§19. Evolution


103. The evolutionary theory in general throws great light upon history and especially upon the history of science — both its public history and the account of its development in an individual intellect. As great a light is thrown upon the theory of evolution in general by the evolution of history, especially that of science — whether public or private.

104. The main theories of the evolution of organic species are three. First, the theory of Darwin, according to which the entire interval from Moner to Man has been traversed by successive purely fortuitous and insensible variations in reproduction. The changes on the whole follow a determinate course simply because a certain amount of change in certain directions destroys the species altogether, as the final result of successive weakenings of its reproductive power. Second, the theory of Lamarck, according to which the whole interval has been traversed by a succession of very minute changes. But these have not taken place in reproduction, which has absolutely nothing to do with the business, except to keep the average individuals plastic by their youth. The changes have not been fortuitous but wholly the result of strivings of the individuals. Third, the theory of cataclysmal evolution, according to which the changes have not been small and have not been fortuitous; but they have taken place chiefly in reproduction. According to this view, sudden changes of the environment have taken place from time to time. These changes have put certain organs at a disadvantage, and there has been an effort to use them in new ways. Such organs are particularly apt to sport in reproduction and to change in the way which adapts them better to their recent mode of exercise.

105. Notwithstanding the teachings of Weismann, it seems altogether probable that all three of these modes of evolution have acted. It is probable that the last has been the most efficient. These three modes of organic evolution have their parallels in other departments of evolution.

106. Let us consider, for example, the evolution of standards of weights and measures. In order to define the word »pound« in the Century Dictionary,1) I made a list of about four hundred pounds which had been in use in different parts of Europe — undoubtedly a very incomplete list, for it was confined in great measure to certain provinces concerning which I was able to obtain information. Each individual pound or measuring stick is from time to time copied; and at length the old one becomes destroyed. The measure of each copy is imperceptibly larger or smaller than its immediate prototype. If then these variations cannot, by gradual summation, produce a standard much smaller without that standard being destroyed as inconvenient while no such destruction would follow upon an increase of the standard, the average of the standards will slowly grow larger by Darwinian evolution. If there were a disposition on the part of owners of pounds to file them down, so as to make them lighter, though not enough to be noticed, then these filed pounds being copied, and the copies filed, there would be a gradual lightening of the pound by Lamarckian evolution. But it is very unlikely that either of these two modes has been a considerable factor in the actual evolution of weights and measures. As long as their circumstances are unchanged, human communities are exceedingly conservative. Nothing short of the despotism of a modern government with a modern police can cause a change in weights and measures. But from time to time changes occur which cause trade to take new routes. Business has to be adapted to new conditions; and under such influences we find all those habits of communities which are rendered unsuitable by the change become plastic enough. Then it is that a new pound or a new yard may be made which is a compromise between a desire to retain old ways and a desire to please new-comers.

107. In the evolution of science, a Darwinian mode of evolution might, for example, consist in this, that at every recall of a judgment to the mind — say, for example, a judgment in regard to some such delicate question as the marriage of the clergy — a slight fortuitous modification of the judgment might take place; the modified judgment would cause a corresponding modification of the belief-habit, so that the next recall would be influenced by this fortuitous modification, though it would depart more or less from it by a new fortuitous modification. If, however, by such summation of modifications an opinion quite untenable were reached, it would either be violently changed or would be associationally weak and not apt to be recalled. The effect of this would be in the long run that belief would move away from such untenable positions. It is possible that such a mode of influence may affect our instinctive feelings; but there can be nothing of this sort in science, which is controlled and exact. But another sort of Darwinian evolution undoubtedly does take place. We are studying over phenomena of which we have been unable to acquire any satisfactory account. Various tentative explanations recur to our minds from time to time, and at each occurrence are modified by omission, insertion, or change in the point of view, in an almost fortuitous way. Finally, one of these takes such an aspect that we are led to dismiss it as impossible. Then, all the energy of thought which had previously gone to the consideration of that becomes distributed among the other explanations, until finally one of them becomes greatly strengthened in our minds.

108. Lamarckian evolution might, for example, take the form of perpetually modifying our opinion in the effort to make that opinion represent the known facts as more and more observations came to be collected. This is all the time going on in regard, for example, to our estimate of the danger of infection of phthisis. Yet, after all, it does not play a prominent part in the evolution of science. The physical journals — say, for example, Poggendorff's [Annalen der Physik] and Beiblätter — publish each month a great number of new researches. Each of these is a distinct contribution to science. It represents some good, solid, well-trained labor of observation and inference. But as modifying what is already known, the average effect of the ordinary research may be said to be insignificant. Nevertheless, as these modifications are not fortuitous but are for the most part movements toward the truth — could they be rightly understood, all of them would be so — there is no doubt that from decade to decade, even without any splendid discoveries or great studies, science would advance very perceptibly. We see that it is so in branches of physics which remain for a long time without any decisive conquests. It was so, for example, in regard to the classification of the chemical elements in the lapse of time from Berzelius to Mendeléeff, as the valuable history of Venable 1) shows. This is an evolution of the Lamarckian type.

109. But this is not the way in which science mainly progresses. It advances by leaps; and the impulse for each leap is either some new observational resource, or some novel way of reasoning about the observations. Such novel way of reasoning might, perhaps, be considered as a new observational means, since it draws attention to relations between facts which would previously have been passed by unperceived.

[I] illustrate by the discoveries of Pasteur,2) who began by applying the microscope to chemistry. He picked out the right- and left-handed crystals of tartaric acid. The two kinds have absolutely the same properties except in regard to direction of rotation of the plane of polarization and in their chemical relations to other »optically active« bodies. Since this method of picking out individual crystals was so slow, Pasteur looked for other means. Ferments of appropriate kinds were found to have the same effect. The microscope showed these were due to living organisms, which Pasteur began studying. At that time the medical world was dominated by Claude Bernard's dictum that a disease is not an entity but merely a sum of symptoms.3) This was pure metaphysics which only barricaded inquiry in that direction. But that was a generation which attached great value to nominalistic metaphysics. Pasteur began with the phylloxera. He found it influenced the »optical activity« of the sugar. This pointed to a ferment and therefore to an entity. He began to extend the doctrine to other diseases. The medical men, dominated by the metaphysics of Claude Bernard, raised all sorts of sophistical objections. But the method of cultures and inoculation proved the thing, and here we see new ideas connected with new observational methods and a fine example of the usual process of scientific evolution. It is not by insensible steps.


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