Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/November 1888/Editor's Table
ONE of the most interesting papers read at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was one upon "Altruism considered economically," by the Vice-President of the Section of Economic Sciences, Mr. Charles W. Smiley. The drift of Mr. Smiley's address, which may be read in our present number, was to the effect that the impulse to do good to others at the cost of sacrifice to one's self was one that required careful watching and discipline, as otherwise it would be very likely to prove more harmful than beneficial. The more we study the operation of the fundamental laws of nature, the more clearly we see how essential they are to all healthy living; and how little upon the whole is gained, and how much is lost, in the effort to transcend them in the name of higher principles. Thus, self-preservation is the first law of all animated life; but some have thought it worthy only of the brute creation, and have preached in its stead the law of self-sacrifice. Doubtless, as Mr. Smiley admits, there have been times in the history of the world when there was pressing need for the preaching of self-sacrifice as a corrective to the selfish and unscrupulous pursuit of personal ends; but the time has now come in our modern civilized communities when it should be seen that the highest service any man can render to the community is not to devote all his goods to feed the poor, or perform any other signal act of self-denial, but to practice justice and labor to strengthen the characters of those around him. Self-sacrifice as a principle is wanting in logic, seeing that it implies the gain of one through the loss of another. We have had in the past, and still have, numerous institutions that have sprung from the idea of self-sacrifice; and, with a large portion of the community, it is a fixed idea that only acts involving self-sacrifice can have any merit. But experience is showing more and more that those who are supposed to stand in need of all this voluntary benevolence derive but little real advantage from it; that, on the contrary, it further weakens their already defective characters, and tends to make their condition one of chronic and constitutional dependence on the assistance of others.
How is it, we may ask, that, in spite of all that is done for the poor in the way of charity, the demand for charity is annually greater and more pressing? The object of giving help ought to be to raise the recipient above the need of help; but this result is manifestly not being accomplished. For one charitable fund that existed a generation ago there exist at least five to-day; and almost every week something new is started, looking to the removal, by force of charity, of this or that form of social misery. Every now and then some agent of this charitable work makes a confession as to its very general inutility; indeed, parodoxical as it may seem, none know so well how little charity in any form can do for the poor as those who are foremost in charitable efforts, or most immediately concerned with the actual distribution of help. It is undeniable that, just in proportion as the liberality of the charitably disposed increases, the demands upon it increase, and that, conversely, with the cessation of alms-giving, the need for it seems to vanish. There are facts to illustrate both points. We have seen it stated lately in the Boston papers that the abounding charities of that city have drawn to it people who consider themselves objects of charity from all the surrounding country; and, if so, we can judge what the effect has been in the city itself in promoting mendicancy. Only last Christmas one of the Boston papers was calling attention, with evident satisfaction, to the vast increase within a few years in the number of Christmas turkeys distributed gratis to the poor; as if such an evidence of the progressive pauperization of the community was not more to be deplored than the increasing liberality of a few to be rejoiced over. On the other hand, Mr. Smiley, in the address to which we have referred, states that the discontinuance of out-door relief in Brooklyn, Cleveland, and Cincinnati has been followed by an almost complete disappearance of any visible necessity for the administration of such relief.
The morality of the future, we may therefore safely say, will be based less upon self-sacrifice than upon individual culture and self-restraint, and will exhibit more and more the beneficent workings of what Mr. Spencer calls the law of equal liberty. This, indeed, is the only moral régime befitting the industrial and democratic stage of society.
In ages of great social inequality, when the great tyrannize and the weak cringe in submission, there is urgent need for the intervention of generous spirits to do and to dare what the victims of oppression can neither do nor dare for themselves; but with the removal of all unjust privileges the need for such action largely disappears. If unduly prolonged its effect is to make the weak weaker, the helpless more helpless. The time, we hold, has come now when, broadly speaking, the best thing any man can do is to hold himself erect, to practice a high-minded justice in his relations with his fellow-men, and to eschew all modes of action calculated to encourage others to expect that they may reap where they have not sown. Speaking broadly again, our present modes of charity tend to no good. A truer charity by far would be to vigorously protect society from the vicious and criminal class; and, in regard to the limited class of non-vicious paupers, to let them understand that what they earn they shall eat and no more. This is the course we shall follow if we want a perfected society. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to make all sacrifices, alike of principle and of expediency, for the sake of emotional gratification, we shall proceed in the practice of an ever extending sentimental charity; and the poor and degraded we shall ever have with us, and yet more abundantly.
Sir Frederick Bramwell, President of the British Association, chose as the subject of his inaugural address the singular reading, "The Value of the Next-to-Nothing; and the Civil Engineer, and the Value to Science of his Works." His purpose was to show how the civil engineer, applying results already worked out by science, enlarging resources and facilities and increasing economy, had aided and stimulated science to new researches to be utilized again in his own inventions, which were in turn to give a further impulse to scientific work. A very large proportion of the engineer's success was due to his regarding infinitesimals; and in respect to this point it was appropriate for the speaker to show how greatly infinitesimals or "next-to-nothings" determine the strength, the fitness, and the durability of works and materials. Take the case of steel, which in times that are not very old was dealt with and tested in a "rule-of-thumb" fashion. It was known to be a compound of iron and carbon—
So the effects upon steel of adding manganese—whether it shall improve or deteriorate the metal—are matters of rather delicate calculation—
The engineer engaged in electrical matters is also often compelled to realize the importance of the "next-to-nothing," as in the case of the influence which an extremely minute percentage of impurity has on the electrical conductivity of copper wire. This conductivity is, in some cases, reduced as much as fifty per cent, in consequence of the admixture of that which, under other circumstances, would be looked upon as insignificant.
The internal strain which a great gun may suffer in the process of oil-hardening, by the operation of which it may be self-ruptured months afterward, is gauged in the most minute fractions of an inch. The various degrees to which a tool is tempered according to the uses to which it is to be adapted, all depend upon the "next-to-nothing" differences in the temperature to which the metal is heated. Then—
Finally, the hardly appreciable difference in the density of the air on the upper side and the under side, of a shot issuing from a gun is sufficient to deflect the missile toward either side, according to the "hand" of the rifling, to such an extent that it has to be allowed for in the sighting and rifling of guns designed to be fired at long range. So, in fixing long-range guns, pointing north and south, the difference in the velocity of the earth's rotation at the two ends of the range has to be taken into consideration.
Sir Frederick's address having begun by showing how applications of science and discoveries act and react upon and further one another, and having illustrated the importance of minute details in this mutual helping, closed with a demonstration that engineering has a poetical side.
The building of such a work as the Eddystone Lighthouse, the throwing of a long and lofty span across a navigable river or strait, or the tunneling under a body of water—like the English Channel, for instance—with the closer bringing together of peoples that would result from it, or the execution of a sanitary work that will reduce disease one half—a thing that is not unknown—afford abundant scope for emotion and flight of the imagination. Whether it be these, or the supply of pure water to every dwelling—