The Insurrection Of The Vertebrates

It is well known how the spiritualists tried to capture Pasteur, because his theories, denying spontaneous generation, seemed to them his consecration of the old dogma of a Creator. Pasteur never professed such ideas; he limited himself to pursuing brilliantly his profession as a scientist. It was not without a feeling of sadness that, pestered by the admiration of a too pious gentry, he wrote to Sainte-Beuve, I believe: “Let us continue our labors, without giving heed to the philosophic or religious deductions that may be drawn from them.”

Well, here is that same gentry trying, very maladroitly moreover, to turn to their profit the results of a new scientific theory which is beginning to make a stir in the world,—the law of vital constancy. M. Dastre expounded it the other day at the solemn session of the Institute and demonstrated its supreme importance. If one is eager to keep abreast of intellectual novelties, one should possess some notion of this recent scientific theory; just as one would blush not to possess any notion of Darwin’s labors and the theory of evolution, which has now become a part of general culture.

Man is the product of an evolution the origin of which is contemporaneous with the very origins of the world. He has as ancestors not only men, but reckons in his genealogy all manner of animal species. His descent from the monkey through the medium of a semi-human form that is still little known, is today authenticated. The monkey, like all other mammals and also the marsupials (kangaroo, opossum) is a transformation of a reptile; the reptiles, to continue, were born of fishes, who are the first vertebrates to appear, and the fishes in turn descend from the annelides, humble little marine animals. But let us not go any farther back than the fishes, for, in this species we possess a certainty that may be daily demonstrated. At a certain stage of its development the human embryo has the chief characteristics of a fish. All of us were, at a certain moment of our unborn life, fishes; this is as certain as the most easily verified scientific fact. From this piece of evidence, and a hundred others, it has been possible to draw up this aphorism, which unites the evolution of the individual to general evolution: “Every individual, in his embryonic development, goes through the same phases through which the evolution of his species has gone in traversing the ages.”

This monumental discovery of the transformation of species is, as we know, due almost entirely to Darwin. It is he who propounded and demonstrated the principle of evolution. But if, in his so abundant books, he explained the how, he did not discover the why. He registered facts, but did not show why these facts should have been absolutely necessary. It is this gap which the theories of M. Quinton now fill, at the same time confirming in a brilliant manner the selfsame principles of Darwinism, evolutionism and transform-ism. Before M. Quinton, one might, strictly speaking, with a semblance of good faith, contest Darwin’s conclusions: henceforth, it is impossible: the facts are interconnected; we know their necessary, implacable cause. Thanks to M. Quinton, evolutionism should rather be termed revolutionism.

There are in this theory, two things to consider: life itself, and the environment amid which it develops. Life is a fixed phenomenon. It began in a marine milieu, at the very beginnings of the world, and it tends constantly to preserve, through all the transformations of a terrestrial milieu, the original conditions of its appearance. As a consequence, the most highly developed animals, the superior animals, among which man takes first place, are those which have been able to preserve in the interior of their bodies, in the form of blood, a vital milieu almost identical with the original marine milieu,—the environment in which life was born: in fact, the degree of saltness in our blood represents the saltness of the sea at the moment life made its appearance, and, moreover, our internal temperature represents the mean temperature of the globe at the moment our species was born.

The terrestrial milieu is unstable. Its heat has constantly diminished. Formerly, in the most remote epochs, the vicinity of the poles, now an ice-covered and inaccessible extent, had a climate hotter than that of the tropics. Life was born amid this tropical environment, at the bottom of an ocean that had a far higher temperature than the Caribbean sea or the sea of Java. Nevertheless the poles grew colder and all the other parts of the world as well. Then animal life found itself faced with this alternative: either to accept the new conditions of the milieu, or to rebel against these conditions,—struggle and maintain internally despite the external temperature, the high temperature of its origin.

That is a solemn moment in the drama of the world. What is to happen? If the new conditions are accepted, it spells fatal decline. If they are repulsed, it means a magnificent future development. Almost all animal life submitted: it is today represented by the lowest class of living creatures: the invertebrates. A single representative of the animal world revolted, made a prodigious effort, entered into strife with the hostile milieu and dominated it: the vertebrate. Thus life, in its superior aspects, affirmed itself from the very earliest times as an insurrection.

M. Quinton, says: “The vertebrate stands forth as marked by a particular character, which distinguishes him from the rest of the animal kingdom, giving him a position apart, above. While the balance of the animal kingdom accepts, or rather undergoes, in the face of the progressive shrinking of the seas and the cooling of the globe, the new conditions that have come about, and to which it can yield only at the cost of intense suffering, the vertebrates give evidence of a special power; they refuse to accept the conditions and confronted by hostile circumstances maintain the sole conditions favorable to their existence…. They are not, then, like the invertebrates, the passive toys of circumstances that dominate them, but, in part, the masters of the fundamental conditions necessary to their welfare. In the midst of the physical world that surrounds him, ignores him and oppresses him, man is not the sole insurgent, the only animal in revolt against the natural conditions, the only one tending to found, in an instable, hostile medium, the fixed elements of a superior life. The simple fish, the simple mammal … hold the essential physical laws in check. When man attacks the natural forces that surround him, in order to dominate the hostile elements in them, he first participates of the genius of the vertebrate.”

I have purposely underscored the words sole insurgent. These words, in fact, indicate the orientation of our efforts the moment we attempt to apply the biological principles enunciated by M. Quinton to the social domain. Far from teaching stagnation, resignation, acceptation, he counsels on the contrary, if one understands him, revolt against all that bars the progress of life and the maintenance of its highest conditions of power and intensity. These ideas are related to the basic ideas of Nietzsche’s philosophy: we must grow or succumb. It is the same with individuals and persons as with the animal species: those who accept the conditions provided by their traditional environment, those who do not react, are condemned to decadence: they are invertebrates. The traits of a superior organism, on the contrary, are reaction through deep, continued evolution, or by a brusk revolution against the mediocrity of the milieu which tends to dominate and reduce it.

In certain places it is freely asserted that the peoples of the future are the wise peoples slumbering in the tradition of a political order, of a religious order, or a moral order: those peoples, on the contrary, are in their decline. But there is something worse: there are political—or social groups that dream, not of attaining to the genius of the vertebrate, which spells perpetual combat against the hostility of the environment, but of becoming once again invertebrates, and of falling asleep gently in the lap of ancient traditions.

There is, according to the theories of M. Quinton, in the social realm as in the biological, a fixed point, and one that must remain fixed unless decline is to set in, and that is life; but we must not confuse life with the environment in which it evolves. Life is constant and the milieu is variable. The most diverse political and social institutions have been successively imagined by man to assure, according to the needs of the moment, the development of his life. And as, in the course of time, they have appeared to him insufficient, he has rejected them to imagine others more in confirmity with his requirements: and thus social progress appears as a necessity, in the same way that anatomical progress has transformed an ocean worm into a fish and the fish into a mammal or a bird. In the two cases there is a certain end sought. It is for man to create for himself the social conditions that will permit his life to maintain its loftiest aims.

When the social conditions that the old regime brought about in France appeared to men unsuited any longer to the maintenance of their life, they acted like good vertebrates,—they revolted. Civilization is nothing but a succession of insurrections, now against the hostility of physical forces,—especially against the cold,—now against social forces, which, after a period of usefulness, tend almost always to evolve in the direction of parasitism.


Support this fine website.

Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Thanks, champ.

Share via
Send this to a friend