A Meditation; on Skeletons—and Some Other Things
Zoology, Dissection, Display, Anatomy, Vitalism, Degeneration, Natural Law, Organicism, Comparative Anatomy, Analogy, Imagination, Glaciology, Disease
Begins a 'meditation on skeletons in general' after looking at 'some skeletons of sparrows and mice, which an ingenious friend of mine, who is a lover of zoology, had very cleverly dissected and set up in all the glory of brilliant glass-cases, as ornaments to his bachelor apartments'. Insists that instead of viewing the skeleton as the 'the basis on which the creature's structure was built up' with the bones 'first marshalled in their place, and then clothed with flesh', we must 'recognize the skeleton as a derived and secondary structure, built up within themselves by the living parts around' (623). Above all, we must understand that bone is formed by 'a process like that of excretion, or the casting off of waste materials [...] the production of bony matter is a result of the loss and failure of vitality' (622–23). Although we are rightly 'accustomed to think of the body as the product of an active power', we must also appreciate that 'essential to it, constituting its fundamental portion, without which all the rest were utterly waste and useless, we find that which is the result of the very opposite: of the absence and ceasing of life' (623). The skeleton, then, is formed by the 'comparative failure and absence of vital action', when parts of the organic body assume 'that crystalline arrangement' common to minerals and 'step downwards from the living towards the inorganic state' (623–24). The natural 'law is a glorious one' which states that 'Decay shall render its meed to the stability of that body of which it seems to be the enemy. Out of the destroyer comes forth strength' (624). Indeed, the 'body is carved and modelled by decay', which is 'like the artist's chisel by which it is sculptured into grace' (625). In a 'parallel on which the fancy cannot but dwell with pleasure, however doubtfully the intellect may regard it', the jointed or segmented form of 'the skeleton in all the higher group of animals' can be seen to resemble a glacier in a mountain gully which is 'ribbed like a living creature [...] segmented like, though unlike, the spine. Now what are these markings athwart its bosom? Mr. Tyndall has brought evidence to show that they represent lines of greatest pressure, and result from a thawing of the ice line due to that pressure, and followed by a renewed freezing. May we connect these two cases in our thoughts, and imagine that the lines of segmentation in the skeleton denote lines of greatest pressure, and mark a changed vital process due thereto?' (627).
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