Nineteenth Century British Microscopy

and Natural History: Part 7

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

  Visit the Micscape Library to read other parts in the series.


Last time, we didn’t finish looking at the April 1881 issue of the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society. In my previous article I mentioned that this issue contains the Presidential Address of Lionel S. Beale which was read before the society on February 9, 1881. It is titled: “The Microscopic Limit, and Beyond.”–it is 21 ½ pages long. Remember they didn’t have television in those days and even in modern times we have had the speeches of Castro and Brezhnev which went on for hours and hours. Strange what some people will seek out as entertainment. Beale may be known to some of you for his book How To Work With The Microscope which is really quite good and suggests that he was an able microscopist. His Presidential Address, however, suggests that in terms of biological theory he was something of a loon. Just before launching into his address, he comments:

Where wrong I shall be glad to be corrected, but I claim permission to speak freely what I think, and liberty to advance my conclusions, which, though not at present very popular, may yet be worthy of your consideration.”

Interesting rhetoric–worthy of a politician. First off, almost no one is “glad to be corrected”; secondly Beale wouldn’t be presenting these ideas before such a distinguished Society if he didn’t believe them to be correct and I mean “believe” here in the strong sense; namely, that it would be virtually impossible to convince him that he was wrong. Thirdly, he claims, not asks “permission to speak freely” and finally, he implicitly asks for a sympathetic hearing by noting that his ideas are not very popular “at present”.

What are these ideas which might be considered unpopular? Let me give a very brief summary.

1) Beale was a vitalist. He believed that there is some life force embodied in the very materials that constitute life.

2) He places great emphasis on the activity of living matter as contrasted with inactivity of non-living matter and he advocates a radical distinction between biological matter and physical or chemical matter.

“No two things in this world can be more dissimilar than man’s chemical laboratory and nature’s laboratory in this living matter. That the formation of the germ is to be accounted for by the operation of the ordinary forces of matter is one of the most absurd of absurd propositions; but that the idea of such an origin should still be entertained and taught by a physicist or chemist is unaccountable.”

3) Even odder, however, is Beale’s contention that

living matter has no definite structure whatever–that, in fact, its particles, and very probably their constituent atoms are in a state of very active movement, which renders structure and fixity of arrangement impossible...According to this view the idea of structure as belonging to living matter is inconceivable.

Now we know of no state in which non-living matter exhibits any analogy with matter in the living state, so that the cause of the state under consideration must have reference to the living state and to that only; and to reassert, as many continue to do, that the phenomena manifested by living matter are to be accounted for by the properties of the material particles, is silly and perverse...”

What extraordinary claims! Beale offers no evidence nor arguments against those he calls “the materialists” whose position is that “living matter” is ultimately composed of “non-living matter”–atoms and molecules organized in incredibly complex configurations. This view is anathema to Beale and so he insists on this arbitrary and artificial separation between the living and non-living as a way of justifying his positing of a life force which radically separates the two types. The basic distinction between living and non-living things does, of course, make sense in our macro-world. Bricks and steel bars are not alive; amoebae and human beings are; and there are those shadowy areas where we’re not sure, as in the cases of viruses and prions, but to claim that humans and amoebae are composed of some kind of special matter infused with a life force is unjustified nonsense.

Equally peculiar is Beale’s Heraclitean view of the character of this life force-infused matter; namely, that being in constant movement, it can have no structures. Bizarre !

Beale is quite serious regarding this conception of a life force. It is easier to forgive such a notion in a rather befuddled, visionary philosopher such as Bergson with his idea of elan vital but, less easy to tolerate coming from a competent microscopist. Let’s take another brief look at how Beale argues for this concept.

“All those peculiarities in form, structure, and properties of tissue, which characterize the multitudinous forms of life around us, and which enable us to distinguish them from one another, are imposed upon the matter at the moment when it passes from the living to the formed state, or succeed as the result of a long series of changes then initiated. These peculiarities are not found in any ordinary matter, can only be accounted for on the supposition that some force, property, or power exists which is peculiar and belongs to the matter only while its life lasts.”

This sounds rather like the old theological notion of a “soul-principle,” but Beale doesn’t limit it to humans and actively rejects the animism of the ancients who included rocks and other inanimate beings as “living”. One of their key arguments was the “life force” of magnetite since it caused motion in iron filings. As Piaget demonstrated, there is a natural conceptual connection between motion and life in the minds of children. There is the wonderful example he gives of the case when he asks a youngster if his bicycle is alive. The boy replies: “Sometimes.” Piaget asks: “When?” The boy replies: “When it’s moving.”

In children, primitives, and ancients, we can understand this association but, for a distinguished microscopist to advance a modified version of this view in the late 19th Century is mind-boggling. As Beale tries to elaborate on his theory, it becomes progressively vaguer and more ludicrous.

4) Beale’s enemies are the “materialists” and the evolutionists and one has to admit that he selects major figures as targets: Virchow, T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin. Virchow was a prominent doctor and biologist and one of those nasty reductionistic materialists that so offend Beale who states:

“There is not, I think, any good reason for accepting the conclusion that one of a collection of elementary parts, at any period of development, can sympathize or otherwise influence the actions of others, as Virchow seems to think.”

Excuse my rudeness, but what in the hell is he talking about? This is being expounded by the President of the Royal Microscopical Society! I would have loved to have observed the reactions of his audience and listen to their questions. I guess I place too much faith in reason (there’s a nice conceptual conundrum for you!). Who knows: if we had time travel Lionel Beale and Michael Behe might be great pals and join forces to advance a vitalistic version of intelligent design.

With his comment about Virchow, Beale is just getting warmed up. Listen to what he has to say about Huxley, who, as you will remember, was an ardent defender of the Darwinian theory of evolution and took on Bishop Samuel (Soapy Sam) Wilberforce in the famous and rumbustious debate at Oxford.

“Professor Huxley, in his article ‘Biology’ in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’–without defining what he means by the words ‘molecular’ and ‘machine’–assures his readers that ‘a mass of living protoplasm is simply a molecular machine of great complexity’ the total results of the working of which or its vital phenomena, depend, on the one hand, upon its construction, and, on the other, upon the energy supplied to it; and to speak of vitality as anything but the name of a series of operations, is as if one should talk of the ‘horologity’ of a clock.’ This is the sort of teaching that has long retarded the progress of thought, and affords an example of the puerile objections palmed off on the public as scientific criticism, and supposed to be sufficient to controvert evidence founded upon observation, and arguments based on facts which anyone may demonstrate.”

I spent some time reading and re-reading portions of Beale’s paper trying to find the facts and arguments which he contends he is presenting but, unfortunately, it was like trying to capture the elf who wears a hat which makes him invisible. However, Beale is still just getting warmed up. He has the very strange idea that microscopists, and most especially those who use high magnification oil immersion lenses, are able to observe life phenomena that other biologists either cannot observe or are ignorant of and, from his point of view, this applies to evolutionists in particular.

“No doctrine of evolution yet put forward seems to afford any help to those who are familiar with the characters of the living matter of different organisms, as far as these can be elucidated by any means at present known. Evolutionists generally do not take cognizance of the difficulties which are so patent to microscopical observers. Some of them have hardly condescended to notice the living matter, out of which and by which all the forms of life they profess to account for are developed.”

It is perhaps understandable that Beale wishes to give a special status to microscopical investigations being President of the Royal Microscopical Society, but to suggest however, indirectly, that microscopists (of the high magnification sort) nearly have access to THE LIFE FORCE is simply loony.

As he proceeds, Beale conflates evolution, “materialism”, and nihilism. I apologize for the rather extensive quotations, but it seems to me the best way to show you Beale’s extremism.

“It seems to me that the ‘nature’ of the evolutionist is but a fanciful and highly coloured picture in which ideas suggested by investigations in stockyards, and shambles are depicted, with the addition of the horrible scenes assumed by a vivid imagination to be enacted in the supposed everlasting fight for existence and scramble for mastery, in which conquerors are always conquered by creatures just a shade more fitted to survive than themselves. Here is creation by destruction in a never-ceasing scramble going on for millions on millions of years, in which the only thing certain seems to be that the greatest misery is assured to the greatest number; life succeeding life, without good or reason or joy or hope; peaceful nature a continual massacre of experimental forms of life to be soon succeeded and superseded by other experimental forms to be massacred in their turn, and these by more; a constant struggle to survive, in which success is rewarded by extermination. The ‘nature’ of evolutionists is a very strange nature indeed, in which oppression, destruction, and tyranny seem to be the chief agents in creation and formation, development and advancement.”

I wonder if Beale had a thundering, rich, sonorous voice like that of Dylan Thomas. I can imagine him delivering this part of his address with great verve and passion. Clearly he is working himself up for his attacks on Spencer and especially Darwin. The rhetoric is indicative of a deeply felt sense of outrage. The reference to “stockyards and shambles” is very likely a slur directed at Darwin who did extensive research on animal husbandry.

Beale certainly succeeds in presenting a bleak view of nature as an endless cycle of nihilation and creation and clearly has no liking for the concept of survival of the fittest. It also becomes clear that he is not at all comfortable with the idea of the finitude of human existence. Furthermore, he finds the idea of the development of the universe on down to human institutions being attributed to evolution extremely distasteful. In the passage cited above he also takes a whack at a kind of inverse utilitarianism with his phrase “...the greatest misery is assured to the greatest number...”.

“But besides the evolution of living forms and of the different organs, we are to believe in an evolution of matter, an evolution of worlds, of suns, of systems. Religion, law and justice, art, science, and even thought are all products of this universal, never-ending evolution. But what is evolution, and who has given to the term an accurate definition?”

As he proceeds, the aggressive tone of his attacks increases, but he is careful not to mention God or a Creator or anything that directly smacks of theology. Instead his focus is on debunking the horrible and depressing views of the”materialists’ and evolutionists and offering us a counter view consisting of vague appeals to the visible micro-activity of protoplasm under high magnification which he asserts requires the positing of a life force. He would doubtless be distressed to learn that these views he so contemptuously dismisses have been embraced by more and more “heretical” materialists and evolutionists in all areas of the world–with the possible exceptions of Kansas and Texas.

Beale has a Victorian mind set and he does not like these new theories and their implications and it’s quite evident that he did understand the major implications and found them a threat to his entire world view. The Natural Theology of the Victorian period was a great comfort to many because Nature was regarded in all its splendor as an expression of God’s beauty, love, and compassion for mankind. It was also a comfortably bourgeois position because, on a lovely Sunday morning, you could be out collecting and identifying wildflowers or looking for new species of snails and still be worshiping god and not have to listen to a sermon. Beale, in this address, does not admit to subscribing to Natural Theology but, at one point, he does speak of “the nature and scope of Infinite Power.”

The next stage of his attack is a terminological one where the target is Spencer.

“Herbert Spencer has defined his ‘evolution’ to be a change from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations. But is not every one of these polysyllabic words as elastic as the word the meaning of which they are to explain? Every assertion made is wanting in proof, and most of the words may be used in totally different and even in opposite senses.”

As my grandmother used to say, “Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black!” I must admit that I’m not much of a fan of Spencer who did tend to be a pompous, cranky, long-winded windbag and I’ll also admit that Beale has a legitimate criticism, but it’s one which can be directed against him as well in terms of slippery language and confounding ambiguity. Ah, the vagaries of the human ego.

Now that Beale has gotten himself worked up, he is prepared to launch an assault on Darwin and it becomes evident that Beale is deeply resentful regarding criticisms leveled at his theories and he intends to repay his critics in kind. I will quote this attack at some length to give you the full flavor of Beale’s polemical rhetoric. In one sense, it is especially interesting because despite being an attack, the posture is defensive as well.

“Anyone who ventures to express a doubt concerning the absolute correctness of the assemblage of vague and even contradictory conjectures comprised in any hypothesis of evolution is in danger of being abused and called names. He may be denounced to the world as a contemptible person who has made a vile and abusive attack upon some infallible authority who affirms himself to be the real discoverer of all the secrets of the molecular machinery of creation. We now live under the most ridiculous of all forms of despotism. It has now been said that we must accept such and such views or be debarred from accepting anything! But is it possible for any unbiassed [sic!] person to accept implicitly doubts, vague suggestions of what may be or can be, or might be,--- speculations, hypotheses, conjectures concerning things that lived under conditions which are in great part only conjectural? Probably no living person accepts as it stands ‘The Origin of Species’ and it is doubtful whether the first chapter, or even the first sentence of the first chapter, would hold its ground without considerable alteration and qualification, if subjected to searching critical examination.”

It’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t in the audience, because I suspect that I would have been unable to suppress some giggles and perhaps even an occasional guffaw.

What deliciously silly, overblown rhetoric! Now, I feel that I would like to track down Beale’s critics and find out what in particular they said and what in particular they were attacking. Clearly one or more hit a sensitive nerve. Beale’s hyperbole is splendid. His suggestions that he has been labeled a contemptible person; that he now lives in a time of intellectual despotism; that doubts of any particular are regarded as heresy; that The Origin of Species has in effect become a “holy”, unassailable book are expressions of an injured ego; clearly someone trod very hard on Beale’s toes. The next phase of his assault suggests a kind of brainwashing.

“Evolution is a wholly satisfactory explanation only to those whose minds have been trained to submission to emotional authority, and who have brought themselves to regard things as they have been taught to regard them, instead of venturing to use their sense, and reasoning on the facts presented to their observation–and indeed see for themselves with their own eyes, instead of accepting, without ever seeing, what they are told has been seen by the eyes which are supposed to be specially privileged to see.”

Who are these who “have been trained to submission to emotional authority?” Virchow? Huxley? Spencer? Darwin? And those who need to go and observe with their own eyes instead of blindly accepting? “Huxley, and most especially Darwin, were well-known for their careful, detailed observations–for example, Darwin spend eight years studying barnacles before publishing his classic monograph! Furthermore, Darwin struggled against his own theory even while formulating it, because he knew that its implications would be earth-shaking. In many respects, Darwin was a modest, unassuming man who did not relish controversy. On the other hand, Huxley had a very different sort of temperament and did seem to relish public debate. Darwin gladly let him become the defender and spokesman for this radical new theory which was especially upsetting to those with a religious bent.

Beale was an odd man. He was a physician who specialized in pathology and used the microscope extensively. He held a chair at King’s College and was physician at King’s College Hospital, positions from which he resigned at around the age of 70. (His exact birth date is uncertain; it is stated as being around 1825.)

As I mentioned earlier, among microscopists, he is known for his book How To Work With The Microscope which you can occasionally find a copy of for a fairly substantial price depending upon the edition and condition. Right now, on the American Book Exchange, there are copies ranging in price from $50 to $418.32.

Being a pathologically curious sort, I decided to try to find out what else he had written and I found several titles which have been reprinted, but not his work on the microscope. The titles will give you an indication of the Jekyll/Hyde character of Beale.

1) Bioplasm: An Introduction to the Study of Physiology and Medicine

2) Protoplasm or Life: Matter and Mind

3) Life Theories: Their Influence Upon Religious Thought

4) The Materialist Revival and the Miracle of the Raising of the Dead

It was now becoming clear who his critics might have been and why. With a bit more poking around, I found a review of item #3, Life Theories. The review was published in October of 1871, a full decade before the Presidential Address that we have been looking at. It makes crystal clear the basis for Beale’s animus against Huxley and indirectly Darwin.

“Readers of this little work will regret that Professor Huxley called Dr. Beale ‘a microscopist ignorant alike of biology and philosophy,’ not merely because this manner of expressing fundamental disagreement is always to be deprecated, but because we seem to owe to this remark the peculiar querulous prolixity which Dr. Beale has mingled with this exposition of his view. The treatise has thus become so rambling and reiterative that it must be pronounced tedious though short. As far as its contents are properly biological, it seems to be merely a restatement of the doctrines put forward in the same author’s treatise on Protoplasm. I conclude, therefore, that it is written solely with the philosophical design of showing the connection of the fundamental truths of biology with theology and religion. I imagine Dr. Beale’s view of this very important question is and will remain peculiar to himself, but a brief account seems due the writer’s reputation in his own department.”

The reviewer does go on to give a rather extended summary which I will spare you. This review is delicious and, I strongly suspect, consciously ironic; the reviewer mildly chastises Huxley and then proceeds to vivisect Beale in only slightly more temperate language. Beale had attained an important academic position and status as a physician and, as so often happens, developed a severe case of what Dylan Thomas so wonderfully described as “elephantiasis of the ego.” My own view is this: Give a man a little bit of power and recognition and he becomes insufferable.

In an important sense, Beale is a wonderful case study.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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