Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society (22 october 1892)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society published in The Norwood News on 5 november 1892.

Report of a lecture presided and attended by Arthur Conan Doyle about War and its Effects, as seen in Marine Organisms held on 19 october 1892.


The Norwood News (22 october 1892, p. 5)


The announcement that Professor T. Giddes would lecture on "Darwin and Evolution" attracted a numerous audience at the meeting of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society at the Royal Normal College last Wednesday. Many, however, were greatly disappointed to learn that Professor Giddes was unable to be present, but all feelings of regret must have been quickly displaced, for a very efficient substitute had been found in the person of Dr. W. Benham, of Oxford, who discoursed, in an interesting and comprehensible manner, on "War and its effects, as seen in Marine Organisms."

The PRESIDENT (Dr. Conan Doyle) occupied the chair, and, in opening the proceedings, briefly thanked the members for having elected him to preside over them during the present session.

Dr. BENHAM, in his introductory remarks, said he must claim the indulgence of the members for certain imperfections which might make themselves manifest in the course of his lecture, and he could only excuse himself on the ground of short notice, and the fact that the lantern slides to illustrate his subject were not quite what he could have wished them to be. Proceeding, he said that, when one looked at the landscape, and saw the undulating hills, the grand woods, the cattle browsing, and the rolling stream, it appeared to be oue of the most peaceful scenes that could be gazed upon. Nature, however, was continually at war. There was a constant struggling and fighting going on in the forests, and in the depths of the sea there was continual turmoil. But it was all hidden from view. Science taught them that there was such a war, and, only by examinstion and observation, could they be made aware of these constant conflicts. But when they did recognise this struggle for existence, they found that it was war to the knife — a war in which no quarter was given, no armistice or parley was allowed — one continuous and everlasting struggle, and all for what purpose? — chiefly and entirely to get food. But, in fact, it was all for the best; and were it not for this continual struggle, and the exercise of the best (or perhaps worst) qualities of the organism, there would be no progress at all — there would be no selection, no survival of the fittest; and if this matter were followed to the ultimate conclusion, it would be found that without this struggle there would be an appalling stagnation and quietude. What did this struggle for existence mean? It was not a tight between a larger enemy and a smaller prey — between a shark, for instance, and a mackerel — but the struggle for existence took place between one shark and another shark, and one mackerel and another mackerel. It was a kind of civil war; and it was owing to this constant feud amongst animals that so great a variety and form of animal was obtained. The same with plants; they were in a continual state of unrest. Quite recently a moat charmingly-written article appeared in one of the science monthlies on death in the forest and the struggles between trees and plants. Tall trees, it stated, fought with one another to reach the sunlight, the trees thus killing the underwood. Besides this, there were the creepers that climbed these trees, and ultimately succeeded in killing them — as common ivy killed the tree to which it clung. Yet this war was so extremely gradual and imperceptible that one did not see the consequent number of dead and wounded that were left on the field. The results of the conflict were two — the killing off of the weaker, and the improvement of the race generally. But in addition to this civil war — this struggle for existence — there was the other war with foreigners, or a war between enemies and their prey. Whilst wolves were fighting for a carcase, men and dogs, perhaps, were hunting wolves. While two starlings were struggling, a hawk was preparing to come down, and the starling that happened to have the keenness or the greater activity escaped, and the other was killed. This was the sort of struggle that was pin on between enemies and their prey. When once they disturbed Nature they laid themselves open to all sorts of unfortunate circumstances, as was shown in the ease of Australia, where rabbits were introduced, and, as these rabbits had no enemies out there, they soon overrun the country. This was the sort of war that was continually going on, and the chief of the facts which he wished to lay before his auditors were the means of defence and protection against attacks that had been produced by the combined results of the two kinds of struggling he had mentioned. In illustration of these means of defence, he went on to refer to marine animals. For convenience they might, he remarked, divide marine animals into three groups:— (1) Those which were found near the shore in comparativety shallow waters; (2) those found only at great depths; and (3) those that occurred on the surface of the sea — not necessarily actually on the surface, but a few fathoms below. They found a somewhat similar means of defence developed in all these different kinds of animals. There was the natural protection that first struck one, in the form of resisting armour — such as in the ease of crabs, and many other fish with bony scales. Other animals were provided with tubes, or houses, which they formed for themselves — for instance, snails and whelks — while others had their bodies covered with spines, which did not entirely protect the animal, but would injure the enemy to a greater or less extent when trying to swallow their prey. Sponges were examples of that kind of defence; and he incidentally remarked that it might surprise many present to learn that common bath sponges were parts of animals. Sponges were animals, and they contented themselves with a skeleton which, in the case of the common bath sponge, was a horny material; other sponges very similar to them were protected by calcareous or silicious spines, serving not only as a protection against animals, but a support to their soft, structures. Dr. Benham then exhibited a number of pictures by a lantern, showing clearly the different means of protection which the various classes of marine animals possess, but much of the information he gave would not be intelligible without the illustrations. Perhaps some of the most interesting pictures were those showing the concealment of one animal within another, which, the lecturer said, led to a relationship which was called "mutualism" — the smaller animal was protected by living in relationship with the larger one, and the smaller animal easily gave food to the larger. Speaking of the cuttle-fish, he said that this gave off a fluid which darkened the surrounding water, and afforded a most efficient protection. Another specially interesting set of illustrations were those showing that class of animal which floated on the surface of the deeper parts of the sea, and whose transparency was their chief means of protection.

The PRESIDENT, in proposing a vote of thanks to the lecturer, remarked that they had heard of the struggle which was as continuously going on between animals of the lower order — as, for instance, between shark and shark, and mackerel and mackerel — and so it was in our own daily lives. Just as in animal life, the weakest went to the bottom, and nothing more was heard of them. It was only now and again that they had some side glimpse of how strange a power life was. He remembered reading that Sir James Paget calculated that of 1,000 students who matriculated on one occasion, 890 were unaccounted for. Life with us was just as strange a power as in the lowest animals; and though we do not learn to develop spienles, as in the case of the fish which had been illustrated — (laughter) — we do try to improve and better ourselves. Curious as it might seem to some, just as with the lower animals, we are working to some glorious goal. As we develop, it was possible, he humourously remarked, that men would he as far above us as we are above the jellyfish — but that wouldn't be in our time. (Laughter.)

The vote of thanks was seconded by Dr. THOMSON, and was heartily agreed to.

Dr. BENHAM briefly ackhowledged the compliment, and the proceedings, which had been highly interesting and instructive, terminated.