Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of the Origin of Species

By A. C. Seward | Go to book overview

XXIX
THE EVOLUTION OF MATTER

BY W. C. D. WHETHAM M.A., F.R.S. Trinity College, Cambridge.

THE idea of evolution in the organic world, made intelligible by the work of Charles Darwin, has little in common with the recent conception of change in certain types of matter. The discovery that a process of disintegration may take place in some at least of the chemical atoms, previously believed to be indestructible and unalterable, has modified our view of the physical universe, even as Darwin's scheme of the mode of evolution changed the trend of thought concerning the organic world. Both conceptions have in common the idea of change throughout extended realms of space and time, and, therefore, it is perhaps not unfitting that some account of the most recent physical discoveries should be included in the present volume.

The earliest conception of the evolution of matter is found in the speculation of the Greeks. Leucippus and Democritus imagined unchanging eternal atoms, Heracleitus held that all things were in a continual state of flux -- IIáντα ῥεƖ.

But no one in the Ancient World -- no one till quite modern times -- could appreciate the strength of the position which the theory of the evolution of matter must carry before it wins the day. Vague speculation, even by the acute minds of philosophers, is of little use in physical science before experimental facts are available. The true problems at issue cannot even be formulated, much less solved, till the humble task of the observer and experimenter has given us a knowledge of the phenomena to be explained.

It was only through the atomic theory, at first apparently diametrically opposed to it, that the conception of evolution in the physical world was to gain an established place. For a century the atomic theory, when put into a modern form by Dalton, led farther and farther away from the idea of change in matter. The chemical elements

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