The greatest hurdle in writing about works informed by turn-of-the-last-century science is communicating how unscientific it was. Unlike medievalists, who have the luxury of discussing barnacle geese and self-castrating beavers, I address works with the patina of reputable science—the toys and methods are patently modern, the problem lies in the conclusions drawn with their aid. Individually, each of these conclusions is merely incorrect; combined, they form the keystone for many a house of scientific horror, each built to the idiosyncratic specifications of its inmate-owner.
Compounding my difficulty is that from the street, these monstrosities are indistinguishable from the stolid brownstones flanking them on either side. Only when you open the front door and step into a mud-walled bathroom in which a stove sits beneath a sign reading "FOR SHITTING APRICOTS" do you sense something is amiss.
In short, convincing you that a conventional-sounding statement about social evolution is no more rational than a foyer dedicated to disposing peaches ain't the easiest stunt to pull. Here's my malformed attempt:
Early in ["The Descent of Man"], [Edith] Wharton mentions [Professor Linyard's] authorship of “Ethical Reactions of the Infusoria” and “The Unconscious Cerebration of Amoeba” (314). These microscopic animals are not, however, his area of expertise: “On the structure and habits of a certain class of coleoptera [beetles],” Wharton writes, “he was the most distinguished living authority” (318). His interest in infusoria indicates the speculative—almost unscientific, but certainly unprofessional—cant of his thought.
That he extends his investigation into the ethics of infusorial reaction points to a metaphysical tendency extant prior to writing [his popular mockery of metaphysically informed "science"] The Vital Thing. Infusoria are so named because they appear in infusions of decaying organic matter. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, debates as to the classification of infusoria persisted. “Though the term Infusoria has usually been applied to all the Protozoa provided with cilia or flagella,” declares A.S. Packard in 1875, “it is not restricted to the highest [Ciliata] division of the Protozoa” (87).
In the same issue of The American Naturalist in which Packard’s essay appears, noted evolutionist T.H. Huxley places them within the category of “Endoplastica,” which “while not forsaking the general type of the single cell, attain a considerable complexity of organization” (66). Infusoria are thus single-celled animals with uncharacteristic complexity; unless, that is, they are not animals at all. David S. Kellicott, delivering the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microscopists, notes that it is without question that “these [infusoria] teeming in the hay infusion are alive,” then asks, “but why relegate them to the animal kingdom rather than to the vegetable?” (14).
He then reminds his fellow microscopists that no lesser light than Ernst Haeckel proposed a third kingdom, Protista, in which to include animals with chlorophyll-bearing bodies. Straddling the fence between animal and vegetable, infusoria and related protozoa occupied a central place in early debates about the evolution of mind. The eminent neo-Lamarckian E.D. Cope argues that
It is evident…that education commences low in the scale, since some of the acts of Infusoria indicate an adaptation of means to ends which cannot be supposed to be possible to a totally new experience. The discharge of weapon-like cilia of the Dinidium at its prey would indicate that the animal knew the effect of the act from past experience, and anticipated that food would be secured in this way from its success in previous performances of the kind. (“The Evolution of Mind,” 904)
Linking consciousness to adaptations like “weapon-like cilia” is a conventionally Lamarckian move, for “specialization of structure means specialization of function; and specialization of function means accomplished education” (903). Specialization is the result of adaptations acquired over time, Cope argues, and the mechanism of adaptation for Lamarckians is force of will; therefore, if infusoria possess specialized structures—and they do—then Cope must “[believe] in the presence of consciousness in Protozoa” (903).
That it would have been possible to believe that microscopic organisms occupying the neutral slot between animal and vegetable possess rudimentary consciousness is enough to open infusoria to endless speculation of the sort Linyard produces in The Vital Thing; that they were considered immortal by many opened more pseudoscientific avenues still.
R. von Lendenfeld outlines the argument for infusoria immortality in “The Undying Germ-Plasm and the Immortal Soul” (1891). The theory originates with the fierce neo-Darwinian, vehement anti-Lamarckian August Weismann who, as von Lendenfeld summarizes, argued:
All unicellular beings, such as the Protozoa and the simpler Algae, Fungi, &c., reproduce themselves by means of simple fission. The mother-organism may split into two similar halves, as the Amoeba does, or, as is more common in the lowest unicellular plants, it may divide into a great number of small spores. In these processes it often happens that the whole body of the mother, the entire cell, may resolve itself into two or more children; at times, however, a small portion of the mother-cell remains unused…From this it follows that these unicellular beings are immortal. (92)
Despite being only arguably animal, infusoria possess consciousness and are immortal, which facts forced scientists and sociologists to consider the possibility that “colonies” of infusoria were but a single, immortal individual. Even if it is, the cooperation between individual infusoria are considered the basis of what in 1902 Arthur Allin calls “sociality.”
Following Herbert Spencer’s analogy of society as an organism, Allin notes that “Selfishness necessarily generates altruism. The chalk cliffs of infusoria are the result of the individualistic action of each of the infusoria, the infusorium being typical of egoism” (81). The infusoria thus represented the lowest form of life in which social behaviors equivalent to those of human society could be observed. As Henry Fairfield Osborn observed in 1892, “the most impressive truth issuing from…recent researches in evolution and heredity is the uniformity of life-processes throughout the whole scale of life from Infusoria to man” (668).
Does that sound suitably insane?