Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/Correspondence



Messrs. Editors.

AFTER the publication of President Seelye's peculiar statement with respect to the teaching at Amherst College regarding the law of evolution, feeling a graduate's interest in the matter, I made careful inquiry, and find that, at a meeting of the faculty held a few years ago, the present Professor of Geology was requested by President Stearns to deliver a course of lectures on evolution, and the faculty, without any audible dissent, seconded the request. At the time, this Professor was known to believe in the evolution law. Since then, evolution has been taught in the department of zoölogy, the Professor or instructor giving such an exposition of the facts favoring and seeming to militate against the doctrine as would be suitable to students. By vote of the faculty, also, Dana's and Le Conte's text-books are used, both of which accept evolution, the second very positively. There is now established an instructorship in biology. Moreover, I learn that every professor in the scientific departments of study believes in the doctrine in question. The following language, with which one of the professors is credited, shows quite a different state of feeling in the institution from what President Seelye would lead us to believe: "Taking all the relations, as I judge them from my stand-point, it must be concluded that the truth lies somewhere within the lines of the evolution theories. Such unquestionably is the teaching of real science in nearly all places where it has both freedom and intelligence. As to its materialistic or atheistic tendencies, I regard it as having none whatever, except in the hollow brains of those would-be sages who talk most concerning that of which they know the least. The most important point is to find out the truth in nature, and teach that, regardless of all bearing it may have on any of our preconceived notions."

Upon this state of facts, certainly very different from that which the ordinary reader would infer from President Seelye's statement (it is not entirely clear what he means), it may be concluded that Amherst College is working along abreast of the best thought of the time, notwithstanding the unfavorable reflection cast upon it by its President's remarks. There was a period when Amherst College had a reputation for its achievements in the field of science. Latterly, it has ceased to have much in that direction, chiefly because dominated by the influence of the teaching in its senior class-room, under the name of mental and moral science, of a collection of bizarre doctrines, expressed in words which have no corresponding thoughts, wholly unscientific and without any philosophical substance or consistency. Since President Seelye thinks he believes in these doctrines, it is hardly to be expected that he could apprehend the truth of statements which express laws of nature scientifically ascertained and verified. The only way in which he could be made to see such truth would be for him to follow the course found necessary by some of his graduates, namely, to unlearn everything taught at Amherst as philosophy, before attempting to take a step forward in the path of true philosophical knowledge.

Of course, to the world of scholars at large, President Seelye's strictures, if they were meant to have application broadly to the doctrine of evolution, will not have the slightest interest; but it ought not to be pleasant for those who have any especial regard for the college to see its president putting forth, in an apparently ill-tempered fling, a statement characterizing unfairly a doctrine which a large portion of the scientific and philosophical world accepts as a natural law abundantly verified, and creating an impression, with respect to the college teaching, which does not seem to be true, and which, if it were true, would only bring discredit upon the institution.

Daniel G. Thompson.

New Yoke City, February 10, 1880.


Messrs. Editors.

The article under this heading, in your April number, is an ingenious discussion of the subject, and one which also, considering the solemn matter of which it treats, we must suppose to be ingenuous, although through the entire argument runs the flaw of an erroneous definition. "What is suicide?" asks the writer, and answers, "The voluntary termination of one's own life." Perhaps we should be content with calling this definition imperfect. It has certainly led the writer into error, and to a distinction between egoistic and altruistic suicide, which has no foundation either in ethics or in the definitions of criminal law. There is no such thing as altruistic suicide. Suicide is characterized by the intention to take one's own life. A voluntary death characterized by the intention to save life is certainly not suicide. To constitute suicide there must be criminal motive, just as in the case of any other crime. It must be felo de se; in its simplest statement, self-murder. This, in fact, is the definition of Blackstone: "The act of designedly destroying one's own life committed by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind; self-murder." It must be distinguished, that is, from simple voluntary death, as murder is distinguished from simple homicide. There must be the intent to destroy life from a selfish or malign motive. The unjustifiable motive in the case of the suicide is the selfish desire to terminate life, and thus avoid some present or threatened evil, without regard to the evil or unhappiness inflicted on survivors. In the strongest case that can be put, that of an aged man who feels that he is a burden on his friends (or those who should be such), a pure and unselfish motive would incline him rather to inflict that burden on them than the far heavier burden and disgrace of a (to him) criminal and (to them) criminating death.

For the rest—and to embrace under one head all Mr. Hopkins's illustrations of altruistic suicides, viz., heroes, martyrs, and engineers—the man who dies defending or maintaining a trust is in no sense a suicide. His death is made to him, by moral reasons, inevitable.

W. W. Lord.
Cooperstown, New York, March 10, 1880.


Messrs. Editors.

Charles J. Buell calls attention in your April number to some statements in Mr. W. W. Billson's article, "The Origin of Criminal Law," illustrating the way in which early law-makers seem to have taken the revengeful feelings of the aggrieved parties into consideration in imposing punishments upon wrong-doers.

He says: "There appears to be something of this sort in the custom that will hold a man blameless if he shoot and kill the midnight robber who is merely trying to effect an entrance into his house, but will not hold him guiltless if he take the same sort of vengeance on the robber after he has once entered the house and stolen the goods and escaped with them."

This law is based upon a principle as far as possible from the idea of gratifying the injured party's sense of revenge.

When a man awakes in the night-time and finds another man trying to get into his house, he is not obliged to ask him if he intends to steal or murder. The man within may be timid; he may apprehend great personal danger; he may have the impression that an attempt is being made to murder him. The law protects him in acting upon such apprehension. This is simply self-defense. There is no question of anger or revenge about it.

Now, when the robber has made off with the goods, and all possible fear of personal violence has vanished, or can not possibly arise, it then becomes a question, merely, of the "prevention of crime." Society ignores all idea of carrying out the spirit of revenge that may fill the breast of the injured party—in fact punishes him, if he attempts to do so himself, as a criminal. Clearly, what-ever may have been the guiding principle of the ancient law-giver, our present legislators do not attempt to administer to personal resentment. The object and reasons for the existence of government have been inquired into, and a scientific basis is gradually building for the great modern structure to rest upon. The passions are found to be the most unsafe guides. Only a few rules of law, relating almost wholly to domestic relations, rest upon them. The consequence is, that these relations figure most disgustingly in the proceedings of courts.

Yours respectfully,
W. C. Albro, LL.B
Poughkeepsie, New York, March 19, 1880.