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The Temple of Nature

By Erasmus Darwin




But Reproduction with ethereal fires
New life rekindles, ere the first expires. CANTO II. l. 13.


THE reproduction or generation of living organized bodies, is the great criterion or characteristic which distinguishes animation from mechanism. Fluids may circulate in hydraulic machines, or simply move in them, as mercury in the barometer or thermometer, but the power of producing an embryon which shall gradually acquire similitude to its parent, distinguishes artificial from natural organization.

The reproduction of plants and animals appears to be of two kinds, solitary and sexual; the former occurs in the formation of the buds of trees, and the bulbs of tulips; which for several successions generate other buds, and other bulbs, nearly similar to the parent, but constantly approaching to greater perfection, so as finally to produce sexual organs, or flowers, and consequent seeds.

The same occurs in some inferior kinds of animals; as the aphises in the spring and summer are viviparous for eight or nine generations, which successively produce living descendants without sexual intercourse, and are themselves, I suppose, without sex; at length in the autumn they propagate males and females, which copulate and lay eggs, which lie dormant during the winter, and are hatched by the vernal sun; while the truffle, and perhaps mushrooms amongst vegetables, and the polypus and tænia amongst insects, perpetually propagate themselves by solitary reproduction, and have not yet acquired male and female organs.

Philosophers have thought these viviparous aphides, and the tænia, and volox, to be females; and have supposed them to have been impregnated long before their nativity within each other; so the tænia and volvox still continue to produce their offspring without sexual {34} intercourse. One extremity of the tænia, is said by Linneus to grow old, whilst at the other end new ones are generated proceeding to infinity like the roots of grass. The volvox globator is transparent, and carries within itself children and grandchildren to the fifth generation like the aphides; so that the tænia produces children and grandchildren longitudinally in a chain-like series, and the volvox propagates and offspring included within itself to the fifth generation; Syst. Nat.

Many microscopic animals, and some larger ones, as the hydra of polypus, are propagated by splitting or dividing; and some still larger animals, as oysters, and perhaps eels, have not yet acquired sexual organs, but produce a paternal progeny, which requires no mother to supply it with a nidus, or with nutriment and oxygenation; and, therefore, very accurately resemble the production of the buds of trees, and the wires of some herbaceous plants, as of knot-grass and of strawberries, and the bulbs of other plants, as of onions, and potatoes; which is further treated of in Phytologia, Sect. VII.

The manner in which I suspect the solitary reproduction of the buds of trees to be effected, may also be applied to the solitary generation of the insects mentioned above, and probably of many others, perhaps of all the microscopic ones. It should be previously observed, that many insects are hermaphrodite, possessing both male and female organs of reproduction, as shell-snails and dew-worms; but that these are seen reciprocally to copulate with each other, and are believed not to be able to impregnate themselves; which belongs, therefore, to sexual generation, and not to the solitary reproduction of which I am now speaking.

As in the chemical production of any new combination of matter, two kinds of particles appear to be necessary; one of which must possess the power of attraction, and the other the aptitude to be attracted, as a magnet and a piece of iron; so in vegetable or animal combinations, whether for the purpose of nutrition or for reproduction, there must exist also two kinds of organic matter; one possessing the appetency to unite, and the other the propensity to be united; (see Zoonomia, octavo edition, Sect. XXXIX. 8.) Hence in the generation of the buds of trees, there are probably two kinds of {35} glands, which acquire from the vegetable blood, and deposite beneath the cuticle of the tree two kinds of formative organic matter, which unite and form parts of the new vegetable embryon; which again uniting with other such organizations form the caudex, or the plumula, or the radicle, of a new vegetable bud.

A similar mode of reproduction by the secretion of two kinds of organic particles from the blood, and by depositing them either internally as in the vernal and summer aphis or volvox, or externally as in the polypus and tænia, probably obtains in those animals; which are thence propagated by the father only, not requiring a cradle, or nutriment, or oxygenation from a mother; and that the five generations, said to be seen in the transparent volvox globator within each other, are perhaps the successive progeny to be delivered at different periods of time from the father, and erroneously supposed to be mothers impregnated before their nativity.


Sexual as well as solitary reproduction appears to be effected by two kinds of glands; one of which collects or secretes from the blood formative organic particles with appetencies to unite, and the other formative organic particles with propensities to be united. These probably undergo some change by a kind of digestion in their respective glands; but could not otherwise unite previously in the mass of blood from its perpetual motion.

The first mode of sexual reproduction seems to have been by the formation of males into hermaphrodites; that is, when the numerous formative glands, which existed in the caudex of the bud of a tree, or on the surface of a polypus, became so united as to form but two glands; which might then be called male and female organs. But they still collect and secrete their adapted particles from the same mass of blood as in snails and dew-worms, but do not seem to be so placed as to produce an embryon by the mixture of their secreted fluids, but to require the mutual assistance of two hermaphrodites for that purpose.

From this view of the subject, it would appear that vegetables and animals were at first propagated by solitary generation, and afterwards by hermaphrodite sexual generation; because most vegetables possess at this day both male and female organs in the same flower, which {36} Linneus has thence well called hermaphrodite flowers; and that this hermaphrodite mode of reproduction still exists in many insects, as in snails and worms; and, finally, because all the male quadrupeds, as well as men, possess at this day some remains of the female apparatus, as the breasts with nipples, which still at their nativity are said to be replete with a kind of milk, and the nipples swell on titillation.

Afterwards the sexes seem to have been formed in vegetables as in flowers, in addition to the power of solitary reproduction by buds. So in animals the aphis is propagated both by solitary reproduction as in spring, or by sexual generation as in autumn; then the vegetable sexes began to exist in separate plants, as in the classes monoecia and dioecia, or both of them in the same plant also, as in the class polygamia; but the larger and more perfect animals are now propagated by sexual reproduction only, which seems to have been the chef-d'oeuvre, or capital work of nature; as appears by the wonderful transformations of leaf-eating caterpillars into honey-eating moths and butterflies, apparently for the sole purpose of the formation of sexual organs, as in the silk-worm, which takes no food after its transformation, but propagates its species and dies.

III. Recapitulation.

The microscopic productions of spontaneous vitality, and the next most inferior kinds of vegetables and animals, propagate by solitary generation only; as the buds and bulbs raised immediately from seeds, the lycoperdon tuber, with probably many other fungi, and the polypus, volvox, and tænia. Those of the next order propagate both by solitary and sexual reproduction, as those buds and bulbs which produce flowers as well as other buds or bulbs; and the aphis, and probably many other insects. Whence it appears, that many of those vegetables and animals, which are produced by solitary generation, gradually become more perfect, and at length produce a sexual progeny.

A third order of organic nature consists of hermaphrodite vegetables and animals, as in those flowers which have anthers and stigmas in the same corol; and in many insects, as leeches, snails, and worms; {37} and perhaps all those reptiles which have no bones, according to the observation of M. Puopart, who thinks, that the number of hermaphrodite animals exceeds that of those which are divided into sexes; Mém. de l'Acad. des Sciences. These hermaphrodite insects I suspect to be incapable of impregnating themselves for reasons mentioned in Zoonomia, Sect. XXXIX. 6. 2.

And, lastly, the most perfect orders of animals are propagated by sexual intercourse only; which, however, does not extend to vegetables, as all those raised from seed produce some generations of buds or bulbs, previous to their producing flowers, as occurs not only in trees, but also in the annual plants. Thus three or four joints of wheat grow upon each other, before that which produces a flower; which joints are all separate plants growing over each other, like the buds of trees, previous to the uppermost; though this happens in a few months in annual plants, which requires as many years in the successive buds of trees; as is further explained in Phytologia, Sect. IX. 3. 1.

IV. Conclusion.

Where climate is favourable, and salubrious food plentiful, there is reason to believe, that the races of animals perpetually improve by reproduction. The smallest microscopic animals become larger ones in a short time, probably by successive reproductions, as is so distinctly seen in the buds of seedling apple-trees, and in the bulbs of tulips raised from seed; both which die annually, and leave behind them one or many, which are more perfect than themselves, till they produce a sexual progeny, or flowers. To which may be added, the rapid improvement of our domesticated dogs, horses, rabbits, pigeons, which improve in size, or in swiftness, or in the sagacity of the sense of smell, or in colour, or other properties, by sexual reproduction.

The great Linneus having perceived the changes produced in the vegetable world by sexual reproduction, has supposed that not more than about sixty plants were at first created, and that all the others have been formed by their solitary or sexual reproductions; and adds, Suadent hæc Creatoris leges a simplicibus ad composita; Gen. Plant. {38} preface to the natural orders, and Amenit. Acad. VI. 279. This mode of reasoning may be extended to the most simple productions of spontaneous vitality.

There is one curious circumstance of animal life analogous in some degree to this wonderful power of reproduction; which is seen in the propagation of some contagious diseases. Thus one grain of variolous matter, inserted by inoculation, shall in about seven days stimulate the system into unnatural action; which in about seven days more produces ten thousand times the quantity of a similar material thrown out on the skin in pustules!

The mystery of reproduction, which alone distinguishes organic life from mechanic or chemic action, is yet wrapt in darkness. During the decomposition of organic bodies, where there exists a due degree of warmth with moisture, new microscopic animals of the most minute kind are produced; and these possess the wonderful power of reproduction, or of producing animals similar to themselves in their general structure, but with frequent additional improvements; which the preceding parent might in some measure have acquired by his habits of life or accidental situation.

But it may appear too bold in the present state of our knowledge on this subject, to suppose that all vegetables and animals now existing were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones, formed by spontaneous vitality? and that they have by innumerable reproductions, during innumerable centuries of time, gradually acquired the size, strength, and excellence of form and faculties, which they now possess? and that such amazing powers were originally impressed on matter and spirit by the great Parent of Parents! Cause of Causes! Ens Entium!