POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
|A STUDY OF BRITISH GENIUS.|
UNTIL now it has not been possible to obtain any comprehensive view of the men and women who have chiefly built up English civilization. It has not, therefore, been possible to study their personal characteristics as a group. The sixty-three volumes of the 'Dictionary of National Biography' of which the last has been lately issued, have for the first time enabled us to construct an authoritative and well balanced scheme of the persons of illustrious genius, in every department, who have appeared in the British Isles from the beginning of history down to the end of the nineteenth century; and, with a certain amount of labor, it enables us to sum up their main traits. It has seemed to me worth while—both for the sake of ascertaining the composition of those elements of intellectual ability which Great Britain has contributed to the world, and also as a study of the nature of genius generally—to utilize the 'Dictionary' to work out these results. I propose to present here some of the main conclusions which emerge from such a study.
The 'Dictionary' contains some record—from a few lines to several dozen pages—of some thirty thousand persons. Now, this is an impracticable and undesirable number to deal with—impracticable because, regarding a large proportion of these persons, very little is here recorded or is even known; undesirable because it must be admitted that the majority, though persons of a certain note in their own day or their own circle, cannot be said to have made any remarkable contribution to civilization or to have displayed any very transcendent degree of native ability. My first task, therefore, was to ascertain a principle of selection in accordance with which the persons of relatively less distinguished ability and achievement might be eliminated. At the outset one class of individuals, it was fairly obvious, should be omitted altogether in the construction of any group in which the qualities of native intellectual ability are essential—I mean royalty, and members of the royal family, as well as the hereditary nobility. Those eminent persons, the sons of commoners, who have founded noble families, are, of course, not excluded by this rule, according to which any eminent person whose father, at the time of his birth, had attained the rank of baronet or any higher rank, is necessarily excluded from my list. Certainly the son of a king or a peer may possess a