J. Arthur (John Arthur) Thomson.

The Bible of nature : five lectures delivered before Lake Forest College on the foundation of the late William Bross (Volume 4) online

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BR A5 .B76 v. 4

Thomson, J. Arthur 1861

The Bible of nature











NEW YORK .... 1908

Copyright, 1908, by

Published September, 1908


The Bross Lectures are an outgrowth of a fund
established in 1879 by the late William Bross,
Lieutenant-Governor of Illinois from 1866 to
1870. Desiring some memorial of his son, Na-
thaniel Bross, who died in 1856, Mr. Bross entered
into an agreement with the "Trustees of Lake
Forest University," whereby there was finally
transferred to them the sum of forty thousand dol-
lars, the income of which was to accumulate in
perpetuity for successive periods of ten years, the
accumulations of one decade to be spent in the
following decade, for the purpose of stimulating
the best books or treatises *'o7i the connection, re-
lation and mutvxd hearing of any practical science,
the history of our race, or the facts in any depart-
ment of knowledge, with and upon the Christian
Religion.*' The object of the donor was to "ca//
out the best efforts of the highest talent ajid the ripest
scholarship of the world to illustrate from science,
or from any department of knowledge, and to demon-
strate the divine origin and the authority of the
Christian Scriptures', and, further, to show how
both science and revelation coincide and prove the
existence, the 'providence, or any or all of the attri-

vi The Bross Foundation

hides of the only living and true God, 'infinite,
eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom,
power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.*"

The gift contemplated in the original agreement
of 1879 was finally consummated in 1890. The
first decade of the accumulation of interest having
closed in 1900, the Trustees of the Bross Fund
began at this time to carry out the provisions of the
deed of gift. It was determined to give the gen-
eral title of "The Bross Library" to the series of
books purchased and published with the proceeds
of the Bross Fund. In accordance with the ex-
press wish of the donor, that the "Evidences of
Christianity" of his "very dear friend and teacher,
Mark Hopkins, D.D.," be purchased and "ever
numbered and known as No. 1 of the series,"
the Trustees secured the copyright of this work,
which is now numbered as Volume I of the Bross

The trust agreement prescribed two methods by
which the production of books and treatises of the
nature contemplated by the donor was to be stimu-
lated :

1. The Trustees were empowered to offer one
or more prizes during each decade, the competi-
tion for which was to be thrown open to "the
scientific men, the Christian philosophers and
historians of all nations." In accordance with
this provision, a prize of $6,000 was offered in

The Bross Foundation vii

1902 for the best book fulfilling the conditions of
the deed of gift, the competing manuscripts to
be presented on or before June 1, 1905. The
prize was awarded to the Reverend James Orr,
D.D., Professor of Apologetics and Systematic
Theology in the United Free Church College,
Glasgow, for his treatise on "The Problem of the
Old Testament," which was published in 1906
as Volume III of the Bross Library. The next
decennial prize will be awarded about 1915, and
will be announced in due time.

2. The Trustees were also empowered to "se-
lect and designate any particular scientific man or
Christian philosopher and the subject on which he
shall write," and to "agree with him as to the sum
he shall receive for the book or treatise to be writ-
ten." Under this provision the Trustees have,
from time to time, invited eminent scholars to de-
liver courses of lectures before Lake Forest Col-
lege, such courses to be subsequently published as
volumes in the Bross Library. The first course of
lectures, on "Obligatory Morality," was delivered
in May, 1903, by the Reverend Francis Landey
Patton, D.D., LL.D., President of Princeton
Theological Seminary. The copyright of these
lectures is now the property of the Trustees of the
Bross Fund. The second course of lectures, on
"The Bible: Its Origin and Nature," was deliv-
ered in May, 1904, by the Reverend Marcus

viii The Bross Foundation

Dods, D.D., Professor of Exegetical Theology in
New College, Edinburgh. These lectures were
published in 1905 as Volume II of the Bross Li-
brary. The third course of lectures, on "The
Bible of Nature," was delivered from September
24 to October 3, 1907, by Mr. J. Arthur Thomson,
M.A., Regius Professor of Natural History in the
University of Aberdeen. These lectures are em-
bodied in the present volume.


President of Lake Forest College,

Lake Forest, Illinois,
November, 1907.



The sense of wonder a human characteristic, though
very varied in expression — It Hes at the roots of science
and philosophy, and is one of the footstools of religion —
What are the mainsprings of rational wonder? — The
abundance of power in the world — We cannot think of it
as beginning or as ending — An illustration from Radium
— The power of life is not less wonderful — A water-mite
is relatively more efficient than a steam-engine, and a
fire-fly than a search-light — The constructive and destruc-
tive power of microbes — The abundance of life — Goethe's
expression of this — The wonder of the immensities of
Nature remains in spite of our modern annihilation of
distance — Fraunhofer "approximavit sidera," but there is
still room for wonder — The manifoldness of Nature, an
overflowing form-fountain — Intricacy of things, an ant is
many times more visibly intricate than a locomotive —
"The simplest organism we know is far more complex
than the Constitution of the United States" — Amid all
this multiplicity and intricacy there is a pervading order —
The world is a cosmos, not a curiosity-shop; a universe,
not a multiverse — Most disturbances of the order are of
man's making — "All epidemic diseases could be abolished
in fifty years" — The pervading order is seen in the uni-
versal network of interrelations — Nature is a vast system
of linkages — The web of life — It is true that there is uni-
versal flux — The world is "a changeful process in which
nought endures save the flow of energy and the rational

X Summary of Contents

order which pervades it" — Yet there is persistence amid
change — A species is "a sort of visible fugue wandering
about a central theme" — "The organic world as a whole
is a perpetual flux of changing types," and yet there is a
remarkable stability of type — The drama of animal life,
its inexhaustible marvels — Migrations of birds and eels as
illustrations — Adaptations — "Wherever you tap organic
nature it seems to flow with purpose" — The old special
arguments from design are replaceable by "a wider tele-
ology, based upon the fundamental proposition of evolu-
tion" — Progress the crowning wonder — In Lotze's words,
"There is the unity of an onward advancing melody" —
The omnipresence of beauty In finished and normal things
— Is any one thing more wonderful than another? — Walt
Whitman's doctrine — The wonder of a pebble, a flower in
the wall, an earthworm — ^The sense of wonder and the
scientific mood — ^The relations of the practical, emotional,
and scientific moods — ^The sense of wonder and the re-
sults of science — Kant's famous passage on wonder —
Emerson's "Excelsior."


The antiquity of things — ^The age of the Earth must be
reckoned in millions of years — ^Things have changed with
the times — The nebular or meteoritic hypothesis — The
history of a star — Stages in the history of the Earth —
Sculpturing of scenery — The hand of life upon the Earth
— Age of the Earth — Inorganic evolution — Interpretation
of the past — Scientific interpretation is not in the strict
sense explanation — It is redescription in terms of the sim-
plest possible formulae — William of Occam's razor — But
the common denominator of physical science [Matter,
Energy, Ether] is not self-explanatory — Admittedly, science
starts with a great deal "given" — Development and evolu-

Smmnary of Contents xi

tion — The story of the Earth is really the story of a develop-
ment, a continuous natural development in which ante-
cedents pass over into their consequents — Recoil from the
scientific position — The scientific outlook is not the only
one permissible and available, but we must not try to look
out of two windows at once — The aim of science as dis-
tinguished from that of philosophy — If the scientific in-
terpretation is sound, the cosmos was already implicit in
the "nebula," there never was any chaos at all, there is
nothing in the end that was not also in the beginning —
We are thus led to add to the scientific interpretation a
philosophical interpretation: "In the beginning was the


The great variety of living creatures — What is charac-
teristic of them all as distinguished from inanimate systems
— Contrast of the quick and the dead — Puzzling phenom-
ena, such as latent life, local life, potential life — The living
organism looked at from the chemist's point of view —
Living matter probably a mixture (obviously no jumble!)
of proteids and other highly complex substances, owing
its virtue to their cooperative interaction — The living or-
ganism looked at from the physicist's point of view — An
engine? A self-stoking, self-repairing, self-preservative,
self-adjusting, self-increasing, self-reproducing engine I —
At present no vital phenomenon can be completely re-
described in physico-chemical terms — The living organism
looked at from the biologist's point of view — It is char-
acterized by its pov/er of growth at the expense of material
quite different from itself, by retaining its integrity in
spite of ceaseless metabolism, by its cyclical development,
by its power of effective response, by its unified behaviour —
The problem of the origin of organisms upon the Earth^

xii Summary of Contents

Does this admit of scientific solution ? — Had life a begin-
ning ? — May organisms have come from elsewhere ? May
organisms have been evolved from not-living matter?
"Omne vivum e vivo" an empirical statement of the re-
sults of observation, not a dogma — The trend of evolu-
tionary thinking leads one to favor the idea of abiogenesis
— The difficulties to be faced — We must not exaggerate
the apartness of the animate from the inanimate; nor
depreciate it — Suppose an organism could be made arti-
ficially, what then ?


The general idea of evolution (that the present is the
child of the past and the parent of the future) was first
realized in relation to human affairs — It was thence pro-
jected on Nature — It is a very old idea, perhaps as old as
clear thinking — Darwin and his fellow-workers made the
idea of organic evolution current intellectual coin — Why
do we accept the evolutionary modal interpretation? — It
is not demonstrable like the conservation of energy or like
the gravitation formula — We accept it because it fits the
facts, because no facts contradict it, because it is con-
gruent with our interpretation of other orders of facts —
There is no other scientific modal interpretation — The
validity of the theory of descent — We must not mix up
scientific with transcendental interpretations — The facts of
past history as disclosed by the patience of the palaeon-
tologists — The record in the rocks — Impressions: that
everything is equally perfect, no prentice work; that the
fountain of life is practically inexhaustible, infinite resource;
that many fine types and races have wholly passed away
without leaving any lineal descendants; that there is in-
dubitable progress, throughout the ages life has been
slowly creeping upward — Factors in Evolution — The raw

Summary of Contents xiii

material of progress furnished by variations and mutations
— De Vries's Evening Primroses — "Modifications" do not
count for much as far as the race is concerned — The
directive factors are included in the terms Selection and
Isolation — A common error as to fortuitousness — The
preciousness of individuality — The importance of struggle
and endeavor — Struggle is more than competitive — Ethical
aspect of organic evolution — Attempt at a correction of the
ultra-Darwinian picture — The struggle for existence is
often an endeavor after well-being, an rndeavor for others
as well as self — Darwin on the emotional value of the
evolutionary conception.


Man's zoological position and his distinctive peculiarities
— Closely allied anatomically to the Primates, but dis-
tinctive from heel to chin, from big toe to forehead, above
all in his big brain — His real distinctiveness depends not
on anatomical peculiarities, but on his powers, especially
on his powers of rational discourse, of building up general
ideas, of guiding his conduct by ideals — Does "the all-
pervading similitude of structure" between Man and the
Primate stock imply affiliation? — The scientific answer is
Yes, Man and the Anthropoid apes must have had a com-
mon ancestor — What other interpretations are in the field ?
That man is "the Great Exception" to natural evolution,
that while his body was naturally evolved he received a
specific "spiritual influx" — Summary of the facts used by
Darwin and others in support of the evolutionist inter-
pretation — As in other cases, these are not demonstrative,
but they have a cumulative convincingness — The difficulty
of the problem of the Ascent of Man — We do not know
how he arose, or whence he came, or when he began, or
where it was — His antiquity is certain, but little else — Man

xiv Summary of Contents

as a "Mutation" — Possible factors in the early evolution
of Man — Repugnance to the scientific interpretation,
partly due to misunderstanding, partly aesthetic, partly
ethical — The value of a product is independent of its re-
mote origin — Man is not a masterpiece "accidentally pro-
duced"; Man forms a new departure in the gradual un-
folding of Nature's predestined scheme — The evolutionist
interpretation is not necessarily naturalistic — A comparison
and contrast of animal behavior and human conduct — As
regards animals, we may speak of intelligence, but not of
reason; of words, but not of language; of behavior, but
not of conduct — In what sense, if any, can it be said that
human conduct has evolved from animal behaviour ? — The
cerebral mutation was the Rubicon — Increasing cerebral
complexity made a higher intelligence possible, language
and conscience date from that dawn — Certain raw ma-
terials of conduct in the form of primary impulses were
inherited from pre-human ancestry, but Man, who reasoned,
spoke, and controlled his behaviour in relation to more than
merely perceptual ends, raised these to a higher power —
Huxley's thesis as regards the contrast between human
and cosmic evolution — Reasons for dissenting from Hux-
ley's conclusion — Value of the evolutionary conception of
Man — It clears things up, it suggests effort, it is hope-
inspiring, it makes the whole cosmic process more intel-
ligible — Retrospect on the riddles which our brief survey
has disclosed — They bring us back to the wonder with
which we began — The riddles of things as they are — We
formulate sequences in terms which are not self-explan-
atory—The riddles of the history of things— Riddles as to
origins— The riddle of the death of the Earth— The riddle
of suffering — The philosophical and the scientific outlook
— The limitations of science — Anima animans — Meaning
of the title "The Bible of Nature."




The Sense of Wonder. — Perhaps even the most
"profane person" has some secret shrine where
he allows himself at least to wonder. What may
not the object of this wonder be — the grandeur
of the star-strewn sky, the mystery of the moun-
tains, the sea eternally new, the way of the eagle
in the air, the meanest flower that blows, the look
in a child's eyes? Somewhere, sometime, some-
how, every one confesses, "This is too wonderful
for me."

The sense of wonder varies in expression ac-
cording to race and temperament, according to
health and habits, according to its degree of culture
and freedom. Caliban's is different from Ariel's,
and Prosperous from both. But whatever be its
particular expression, the sense of wonder is one
of the saving graces of life, and he who is without
it might as well be dead. It lies at the roots of
both science and philosophy, and it has been in all
ages one of the footstools of religion. When it
dies one of the lights of life goes out. Keeping to
the outer world of nature, let us illustrate what may
be called the mainsprings of rational wonder.

4 The Bible of Nature

Abundance of Power. — In ancient days when mas-
tery of the forces of nature was not even dreamed
of, men were almost overwhelmed by their sense
of the abundance of power in the world. Unable
to see much order in this power, unable to utilize
it, they took what came and wondered. Often
personifying the various forces, they brought
thank-offerings when these were benign and sacri-
fices when they were hostile. Short-sighted and
timorous, they paid heavy premiums to experience,
and yet were slow to learn. It may be, however,
that they excelled us, in whom familiarity has bred
commonplaceness, in their keener sense of the
abundance of power in the world. It seems some-
times as if we needed an earthquake, a volcanic
eruption, a tornado, a comet, to re-awaken us to a
sense of the world Bvva/iL<i, to the powers that make
our whole solar system travel in space toward an
unknown goal, that keep our earth together and
awhirling round the sun, that sway the tides
and rule the winds, that mould the dew-drop and
build the crystal, that clothe the lily and give us
energy for every movement and every thought
— in short that keep the whole system of things

"Trees in their blooming,
Tides in their flowing,
Stars in their circling,
Tremble with song."

The Wonder of the World 5

And one note in that song is Power y which we can-
not think of as beginning or as ending, which never
seems to alter in quantity though it is always chang-
ing its quality, which is not a whit less wonderful
though we say that it is *' all electricity," and cer-
tainly not less wonderful if we are able to say

"God on His throne
Is Eldest of poets,
Unto His measures
Moveth the whole."

A Modem Instance. — Let us take a now familiar
instance of this Power. Besides theoretical and
possibly practical results, there has been some emo-
tional gain in the recent startling discoveries which
centre around the word radio-activity. From a
ton of pitch-blende, the investigators extract less
than a grain of radium, which, apart from living
matter, is the most wonderful kind of matter in the
world. Incessantly and without appreciable loss
it pours forth heat and light; its rays penetrate
thick plates of metal, excite phosphorescence in
other bodies, discharge electroscopes from a dis-
tance, and have strange effects on living creatures.
We are told that radium gives off not only recti-
linear darting rays, but also a gaseous emanation
which is radio-active, which precipitates itself as
a ''something" on various kinds of bodies and
makes them also radio-active. It decays and be-

6 The Bible of Nature

comes, in part at least, something else — namely,
that rare stuff called Helium, which Sir Norman
Lockyer found many years ago in the Sun, which
also occurs in warm springs and rare minerals.
One kind of radium ray is said to consist of streams
of little bodies, which travel at the rate of 20,000
miles a second, 40,000 times faster than a rifle bul-
let; another kind is said to consist of streams of
little bodies, darting forth at the prodigious rate
of 100,000 miles a second; another kind is said to
consist of pulses in the ether, which can penetrate
a foot of solid iron. In spite of all the energy it
gives off, radium is but slowly used up. It is
possibly being continually formed afresh in the
earth, perhaps from Uranium. A small quantity
diffused in the earth will suffice to compensate for
all the loss of heat by radiation; a fraction of one
per cent, in the sun would compensate for all its
immense loss of heat. Is this not "too wonderful
for us?"

Power of Life. — We do not perhaps think much
about it, but the abundance of power in living
creatures is truly wonderful, just as wonderful as
radium. Call them engines — animate systems
which transform matter and energy — they are
more perfect than our best engines, the perfection
being measured by the relation between the energy
which enters them and the work they do. "Joule
pointed out that not only does an animal much

The Wonder of the World 7

more nearly resemble in its function an electro-
magnetic engine than it resembles a steam-engine,
but also that it is a much more efficient engine;
that is to say, an animal, for the same amount of
potential energy of food or fuel supplied to it — call
it fuel, to compare it with other engines — gives you
a larger amount converted into work than any
engine which we can construct physically." Lang-
ley pointed out that a fire-fly is a much more eco-
nomical light-producer than any human lumi-
niferous device. As a physicist looking at life and
puzzling over its dynamic mystery, Professor Joly
advanced the following interesting and important
proposition: "While the transfer of energy into
any inanimate material system is attended by ef-
fects retardative to the transfer and conducive to
dissipation, the transfer of energy into any ani-
mate material system is attended by effects con-
ducive to the transfer and retardative of dissipa-
tion." From a dynamic point of view it is
wonderful to watch, let us say, a few water-mites
imprisoned in a vessel where the supply of food is
of the smallest. Day after day, week after week, we
see them darting about with extreme rapidity, we
hardly ever catch them napping. They cannot
evade the law of the conservation of energy, but
it certainly seems as if they did.

Or take another entirely different case — the de-
structive power of microbes. It seems certain

8 The Bible of Nature

that some microbes in certain phases can pass
through the most carefully constructed water-filter
and are invisible to the best microscope. We know
that they pass through by the results; we can get
cultures of them out of the water. Yet these in-
visibly minute creatures have so much constructive
power that from one, in a few hours, a million
may result, and so much destructive power that
a small dose of them soon kills an ox.

Abundance of Life. — We need only allude to the
actual abundance of life. The roll-call of animals
includes so many tens of thousands of species that,
so far as our power of realizing the total is con-
cerned, it is hardly affected when we note that
more than half of them are insects. More than
two thousand years ago Aristotle recorded a total
of about 500 animals, but there may be more new
species in a single volume of the Challenger Re-
ports. We speak of the number of stars, yet more
than one family of insects is credited with includ-
ing as many different species as there are stars to
count with the unaided eye on a clear night. And
besides the number of different kinds, think of the
uncountable numbers of individuals.

" But what an endlesse worke have I on hand
To count the sea's abundant progeny
Whose fruitful seede farre passeth those on land,
And also those which wonne in th' azure sky,
How much more eath to tell the starres on hy,

The Wonder of the World 9

Albe they endlesse seem in estimation,

Than to recount the sea's posterity.

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Online LibraryJ. Arthur (John Arthur) ThomsonThe Bible of nature : five lectures delivered before Lake Forest College on the foundation of the late William Bross (Volume 4) → online text (page 1 of 15)