Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/February 1878/Addresses of Eliot and Marsh



Address of President C. W. Eliot.

IN whose honor are the chief personages of the nation, State, and city, here assembled? Whose palace is this? What divinity is worshiped in this place? We are assembled here to own with gratitude the beneficent power of natural science; to praise and thank its votaries, and to dedicate this splendid structure to its service. The power to which we here do homage is the accumulated intelligence of our race applied generation after generation to the study of Nature; and this palace is the storehouse of the elaborated materials which that intelligence has garnered, ordered, and illuminated. What has natural science done for mankind that it should be thus honored? In the brief moments allotted to me I can but mention three pregnant results of the scientific study of Nature.

In the first place, natural science has engendered a peculiar kind of human mind—the searching, open, humble mind, which, knowing that it cannot attain unto all truth, or even to much new truth, is yet patiently and enthusiastically devoted to the pursuit of such little new truth as is within its grasp, having no other end than to learn, prizing above all things accuracy, thoroughness, and candor, in research, proud and happy not in its own single strength, but in the might of that host of students, whose past conquests make up the wondrous sum of present knowledge, whose sure future triumphs each humblest worker in imagination shares. Within the last four hundred years this typical scientific mind has gradually come to be the kind of philosophic mind most admired by the educated class; indeed, it has come to be the only kind of mind, except the poetic, which commands the respect, of scholars, whatever their department of learning. In every field of study, in history, philology, philosophy, and theology, as well as in natural history and physics, it is now the scientific spirit, the scientific method, which prevails. The substitution in the esteem of reasonable men of this receptive, fore-reaching mind for the dogmatic, overbearing, closed mind, which assumes that it already possesses all essential truth, and is entitled to the exclusive interpretation of it, is a most beneficent result of the study of natural history and physics. It is an achievement which has had much to do with the modern increase of liberty in human society, liberty individual, political and religious; it is an achievement of the highest promise for the future of the race.

The second result which I wish to specify is the stupendous doctrine of hereditary transmission, which during the past thirty years, or within the lifetime of most of those who hear me, natural science has developed and enforced by observations and comparisons covering the whole field of organized life. This conception is far from being a new one. Our race has long practised, though fitfully and empirically, upon some crude and fragmentary forms of this idea. Tribes, clans, castes, orders of nobility, and reigning families, are familiar illustrations of the sway of this idea; in killing, banishing, and confining criminals mankind has in all ages been defending itself, blindly, to be sure, but effectually, against evils which incidentally flow from hereditary transmission; but it has been reserved for natural science in this generation to demonstrate the universality of this principle, and its controlling influence upon the families, nations, and races of men, as well as upon all lower orders of animate beings. It is fitting that natural history should have given this demonstration to the world; for the basis of systematic natural history is the idea of species, and the idea of species is itself founded upon the sureness of hereditary transmission, upon the ultimate fact that individual characteristics are hereditable. As the knowledge of heredity, recently acquired by science, permeates society, it will profoundly affect social customs, public legislation, and governmental action. It will throw additional safeguards around the domestic relations; enhance the natural interest in vigorous family stocks; guide wisely the charitable action of the community; give a rational basis for penal legislation; and promote both the occasional production of illustrious men and the gradual improvement of the masses of mankind. These moral benefits will surely flow from our generation's study of heredity.

Finally, modern science has discovered and set forth the magnificent idea of the continuity of creation. It has proved that the development of the universe has been a progress from good to better, a progress not without reactions and catastrophes, but still a benign advance toward ever higher forms of life, with ever greater capacities for ever finer enjoyments. It has laid a firm foundation for man's instinctive faith in his own future. From the sight and touch of what the eternal past has wrought, it deduces a sure trust in what the eternal future has in store.

"And present gratitude
Insures the future's good;
And for the things I see
I trust the things to be."

It has thus exalted the idea of God—the greatest service which can be rendered to humanity. "Each age must worship its own thought of God," and each age may be judged by the worthiness of that thought. In displaying the uniform, continuous action of unrepenting Nature in its march from good to better, science has inevitably directed the attention of men to the most glorious attributes of that Divine intelligence which acts through Nature with the patience of eternity and the fixity of all-foreseeing wisdom. Verily, the infinite, present Creator is worshiped in this place. A hundred lifetimes ago a Hebrew seer gave utterance to one of the grandest thoughts that ever mind of man conceived, but applied it only to his own little nation, and coupled it with barbarous denunciation of that nation's enemies. This thought, tender and consoling toward human weakness and insignificance as a mother's embrace, but sublime also as the starry heights and majestic as the onward sweep of ages, science utters as the sum of all its teachings, as the supreme result of all its searching and its meditation, and applies alike to the whole universe and to its last atom—"the eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms."

Address of Professor O. C. Marsh.

The opening of this Museum to day is an important event in the annals of American science, and one from which great results are sure to follow. We see around us here, already, treasures of Nature from every land, and representing all periods of the earth's history. Not merely a few typical specimens, as in most new museums, but rich series, illustrating the marvelous diversity of Nature, both in the present and in the past. Such treasures, arranged with system, and to the best advantage, as here, arrest the attention of every observer, and invite study. This alone is a grand work accomplished, and yet, we are told, this is but the beginning.

The great museums of the world are in the great cities; and it is fitting that New York, one of the few great centres of culture, should at last take her proper place in science, and found a museum, worthy of herself, for the diffusion of knowledge among her citizens. But there is something higher than the diffusion of knowledge to strive for here, and that is the increase of knowledge. The old idea of a museum was a show-room; the modern idea makes it a workshop as well. If this institution is to hold high rank in science, as we hope, it will not be in consequence of the spacious halls before us, crowded though they be with the rarest of Nature's products; but, rather, it will come through the small work-rooms in the attic, where the naturalist, with microscope or scalpel, has patiently worked out discoveries that add to the sum of human knowledge. This Museum will fail of its highest good, fail even to achieve more than a local influence, less the work-rooms above are made the most important feature of the whole. These vast collections will spread the elements of natural science among the people of New York, and the surrounding region; but the quiet workers in the attic, who pursue science for its own sake, will bring the Museum renown throughout the world.

There is yet a more important reason for making this institution a centre for original research. The science of to-day stands face to face with great problems. The antiquity of man, the origin of the human race, and even the origin of life itself, are among the questions which the present age submits to science, and to which it demands an answer. If these problems are to be solved by science, America must do her full share of the work, for the materials are here. In all that pertains to ancient life, the Western Continent possesses countless treasures, unknown in other lands. These, as I believe, are to unlock many mysteries in biology, and render important aid toward the solution of the profounder questions I have named. American science can thus repay its debt to the Old World, where science began, and gathering new facts, from broader and richer fields within her own borders, carry forward, with the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, the never-ending search for truth.

If the American Museum of Natural History, opened to-day under such favorable auspices, does not take a prominent part in this great work, it will not do justice to its founders, or to its opportunities. But with such a foundation as we have here, and such resources as wait to unfold their secrets within walls yet to be reared on this commanding site, I venture to predict for natural science in America greater triumphs than have hitherto been won in any land.