On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History *


    AT this period of the meeting of the British Association I am quite sure it is hardly necessary for me to call to your minds the nature of the business which takes place at our sectional meetings. We there register the progress which science has made during the past year, and we do our best to advance that progress by original communications and free discussion. But when the honourable task of delivering this evening's lecture was imposed upon me, or rather as my friend the President has just said, when I undertook to deliver it, it occurred to me that the occasion of an evening lecture might be turned to a different purpose, that we might with much propriety and advantage turn our minds back to the past to consider what had been done by the great men of old, who “had gone down into the grave with their weapons of war,” but who had fought bravely for the cause of truth while they yet lived—to recognise their merits, and to show ourselves duly grateful for their services. I propose, therefore, to take a retrospect of the condition of that branch of science with which it is my business to be more or less familiar—not to a very remote period, for I shall go no further back than the seventeenth century, and the observations which I shall have to offer you will be confined almost entirely to the biological science of the time between the middle of the seventeenth and the middle of the eighteenth centuries. I propose to show what great ideas in biological science took their origin at that time, in what manner the speculations then originated have been developed, and iu what relation they stand to what is now understood to be the body of scientific biological truth. The middle of the sixteenth century, or rather the early part of it, is one of the great epochs of biological science. It was at that time that an idea, which had been dimly advocated previously, took the solid form which can only be given to scientific ideas by the definite observation of fact—I mean the idea that vital phenomena, like all other phenomena of the physical world, are capable of mechanical explanation, that they are reducible to law and order, and that the study of biology, in the long run, is an application of the great sciences of physics and chemistry. The man to whom we are indebted for first bringing that idea into a plain and tangible shape, I am proud to say, was an Englishman, William Harvey. Harvey was the first clearly to explain the mechanism of the circulation of the blood, and by that remarkable discovery of his, and by the clearness and precision with which he reduced that process to its mechanical elements, he laid the foundation of a scientific theory of the larger part of the processes of living beings—those processes, in fact, which we now call processes of sustentation—and by his studies of development he, further, first laid the foundation of a scientific knowledge of reproduction. But besides these great powers of living beings, there remains another class of functions-those of the nervous system—with which Harvey did not grapple. It was, indeed, left for a contemporary of his, a man who, as he himself tells us, was mainly stimulated in these inquiries by the brilliant researches of Harvey—Réné Descartes—to play a part in relation to the phenomena of the nervous system, which, in my judgment, is equal in value to that which Harvey played in regard to the circulation. And when we consider who Descartes was, how brief the span of his life, I think it is a truly wonderful circumstance that this man, who died at fifty-four, should be one of the recognised leaders of philosophy—that, as I am informed by competent authority, he was one of I the first and most original mathematicians who has ever lived, and that, at the same time, the fertility of his intellect and the grasp of his genius should have been so great that he could take rank, as I believe he must, beside the immorial Harvey as a physiologist. And you must recollect that Descartes was not merely, as some had been, a happy speculator. He was a working anatomist and physiologist, conversant with all the anatomical and physiological lore of his time, and practised in all methods by which anatomical and physiological discoveries were then made; and it is related of him—and a most characteristic anecdote it is, and one which should ever put to silence those shallow talkers who speak of Descartes as a merely hypothetical and speculative philosopher—that a friend once calling upon him in Holland begged to be shown his library. Descartes led him into a sort of shed, and, drawing aside a curtain, displayed a dissecting-room full of bodies of animals in course of dissection, and said, “There is my library.” It would take us a very long time if I were to attempt to pursue the method which would be requisite for the full establishment of all that I am about to say; that is to say, if I were to quote the several passages of Descartess works which bear out my ascription to him of the several propositions which I am going to bring before you. And I must beg you, therefore, to be so good as to take it on my authority for the present, although for the present only, that there are to be found clearly expressed in Descartes' works the propositions which I shall proceed to lay before you, and each of which I shall compare as we go on, as briefly as may be, with the existing state of physiological science, in order that you may see in what position with respect to physiology—ay, even to the advanced physiology of the present time—this man stood. And, happily, the matters with which we shall treat are such as to require no extensive knowledge of anatomy—no more, in fact, than such as, I presume, must be familiar to almost every person.

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    On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and its History * . Nature 10, 362–366 (1874). https://doi.org/10.1038/010362a0

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