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- The Present Condition of Organic Nature - 1/3 -


THE PRESENT CONDITION OF ORGANIC NATURE.

When it was my duty to consider what subject I would select for the six lectures [*To Working Men, at the Museum of Practical Geology, 1863.] which I shall now have the pleasure of delivering to you, it occurred to me that I could not do better than endeavour to put before you in a true light, or in what I might perhaps with more modesty call, that which I conceive myself to be the true light, the position of a book which has been more praised and more abused, perhaps, than any book which has appeared for some years;--I mean Mr. Darwin's work on the "Origin of Species". That work, I doubt not, many of you have read; for I know the inquiring spirit which is rife among you. At any rate, all of you will have heard of it,--some by one kind of report and some by another kind of report; the attention of all and the curiosity of all have been probably more or less excited on the subject of that work. All I can do, and all I shall attempt to do, is to put before you that kind of judgment which has been formed by a man, who, of course, is liable to judge erroneously; but, at any rate, of one whose business and profession it is to form judgments upon questions of this nature.

And here, as it will always happen when dealing with an extensive subject, the greater part of my course--if, indeed, so small a number of lectures can be properly called a course--must be devoted to preliminary matters, or rather to a statement of those facts and of those principles which the work itself dwells upon, and brings more or less directly before us. I have no right to suppose that all or any of you are naturalists; and even if you were, the misconceptions and misunderstandings prevalent even among naturalists on these matters would make it desirable that I should take the course I now propose to take,--that I should start from the beginning,--that I should endeavour to point out what is the existing state of the organic world,--that I should point out its past condition,--that I should state what is the precise nature of the undertaking which Mr. Darwin has taken in hand; that I should endeavour to show you what are the only methods by which that undertaking can be brought to an issue, and to point out to you how far the author of the work in question has satisfied those conditions, how far he has not satisfied them, how far they are satisfiable by man, and how far they are not satisfiable by man.

To-night, in taking up the first part of this question, I shall endeavour to put before you a sort of broad notion of our knowledge of the condition of the living world. There are many ways of doing this. I might deal with it pictorially and graphically. Following the example of Humboldt in his "Aspects of Nature", I might endeavour to point out the infinite variety of organic life in every mode of its existence, with reference to the variations of climate and the like; and such an attempt would be fraught with interest to us all; but considering the subject before us, such a course would not be that best calculated to assist us. In an argument of this kind we must go further and dig deeper into the matter; we must endeavour to look into the foundations of living Nature, if I may so say, and discover the principles involved in some of her most secret operations. I propose, therefore, in the first place, to take some ordinary animal with which you are all familiar, and, by easily comprehensible and obvious examples drawn from it, to show what are the kind of problems which living beings in general lay before us; and I shall then show you that the same problems are laid open to us by all kinds of living beings. But first, let me say in what sense I have used the words "organic nature." In speaking of the causes which lead to our present knowledge of organic nature, I have used it almost as an equivalent of the word "living," and for this reason,--that in almost all living beings you can distinguish several distinct portions set apart to do particular things and work in a particular way. These are termed "organs," and the whole together is called "organic." And as it is universally characteristic of them, this term "organic" has been very conveniently employed to denote the whole of living nature,--the whole of the plant world, and the whole of the animal world.

Few animals can be more familiar to you than that whose skeleton is shown on our diagram. You need not bother yourselves with this "Equus caballus" written under it; that is only the Latin name of it, and does not make it any better. It simply means the common Horse. Suppose we wish to understand all about the Horse. Our first object must be to study the structure of the animal. The whole of his body is inclosed within a hide, a skin covered with hair; and if that hide or skin be taken off, we find a great mass of flesh, or what is technically called muscle, being the substance which by its power of contraction enables the animal to move. These muscles move the hard parts one upon the other, and so give that strength and power of motion which renders the Horse so useful to us in the performance of those services in which we employ him.

And then, on separating and removing the whole of this skin and flesh, you have a great series of bones, hard structures, bound together with ligaments, and forming the skeleton which is represented here.

[FIGURE 1. (Section through a horse.)

FIGURE 2. (Section through a cell.)]

In that skeleton there are a number of parts to be recognized. The long series of bones, beginning from the skull and ending in the tail, is called the spine, and those in front are the ribs; and then there are two pairs of limbs, one before and one behind; and there are what we all know as the fore-legs and the hind-legs. If we pursue our researches into the interior of this animal, we find within the framework of the skeleton a great cavity, or rather, I should say, two great cavities,--one cavity beginning in the skull and running through the neck-bones, along the spine, and ending in the tail, containing the brain and the spinal marrow, which are extremely important organs. The second great cavity, commencing with the mouth, contains the gullet, the stomach, the long intestine, and all the rest of those internal apparatus which are essential for digestion; and then in the same great cavity, there are lodged the heart and all the great vessels going from it; and, besides that, the organs of respiration-- the lungs: and then the kidneys, and the organs of reproduction, and so on. Let us now endeavour to reduce this notion of a horse that we now have, to some such kind of simple expression as can be at once, and without difficulty, retained in the mind, apart from all minor details. If I make a transverse section, that is, if I were to saw a dead horse across, I should find that, if I left out the details, and supposing I took my section through the anterior region, and through the fore-limbs, I should have here this kind of section of the body (Fig. 1). Here would be the upper part of the animal--that great mass of bones that we spoke of as the spine (a, Fig. 1). Here I should have the alimentary canal (b, Fig. 1). Here I should have the heart (c, Fig. 1); and then you see, there would be a kind of double tube, the whole being inclosed within the hide; the spinal marrow would be placed in the upper tube (a, Fig. 1), and in the lower tube (d d, Fig. 1), there would be the alimentary canal (b), and the heart (c); and here I shall have the legs proceeding from each side. For simplicity's sake, I represent them merely as stumps (e e, Fig. 1). Now that is a horse--as mathematicians would say--reduced to its most simple expression. Carry that in your minds, if you please, as a simplified idea of the structure of the Horse. The considerations which I have now put before you belong to what we technically call the 'Anatomy' of the Horse. Now, suppose we go to work upon these several parts,--flesh and hair, and skin and bone, and lay open these various organs with our scalpels, and examine them by means of our magnifying- glasses, and see what we can make of them. We shall find that the flesh is made up of bundles of strong fibres. The brain and nerves, too, we shall find, are made up of fibres, and these queer-looking things that are called ganglionic corpuscles. If we take a slice of the bone and examine it, we shall find that it is very like this diagram of a section of the bone of an ostrich, though differing, of course, in some details; and if we take any part whatsoever of the tissue, and examine it, we shall find it all has a minute structure, visible only under the microscope. All these parts constitute microscopic anatomy or 'Histology.' These parts are constantly being changed; every part is constantly growing, decaying, and being replaced during the life of the animal. The tissue is constantly replaced by new material; and if you go back to the young state of the tissue in the case of muscle, or in the case of skin, or any of the organs I have mentioned, you will find that they all come under the same condition. Every one of these microscopic filaments and fibres (I now speak merely of the general character of the whole process)-- every one of these parts--could be traced down to some modification of a tissue which can be readily divided into little particles of fleshy matter, of that substance which is composed of the chemical elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, having such a shape as this (Fig. 2). These particles, into which all primitive tissues break up, are called cells. If I were to make a section of a piece of the skin of my hand, I should find that it was made up of these cells. If I examine the fibres which form the various organs of all living animals, I should find that all of them, at one time or other, had been formed out of a substance consisting of similar elements; so that you see, just as we reduced the whole body in the gross to that sort of simple expression given in Fig. 1, so we may reduce the whole of the microscopic structural elements to a form of even greater simplicity; just as the plan of the whole body may be so represented in a sense (Fig. 1), so the primary structure of every tissue may be represented by a mass of cells (Fig. 2).

Having thus, in this sort of general way, sketched to you what I may call, perhaps, the architecture of the body of the Horse (what we term technically its Morphology), I must now turn to another aspect. A horse is not a mere dead structure: it is an active, living, working machine. Hitherto we have, as it were, been looking at a steam-engine with the fires out, and nothing in the boiler; but the body of the living animal is a beautifully-formed active machine, and every part has its different work to do in the working of that machine, which is what we call its life. The Horse, if you see him after his day's work is done, is cropping the grass in the fields, as it may be, or munching the oats in his stable. What is he doing? His jaws are working as a mill--and a very complex mill too--grinding the corn, or crushing the grass to a pulp. As soon as that operation has taken place, the food is passed down to the stomach, and there it is mixed with the chemical fluid called the gastric juice, a substance which has the peculiar property of making soluble and dissolving out the nutritious matter in the grass, and leaving behind those parts which are not nutritious; so that you have, first, the mill, then a sort of chemical digester; and then the food, thus partially dissolved, is carried back by the muscular contractions of the intestines into the hinder parts of the body, while the soluble portions are taken up into the blood. The blood is contained in a vast system of pipes, spreading through the whole body, connected with a force pump,--the heart,--which, by its position and by the contractions of its valves, keeps the blood constantly circulating in one direction, never allowing it to rest; and then, by means of this circulation of the blood, laden as it is with the products of digestion, the skin, the flesh, the hair, and every other part of the body, draws from it that which it wants, and every one of these organs derives those materials which are necessary to enable it to do its work.

The action of each of these organs, the performance of each of these various duties, involve in their operation a continual absorption of the matters necessary for their support, from the blood, and a constant formation of waste products, which are returned to the blood, and conveyed by it to the lungs and the kidneys, which are organs that have allotted to them the office of extracting, separating, and getting rid


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