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evidence for it. Certainly not, therefore, first in its
most general form, and afterwards in special applications ;
but first in those special cases where the evidence is of
the simplest kind, most closely related to the facts ; and
then, as a consequence of the comparison of these cases,
the general doctrine may suggest itself.

Nevertheless, the teacher, knowing what is to come
in the end, may so select the portions of various subjects



310 VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

which he teaches at an earlier stage that they shall
supply in a later stage a means of understanding
and estimating the evidence on some question of
evolution. He may, for instance, pay special attention
to hands and feet when he is teaching biology,
because these parts are of great importance in the
questions of the evolution of the horse and of the
relationship of man with the apes. Or in teaching
sociology, which is all about papa and mama, clothes,
houses, shops, policemen, halfpence, and such like, he
may specially single out those points in which civilized
folk differ from barbaric and savage folk, in order to
prepare the way for the historic and pre-historic
evidence which proves that we are a risen race and not
a fallen one. In other cases the doctrine of evolution
may guide the teacher in his methods. So much as the
psychologist may already infer with safety about the
evolution of mind, will lead him to found all abstract
notions on previously formed concrete ones ; to build
his houses out of carefully made bricks, instead of trying
to pull bricks out of castles in the air. And he will
endeavour to give clearness and solidity to the dawning
moral sense by leading to the easy observation that the
affairs of the nursery or the Kindergarten cannot go on
unless we tell the truth and let alone other folk's things.
The affairs should of course be such that a failure in
them would seem to the child a calamity too portentous
to be thought about.

In fact, as Hackel says, the effect of the doctrine of
evolution upon teaching and the methods of teaching
cannot fail to be enormous and widespread, quite in-



VIRCHOW OX THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 311

dependently of the direct teaching of any portions of
the doctrine itself.

Let us now go on to examine, in respect of their
fitness for education, certain other doctrines mentioned
by Virchow ; taking next the doctrine of Spontaneous
Generation.

' If you ask me (says Tyndall) whether there exists
the least evidence to prove that any form of life can be
developed out of matter independently of antecedent
life, my reply is that evidence considered directly con-
clusive by many has been adduced, and that were we to
follow a common example and accept testimony because
it falls in with our belief, we should eagerly close with
the evidence referred to. But there is in the true man
of science a desire stronger than the wish to have his
beliefs upheld ; namely, the desire to have them true.
And this stronger wish causes him to reject the most
plausible support, if he has reason to suspect that it is
vitiated by error. Those to whom I refer as having
studied this question, believing the evidence offered in
favour of " spontaneous generation " to be thus vitiated,
cannot accept it. They know full well that the chemist
now prepares from inorganic matter a vast array of
substances, which were some time ago regarded as the
sole products of vitality. They are intimately ac-
quainted with the structural power of matter, as
evidenced in the phenomena of crystallization. They
can justify scientifically their belief in its potency, under
the proper conditions, to produce organisms. But in
reply to your question, they will frankly admit their
inability to point to any satisfactory experimental proof



312 VmCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

that life can be developed, save from demonstrable
antecedent life.' l

What is the justification for this belief that non-
living matter can, under proper conditions, produce
organisms ?

There is a substance called acetylene, the molecule
of which is made of two atoms of carbon, holding
together by two hooks from each, and four atoms of
hydrogen each holding on by its one hook to a carbon
atom. It is made by driving hydrogen between the
tremendously hot carbon points of an electric light ;
directly, therefore, from the elements. If we make
acetylene pass through a red-hot tube, we shall get
what is called benzene. A molecule of benzene is a game
of round-the-mulberry-tree played by six carbon atoms,
each one holding by two hooks to its right-hand neigh-
bour and one to its left, while it keeps the remaining hook
for a hydrogen atom. It is therefore made of three mole-
cules of acetylene, each of which has dropped two
hydrogen atoms in order to join hands with the other two
molecules. How does this molecule of benzene get
made out of the three molecules of acetylene ?

There are two answers. If anybody likes to assert
that benzene can never be made out of acetylene without
the presence of pre-existing benzene, it is impossible to
disprove his statement. We should have no means of
discovering the presence of two or three molecules of
benzene vapour in the original hydrogen that we made
the acetylene of. It is known that the first step is often
a difficulty in the formation of chemical compounds, and
that when the process has once begun, the new com-

1 Belfast Address.



VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 313

pound has the property of assisting the formation of its
like. Nobody knows why this is.

No chemist, however, will, as a matter of fact, make
this supposition about benzene. It is generally held
that the benzene molecule is formed by the collision of
three acetylene molecules in favourable positions. This
collision is a coincidence. Each molecule meets another
molecule many millions of times in a second ; but I am
not aware that anybody has calculated the number of
times it meets two other molecules at once. We must
know a great deal more of the constitution of atoms
before we can calculate what proportion of these triple
collisions is favourable to the formation of a benzene
molecule ; but there can be no doubt that the coinci-
dence takes place an enormous number of times per
second in every cubic centimetre of the gas, because a
perceptible quantity of benzene is obtained.

There is another substance which can be made out
of six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms, by fastening
them together in a different way. I forget the name of
it, but it is an unstable and explosive substance, which
breaks itself up on the slightest provocation. We do
not find this mixed up with the benzene, although the
coincidence which formed it may have occurred quite
as often as that which formed benzene. It becomes
extinct because it is not adapted to the conditions.

On the other hand, we do find some more complex
compounds mixed up with the benzene. These may
have been partly made by collision of benzene molecules
with acetylene molecules : partly by coincidences of a
more elaborate character, such as the collision of four
or five acetylene molecules. These are all stable ; that



314 VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

is to say, they are suited to the conditions, and therefore
they survive.

Observe, then, that in this very simple case of the
formation of an organic body (in large quantities ben-
zene is always prepared from coal-tar) it is produced
by a coincidence, and preserved by natural selection

If we take thirteen carbon atoms instead of six, and
combine them only in the simplest ways, so as to form
an open chain with branches, it has been calculated by
Cayley that 799 compounds are possible. How many
of these are stable at a given pressure and temperature,
nobody knows. In a gaseous mixture of paraffins, the
coincidence necessary to form each one of them may
occur many thousand times a second. Only those can
survive which are stable under the given conditions.
Such natural selection determines, for example, the
compound ethers which go to make up the flavour of a
pear.

Now those persons who believe that living matter,
such as protein, arises out of non-living matter in the
sea, suppose that it is formed like all other chemical
compounds. That is to say, it originates in a coinci-
dence, and is preserved by natural selection. Only in
this case the coincidence is of the most elaborate and
complex character. I once saw an estimate of the
number of carbon atoms in a molecule of albumen. I
cannot now lay my hands on the book in which I found
it, but there were three figures in it. I do not believe,
on the strength of that estimate, that there are over
a hundred carbon atoms in a molecule of albumen ;
because, from the nature of the substance, I cannot
imagine any evidence on which it might be securely



VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 315

founded. But there can be no doubt that all the forms
of living matter are enormously complex in chemical
constitution. Now there may, of course, be half-way
houses, less complex forms out of which they may be
built up, just as acetylene forms a half-way house to
benzene. Still, the coincidence involved in the forma-
tion of a molecule so complex as to be called living,
must be, so far as we can make out, a very elaborate
coincidence. How often does it happen in a cubic mile
of sea- water ? Perhaps once a week ; perhaps once in
many centuries ; perhaps also, many milh'on times a
day. From this living molecule to a speck of protoplasm
visible in the microscope is a very far cry ; involving,
it may be, a thousand years or so of evolution. Possibly,
however, the molecule has from the beginning that
power which belongs to other chemical bodies, and
certainly to itself when existing in sensible masses, of
assisting the formation of its like. Once started, how-
ever, there it is ; the spontaneous generation, believed
in as a possibility by the evolutionist, has taken place.

Why then do the experiments all ' go against '
spontaneous generation ? What the experiments really
prove is that the coincidence which would form a Bac-
terium already a definite structure reproducing its like
does not occur in a test-tube during the periods yet
observed. Such a coincidence is the nearest thing to a
' special creation ' that can be distinctly conceived. The
experiments have nothing whatever to say to the pro-
duction of enormously simpler forms, in the vast range
of the ocean, during the ages of the earth's existence.

Allowing that this makes the thing possible, does it
give any reason for believing that it has actually taken



316 V1RCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

place ? We might get a direct demonstration if we
knew the constitution of protein, and could calculate
the chances of the coincidence which would lead to its
formation in the sea. But on the other hand we have
an argument precisely like that which we used in the
case of the descent of man. We know from physical
reasons that the earth was once in a liquid state from
excessive heat. Then there could have been no living
matter upon it. Now there is. Consequently non-
living matter has been turned into living matter some-
how. We can only get out of spontaneous generation
by the supposition made by Sir W. Thomson, in jest
or earnest, that some piece of living matter came to
the earth from outside, perhaps with a meteorite. I wish
to treat all hypotheses with respect, and to have no
preferences which are not entirely founded on reason ;
and yet, whenever I contemplate this

simpler protoplastic shape
Which came down in a fire-escape,

an internal monitor, of which I can give no rational
account, invariably whispers ' Fiddlesticks ! '

I think, however, that the nature of the evidence
which makes spontaneous generation probable is such
that we cannot teach it in schools except to very
advanced pupils. And the same thing may be said of
the doctrine of evolution as a whole, regarded as involv-
ing the nebular hypothesis.

' Those who hold (says Tyndall) the doctrine of
evolution are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of
their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent.
They regard the nebular hypothesis as probable, and in
the utter absence of any proof of the illegality of the



VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 317

act, they prolong the method of nature from the present
into the past. Here the observed uniformity of nature
is their only guide. Having determined the elements
of their curve in a world of observation and experiment,
they prolong that curve into an antecedent world, and
accept as probable the unbroken sequence of develop-
ment from the nebula to the present time.'

When I was seven or eight years old, I came across
an article in Chambers' Journal upon Plateau's experi-
ments with rotating oil-drops, and their bearing on the
nebular hypothesis. I was highly delighted with this,
and made notes of it on the fly-leaves of a book of Bible
stories. My notion was that creation was precisely a
large Plateau's experiment. Now I am pretty sure that
this unfortunate circumstance retarded my knowledge
of the nebular hypothesis by some years, because it
gave me an idea that I knew all about it already.

Besides the nebular hypothesis, there are other
doctrines about the origin of the world which it seems
undesirable to have taught to our children. One 1 is an
account of a wet beginning of things, after which the
waters were divided by a firm canopy of sky, and the
dry land appeared underneath. Plants, and animals,
and men, were successively formed by the word of a
deity enthroned above the canopy. Another account is
of a dry beginning of things, namely a garden, subse-
quently watered by a mist, in which there were no
plants until a man was put there to till it. This man
was made from the dust of the ground by a deity, who
walked about on the earth, and had divine associates,

1 See that admirable book, The Bible for Young People (Williams &
Norgate, 1873).



318 VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

jealous of the man for sharing their privilege of knowing
good from evil, and fearful that he would gain that of
immortality also. The deity had taken a rib out of the
man, and made a woman of it.

I do not see that we should mind the teaching of
these stories, so long as others are taught along with
them, such as that of the Chaldee God Bel, who cut off
his head, moistened the clay with his blood, and then
made men out of it ; or of the Gods of our own race,
Odin, Yale, and Ye, who walked about the earth until
they found two trees, one of which they made into a man,
and the other into a woman ; or of Deucalion and
Pyrrha, who threw stones over their heads, which
became men and women. As soon as ever they can
understand them children may be taught the reasons why
the first two stories are quite different from the others,
and, though contradictory, both of them true ; as, for
example, the nature of the evidence which connects or
disconnects the stories with Moses, and which proves
that Moses could have known anything about the origin
of the world. But we ought not, I think, to allow either
of these stories to be taught to our children as a known
fact It will be better to prepare them that they may
by-and-by understand the attitude of the lover of truth
towards these problems.

' If you ask him whence is this " matter "... who
or what divided it into molecules, and impressed upon
them this necessity of running into organic forms, he has
no answer. Science is mute in reply to such questions.
But if the materialist is confounded, and science is
rendered dumb, who else is prepared with an answer ?



VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 319

Let us lower our heads and acknowledge our ignorance,
priest and philosopher, one and all.

' Hi a (the scientific man's) refusal of the creative
hypothesis is less an assertion of knowledge than a
protest against the assumption of knowledge which must
long, if not for ever, lie beyond us, and the claim to
which is the source of perpetual confusion upon earth' 1

I do not propose to discuss here those difficult
questions which were raised by Hackel and Nageli about
the relation of body and mind ; because I hope soon to
have an opportunity of dealing with them separately.
But in regard to the teaching in schools of abstract and
general conclusions derived from this branch of science
still so very imperfect, so much in the air, it seems to
me that Virchow has spoken with the utmost practical
wisdom. The basis of it, indeed, the one point of firm
ground on which the structure of mind-and-body lore
can be built, is fully suited for teaching, as Virchow
himself has pointed out. The theory of the eye, slowly
elaborated from Lionardo to Kepler, from Kepler to
Helmholtz, and the doctrine of perception founded
upon it, these supply a safe foundation for whatever
more may come. But the Plastidule-soul can take no
harm by waiting awhile, until we are a little more
clear about what we mean by it.

And this same judgment applies necessarily to
another abstract and general conclusion from an un-
proved doctrine about body and mind ; the conclusion
that a man's consciousness survives the decay of his
body. Such a conclusion can be at best, in the present
state of knowledge, a hope, a conjecture, an aspiration ;

1 Tyndall, Fragments, pp. 421, 548.



320 VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE.

it can have no claim to be regarded as a known fact.
Those who hold to it may think it highly probable, they
may strongly desire that it should be true, they may
eagerly expect that better evidence will shortly be
forthcoming ; but they cannot be justified in teaching
it to little children as a known fact. Of such a doctrine,
surely, if of any doctrine, we ought to say : ' Do not
take this for established truth ; be prepared to find that
it is otherwise ; only for the moment we are of opinion
that it may possibly be so.'

And in this case the reasons for such caution are
deeper and stronger than the merely intellectual ones,
because of the vast hold of this doctrine upon the
hearts, and its serious influence upon the actions, of men.
You, who teach it to your children, do so from the
highest of motives, because you believe that it will in-
fluence their character for good, and strengthen them
in the course of right conduct. But there are two
things which you should carefully consider. The first
is, that by teaching the doctrine too early you weaken
its effect, because you teach it while it can be only half
realized, and so prevent it from being realized afterwards.
Dr. Martineau testifies to the greater power of a belief
in immortality gained by the believer for himself, and
strengthening a moral sense which has been formed on a
different basis. Teach your children to do good and to
eschew evil ; if in later life they can find hope of an
eternity of such action, it will make them happier and
may make them better. But the experience of centuries
condemns the practice of teaching the doctrine to little
children, so as to make it familiar as an ill-understood
conception, to weaken the power it might have for



VIRCHOW ON THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE. 321

good, and to help the perversion of it to superstitious
uses.

The second point to be considered is the frightful
loss and disappointment you prepare for your child if,
as is most probable in these days, he becomes convinced
that the doctrine is founded on insufficient evidence.
It is not merely that you have brought him up as a
prince, to find himself a pauper at eighteen. He may
have allowed this doctrine to get inextricably intertwined
with his feelings of right and wrong. Then the over-
throw of one will, at least for a time, endanger the other.
You leave him the sad task of gathering together the
wrecks of a life broken by disappointment, and wonder-
ing whether honour itself is left to him among them.
Leave him free of this doctrine, and his conscience will
rest upon its true base, safe against all storms ; for it is
built upon a rock. Then he can never reproach you
with raising hopes in him which knowledge is fated to
blast, and with them, it may be, to blast the promise of
his life.



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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 22 of 22)