This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
In a former number of this journal I queried whether Prof. Lindley meant to express it as his opinion that plants sometimes created silex and other minerals. The editor answers in the affirmative, at least conjecturally, and adds the instance of cactases containing oxalate of lime " without a trace of oxalic acid or lime being found in the soil that supported them," and then queries: "Where does our correspondent suppose it came from?"
I am far from being a follower of the ancient Greek philosophy in pronouncing it an absurdity to suppose that something can be created out of nothing when applied to Omnipotence; but that He has endowed brute matter with the power of creation, I am not yet prepared to believe, The explanation of the foregoing instances of apparent creation appears to me to be sufficiently simple. Instead of taking for granted that because chemistry has not been able to detect these constituents of the plants in the soil, they do not, therefore, exist in it, I would prefer admitting that chemistry itself is at fault; that its imperfections are known. Is not its impotency manifest in failing to catch and cage the thousand odors which float in the air f What would be its success in attempting to exhibit the hundred-millionth part of a grain of musk? And yet the musk is there. We know it to be there.
Chemists have a limit to the power of their reagents. According to Devergie, the extreme limit of the power of ammonio-nitrate of silver in the detection of arsenic is the 400,000th part of a grain. Now let us imagine one-half of this quantity to be removed from the solution, the other half, or 800,000th part of a grain, would remain in the liquid, bidding defiance to all the scrutiny of chemistry.
Not only may plants avail themselves of these (as we say with great latitude) infinitely small particles of matter which no chemical means has ever been able to detect, but we know the extraordinary length to which some of their radical fibres extend. Now, before adopting Prof. Lindley's opinion, I would require the whole of the earth through which every radical fibre of the plant ran to be rigorously examined for the constituents in question; I would also want to be assured that no dust containing these constituents bad lodged on any part of the plant during its growth.
These remarks are specially intended to be applied to silex, lime, and other minerals. The presence of oxalic acid and other organic substances, is easily accounted for; the elements out of which they are formed are always at hand, either in the air or the earth.
Leaving, therefore, the act of creation in the hands of Omnipotence, as His prerogative, I prefer limiting the power of plants to the act of aggregation, by which inconceivably minute particles of matter, not rendered cognizable by any chemical skill, are brought together into perceptible masses.
John T. Plummeer.
We did not suppose our correspondent used the term "create" in its strict and generally received sense; that he had any reference to the "absurdity that something can be created out of nothing;" or intended any allusion "to Omnipotence," out journal not being in any sense theological or metaphysical. In a matter of science, we would advise onr friend to have no "preferences" for .any "theory." Preferences, deductions, inferences, and the like, are the ruin of true science. We want experiment and observation of facts. We would rather publish a page, de-tailing what our correspondent has witnessed, than fifty to inform us in what he does or does not believe.
Our friend seems to possess some chemical information, and a desire for scientific knowledge. We will propose an experiment for his leisure hours. Let him take a plant - one of the Cactus family will do very well - weigh off a pound of soil, put it in a pot, and set the plant, weighing the latter also. He will find that the Cactus will grow in the soil for many years until the mineral parts of the plant shall far outweigh the difference between the weight of the original pound of soil. If he think the mineral particles are furnished by the water, he can use rain-water, or try distilled water, or other liquids, for experiment If he find "silex," " lime," or any " other mineral," in the plant which he cannot even " imagine" a trace of in the soil or water, he need not infer, .therefore, that the plant has made " something of nothing." He has other alternatives if he desires very much to infer something. He may, for instance, believe that silex, lime, and so on, are not, in reality, the simple and elementary substances chemists, in the present state of their knowledge, suppose them to be.
He may, if he choose, fancy that silex is composed of two or more "elements;" that these "elements" are again formed of other elements, and so on ad infinitum; and he may after all believe that if the plant did not actually " create silex," it had a peculiar power to unite the " elements".
We speak of "silex," "lime," etc, as something which we well understand, but, though we know how they act, and are acquainted with many of their properties and relations, we know really nothing of what they are. Like the term "create," and other theological expressions, they are but words invented to hide our ignorance. Should our correspondent feel disposed to investigate the matter, we shall be pleased to publish his experiments.
(J. T. Hummer). Our correspondent is evidently getting angry, without reason. Had we intended any discourtesy, we could have shown it better by withholding the publication of his letter altogether. What we wished to impress on the mind of our correspondent was, that there is really nothing known about the subject of which he inquires. Observation has shown that there are, occasionally, certain substances found in plants, and of which no trace of the elements they are composed of, can be found in the soil or atmosphere surrounding it. Lindley, and other physiologists, "infer" (that is, they consider it probable) that, by some vital process which they do not profess to understand, the plant has the power of creating that substance - not "out of nothing," absolutely, but out of nothing that we know of. What is wanted further, is not more opinions, but more facts. The question is, how are these substances formed? And we respectfully submit to our correspondent whether he has offered anything towards an elucidation of it? In our former comments, we had not so much our correspondent's communication in view as the general fact that we have, most of us, too great a tendency to criticize the experience of others, and too little inclination to observe and experiment for ourselves.
We trust our correspondent will pursue the subject further; our columns shall always be open to any discoveries he may make in relation to it.