Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/Correspondence



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

SIR: Under the above title an article appeared in your October number, against the conclusions of which I beg to enter my most emphatic protest. I regard this article as the more dangerous in its practical effects (for it is likely to be much quoted), because, with what is not true to fact, there is intermingled much with which every biologist will agree. Says the writer: "My own conviction is, that healthy boys under fifteen feel very little compassion for any suffering but that of their near relatives, their close friends, and occasionally their pet animals. Cruelty seems to be a fundamental fact in the nature of children. In view of the law of our development, which carries us along the path our ancestors have trod, bow can we expect our boys to be anything else but cruel?" It is my conviction that these utterances are libels on child-nature, and as such deserve to be promptly repudiated. When the doctrine of evolution is made responsible for such views as these, I do not wonder that it becomes distasteful to persons of sensibility, who may not, however, have the requisite knowledge to enable them to see through the fallacies. Doubtless there is a certain proportion of boys of whom the statements of the writer in question may be true, but they do not constitute the majority even as things are now. Incidents like those cited by the writer do show how faulty and imperfect is our treatment of the mental and moral nature of children, and not that such conduct is natural to the healthy and normally developed youth. After having been a pretty close observer of children of both sexes for many years, I have been led to adopt views totally opposed to those advanced by the writer of "The Savagery of Boyhood." The child born in civilization, when neglected or ill-taught, may certainly be somewhat of a savage; and such he would remain, but for the education forced upon him by his surroundings in later life. With the great majority of children of both sexes there is, however, the natural tendency to regard the lower creation with interest, and a sympathy sometimes even ludicrous. The secret of the development of these feelings lies in explaining to a child, when still quite young, the nature of animals great and small, in a way it can understand, so as to bring out the fact that they are like ourselves—very like ourselves. To illustrate imperfectly by an example: A child of five years that had always been taught thus to regard the animal creation was amusing itself by watching a cockroach confined for the time under a tumbler. Presently several children of its own age came in to play. The cockroach escaped, and one of these "savages" promptly crushed it—precisely as it had always been taught by example to do. The first child burst into a flood of tears, and declared it wanted no more of such playmates. Inasmuch as I have known this child intimately for most of its lifetime, I think I should have been able to detect physical disease (which is the kind our writer refers to), but this child is neither specially precocious nor in any way diseased so far as can be discovered—and I am not without experience in making such discriminations. No, the "savagery" is the result of our own neglect or educational bungling. I regard the views of the writer of the article in question as especially pernicious, because they will tend to encourage parents and educators to put the blame upon Nature that should be laid at their own doors—or rather, perhaps, to acquiesce in a state of things that calls loudly for correction. Until adults realize that the lower animals are fellow-creatures in a fuller sense than at present, the teaching children get, with regard to their relations to them, must be very ineffectual. Fortunately, there is some literature that can be put into the hands of young children that will do good in this direction. I do not think most boys could read such works as those from the pen of Dr. Charles C. Abbott (e. g., "A Naturalist's Rambles about Home"), without losing—if they ever had it—what Mr. Johnson is pleased to call their "savagery" of nature; especially if perused under the guidance of an intelligent parent who himself really had any sympathy with our "poor relations." The doctrines of "The Savagery of Boyhood" remind me of certain others almost equally unfounded in nature, though less harmful, in regard to allowing children to carry on all their social life and amusements after their own crude notions. Do those holding such views consider that it can be shown, almost to a biological demonstration, that what each one of us is to-day is the resultant of all that has gone before in our own history and that of our ancestors? How shall we have well-balanced and order-loving men if we encourage children in disorder? The mischief of later years is largely the outcome of ill-directed activities in childhood. Would that we really believed that whatsoever an individual sows, either as boy or man, that shall he also reap, holds of necessity of man's entire nature! Not to occupy too much of your space, Mr. Editor, I conclude by expressing the hope that the readers of the "Monthly" will not adopt the views expressed in "The Savagery of Boyhood," till they have some sounder basis for them than has yet been furnished.

T. Wesley Mills.
Physiological Laboratory, McGill College,
Montreal, October 8, 1887.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: The great Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoi, in his powerful story, "Anna Karenina," makes a curious mistake in describing the phenomena of the heavens, which will do to put with those you have noted in regard to the moon. After describing with great beauty and fidelity to nature a spring day, he says (page 176, Crowell's edition. New York):

"It grew darker and darker. Venus, with silvery light, shone out in the west; and in the east Arcturus gleamed with his sombre, reddish fire. At intervals Levin saw the Great Bear. No more snipe appeared; but Levin resolved to wait until Venus, which was visible through the branches of his birch-tree, rose clear above the hills on the horizon, and till the Great Bear was entirely visible. The star had passed beyond the birch-trees, and the Wain of the Bear was shining out clear in the sky," etc.

Venus, when seen in the west as evening star, would, on the same evening, sink lower instead of rising higher. It is curious that Count Tolstoi, who is in general an accurate observer of Nature, and who shows, in this very passage, that he has watched the heavens on spring evenings, should make such a mistake. He has confused the apparent and real motions of Venus evidently.

Eliza A. Bowen.
September 20, 1887.