1902 Encyclopedia > Lorenz Oken

Lorenz Oken
German naturalist
(1779-1851)




LORENZ OKEN (1779-1851). Under this name the great naturalist of the transcendental or deductive school is commonly known ; but his real name was Lorenz Ockenfuss, under which he was baptized at Bohlsbach, Baden, being born in that small Swabian village on the 1st of August 1779. As Ockenfuss he was entered at the natural history and medical classes in the university of Wiirzburg, whence he proceeded to that of Gottingen, where he became a privat-docent, and abridged his name to Oken. As Lorenz Oken he published in 1802 his small work entitled Grundriss der Maturphilosophie, der Theorie der Sinne, und der darauf gegründeten Classification der Thiere, the first of the series of works which placed him at the head of the " natur-philosophie" or physio-philosophical school of Germany. In it he extended to physical science the philosophical principles which Kant had applied to mental and moral science. Oken had, however, in this application been preceded by Fichte, who, acknowledging that the materials for a universal science had been discovered by Kant, declared that nothing more was needed than a systematic co-ordination of these materials; and this task Fichte undertook in his famous Doctrine of Science (Wissenschaftslelire), the aim of which was to construct a priori all knowledge. In this attempt, however, Fichte did little more than indicate the path ; it was reserved for Schelling fairly to enter upon it, and for Oken, following him, to explore its mazes yet farther, and to produce a systematic plan of the country so surveyed.

In the Grundriss der Naturphilosophie of 1802 Oken sketched the outlines of the scheme he afterwards devoted himself to perfect. The position he advanced in that re-markable work, and to which he ever after professed ad-herence, is this,—"that the animal classes are virtually nothing else than a representation of the sense-organs, and that they must be arranged in accordance with them." Agreeably with this idea, Oken contends that there are only five animal classes :—(1) the Dermatozoa, or Inverte-brates; (2) the Glossozoa, or Fishes, as being those animals in which a true tongue makes, for the first time, its appear-ance ; (3) the Rhinozoa, or Reptiles, wherein the nose opens for the first time into the mouth and inhales air; (4) the Otozoa, or Birds, in which the ear for the first time opens externally ; and (5) the Ophthalmozoa, or Mammals, in which all the organs of sense are present and complete, the eyes being movable and covered with two lids.

In 1805 Oken made another characteristic advance in the application of the a priori principle, by a book on generation (Die Zeugung, Frankfort), wherein he main-tained the proposition that "all organic beings originate from and consist of vesicles or cells. These vesicles, when singly detached and regarded in their original process of production, are the infusorial mass or protoplasma (ur-schleim) whence all larger organisms fashion themselves or are evolved. Their production is therefore nothing else than a regular agglomeration of Infusoria,—not, of course, of species already elaborated or perfect, bv?t of mucous vesicles or points in general, which first form themselves by their union or combination into particular species." This doctrine is strikingly analogous to the generalized results of the ablest microscopical observations on the de-velopment of animal and vegetable tissues which have been prosecuted of late years.

One year after the production of this remarkable treatise, Oken advanced another step in the development of his system, and in a volume published in 1806, in which Kieser assisted him, entitled Beiträge zur vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie, und Physiologie, he demonstrated that the intestines originate from the umbilical vesicle, and that this corresponds to the vitellus or yolk-bag. Caspar Fried-rich Wolff had previously proved this fact in the chick (Theoria Generationis, 1774), but he did not see its applica-tion as evidence of a general law. Oken showed the im-portance of the discovery as an illustration of his system. In the same work Oken described and recalled attention to the corpora Wolfiana, or "primordial kidneys," as they are now termed and recognized.

The reputation of the young privat-docent of Göttingen had meanwhile reached the ear of Goethe, and in 1807 Oken was invited to fill the office of professor extraordi-narius of the medical sciences in the university of Jena. He accepted the call, and selected for the subject of his inaugural discourse his ideas on the " Signification of the Bones of the Skull," based upon a discovery he had made in the previous year. This famous lecture was delivered in the presence of Goethe, as privy-councillor and rector of the university, and was published in the same year, with the title, Ueber die Bedeutung der Schddelknochen.

With regard to the origin of the idea, Oken narrates in his Isis that, walking one autumn day in 1806 in the Harz forest, he stumbled upon the blanched skull of a deer, picked up the partially dislocated bones, and con-templated them for a while, when the truth flashed across his mind, and he exclaimed, " It is a vertebral column ! " At a meeting of the German naturalists held at Jena some years afterwards Professor Kieser gave an account of Oken's discovery in the presence of the grand-duke, which account is printed in the Tageblatt, or "proceedings," of that meeting. The professor states that Oken communi-cated to him his discovery when journeying in 1806 to the island of Wangeroog. On their return to Gottingen Oken explained his ideas by reference to the skull of a turtle in Kieser's collection, which he disarticulated for that purpose with his own hands. "It is with the greatest pleasure," writes Kieser, " that I am able to show here the same skull, after having it thirty years in my collection. The single bones of the skull are marked by Oken's own handwriting, which may be so easily known." There was a cause, as we shall presently see, for this circumstantial testimony.





Oken, having delivered and printed his introductory lecture in 1807, informs us (Isis, No. 7) that he presented copies to Goethe and to other members of the grand-duke's Government. " Goethe was so pleased with my discovery as to invite me to stay with him during the Easter week of 1808 in his house at Weimar, which invitation I accepted."

The range of Oken's lectures at Jena was a wide one, and they were highly esteemed. They embraced the sub-jects of natural philosophy, general natural history, zoology, comparative anatomy, the physiology of man, of animals, and of plants. The spirit with which he grappled with the vast scope of science is characteristically illustrated in his essay Ueber das Universum als Fortsetzung des Sinnensys-tems, 1808. In this work he lays it down that " organism is none other than a combination of all the universe's activities within a single individual body." This doctrine led him to the conviction that " world and organism are one in kind, and do not stand merely in harmony with each other."

In the same year he published his Erste Ideen zur Theorie des Lichts, &c, in which he advanced the propo-sition that "light could be nothing but a polar tension of the ether, evoked by a central body in antagonism with the planets, and heat was none other than a motion of this ether,"—a sort of vague anticipation of the doctrine of the " correlation of physical forces."

In 1809 Oken extended his system to the mineral world, arranging the ores, not according to the metals, but agree-ably to their combinations with oxygen, acids, and sulphur. In 1810 he summed up his views on organic and inorganic natures into one compendious system. The first edition of the Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie appeared in that and the following years, in which he sought to bring his different doctrines into mutual connexion, and to " show that the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms are not to be arranged arbitrarily in accordance with single and isolated characters, but to be based upon the cardinal organs or anatomical systems, from which a firmly established number of classes would necessarily be evolved; that each class, moreover, takes its starting-point from below, and conse-quently that all of them pass parallel to each other ;" and that, "as in chemistry, where the combinations follow a definite numerical law, so also in anatomy the organs, in physiology the functions, and in natural history the classes, families, and even genera of minerals, plants, and animals present a similar arithmetical ratio."

The Lehrbuch procured for Oken the title of Hofrath, or court-councillor. In 1812 he was appointed ordinary professor of the natural sciences.

In 1816 he commenced the publication of his well-known periodical, entitled Isis, eine encyclopädisclie Zeitschrift, vorzüglich für Naturgeschichte, vergleichende Anatomie, und Physiologie. In this journal appeared essays and notices not only on the natural sciences but on other subjects of interest; poetry, and even comments on the politics of other German states, were occasionally admitted. This led to representations and remonstrances from the Governments criticized or impugned, and the court of Weimar called upon Oken either to suppress the Isis or resign his professor-ship. He chose the latter alternative. The publication of the Isis at Weimar was prohibited. Oken made arrangements for its issue at Rudolstadt, and this continued unin-terruptedly until the year 1848.

The independent spirit manifested by Oken excited his courtly enemies to harsher measures. An accusation was preferred against him as a member of a forbidden "secret democratic society" ; he stood his trial and was acquitted. He thereupon retired for a while into private life, occupying himself with the editorship of the Isis and with a series of natural-history manuals in which he considered that he had arranged for the first time the genera and species in accordance with the only true or physio-philosophical principles, stating briefly everything of vital importance respecting them, and maintaining that it was the- first attempt to frame a truly scientific history of nature.

In 1821 Oken promulgated in his Isis the first idea of the annual general meetings of the German naturalists and medical practitioners, which happy idea was realized in the following year, when the first meeting was held at Leipsic. They have been continued ever since in Germany; and similar annual scientific gatherings have been origin-ated in other countries. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was at the outset avowedly organized after the German or Okenian model.

In 1828 Oken resumed his original humble duties as privat-docent in the newly - established university of Munich, and soon afterwards he was appointed ordinary professor in the same university. In 1832, on the proposal by the Bavarian Government to transfer him to a professor-ship in a provincial university of the state, he resigned his appointments and left the kingdom.

Switzerland has the honour of affording the final place of refuge, with means of an independent pursuit of science, to this philosophic and patriotic naturalist. Oken was appointed in 1833 to the professorship of natural history in the then recently-established university of Zurich. There he continued to reside, fulfilling his professional duties and promoting the progress of his favourite sciences, until his death in the seventy-second year of his age (11th August 1851).

All Oken's writings are eminently deductive illustrations of a foregone and assumed principle, which, with other philosophers of the transcendental school, he deemed equal to the explanation of all the mysteries of nature. According to him, the head was a repetition of the trunk—a kind of second trunk, with its limbs and other appendages; this sum of his observations and comparisons —few of which he ever gave in detail—ought always to be borne in mind in comparing the share taken by Oken in homological anatomy with the progress made by other cultivators of that philo-sophical branch of the science.





The idea of the analogy between the skull, or parts of the skull, and the vertebral column had been previously propounded and ventilated in their lectures by Autenreith and Kielmeyer, and in the writings of J. P. Frank. By Oken it was applied chiefly in illustration of the mystical system of Schelling—the "all-in-all" and " all-in-every-part." From the earliest to the latest of Oken's writings on the subject, " the head is a repetition of the whole trunk with all its systems : the brain is the spinal cord ; the cranium is the vertebral column ; the mouth is intestine and abdomen ; the nose is the lungs and thorax ; the jaws are the limbs ; and the teeth the claws or nails." Spix, in his folio Ceplialogenesis (1818), richly illustrated comparative craniology, but presented the facts under the same transcendental guise; and Cuvier ably availed him-self of the extravagances of these disciples of Schelling to cast ridi-cule on the whole inquiry into those higher relations of parts to the archetype which Professor Owen has called "general homologies."

The vertebral theory of the skull had practically disappeared from anatomical science when the labours of Cuvier drew to their close. In Owen's Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skele-ton the idea was not only revived but worked out for the first tima inductively, and the theory rightly stated, as follows :—"The head is not a virtual equivalent of the trunk, but is only a portion, i.e., certain modified segments, of the whole body. The jaws are the ' heemal arches' of the first two segments; they are not limbs of the head " (p. 176).

Vaguely and strangely, however, as Oken had blended the idea, with his a priori conception of the nature of the head, the chance of appropriating it seems to have overcome the moral sense of Goethe,—unless indeed the poet deceived himself. Comparative osteology had early attracted Goethe's attention. In 1786 he published at Jena his essay Ueber den Zwischenkieferknochen des Menschen und der Thiere, showing that the intermaxillary bone existed in man as well as in brutes. But not a word in this essay gives the remotest hint of his having then possessed the idea of the vertebral analogies of the skull. In 1820, in his Moiphologie, he first publicly stated that thirty years before the date of that publi-cation he had discovered the secret relationship between the verte-brae and the bones of the head, and that he had always continued to meditate on this subject. The circumstances under which the poet, in 1820, narrates having become inspired with the original idea are suspiciously analogous to those described by Oken in 1807, as producing the same effect on his mind. A bleached skull is accidentally discovered in both instances : in Oken's it was that of a deer in the Harz forest; in Goethe's it was that of a sheep picked up on the shores of the Lido, at Venice.

It may be assumed that Oken, when a privat-docent at Gottingen in 1806, knew nothing of this unpublished idea or discovery of Goethe, and that Goethe first became aware that Oken had the idea of the vertebral relations of the skull when he listened to the intro-ductory discourse in which the young professor, invited by the poet to Jena, selected this very idea for its subject. It is incredible, that Oken, had he adopted the idea from Goethe, or been aware of an anticipation by him, should have omitted to acknowledge the source—should not rather have eagerly embraced so appropriate an opportunity of doing graceful homage to the originality and genius of his patron.

The anatomist having lectured for an hour plainly unconscious of any such anticipation, it seems hardly less incredible that the poet should not have mentioned to the young lecturer his previous conception of the vertebro-cranial theory, aud the singular coinci-dence of the accidental circumstance which he subsequently alleged to have produced that discovery. On the contrary, Goethe permits Oken to publish his famous lecture, with the same unconscious-ness of any anticipation as when he delivered it; and Oken, in the same state of belief, transmits a copy to Goethe, who thereupon honours the professor with special marks of attention and an invita-tion to his house. No hint of any claim of the host is given to the guest; no word of reclamation in any shape appears for some years. In Goethe's Tages- und Jahres-Hefte, he refers to two friends, Beimer and Voigt, as being cognizant in 1807 of his theory. Why did not one or other of these make known to Oken that he had been so anticipated? "I told my friends to keep quiet," writes Goethe in 1825 ! Spix, in the meanwhile, in 1815, contributes his share to the development of Oken's idea in his Ceplialogenesis. Ulrich follows in 1816 with his Schildkroienschddel; next appears the contribution, in 1818, by Bojanus, to the vertebral theory of the skull, amplified in the Paragon to that anatomist's admirable Anatome Testudinis Europeese (1821). And now for the first time, in 1818, Bojanus, visiting some friends at Weimar, there hears the rumour that his friend Oken had been anticipated by the great poet. He communicates it to Oken, who, like an honest man, at once published the statement made by Goethe's friends in the Isis of that year, offering no reflexion on the poet, but restricting him-self to a detailed and interesting account of the circumstances under which he himself had been led independently to make his. discovery, when wandering in 1806 through the Harz. It was enough for him thus to vindicate his own claims ; he abstains from any comment reflecting on Goethe, and maintained the same -blame less silence when Goethe ventured for the first time to claim for himself, in 1820, the merit of having entertained the same idea, or made the discovery, thirty years previously.

The German naturalists held their annual meeting at Jena in 1836, and there Kieser publicly bore testimony, from personal know-ledge, to the circumstances and dates of Oken's discovery. However, in the edition of Hegel's works by Michelet, Berlin, 1842, there appeared the following paragraph:—"The type-bone is the dorsal vertebra, provided inwards with a hole and outwards with processes, every bone being only a modification of it. This idea originated with Goethe, who worked it out in a treatise written in 1785, and published it in his Morphologie, 1820, p. 162. Oken, to whom the treatise was communicated, has pretended that the idea was his own property, and has reaped the honour of it." This accusa-tion again called out Oken, who thoroughly refuted it in an able, circumstantial, and temperate statement, in part vii. of the Isis, 1847. Goethe's osteological essay of 1785, the only one he printed in that century, is on a different subject. In the Morphologie of 1820-24 Goethe distinctly declares that he had never published his ideas on the vertebral theory of the skull. He could not, therefore, have sent any such essay to Oken before the year 1807. Oken, in reference to his previous endurance of Goethe's pretensions, states that, 1' being well aware that his fellow-labourers in natural science thoroughly appreciated the true state of the case, he confided in quiet silence in their judgment. Meckel, Spix, Ulrich, Bojanus, Cams, Cuvier, Geoffroy St Hilaire, Albers, Straus - Durckheim, Owen, Kieser, and Lichtensteiu had recorded their judgment in his favour and against Goethe. But upon the appearance of the new assault in Michelet's edition of Hegel he could no longer remain silent."

Oken's bold axiom that heat is but a mode of motion of light, and the idea broached in his essay on generation (1805) that "ali the parts of higher animals are made up of an aggregate of Infusoria or animated globular monads," are both of the same order as his proposition of the head being a repetition of the trunk, with its vertebra! and limbs. Science would have profited no more from the one idea without the subsequent experimental discoveries of Oersted and Faraday, or from the other without the microscopical observations of Brown, Schleiden, and Schwann, than from the third notion without the inductive demonstration of the segmental constitution of the skull by Owen. It is questionable, indeed, whether in either case the discoverers of the true theories were excited to their labours, or in any way influenced, by the a priori guesses of Oken ; more probable is it that the requisite researches and genuine deductions therefrom were the results of the correlated fitness of the stage of the science and the gifts of its true cultivators at such particular stage.

Oken's real claims to the support and gratitude of naturalists rest on his appreciation of the true relations of natural history to intellectual progress, of its superior teachings to the mere utilitarian applications of observed facts, of its intrinsic dignity as a science.

The following is a list of Oken's principal works:—Grundriss der Natur-philosophie, der Theorie der Sinne, und der darauf gegründeten Classification der Thiere (1802); Die Zeugung (1805); Abriss der Biologie (1805); Beiträge zur vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie, und Physiologie (along with Kieser, 1800-7); Ueber die Bedeutung der Schädelknochen (1807); Ueber das Universum als Fortsetz-ung des Sinnensystems (1808); Erste Ideen zur Theorie des Lichts, der Finsterniss, der Farben, und der Wärme (1808); Grundzeichnung des natürlichen Systems der Erze (1809); Ueber den Werth der Naturgeschichte (1809); Lehrbuch der Natur-philosophie (1809-11, 2d ed. 1831, 3d ed. 1843; Eng. tr., Elements of Physio-philosophy, 1847); Lehrbuchder Naturgeschichte (1813, 1815, 1825); Handbuch der Naturgeschichte zum Gebrauch bei Vorlesungen (1816-20); Naturgeschichte für Schulen (1821); Esquisse d'un Systeme d'Anatomie, de Physiologie, et d'Histoire Naturelle (1812); Allgemeine Naturgeschichte (1833-42, 14 vols.). He also contributed a large number of papers to the Isis and other journals. (R. O.)



The above article was written by: Sir Richard Owen, K.C.B., LL.D., D.C.L.



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