John Z. Young, Cephalopod Brains, Homeostasis and the Unreality of the World

John Z. Young (1907-1997), a zoologist and neurophysiologist specializing in the nervous system of cephalopods, developed his view of models, learning, and the mind in a number of his published works, but particularly in A Model of the Brain, in 1960 and Philosophy and the Brain, in 1987. He discovered the giant axon inside the brain of cephalopods which was so essential for understanding how human minds work. Interestingly enough, he was also a descendant of Thomas Young (1773-1829), the famed British polymath. Young’s way of thinking about homeostasis and how we develop ways of interacting with the world is decidedly Neo-Kantian, though he never had much formal philosophical training, and was derided by the legion of academic philosophers during his own time. While it’s true that his thought was not always the most rigorous or deep, it nevertheless bears some serious consideration.

His neurological and evolutionary understanding of mental models, their behaviour and function casts doubt on their capacity to demonstrate unmediated, objective reality. What we can only say about them is that they represent how complex organisms come to know things, but that their role outside of basic survival towards some higher truth is questionable. The Kantian and neo-Kantian influence on this thought is also evident, and will help to explain both his view of perception as an active part of the life of an organism and how he reconciles his belief in a real world with the convenient fictions of evolved perception.

In What Squids and Octopuses tell us about Human Brains he expresses his dissatisfaction with the language of action potentials and nerve impulses because he thinks that they are ambiguous and evasive terms that only serve to mask the fact that physiologists do not know what these impulses communicate within the nervous system. Young’s issue with the neurological discourse of his time is similar to the “illusion of understanding” mentioned by Craver in the case of black boxes, and filler terms. What is even more striking is that Young’s own evasive critique seems to be directed towards figures such as Andrew Huxley and Alan Lloyd Hodgkin, who won a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their model of how neurons behave. Yet as Young says:

“curiously enough the physiologists who win Nobel Prizes for the study of nerve fibres seldom, or never, use words such as ‘code’ or ‘symbol.’ They stick to the dear old terms ‘nerve impulse’ and ‘action potential.’ They have indeed been able to find out a very great deal about the physical changes that are involved in the transmission of the nerve message, without thinking much about what the message communicates. To be unkind one might say it was like giving a Nobel Prize for Literature to people who had advanced knowledge of typewriters, or of ink, or perhaps of radio transmission!”

This critique is an unusual one, especially considering Huxley’s and Hodgkin’s own attitude towards their model. As Craver has made clear, neither of them claimed that it was representative of reality, but only served as an important groundwork for further investigation. Yet before we disregard Young’s claim as the product of academic jealousy, it is wise to consider whether or not it has any substance. In many ways their self-conscious use of models is beside the point for Young, since even then their accomplishment serves to perpetuate physiologists ignorance about the actual activity of the nervous system, which for him rests in what is communicated, not how it is done. Here Young points out that:

“The trouble is that in the more interesting parts of the brain we cannot specify what the ‘function’ is. So when we say that when we see red certain nerve fibres from the eye transmit something called nerve impulses we do not really know what we are saying. In what sense do nerve impulses transmit redness?”

Instead, we need to come to an understanding of how the nervous system serves for communication, and how it represents symbols to the organism.

The only way out of the black box that Young sees in the study of action potentials and nerve impulses is to treat them as codes in a larger system of communication. As he says:

“The significance of signals in a code is that they symbolize the matters to be communicated. If we are to describe the effects of our nerve impulses properly, in this analogy we must say that they are significant because they are symbols, that is, they stand for or represent either some event in the outside world or some inner need or some action to be performed at the decoding end of a communication channel. We say that a sign or a signal becomes a symbol or representation for something else when it has the effect upon us of that something.”

The operation of nervous systems as such, then, is to represent some external or internal change for an organism or provide instructions for action from the brain to some muscle or gland. Young sees these representations as models built up within the organism, but before we can discuss these models in detail, it will first be necessary to see his view of the organisms that make use of them.

For Young, the essential feature of all organisms rests in the relationship between their internal condition and that of the environment around them. The primary quality that separates them from other systems is that they are homeostats, systems which strive to maintain a steady state, as opposed to inanimate objects whose conditions fluctuate along with that of their surroundings. The most effective homeostats will be those who have some way of acting in response to changes in their environment.

It is for this reason that the development and function of the nervous system plays such an important role in his thought. The primary function of all nervous systems, from that of the lowest worm to that of the human being, is to regulate and manage inputs from the environment and propose outputs, or actions, in response in order to maintain this steady state. As Young points out:

“Like all representations in codes, models in the nervous system are used for transmitting, storing, or manipulating information that helps in making predictions by which homeostasis is ensured. In particular, the conception often, though not necessarily, contains he idea of something that ‘works’.”

An example of this feature in cephalopods can be seen in the way that their statocysts allow them to respond to gravitational forces. As Young says:

“To meet the task of correct orientation in relation to the earth’s surface, there is present in the statocyst a little model to represent gravity, a stone hanging upon sensory hairs. These hairs send streams of action potentials whose pattern thus symbolizes the position of the animal in relation to gravity. […] If the statocysts are destroyed this is no longer possible. Notice, then, that the model serves to allow the action system of the animal to maintain its proper relation with the rest of the world- the essential feature of living.”

The power of the nervous system of most organisms rests in its ability to create models of the individual’s environment that serve as a means of survival. The more effective the individual’s nervous system is at representing those features of its environment that are vital to life, the more successful the organism will be.

To help facilitate homeostasis and survival, organisms actively seek out specific inputs that apply to their internal models. One of the most striking consequences of this is that their perceptions, rather than passively taking in the environment, come to play an active role in what organisms perceive, “looking” for some stimuli, while ignoring others. Taking traditional views to task, Young comments that: “in most observations about perception made by psychologists and physiologists or considered by philosophers the stimuli are given to the human or other organism, not sought out as they usually are in life”. However, passivity is not the case, and he defines perception as the active search by organisms for the ordered features of their environment, or information, that is relevant to maintaining the homeostasis of their life processes. As Young states, this property of living things is universal:

“Each type of animal has transducers that are appropriate to its environment and mode of life. This already places restrictions on what can be perceived […]. Each species has analysers which reorganize the signals received form the transducers and select among them so that they will report features that are relevant for its life.”

The consequence of this is that the way things appear is never merely a function of their individual nature, from the simplest observation to the most specialized analysis.  Furthermore, it is exactly because models are the basis of the nervous system that perception is selective in this way, and has its part to play in what is selected by evolution and through learning.

The model-based structure of organisms as homeostats has consequences for how we view both evolution and the individual. On the level of evolution, Young believes that natural selection largely selects based upon the fit of organisms’ internal models with their environment, so that the process of evolution itself can be conceived of as an evolution of models. This is why he can say that:

“As the result of a process of natural selection the inherited DNA of every individual provides for the formation of a creature able to live under certain conditions. In this sense we can say that the DNA is a representation of that environment. The organism that it produces literally re-presents actions appropriate to those conditions.”

Thus Young’s neurological view of model building in organisms applies just as much to complex animals as it does to the organic molecules that compose them.

Reflexes are a particularly good example of the process of evolutionary selection of models in the nervous system. He uses the example of the reflex to pull one’s hand away from a very hot object, which is valuable both because of its clearly genetic basis and because the process itself does not take place in the brain, but in the spinal cord:

“it is clear that the arrangement of all these sensory fibres and synapses and nerve cells serves as a representation of the actions that are likely to be effective after contact of the skin with a very hot object. […] The spinal cord is capable of thus computing an avoidance response, a type essential for survival, without reference to the brain”.

However, the kind of modeling performed by reflex responses is limited to within a relatively set range of environments, and relies upon the sometimes-false premise that the future will resemble the past. A more elaborate method of modeling is seen in learning.

On the level of the individual, learning is the process whereby organisms come to develop new internal models based on their experience in their own lifetime. Young summarises the essence of learning in biology as:

“the attaching of symbolic value to signs from the outside world. Images on the retina are not eatable or dangerous. What the eye can provide is a tool by which, aided by a memory, the animal can learn the symbolic significance of events. The record of its past experiences then constitutes a program of behavior appropriate for the future.”

This “program of behavior” is the development of an internal model which represents certain key features of an organisms environment, but which allows for the establishment of yet further models through individual experience. It is the success of this method in evolution that contributed to the increase in complexity of the nervous system of the “higher” animals, even at the cost of a much longer period of growth than in organisms with simpler systems. In many ways the evolutionary success of the nervous system highlights the active nature of perception previously discussed. As Young elaborates: “All animals make some form of search for their livelihood (indeed so do plants), but the ‘higher’ animals must seek for and find a much more elaborate world than is available to the ‘lower’, because they exist in conditions that are less directly suited to the support of life”.

Furthermore, the process of learning in an individual reciprocates the process of model development through evolutionary means. As Young points out: “It is clear enough that the two methods must stand in some reciprocal relationship. The better the means of repair, adaptation, and learning, the less often will it be necessary to undertake a basic revision of the instructions of the homeostat”.The understanding of organisms as homeostats with a vested interest in regulating their inputs, perceptions, and outputs, actions, allows these learned or inherited internal models to function in much the same way. Both systems of model development function by means of interpreted codes from within the organism and from the environment. In the case of the nervous system, natural selection has often selected for the refinement and multiplication of any kind of model that re-present those features of a homeostat’s environment that are essential to its life. This demand, as well as insuring the development of models that help the organism maintain homeostasis, also puts limitations on what can be perceived and known, often, if not always, for the purpose of survival. It is to the historical precedent of these limitations that we now turn our attention.

Even thought Immanuel Kant makes few personal appearances in Young’s works, it is clear from his discussion that his thought resonates with many Kantian and Neo-Kantian undertones. Kant is only mentioned by name in four places in Philosophy and the Brain, although Young often discusses perception in a very similar vein to his idea of representation and clearly states that it (vorstellung\representation) was a term used by the philosopher. Young’s study of perception, particularly vision, also brings him into many of the same realms as Hermann von Helmholtz, who was himself a Neo-Kantian. This is particularly evident when we consider his comments on the selectiveness of perception, for, as he says:

“These facts [about perception] are fundamentally important for philosophers. They provide direct evidence that what is perceived is selected largely unconsciously as a result of the history and activity of the perceiver. This was recognized long ago by Helmholtz.”

Despite the scarcity of direct references, the content of Young’s evolutionary and neurological analysis of perception possesses many of the salient features of Kantian thought, such as the relative inaccessibility of the thing-in-itself, the ordering limitations on human thought, and the active nature of perception as previously mentioned. This similarity is further highlighted by a consideration of his thought on the senses of sight and hearing.

After discussing the process of hearing and how it is interpreted by the “models” within the human nervous system, Young questions its ability to provide “true knowledge of the pattern of variation of air pressures”, and concludes that: “A naïve realist would be hard put to it to show that with immediate data of auditory perception we acquire valid knowledge of reality without any interposing ‘ideas’ or other such entities”. By “interposing ideas” he means the active models of reality that have developed in the nervous system both through evolution and learning to facilitate the survival of the homeostat called the human being. The demand for an unmediated sense of reality, then, ignores the evolutionary and physiological basis of humanity, attributing to its perceptions a direct connection to the essence of things which they do not possess. The situation is much the same for vision, with the added evidence of the blind who have later been given the ability to see, but who have not developed the internal models that seek out and interpret the salient features of their new visual environment. Here Young is blunt about the indirectness of the information received through vision, saying that:

“The very daylight we see is our own creation. What falls on the retina is a flux of electromagnetic radiation, which is absorbed in steps called quanta or photons. […] What the observer perceives, people, trees, houses and the rest, is selected from those patterns by programs [models] learned since birth because of their significance for him. People who have been born blind and are later given sight by an operation find that they can ‘see’ light, but none of these other things. They may see a confused mass of colours […]. Later they may learn to see shapes.”

As the case of the blind demonstrates, and as Young has often repeated throughout his writings, while the eye itself may function like a camera, the faculty of vision, the process of interpretation that makes it relevant to the life of the homeostat, certainly does not.

Young understands that the evolutionary nature of perceptions may place limitations on what we can know, and that we may not be able to go further beyond these mental models. As he says near the end of Philosophy and the Brain, these limitations can be partially overcome, for example, by developing instruments that allow us to “perceive” things such as ultra-violet light. However, there may also be some major practical limitations placed on the way that the brain can be used to think and reason: “At several points it has been emphasized that there is evidence that the brain may be organized on a basis of the use of certain concepts, for instance about order and space”. It does not seem likely that Young should mention order and space as fundamental categories of human perception without knowing that it was just these qualities (order in time and space) that Kant described as two of his own a priori categories of understanding. In the case of his own biological interpretation, since the underlying models upon which human experience is based have been selected exclusively as a means for survival, there is no definitive way to dispel scepticism about the “ultimate” origin of our perceptions. However, much like Kant, Young stresses that there is a reality underpinning them:

“There is little doubt about the veracity of the resulting perception. The person who has trodden on a sea urchin has indeed detected a small spiky section of the universe, thought he learns nothing about its shape or extent: it might be a sea urchin or a broken bottle.”

Elsewhere he likewise comments that: “one can hardly avoid hearing a clap of thunder, nor can one reasonably doubt the ‘reality’ of the noise”. From these comments it is apparent that Young is not a relativist in the traditional sense of the term, but that his understanding of models in human thought and perception does preclude any pure, unmediated knowledge of the world, or, in its Kantian articulation, the thing-in-itself.

If Young’s account of the relationship between modeling, organisms and their environment is sound, it would have profound epistemic consequences. What would this understanding of the human brain as a system of models mean for the human capacity to construct their own models of the world? For if the function of the nervous system is primarily to look for certain key features of the external environment at the expense of others, and our own models are likewise limited to certain key features, then both the resulting phenomenological or explanatory model can said to be at best twice removed from any ideally conceived form of objective reality. Furthermore, when this kind of human understanding is seen within its neurological and evolutionary context, what we call knowledge or explanation would then only be a way of discussing some kind of process of survival or procreation, albeit, one removed from the traditional meaning of the term “survival”.

In his entire discussion, Young stresses the need to place human reasoning on the same continuum as that of animals, that this has not been done by philosophers of his day, and that from this position some of our deepest epistemological commitments must necessarily be shaken. Survival in the case of human modeling of the world, however, is not always to be construed in exactly the same way as we see basic animal survival. Young began writing in this vein in the 1960s, though his thoughts culminated in 1987. The discussion of memes first began in 1976 with the publication of Richard Dawkins’ work The Selfish Gene. What is striking about Young’s conception of mental models, human survival and its relationship to how humans come to know the world is how his own work on the nervous system led him in much the same direction as later biological thinkers such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, albeit with more significantly Kantian undertones. For this reason, if nothing else, Young stands out as one of the earlier biological philosophers who would later cause such academic turmoil in the eighties and nineties, and hence provides further opportunities for the historian or philosopher of science to delve into the structure and consequences of his thought. Personally, I think he surpasses both of these other thinkers in the depth of his reasoning, particularly Dawkins, who tends to present a very shallow view of nature, masked by an only-half felt sense of Darwinian wonder.

Ultimately, it has been worthwhile to present the core of Young’s biological philosophy of models and cognition, for in doing so we can see how his understanding of the organism as a homeostat led to the primacy of models in his thinking. The evolutionary demand that environmental inputs be represented, or modeled, through the homeostat’s outputs helps to account for the development of complex nervous systems. It further demands an approach to perception as an active process of searching for key features of our environment, rather than a passive reception of the entirety of the world. Another benefit of Young’s approach is that it demonstrates the reciprocity of the evolutionary development of the nervous system, and the subsequent use of that system in individual learning, allowing both to be understood in relationship to the other. The evolutionary origins of learning through models further serves to throw doubt upon the possibility of an unmediated relationship with reality through a line of reasoning much similar to that of Kant, and physiological Neo-Kantians such as Helmholtz. It is a debt that is hinted at in Young’s writing, but never explicitly stated or developed. Realizing this connection helps to clarify his belief in an underlying reality despite the highly mediated nature of perception.

Aside from the conclusions he himself draws in his consideration of models, if taken a step further to the process whereby human researchers consciously develop their own models of some feature of nature, there is the concern that what they subsequently produce will necessarily be twice removed from any absolute “target system”. All that can be said for certain about the results of the researcher’s model is whether or not it seems to work. Explanation, or indeed knowledge itself, if seen in its place along the continuum of biological nature through which evolution hit upon the human nervous system can not help but be bent towards some kind of survival or reproduction, “what works”. However, what is meant by this “advanced” survival of the human homeostat is open to discussion, and may very well be most fruitfully seen alongside the memetic theories of the last thirty years.

Young saw his work on biology, models and cognition as having definite value to philosophy, and wrote with this in mind. It is a value which has not yet been fully recognized, though, as we have now seen, it is one that must warrant further study and consideration as the tide of academic opinion turns towards an alternative view of models and memetics more in keeping with what Young had in mind long before it became fashionable.

For More Information:

Craver, C.F. “When Mechanistic Models Explain” in Synthese: An International Journal

for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, (2006). Vol. 153 (3), 355-376.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1976.

Thomas, P.K. “John Zachary Young, F.R.S., Hon. F.B.A., M.A. (1907–1997)” in Journal

of Anatomy (1998). Vol. 192. 313-314.

Young, John Z. Philosophy and the Brain. Oxford University Press; Oxford, 1987.

—. What Squids and Octopuses Tell Us About Brains and Memories. The American

Museum of Natural History; New York, 1977.

—. A Model of the Brain. The Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1964.

—. Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist’s Reflections on the Brain. The

Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1950.




Monster Men

This song by Lordi, the Finnish heavy metal band known for their elaborate and ever-present costumes, serves as a musical complement to the artistic works of Boris Vallejo, Dorian Cleavenger and Luis Royo.

These visual artists represent a particular tradition in the science fiction/fantasy genre that depict explicitly sexual imagery with inhuman beings. Monstrous men and human women, or monstrous women, interestingly enough, almost never shown with human men.

While it is probably true that a great deal of the appeal of these works rests in our obsession with sex, there are nevertheless interesting patterns of depiction that may, under further consideration, bring to light more nuanced interpretations.

In a tradition dating from at least the time of the Book of Enoch, and continuing through the middle ages with legends of the succubus and incubus, to these present day artists, a portion of western civilization, at least, seems fascinated by these supernatural couplings.

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to discuss the matter with a wiser mind than mine, and he informed me that the term monster is connected to the verb ‘monstro’, to point out or demonstrate. From ancient times monstrous births, two headed cows, children with extra fingers and the like, were seen as signs of some future event, pointing to catastrophe, or some other divine message. The coupling of a human with something monstrous may also resonate with this sense of predictive symbolism, or with a sense of the strange power of somehow going against nature.

Yet in the case of these depictions there is also another question to be raised. There is an asymmetry in the tradition between men and women. So what’s the meaning of it?

One possible avenue of interpretation is that all these depictions are made by men who for one reason or another project their own sexuality as something monstrous, perhaps predatory, perhaps frightening, and in this way serves largely as a shadow of Jeudaeo-christian sexual values. This may explain why there are so few images of monstrous women with human men. In this reading the monstrous women serves a different role, not as an expression of a masculine self image, but of a dangerous female other, not coupling, but itself threatening.

Royo, I think, is the most self-aware of this asymmetry and comes the closest of these three to breaking free of its framework in some of his images, but still, his overwhelming tendency is to make the male the monster, or machine, or extra-natural, when juxtaposed to the female figure.

A great deal more could probably be said about this, and I can not help but think that something very important about the west’s conception of gender relations is contained within this tendency, but as yet do not feel I have enough certainty to conclude what that could be.

In the mean time, please enjoy their images, but be warned that many are of an adult nature.

For More Information:

Gustave Doré: From Flights of Fancy to Urban Decay

Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883) was a French artist who won his fame by illustrating popular editions of literary works and the city life of London, England. He did some of the most iconic images associated with Poe’s The Raven, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Doré spent much of his career in England, and his depictions of urban life are complementary, rather than in contrast to his works of fantasy. From the sprawling dwellings of the London working class to a circle of prisoners set out for their daily walk, his dark depictions showed what was so common between the life of the mind and the life of the body in the nineteenth century with a detailed and dramatic style.

I’d recommend a good perusal of his illustrations for anyone interested in the culture, science and literature of the time period. He was condemned by some of his contemporaries for only showing what was poor in London. His illustration of monkeys in a London zoo was used in a course I attended on the history of evolutionary theory and the culture of observation at the time period, and here it served its purpose well.

But aside from the power of his work as social commentary and cultural artifact, there is also something very psychologically stirring here. The way the London slums seem to go on forever, or how death is set against the stars, from sparse and open spaces to cluttered and symbolically rich scenes, the overall effect of his work is very reminiscent of the northern renaissance, only given some life again in the nineteenth century.

In this way I feel that Doré is an inheritor of the spirit of Albrecht Dürer. And certainly, both served as cultural vortexes into which the zeitgeists of their age could see themselves reflected, if such a thing could ever have the foresight to try and do just that.

For More Information:

Kosekin Nation

James De Mille (1833-1880) was a professor at Dalhousie University and the author of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The novel is a pre-Orwellian dystopia partly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Ms. Found in a Bottle.

The immediate context of the story is that a group of wealthy European gentlemen sailing in a yacht towards the Mediterranean stumble across a fantastical account of a man named Adam More’s travels among a strange people called the kosekins. Each member on board the yacht has a definite place in society, a doctor, a lord, a businessman, etc and they comment on the account from time to time.

What Adam describes is a civilization that worships death instead of life and the horror and hardships of being a stranger there. Yet, for all its dystopian qualities he ultimately becomes the king of this nation, proving that he is a better kosekin than the kosekins themselves.

The anti-climax of the novel comes when the gentlemen simply get tired of reading the account:

“Here Featherstone stopped, yawned, and laid down the manuscript. /”That’s enough for to-day,” said he; “I’m tired, and can’t read any more. It’s time for supper.” ”

I make some note that this was written before George Orwell’s 1984 to show how it connects with a tradition that is decidedly other than Thomas More’s (1478-1535) Utopia, Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) New Atlantis, or Tommaso Campanella’s (1568-1639) City of the Sun. Utopias are about the future, but dystopias belong to the present. This is why 1984 is called 1984, because Orwell finished writing it in 1948. De Mille, like Orwell, wrote about the present, but unlike Orwell, did not feel like he had to place his commentary in some future state. There is something definitely important about the shift from some strange land to some strange future as the setting for these kinds of social commentaries that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet, but I suspect it says a great deal about the changing political landscape that these two authors found themselves in. It gives me cause to question if in our modern world the imperial fascination with, and demand to subdue foreign lands, has not simply become sublimated into the strangest land of all, our common future.

For More Information:

Amazing Animalcules, Analogies and the Limits of Imagination

In the early modern era there were really two kinds of microscopic investigations. One, which was the most common and most loved by the Royal Society of England, was the first and best known. This was the microscopy of Robert Hooke and most of the other microscopists of his day, which sought to elaborate diminutive structures in nature to demonstrate the power of instrumentation, the omnipotence of God and the value of the mechanical philosophy. On the other hand there was another kind of microscopy much less common, but which had its adherents sparsely scattered throughout Europe. This was the microscopy focused on things which today we would call truly microscopic. When reviewing the nature of this divide, it could be said that the microscopy of the truly microscopic was constantly beset with technical and philosophical problems for those engaged in it. Unlike the more widespread anatomical work of Hooke’s microscopy, these observations spoke more of God’s inscrutability than His omnipotence, the instrument’s failings rather than their usefulness and the limits of mechanical philosophy. The prime example of this divide would be the man many consider the father of microbiology, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who in his own person, exploits and mistakes represents better than any of his peers these most elucidating difficulties of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

If these two kinds of microscopy did exist, and if the first was clearly more common than the other, there should be a telling trail of topics which could show this trend. If one takes a look through Robert Hooke’s Micrographia one sees a large number of insects, some manmade objects and some flora, the vast majority of which are accompanied by a side illustration of how the object would appear to look to the unaided eye. Indeed, the microscope first became an object of interest for its ability to show with startling size the minute parts of insects and one of the first microscopic illustrations was made in 1630 of a Bee’s anatomy. Going through the literature of the time it is also apparent that the vast majority of microscopic work was being directed to the minute parts of diminutive bodies. In the articles on microscopy present in the Philosophical Transactions, approximately one hundred and twenty articles are about diminutive structures, whereas only thirteen are clearly stated as being reserved for what we today would call the truly microscopic. The fact that a vast number of these articles were written by Leeuwenhoek himself further demonstrates how much the study of diminutive structures was favoured over subjects truly microscopic, even by one of their most famous investigators.

The first obstacle to true microscopic research was the difficulty in making instruments powerful enough to even see that there was a realm of tiny things outside of unaided human perception. Indeed, for the most part early modern microscopists did not have a solid reason to believe that there could be things too small for the human eye to see, if only unclearly. There was even the view held by St. Aquinas that it was not possible: “that there should be certain parts of flesh and bone which are non-sensible because of smallness”. Yet such things had been postulated by a few and were theoretically accepted before being actually observed in nature. Nicholas Malebranche, while contemplating the nuances and power of God, commented that there was in fact nothing inherently impossible about there being an infinite regression of ever smaller animals.

The technical difficulty was overcome by Leeuwenhoek with his simple microscope, making the discovery of microorganisms possible. His microscopes tended to be of a relatively straightforward composition when compared to those produced by his contemporaries, so much so that Marian Fournier in her work The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century, describes them as being “of a rather wayward design”. Yet from studying Leeuwenhoek’s still existent tools, these simple microscopes could magnify from between 3 and 266 times, and some argue that he made others capable of magnifying up to 395 times. One of the secrets of Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes was the smallness of their lenses, which gave them a greater resolution than the larger ones used in compound microscopes. Yet Leeuwenhoek never disclosed his method of making lenses, and their construction and maximum capacities remains a mystery to this day. This fact was much to the chagrin of Hooke, who would later be forced to design his own simple microscope to corroborate Leeuwenhoek’s claim about the existence of microorganism. Contemporary studies seem to indicate that he may have even had some method for obtaining dark-field illumination to bring out the contrast between his observed specimen and their surroundings, which would have even more greatly enhanced his observations.

Leeuwenhoek’s secrecy about his methods meant that the existence of microorganisms from the beginning was met with scepticism. As Edward G. Ruestow puts it in The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery: “Observations that depended on such exceptional abilities, techniques, and instruments – particularly when partially shrouded in secrecy – were all the more difficult for others to reproduce”. After describing his discovery of microscopic “animalcules” to the Royal Society of London, Nehemiah Grew was asked to reproduce Leeuwenhoek’s findings. Grew was unable to do so, and it was only after Leeuwenhoek had forwarded the testimonials of eight respectable visitors as proof of his discoveries that Hooke manage to corroborate his findings. Despite the proof of this startling new discovery “none of the members [of the Royal Society] began original investigations at that period”, into these creatures save for Leeuwenhoek himself.

Robert Hooke more often proclaimed that it was God’s power that was most evidently seen in a study of the diminutive world, stating in his Micrographia that among “natural forms there are some so small […] that the more we magnify the object […] the more we discover the imperfections of our senses, and the Omnipotency and Infinite perfections of the great Creatour”. Yet Leeuwenhoek, upon viewing the microscopic world, claimed the things that he saw were almost unfathomable and ineffable to the human mind, for: “he spoke now as well of the secrets […] in all things, secrets the human mind by itself could often never conceive”. A noticeable divide between those few who studied the truly microscopic and those who studied the diminutive is the different impressions these two microscopic disciplines imposed upon the viewers religious sensibilities. For the vast majority of the Royal Society there was a prayer-like quality to their natural investigations yet: “the identification of science with worship was notably absent from Leeuwenhoek’s explanations of why he pursued his researches”.

Despite this there was a religious component to Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic investigations which was similar to those of other microscopists of the time, namely, the wonder in God’s creations. Yet where others saw a display of power that could be known further, Leeuwenhoek saw in his studies of microorganisms only an ever deepening curtain of mystery, despite his continual efforts at elucidation. Particularly after 1690: “Leeuwenhoek’s letters repeatedly emphasized the incomprehensible smallness and enduring concealment of nature’s parts. During these later years, the theme of ‘how little we know’ also became commonplace in his letters”.

It was in this concealment that Leeuwenhoek saw the depths of God’s mysteries, and it was also here where today he is considered to have made the most blatant of errors. Leeuwenhoek believed that the smallest of animals had the same “perfection” as larger ones. What this entailed, however, was the belief that microscopic organisms possessed muscles, nerves, hearts and indeed all the organs of macroscopic life. These organs were necessary, thought Leeuwenhoek, for the very existence of life, and the fact that his best instruments were unable to make out these minute details only reinforced for him God’s method of working in the world through mysteries. Two examples of this tendency can be seen in Leeuwenhoek’s insistence that there were as-yet unseen “legs” on a number of the more inscrutable microorganisms and obvious signs of their microscopic hearts. In his letter to Anthonio Magliabechi he recalls seeing in the body of one of these animalcules: “a bright and round corpuscle, placed near the head, and in which a very wonderful swift motion was to be seen, consisting of an alternate extension and contraction. This particle I concluded to be the heart”.

This brings out two key problems microscopic organisms presented to early modern thinkers. Firstly, they implied ever further levels of complexity and detail which the instruments themselves were not able to perceive, and showed no signs of being able to in the foreseeable future. As Marian Fournier observes: “Between 1670 and 1750 the performance of both simple and compound microscopes did not improve to any great extent”. This in itself stood in the way of both Hooke’s and the Royal Society’s desire to use the microscope as a paragon of the power of instrumentation. Hooke himself lamented what little progress had been made in the microscopic sciences near the end of his life. What was perhaps more striking were the challenges these tiny, near-inscrutable creatures poses to interpretation and classification.

It was obvious to Leeuwenhoek that the things he was observing were of an animal nature. They seemed to be everywhere and so numerous as to defy the imagination. Perhaps more unnerving was their presence in equally great numbers in the human body. In a 1684 letter he observed that: “The number of these Animals in the scurf of a mans [sic] Teeth, are so many that I believe they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. Yet more surprising to Leeuwenhoek were their variety of shapes and manners of locomotion. Most importantly, having very few observable organs these properties were one of the few things that could be used to identify them.

It is with this fact that we begin to see some of the problems that truly microscopic life presented to the mechanically minded members of the Royal Society. The study of diminutive objects revealed a startling amount of detail. Yet the observers could often refer back to mechanical comparisons to describe what they were seeing, thus the flea’s “armour” in Hooke’s Micrographia. If anything this served to reinforce the Society’s goals of spreading the mechanical philosophy and the use of instrumentation, for their entire language was steeped in it and found its confirmation in diminutive bodies. However, upon reaching the level of organisms that could not be seen at all without the microscope their analogies and arguments came upon a stumbling block so small as to be insurmountable. These creatures had no observable organs to describe in fully anatomical terms and their behaviours were so strange as to defy comparison to the mechanical world. Indeed, Leeuwenhoek very seldom used references to man made objects in his descriptions. This stands in stark contrast to Hooke’s mechanistic descriptions of diminutive bodies. When discussing the eyes of a fly, to quote just one example, he states that: “in one kind of light [they] appear almost like a Lattice, drill’d through with abundance of small holes […]. In the Sunshine they look like a Surface cover’d with golden Nails; in another posture, like a Surface cover’d with Pyramids”. Later microscopists would realize and comment on this as an example of the problems facing early interpretations of microorganisms. In the 1840s one commentator noted that: “Until the introduction of vegetable colouring matter into the fluid which supplies them with food, these creatures were commonly supposed to be entirely devoid of internal organs”, and used this as a quintessential example of the continued uncertainty in the biological sciences.

With a brief review of Leeuwenhoek’s methods of description, the problems facing interpretation become evident. In his letter of the 9th of October 1676 he describes Protozoa: “These animalcules stirred themselves, and sometimes stuck out two little horns which were continually moved in the manner of a horse’s ears […] and their tails coiled up like a snake”, and in his letter on the 7th of September of the same year he describes creatures on which he saw “two little legs near the head and two little fins at the rear end of the body. […] These little animals had differing colours, some being whitish and transparent, others with green and very glittering tiny scales”. Or in an August letter in which he describes what has latter been identified as bacteria swimming like eels but backwards and forwards. What is common in all these accounts is the limited number of qualities Leeuwenhoek had to grasp onto when describing these creatures, which were all described in purely animalistic terms combined with shape and colour. It was this limited ability to differentiate between the various habits and tendencies of his animalcules that led Leeuwenhoek to postulate that the bacteria he saw were in actuality only the young of the larger animalcules. One of the only other resources left to Leeuwenhoek was the study of the conditions in which these creatures lived, and how they reproduced.

Leeuwenhoek’s studies of reproduction have since been deemed ridiculous by modern observers. Yet while it may seem absurd today to conceive of a tiny person tucked away inside the spermatozoa, a look into why Leeuwenhoek made the “mistakes” that he did provides insights of its own. Analogy can be a powerful tool, and indeed, a necessary one when trying to envision an unimaginable world of smallness as the alien one he was seeing. Yet it is also a great and subtle trap. Evidence indicates that almost all, if not all, of the “great” early microscopists relied heavily on analogy for the understanding of their subjects. Generally these analogies crossed borders between animals and plants, as was the case with Grew or between animals and humans, as with Malpigi.

Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic studies, however, unlike those of his contemporaries did not only need to rely on analogical thinking to understand the functions of his specimen’s anatomy, but also so that he could merely understand what he was seeing. As has been previously mentioned, Leeuwenhoek reasoned that the inexplicably smaller creatures he saw must necessarily be the younger of the larger ones, for he found it difficult to find developing examples of his specimens. Given that many of the creatures he was seeing would have reproduced through binary fission it is no wonder that he was beset with difficulties in attempting to interpret their life cycles. Furthermore, Leeuwenhoek’s insistence that there must be a microscopic fully-formed human inside the male spermatozoa comes from the similar phenomenon he observed in the reproduction of plants. The fact that he could not actually observe it with his instrument, even though by all analogical reasoning it should have been there, only served to deepen Leeuwenhoek’s conviction that God expresses himself through unseen necessities.

The increased demand placed upon Leeuwenhoek in his microscopic studies to see his specimens analogically led him to the conclusion that there was a ultimate uniformity in nature, and made him a staunch opponent of the still common belief that “lesser” organisms were spontaneously generated. For if there was uniformity in nature there would also have to be a similarity in its methods of reproduction.

In his letter to Anthonio Magliabechi, Leeuwenhoek describes his repeated attempts to understand the reproductive mechanisms of a specific animalcule. He tried several times to observe the young being born and developing, and after several days of being unable to do so he isolated a parent and its young in a separate collection of water. When he returned he could only find the parent, diminished in size, and concluded that it had eaten its offspring out of hunger. Yet despite his difficulties in analyzing the reproductive habits of microorganisms, he did claim to have seen in one specimen’s “greenish particles” something which he took to be unborn young. He isolated the creature, and upon finding it dead the next morning dissected it and found that he could “very plainly” see the unborn young inside the particles. At this point the translator, writing almost a hundred years after Leeuwenhoek’s death, comments how strange it is that he never illustrated this unusual event. Regardless, from these observations he concluded that “all the living creatures we behold at this day, however minute, derive their origin from those which were formed at the Creation”, reinforcing his view of the uniformity of nature.

There was no set association between the refutation of spontaneous generation and the practitioners of the mechanical philosophy. Indeed, “in 1678 Robert Hooke still reported to the Royal Society on his own repeated observations in which a host of small insects arose from dying plants”, and in his acclaimed Micrographia he attributed this process to the power of God. Yet to Leeuwenhoek and his countryman Jan Swammerdam, this argument was completely untenable. Both men used the microscope to disprove spontaneous generation, whereas others, such as Athanasius Kircher, used it to argue in its favour. What made the two men differ from their fellow microscopists was the way in which they interpreted the uniformity within nature, one from his study of microscopic life, and the other through his careful study of insects.

What may have set Leeuwenhoek apart from Hooke in this case was the way he relied on fundamentally different analogies when working with his subjects and the conclusions he drew from this about the workings of God. For Hooke, examining the diminutive world, analogies were used to extol and understand the order and wisdom of God’s power. As such there was nothing limiting God from making creatures spontaneously. Whereas for Leeuwenhoek, God’s primary attribute was in His inscrutability, but it was an inscrutability that could be used for the purposes of enlightenment when the demands of reason and order overwhelmed our limited observations. While Leeuwenhoek did do several studies to disprove spontaneous generation, he was first motivated to do so by the logical demand for reproduction which he saw as being required for all life and placed there by the Creator whether visible or not.

It is important to qualify that Leeuwenhoek did not solely concern himself with the truly microscopic world, and while studying the diminutive workings of insects or parts of the human body he did indeed make mechanistic arguments to describe their myriad functions, particularly in the case of mussel tissue. Yet the fact remains that a divide can be seen between Leeuwenhoek’s manner of describing and interpreting his studies of the diminutive, as opposed to the microscopic subjects.

Ultimately, when faced with the unknown workings of a world that seems to defy our methods of explanation we are forced to resort to arguments by analogy to make sense of what we are seeing. Yet the more alien the workings of the world in question, the more likely our analogies are to be found sadly wanting. As has been shown in the case of the dual nature of early modern microscopy, there was an implicit divide between the studies of diminutive structures as opposed to the truly microscopic. The Royal Society of London was always more comfortable in the realm of the former, while others, such as Leeuwenhoek, skirted the borders of these two worlds. In the alien and seemingly unexplainable myriads of life found beyond unaided human perception those who studied microscopic organisms saw God’s ultimate inscrutability rather than His power. Microorganisms had very few perceptible and comprehensible organs for the early mechanical philosophers, a fact which added both to God’s great mysteries, while at the same time defying mechanistic explanations. More than this, microscopic creatures remained mysterious because of the limitations in the instruments used to view them, which could not go beyond a certain level of detail for almost a hundred years, further undermining the Royal Society’s projects. With Newton’s rise to power in the Royal Society it moved farther away from the biological sciences, a move that was made even more tempting by the seeming failure of the microscope to provide greater clues to the workings of life. If anything, then, one should remember the discomfort and difficulties faced by these early natural philosophers in their efforts to explore a realm that was as alien to them as the most mystifying of quantum-mechanics are to us in modern times.

For More Information:

St. Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. Trans. Richard J. Blackwell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Brock, Thomas D. Ed. Milestones in Microbiology: 1546 to 1940. Trans. Thomas Brock. Washington: ASM Press, 1999.

Hooke, R. Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon. London: Jo. Martyn and Ja Allestry, 1665.

Leeuwenhoek, Antony van. The Selected Works of Antony Van Leeuwenhoek: Containing his Microscopical Discoveries in Many of the Works of Nature. Trans. Samuel Hoole. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

The Linnean Society of London. An Essay on the Credibility of the Existence of the Kraken, Sea Serpent, and Other Sea Monsters: With Illustrations. London: William Tegg, 1849.

Casida, L.E. Jr., “Leeuwenhoek’s Observation of Bacteria”, in Science, New Series, Vol. 192, No. 4246. (Jun. 25, 1976), pp. 1348-1349.

Ford, Brian J. The Leeuwenhoek Legacy. Bristol: BioPress and Farrand Press, 1991.

Fournier, Marian. The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ruestow, Edward G. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Feat of Claymation

The scene with Satan is from the Adventures of Mark Twain, a decidedly mature claymation that mixes Twain’s character with a number of his stories. Here evil is not depicted as passionate, but fundamentally self centered, and unconcerned with others. In its quiet, unnervingly innocent depiction it succeeds where a louder, more brutal image of the dark prince would fail. It’s just like Neil Gaiman’s comments about the way he wanted Lucifer to be depicted in his Sandman series. The difference, however, I feel is that there seems to be a more cosmic element to Mark Twain’s Satan, whereas Gaiman’s Satan is still, for all his character, an anthropomorphization of something decidedly human.

A different Sandman, this time the claymation directed by Paul Berry in 1992 based on the depiction of the figure of the Sandman from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella of the same name, presents an alternative, but equally unsettling image of evil. Elusive, erratic, silent, working toward ends which we can only partially understand, and yet also strangely personal, like a shadow.

Robertson Davies, Beyond Canadian

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) is one of the few Canadian authors that I have a great deal of respect for. His Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975), combines the small town parochialism of Canada with elements of a truly world literature. Along with their occult and Jungian underpinnings they present a depth of character, universality and feeling that is unsurpassed in Canadian letters.

In reflecting on my own ambiguous relationship to this nation I often find myself trapped by it. Reject defining myself as a Canadian author, and I’m doing what half of them do; revel in it, and I’m following the other half. When it comes down to it, I know I have to get over this nationality business and just get down to writing as well as I can. But it’s never that easy, is it?

The problem isn’t really a sense of national past, though to be sure, it lends itself so readily to the savage tribal will that today goes under the name of patriotism. It’s the fact that most of what passes for Canadian culture is garish and self-satisfying. It’s the kind of culture typical of every nation that knows itself to be small on the world stage, and responds with a kind of ressentiment. The problem is even worse in Quebec culture, but that’s only by virtue of the fact that it’s couched in a larger nation, and not anything inherent to it. Really, what’s good about french Canadian culture is unique to it, while what’s bad is part of a more common failing. Native culture has the potential to be free and enlivened, but we’ve also managed to squash that through very narrow forms of patronage. Still, at the best of times, like it or not, the most interesting products of this place tend to be hybrids, much like the Manticore itself. Only when it learns how to be a self-knowledgeable and more perfect Manticore, will it ever be able to claim some kind of whole.

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Laurie Lipton and Her Skeletons

The shocking, yet playful take on the theme of memento mori in Laurie Lipton’s work is unmistakable. There are no lack of skeletons in Lipton’s closets, dance halls, funerals, school photos, subways and doll houses, and indeed, every other place common in life.

In stark black and white tones we see a group of officials standing around ruins, looking quite satisfied with themselves in “Collateral Damage”, reminding us that there is more than one kind of death in life.

The only living people in her pictures that I’ve seen so far, aside from the officials, tend to be old women, missing teeth and exuberant, people looking death in the face, or the recently deceased. In this way she plays games with life, and while the macabre element is undeniable, I feel a great yearning for life in these works.

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Frank C. Papé and the Age of Forgotten Artisans

Frank C. Papé (1878 – 1972) was an English artist and illustrator who primarily worked on fairy tales, and legends. His life seems somewhat obscure, and the popularity of his work seems to have declined over the years, but there is something valuable in a number of his works.

Many of his images show a vision of a fairy world that was antiquated in his own time, and even more antiquated now, but which goes back to the time of the brothers Grim. They also challenge the divide between illustrator and artist.

Art, it increasingly seems to me, is a product of the academy. Long ago it separated itself from the “simple” labour of artisans to become part of high culture. And nowadays, like any good academic, school trained artists delimit what is an is not their domain. They do not make houses, or food, but feel that they are making the most important thing in the world.

I don’t think I disagree, but tend to be more critical of modern performance art and abstract works.

The new artisans are illustrators like Papé, who do not make a living based on prestige in quite the same way, the rows and rows of animators working away in near anonymity. Some do achieve a fair amount of fame, Dave McKean is a good example of this success. And yet I feel that some day we’ll look back on these illustrators and count a lucky few among the Michelangelos of an age that thinks it has long since moved beyond its artisans.

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