Competitive Exams: Principles of Evolution

First Principle of Evolution

For the moment it will be enough to state two leading principles. The first is that there is no such thing as a “law of evolution” in the sense in which many people understand that phrase. It is now sufficiently well known that, when science speaks of a law, it does not mean that there is some rule that things MUST act in such and such a way. The law is a mere general expression of the fact that they DO act in that way. But many imagine that there is some principle within the living organism which impels it onward to a higher level of organisation. That is entirely an error. There is no “law of progress.” If an animal is fitted to secure its livelihood and breed posterity in certain surroundings, it may remain unchanged indefinitely if these surroundings do not materially change. So the duckmole of Australia and the tuatara of New Zealand have retained primitive features for millions of years; so the aboriginal Australian and the Fuegian have remained stagnant, in their isolation, for a hundred thousand years or more; so the Chinaman, in his geographical isolation, has remained unchanged for two thousand years. There is no more a “conservative instinct” in Chinese than there is a “progressive instinct” in Europeans.

To make this important principle still clearer, let us imagine some primitive philosopher observing the advance of the tide over a level beach. He must discover two things: Why the water comes onward at all, and why it advances along those particular channels. We shall see later how men of science explain or interpret the mechanism in a living thing which enables it to advance, when it does advance. For the present it is enough to say that new-born animals and plants are always tending to differ somewhat from their parents, and we now know, by experiment, that when some exceptional influence is brought to bear on the parent, the young may differ considerably from her. But, if the parents were already in harmony with their environment, these variations on the part of the young are of no consequence. Let the environment alter, however, and some of these variations may chance to make the young better fitted than the parent was. The young which happen to have the useful variation will have an advantage over their brothers or sisters, and be more likely to survive and breed the next generation. If the change in the environment (in the food or climate, for instance) is prolonged and increased for hundreds of thousands of years, we shall expect to find a corresponding change in the animals and plants.

We shall find such changes occurring throughout the story of the earth. At one important point in the story we shall find so grave a revolution in the face of nature that twenty-nine out of every thirty species of animals and plants on the earth are annihilated. Less destructive and extreme changes have been taking place during nearly the whole of the period we have to cover, entailing a more gradual alteration of the structure of animals and plants; but we shall repeatedly find them culminating in very great changes of climate, or of the distribution of land and water, which have subjected the living population of the earth to the most searching tests and promoted every variation toward a more effective organization

Second Principle of Evolution

And the second guiding principle I wish to lay down in advance is that these great changes in the face of the earth, which explain the progress of organisms, may very largely be reduced to one simple agency--the battle of the land and the sea. When you gaze at some line of cliffs that is being eaten away by the waves, or reflect on the material carried out to sea by the flooded river, you are--paradoxical as it may seem--beholding a material process that has had a profound influence on the development of life. The Archaean continent that we described was being reduced constantly by the wash of rain, the scouring of rivers, and the fretting of the waves on the coast. It is generally thought that these wearing agencies were more violent in early times, but that is disputed, and we will not build on it. In any case, in the course of time millions of tons of matter were scraped off the Archaean continent and laid on the floor of the sea by its rivers. This meant a very serious alteration of pressure or weight on the surface of the globe, and was bound to entail a reaction or restoration of the balance.

The rise of the land and formation of mountains used to be ascribed mainly to the cooling and shrinking of the globe of the earth. The skin (crust), it was thought, would become too large for the globe as it shrank, and would wrinkle outwards, or pucker up into mountain-chains. The position of our greater mountain-chains sprawling across half the earth (the Pyrenees to the Himalaya, and the Rocky Mountains to the Andes), seems to confirm this, but the question of the interior of the earth is obscure and disputed, and geologists generally conceive the rise of land and formation of mountains in a different way. They are due probably to the alteration of pressure on the crust in combination with the instability of the interior. The floors of the seas would sink still lower under their colossal burdens, and this would cause some draining of the land-surface. At the same time the heavy pressure below the seas and the lessening of pressure over the land would provoke a reaction. Enormous masses of rock would be forced toward and underneath the land-surface, bending, crumpling, and upheaving it as if its crust were but a leather coat. As a result, masses of land would slowly rise above the plain, to be shaped into hills and valleys by the hand of later time, and fresh surfaces would be dragged out of the deep, enlarging the fringes of the primitive continents, to be warped and crumpled in their turn at the next era of pressure.

In point of geological fact, the story of the earth has been one prolonged series of changes in the level of land and water, and in their respective limits. These changes have usually been very gradual, but they have always entailed changes (in climate, etc.) of the greatest significance in the evolution of life. What was the swampy soil of England in the Carboniferous period is now sometimes thousands of feet beneath us; and what was the floor of a deep ocean over much of Europe and Asia at another time is now to be found on the slopes of lofty Alps, or 20, 000 feet above the sea-level in Thibet. Our story of terrestrial life will be, to a great extent, the story of how animals and plants changed their structure in the long series of changes which this endless battle of land and sea brought over the face of the earth. Europe, as a continent, has had more “ups and downs” than America in the course of geological time.

This meagre picture of the battle of land and sea, with interludes of great volcanic activity and even of an ice age, represents nearly all we know of the first half of the world's story from geology. It is especially disappointing in regard to the living population. The very few fossils we find in the upper Archaean rocks are so similar to those we shall discuss in the next chapter that we may disregard them, and the seams of carbon-shales, iron-ore, and limestone, suggest only, at the most, that life was already abundant. We must turn elsewhere for some information on the origin and early development of life.

The question of the origin of life I will dismiss with a brief account of the various speculations of recent students of science. Broadly speaking, their views fall into three classes. Some think that the germs of life may have come to the earth from some other body in the universe; some think that life was evolved out of non-living matter in the early ages of the earth, under exceptional conditions which we do not at present know, or can only dimly conjecture; and some think that life is being evolved from non-life in nature to-day, and always has been so evolving. The majority of scientific men merely assume that the earliest living things were no exception to the general process of evolution, but think that we have too little positive knowledge to speculate profitably on the manner of their origin.

Views over Evolution

The first view, that the germs of life may have come to this planet on a meteoric visitor from some other world, as a storm-driven bird may take its parasites to some distant island, is not without adherents to-day. It was put forward long ago by Lord Kelvin and others; it has been revived by the distinguished Swede, Professor Svante Arrhenius. The scientific objection to it is that the more intense (ultra-violet) rays of the sun would frill such germs as they pass through space. But a broader objection, and one that may dispense us from dwelling on it, is that we gain nothing by throwing our problems upon another planet. We have no ground for supposing that the earth is less capable of evolving life than other planets.

The second view is that, when the earth had passed through its white-hot stage, great masses of very complex chemicals, produced by the great heat, were found on its surface. There is one complex chemical substance in particular, called cyanogen, which is either an important constituent of living matter, or closely akin to it. Now we need intense heat to produce this substance in the laboratory. May we not suppose that masses of it were produced during the incandescence of the earth, and that, when the waters descended, they passed through a series of changes which culminated in living plasm? Such is the “cyanogen hypothesis” of the origin of life, advocated by able physiologists such as Pfluger, Verworn, and others. It has the merit of suggesting a reason why life may not be evolving from non-life in nature to-day, although it may have so evolved in the Archaean period.

Other students suggest other combinations of carbon-compounds and water in the early days. Some suggest that electric action was probably far more intense in those ages; others think that quantities of radium may have been left at the surface. But the most important of these speculations on the origin of life in early times, and one that has the merit of not assuming any essentially different conditions then than we find now, is contained in a recent pronouncement of one of the greatest organic chemists in Europe, Professor Armstrong. He says that such great progress has been made in his science--the science of the chemical processes in living things--that “their cryptic character seems to have disappeared almost suddenly.” On the strength of this new knowledge of living matter, he ventures to say that “a series of lucky accidents” could account for the first formation of living things out of non-living matter in Archaean times. Indeed, he goes further. He names certain inorganic substances, and says that the blowing of these into pools by the wind on the primitive planet would set afoot chemical combinations which would issue in the production of living matter.

It is evident that the popular notion that scientific men have declared that life cannot be evolved from non-life is very far astray. This blunder is usually due to a misunderstanding of the dogmatic statement which one often reads in scientific works that “every living thing comes from a living thing.” This principle has no reference to remote ages, when the conditions may have been different. It means that to-day, within our experience, the living thing is always born of a living parent. However, even this is questioned by some scientific men of eminence, and we come to the third view.

Professor Nageli, a distinguished botanist, and Professor Haeckel, maintain that our experience, as well as the range of our microscopes, is too limited to justify the current axiom. They believe that life may be evolving constantly from inorganic matter. Professor J A Thomson also warns us that our experience is very limited, and, for all we know, protoplasm may be forming naturally in our own time. Mr. Butler Burke has, under the action of radium, caused the birth of certain minute specks which strangely imitate the behaviour of bacteria. Dr. Bastian has maintained for years that he has produced living things from non-living matter. In his latest experiments, described in the book quoted, purely inorganic matter is used, and it is previously subjected, in hermetically sealed tubes, to a heat greater than what has been found necessary to kill any germs whatever.

Evidently the problem of the origin of life is not hopeless, but our knowledge of the nature of living matter is still so imperfect that we may leave detailed speculation on its origin to a future generation. Organic chemistry is making such strides that the day may not be far distant when living matter will be made by the chemist, and the secret of its origin revealed. For the present we must be content to choose the more plausible of the best-informed speculations on the subject.

But while the origin of life is obscure, the early stages of its evolution come fairly within the range of our knowledge. To the inexpert it must seem strange that, whereas we must rely on pure speculation in attempting to trace the origin of life, we can speak with more confidence of those early developments of plants and animals which are equally buried in the mists of the Archaean period. Have we not said that nothing remains of the procession of organisms during half the earth's story but a shapeless seam of carbon or limestone? A simple illustration will serve to justify the procedure we are about to adopt. Suppose that the whole of our literary and pictorial references to earlier stages in the development of the bicycle, the locomotive, or the loom, were destroyed. We should still be able to retrace the phases of their evolution, because we should discover specimens belonging to those early phases lingering in our museums, in backward regions, and elsewhere. They might yet be useful in certain environments into which the higher machines have not penetrated. In the same way, if all the remains of prehistoric man and early civilisation were lost, we could still fairly retrace the steps of the human race, by gathering the lower tribes and races, and arranging them in the order of their advancement. They are so many surviving illustrations of the stages through which mankind as a whole has passed.

Age-long Procession of Life

Just in the same way we may marshal the countless species of animals and plants to-day in such order that they will, in a general way, exhibit to us the age-long procession of life. From the very start of living evolution certain forms dropped out of the onward march, and have remained, to our great instruction, what their ancestors were millions of years ago. People create a difficulty for themselves by imagining that, if evolution is true, all animals must evolve. A glance at our own fellows will show the error of this. Of one family of human beings, as a French writer has said, one only becomes a Napoleon; the others remain Lucien, Jerome, or Joseph. Of one family of animals or trees, some advance in one or other direction; some remain at the original level. There is no “law of progress.” The accidents of the world and hereditary endowment impel some onward, and do not impel others. Hence at nearly every great stage in the upward procession through the ages some regiment of plants or animals has dropped out, and it represents to-day the stage of life at which it ceased to progress. In other words, when we survey the line of the hundreds of thousands of species which we find in nature to-day, we can trace, amid their countless variations and branches, the line of organic evolution in the past; just as we could, from actual instances, study the evolution of a British house, from the prehistoric remains in Devonshire to a mansion in Park Lane or a provincial castle.

Another method of retracing the lost early chapters in the development of life is furnished by embryology. The value of this method is not recognised by all embryologists, but there are now few authorities who question the substantial correctness of it, and we shall, as we proceed, see some remarkable applications of it. In brief, it is generally admitted that an animal or plant is apt to reproduce, during its embryonic development, some of the stages of its ancestry in past time. This does not mean that a higher animal, whose ancestors were at one time worms, at another time fishes, and at a later time reptiles, will successively take the form of a little worm, a little fish, and a little reptile. The embryonic life itself has been subject to evolution, and this reproduction of ancestral forms has been proportionately disturbed. Still, we shall find that animals will tend, in their embryonic development, to reproduce various structural features which can only be understood as reminiscences of ancestral organs. In the lower animals the reproduction is much less disturbed than in the higher, but even in the case of man this law is most strikingly verified. We shall find it useful sometimes at least in confirming our conclusions as to the ancestry of a particular group.

We have, therefore, two important clues to the missing chapters in the story of evolution. Just as the scheme of the evolution of worlds is written broadly across the face of the heavens to-day, so the scheme of the evolution of life is written on the face of living nature; and it is written again, in blurred and broken characters, in the embryonic development of each individual. With these aids we set out to restore the lost beginning of the epic of organic evolution.