L. C. (Louis Compton) Miall.

History of biology online

. (page 1 of 11)
Online LibraryL. C. (Louis Compton) MiallHistory of biology → online text (page 1 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook



The Story of the Sciences




L. C. MIALL. D.Sc., F.R.S.,

ierly Professor' of Biology, Leeds University, 1876-1907
Fullerian Professor, Eoyal Institute, 1904-5

160 pp., with Pictorial Illustrations

(This work may also be had bound in cloth, price 2s. net}






(in old age), from the picture by Hagen-Schwarz.

( By Permission of t/te Berlin Photographic Company, 133 New Bond Street,
London, W,~)




L. C.HVJIALL, D.Sc., F.R.S.,










Biology of the ancients. Extinction of scientific
inquiry. Revival of knowledge.

PERIOD 1(1530-1660) - - - - - 7

Characteristics of the period. The revival of
botany. The revival of zoology. Early notions of
system. The first English naturalists. The rise of
experimental physiology. The natural history of
distant lands (sixteenth century and earlier). Agri-
culture, horticulture, and silk-culture in the sixteenth

PERIOD II (1661-1740) 28

Characteristics of the period. The minute anatomists.
Early notions about the nature of fossils. Compara-
tive anatomy ; the study of biological types. Adapta-
tions of plants and animals ; natural theology.
Spontaneous generation. The natural history of
John Ray. The scale of nature. The sexes of
flowering plants.

PERIOD 111(1741-1789) - - . . - 49

Characteristics of the period. Systems of flowering
plants ; Linnaeus and the Jussieus. Reaumur and
the History of Insects. The budding-out of new
animals (Hydra) ; another form of propagation with-
out mating (aphids). The historical or comparative
method ; Montesquieu and BufFon. Amateur students
of living animals. Intelligence and instinct in the
lower animals. The food of green plants. The
metamorphoses of plants. Early notions about the
lower plants.

M v 3655


PERIOD IV (1790-1858) - 89

Characteristics of the period. Sprengel and the
fertilisation of flowers. Cuvier and the rise of
palaeontology. Chamisso on the alternation of
generations in Salpa. Baer and the development of
animals. The cell-theory. The scientific investiga-
tion of the hig-her cryptogams. The enrichment of
English gardens. Humboldt as a traveller and a
biologist. Premonitions of a biological theory of

PERIOD V (1859 AND LATER) - - 124

Darwin on the Origin of Species. Pasteur's experi-
mental study of microbes.



BIBLIOGRAPHY - - - - - 147

INDEX- - - - - 149



KARL ERNST VON BAER .... Frontispiece





JOHN RAY ... 42






FOUR HUNDRED years ago, say in the year 1500, Biology,
the science of life, was represented chiefly by a slight
and inaccurate natural history of plants and animals.
Botany attracted more students than any other branch,
because it was recognised as a necessary aid to medical
practice. The zoology of the time, extracted from
ancient books, was most valued as a source from
which preachers and moralists might draw impressive
emblems. Anatomy and physiology were taught out of
Galen to the more learned of physicians and surgeons.
Some meagre notices of the plants and animals of
foreign countries, mingled with many childish fables,
eked out the scanty treatises of European natural
history. It was not yet generally admitted that fossil
bones, teeth, and shells were the remains of extinct

It is the purpose of the following chapters to show
how this insignificant body of information expanded
into the biology of the twentieth century ; how it
became enriched by a multitude of new facts, strength-
ened by new methods and animated by new ideas.

The Biology of the Ancients.

Long before the year 1500 there had been a short-
lived science of biology, and it is necessary to explain
how it arose and how it became quenched. Ancient
books and the languages in which they are written
teach us that in very remote times men attended to the



of plants a^d the habits of animals, gave names to
familiar species, and recognised that while human life
4i&s mac : i in common with the life of animals, it has
something in common with the life of plants. Abundant
traces of an interest in living things are to be found in
the oldest records of India, Palestine, and Egypt. Still
more interesting, at least to the inhabitants of Western
Europe, is the biology of the ancient Greeks. The
Greeks were an open-air people, dwelling in a singularly
varied country nowhere far removed from the moun-
tains or the sea. Intellectually they were distinguished
by curiosity, imagination, and a strong taste for
reasoning. Hence it is not to be wondered at that
natural knowledge should have been widely diffused
among them, nor that some of them should have
excelled in science. Besides all the rest, the Greeks
were a literary people, who have left behind them a
copious record of their thoughts and experience. Greek
science, and Greek biology in particular, are therefore
of peculiar interest and value.

Greek naturalists in or before the age of Alexander
the Great had collected and methodised the lore of
the farmer, gardener, hunter, fisherman, herb-gatherer,
and physician ; the extant writings of Aristotle and
Theophrastus give us some notion of what had been
discovered down to that time.

Aristotle shows a wide knowledge of animals. He
dwells upon peculiar instincts, such as the migration of
birds, the nest-building of the fish Phycis, the capture of
prey by the fish Lophius, the protective discharge of
ink by Sepia, and the economy of the hive-bee. He is
fond of combining many particular facts into general
statements like these : No animal which has wings is
without legs ; animals with paired horns have cloven


feet and a complex, ruminating stomach, and lack the
upper incisor teeth ; hollow horns, supported by bony
horn-cores, are not shed, but solid horns are shed every
year ; birds which are armed with spurs are never
armed with lacerating- claws ; insects which bear a sting
in the head are always two-winged, but insects which
bear their sting behind are four-winged. He traces
analogies between things which are superficially unlike,
such as plants and animals the mouth of the animal
and the root of the plant. The systematic naturalist is
prone to attend chiefly to the differences between
species ; Aristotle is equally interested in their resem-
blances. The systematic naturalist arranges his
descriptions under species, Aristotle under organs or
functions; he is the first of the comparative anatomists.
His conception of biology (the word but not the thing
is modern) embraces both animals and plants, ana-
tomy, physiology, and system. That he possessed a
zoological system whose primary divisions were nearly
as good as those of Linnaeus is clear from the names
and distinctions which he employs ; but no formal
system is set forth in his extant writings. His treatise
on plants has unfortunately been lost.

Aristotle, like all the Greeks, was unpractised in
experiment. It had not yet been discovered that an
experiment may quickly and certainly decide questions
which might be argued at great length without result,
nor that an experiment devised to answer one question
may suggest others possibly more important than the
first. Deliberate scientific experiments are so rare
among the Greeks that we can hardly point to more
than two those on refraction of light, commonly
attributed to Ptolemy, and those by which Pythagoras
is supposed to have ascertained the numerical relations


of the musical scale. Aristotle was the last great man
of science who lived and taught in Greece. His
writings disappeared from view for many centuries,
and when they were recovered they were not so much
examined and corrected as idolised.

Greece lost her liberty at Chaeronea, and with liberty
her fairest hopes of continued intellectual development.
Nevertheless, during a great part of a thousand years
the Greek and Semitic school of Alexandria cultivated
the sciences with diligence and success. We must say
nothing here about the geometry, astronomy, optics, or
geography there taught, but merely note that Hero-
philus and Erasistratus, unimpeded by that repugnance
to mutilation of the human body which had been insur-
mountable at Athens, made notable advances in anatomy
and physiology. From this time a fair knowledge of
the bodily structure of man, decidedly superior to that
which Aristotle had possessed, was at the command of
every educated biologist.

The genius of Rome applied itself to purposes remote
from science. The example of Alexandria had its
influence, however, upon some inhabitants of the
Roman Empire. Galen of Pergamum in Asia Minor
prosecuted the study of human anatomy. His know-
ledge of the parts which can be investigated by simple
dissection was extensive, but he was unpractised in
experimental physiology. Hence his teaching, though
full with respect to the skeleton, the chief viscera, and
the parts of the brain, was faulty with respect to the
flow of the blood through the heart and body. Ages
after his death the immense reputation of Galen, like
that of Aristotle, was used with great effect to discredit
more searching inquiries. Under the Roman Empire
also flourished Dioscorides, who wrote on the plants used


in medicine, and the elder Pliny, who compiled avast,
but wholly uncritical, encyclopaedia of natural history.

We see from these facts how ancient nations, inhabit-
ing" the Mediterranean basin and largely guided by
Greek intelligence, had not only striven to systematise
that knowledge of plants and animals which every
energetic and observant race is sure to possess, but
had with still more determination laboured to create a
science of human anatomy which should be serviceable
to the art of medicine. The effort was renewed time
after time during five or six centuries, but was at last
crushed under the conquests of a long succession of
foreign powers Macedonians, Romans, Mohammedan
Arabs, and northern barbarians each more hostile to
knowledge than its predecessors.

Extinction of Scientific Inquiry.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire brought
with it the temporary extinction of civilisation in a
great part of Western Europe. Science was during
some centuries taught, if taught at all, out of little
manuals compiled from ancient authors. Geometry and
astronomy were supplanted by astrology and magic ;
medicine was rarely practised except by Jews and the
inmates of religious houses. Literature and the fine
arts died out almost everywhere.

No doubt the practical knowledge of the farmer and
gardener, as well as the lore of the country-side, was
handed down from father to son during all the ages of
darkness, but the natural knowledge transmitted by
books suffered almost complete decay. The teaching
ascribed to Physiologus is a sufficient proof of this
statement. Physiologus is the name given in many
languages during a thousand years to the reputed


author of popular treatises of zoology, which are also
called Bestiaries, or books of beasts. Here it was told
how the lion sleeps with open eyes, how the crocodile
weeps when it has eaten a man, how the elephant has
but one joint in its leg and cannot lie down, how the
pelican brings her young- back to life by sprinkling
them with her own blood. The emblems of the
Bestiaries supplied ornaments to mediaeval sermons ;
as late as Shakespeare's day poetry drew from them no
small part of her imagery ; they were carved on the
benches, stalls, porches, and gargoyles of the churches.

In the last years of the tenth century A.D. faint signs
of revival appeared, which became distinct in another
hundred years. From that day to our own the progress
has been continuous.

Revival of Knowledge.

By the thirteenth century the rate of progress had
become rapid. To this age are ascribed the introduc-
tion of the mariner's compass, gunpowder, reading
glasses, the Arabic numerals, and decimal arithmetic.
In the fourteenth century trade with the East revived ;
Central Asia and even the Far East were visited by
Europeans ; universities were multiplied ; the revival
of learning, painting, and sculpture was accomplished
in Italy. Engraving on wood or copper and printing
from moveable types date from the fifteenth century.
The last decade of this century is often regarded as the
close of the Middle Ages ; it really marks, not the
beginning, but only an extraordinary acceleration, of
the new progressive movement, which set in long
before. To the years between 1490 and 1550 belong
the great geographical discoveries of the Spaniards in
the West and of the Portuguese in the East, as well
as the Reformation and the revival of science.



Characteristics of the Period.

THIS is the time of the revival of science ; the revival
of learning had set in about two centuries earlier.
Europe was now repeatedly devastated by religious wars-
(the revolt of the Netherlands, the wars of the League
in France, the Thirty Years' war, the civil war in
England). Learning was still mainly classical and
scholastic ; nearly every writer whom we shall have
occasion to name had been educated at a university,
and was able to read and write Latin. Two great
extensions of knowledge helped to widen the thoughts
of men. It became known for the first time that our
planet is an insignificant member of a great solar
system, and that Christendom is both in extent and
population but a small fraction of the habitable globe.

The Revival of Botany.

Botany was among the first of the sciences to revive.
Its comparatively early start was due to close associa-
tion with the lucrative profession of medicine. Medicine
itself was slow to shake off the unscientific tradition of
the Middle Ages, and its backwardness favoured, as it
happened, the progress of botany. In the sixteenth
century the physician was above all things the pre-
scriber of drugs, and since nine-tenths of the drugs
were got from plants, botanical knowledge was reckoned
as one of his chief qualifications. All physicians



From Fuchs* Historia Stirpium, 1542. The original occupies a folio page.


professed to be botanists, and every botanist was thought
fit to practise medicine.

Three Germans, who were at once botanists and
physicians Brunfels, Bock, and Fuchs led the way
by publishing- herbals, in which the plants of Germany
were described and figured from nature. Their first
editions appeared in the years 1530, 1539, and 1542.
Illustrated herbals were then no novelty, but whereas
they had hitherto supplied figures which had been
copied time after time until they had often ceased to be
recognisable, Brunfels set a pattern of better things by
producing what he called " herbarum vivae eicones,"
life-like figures of the plants. Each of the three new
herbals contained hundreds of large woodcuts. Those
engraved for Fuchs are probably of higher artistic
quality than any that have appeared since. Each plant,
drawn in clear outline without shading, fills a folio
page, upon which the text is not allowed to encroach.
The botanist will, however, remark that enlarged
figures are hardly ever given, so that minute flowers
show as mere dots, and that the details of the foliage
are not so scrupulously delineated as in modern figures.
The text of Brunfels and Fuchs is of little interest,
being largely occupied with traditional pharmacy.
Bock, whose figures are inferior to those of Brunfels
and Fuchs, makes up for this deficiency by his graphic
and sometimes amusing descriptions. He delights in
natural contrivances, such as the hooks on the twining
stem of the hop, or the elastic membrane which throws
out the seeds of wood-sorrel. Brunfels has no intelli-
gible sequence of species ; Fuchs abandons the attempt
to discover a natural succession, and adopts the alpha-
betical order ; Bock aims at bringing together plants
which show mutual affinity (" Gewachs einander ver-


From his Historia Stirpium, 1742.


wandt"), though such natural groups as he recognises
are neither named nor defined.

These three German herbals really deserve to be
called scientific. To figure the plants of Germany from
the life, to exclude such as existed only in books, and
to strive after a natural grouping, was a first step
towards a fruitful knowledge of plant-life. It is worth
while to dwell for a moment upon the place where these
herbals were produced. Along the Rhine civilisation
and industry had for many years flourished together.
Here and in the country to the east of the great river
had sprung up that powerful union of seventy cities
known in the thirteenth century as the Confederation
of the Rhine ; four universities, three of them on the
banks of the Rhine, had been founded ; here printing
and wood-engraving had established themselves in
their infancy ; here, too, the Reformation found many
early supporters. There were historical, economic, and
moral reasons why the first printed books- on natural
history, illustrated by wood-cuts drawn from the life,
should have been produced in the Rhineland, and why
all their authors should have been Protestants. Nearly
every sixteenth-century botanist held the same faith.

The success of the first German herbalists brought a
crowd of botanists into the field, among whom were
several whose names are still remembered with honour.
Gesner of Zurich made elaborate studies for a great
history of plants, which he did not live to complete.
It was he who first pointed out that the flower and
fruit give the best indications of the natural relation-
ships of plants, and his many beautiful enlarged
drawings set an example which has done much for
scientific botany. Botanists began to understand what
natural grouping means, and to recognise that truly

B 2


natural groups are not to be invented, but discovered.
The almost accidental succession adopted by Brunfels,
the alphabetical succession of Fuchs, the division
according- to uses (kitchen-herbs, coronary or garland-
flowers, etc.), and the logical, but too formal, method
of Cesalpini, in which, as in modern classification,
much use was made of the divisions in the ovary
all these were left behind. L'Obel separated, uncon-
sciously and imperfectly, the Monocotyledons from the
Dicotyledons, recognised several easily distinguished
families of flowering- plants (grasses, umbellifers,
labiates, etc.), and framed the first synoptic tables of


The Revival of Zoology.

While the physicians of the Rhineland were describing
and figuring their native plants, the study of animals
began to revive. Two very different methods of work
were tried by the zoologists of the sixteenth century.
One set of men, who may be called the Encyclopaedic
Naturalists, were convinced that books, and especially
the books of the ancients, constituted the chief source of
information concerning animals and most other things.
They extracted whatever they could from Aristotle,
^Elian, and Pliny, adding- all that was to be learned
from the narratives of recent travellers, or from the
collectors of skins and shells. The books on which
they chiefly depended, being- for the most part written
by men who had not grappled with practical natural
history and its problems, were unfortunately alto-
gether inadequate. Many of the statements brought
together by the encyclopaedic naturalists were ill-
attested ; some were even ridiculously improbable. If
inferences from the facts were attempted and this was
rare they were more often propositions of morality or


natural theology than the pregnant thoughts which
suggest new inquiries. Hence the encyclopaedic plan,
even when pursued by men of knowledge and capacity,
such as Gesner and Aldrovandi, yielded no results pro-
portional to the labour bestowed upon it ; the true path
of biological progress had been missed. Naturalists
of another school described and figured the animals of
their own country, or at least animals which they had
closely studied. Rondelet described from personal
observation the fishes of the Mediterranean ; Belon
described the fishes and birds that he had met with in
France and the Levant. His Book of Birds (1555) is a
folio volume in which some two hundred species are
described and figured. The " naturel " (natural history
of the species) contains many curious observations.
Perhaps the best things in the book are two figures
placed opposite one another and lettered in corre-
spondence ; one shows the skeleton of a bird, the other
that of a man. The example of Rondelet and Belon
was followed by other zoological monographers, who
did more for zoology than all the learning of the ency-

Early Notions of System.

Simple-minded people, who do not feel the need of
precision in matters of natural history, have in all
ages divided animals into four-footed beasts which walk
on the earth, birds which fly, fishes which swim, and
perhaps reptiles which creep. This is the classification
found in the Babylonian and Hebrew narratives of the
great flood. Plants they naturally divide into trees and
herbs. It was not very long, however, before close
observers became discontented with so simple a
grouping. They discovered that the bat is no bird,
though it flies; that the whale is no fish, though it



For comparison with human skeleton (opposite), lettered to show the answerable
bones. From Belon's Book of Birds, 1555.


For comparison with bird's skeleton (opposite), lettered to show the answerable
bones. From Belon's Book of Birds, 1555.


swims ; that the snake comes nearer in all essentials to
the four-footed lizard, and even to the beast of the field,
than to the creeping earthworm. At a much later time
they discovered that pod-bearing or rose-like herbs
may resemble pod-bearing or rose-like trees more
closely than all trees resemble each other. Moreover,
a multitude of animals became known which cannot be
classed as either beasts, birds, fishes, or reptiles, and a
multitude of plants which cannot be classed as either
trees or herbs.

Aristotle found himself obliged to rectify the tra-
ditional classification of animals in order to remove
gross anomalies. When learning decayed the traditional
classification came back. Thus the Ortus Sanitatis
(first published in 1475, and often reprinted) adopts
the division into (i) animals and things which creep
on the earth ; (2) birds and things which fly ; (3)
fishes and things which swim. No consistent
primary division of plants was proposed by Greek or
Roman, nor by anyone else until the seventeenth
century A.D.

This conflict of systems should have raised questions
concerning the nature of classification and the relative
value of characters. Some of the most striking resem-
blances found among animals and plants are only
superficial ; others, though far less obvious, are funda-
mental. Whence this difference? Why should scientific
zoology make so little of the place of abode and the
mode of locomotion ; so much of the mode of
reproduction and the nature of the skeleton ? The
answers were vague, and even the questions were rare
and indistinct. But a metaphorical term came into
use which was henceforth more and more definitely
associated with fundamental, as distinguished from


adaptive, likeness. Such likeness was called affinity^
though no attempt was made to explain in what sense
the term was to be understood. As late as the year
1835 one of the first botanists in Europe (Elias Fries)
could say no more about affinity between species than

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryL. C. (Louis Compton) MiallHistory of biology → online text (page 1 of 11)