A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter IV
Anatomy and physiology in the eighteenth century
Zoology at the close of the eighteenth century
Several causes conspired to make exploration all the fashion during the closing epoch of the eighteenth century. New aid to the navigator had been furnished by the perfected compass and quadrant, and by the invention of the chronometer; medical science had banished scurvy, which hitherto had been a perpetual menace to the voyager; and, above all, the restless spirit of the age impelled the venturesome to seek novelty in fields altogether new. Some started for the pole, others tried for a northeast or northwest passage to India, yet others sought the great fictitious antarctic continent told of by tradition. All these of course failed of their immediate purpose, but they added much to the world's store of knowledge and its fund of travellers' tales.

Among all these tales none was more remarkable than those which told of strange living creatures found in antipodal lands. And here, as did not happen in every field, the narratives were often substantiated by the exhibition of specimens that admitted no question. Many a company of explorers returned more or less laden with such trophies from the animal and vegetable kingdoms, to the mingled astonishment, delight, and bewilderment of the closet naturalists. The followers of Linnaeus in the "golden age of natural history," a few decades before, had increased the number of known species of fishes to about four hundred, of birds to one thousand, of insects to three thousand, and of plants to ten thousand. But now these sudden accessions from new territories doubled the figure for plants, tripled it for fish and birds, and brought the number of described insects above twenty thousand. Naturally enough, this wealth of new material was sorely puzzling to the classifiers. The more discerning began to see that the artificial system of Linnaeus, wonderful and useful as it had been, must be advanced upon before the new material could be satisfactorily disposed of. The way to a more natural system, based on less arbitrary signs, had been pointed out by Jussieu in botany, but the zoologists were not prepared to make headway towards such a system until they should gain a wider understanding of the organisms with which they had to deal through comprehensive studies of anatomy. Such studies of individual forms in their relations to the entire scale of organic beings were pursued in these last decades of the century, but though two or three most important generalizations were achieved (notably Kaspar Wolff's conception of the cell as the basis of organic life, and Goethe's all-important doctrine of metamorphosis of parts), yet, as a whole, the work of the anatomists of the period was germinative rather than fruit-bearing. Bichat's volumes, telling of the recognition of the fundamental tissues of the body, did not begin to appear till the last year of the century. The announcement by Cuvier of the doctrine of correlation of parts bears the same date, but in general the studies of this great naturalist, which in due time were to stamp him as the successor of Linnaeus, were as yet only fairly begun.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.