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SIXTH ORDINARY MEETING.
ROYAL INSTITUTION, 11th January, 1864.
JAMES A. PICTON, Esq., PRESIDENT, in the Chair.
Dr. COLLINGWOOD announced that the first list of the Committee for carrying out the Shakspeare Tercentenary Festival had been completed. He read the list, which included nearly seventy of the leading literary, scientific and commercial names of the town. He also stated that this Committee would meet at the Town Hall on Monday next to initiate arrangements.
Mr. Bailey exhibited a drawing of the recent meteor, with a description from the pen of Mr. Alexander Herschel.
Mr. MOORE exhibited a stuffed specimen of the short sunfish, Orthagoriscus mola, presented to the Free Public Museum by Captain E. Johnson, brig Ringleader. This fish measures five feet in total length; is three feet high, or measuring from tip to tip of dorsal and anal fin, six feet six inches. It was captured on the 15th of September, 1863, in lat. 49° north, long. 9° west, by Captain Johnson, whose attention was first drawn to it by seeing it “fly about twelve feet forward out of the water.” It afterwards appeared to be floating on its side, skimming the surface, probably feeding on the jelly-fish, which were very plentiful, and remains of which were subsequently found in the stomach. A boat was lowered and the fish harpooned, but it was with difficulty towed to the brig, for only when the fish lay ou the surface of the water could the boat make way; when it could assume its vertical position beneath the surface the boat was towed by the fish. The flesh was well flavoured, resembling codfish. Above three quarts of oil were extracted from its liver. The occurrence of this species in British waters is sufficiently rare to be worthy of record.
Mr. MOORE also announced the addition to the museum of living specimens of the following species of fish from New York, viz. :--The fresh-water sunfish, Pomotis vulgaris, a pretty species, common in ponds; a species of catfish, Pimelodus pullus, with eight long sensitive feelers projecting from the snout and chin ; and the sheep's-head lebias, Lebias ovina, a diminutive salt-water fish. They were imported and presented by Captain Mortimer, of the ship America, on whom the society had already conferred its honorary degree of Associute, for his zeal in the cause of natural history.
A paper was then read, entitled
A VISIT TO SALZBURG AND THE SALT MINES
By R. HIBBERT TAYLOR, M.D.
The following paper was also read:
BY THE Rev. H. H. HIGGINS, M.A.
THERE is at present amongst some very eminent physiologists a growing tendency to deny, or at all events to question, the existence of vitality as distinct from the action of known forces, such as heat, light, electricity, &c., or something analogous to these.
The views of the physiologists above referred to may thus be briefly stated :
(1.) Of the nature of vitality we know nothing; we are therefore not required either to admit or to deny its existence as a distinct thing.
(2.) The observed phenomena of life are consistent with, and, to a very great extent, derivable from, the operation of known laws: it is therefore not philosophical to introduce an entirely unknown agency to account for such residual phenomena as are not thus reducible.
The present paper will be devoted to the consideration of some questions bearing upon these two propositions.
It is a matter of comparatively little importance what term may be chosen to denote the object of our enquiry, whether it be “ vitality,” or “germ force," or the “ vital principle," so that it be clearly understood to refer only to the ultimate element of life, and not to any even of the simplest functions of life. Seen under this aspect, vitality is simply the sine quâ non of the animate individual,* whose very existence as such, stands or falls as vitality is, or is not, regarded as a distinct entity. Personality, which is a higher form of individuality, is equally dependent on the question whether vitality is, or is not, the result of forces such as we are accustomed to deal with in scientific investigations. It would be absurd to call a flame a person or an individual ; yet it has active qualities, a distinct form, requires aliment, &c. A man is not a person because he has these properties, but because he has a something which a flame has not. Whether this something be designated soul, or spirit, or will, or intellect, or vitality, is, I apprehend, all the same in respect of its relation to physical science, which cannot recognise metaphysical distinctions. In fact it is the question before us, whether on grounds of physical science we are competent to recognise vitality under any aspect as a distinct thing.
* In assigning this position to vitality the writer is aware of the difficulties which beset the subject, especially in connection with the development of plants, and in respect of the lower forms in the animal kingdom, compound animals, the alternation of generations, &c. If, however, vitality can be shown to lie beyond the range of scientific investigation, in all these cases the knot is cut; and whilst physical development remains in every instance a proper object of scientific enquiry, neither the relations subsisting between the vitality of a seed and that of the parent plant, nor any similar relations, can adequately be discussed as matters pertaining to natural science.
It must be evident that if the vital functions by which man is distinguished from a block of granite be the result of difference in the combination of the primary molecular forces of his living substance, he has no more right to be regarded as a person than has a thunder-storm ; his being is a process, and in general terms he may be described as a segregation of certain forces, initiated by a similar combination, and passing away into equilibrium, or into the general stock from whence he was derived.
The issue, however, must be tried not on its consequences, but on its scientific merits; on which grounds, as I apprehend, whatever may be demonstrated concerning the vitality of man holds equally good with reference to the life of a monad, or of a particle of red snow. Still, if it can be shown on purely physical principles that vitality is a something which is not analagous to the actions of known forces, then life is, to all intents and purposes, a miracle, by which I understand not the action of a power in opposition to, or thwarting the physical laws of nature, but the manifestation of an agency extra
cosmical, working harmoniously with, and by means of, those laws.
It may seem to some hardly worth the while to contend for the possession by man of a distinct vitality, if by this term is meant only that which he must hold in common with an animalcule or a seed. But a moment's reflection will make it plain how vast a step is taken if we gain from science the admission that her kingdom is not universal. None will be more ready than the man of science to confess how little is that which is known, when compared with that which still remains to be known; nevertheless he is becoming more and more inclined to be convinced that all is knowable, and if known would be found conformable in all respects with the knowledge that he has already. So strong is this tendency that he is encouraged to entertain as possible, or even probable, theories that otherwise he would at once have rejected as monstrous and absurd--for example, the derivation even of the most exalted faculties of man, through a long series of almost insensible gradations, covering a period of millions of years, from ordinary forces which initiated the lowest forms of life. Now, if it can be shown that vitality, even in a vegetable cell, is a thing which lies beyond the scope of scientific investigation, the spell is broken, and a claim is established for the determination of what may or may not constitute the higher faculties of man, on other grounds than those of physical science alone.
As a believer in something more than natural science, it is proper for me to state that I do not think a rational persuasion of the personality of man must rest upon evidence to be obtained from physical researches. Still I should expect to find in science some indication of its own limits, and of the commencement of that border-land which separates the known from the unknown. More than this the very nature of the case forbids.