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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/May 1873/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 3‎ | May 1873


THE idea suggested by this title has long been with many a matter of vague and distant anticipation; but there is promise that something of the kind may soon become a realized fact. Rather, perhaps, we are to have a high-class Teachers' Institute on a strictly scientific basis. Professor Agassiz is expected to open, next summer, a school of natural history for the benefit of teachers during their vacation. He has associated with him twenty professors of high character to carry out the plan, and the object is, to afford ample facilities for studying specimens and becoming familiar with the actual properties and relations of living things. In an address before a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature on the claims of the Cambridge Museum of Comparative Zoology, Prof. Agassiz explained the nature and purpose of the contemplated project, which is kindred to the object for which the museum itself was founded. Education must have its storehouses of implements. For philosophy, history, and literature, public libraries are established, because these subjects are to be studied by means of books. But, in science, books are not sufficient; specimens are indispensable. We want, said Prof. Agassiz, to educate men who shall be able to read Nature, and this can only be done by studious familiarity with natural objects. The school is to carry out this plan. Nantucket Island has been selected as the location, and provision is made for a very thorough and comprehensive course of instruction.

This idea is certainly capable of extension, and the time, we think, has come when it should be taken up and carried out in different parts of the country. The Nantucket scheme could not be copied in the interior, because one-half of its subjects pertain to the natural history of the sea. The scheme is constructed from Prof. Agassiz's point of view, and is devoted mainly to zoology. The botany of land-plants is not included; entomology gets but little attention, and physics none at all. This is not intimated as a deficiency of the programme, which is sufficiently broad, and lays out more work than there will be time to do it in. It is evidently designed for the advantage of professors and teachers of science in educational institutions who already know something of the subjects, and desire the opportunity of perfecting their knowledge of natural history under the ablest instructors.

But the time has come for entering upon similar arrangements in behalf of the multitude of teachers in our common schools. We have normal schools for their preparation, but they are fashioned upon the old academic and collegiate pattern, and furnish only a book-education. The little science they pretend to give is book-science, and not the knowledge of things. Throughout nearly all of the common schools of the country, physics, chemistry, botany, and zoology, are taught, if taught at all, by the same method as history or Latin—that is, by committing and reciting lessons from books. It is universally admitted that this is absurd, but what to do about it is the difficulty. The system is self-perpetuating. The normal schools go on in the old ruts, and continue to furnish teachers of the old type. Higher standards of attainment may be exacted in the routine branches, and there is unquestionably some improvement in methods; but little is done to bring the minds of pupils into familiar relations with Nature. Scarcely any thing is done for the thorough cultivation of the observing powers by exercising them upon objects and experiments. In response to the demand for studying Nature, we have only the rude expedient of object-lessons for children, administered by teachers who know nothing of physical science on the one hand, nor the science of the growing mind on the other.

What we want in every State in the Union is what Prof. Agassiz is preparing to supply in Massachusetts, an opportunity for teachers to come together, where there are cabinets, laboratories, specimens, and experiments, and an able corps of instructors who are at home with all these resources, and can teach directly from Nature herself. If the vacation-weeks only are to be devoted to this work, the scheme of studies will require to be drawn up with strict reference to their urgent and practical requirements. Nantucket will be favorable for studying the zoological productions of the sea; but Nature is an inexhaustible museum, and every place abounds with the material for the illustration of scientific study. The air, the fields, the woods, and the streams, swarm with life; the rocks are uncovered, minerals abound; the earth is carpeted with vegetation, the forces of Nature are ever playing around us, while every family, school, church, factory, poor-house, jail, neighborhood, and village, affords materials for the scientific study of social phenomena and laws. What is needed is, to teach teachers to bring their minds to bear directly upon those things, to observe, compare, and analyze them, so that their knowledge may be real, positive, and worthy the name of science. It may not be easy to found a proper curriculum for a scientific teachers' institute, selecting just the proper subjects, and assigning them their due proportions; yet the work is entirely practicable, and experience would soon fix the adjustments. As a preliminary step to such a movement, nothing could be better than a national convention of teachers, professors, and school superintendents, called for the distinctive purpose of laying down the plan and organizing the means for the promotion of scientific education. Prof. Agassiz has broken the ice, and will show us what it is possible to do in this direction during a single vacation. His enterprise is a national movement, and at once raises the important question as to how similar advantages may be gained for the general education of the country.


Since the above article was put into type, an important change has taken place in Prof. Agassiz's programme. He has been presented with an island as a location for his school, and with a $50,000 endowment to assist in defraying its expenses. The donor is Mr. John Anderson, of New York, and the island of 100 acres, known as Penikese, is one of the Elizabeth group, near New Bedford, four miles from the main-land, and twenty-four miles from Newport. It has been the summer residence of Mr. Anderson, and contains such buildings and improvements as a wealthy occupant would construct for purposes of residence. What the effect of this change will be upon the original plan is yet problematical, but it can hardly fail to be considerable. We see it stated that $30,000 additional is required to erect suitable buildings, and $200,000 more to raise the endowment to the point necessary for carrying out Prof. Agassiz's plans. If these arrangements be consummated, a Natural History school of high character and large usefulness cannot fail to be the result. How far it will be organized in the interest of original scientific investigations, or in the general interests of education, or to what degree both objects will be combined, remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that Mr. Anderson's generosity will prove contagious, and that not only will Prof. Agassiz be furnished with the funds he requires, but that men of wealth in different parts of tho country will contribute to kindred enterprises in their own localities. For the organization of such Scientific Teachers' Institutes as we have suggested, large sums of money would not be required. Buildings can be found suitable for school sessions, lectures, and demonstrations, and no care or outlay would be necessary to provide for the living of students and professors. The expenses to be incurred would be only for the liberal remuneration of the professorial corps, and for the various scientific appliances needed to illustrate the teaching. The project is feasible, if there is sufficient interest in the subject to carry it out.



We publish an able communication from Mr. Parke Godwin, called forth by our strictures, in the April Monthly, on his speech at the Tyndall Banquet, and restating, with more fulness, the views there expressed. With much that he says we cordially agree, and, had the position to which we mainly objected been originally stated as it is now, there would have been less occasion for criticism. In his address, after some remarks on the great results of modern science, Mr. Godwin said: "But it is real science, with its rigid restrictions to its own sphere and its exact methods, and not any pseudoscience, that will accomplish these grand results." He then gave examples, and classed among them the doctrine of Evolution as interpreted by Herbert Spencer. But, in his present communication, Mr. Godwin admits that "the nebular, the Darwinian, and the Spencerian views are hypotheses quite within the domain of scientific theory, and capable, to a certain extent, of explaining the phenomena to which they refer." He allows their legitimacy, which is what we contended for; but he denies that they are fairly-accredited scientific truths, and here we suspect he is again mistaken.

What, then, are we to understand by scientific truth? Mr. Godwin inventories the chimeras of the past, and, pointing to the débris of abandoned theories which strew the road of science, admonishes us not "to be too confident that our little systems of natral law will not, like other systems of thought referred to by Tennyson, have their day." The lesson is a wholesome one; but are scientists the parties that most need it? Is it they that are forever affirming "finalities," "absolute verities," and "eternal principles?" In what school are men so trained to distrust themselves, and to hold their views subject to constant revision, as in the school of science? Is it not ever seeking to supersede existing truth by larger truth? Chemistry reposes upon its ascertained elements, but chemists are prepared to see them at any time abolished or resolved into a single one, and in that case the gentlemen of the laboratory would be the first to throw up their hats in exultation. Even the principle of gravity is not held as a finality: Faraday labored for its reinterpretation, and, should it disappear in some larger generalization of dynamical law, physicists will not go into mourning. In science, the passing away of systems is generally an absorption of lesser into more comprehensive laws. The question of the truth of a new scientific theory is not as to its everlastingness, but as to its superiority to the views it seeks to supersede. Does it involve fewer assumptions? Does it account for more facts? Does it harmonize conflicting opinion? Does it open new inquiries and incite to fresh research? These are the tests that determine the acceptance of the theory, and, if it fulfils these conditions, it is held to be true.

Now, how does the doctrine of Evolution answer to these tests? It has arisen as an outgrowth of the latest and highest knowledge, has steadily made its way, in the teeth of inexorable criticism, to a large acceptance among the most disciplined thinkers of the period. It has been simmering in the minds of men of science for a century, and has now reached a point where it is capable of being formulated; where it is of great and acknowledged value for the guidance of scientific exploration, and it thus answers to the highest uses of theory. It is, moreover, becoming every day increasingly consonant with facts in the various branches of science, and is now far more congruous with the state of knowledge than any other hypothesis yet applied to the range of facts which it attempts to explain. The proof of the theory is unquestionably incomplete, but all theories are accepted under the same conditions. At the worst, it stands to-day where the theory of gravitation stood in the time of Newton, which, as Baden Powell remarks, "was beset by palpable contradictions in its results till many years after Newton's death."

On a complex and difficult scientific question of this kind, authority goes for something, and Mr. Godwin recognizes it. He remarks: "Can we say that any questions, on which such cautious observers and life-long students as Darwin, Owen, Huxley, Wallace, and Agassiz, still debate, are settled questions?" Certainly not; but, when their fundamental principles are accepted by four out of five of the eminent authorities which are cited as differing about them, we must acknowledge that the weight of authority is very strongly on one side. Nor is this all. The eminent scientific men who have adopted the view of Evolution, and that, too, against the powerful pressure of public prejudice, are to be numbered by scores and hundreds. In fact, the movement among naturalists, for the last ten years, toward a general doctrine of development, has amounted almost to a "stampede." This is not mere unsupported assertion. Here comes the latest scientific book of the season, "The Depths of the Sea," by the eminent Professor of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh, Wyville Thompson, and he says: "I do not think that I am speaking too strongly when I say that there is now scarcely a single competent general naturalist who is not prepared to accept some form of the doctrine of Evolution." Prof. Agassiz, indeed, still clings to his long-cherished opinions; but it is notorious that, on this question, his old students are running away from him, and his hypothesis, that there is an epidemic aberration upon this subject among the naturalists of the age, will hardly be held as a sufficient explanation of the phenomena. On the basis, therefore, of the judgment of the great body of those most competent to form an opinion, we cannot help thinking that Mr. Godwin was not only in error when he characterized the theory of Evolution as counterfeit science; but that he is also in error when he declares it to be a fugitive speculation, and not an accredited principle, entitled to the weight of valid scientific authority.

But, aside from the question of authority, Mr. Godwin argues against the validity of biological and psychological sciences on the intrinsic ground that they lack exactitude. It would have been a point gained for his argument to enforce the test of exactness, as then these sciences would pass under a cloud of discredit. But the test cannot be accepted. His method of criticism would throttle every science in its growing stages before completeness of demonstration had been attained. He insists upon a criterion which would abolish half the sciences and strip the remainder of all validity and authority except in their perfected forms. Referring to his address, he remarks:

"But then, I said—and it was the whole purport of my speech made in the interests of science as well as religion that we can only expect these results from true science, which investigates what Nature really is, and not from a hasty and presumptuous science, which pretends to give us what Nature may be supposed to be. And my criterion of true science, suggested in a phrase, was, that the methods and results of it bear the impress of exactitude or certainty."

Now, nothing is more certain than that we can never arrive at what Nature really is except through the pathway of "what Nature may be supposed to be." All science begins with guesses and conjectures, and its most valid laws were at first but suppositions. The evidence by which scientific truth is determined necessarily involves suppositions to which it has been applied, and these have to be gradually confirmed; hence, if exactitude is demanded at the outset, all science becomes impossible.

To get at the full bearing of this matter we quote the original passage as it stands in the revised address of the proceedings at the Tyndall Banquet. It reads:

"Science is exact and certain, and authoritative, because dealing with facts, and the systematic coordination of facts only. She does not wander away into the void inane. She has nothing to do with questions of primal origin, nor of ultimate destinies; not because they are unimportant questions or insoluble, but because they transcend her instruments and her methods. You cannot measure love by the bushel, as the children say; you cannot catch fancy in a forceps to analyze its elements; you cannot fuse thought in a crucible to detect what may be dross, and what sound metal."

We think that Mr. Godwin here lends countenance to a prevailing fallacy. Science is perpetually bidden to keep within her sphere, and the popular notion of her sphere is that of experimentation. To most people the word science connotes physical or experimental science. On this tacit assumption Mr. Godwin declares that cubic measure, forceps, and crucibles, are not applicable to love, fancy, and thought. Most true; but will he maintain that these are therefore not amenable to scientific scrutiny? As we understand it, science is a knowledge of the constitution of things; of the uniformities of the phenomena of Nature. Whatever, in the universe around us, or in the world within us, is open to cognition, which can be examined and known, and reexamined and verified, is the proper subject-matter of science, and the term is applied to all the knowledge that has been arrived at in this way. An emotion may be analyzed and understood as well as a mineral. Love, fancy, and thought, cannot be subjected to laboratory processes, but they may be known in their laws and relations as mental phenomena, and in this aspect they belong as strictly to science as metals or gases. That they cannot be weighed makes no difference, because exactness is not the criterion of science. Mr. Godwin asks, Where, then, does the inexactness come in? To which we reply, wherever the instruments, by which exactness is reached, are inapplicable, or can only be imperfectly applied. The best criterion of science is derived from the fact of order and uniformity in Nature by which one thing implies another, and we infer from what has heen what will be again. It is prevision, that is, such a perception of the properties and relations of things as will enable us to see beforehand what effects will be produced in different times, places, and circumstances. Phenomena that elude measurement may yet occur with such regularity as to be foreseen with certainty. There is, in fact, a qualitative science which precedes quantitative, for properties must be known before they can be measured, but the test of prevision applies to the lower or qualitative stage as well as to the higher. Because biology, psychology, and sociology are not, and never can be, exact sciences, is therefore no reason for impugning their results as untrustworthy or without authority.

We quite agree with Mr. Godwin that Science is inexorably shut up in the finite and the phenomenal—the sphere of relation and law: but she must have the liberty of the whole domain. Nor do we think there is much danger of Science wasting her energies in trying to transcend these bounds, for she has plenty to do to get even partial possession of what confessedly belongs to her. She has won her ground, inch by inch, by hard fighting from the beginning, and even yet it is conceded to her only in name. Everybody will admit that it is the right of Science to inquire into all changes and effects in physical Nature. Yet, for suggesting that a given class of alleged physical effects be inquired into in the same manner as are other effects, Prof. Tyndall has been posted through Christendom as a blasphemer. Mr. Godwin yields to Science the realm of the finite and the relative, and in the same breath he speaks of the relations of Mozart to the laws of music, and of Shakespeare to the laws of the human heart, as examples of the trans-phenomenal. But we thought laws and relations had been made over to science. No reservation will here be tolerated. Science is providing for its ever-increasing army of research through a long future. Half a thousand years have been spent in getting on the track; another thousand will suffice to get under headway; she stipulates now only for room. Her sphere is the finite, but the nebulosities of ignorance must not be mistaken for the walls of the infinite. If mystics will lose themselves in the tangled recesses of unresolved phenomena, they must expect to be hunted out and have the place reclaimed to order and annexed to the provinces of all-harmonizing law. Nor can any pretext that they are nested in the unapproachable essences and subtleties of being, and ensphered in the absolute, and guarded by cunning sphinxes, avail them. The thing must inexorably be inquired of. It is the destiny of Science to pierce the unknown; if her spear is blunted upon the unknowable, she will of course accept the results of the experiment.

But, though scientists are hopelessly closed in, Mr. Godwin does not despair of others getting out, and he asks: "Is thought, whose expatiations are so restless and irrepressible, to be forever shut up to the phenomenal and relative? Is it to be forever stifled under a bushel-measure, or tied up by the legs with a surveyor's chain?" But the phenomenal and the relative go a great ways. Mr. Godwin talks as if "God's measureless world" were a stifling prison. We have been reminded that "Nature is a prodigious quantity," and we are so strongly impressed with this truth that we do not like Mr. Godwin's figure, of a "bushel-measure" to symbolize its extent, any more than we like his favorite figure of "mud" to symbolize its quality. As to his question whether thought is to be tied by the legs with a surveyor's chain, we suspect that it is "tied" by something a good deal stronger than that: namely, by the laws of its own nature. He is skeptical about the science of psychology, and asks for its agreements. The question we are now considering may be taken as an example. It is pretty well agreed by the latest schools that, as the universe exists in relations, so thought is carried on in relations, and, by its very constitution, cannot transcend them. It is agreed that as music in all its inexhaustible complications is still made up by the combination of simple wave-pulses, so intelligence, in all the range of its complications, is made up of the combination of perceived relations; and we might as well talk of the higher exploits of musical art as transcending the vibrations of which they are constituted, as of the "restless expatiations" of thought transcending the relations of which mind is constituted. Sir William Hamilton is fair authority, and he says: "Limitation is the fundamental law of the possibility of thought. For, as the greyhound cannot outstrip his shadow, nor the eagle outsoar the atmosphere in which he floats, and by which alone he may be supported; so the mind cannot transcend that sphere of limitation within and through which exclusively the possibility of thought is realized." We therefore fear that, should any adventurer break bounds on a winged horse, and take his flight through the ultra-phenomenal tracts, the tidings wafted back would prove altogether unintelligible.

Mr. Godwin says: "Am I to infer from your objections to my remarks that The Popular Science Monthly holds materialism, atheism, and naturalism, to be the legitimate outcome of science?" Exactly the contrary. We do not believe that the legitimate outcome of science is materialism or atheism, and our attempt was to show that certain problems and procedures, which Mr. Godwin declared to be spurious science and obnoxious to these charges, were genuine science, and not obnoxious to them. We objected, in order to rescue a portion of science from an aspersive charge to which all science is equally liable. Büchner may be a materialist, and Comte an atheist, and Taine may be both, although it does not follow, because he affirms the correlation of mind with nervous motion, that he is either. What moved us to protest was the gross injustice of branding Mr. Spencer's expositions of the doctrine of Evolution as sham science, and then loading it with the opprobrium which its associations and the argument implied. Of Spencer's system, Mr. Godwin says, on his own and higher authority, that it is "full of unsupported assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and explanations which explain nothing, while in its general character it tends to the sheerest naturalism." We do not deny that it contains defects—it would be, indeed, surprising if so vast and original a discussion did not; but to say that it is "full" of the vices alleged, or that they characterize it, is a reckless exaggeration. As a set-off to this opinion, we refer the reader back to page 32, where he will find the latest estimate of Mr. Spencer's philosophy by a man who is an authority upon the question he discusses.

As to the religious "tendencies" of the system, although they are charged with being all that is bad, and although the charge would undoubtedly be sustained by a popular vote, we are of opinion that it is bound to be very differently viewed in the future. Mr. Spencer is a profound believer in religion, and at the very threshold of his system he has shown the ultimate harmony of science and faith. Yet he has not tried merely to patch up a transient truce between religion and science; but, foreseeing the intenser conflicts that are inevitable as science advances, he has labored to place their reconciliation upon a basis that no extension of knowledge can disturb. When tho method of science is raised to its rightful supremacy in the human mind, and the rule of science is recognized as supreme throughout the sphere of the phenomenal, and when the distractions of theology become unbearable, it will then be found that Mr. Spencer has proved that science, so far from being its destroyer, is itself the promoter of the profoundest faith, while the central truth of all religion is saved to humanity. Malignant zealots will probably continue to secrete their vitriolic criticism, as, if stopped, they would probably die of their own acridities; but there are not wanting indications that many religious men of candor and discernment are already recognizing the claims of Mr. Spencer's system upon the serious consideration of their class. For example, a late number of the Nonconformist, the organ of the English dissenters, and an orthodox paper of high influence, says of Spencer: "He is not an idealist, nor is he a materialist. Like Goethe, he believes that man is not born to solve the problem which the universe presents." Yet the writer holds his views to be of very great importance, and speaks of it as "an importance, in our opinion, so great, that the future, not only of English philosophy, but of practical theology, will be determined by its acceptance or rejection."

As for ourselves, differing widely from Mr. Godwin in his estimate of Spencer's system of philosophy, we record our opinion that, as it becomes more fully known, it will be recognized as an unequalled performance in its rigorous conformity to scientific method, and as the first grand alliance of science and philosophy; that it will exert an all-reconciling influence upon the chaos of doctrine; that, while based upon progress, it will prove powerfully conservative, and will leave all other systems behind in its value for guidance, both to the individual and the state. We believe that the time is not greatly distant when even theologians will seek it as a shelter against the rising tide of "materialism" and "atheism;" and, finally, we predict that, if Mr. Spencer lives to complete his "Principles of Sociology," with the accompanying tabular scheme of "Descriptive Sociology," that which Mr. Godwin says is now only a "hope" will become an assured and authoritative science—which is certainly one of the most imminent desiderata of civilization.