Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/On Brain-Work and Hand-Work


By R. M. N.

DR. BEARD'S treatise on the "Longevity of Brain-Workers" was ably reviewed some years ago in the "Journal of Science." Still it appears to me that the last word on this topic has not yet been said. Certain points, both of distinction and of resemblance, seem to have been overlooked as well by reviewer as by author, and certain of the conclusions drawn are at least open to question.

I may perhaps be allowed to put the opening question, What is work? The common reply is, "Any pursuit by which a man earns or attempts to earn a livelihood and to accumulate wealth." This definition is the more to be regretted because it cherishes, or rather begets, the vulgar error that all persons who do not aim at the accumulation of wealth are "idlers." In point of fact such men may be doing far greater services to the world than the most diligent and successful votary of a trade or a profession. Darwin, having a competency, was therewith content. To him, and to others of kindred minds, the opportunity of devoting his whole life to the search after scientific truth was a boon immeasurably higher than any conceivable amount of wealth. Shall we call him an idler? Nor is science the only field which opens splendid prospects to men of independent means. Art, literature, philanthropy, have all their departments, unremunerative in a commercial point of view, or at least not directly remunerative, and for all these cultivators are wanted. Therefore, reversing the advice given by routine moralists, I would say to wealthy young men of ability: "Do not take up any trade, business, or profession, but do some of the world's unpaid work. Leave money-making to those who have no other option, and be searchers for truth and beauty." Every one who follows this advice will contribute something to show the world that the race for wealth is not the only pursuit worthy of a rational being. I should define work as the conscious systematic application of mind or body to any definite purpose.

I said "of mind or body." Perhaps the expression may sound fashioned; so, to avoid grating on the nerves of a monistic world, I will say "of brain or muscle." But can we draw a sharp, well-defined boundary-line between brain-work and muscle-work? Recent investigations into the functions of the brain show that it has the task of directing and co-ordinating muscular effort. The athlete, or say the musical performer, has not merely to strengthen his muscles and acquire flexibility of arm, hand, and finger; his exercises serve at the same time to develop and perfect those regions of the brain by which the muscles in question are actuated and co-ordinated.

Professor Du Bois-Reymond, in his admirable articles on "Exercise" ("Popular Science Monthly" for July and August, 1882), contends that "bodily exercises are not merely muscle-gymnastics, but also nerve-gymnastics," and that practice in the movements of the limbs is "essentially exercise of the central nerve-system." Hence muscle-work which is not at the same time brain-work is a chimera, which has no existence. But it will now be asked, Is there any brain-work without muscle-work? Undoubtedly; we may see phenomena, we may reason upon them, and come to a conclusion concerning their nature without any muscular action at all. But if we even wish to write down our results, or to tell them to a friend, some muscular action, small though it be, is needed. Or we wish to go further: not content with merely observing the phenomena which chance brings before our eyes, we go forth in search of facts. Here muscular-work is blended with brainwork. A step further: We wish to put definite questions to Nature, to perform physical, chemical, or physiological experiments. In all these cases the hand has to be the inseparable companion of the brain. The efficiency of the one will not compensate for inefficiency in the other. Now, the work of the experimentalist rarely requires great strength, but it invariably stands in need of delicacy, nicety of touch and movement, bodily or, if you will, muscular, attributes to be reached only by training.

It is the same in the fine arts. The painter needs not merely an exquisite perception of form and color, an instinctive—as it appears to outsiders—appreciation of their relations and harmonies; unless he possesses in addition to all this the requisite nicety of touch, he must fail to embody in visible form the conceptions present in his brain. Precisely the same is it with the musician. The orator and the actor must also, in addition to their mere mental gifts, have vocal organs thoroughly developed and disciplined. Thus we see that in the highest walks of science and art, brain-work and muscle-work exist, I might say, in a state of interpenetration.

Again, at a work-table in Y—— Street sits a microscopist, carefully studying the peculiarities of a newly detected microbion, or dissecting the larva of the Phylloxera. What is he? Brain-worker, or muscle-worker? You pronounce him a brain-worker; his brain, in your opinion, doing the larger—the essential—part of his task. So be it. I convey you to X—— Street, where at another work-table sits a microscope-maker. He is accurately adjusting an objective of high power. What is he? Like the user of the microscope just mentioned, he requires the utmost delicacy of touch, the highest manipulative skill. Like the microscopist, also, his brain performs the essential part of the task. But you will probably call him a hand-worker or muscle worker, because he is a mechanic!

Surely, then, we must admit that there is no hard and fast boundary between the brain-worker and the muscle-worker. There is no muscle-work without brain-work; there is little brain-work of a high order without muscle-work.

There are, however, gradations. There are kinds of muscle-work, so simple, so monotonous or uniform in their character, that they are, with very little practice, performed automatically, with no conscious effort of the brain. Such, for instance, is the work of the agricultural laborer in digging, mowing, thrashing, etc., or of the hodman carrying bricks and mortar up a ladder. All such work, it is generally found, can be performed by means of machinery. Perhaps this may enable us to find a definition, or rather a limit, for muscle-work.

I must now ask what classes of society can rank as brain-workers. Dr. Beard seems to include here, clergymen, lawyers, physicians, merchants, scientists, and men of letters. He does not make any mention of artists, teachers of different branches of knowledge, manufacturers, etc. Now, if the merchant, the man who distributes, fetches, and carries, is to rank as a brain-worker, surely must the producer, who much more frequently originates out of his own mind something new to the world. We may also ask, Does the term merchant include the retail dealer, the clerk, and the commercial assistant? If so, we find the brain-working class re-enforced by a number of persons who certainly have little need for muscular exertion, but little also for brain-work, and many of whose tasks and duties might be performed by machinery. Again, where are we to place the speculator, the gambler, and the forger? Muscle-workers they are only to a very small extent, though the forger requires a wonderful amount of manipulative skill. He must, however, be regarded as a doomed species, since the Nesbit patent safety-check carries in it the germs of his destruction.

It becomes very difficult to say with accuracy who are to be classed as brain-workers and who as muscle-workers, and, still more, who are to be referred to Dr. Beard's third class, "those who follow occupations that call both muscle and brain into exercise." This class, as I have endeavored to show, includes almost every one who works at all. Until we are able to furnish a correct classification of mankind as brain-' workers and muscle-workers, it will be very difficult to enunciate any true and valuable proposition concerning either group.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Beard laid down among others the following set of propositions: That the brain-working classes—clergymen, lawyers, physicians, merchants, scientists, and men of letters—live very much longer than the muscle-working classes; that the greatest and hardest brain-workers of history have lived longer on the average than brain-workers of ordinary ability and industry; that clergymen are longer-lived than any other great class of brain-workers.

The first of these propositions admits of statistical proof or disproof. The life-lengths of the classes of men above mentioned can be ascertained, and their average duration compared with the mean length of life prevalent in their times and countries. But is the superior longevity of these classes due to the fact that they are brain-workers, or must it not be traced to a complication of causes? If brain-work is per se salutary and conducive to long life—which I do not deny—and if, as we may gather from Dr. Beard's second proposition here given, its beneficial influence is proportionate to its intensity, we should find the men whose brain-work is devoted to origination stand highest in the list. As such I should undoubtedly rank discoverers in science, inventors in the industrial arts, poets, musical composers, and painters (not of portraits). But the third proposition entirely clashes with this conclusion. Dr. Beard tells us that, of all brain-workers, clergymen are the most long-lived. Yet they can scarcely be called the hardest brain-workers, since what is demanded from them is not origination, creation, but expression. If a clergyman initiates new doctrines he is in danger of becoming a heretic. He is expressly forbidden to do what is expressly demanded from the man of science or the author. Indeed, till a comparatively recent date, the life of an English country clergyman has always been considered as one of the easiest of all careers, making no heavy demands either upon brain or muscle.

Indeed, Dr. Beard, when he undertakes a formal explanation of the great longevity of the clergy, makes some very important concessions. He remarks that "their calling admits of a wide variety of toil"—"In their manifold duties their whole nature is exercised"—"Public speaking, when not carried to the extreme of exhaustion, is the best form of gymnastics that is known." Dr. Beard here admits, what I also maintain, that the most healthful work is that which duly and harmoniously calls into play all the various faculties of a man. Brainwork is in itself good and wholesome—undoubtedly better than pursuits which exercise the muscles alone, leaving certain regions of the nervous centers inactive. But it is still inferior to work which exercises the entire system. Whatever calling effects this most thoroughly and equally will be the ideal vocation. But it may be said that the duties of the physician call a wide circle of powers into play. Why, then, is he less long-lived than the clergyman? In his case there is wanting any physical exercise which may take the place of public speaking, and he is more exposed to death from contact with malignant disease.

As an instance of the especial benefit to be derived from an exercise of the whole system, I may glance at the lessons to be gathered from the experience of exploring expeditions in unhealthy countries. The first to succumb are porters, guides, muleteers, private soldiers and sailors, etc. Next come military and naval officers, while the doctor, the botanist, the geologist, etc., hold out to the last, their sole advantage being a more thorough exercise of the whole system, muscle and brain alike.

Dr. Beard gives another reason for the longevity of the clergy—their comparative freedom from anxiety. This is the critical point to decide whether brain-work shall be healthful or harmful. Let a man work knowing that his livelihood is secure—that it is indifferent whether he completes any given task this month or this time six months—and no amount of study will harm him. But tell him that he must complete some task by a given date under penalty of dismissal, or that his prospects in life depend on his passing an examination better than a score of competitors, and the probability is that his studies will bring on softening of the brain, heart-diseases, or perhaps Bright's disease.

Dr. Beard formally admits that "worry is the one great shortener of life under civilization, and, of all forms of worry, financial is the most frequent and the most distressing." Hence the differences between his views and mine are very much smoothed over, and we must take in a "Pickwickian sense" his declaration elsewhere that "brainwork is the highest of all antidotes to worry."

He brings forward yet another reason for the longevity of clergymen "their superior temperance and morality." That such superiority, if it exists, will have an influence in favor of health and long life, I readily admit. But it is very doubtful whether they are in this respect superior to other brain-workers. In the career of the scientist mutinous passions are simply crowded out. For him the struggles with temptation, of which the ethicists tell us, have simply no existence. How it may be among those brain-workers who move in a more emotional sphere, I can not presume to say.

Dr. Beard's contention that the brain-worker is, as a class, happier than the muscle-worker, is very questionable. He asks: "Where is the hod-carrier that finds joy in going up and down a ladder; and, from the foundation of the world until now, how many have been known to persevere in ditch-digging or sewer-laying, or in any mechanical or manual calling whatsoever, after the attainment of independence?" Such persons, I think, might be found. Many of these manual occupations would, as far as I can judge, seem happier than a life spent at the merchant's desk or at the exchange. If the man of business "continues to work in his special calling long after the necessity has ceased," it is because he has been trained to believe that accumulation of wealth is the whole duty of man. "Nearly all the money of the world," says Dr. Beard, "is in the hands of brain-workers." This may be true; yet, at the same time, many of the hardest and most capable brain-workers rank among the very poorest. Young men are now warned by their friends to avoid the highest class of brain-work, and even to shun the learned professions, "because they do not pay." I meet with books containing the records of original research, yet for which the author has received less than the wages of a stone-breaker for the time employed. I meet with inventions which ruin the inventor and enrich his followers. Verily the manual laborer has scant cause to envy the brain-worker.—Journal of Science.