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My boyhood was placed in the times, when Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and “Descent of Man” had thrown the scientific and religious worlds into a convulsion. The struggle between the old ideas and the new calls for no more than a reference here; but the teacher to whom I owe most was one who, while valuing the old, saw only an enrichment in the new, explaining the Bible in that spirit. So it happened that he spoke one day of the extraordinary ingenuity of the life-principle, which somehow came to the earth, in adapting itself to perpetually new conditions.
Nothing defeated it. For millions of years, it was threatened by climatic changes, by the lack of food, by the ferocity of fellow creatures. Heat, cold, flood, drought, earthquake, and volcanic eruption were forever against it. Struggling from stage to stage upward from the slime, a new danger was always to it, a new incentive to finding a new resource.
Pursued through the water, it sought the land. Pursued on the land, it sought the air. Pursued in the air, it developed fleetness of wing, and in fleetness of wing, a capacity for soaring, circling, balancing, dipping, and swinging on itself of which the grace must not blind us to the marvelous power of invention.
In other words, the impulses leading to the origin of species proclaim a resourcefulness on the part of what we call life which we have every reason to think inexhaustible. Whatever the Fount of Being from which the life-principle first came into the waters of our earth there is no question but that with it came a conquest principle as well. Had it been possible to exterminate the life-principle, it would never have gone further than the age which saw the extinction of the great reptiles. The great reptiles went, but the life-principle stayed on, with the ability to assume, within our limited observation, all the forms between the bacillus and the elephant, while as to what lies beyond our observation, the possibilities are infinite.
Long before it works up to man, we see this amazing force stemming an uncountable number of attacks, and meeting ruinous conditions with daring contrivances. For one kind of danger, it develops a shell, for another a sting, for another a poison, for another a protective colouration. To breathe in the sea, it puts forth gills, and makes lungs for itself when stranded on the land. In glacial cold, it finds the means of growing fur; when heat and cold assail it by turns, it packs itself with feathers; when climates become temperate, it produces hair. For the creature which keeps to the water, it webs the foot; for that which takes to the trees, it makes the toes prehensile; for the one which learns to stand erect and run along the ground, it flattens the sole, making it steady and supporting. To resist, to survive, to win through, is the end to which the life-principle sets itself with such singleness of aim as to unfold a wealth of potentiality astounding to us in looking backward.