LECTURES AND SOCIETIES.
I THINK the Colymbians are the greatest lecturers and the greatest lovers of lectures in the world. Every town has several lecture-halls, and these are occupied almost every night with orators declaiming and audiences listening with rapt attention to their utterances, delivered always in their exquisite musical oratory. But, as in their government it is customary to entrust the supervision of every department of state to some one utterly unacquainted with the subject matter of that department, so their lectures are usually, though not necessarily, delivered by persons who cannot possibly have any experience of or acquaintance with the subject lectured on. So just as the minister who presides over the natural history department is ostentatiously ignorant of natural history, can scarcely tell a bull from a bullfinch, or a cocoa-nut from a ribston-pippin, so a lecturer, say on the duties of the poorer classes, is invariably one belonging to the richer classes of society; a lecturer on the education of women is invariably a confirmed old bachelor and woman-hater; a lecturer on athletic exercises is certain to be one who never takes any exercise at all. And then the listeners to lectures, they are sure to be composed of such as can derive no possible benefit from the lecture, even were it to the purpose, as they are certain to consist of persons who have no interest whatsoever, one would think, in its subject. Indeed, so well is this understood, that the greatest pains are taken to exclude those who might possibly have a direct interest in the subject of the lecture, and to whom the lecture is ostensibly addressed.
Thus if a fashionable lecturer announces that he will give a lecture to the working-classes with advice to them as to their behaviour, &c., no working-man by any chance is ever to be found among the audience, but the hall is filled with a distinguished company of rich and idle ladies and gentlemen, who understand just as little of the matter in hand as the lecturer, but who applaud him to the echo.
So also if a transcendentalist gives a lecture on the turpitude and immorality of not holding by the tenets of transcendental geography, he never expects to see at his lecture any opponent of transcendentalism, but only its staunch friends, who will cheer him when he launches out against the absent opposite party, because they all entertain precisely the same views as the lecturer himself.
In this way lectures are of a double advantage. It gratifies the audience to hear their own opinions elegantly expounded, and it gratifies the lecturer to find that he has an appreciative audience.
I attended many of the lectures, and whatever the subject I found one general principle pervaded them all. The lecturer invariably represented those to whom the lecture was supposed to be addressed as utterly bad, depraved, and almost criminal in being what they were or in thinking what they did. On the other hand, he made out that those who belonged to his class, or who thought as he did, were all that was good, elevated and virtuous. But as his audience never by any chance consisted of the people to whom the lecture was nominally addressed, as all were of his own way of thinking, every word he spoke flattered and complimented them and disparaged those who were not of their sect. Thus, if it were a lecture given by one of the rich classes nominally to the poor—or by one of the working-classes nominally to the wealthy idlers, or by a transcendentalist to anti-transcendentalists, or vice versâ—the audience in each case, being exclusively of the lecturer's way of thinking, felt all the gratification naturally experienced by persons who are listening to laudation of themselves and depreciation of their neighbours.
I was astonished to find that the same sort of thing prevailed among men of science. They constituted themselves into a guild or close corporation, and none were admitted into their clique or set unless trained and educated in a certain way. Everything done by a member of the guild was praised and defended by the other members to such an extent that one would have said it was "a society for mutual admiration" rather than an assembly of scientific men. It was amusing to see how a scientific discovery by an outsider was received by the scientific clique. At first it was ignored—no one noticed it. But if the public took it up, then the scientific fraternity condescended to notice it, but only to condemn it, and that without inquiry, "It does not come from one of us, therefore it is naught." By and by, when the discovery forced itself into notoriety by its intrinsic merits, the scientific corporation declared that they knew it all along, that in fact it was not new, but had been discovered by one of themselves ever so long ago. As useful discoveries were seldom made by the members of the scientific guild, who moved altogether too much in the old grooves to be able to strike out novelties, but generally proceeded from outsiders, who were not trammelled by cut-and-dry notions and observances, so it almost invariably happened that really important discoveries were treated in the way I have described. In fact it was so well understood that extra-academical discoveries would never be recognised by this self-constituted Academy of Science, that few discoverers took the trouble to apply for recognition by the Academy in the first instance, unless they were already of the guild. The plan was by lectures, writings and other means to gain over a certain number of the public to a belief in the correctness or utility of the discovery, and to leave the Academy out of consideration altogether. Long after the public had recognised and generally adopted the discovery or invention, the Academy would ostentatiously open its doors to the new-comer, and with a great flourish of trumpets—beating of drums would perhaps be a more correct term, for trumpets are unknown in Colymbia, while drums are common—set forth the manifold advantages they conferred upon science, how ready they always were to recognise the claims of new scientific discoverers (after all the world had acknowledged them), and how ill off the science of the country would be without such an institution to foster and encourage rising merit.
Though every one knew the groundlessness of the claims continually set up by the Academy to be the encourager and promoter of unaided scientific genius; though every one knew that an outsider had no chance of admission to the guild unless he forcibly broke open its doors with the assistance of a powerful public; though every one knew that the Academy had left out in the cold, to perish of neglect and to gnaw their hearts in disappointment, many who had had no influential public to back them, but whose discoveries had been afterwards utilized to the great advantage of the community, and whose monuments decorated the public places, still such was the force of custom and the power of shams in Colymbia, that the merits of the Academy were almost universally acknowledged. Some few there were, but they took good care to give no public utterance to their heretical sentiments, who said that in place of Academy of Science it should be called Academy for the Retention of Things as they are and for the Obstruction of Advances in Science.
I suppose it is the dense medium in which they live that makes the Colymbians so fond of retaining the shadow after the substance has long passed away. Possibly in distant ages the Academy of Science merited its name, and acted really as a foster-mother to rising genius whom it sought out and introduced to the public. But if so, the actual character of the Academy differs vastly from its original one. The public are now the patrons of genius, and it is through the public alone that the Academy are brought to acknowledge scientific merit. Thus, just as the sovereign title remains in Colymbia long after the sovereign has ceased to exercise any power; just as a knowledge of hieroglyphics is still regarded as the most useful of acquirements, though its utility, if it ever had any, has long been inappreciable; just as transcendental geography is generally acknowledged to be the most consummate of all studies, though nobody can explain what good it can do, and certain persons, who are held by the transcendentalists to be shallow and frivolous, roundly assert that it does harm and no good; so the Academy of Science is held to be the greatest and best of institutions, the true foster-mother of genius, the liberal patron of rising merit—though all know it is just the reverse of all these.
"What a happy contrast," I mentally exclaimed, "does not my dear native country present to these shams! I suppose it is the lighter medium in which we live that enables us at once to discard everything after its inutility has been shown. What reality there is in our glorious system of constitutional government, with its King, Lords and Commons, whose duties and rights are so accurately defined that none can trench on those of the rest! What a splendid and perdurable creation is not the glorious union of Church and State—a church regulated by fixed rules of divine origin, deriving influence and beauty from its connection with the secular government; a state acquiring divine illumination from its connection with such a church! The best years of our youth are not employed in the acquirement of useless knowledge, and the portals of our science halls are always wide open for the reception and encouragement of struggling genius."
But though admission among the self-elected elect of science is difficult to the unknown and extra-academical votary of science, it is comparatively easy to some whose pretensions to science are but small or none at all. If a man have accumulated a large fortune, not only does he take a high social rank but he is universally accredited with attributes he certainly did not possess before he grew rich, and which he would as certainly lose were he to grow poor. Supposing he made his money by breeding turtle or fishing pearls, the coryphæi of literature, art, and even science, would, without hesitation, allow him to possess a competent knowledge of all the accomplishments appertaining to their several specialties. I was sadly at a loss to account for this phenomenon, and at first thought that this rich man must employ his wealth in bribing the representatives of literature, art and science in order to make them attribute to him those qualities he assuredly did not possess. But I was mistaken, the rich man needed not to spend the value of a farthing on any of the subjects mentioned. It was some quality in his wealth that gave him all the attributes and advantages of genius without having had the slightest natural gift of it. I have noticed in a society of Colymbians the learned, opinion of a competent person on some matter of art or science treated with contempt, while the utmost deference was paid to the inane and ignorant deliverances of the muddle-headed possessor of a pen of 50,000 turtles.
I expressed my surprise to a distinguished member of the Academy of Science at this curious propensity of his countrymen to credit the rich man with the possession of all the talents he was conspicuously deficient in.
"Of course," said he, "you do not think us such fools as to believe that these rich noodles have those talents they are credited with. But the fact is we find it needful to set up some authority besides the cultivators of the several arts and sciences. Now, rich men possessing precisely what is the ultimate aim of science and art, to wit, wealth and its accompaniment power, appear to us to be the fittest conventional judges of those sciences and arts. We know it is highly illogical to do this, but when you have lived long in Colymbia you will find that we are little governed by logic in our public actions, but almost entirely by precedent, tradition and convention. And yet we get on wonderfully well; as you would perhaps say in spite of our lack of logic, but, as we think, in consequence of having other standards besides that of logic to regulate our actions. The history of the world shows that when a nation attempts to discard the fictions of convention and strives to regulate all its actions by the strict rules of logical induction, it falls into terrible confusion and unutterable grief. The reason of this unexpected result may be that our premisses may not be so true as we think them—indeed the variations that are perpetually occurring in these premisses show that they are not so incontrovertible as we fondly imagine. Logical deduction from false premisses is certain to end in universal confusion. Where a conventional fiction is found useful we retain it until we can do without it. Thus our conventionalisms are, as it were, the apology for the truth; they are make-shift halting-houses to serve us till we have arrived at perfect truth, when they will no longer be of any use and will become extinct. You, in England, have similar conventional fictions, which are useful to you until you can ascertain the truth. Thus in chemistry you have your atomic theory, your electric fluid, your caloric, perceptible and latent, and fifty other conventional fictions, which you know to be not the truth but which serve your purpose until the truth shall be revealed."
I felt he was utterly and decidedly wrong, but not being conversant with scientific matters, I could not contradict him, so was content to leave him master of the field. On another occasion when I remarked on the different manners in which the Academy treated useful discoveries and inventions proceeding from outsiders, and the useless discoveries those of their own guild were perpetually making; the former being treated by the Academy with contemptuous silence or pooh-poohed as if of utterly insignificant importance, the latter being lauded to the skies and represented as of the greatest importance to science and humanity; he defended this action of the Academy warmly and said:—
"The Academy acts perfectly right in this. Useful discoveries will soon obtain their due reward from the public who profit by them, but a useless discovery may be, as a discovery, a much more brilliant scintillation of genius than a useful one, but what would the public care for it? The author would live and die unknown and neglected were it not for the Academy, whose main object is to award praise and reward for discoveries in the inverse ratio of their utility. The inventors of electric illumination, of tidal machines, and of all the mechanical works whereby the community profits, have been slighted by the Academy; but look how they have been rewarded by the public, they obtained substantial pensions during their lives and their statues grace our public places since they died. But look whom our Academy delights to honour. The latest recipients of the rewards the Academy has to bestow are three distinguished Academicians for their observations—the first, on the intestinal parasites of the sand-hopper; the second, on the influence of the moon's phases on the growth of the periwinkle's shell; the third, on the infinite indivisibility of ultimate atoms. These great and surprising discoveries would have been treated with indifference by the public, as they do not minister to comfort or convenience."
"But suppose," I said, "that the useless discovery was made by one not belonging to the scientific guild?"
"Ah, then," he replied, "it would stand but a poor chance of being noticed at all, either by public or Academy. It would have to wait until it was rediscovered, or assumed as his own discovery by an Academician, when it would meet with due honour."
"A very satisfactory dénouement for the real discoverer!" I observed. To this my academical friend deigned no reply.
Although the scientific guild, or coterie, or clique, does not include a very large proportion of the population, it yet exercises an amount of influence disproportionate to its numbers, as it commands the pens of most of the public writers; and it is considered quite "the thing" to express the utmost admiration and reverence for science, even though its worshippers may have no pretensions to it themselves. Thus it was that the Government, or at all events the chief of the ministry, invariably treated scientific men with the utmost deference, and took good care not to offend them—at least personally—otherwise their influence, which was great, might have been used to upset him. But occasionally the pretensions of the men of science would become more than the chief himself could put up with, and then he would administer to them a proper snubbing, hot directly, but by means of one of the inferior ministers of state. The scientific men being so influential, as I have stated, had naturally obtained a good many of the lucrative appointments at the disposal of Government, and though they did not manage much worse than the incompetent persons usually appointed by Government to such offices, their scientific labours sometimes did interfere with the proper working of the departments over which they were placed. When such an event happened. Government was only too glad to avail itself of the opportunity of giving, a not undeserved rebuke to the great science-guild, in the person of one of its members. Of course the outcry from the inculpated philosopher and his whole fraternity was great; but as there really was a good foundation for the rebuke, the public sided with the Government, and the discomfited philosophers had to "order themselves accordingly," that is to grin and bear it. A case of this sort occurred during my stay in Colymbia, which illustrates what I have stated so well, that I have no hesitation in giving the details of it.
The illustrious philosopher Schnüffelpilz had made himself so renowned by his investigations into the minute anatomy of minute organisms, that the scientific world with one accord named him as the fitting person for appointment to the office of inspector of the water-valves of a section of the barrier, that had just become vacant by the retirement of the previous inspector, by reason of old age. Now, as there was practically little or nothing for the inspector to do, as the valves were self-acting, and it only required a common workman to see that they did not get locked from any stray fish or bit of seaweed becoming entangled in them; the post was unanimously pronounced by the scientific world to be just the thing for Schnüffelpilz; as he might be able to pursue his researches with greater effect, with so much leisure time and such a capital income at his command. Accordingly he was appointed to the office, though the chief of the state felt rather sore at being obliged to give away among the scientific clique a lucrative post, which he would rather have bestowed on one of his immediate supporters.
As soon as Schnüffelpilz was duly installed, he commenced a series of experiments to solve a problem in natural history it had long been his ambition to determine; but want of time and means had hitherto prevented him working it effectually.
It was well known to Schnüffelpilz, who was a great reader, that the celebrated naturalist Sir Joseph Banks had held the opinion that the flea and the lobster were closely connected in the scale of the animal creation; indeed, he went so far as to imagine that they might be the same animal in different stages of development. In order to put his theory to the proof, he bethought himself of resorting to the test of boiling water. The lobster, as is well known, turns bright red when subjected to the action of water at a temperature of 212° Fahrenheit. If, reasoned Sir Joseph, the flea, when introduced into water at the same temperature, changes his sable hue to scarlet, this will be strong primâ facie evidence that he is of the lobster genus. It is well known that the experiment, though conducted with every possible care, did not corroborate the views of the great naturalist, and it is said that when Sir Joseph saw that the boiling water caused no change of the flea's colour, he exclaimed impatiently, "Fleas are not lobsters, d——n their souls!" But it is highly improbable that he indulged in any such illogical exclamation, which, though it is recorded in the writings of the celebrated contemporary poet, Peter Pindar, must be held to be merely a poetical version of some expression of annoyance he may really have given utterance to.
The renowned Schnüffelpilz was much struck by the opinion originally entertained by Sir Joseph, that fleas and lobsters had an identical origin, and he was far from satisfied that the test adopted by the English naturalist was conclusive. So, as soon as he was installed in his new office, he commenced a series of experiments that extended over several years and were prosecuted with a perseverance and zeal characteristic of the great philosopher and worthy of his important subject. His patience and energy were amply rewarded by a discovery he made, which proved distinctly that the flea and the lobster were closely allied if not identical species.
His natural sagacity suggested to him, that if the identity of the two animals was to be established, it must be proved by the analogy of the anatomical structure of some portion of both animals which would be unaffected by the difference of the medium each usually inhabited. Careful consideration led him by a process of reasoning by exclusion to decide that the antennæ or feelers must be this organ. These, to a mind unexercised in the deepest profundities of comparative anatomy, would appear to be the most unlikely of all the organs of the two animals, to prove, by their comparison, the identity of the creatures. For whereas the antennae of the lobster, as is well known, are enormously long and many-jointed, those of the flea are conspicuously short and few-jointed. I shall not attempt to give the exhaustive reasoning of the great naturalist, whereby he proves that in the antennae alone can the identity or difference of the two animals be discovered; for this occupies 324 pages of his great work on the subject, which has for its title a felicitous parody of Sir Joseph's imputed exclamation: "Fleas are true lobsters, bless their hearts!" It will suffice to say that Schnüffelpilz proved the identity of the flea and the lobster by the exact similarity of the distribution of the arteries at the base of the antennae of both animals.
While the scientific circles were still ringing with the plaudits of admiration elicited by this great discovery, and while the newspapers, catching the enthusiasm from the philosophers, were asking why some exalted order of nobility was not created for the purpose of appropriately rewarding such great discoveries as this, Schnüffelpilz was by no means contented with his labours, but was steadily prosecuting them to a further development. Not satisfied with having proved, to the satisfaction of the most prejudiced, the identity of origin of the flea and the lobster, he now set himself to solve this still more difficult problem, "Is the lobster an improved and highly developed flea, or is the flea a degraded lobster?"
In order to answer this most important question, he had to conduct simultaneously two sets of experiments. He had on the one hand to endeavour to adapt fleas to the habits of lobsters, and on the other to cause lobsters to take to the mode of life of fleas, and to observe what changes the animals underwent in consequence. In order to carry on his experiments, he had to clear a space of the lagoon, close to the coral-reef, where he could keep the lobsters he required, and where he could initiate the fleas into the mysteries of aquatic life. Most of his time was spent on shore, whither he transported his lobsters in order to accustom them to the habits of fleas.
After repeated trials, varied in every manner that human ingenuity could suggest, he found it impossible to accustom the fleas to aquatic life, nor would they touch the food that lobsters delighted in. All the fleas died shortly after their transference to the water. With the lobsters he was more successful. He rolled them up in blankets, and that the change of life might not be too sudden, he damped the blankets. He fed them on human blood, supplied from the veins of himself and a few enthusiastic co-operators. The lobsters all died under this treatment, but a few survived sufficiently long to raise hopes that eventually some might get quite accustomed to the new life. Schnüffelpilz was delighted to find that the few survivors underwent such changes before their death as to convince him, that were the experiment to be sufficiently long continued, and could the lobsters live long enough in the blankets, their physiological constitution and their habits would ultimately assimilate to those of the flea. Their antennae broke off short, they cast their huge claws, no longer required under the novel circumstances of their life, their tails curled up under them, so that their whole appearance was not unlike that of a flea seen through a magnifying glass, and before they died their blue-black colour took on a brownish tint about the articulations. From these experiments Schnüffelpilz concluded that fleas could not be developed into lobsters, but that lobsters might be degraded into fleas. It might, and doubtless would, require aeons of time to effect the perfect change of lobsters to fleas, but these experiments had shown that the metamorphosis was possible, and in this direction only.
The patience with which he carried on these interesting experiments, the sufferings he underwent by his long absence from the water and his exposure to the heat and noxious insects on the land (no one thought of the sufferings endured by the wretched lobsters), the exhaustion he produced by his repeated blood-lettings, all excited the admiration of the whole scientific world; and his reputation as the profoundest observer of his age, and the most zealous votary of science, to which he had almost proved a martyr, was acknowledged on all hands.
But in the course of his operations below the water he, without thinking of the consequences, had employed some of the tunnels as receptacles for his stores of lobsters; and by so doing had seriously interfered with the action of some of the valves. The consequence was, that on various occasions the surrounding water had varied as much as two or three degrees in temperature, to the great discomfort of the inhabitants of that portion of the lagoon, who lodged formal complaints against him with the Government.
The chief of the state eagerly seized on this opportunity for snubbing the scientific world in the person of one of its most illustrious representatives. Without appearing himself in the matter, he secretly directed the minister of public works to administer a severe reprimand to Schnüffelpilz. This minister, whose manners were the reverse of courteous, addressed a missive to the philosopher, couched in terms of studied insult, requiring him immediately to cease interfering with the proper action of the valves.
Schnüffelpilz, who was as irritable as any man of science could be whose scientific operations were interfered with, replied in indignant terms to the official missive. He said that men of his standing in the scientific world were not in the habit of being so reprimanded by a mere minister of state; that his experiments, which were of the utmost importance to science, were not to be interfered with, however much discomfort they might occasion to a few unscientific persons, and that if the minister did not allow him to act as he pleased, he would throw up his appointment.
The minister replied that the threat did not alarm him; that any common unscientific person could perform the duties of inspector at least as well, probably better, than the great philosopher; that he did not consider these so-called scientific investigations of any use, and that his own duties as minister of state were of infinitely more importance to the community than all the labours of all the scientific men of Colymbia.
The hostile correspondence between those two magnates was published, and immediately a great clamour was raised by all the scientific world against the minister. The papers, one and all, joined in the outcry, and a deputation of the leading men of the Academy of Science waited on the chief of the state, to urge the claims of their renowned brother to respectful treatment. They enumerated all his great services to science, dwelt on the personal and pecuniary sacrifices he had made in his search after truth, and concluded by demanding the instant dismissal of the obnoxious minister.
The chief received the deputation with the utmost urbanity, expressed in the most fervid terms his respect for science in general, and his appreciation of the transcendent merits of the great Schnüffelpilz, admitted that the wording of the minister's missives was anything but respectful to the man of science, but apologised for him by saying, that on the whole he was a useful man, with whose services he could not readily dispense, and that his discourteous style was only his way of doing business, which was unfortunate, but that he meant no harm. He advised that Schnüffelpilz should let the valves alone, and that no further notice should be taken of the affair. And so the great hubbub in the scientific world was allayed, and the minister carried his point, for Schnüffelpilz ceased to interfere with the valves and withdrew his threat of resignation.