Weismannism





In regard to almost all the points to which we have referred, the most

consistent and decided champion of Darwinism in its essential principles

is the zoologist of Freiburg, August Weismann.(35) In long chapters on the

protective coloration of animals, on the phenomena of mimicry--that

resemblance to foreign objects (leaves, pieces of wood, bark, and

well-protected animals) by which the mimics secure their own safety from

enemies--on the protective devices in plants, the selective value of "the

useful" is demonstrated. In regard to the marvellous phenomena of

"carnivorous" plants, the still more marvellous instincts of animals,

which cannot be interpreted on Lamarckian lines as "inherited habit," but

only as due to the cumulative influence of selection on inborn tendencies,

as well as in regard to "symbiosis," "the origin of flowers," and so on,

he attempts to show that the heterodox attempts at explanation are

insufficient, and that selection alone really explains. At the same time

the Darwinian principle is carried still further. It is not only among the

individuals, the "persons," that the selective struggle for existence goes

on. Personal selection depends upon a "germinal selection" within the

germ-plasm, influencing it, and being influenced by it--for instance,

restrained.



In order to explain the mystery of heredity, Weismann long ago elaborated,

in his germ-plasm theory, the doctrine that the developing individual is

materially preformed, or rather predetermined in the "idants" and "ids" of

the germ-cell. Thus every one of its physical characters (and, through

these, its psychical characters), down to hairs, skin spots, and

birth-marks, is represented in the "id" by "determinants" which control

the "determinates" in development. In the course of their growth and

development these determinants are subject to diverse influences due to

the position they happen to occupy, to their quality, to changes in the

nutritive conditions, and so on. Through these influences variations in

the determinants may be brought about. And thus there comes about a

"struggle" and a process of selection among the determinants, the result

of which is expressed in changes in the determinates, in the direction of

greater or less development. On this basis Weismann attempts to reach

explanations of the phenomena of variation, of many apparently Lamarckian

phenomena, and of recognised cases of "orthogenesis," and seeks to

complete and deepen Roux's theory of the "struggle of parts," which was

just another attempt to carry Darwinism within the organism.



What distinguishes Weismann, and makes him especially useful for our

present purpose of coming to an understanding in regard to the theory of

selection is, that his views are unified, definite and consistent. In his

case we have not to clear up the ground and to follow things out to their

conclusions, nor to purge his theories from irrelevant, vitalistic, or

pantheistic accessory theories, as we have, for instance, in the case of

Haeckel. His book, too, is kept strictly within its own limits, and does

not attempt to formulate a theory of the universe in general, or even a

new religion on the basis of biological theories. Let us therefore inquire

what has to be said in regard to this clearest and best statement of the

theory of selection when we consider it from the point of view of the

religious conception of the world.



Whatever else may be said as to the all-sufficiency of natural selection

there can be no doubt that it presupposes two absolute mysteries which

defy naturalistic explanation and every other, and which are so important

that in comparison with them the problem of the struggle for efficacy and

its meaning fades into insignificance. These are the functions and

capacities of living organisms in general, and in particular those of

variation and inheritance, of development and self-differentiation. What

is, and whence comes this mysterious power of the organism to build itself

up from the smallest beginnings, from the germ? And the equally mysterious

power of faithfully repeating the type of its ancestors? And, again, of

varying and becoming different from its ancestors? Even the "mechanical"

theory of selection is forced to presuppose the secret of life. Weismann

indeed attempts to solve this riddle through his germ-plasm theory, the

predisposition of the future organism in the "ids," determinants, and

biophors, and through the variation of the determinants in germinal

selection, amphimixis and so on. But this is after all only shifting the

problem to another place, and translating the mystery into algebraical

terms, so to speak, into symbols with which one can calculate and work for

a little, which formulate a definite series of observations, an orderly

sequence of phenomena, which are, however, after all, "unknown quantities"

that explain nothing.



In order to explain the developing organism Weismann assumes that each of

its organs or parts, or "independent regions," is represented in the

germ-plasm by a determinant, upon the fate of which the development of the

future determinate depends. It is thought of as a very minute corpuscle of

living matter. Thus there are determinants of hairs and scales, pieces of

skin, pits, marks, &c. But every determined organ, or part, or

"independent region," is itself in its turn an "organism," is indeed a

system of an infinite number of interrelated component parts, and each of

these again is another, down to the individual cells. And each cell is an

"organism" in itself, and so on into infinity. Is all this represented in

the determinants? And how?



Further, the individual determinate, for instance of a piece of skin, is

not something isolated, but passes over without definite boundary into

others. Therefore the determinants also cannot be isolated, but must be

systems within systems, dependent upon and merging into one another. How,

at the building up of the organism, do the determinants find their

direction and their localisation? And, especially, how do they set to work

to build up their organ? Here the whole riddle of the theory of

epigenesis, which Weismann wished to do away with as a mystery, is

repeated a thousand times and made more difficult. In order to explain

puzzling processes on a large scale, others have been constructed, which

on close investigation prove to be just the same mysterious and

unexplained processes, only made infinitely smaller.



Moreover, even if the whole of "Weismannism," including germinal

selection, could be accepted, and if it were as sufficient as it is

insufficient, what we advanced at the end of Chapter III. as a standpoint

of general validity in relation to teleology and theology would still hold

good. Even an entirely naive, anthropomorphic, "supernatural" theology is

ready to see, in the natural course of things, in the "causae

secundariae," the realisation of Divine purpose, teleology, and does not

fail to recognise that the Divine purpose may fulfil itself not only in an

extraordinary manner, through "miracles" and "unconditioned" events, but

also in ordinary ways, "through means" and the universal causal nexus.

Thus it is quite consistent even with a theology of this kind to regard

the whole system of causes and effects, which, according to the

Darwin-Weismann doctrine, have gradually brought forth the whole diversity

of the world of life, with man at its head, in a purely causal way without

teleological intervention, as an immense system of means marvellous in its

intricacy, in the inevitable necessity of its inter-relations, and in the

exactness of its work, the ultimate result of which must have come

about, but perhaps at the same time was intended to come about. Whether

I regard this ultimate result as the mere consequence of blind happenings,

or as an intended purpose, does not depend, as we have seen, upon the

knowledge gained by natural science, but depends above all on whether this

ultimate result seems to me of sufficient value to be thought of as the

purpose of a world-governing intelligence, and thus depends upon my

personal attitude to human nature, reason, mind, and the spiritual,

religious, and moral life. If I venture to attribute worth, and absolute

worth, to these things, nothing, not even the fact of the "struggle for

existence" in its thousand forms, in its gradually transforming effects,

in the almost endless nexus of its causes and results, germinal selection

included, can take away my right (and eventually my duty) to regard the

ultimate result as an end, and the nexus of causes as a system of means.

To enable me to do this, it is only requisite that internal necessity

should govern the system, and that the result should not be a chance one,

so that it might even have been suppressed, have failed, or have turned

out quite differently. Necessity and predetermination are characteristic

of the relation between means and purpose. But this requisite is precisely

that which natural science does afford us,--namely, the proof that all

phenomena are strictly governed by law, and are absolutely predetermined

by their antecedents. At this point the religious and the scientific

consideration coincide exactly. The hairs of our head, and the hairs in

the fur of a polar bear, which is varying towards white, and is therefore

selected in the struggle for existence,(36) even the fluctuating

variations of a determinant in the germ, are "numbered" according to both

conceptions. Every variation that cropped up, every factor that "selected"

the fit, and eliminated the unfit, was strictly predestined, and must of

necessity have appeared as, and when, and where it did appear.(37)



The whole nexus of conditions and results, the inclined plane of evolution

and the power of Being to move up it, has its sufficient reason in the

nature and original state of the cosmos, in the constitution of its

"matter," its "energy," its laws, its sequences and the grouping of its

phenomena. Only from beginnings so constituted could our present world

have come to be as it is, and that necessarily. Only because the primary

possibility and fitness for life--vegetable, animal and human--was in it

from the beginning, could all these have come to be. This primary

possibility did not "come into being," it was a priori immanent in it.

Whence came this? There is no logical, comprehensible, or any other

necessity why there should be a world at all, or why it should be such

that life and evolution must become part of it. Where then lies the reason

why it is, rather than is not, and why it is as it is?



To this must be added what Weismann himself readily admits and expressly

emphasises. The whole theory treats, and must treat plant, animal, and man

as only ingenious machines, mere systems of physical processes. This is

the ideal aimed at--to interpret all the phenomena of life, growth, and

reproduction thus. Even instincts and mental endowments are so

interpreted, since there must be corresponding morphological variations of

the fine structure of the nervous organ, and instinctive actions are then

"explained" as the functions of these. But how "mechanical happening"

comes to have this marvellous inwardness, which we call sensation,

feeling, perception, thought and will, which is neither mechanical nor

derivable from anything mechanical; and, further, how physical and

psychical can condition one another without doing violence to the law of

the conservation of the sum of energy, is an absolute riddle. But this

whole psychical world exists, with graduated stages perhaps as close to

each other as in the physical world, but even less capable than these of

being explained as having arisen out of their antecedent lower stages. And

this psychical world, which is, indeed, related to and dependent upon the

corporeal life, as also conversely, has its own quite peculiar laws:

thought does not follow natural laws, but those of logic, which is

entirely indifferent to exciting stimuli, for instance of the brain, which

conform to natural laws. But this world, its riddles and mysteries, its

great content and its history, beyond the reach of mechanical theories, is

so absolutely the main thing (especially in regard to the question of the

possibility of religion), that the question of bodily structure and

evolution becomes beside it a mere accessory problem, and even the last is

only a relatively unimportant roundabout way of coming at the gist of the

business. How completely the evolution of the higher mental faculties

transcends such narrow and meagre formulae as the struggle for existence

and the like, Weismann himself indicates in connection with man's musical

sense, and its relation to the "musical" instinct in animals. The same and

much more might be alleged in regard to the whole world of mind, of the

aesthetic, ethical and religious, of the kingdom of thought, of science,

and of poetry.





Weismann's Evolutionist Position What Is Distinctive In The Naturalistic Outlook facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback