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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 13‎ | August 1878

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
RELIGION AND SCIENCE AT VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY.

IT is not yet three years since we published an abridgment of the address delivered by Dr. Deems at the inauguration of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. The speaker chose "Science and Religion" as a subject befitting the occasion, and from his intimate relations with the founder of the institution, and the share he is supposed to have had in determining the arrangement, his discourse was regarded as in some sense official and authoritative in foreshadowing the spirit of its administration. Dr. Deems said: "This recent cry of a conflict between Religion and Science is fallacious and mischievous to the interests of both science and religion, and would be most mournful if we did not believe that in the very nature of things it is to be ephemeral. Its genesis is to be traced to the weak foolishness of some professors of religion, and the weak wickedness of some professors of science." From which it is to be inferred that Vanderbilt University, at all events, would lend no countenance to this mischievous fallacy.

We protested at the time against regarding a controversy that has raged for centuries, that goes down to the very roots of human belief, and that is now more widely and intensely discussed than ever before, as "ephemeral." And we likewise protested against that superficial view of the causes of this conflict which ascribes them to the foolishness of religionists or the wickedness of scientists. We said that the cause of the warfare must be sought in the relations of the two subjects, meaning thereby the progressive nature of scientific knowledge and the fixedness of religious belief. That which is advancing must come in collision with that which is stationary, if the latter stands in the pathway of the former. And there are but two possible ways of avoiding collisions: either the moving body must stop, or the stationary body must get out of the way. Science will not cease to advance with its work, come what may, and let who will be hurt. It cannot pause, it cannot compromise. Its business is the study of Nature; its object to find out the utmost truth. It points to the vast body of modern knowledge which it has established, and to the conquest of Nature which that knowledge has conferred, as witnesses to the validity and beneficence of its great tasks, and as a presage of further triumphs in the future. The command is often and loudly given to Science to halt, but it would be just as sensible to order the Gulf Stream to halt, or to stay the course of Nature itself. The only question, then, is, whether Religion will take its unyielding theology out of the way, or wait to have it crushed and cast aside. At any rate, nothing is more futile than to resolve the conflict between Religion and Science into a mere question of decorum, propriety, or temper, between the parties engaged.

But, though much remains to be done before this warfare terminates, great progress has undoubtedly been made toward a better understanding, and more pacific relations between the parties. The spirit of liberality has already become so strong among the more intelligent portions of the community that demonstrations of bigotry on the part of theological bodies are pretty certain to incur a general condemnation. It was therefore not without considerable surprise that we heard of the recent action of Vanderbilt University in repudiating the views of Dr. Deems's inaugural address. It has illustrated "the weak foolishness of some professors of religion" with a promptness and a shamelessness that shows how deep and intense is the living feeling of hostility to Science that animates large portions of the theological party. Vanderbilt University decides not to take its old traditions out of the way, but to fight the progress of Science by the same policy of bigotry, intolerance, and proscription, that has been employed for centuries by the same party in doing the same thing. The faculty of the institution have dismissed from his chair the Professor of Historical Geology and Zoölogy, on account of the opinions he holds concerning the antiquity of the human race.

The reader will find a notice in its place of Prof. Winchell's pamphlet on "Adamites and Preadamites," the publication of which has been made the occasion of his exclusion from the university. It will be seen that Prof. Winchell has simply accepted the views that now prevail in the scientific world regarding the time that men have inhabited the earth. The old notions upon the subject are now no longer entertained by intelligent men, because the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly against them. How long the human race has occupied the globe is an open question, but two things are settled: 1. That man has a much higher antiquity than theology has been in the habit of teaching, and has been currently believed; and, 2. That the investigation belongs entirely to science, and must be pursued and determined on the basis of scientific evidence. Prof. Winchell argues the subject strictly as a scientist, but in no spirit of antagonism to religion or to the authority of the Bible. His argument, indeed, is rather an attempt to harmonize the teachings of Scripture with the conclusions of science; a task which he had previously undertaken in a more general way, by the publication of an able book on "The Reconciliation of Science and Religion." But he has met with the not unusual treatment of peacemakers, who miscalculate the temper of the strife they would compose. The stupid Southern Methodists that control the university, it seems, can learn nothing. The fight over the antiquity of the earth has but just closed. The theologians battled long and fiercely against the geologists on this question, but have been so utterly routed that hardly a man of them can now be found who holds to the old belief. Prof. Silliman led the scientific movement upon that subject in this country, and so profound was the theological alarm that eminent doctors of divinity implored him with tears to desist from the impious crusade, because, if successful, it would be certain to destroy the Christian college with which he was associated. That institution had the good sense not to disturb the distinguished teacher in his work, but to abide by the results of investigation; and who can now be found so foolish as to regret its course? But half a century later, when an analogous question arises, Vanberbilt University adopts a different policy, follows the exploded precedents of past centuries, and puts forth its power to muzzle, repress, silence, and discredit the independent teachers of scientific truth.

There are features about this case that call for further strictures. The action of Vanderbilt University is not a little aggravating when we consider how the institution originated, and this consideration will throw some further light on the present phase of the conflict between Religion and Science. For there is a sense of honor in which it may be claimed that Mr. Vanderbilt's donations and endowments belong pre-eminently to science. How did he come by his wealth? It was by reaping the magnificent harvests of profit that had grown up from the toilsome and unselfish labors of men of science. He owed his fortune to the enterprising use of steamships and railways, which were made possible by the steam-engine, a machine produced by the scientific labors of many discoverers and inventors, accumulated through generations. Mr. Vanderbilt's millions were the ultimate but none the less direct consequence of the self-sacrificing exertions of men of creative genius, working in poverty, obscurity, and difficulty, with heroic devotion, to construct a mechanism which they saw was to become potent in the future, and which has fulfilled their anticipations by revolutionizing modern society and giving to civilization the greatest impulse it has ever received from any single agency. It is therefore by no means a piece of far-fetched sentimentality to claim that, when the results of their work had ripened to almost fabulous acquisitions of wealth, some portion of it, at least, should be devoted to the advancement of the interests of science. Of course, Mr. Vanderbilt had the right—the legal right—to do what he pleased with his money; but if we recognize any higher consideration, any sentiment of justice, if we assume that there are such things as moral indebtedness and obligations of honor in the distribution of surplus wealth for public objects, then was the great harvester of millions by steam travel bound to do something liberal and fair for the encouragement and promotion of the great, beneficent work of scientific investigation, which issues in such large advantages to the world.

And this was the more incumbent upon the rich custodian of the fruits of inventive genius, because so little of the scattered wealth of the rich finds its way into these channels. It is here that we see science and religion in practical rivalry, with the almost universal defeat of science. When rich old men and old women are about to distribute their wealth and die, science has but a sorry chance, and the Church generally has its own way. Where a dollar is got in such cases for the promotion of the study of Nature, and the elucidation of those laws upon which the amelioration of the condition of humanity most vitally depends, thousands are obtained by the representatives of ecclesiasticism for the propagation of faith. Religious societies abound in wealth, and scientific societies starve. If there is a scientific society in New York that owns a roof for shelter we do not know of it; yet, if we rightly remember the figures of the census, $53,000,000 are invested in its churches. We refer to these facts simply to illustrate the preponderance of theological influence and agencies over those that are available for the service of science, and to show the disadvantage at which science is placed in the struggle for means to carry on its work.

But although some portion, at least, of the immense wealth of Mr. Vanderbilt was morally mortgaged to the use of that class of men by whom it was in reality created, we are not aware that he ever in the slightest degree recognized such a claim. Some hundreds of thousands of dollars, however, were got out of him to found a sectarian university. But, though Mr. Vanderbilt had no care for science, one would have thought that the trustees and faculty of the institution which he endowed might have gracefully acknowledged that something was specially and honorably due from them to the interests of science, and have shaped the policy of the university accordingly. They might, at least, have been decently up to the times in the spirit of its management. An old educational establishment hampered by traditions, and running in the deep ruts of long-settled habit, has some excuse, perhaps, for guiding its course by the illiberal precedents of the past; but Vanderbilt University was a new organization, opening fresh with the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and free to shape its course in full harmony with the enlightenment of the age. The spirit of the age and the progress of science, however, mean very little to the "weak foolishness" of the sort of Methodist theologians who have the institution in charge. They begin far behind the age, and are already old in bigotry and intolerance. They illustrate that hostility to science which belongs to low theological instincts, and now exhibit before the world the curious spectacle of an educational body into whose hands has fallen the wealth that the labors of scientific men have called into existence, and who use that wealth, not for the promotion and encouragement of scientific thought, but to hinder, defeat, and crush it.

 

 
AMERICAN INFLUENCE IN CIVILIZATION.

In his masterly discourse on "Civilization and Science," the second installment of which is herewith printed, Prof. Du Bois-Reymond refers to the question as to how civilization is to be measured, or by what tests we are to determine the height to which humanity has attained at any given time. Some say that this standard is furnished by the plastic arts, others by religion, others by literature, others by forms of government, and others by the diffusion of education. It will no doubt be a long while before parties entertaining different views upon this subject come to agreement; meantime, we hold, with the German professor, that the best criterion of the position which a nation has gained in the scale of civilization is the contributions which its men of thought have made toward the understanding and the conquest of Nature, and the popular and public appreciation that has been reached regarding this kind of intellectual labor. How does the community regard a man who gives his life to the investigation of the principles and laws, of the order of things, in the midst of which he finds himself placed, under the impulse, first of all, of the desire to know the truth, and, secondarily, to secure those large and benign results which come from the understanding of the method of Nature? What is the feeling entertained toward this class of men? Are they held in high honor, and encouraged in their labors, or are they treated with indifference, neglect, or contempt?

The question here is one of the degree of intellectual appreciation of different objects, and the relative intensity of the national feelings by which these objects are secured. In complex modern societies there will, of course, be found men devoted to different ideals, and a certain amount of popular favor or regard will be accorded to them all. But which of them receives the highest consideration, and what are the predominant national passions? Prof. Du Bois-Reymond, in considering the history of science in relation to civilization, calls our attention to the growth of the utilitarian spirit, which is gradually substituting immediate, practical, wealth-yielding studies for the more elevated, disinterested, and ennobling intellectual pursuits which have been cherished in past times. He points out that there is a decline of interest in this loftier work, under adverse pressures, that are increasing in intensity in the existing age, until they threaten the perversion and degradation of civilization itself. This influence he recognizes as strengthening in Europe, but as so predominating in this country that it is now generally known by the term Americanization. It is not so much that Americans are inappreciative of the real claims of liberal culture, or of the interests and requirements of scientific study, as that they are so overwhelmingly absorbed in material utilities that the finer and purer inspirations of study are dampened, smothered, and suppressed. There may be a verbal recognition of the high claims of science, and many compliments turned to its heroic devotees, but the real feeling is evinced in exclamations of wonder at the curious eccentricity of mind that can forego the solid advantages of working for wealth, and prefer mental occupations that lead to empty honor and certain poverty.

An historical illustration will perhaps bring out more clearly this view, which is now coming to be regarded as so peculiarly American. There lived in England, in the last century, a man of science, named Henry Cavendish, who was born in 1731, and died in 1810. He was a gentleman of fine cultivation, an excellent mathematician, a profound electrician, and a most acute and ingenious chemist. He published many papers, containing results of recondite investigations and the most important discoveries. He was not only a great original thinker, but a most indefatigable and accurate experimenter, and one of his main lines of research was the chemical constitution of the atmosphere. He made no less than 500 analyses of the air, and it is to him that we owe our chief knowledge of the composition of the breathing medium. Now, there is not an American that will not commend all this as most proper and admirable. But there is another side to the case. Henry Cavendish was a man of enormous wealth, for which he cared absolutely nothing. He was one of the greatest proprietors of stock in the Bank of England, and when on one occasion his balance had accumulated to $350,000, and the directors, thinking it too much capital to lie unproductive, asked him if they should not invest it, he simply replied, "Lay it out, if you please." That small portion of his wealth which he could make use of in his investigations was so used, but he did not allow the remainder of it to divert his thoughts in the slightest degree from the unremitting prosecution of his scientific labors. He died worth $7,000,000, which was an immense sum of money at the beginning of this century, but he had not the slightest interest in those objects for which wealth is generally prized. Now, the whole case being given, to the eye of the typical American, Henry Cavendish will be regarded as a fool. "With all that money," the representative American would say, "I could keep a yacht, and a stud of fast horses, and build a church, and endow a college, and send a dozen missionaries to the heathen, and run a whole political campaign at my own expense; and you say this odd creature actually spent life in the smudge and stenches of a chemical laboratory, puttering with gases, and worried about the composition of the air!"

We do not here exaggerate the vulgar passion of Americans for money, and their relative and consequent indifference to other things. The country does not breed Cavendishes, and, if one should appear, he would stand a first-rate chance of getting into a lunatic asylum, as the bare fact of his indifference to riches would be held as prima-facie evidence of an unsound mind! The science that gives promise of immediate results, that can be turned into money, is appreciated; that which aims only at the extension of scientific truth wins little support. Prof. Tyndall devoted the profits of his lectures in this country, all the results of six months' labor, to assist in promoting the education of such young men as possess a talent for physical researches, and wish to qualify themselves for pursuing the work. It was a noble object, and one that had been nowhere provided for. Prof. Tyndall did not propose to found a school of research, but to help young men to avail themselves of the best institutions already existing for the acquisition of a special culture, the culture needed to carry on successful original inquiries. There have been many applications to the trustees of the Tyndall fund for aid to young men of genius and aptitude for research, which, if it could have been granted, would have given them a career, and told in the most effectual way toward the extension of scientific knowledge. But the sum consecrated by Prof. Tyndall to this important end was not adequate i to the wants of a nation. It was a large gift for a scientific professor without wealth, and, by the wise directions of the donor, it will be productive of large and lasting good, but it was given also to call emphatic attention to a neglected field of education, well worthy of the consideration of generous persons who desire to be certain that their benefactions will be well directed and confer real benefit. We do not say that Prof. Tyndall desired to set an example to anybody, but only that he contributed what was in his power to give an impulse to science in this country in a direction that was most needed; but how little Americans care for the object he had in view is shown by the fact that, amid all the multitudinous donations, gifts, and squanderings of wealth, on all sorts of objects, not a dollar has yet been added to the Tyndall fund for the promotion of scientific research by helping to train capable and ambitious young men for the work!

The country is characterized by the mad pursuit of wealth and the worship of riches; but this is not the worst, for along with this sordid passion there go the most vulgar and ignoble ideals of the uses of wealth. That ignorant, low minded men, who become millionaires by inheritance or speculation, should spend their money in tawdry ostentation is to be expected; but the worst is, that gentlemen of sobriety, cultivation, and earnestness of character, who have large means at their disposal, should bestow them in charities that often do more harm than good, or in endowing professorships or building institutions that give notoriety to their names, and are of but little other use. Meantime, the country stands arraigned before the world for its lack of interest in those higher developments of thought which have given origin to civilization, and for giving their most powerful impulse to tendencies which threaten the deterioration of society and the degeneracy and debasement of civilization itself.

 

 
THE LATE MR. GEORGE S. APPLETON.

Since the appearance of the last number of this magazine, one of the company of brothers by whom it is published has passed away. Most of our readers have, no doubt, been informed by the newspapers that Mr. George S. Appleton died July 7th, at the age of fifty-seven. His unexpected death has been a painful shock to the relatives and intimate friends, by whom he was much beloved, and who are now left with only the consolatory memory of his many excellences of character. A few memorial words in regard to him will be appropriate in this place.

Mr. Appleton was a gentleman of marked mental accomplishments, such as are but rarely met with in the common walks of practical life. He was liberally educated, his early tastes and aptitudes for study being favored by attendance upon the best schools at home, and more completely developed by a four years' course at a German university. He was a wide and careful reader, but, as he designed to devote himself to the publishing business, he was specially interested in lingual studies, being a critical student of English and a master of the German, French, and Italian languages. He also gave early and prominent attention to the subject of art, was familiar with its history, and a discriminating critic in several of its principal departments.

But, though a man of refinement, of elegant culture, and fastidious tastes, Mr. Appleton did not allow æsthetic feeling to narrow his nature, or to impair his interest in the more robust and solid work of modern science, and in those broad and serious inquiries which characterize the present age. He read with appreciation and heartily welcomed those powerful contributions to the advance of modern thought which have so deeply impressed the mind of our time, and which the house to which he belonged has done so much to make familiar to the reading public of this country. Never forgetting as a business-man that books are made to be sold, he also never forgot that they are the great means of popular enlightenment and elevation, and that publishers have a duty to society in respect to the character of the works which they disseminate.

It is, moreover, proper to remark here that Mr. Appleton was a man of deep and sincere religious feelings, and earnestly devoted to the duties of Christian worship; but his faith was too settled and serene to suffer any disturbance from that onward movement of knowledge which is so apt to excite alarm in men of restricted views and less firmness of religious conviction. Mr. Appleton illustrated in an eminent degree that largeness of sympathy and breadth of thought by which pure religious devotion is harmonized with intellectual progress, and with an intelligent solicitude for the amelioration of the secular interests of mankind. Conservative in disposition and habits, and no enthusiast, he was still much interested in all rational social improvements, and his influence was thrown in favor of every measure that can exalt and purify the public taste, and diffuse sound and useful information among the people. We are happy to add that he was a regular and critical reader of The Popular Science Monthly, cordially approving its distinctive objects, and frequently favoring its conductors with valuable and important suggestions.

Mr. Appleton was a man of quiet and retiring manners, sensitive and modest to a degree that was often misinterpreted into coldness of nature; but those who knew him well understood that beneath a reserved and unobtrusive exterior there beat a warm heart that was ever animated by a kindly solicitude for the welfare of all who came within the reach of his influence. Although strict in the administration of business, he was watchful for those who needed care and encouragement, and many of his employés bear grateful testimony to his wise and kindly forethought in circumstances where the ministrations of genuine friendship are invaluable. The character of the man in his intercourse with his associates is well summed up by the remark of one who had been long and closely connected with him, that "his good words without flattery, and his honest comments without circumlocution," always inspired respect, confidence, and the truest esteem.