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Mr. Martineau On Evolution
by [?]

[First published in The Contemporary Review, for June, 1872.]

The article by Mr. Martineau, in the April number of the Contemporary Review, on “The Place of Mind in Nature, and Intuition of Man,” recalled to me a partially-formed intention to deal with the chief criticisms which have from time to time been made on the general doctrine set forth in First Principles; since, though not avowedly directed against propositions asserted or implied in that work, Mr. Martineau’s reasoning tells against them by implication. The fulfilment of this intention I should, however, have continued to postpone, had I not learned that the arguments of Mr. Martineau are supposed by many to be conclusive, and that, in the absence of replies, it will be assumed that no replies can be made. It seems desirable, therefore, to notice these arguments at once–especially as the essential ones may, I think, be effectually dealt with in a comparatively small space.

* * * * *

The first definite objection which Mr. Martineau raises is, that the hypothesis of General Evolution is powerless to account even for the simpler orders of facts in the absence of numerous different substances. He argues that were matter all of one kind, no such phenomena as chemical changes would be possible; and that, “in order to start the world on its chemical career, you must enlarge its capital and present it with an outfit of heterogeneous constituents. Try, therefore, the effect of such a gift; fling into the pre-existing cauldron the whole list of recognized elementary substances, and give leave to their affinities to work.” The intended implication obviously is, that there must exist the separately-created elements before evolution can begin.

Here, however, Mr. Martineau makes an assumption which few, if any, chemists will commit themselves to, and which many will distinctly deny. There are no “recognized elementary substances,” if the expression means substances known to be elementary. What chemists, for convenience, call elementary substances, are merely substances which they have thus far failed to decompose; but, bearing in mind past experiences, they do not dare to say that they are absolutely undecomposable. Water was taken to be an element for more than two thousand years, and then was proved to be a compound; and, until Davy brought a galvanic current to bear upon them, the alkalies and the earths were supposed to be elements. So little true is it that “recognized elementary substances” are supposed to be absolutely elementary, that there has been much speculation among chemists respecting the process of compounding and recompounding by which they have been formed out of some ultimate substance–some chemists having supposed the atom of hydrogen to be the unit of composition, but others having contended that the atomic weights of the so-called elements are not thus interpretable. If I remember rightly, Sir John Herschel was one, among others, who, some five-and-twenty years ago, threw out suggestions respecting a system of compounding that might explain these relations of the atomic weights.

What was at that time a suspicion has now become practically a certainty. Spectrum-analysis yields results wholly irreconcilable with the assumption that the conventionally-named simple substances are really simple. Each yields a spectrum having lines varying in number from two to eighty or more, every one of which implies the intercepting of ethereal undulations of a certain order by something oscillating in unison or in harmony with them. Were iron absolutely elementary, it is not conceivable that its atom could intercept ethereal undulations of eighty different orders. Though it does not follow that its molecule contains as many separate atoms as there are lines in its spectrum, it must clearly be a complex molecule. The evidence thus gained points to the conclusion that, out of some primordial units, the so-called elements arise by compounding and recompounding; just as by the compounding and recompounding of so-called elements there arise oxides, and acids, and salts.