Our Master Aristotle


Aristotle, who was not unaccustomed to resolute thinking, tells us that throughout nature there is always something of the wonderful - thaumaston. What precisely is this "wonderful' ? It cannot be merely the startling, as when we announce the fact that if we could place in one long row all the hair-like vessels or capillaries of the human body, which connect the ends of the arteries with the beginnings of the veins, they would reach across the Atlantic. It would be all the same to us if they reached only half-way across. Nor can the wonderful be merely the puzzling, as when we are baffled by the "sailing" of an albatross round and round our ship without any perceptible strokes of its wings. For some of these minor riddles are being read every year, without lessening, however, the fundamental wonderfulness of Nature. Indeed, the much-abused word wonderful is properly applied to any fact the knowledge of which greatly increases our appreciation of the significance of the system of which we form a part. The truly wonderful makes all other things deeper and higher. Science is always dispelling mists the minor marvels; but it leaves us with intel lectual blue sky, sublime mountains, and deep sea. Their wonder appears and remains.

There seems to be a rational basis for wonder in the abundance of power in the world the power that keeps our spinning earth together as it revolves round the sun, that keeps our solar system together as it journeys through space at the rate of twelve miles a second towards a point in the sky, close to the bright star Vega, called "the apex of the sun's way". At the other extreme there is the power of a fierce little world within the complex atom, whose imprisoned energies are set free to keep up the radiant energies of sun and star. And between these extremes of the infinitely great and the' infinitely little are the powers of life the power of winding up the clock almost as fast as it runs down, the power of a fish that has better engines than those of a Mauretania, life's power of multiplying itself, so that in a few hours an invisible microbe may become a fatal million.

Another, also old-fashioned, basis for wonder is to be found in the immensities. It takes light eight minutes to reach us from the sun, though it travels at the maximum velocity of about 186,300 miles per second. So we see the nearest star by the light that left it four years ago, and Vega as it was twenty-seven years ago, and most of the stars that we see without a telescope as they were when Galileo Galilei studied them in the early years of the seven teenth century. In any case it is plain that we are citizens of no mean city.

A third basis for rational wonder is to be found in the intricacy and manifoldness of things. We get a suggestion of endless resources in the creation of individualities. Over two thousand years ago Aristotle knew about five hundred different kinds of animals; and now the list of the named and known includes twenty-five thousand different kinds of backboned animals, and a quarter of a million some insist on a minimum of half a million backboneless animals, each itself and no other. For "all flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds". The blood of a horse is different from that of an ass, and one can often identify a bird from a single feather or a fish from a few scales. One is not perhaps greatly thrilled by the fact that the average man has twenty-five billions of oxygen-capturing red blood corpuscles, which if spread out would occupy a surface of 3,300 square yards; but there is signifi cance in the calculation that he has in the cerebral cortex of his brain, the home of the higher intellectual activities, some nine thousand millions of nerve cells, that is to say, more than five times the present population of the globe surely more than the said brain, as yet makes use of.

So it must be granted that we are fearfully and wonderfully made I Our body is built up of millions of cells, yet there is a simplicity amid the multitudinousness, for each cell has the same fundamental structure. Within the colloid cell-substance there floats a kernel or nucleus, which contains forty-seven (or in woman forty-eight) chromosomes, each with a bead-like arrangement of smaller microsomes, and so on, and so on. Similarly, while eighty- nine different elements have been discovered out of the theoreti cally possible ninety-two, we know that they differ from one another only in the number and distribution of the electrons and protons that make up their microcosmic planetary system. What artistry to weave the gorgeously varied tapestry of the world out of two kinds of physical thread besides, of course, Mind, which eventually searches into the secret of the loom.
A fourth basis for rational wonder is in the orderliness of Nature, and that is almost the same thing as saying its intelligibility. What implications there are in the fact that man has been able to make a science of Nature ! Given three good observations of a comet, the astronomer can predict its return to a night. It is not a phan tasmagoria that we live in, it is a rational! sable cosmos. The more science advances, the more the fortuitous shrivels, and the more the power of prophecy grows. Two astronomers foretold the dis covery of Neptune; the chemists have anticipated the discovery of new elements; the biologist can not only count but portray his chickens before they are hatched. The Order of Nature is the largest of all certainties; and leading authorities in modern physics tell us that we cannot think of it as emerging from the fortuitous. It is time that the phrase "a fortuitous concourse of atoms" was buried. Even the aboriginal nebula was not that I No doubt there have been diseases and tragedies among men, cataclysms and volcanic eruptions upon the earth, and so on no one denies the shadows; but even these disturbances are not disorderly; the larger fact is the absence of all caprice. To refer to the poet's famous line, no one any longer supposes that gravitation can possibly cease when he goes by the avalanche. Nor will a microbe's insurgence be influenced by the social importance of the patient.

Corresponding to the intelligibility of Nature is the pervasiveness of beauty a fifth of rational wonder, appealing to the emotional side of our personality; but we have discussed this a little in a previous section. Surely Lotze was right, that it is of high value to look upon beauty not as a stranger in the world, nor as a casual aspect of certain phenomena, but as "the fortunate revela tion of that principle which permeates all reality with its living activity".

A sixth basis of rational wonder, particularly relevant here and already illustrated, is to be found in the essential characteristics of living creatures. We need only add the caution that the marvel of life is not to be taken at its face value; as Coleridge wisely said, the first wonder is the child of ignorance ; we must attend diligently to all that biochemistry and biophysics can discount; we must try to understand all that can be formulated in terms of colloids, and so on. Yet when all that is said, there seem to be large residual phenomena whose emergence in living creatures revealed a new depth in Nature. Life is an enduring, insurgent activity, growing, multiplying, developing, enregistering, varying, and above all else evolving.

For this is the seventh wonder Evolution. It is not merely that all things flow; it is that life flows uphill. Amid the ceaseless flux there is not only conservation, there is advancement. The changes are not those of a kaleidoscope, but of "an onward advancing melody". As the unthinkably long ages passed the earth became the cradle and home of life ; nobler and finer kinds of living creatures appeared; there was a growing victory of life over things and of "mind" over "body"; until at last appeared Man, who is Life's crowning wonder, since he has given to everything else a higher and deeper significance. And while we must consider man in the light of evolution, as most intellectual combatants admit, there is the even more difficult task of envisaging evolution in the light of Man. Finis coronal opus a wise philosophical axiom; and yet the scientist must qualify it by asking who can say Finis to Evolution.




SIR J.ARTHUR THOMSON, M.A.,LL.D.(Edinburgh;St Andrews;Aberdeen) Professor of Natural History in the University of Aberdeen.
PATRICK GEDDES Sometime Lecturer on Zoology, School of Medicine, Edinburgh; Emeritus Professor of Botany (Univ. Coll., Dundee), St. Andrews; Late Professor of Sociology and Civics, University of Bombay; Director of Scots and Indian Colleges at University of Montpellier; President of the Institutes of Sociology, London, Edinburgh, and Montpellier.

Volume I., p.38



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