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IGNORABIMUS ET RESTRINGAMUR.

The dangerous attempt which Virchow made in Munich against the freedom of science is not the first of its kind. On the contrary, five years before, it experienced a similar attack which is most intimately connected with this later one, so that, in conclusion, we must here add a few words on the subject. Undoubtedly the famous “Ignorabimus-speech” of Du Bois-Reymond, which he delivered in 1872 at the forty-fifth meeting of German naturalists and physicians in Leipzig, forms only the first portion of that same crusade against the freedom of science of which Virchow’s “Restringamur speech” of 1877, at the fiftieth meeting of the same society, forms the second part.

That brilliant and powerful essay by Du Bois-Reymond “on the Limitation of Natural Knowledge” has already been discussed so often, and from such different sides, that it might seem superfluous to say another word about it. It seems to me, nevertheless, that by most people the centre-of-gravity of its contents was overlooked in admiration of the brilliant accessories of the essay. Indeed this frequently happens with Du Bois-Reymond’s articles, for he knows too well how to conceal the weakness of his argument and evidence, and the shallowness of his thought, by striking images and flowery metaphors, and by all the phraseology of rhetoric in which the versatile French nature is so superior to our sober German one. It is all the more important that we should not let ourselves be dazzled by these seductive tricks, and particularly by adduced facts which bear upon the most important and fundamental questions of human science, but that we should extract the hard kernel from the savoury and fragrant fruit. In the preface to my “Evolution of Man,” and in the notes 22 and 23 of my Munich address, I have already incidentally alluded to the chief weaknesses of the “Ignorabimus-speech;” but I must here return somewhat more fully to the subject.

There are, as is well known, two problems which Du Bois-Reymond propounds as the impassable boundary of human knowledge of nature; limits which indeed the human mind is not only incapable of passing at the present stage of its development, but which it never can be capable of passing in any more advanced stage. The first problem is the nature and connection of matter and force; the second is human consciousness. Now, first of all, as has already been said in the preface to the “Evolution of Man,” we must raise a decided protest against the air of infallibility with which Du Bois-Reymond pronounces that these two problems are insoluble, not only at the present time but to all futurity. The power of development inherent in science and knowledge is hereby simply swept away with a word. Almost every great and difficult problem of knowledge seems to most or all contemporary thinkers insoluble, and every path to the solution of it seems closed, till at last the bold genius appears whose clear sight detects the right path which till then was hidden, and which leads to the required knowledge. We need only call to mind our present doctrine of evolution. The problem of creation the question as to the origin of animal and vegetable species was universally looked upon as transcendental and perfectly insoluble, till the genius of Lamarck established the principles of the theory of descent in his admirable “Philosophie Zoologique” in 1809. Nay, even then most and among them the most distinguished biologists thought the problem of creation a quite insoluble mystery, and Darwin was the first to solve it, fifty years later, by his theory of selection in 1859. Hence we venture to assert that there is no scientific problem of which we may dare to say that the mind of man will never solve it even in the remotest future. Well does Darwin say, in the introduction to his “Descent of Man,” “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little and not those who know much who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” As far as concerns the two separate limits which Du Bois-Reymond fixes for human knowledge, in my opinion they are undoubtedly identical. The problem of the origin and nature of consciousness is only a special case of the general problem of the connection of matter and force. Du Bois-Reymond himself indicates that this is possible at the close of his paper; for he says, “Finally, the question arises whether the two limitations to our natural knowledge may not perhaps be identical; that is to say, whether if we could conceive of the true essence of matter and force, we should not also understand how the substance which lies at their root can, under certain given conditions, feel, desire, and think. This conception is, no doubt, the simplest, and according to admitted principles of inquiry it is to be preferred to that other which it confutes, and according to which, as has been said, the world appears doubly incomprehensible. But it is in the very nature of things that we cannot on this point come to any clear conclusion, and all further words on the subject are idle and so, ‘Ignorabimus.’”

The light way in which Du Bois-Reymond here passes over the most important part of his subject is truly surprising; as if it were ultimately indifferent whether we have before us one single insoluble fundamental problem or two quite different ones; and as if mature reflection did not lead to the conviction that, in fact, the second problem is only a special case of the first general problem. I, for my part, cannot conceive of them in any other relation; I think, too, that all further words are by no means superfluous, but on the contrary conduce to a very strong conviction of the unity of the problem. That Du Bois-Reymond also has not come to any clear conclusion on this point lies, not alone in the “nature of things,” but, as in Virchow’s case, in the nature of the investigator himself; in his lack of knowledge of the history of evolution, and in his neglect of those comparative and genetic methods of study, without which, in my opinion, not even an approximate solution of this highest and most difficult question is to be looked for.

Nothing appears to me to be of more importance for the mechanical explanation of consciousness than the comparative consideration of its development. We know that a new-born child has no consciousness, but that it is slowly and gradually acquired and developed. We perceive for ourselves how unconscious actions become conscious, and vice versa. Innumerable actions which at first are troublesome and have to be learnt with consciousness and reflection as for instance walking, swimming, singing, and so forth become unconscious only by repetition, practice, and the habit of using the organs. On the contrary, unconscious actions become conscious as soon as we direct our attention to them or our self-observation is attracted to them; as for instance when we miss a step in going up stairs or touch a wrong note on the piano; and beyond a doubt, conscious and unconscious actions pass into each other without any distinct line of demarcation. Finally, we see no less plainly by a comparative consideration of the soul-life of animals, that their consciousness is slowly, gradually, and serially developed, and that a long unbroken series of steps leads from unconscious to conscious existence. From these comparative and genetic experiences we may draw the conclusion that consciousness, like sensation and volition, like all the other soul-activities, is a function of the organism, a mechanical activity of the cells; and, as such, is referable to chemical and physical processes. Hence, if we were in a position to understand force as a necessary function of matter, we could explain consciousness, as well as the soul in general, as a necessary function of certain cells.

How little Du Bois-Reymond is acquainted with the facts of comparative and genetic psychology, nothing shows more strikingly than the following astounding proposition in the “Ignorabimus-speech:” “Where the material conditions for psychical activity, in the form of a nervous system, are wanting, as in plants, the naturalist cannot recognise a soul-life, and, on this point, he but seldom meets with contradiction.” Begging your pardon! Every naturalist who is familiar with the comparative morphology and physiology of the lower animals will here put in a decided contradiction, for he can no more refuse to admit the undoubted sensation and voluntary motion of the one-celled Infusoria than of the many-celled hydroid polyps. The body of the true Infusoria (Ciliata, Acineta, &c.), and many other Protista, remain throughout life one single cell, and, nevertheless, this cell is as fully furnished with all the most important attributes of the soul, with sensation and volition, as any one of the higher animals with a nervous system. The same obtains of the Hydra and the related hydroid polyps, in which the neuro-muscular cells, or other distributed cells of the outer germ-layer, fulfil the soul-functions. But as these cells, besides this, exercise motor and other functions as well, we cannot as yet designate them as nerve-cells, at any rate there can be no idea of a special nervous-system. The characteristic soul-organs of the higher animals, which we include under the conception of a nervous-system, in fact originated by the division of labour of the cells out of those neutral cell-groups in their lower-typed ancestors.

In the great Soul-question Du Bois-Reymond, like Virchow, still keeps his position on the standpoint of neural-psychology, according to which no personal soul-life is conceivable without a nervous system. We look upon this standpoint as left far behind, and set up in opposition to it Cellular-psychology, the doctrine that every animal cell has a soul; that is to say, that its protoplasm is endowed with sensation and motion. In the one-celled Infusoria, which are so highly sensitive and have such an energetic will, this conception will be clear without any farther explanation. But we cannot refuse to allow that plant-cells as well as animal-cells have psychic functions, since we know that the phenomena of irritability, and of “automatic motion,” are the universal attributes of all protoplasm. No doubt the specific mechanism, the cause of motion, in the irritable Mimosa and other “sensitive” plants, is quite different from the muscular motions of animals; but these, like those, are only specifically different forms of development of the “cell-soul,” and both proceed from the “mechanical energy of the protoplasm.” The sensibility of the irritable protoplasm is the same in the vegetable-cell of the Mimosa as in the animal-cell of the Hydra. How far Du Bois-Reymond is from discerning this, and how deeply he is still entangled in neuro-psychological views is shown most clearly in the astonishing sentence which he has thought good to append to his above-quoted, erroneous assertion. “And what could we reply to the naturalist if, before he could agree to the assumption of a World-soul he required that we should show him bedded in neuroglia and nourished by warm arterial blood anywhere in the world a convolution of ganglionic centres co-extensive with the psychic capacity of such a Soul” (!)

In other respects we will not deny that Du Bois-Reymond stands far nearer to our recent evolution-theory than Virchow; nay, that from year to year he has always pronounced more and more emphatically in favour of the theory of descent as the one possible explanation of morphological phenomena; indeed, Du Bois-Reymond has lately counted himself as one of those naturalists who were convinced of the truth of evolution even before Darwin! Then it is only to be wondered why so acute and gifted an inquirer, who is certainly not lacking in scientific ambition, left it to Charles Darwin to place the egg of Columbus on the ring and to point out to biological science a new method of unlimited capacity by giving the theory of descent a definite and reliable basis!

It is clear from some remarks in his discourse bearing the title “Darwin versus Galiani” (1876), that Du Bois-Reymond is still far from understanding the full significance of transmutation as affording a mechanical explanation of morphological problems. In this paper the “History of Creation” is treated simply as a romance, and the genealogies of phylogenesis are in his eyes “of about as much value as the pedigrees of the Homeric heroes are in the eyes of historical critics.” Geologists may be extremely grateful for this estimate of their science, for undoubtedly geology, as a structure of hypotheses, is neither more nor less justifiable than phylogenesis, as I have already pointed out in my Munich address: “Our phylogenetic hypotheses may claim to have equal value with the universally-admitted hypotheses of geology; the only difference is this, that the mighty structure of hypotheses called geology is incomparably more complete, simpler, and easier to grasp than that more youthful one called phylogenesis.” But as to the much-talked-of “genealogies,” though they are nothing more than the simplest, barest, and most superficial expression of the hypotheses of phylogenesis, as provisional hypotheses they are just as indispensable to specific phylogenesis as the theoretical section-tables of the strata of the earth’s crust are to geology.

If Du Bois-Reymond is so convinced of the truth of transmutation as he has lately given himself out to be, why does not he make at least one earnest attempt to test the interpreting power of the theory of descent in physiology his own most special province of inquiry? Why does he not labour at that hitherto quite unworked-out branch, physiogenesis, at the history of the evolution of functions, at the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of vital processes? The one idea which has lately been often spoken of as an important discovery of Du Bois-Reymond’s [the idea which had already been anticipated by Leibnitz, that the “innate ideas,” intuitions a priori have originated by transmission from primordial experience, i.e., empirical, a posteriori convictions], was distinctly enunciated by me long before Du Bois-Reymond (as he omits to mention), in 1866, in my “General Morphology” (vol. ii. , and in 1868 in the “History of Creation” (vol. i. , vol. ii. . If Du Bois-Reymond had practically busied himself with these problems he would certainly have thought a little about the development of consciousness, and not have set down as an eternally insoluble problem, “How is it possible that matter can think?” a form of words, be it observed, which has about as much sense as “how matter runs,” or “how matter strikes the hours.” Surely he would have guarded himself in that case from uttering the ponderous “Ignorabimus.”

The question has been repeatedly asked why two such prominent Berlin biologists as Virchow and Du Bois-Reymond availed themselves of the particularly solemn occasions of the fiftieth anniversary and of the fiftieth meeting of the German naturalists and physicians to lay lance in rest against the progress and freedom of science. The eager approbation which they both promptly met with from the party of the clergy and of all other enemies of free thought Virchow, indeed, in much greater measure than Du Bois-Reymond appears to justify this inquiry. I believe I can contribute something towards answering it, and as I am not fettered by any reverence for the Berlin tribunal of science or by any anxiety as to vexing influential Berlin connections, as most of my colleagues are who think as I do, I do not hesitate, here as elsewhere, to express my honest conviction in the freest and frankest manner, not troubling myself about the wrath which may be roused in many actual and not actual officials in Berlin at this exposition of the unvarnished truth.

The primary cause of their “misunderstanding,” and the best excuse that can be offered for it, in Virchow and Du Bois-Reymond alike, lies in their unacquaintance with the advance of modern morphology. As has been repeatedly stated, no natural science is so directly to be referred to the doctrine of evolution and more particularly to the theory of descent as morphology. It is because we morphologists can neither explain nor comprehend all the manifold and infinitely complex form-phenomena of the animal and plant worlds without this theory, because to us transmutation contains the only possible, rational explanation of organic types, that we all regard it as the indispensable basis of the scientific doctrine of form, and as demanding no further proofs of its certainty than those which now lie in abundance before us.

Du Bois-Reymond, and still more Virchow, ignore these proofs, because they are to a great extent ignorant alike of the inquiries and results, of the methods and the aims of our modern morphology, and this ignorance may be accounted for partly by the one-sided direction which their biological studies have taken, partly by the fact that there are few universities where the study of morphology is so behindhand as at the University of Berlin. Fully twenty years have now elapsed since the great Johannes Mueller died, the last naturalist who could command all the departments of biology. The three great provinces of science which had been reunited into a triune kingdom under his powerful sceptre, were then divided among three professors’ chairs: Du Bois-Reymond took that of physiology, Virchow, theoretical pathology (pathological anatomy and physiology), and the third, and most important chair, that of morphology (human and comparative anatomy, including the history of evolution) fell to Boguslaus Reichert. This choice was, as is now universally admitted, an incomprehensible mistake. Instead of calling Carl Gegenbaur, or Max Schultze, or some one else of youthful capacity and vigour to the chair of morphology a science which is the first foundation of zoology as well as of medicine in Reichert they selected an elderly school anatomist cramped by strong old-fashioned notions, who had done some good and useful specialist work, but whose general views had developed all awry, and who for the unexampled obscurity of his conceptions and the confusion of his ideas, was outdone by none save only Adolf Bastian. For twenty years this man has represented animal morphology in the second university of Germany, and in these twenty years hardly any work worth mentioning has been done there in the whole of this vast department neither by the master nor by his pupils. We have only to compare the many worthless anatomical productions of Berlin during these two decades (for instance, the recent confused work by Fritsch on the brain of fishes) with the rich mine of invaluable work produced during the preceding twenty years by Johannes Mueller and his crowd of disciples.

But, as if this were not enough, Reichert took advantage of his influential position to hinder as far as possible all scientific study of morphology. For example, he, with the co-operation of his colleagues, carried through that pretended “reform” of medical examination which puts the so-called Tentamen physicum in the place of the philosophicum; philosophy was entirely eliminated. Zoology and botany, which for centuries have been very justly regarded as the indispensable foundation of all instruction in natural science for the young medical student, disappeared from the curriculum. Only, as if in scorn of these sciences, in each examination a small place was reserved for comparative anatomy for that most difficult and philosophical part of animal morphology which cannot be at all understood without some previous knowledge of the other branches of zoology. And yet comparative anatomy and the history of development are the indispensable preliminary steps to a true scientific comprehension of human anatomy, that most essential foundation of all medical knowledge. Without the vivifying idea of development, mere anatomical knowledge is an empty and lifeless cramming of the memory.

In the place of morphology, thus degraded from its office, a detailed study of physiology was introduced, but always in a one-sided direction. Now these two great branches of biology, which are equally important and have an equal claim on our attention, are so dependent the one on the other, that a real scientific understanding of organic life can never be obtained without due relative study of both. The masterly and incomparable teaching of Johannes Mueller owed a great part of its captivating charm to his equitable regard for morphology and physiology, as well as to his comprehensive treatment, from the broadest point of view, of the enormous mass of details to be dealt with. I therefore have not the smallest doubt that the morphological training of medical students, as at present conducted at Berlin under the influence of Reichert and his colleagues, is as far behind that of Mueller’s day, twenty or thirty years ago, in all general comprehension of the typical organism, as it is in advance of it in specialist acquirements.

In medical, as in all other scientific learning, the highest aim does not consist in seeking to accumulate a vast chaotic mass of isolated items of knowledge, but in a general comprehension of the science, its aims and problems. The teacher should, above everything, guide the pupil to this general knowledge, and then it will be easy to him, by the aid of proper methods, to acquire mastery in each individual and special branch. Thus in medicine, as in every other science, he is not the best qualified who, on Bastian’s method, has loaded his memory with a confused mass of undigested facts, and has flung them all together into his brain without any order; but, on the contrary, he who has practically digested a considerable number of the most important facts, and has critically co-ordinated them to a harmonious whole. It is precisely under this aspect that transmutation is of such inestimable value to morphology; it enables us to rise from the bare empirical knowledge of numberless isolated facts to a philosophical conception of their efficient causes.

The aversion and contempt which the theories of descent and selection have met with at Berlin, more than in any other place, is in great measure to be explained by the circumstance that, during the last two decades, morphological studies have been more neglected in that university than any others. In no other city of Germany has evolution in general, as well as Darwinism in particular, been so little valued, so utterly misunderstood, and treated with such sovereign disdain as in Berlin. Nay, Adolf Bastian, the most zealous of all the Berlin opponents of our doctrines, has insisted on these facts with peculiar satisfaction. Of all the conspicuous naturalists of Berlin only one accepted the doctrine of transmutation from the beginning with sincere warmth and full conviction, being, indeed, persuaded of its truth even before Darwin himself. This was the gifted botanist Alexander Braun, who is lately dead a morphologist who was equally distinguished by the extent of his comprehensive knowledge of details, as by his philosophical mastery over them. His firm conviction of the truth of the theory of descent is all the more remarkable because he was at the same time a spotless character, a pious Christian in the best sense of the word, and an extremely conservative politician; a striking example that these convictions can dwell side by side with the principles of the recent doctrines of evolution in one and the same person. But in comparison with the powerful influence of the rest of the Berlin naturalists who, for the most part, are decided opponents of transmutation, and who have only lately a few of them, to follow the fashion become converts to it, a man like Alexander Braun could have no effect in procuring that it should be taught.

However, this is not the first time that this very Berlin society of learned men has set itself with remarkable firmness against the most important advances of science. Virchow’s former colleague, the deceased Stahl, with a similar purpose and with great success, preached this principle: “Science must turn back again.” Just as at the present day the Berlin biologists have opposed the most obstinate and pertinacious resistance to the greatest scientific stride of this century, so did it happen in former times with regard to other doctrines of progress. We have only to recall Caspar Friedrich Wolff, the great inquirer, who in 1759 first detected the nature of the individual processes of development in the animal ovum, and founded on it his observations in his “Theoria Generationes,” which marked an epoch in biological science. The Berlin savants, full of the prevailing prejudices, so contrived at that time that Wolff never once could obtain the permission which he craved, to lecture publicly, and in consequence found himself compelled to retire to St. Petersburg for the sake of peace. And yet in that instance there was no question of a “theory” properly so-called. For the fundamental theory of generation the “theory of epigenesis” as propounded by Wolff was nothing more than a simple, general exposition of embryological facts which he had been the first to recognise, and of whose truth every one might convince himself by direct observation. In spite of this, for another half century, the predominant error of the “Preformation-theory” continued to be universally accepted the ludicrous and nonsensical doctrine, supported by the authority of Haller, that all the successive generations of animals exist preconceived and enclosed one within the other, and that no individual development ever takes place! Nulla est epigenesis! (Compare my “Evolution of Man,” vol. i. .)

But it would appear that it is the fate of that most interesting of all sciences, the history of evolution, to find its most important steps and its greatest discoveries met by the firmest and most persistent opposition. For while Wolff’s fundamental theory of epigenesis, which was promulgated in 1759, was not recognised until 1812, Lamarck’s theory of descent, founded in 1809, had to wait fully fifty years before Darwin, in 1859, showed it to be the greatest acquisition of modern science; and during that period, in spite of all the progress made in empirical science, how persistently this most comprehensive of all biological theories was combated. We need only recollect how, in 1830, the celebrated George Cuvier silenced its most eloquent supporter, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, in the midst of the Paris Academy, and how almost at the same time its founder, the great Lamarck, ended his life in blindness, misery and want, while his opponent Cuvier was enjoying the highest honours and the greatest splendour. And yet we know now that the despised and contemned Lamarck and Geoffroy had already grasped truths of the highest significance, while Cuvier’s much-admired and universally-accepted theory of creation is now on all hands neglected as an absurd and untenable delusion. But as neither Haller as against Wolff, nor Cuvier as against Lamarck, could permanently hinder the progress of free inquiry, neither will Virchow succeed in turning back the course of Darwin’s admirable achievement; no, not even when he is supported by the discourses of his friend Bastian.

While we cannot but earnestly lament Virchow’s inimical attitude in this great struggle for truth, we must not overlook the effects of his well-founded authority in a yet wider sphere. For instance, the hostile attitude which the greater part of the Berlin press persistently maintains towards the doctrine of development (particularly the Liberal “National-Zeitung”) is to be referred to the influence of his authority. But much as this reactionary vein, in this and in other intelligent circles at Berlin, must be regretted on the one hand, on the other we must observe that by this evil we have been preserved from a far greater one. This greater evil the greatest, in fact, which German science could have to encounter would be the monopoly of knowledge at Berlin; a Centralisation of Science. The injurious fruits of this system of centralisation in France, for instance, the continual deterioration of French science through the Parisian “Monopoly of Knowledge,” and its steady decline during half a century from the sublimest heights these are all well known. From such a centralisation of German science which would be especially dangerous if it occurred in the capital, Berlin we may hope to be preserved; in the first place by the manifold differences and the many-sided individuality of the German national spirit, the much-abused German provincialism (Particularismus). While these provincial modes of thought can never have any permanent political value, nor be productive of a desirable form of government, it is beyond a doubt that their outcome has been fruitful and happy for German science. For it owes its splendid pre-eminence over that of other countries precisely to the many centres of culture which were offered by those numerous petty capitals of the minor German States which strove to outdo each other in eager emulation. It is to be hoped that this happy decentralisation of science in our politically united fatherland may continue to subsist!

And next to this centrifugal tendency of our German national mind nothing will so greatly contribute to it as a vigorous opposition to the free advance of science, such as is just now declaring itself in the metropolis. For by just so much as Berlin is dragged back by it in the mighty onward stream of free intellectual movement, by so much will it see itself outstripped by the other seats of culture in Germany, which follow the stream with enthusiasm, or at least without resistance. If Emil du Bois-Reymond raises the cry of “Ignorabimus,” and Rudolf Virchow his still more audacious one of “Restringamur,” as the watchwords of science, then, from Jena, let the shout be raised and echoed from a hundred other universities “Impavidi progrediamur!”