Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 26, 1893
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Evolution.

In connection with these beetles I would refer to one passage in the Manual, and employ it as my text in what I wish to say on evolution, as it is in accordance with the theories of evolution which are now very generally accepted. The passage I refer to is at page 23, where this swimming-beetle is said to be “only what a ground-beetle might naturally become if forced to lead an aquatic existence.” Now, my imperfect observation leads me to believe that any ground-beetle now forced to lead an aquatic existence—i.e., being put into water—will not become a swimming-beetle, but, if it cannot get out, will inevitably become a dead beetle. This, however, is not in accordance with the ultra-evolutionist theories of the day, which assume, in the words of Mr. Romanes, that “hereditary characters admit of being slowly modified whenever their modification will render an organism better suited to a change in its conditions of life.” I am not prepared to say, much less to prove, that this is not true, or, rather, that it may not have been true at earlier periods of the world's history; but I do affirm that this statement is an hypothesis which has not hitherto been confirmed by facts, and my position is that, as true scientists, we are bound to separate hypotheses which have not been confirmed by facts from those which have been so confirmed. When Mr. Romanes quietly asserts that whales and porpoises were originally “terrestrial quadrupeds of some kind, which gradually became more and more aquatic in their habits,” and that the changes in their conditions of life affected first their skin, claws, and teeth, then their bones and muscles, and general form, my faith in this teaching is too weak, my imagination too sluggish, and my hold on the facts of nature too strong, to allow me to accept this statement without proof. Indeed, were I convinced of the fact that such changes do take place, or have taken place in the past, I should have expected that water-mammals would have changed into land-mammals rather than the reverse, as all palæontological evidence shows that the waters were peopled

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first, and afterwards the dry land; and this is the view held by some evolutionary biologists. But to believe in miracles unsupported by any evidence, and from these assumed and unauthenticated miracles to argue that others occur, is neither reasonable nor scientific. That evolution, in some sense of the word, is as true of the animate world as it is of the inanimate, I suppose we are now most of us persuaded. The well attested observations and researches of modern scientists have taught us that our world has been slowly moulded into its present forms and conditions by the constant operation of forces with which we are in some degree familiar; and the laws governing these forces have now been fairly well ascertained as far as they refer to inorganic matter, though even here we are still, as regards details, in the regions of hypothesis, and geologists differ considerably in their views as to the ways in which our earth has been moulded into its present form. Some hold chiefly to denudation, some to glaciation, some to volcanic agency, some to crumpling and cracking by shrinkage in cooling, and each has facts to support his theories; but so have the others, and no doubt all these causes have been operative. But the statement made by Lyell, in his “Principles of Geology,” “The forces now operating upon earth are the same in kind and in degree as those which, in the remotest times, produced geological changes,” is no longer accepted as a truth. As Professor Tait* says, “We have also recently obtained positive assurance that our globe was in the remotest times so hot as to be at least plastic—a condition, fortunately, not now prevailing either in kind or in degree.” And Professor Huxley speaks of “a very remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions which it can no more see again than a man can recall his infancy.” Nevertheless, the great principles of geology so ably enunciated by Lyell have been abundantly established: the forces by means of which the surface of our earth has been moulded are still in action, if in a more moderate way than at first, and we can reason upon the facts we observe with considerable certainty and approximate accuracy.

We are in a different position, however, in regard to organic matter. Life is a new force which at some early period of the world's history first appeared, and which ever since has been present on earth, manifesting itself in endless varieties of plant and animal life. The succession of these varied forms of life, recorded in the strata of the earth, shows a progress or evolution, the earlier forms being generally simple, the modern forms in many cases very highly differentiated. The hypo-

[Footnote] * Tait's Lectures, p. 165.

[Footnote] †“Critiques and Addresses,” p. 239.

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thesis that there are some fixed laws of life which have governed this progression or evolution, is almost forced upon us by the analogies of the inorganic world. To discover these laws is a search worthy of the highest human intellects. Darwin, Wallace, Herbert Spencer, and others have applied themselves to the task, and have thrown some light upon it; yet their views diverge, and none of them have been confirmed by facts as regards their bolder generalisations. Apparently the science of biology is now in about the same position as that of astronomy was in the time of Copernicus, perhaps even less advanced, and, considering the very much greater difficulty of the subject, it may be a very long time before the combined efforts of the human minds that are striving to unravel its mysteries will have advanced our real knowledge of biology to a similar position to that in which astronomy now stands. But if we adhere to the sound methods of inductive philosophy, and accept no hypotheses as truths until they have been thoroughly established by facts, our progress, if slow, will be certain and sure. The gathering of facts is work in which all careful observers can co-operate: the correlating of the facts and divining their significance requires the genius which is given to few. It seems to me that palæontology is at this epoch perhaps the most deeply interesting field of study, as there only can we hope to find evidence of the true way in which new species have arisen. In the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” ninth edition, under the heading “Biology,” it is stated: “The only perfectly safe foundation for the doctrine of evolution lies in the historical, or, rather, archæological, evidence that particular organisms have arisen by the gradual modification of their predecessors, which is furnished by fossil remains. That evidence is daily increasing in amount and in weight, and it is to be hoped that the comparison of the actual pedigree of these organisms with the phenomena of their development may furnish some criterion by which the validity of phylogenetic conclusions, deduced from the facts of embryology alone, may be satifactorily tested.” The special geological epochs which appear favourable to such discoveries are the Mesozoic or Secondary, in which the first traces of bird-life have been found, and also that great abundance of gigantic saurians which is so wonderful to us; and the Kainozoic, or Tertiary, and Recent strata, which in their lowest beds give evidence of a new order of life, the great placental mammals, and in the latest of which human remains are first found. Up to the present time all theories of the evolution of life on our globe are practically unsupported by palæontology; and, until something more convincing to ordinary minds than Huxley's “horse series” has been brought to light, cautious people like myself must be content to remain inquirers alike

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as to the facts of the evolution of life on this earth and also as to its modes.

The palæontological record is undoubtedly imperfect. Multitudes of living things of all kinds must have perished in past ages without leaving any discernible traces in the sedimentary deposits produced in seas, lakes, and rivers, or buried by volcanic eruptions or in caves; yet vast multitudes of remains have been so preserved, and every year new specimens are being added to our series. Mathematics assures us that if there have existed transitional forms of life, such as the theory of evolution supposes, it is not conceivable that a fair proportion of them should not be found; but they have not been found hitherto. On the contrary new forms of life appear first in their fullest development, and if such forms still exist they are generally smaller, and altogether inferior to the earlier individuals. One need only compare the remains of the gigantic ferns and mares'-tails of the Carboniferous strata with living specimens, or the immense saurians of the Secondary formations, or the mammals of the Tertiary, or the recently extinct moa of New Zealand, with modern types of similar forms of life, to be convinced of this truth: in such cases there is evidence of degradation or extinction, not of progression. Or, if we consider the fact that the earliest form of mollusc of which we have a record, the brachiopod Lingula, is still to be found in the coral islands of Melanesia, apparently identical with its earliest progenitors who lived thousands of thousands of years ago, we are bound to acknowledge that there is no absolute rule of progressive evolution. Yet that, upon the whole, there has been upward progress, is also abundantly evident. The world in which man has lived is a far more perfect world than it was in any of its earlier stages.

In tracing the history of the structure of the crust of our earth we often find that large formations which were deposited under the sea have been raised to form dry land, and in that condition have been subjected for long periods to denudation, have then again sunk below sea-level, and fresh sedimentary deposits have been laid down on top of the denuded surface; afterwards the whole has been raised again; and we find that the forms of life in the later strata are very different from those in the earlier strata. It is claimed that the evolutionary steps connecting the earlier and the later forms of life are unrepresented because they lived in a period not represented by these strata—the period when the lower strata were dry land—and so many pages of the record are missing, as it were. These pages exist somewhere, perhaps still at the bottom of the sea, and therefore inaccessible to us, but perhaps now forming dry land in some neighbouring territory whither the water life of the district which was raised migrated as their sea grew

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shallower and finally disappeared. In the latter case we may hope that the missing links, if there be any, may yet be found.

But it must be observed that such gaps are somewhat exceptional. We have series of strata of immense thickness which are evidently consecutive, and in them we find new forms arising without any apparent connection with what has gone before.

Some modern German scientists are of opinion that Darwinism will belong only to history after a few decennaries. Without going so far as this, it is yearly becoming more clear that heredity, natural selection, and migration will not account for a very large number of the facts of nature. In an interesting paper by Dr. Karl Müller, of Halle, which is printed in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute” for 1892, he shows that, apparently, the same conditions of habitat and climate are associated with the same types of life, irrespective of time and space; and, although it seems possible that in some cases his conclusions may not be justified, and that minute spores or life-germs have been carried in the air through vast distances until at length they have found a congenial home, yet it is becoming increasingly evident that the laws which, by their interworking, have produced all the endless varieties of life on our earth are very subtle and complicated, and that heredity and natural selection will by no means explain all the facts of nature, although they probably have been eminent amongst the many causes at work. As Professor Nicholson puts it in his “Manual of Palæontology,” p. 53, “Certain classes of animals are always likely to flourish in places and times in which favourable conditions are present, wholly irrespective of any genetic connection between successive faunæ.” And again at page 93, “Palæontology points in the main to the operation of some general law of evolution whereby the later forms of life have been derived from the older ones. That this law has acted along with, and has sometimes been counteracted by, some other and as yet obscure law regulating the appearance of new types, seems equally certain.”

If with our present knowledge we were now to attempt to describe in a brief and general way the gradual development, or progress, or evolution of the world, the description would accord remarkably with that given in that grand series of pictures of typical periods in the world's history in the Book of Genesis.

Of the first and second days or periods we can of course have little or no trace now left on the face of the earth; yet astronomical science and geology combine their testimony in favour of the probable truth of the statements in Genesis,—assuming that the earth was at first intensely hot, and that it

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gradually cooled; then water condensed on its surface and settled in the hollows caused by contraction, and so began the great series of wearings-down by atmospheric agency, deposition of aqueous strata, upheavals, depressions, crumplings, and crushings which have moulded our earth through long ages into its present condition of mountains, hills, valleys, plains, seas, lakes, rivers. Then plant-life in water and on land first appears. Very dim are the records of plant-life in the earliest gneiss rocks of the Laurentian beds. They are in the form of graphite, in which only the faintest traces of organic structure have yet been discovered. But in the later “old red sandstone,” and in the great “Carboniferous” strata, the evidences are clear and full of the growth of a comparatively low type of plants in most luxuriant abundance, and under conditions apparently of obscured skies and a steamy atmosphere. Some traces of low types of animal life in crustaceans, molluscs, and fish are also found in these strata; but the salient feature of this period is plant-life. I imagine that the description of the third day in Genesis refers to this period, which also covers the fourth day, during which the sky became less obscured by clouds, and the superabundant carbonic-acid gas was used up by plants, fitting the world for higher forms of life, and that, as plant-life was not to be referred to again in the notices of the subsequent days' work, the higher orders of plants which had not yet appeared, but which were to grow afterwards, were also mentioned at this time, as it were prophetically, or as being, according to evolutionary theory, potentially existing in the earlier forms. I do not think that this view can be considered as one which unduly strains the meaning of the original. It professes to be a Divine revelation, and, if it be in the form, as we suppose, of a series of visions, intended to explain in a general way how our earth and its inhabitants were brought into being, it seems probable that, as each successive advance in the scale of life was shown, its final as well as its earlier types would appear in the vision, and so each vision would be in some measure prophetic of what was to be afterwards. I have already avowed my conviction that in some sense there is a deep truth in the idea of evolution, and the view I have suggested as to the probable meaning of the enumeration of the higher as well as of the lower orders of plant-life in the creation of the third day is in accordance with the view of evolution which supposes that in certain life-germs there are potentialities of development in, it may be, a number of upward directions, which in course of time and in appropriate environments are accomplished; and so new varieties—it may be, new species and even genera—have been evolved. This period of intense activity of plant-life is followed by a pause or partial cessation of life-activity during the

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times when the Permian strata were being formed. I would observe, however, that this pause in the abundance of life, and the subsequent pause at the close of the Cretaceous period, were probably not so marked as would appear from Professor Phillips's diagram, which was prepared some thirty years ago in accordance with the facts then known. Since then extensive beds in North America have been discovered containing fossils which partially bridge the gap between the Cretaceous and Tertiary strata, and others in Bohemia which in some

degree perform a similar office in respect to the gap between the Permian and Triassic strata. Still, the general facts remain unaltered by these later discoveries. Then the strata of the Secondary or Mesozoic period were deposited, and they contain records of a time when the waters swarmed with varied life, and the air with winged inhabitants. The salient feature of this period is the appearance of the great saurians, and the teeming life in water and air. There is also an advance

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in plant-life suited to the clearer heavens, when sun, moon, and stars were now visible. This period would seem to correspond with the fifth day of creation, and to have its termination in that second pause, or great diminution of life, which seems to have occurred between the Secondary and Tertiary periods. With the commencement of the Tertiary period life-activity bursts forth again, and new forms appear—great terrestrial mammals, higher kinds of vegetation, flowers, fruits, and insects, and finally domestic animals and man.

The correspondence in all essential features between the Scriptural account and the facts of nature is complete. Science fills out the pictures with endless and wonderful details, and teaches us that the days of creation were not days of twenty-four hours, but of many thousands of years, and the use of the word in Scripture to denote long periods of time, in numerous places, removes all difficulty on that account. But science can only trace the facts in the order of their occurrence, and form conclusions more or less approximately true as to the duration of successive periods: it can give no account of the origin of the Cosmos. We can trace in many cases effects back to their immediate causes; but even then the interworking of the various forces is so complicated that we are often baffled in our search, and always we are foiled in our attempts by scientific methods to reach the origin of matter or of energy in their varied manifestations. Chemists tell us that their most powerful means of analysis have hitherto failed to reduce the number of simple substances, such as gold, silver, iron, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, &c., below a certain number; but philosophers hold that eventually we shall discover a primitive atom, or molecule, from which all these substances have been built up. It may be so, but at present we know nothing of this primitive molecule, or of the mode in which these varied forms of matter have been produced. The case seems very similar with regard to plant and animal life. Naturalists inform us that there are so many kinds or species of life; each species reproduces itself, and so collectively lives on in its separate life: but hitherto the attempt to transmute one kind of life into another has been as futile as the attempt to transmute iron into gold. Philosophers hold that there was a primitive cell, or germ of life, from which all the varied kinds of life have been built up. It may be so; but at present we know nothing of this protean germ. I think that the suggestion I threw out with regard to the lower and higher kinds of plant-life—viz., that the earlier and simpler forms might have contained potentially the higher and later forms—has been definitely stated before by some writer on the subject, and it may be that such an evolutionary mode of creation was actually adopted in this and other similar cases—and evolution

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in each case up to a certain limit, which limit seems to have been finally reached when man appeared on the scene, for we have no evidence of any new species having appeared on earth since that time. Species have varied within their limits, but no new species has appeared. Artificial selection has not been able to produce a new species within the human era; still less has natural selection. Romanes has very fully stated all the different lines of evidence from morphology, embryology, geographical distribution, &c., which seem to support the general idea of some sort of evolution of life. But the theory that all the multitudinous forms of life which now exist, and which have existed, all perfectly fulfilling their parts in the great drama, should have been the result of forces acting according to fixed laws, and so interworking as to produce these results without design, but by so-called chance, seems to me mathematically impossible: the chances are millions to one against such results having occurred; the failures would immensely have exceeded the successes, and we have no evidence of any failures. Moreover, we must account for matter, forces, and the laws governing them. We are logically compelled to seek for a first cause.

And what is our ultimate experimental conception of force or energy? It is will. All the work of man on this earth is the direct result of his will-power guided by his intellect. If finite wills can produce such results, what limit can we assign to an infinite will guided by an infinite intellect?

I conceive of evolution as I do of education. By education all that is potentially within a human being may be brought out, but by no education is it possible to produce out of a dull boy a Shakespeare or a Newton. Up to his limits he can be educated, but not beyond them.

So, it seems to me, in the evolution of different kinds of life. The original germ contained certain potentialities, and up to those limits it was, by a suitable environment, evolved or unfolded, but never beyond them. The mystery of that germ remains as great as ever, and, however numerous the varieties, as yet we have no certain knowledge of a real transmutation of species, or of a gradual alteration of structure to suit an altered environment, such as is assumed as an axiom by Mr. Romanes. Until the theory has been proved to be a fact true science suspends its judgment and searches for the facts; although we may take the Darwinian theory of evolution, or some such theory, as a convenient working hypothesis for the present.

We may undoubtedly accept as a working hypothesis, which has very strong arguments in its favour, that the remarkable unity in structural design which we discern in the animate world has been brought about in some way through heredity, or natural descent, with variations. Such a working hypothesis

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has been found very helpful in classifying plants and animals, whether truly or not is still uncertain. Possibly in course of time the evidence may become so strong and consistent that we may be justified in looking on this hypothesis as a fact; we may even get so far as to learn under what conditions in the past the great variations in type forming new species and genera have occurred.

But what I wish to bring before this meeting is that at present we have no such certainties. We have only theories and probabilities in regard to evolution, and we are not justified in speaking of evolution, or modes of evolution, as if they were ascertained facts. Moreover, were the hypothesis of evolution established as a fact it would in no way alter or lessen the essential logical necessity for an efficient first cause and continuous energy.

May I be permitted, in conclusion, to express my regret that we English, whose language is now more widely used than any other in the world, should have chosen not to use it in our scientific nomenclature? The Germans have been more happy—they use their own language instead of a contorted Latin or Greek. For instance, in Insektenkunde, or insect-knowledge (entomology), Coleoptera are Deckflügler or Shield-wings; Hymenoptera, Hautflügler or Skinwings; Lepidoptera, Schuppenflügler or Scalewings; Neuroptera, Netzflügler or Lacewings; Orthoptera, Geradflügler or Straight-wings; Hemiptera, Halbflügler or Half-wings. I am afraid it is too late to attempt a change now, but if it could be done it would be a great blessing to the rising generation—almost as great a blessing as the adoption of a decimal system of weights, measures, and money, which we have hoped for so long, but which seems as far off as ever.

I am well aware that in alluding as I have done to the theory of evolution I have, as it were, thrown down the gauntlet and opened the door to criticism and discussion. Evolution at present may be said to be in the air, like Home Rule and the great Labour-and-capital question, and people hold very different views on such subjects. But discussion is always interesting, and very often the discussion which follows a paper is much more valuable than the paper which gave rise to the discussion, as the latter brings out many thoughts of many minds. I hope, therefore, that my address may prove fruitful in discussion, and in other papers.

Sir James Hector moved a vote of thanks to the President for his most interesting and suggestive address. It opened up a number of disputed questions which would cause a most interesting controversy, and would, he thought, be the means of bringing forward a number of interesting papers from some of the members during this session.

Mr. T. Kirk had great pleasure in seconding the vote of thanks. The address was most valuable on account of its suggestiveness. It would

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no doubt be taken up by members during the year. Some parts of the address would be considered unorthodox, but there was evidence that changes would take place in the evolution theory. The address touched on many questions of great use and interest.

Vote carried.

General Schaw returned thanks, and said he was quite prepared to have the address criticized, and he hoped it would be the means of our gaining additional knowledge on some important subjects.