegates to a meeting at Sydney in 1888. The difficulties in the way of such a scheme are great and obvious, but the advantages to men of science in these colonies would be so immense that I sincerely hope my friend and fellow-student, Professor Liversidge, who appears to be the prime mover in the matter, will succeed in his endeavours. Every naturalist in these colonies must of necessity suffer from an ever-present sense of the immense disadvantages he labours under through his isolation from other workers. The ideas which at home he would absorb without effort in ordinary intercourse with others, must here be acquired, if at all, by a laborious course of reading; so that a man with limited leisure and limited capacity for assimilation feels himself getting gradually out of touch with the onward movement, and looks forward with dread to the time when he shall have become hopelessly fossilized.
I have often wished that the Royal Society of London, the great parent of all scientific societies in the Empire, could adopt towards those men of science who labour in partibus infidelium some such system as the Roman Curia adopts with regard to Colonial bishops—summon them to headquarters every few years. Unfortunately, in our case there is no body of faithful to pay expenses, so I fear the matter is hopeless. But an Australasian Association, if only it can be kept going, might do a great deal towards remedying the evil, by allowing widely-separated workers to meet and exchange ideas. The main difficulty is, of course, the great distance separating the chief towns of Australasia, and the consequent expense to which members attending the meeting would be put.
In conclusion, I wish to make a few remarks upon some important recent advances in biology. Everyone has heard of the discovery by De Graaf in Germany, and by Baldwin Spencer in England, of a median eye in certain lizards, and notably in the Tuatara. The organ in question is very minute—barely visible to the naked eye—and is embedded in the fibrous tissue filling up an aperture between the parietal bones on the roof of the skull. The skin over this “parietal foramen” is frequently semi-transparent, so that the eye, small as it is, is probably not entirely functionless. In structure, it is remarkable for agreeing, not with the ordinary paired eyes of vertebrates, but with those of many invertebrates. It is connected by a nerve with a part of the brain called the “third ventricle,” thus having precisely the relations of that apparently anomalous organ the “pineal gland,” which, lying as it does in the very centre of the human brain, was considered by Descartes to be the seat of the soul.
Researches carried on during the last few years by Ahlborn and other observers pointed to the conclusion that the pineal body was to be looked upon as a rudimentary eye, or at least as a sensory organ of some sort; but the demonstration of this view by the discovery of well-formed though minute median eyes in existing vertebrates, may fairly be called one of the most important anatomical discoveries of this generation, and well worthy to rank alongside another biological discovery which awakened a great deal of interest in the colonies two years ago—that of the fact that the monotremes (Platypus and Echidna) are viviparous, and have meroblastic eggs, like reptile and birds
These discoveries, however, important as they are, can hardly be said to extend the domain of biology. Each can be placed at once in its appropriate pigeon-hole, and, although necessitating a reconsideration of the ordinary views on certain speculative matters, they have no effect on the fundamental conceptions of the science. But there is a series of researches now being carried on by numerous workers in Germany, France, and England, which seem, as it were, to open a new vista, and promise to have as profound an effect on the biology of the future as the work of Schwann and Schleiden—the founders of the cell theory—had on that of fifty years ago. I refer to the researches on the minute structure of cells and nuclei, on the exact nature of the phenomena accompanying the maturation and impregnation of the egg-cell, and of those accompanying secretion in gland cells. One sees a new department of molecular biology unfolding before one's eyes, the various vital processes becoming more and more obviously matters of molecular physics and chemistry.
It would take several addresses of the length of this to give even an out-line of this fascinating subject. As it is, I can only refer those who wish to acquaint themselves with the line of inquiry to which I refer to three articles in the “Encyclopædia Britannica”—that on “Physiology” by Professor Michael Foster, and those on “Morphology” and on “Reproduction” by Mr. Patrick Geddes. Suffice it to say, for the present, that biology is daily becoming at once more exact and more philosophical.
I have now only to resign this chair to my friend Mr. Chapman, whom I beg to welcome in the name of the Institute as a man in whom wide and curious learning is happily combined with legal acumen, and whose influence will, I feel sure—especially if seconded by a rise in wool—do much to restore this Society to the state of prosperity in which we all wish to see it.