Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/October 1890/Editor's Table
SIR WILLIAM DAWSON, the well-known Canadian geologist, has brought out, under the auspices of the Religious Tract Society of London, England, a work entitled Modern Ideas of Evolution as related to Revelation and Science. The title of the book, we must say at the outset, seems to us a little peculiar. Any idea of evolution (as the term is now understood) must, if considered at all, be considered in relation to science; but how to consider it in relation to revelation is not, to our mind, easy to understand. How are ideas of evolution to be brought into direct relation with revelation as a substantive fact? If revelation is a substantive, self-evident fact, then there is no use in bringing any ideas of evolution into comparison with it. The Arab leader who burned the library at Alexandria did not want to compare any of the books contained therein with the Koran, but summarily said: "They either agree with the Koran or disagree with it. If they agree with it, they are superfluous; if they disagree with it, they are noxious: in either case burn them." In like manner, no one who reads the laws of nature in the blaze of an all-sufficient revelation will want any other light. Had Sir William spoken in the title of his book of bringing "ideas of evolution" into relation with "ideas of revelation," the proposition would have appeared a more hopeful one, and would have contained a certain suggestion of fair play; but to bring mere "ideas" on the one side into direct contact with the most absolute and commanding reality on the other, seems—well, not quite the right thing to do. Give the "ideas of evolution" a chance; let there be something to "umpire."
Sir William Dawson has written this book for a select circle of readers—a wide one possibly, but select nevertheless—readers who appreciate such a description of Darwin as the following: "Darwin, as he sits in marble on the staircase of the British Museum, represents a noble figure, made in the image of God, and capable of grasping mentally the heaven above as well as the earth beneath. As he appears in his recent biography, we see the same man paralyzed by a spiritual atrophy, blinded and shut up in prison and chained to the mill of a materialistic philosophy where, like a captive Samson, he is doomed to grind all that is fair and beautiful in nature into a dry and formless dust." It is needless to say that a reader at all accustomed to scientific method would wish to know exactly what is meant by ability to "grasp mentally the heaven above as well as the earth beneath." Darwin, it seems to be admitted, grasped the earth beneath: in order to grasp the heaven above—interpreting the words in a natural sense—he would have had to be an astronomer in addition to being a great biologist and naturalist. The writer, however, does not use the words in their natural sense: by the "heaven above" he means some supernatural order of facts; but could he, as a scientific man, tell us of any one who to his positive knowledge had "grasped the heaven above" in that sense? When Darwin grasped the earth beneath he could tell us what he grasped, and the world is vastly the richer to-day for the positive knowledge imparted by him in regard to terrestrial facts. But could Sir William Dawson himself enrich the world by imparting what he has grasped of "the heaven above"? What does he know about it that he can communicate in distinct speech? If he has any such information, it would vastly surpass in interest anything he can tell us about the Eozoön canadense; but we venture to say that, in spite of his slur upon Darwin for not having grasped this kind of knowledge, he does not himself possess one particle or scintilla of it that he could teach as fact to any human being.
Then what are we to say about the accusation against Darwin of grinding "all that is fair and beautiful in nature into a dry and formless dust"? All that we can say of it is that it is false, and, as coming from a man of recognized scientific position, deplorable. Nature to Darwin was full of interest to the last; and few men have done more than he to awaken an interest m and love of nature in others. We have only to read his correspondence with the foremost naturalists of the time to see what a center of interest he was to them, and what a living thing the study of nature under his guidance, or upon lines indicated by him, had become. The fact is that organic nature was never so interesting a subject of study as it is to-day; and few will deny that this is due, in large measure, to the influence of Darwin—the man who is now accused of turning "all that is fair and beautiful in nature into a dry and formless dust." When people who claim to "grasp the heaven above" indulge in such unfounded and uncharitable remarks about their intellectual superiors, one is apt to wonder whether their prehensile powers have really been exercised to the best advantage.
That Sir William Dawson did not write this book for a scientific public is evident by many signs. When he speaks of standing near to the "treacherous margin" of the evolution philosophy and rescuing a few grains of truth, he writes—there is but one expression for it—utter nonsense. Imagine for one moment a scientist, a philosopher, stealing gingerly to the edge of a system of philosophy and putting out a timorous hand to clutch a grain of truth, whirling, as it were, in a vortex! Imagine the scientist, the philosopher, dreading to be sucked in, and quickly retreating with his rescued grain to a safer footing! Again, when he tells us, in effect, that the controversy between Huxley and Harrison supplies "an evidence of the need of a divine revelation," we are persuaded that such an utterance could only have been intended for very shallow minds. More need for a revelation, we should say, if Harrison and Huxley agreed, for how should we know that they were not both in error? When they disagree, there is at least a probability that the errors of the one will more or less cancel those of the other, and that some residuum of truth will be left behind. It is hard to see how truth could be established except by conflict, or how minds could develop except through contact and collision with other minds. Think what a lot of simpletons we should become if, as often as a difference of opinion arose, instead of being left to weigh the arguments on either side, we were at once to hear an authoritative voice deciding the whole question! It will greatly please most of the readers of this book to be told that Darwin took a very "unscientific" position in "enthroning chance or accident or necessity as Lord and Creator"; and it will not trouble them in the least to remember—if they do remember—that, on the immediately preceding page, it was stated that "Darwin's natural turn of mind and his scientific training were not of such a character as to lead him to seek for ultimate causes; he was content with a modal evolution (i. e., with evolution considered and treated as a method); he took matter and force as he found them." The two statements are in obvious conflict, and the one on the earlier page is the correct one. Darwin did not enthrone chance; he took matter and force as he found them; and to us his position appears entirely scientific. Herbert Spencer, by a long course of reasoning, arrives at the conclusion that the First Cause is inscrutable. Darwin assumed as much without going through any troublesome logical process. Nobody in this world, except perhaps some superstitious gambler, ever "enthroned" chance, and even he is imposed upon by words.
One is compelled to ask the question whether the author is as inapt at philosophical reasoning as his book indicates, or whether he has simply put aside his philosophy in order that he may not affright the babes to whom it is his evident purpose to minister. He tells us that it is "a striking inversion of ordinary probabilities" to suppose that the environment can influence the development of organisms; that inanimate nature can "rule, determine, and elevate that which lives and wills." Does not the law of gravitation rule and determine in a very great degree nearly all the phenomena of human life? Does not diet determine the quality of the blood, and the quality or condition of the blood influence thought? Is not civilization largely a matter of climate and general physical conditions? The world might have been much better than it is, we are told, if it had pleased God "to produce a superior race of beings." This is Sir William Dawson's dictum: we know nothing about such matters; all we know is that no race superior to man has been produced; and we are disposed to conclude that man, as he is and has been, stands in definite relation to the condition of things on this planet. That a being of infinite power, who might have done better, should have been content with doing worse, is an idea which we prefer to leave to the contemplation of the author. Another example of what may well be called baby philosophy is where, speaking of the idea that there may be among the organs of the body a certain struggle for existence and pre-eminence, our author declares it to be "revolting to common sense and hideous to right feeling." What has a student of science to do with any idea put forward as scientific except to bring it, if possible, to the test of facts? To us it is no more "revolting" or "hideous" that there should be a struggle for existence going on between the different cells of our body than that the movement of the earth in its orbit should be the resultant of two antagonistic forces, or that our social system should be the result of the competing activities of its individual members. "On this view," says our author, "the mechanism of an animal ceases even to be a machine, and becomes a mere mass of conflicting parts thrown together at random, and depending for its continued existence on a chance balance of external forces." Does the solar system cease to be a machine because it is controlled by the rival laws of gravitation and inertia—because the planets are acted upon at once by a centripetal and centrifugal force? Does the social organism cease to be a machine because its balance is maintained by the self-seeking and mutually-limiting activities of its members? To talk of "a chance balance of external forces" is irrelevant and meaningless. What we know is that there is a balance, that it has endured long enough for the development of an infinite number of organic forms in adaptation to it, and that there is no apparent reason why it should not continue. That is all any one who is determined not to transcend the facts can say. We have not space to examine the more detailed reasonings of the author of this book; but its general philosophic tone may be correctly judged from what precedes. It is not a book that will enhance the reputation of the Canadian scientist.
The meeting of the American Association just held at Indianapolis may be regarded as one of the best of recent years. The attendance was up to a good average in numbers and embraced a good many distinguished names, both among the older and newer generations of workers. Ample accommodations were provided in the new State-House, where all the meetings could be held under a single roof. The citizens of Indianapolis, who as a community are busy in turning the achieved results of science to profit, were enthusiastic in welcome and kindnesses.
The more noteworthy papers, including the official addresses, well befitted the name of the body, and were true to its declared purposes of promoting intercourse between students and encouraging more active and more systematic research; and a considerable proportion of them were at the same time happily adapted to the average intelligence of a public audience and in the direction of popular questionings.
Retiring President Mendenhall treated in his address of the relations that exist and should exist between scientific students and the public. While he sought to determine how far men of science are responsible for any lack of cordiality that may exist, he demonstrated to business men, by means of a very happy illustration, that they are enjoying direct benefits from the results of abstract research to a far greater extent than they realize or imagine. His remarks, on both sides of this subject, deserve particular attention. Vice-President Branner, considering the relations of State and National Geological Surveys, endeavored to sketch a plan of combined action, under which the party of either side could do the work proper for it without encroaching upon the field of the other, and room be left for individual research. Vice-President Dodge, in the Economic and Statistical Section, set forth in a pleasant light the advantages enjoyed by the producing classes in the United States in relation to the standard of living. In relating the present condition of knowledge respecting the variable stars, Prof. Chandler had a subject that involves research of the highest order, of which at the same time every one desires to be informed. In a large number of the sectional papers, too, the sober dignity of the scientific method was combined with adaptation to the tastes of hearers of a practical turn.
Societies outside of the sections and complementary to them continue to grow around the Association. The meetings of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture were lively and practical; those of the Geological Society were more technical in tone. The Entomological Club insisted on the extension and enlargement of the study of insects. An Ornithological Society was formed, and went at once to talking about birds. The Botanical Club held its eighth annual meeting. Prof. Britton, under instructions from the Toronto meeting, gave an account of the present state of systematic botany in North America. A National Chemical Society was projected.
The fact that this was the fiftieth meeting of the Association does not seem to have received special attention further than a mention in Prof. Mendenhall's address. The fact that the Association has maintained its vigor and has prospered during half a century is evidence that it has had a place of usefulness and has filled it. The question now arises whether, if it would meet the demands of the future as successfully as it has met those of the past, it will not have to adapt itself anew to the changed conditions of science and the country and to the present popular demand for scientific knowledge, which are very different now from what they were when it began.
The doors of the Association were thrown open to members of foreign societies, who will be admitted hereafter, with full privileges, without fees; and provision was made for inviting to the next meeting representations of the scientific societies of Mexico and Central and South America. The following officers were chosen for the ensuing year:
President.—Albert B. Prescott, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Vice-Presidents.—A, Mathematics and Astronomy—E. W. Hyde, Cincinnati, O. B, Physics—F. E. Nipher, St. Louis. C, Chemistry—B. C. Kedzie, Agricultural College, Michigan. D, Mechanical Science and Engineering—Thomas Grey, Terre Haute. E, Geology and Geography—J. J. Stevenson, New York. F, Biology—J. M. Coulter, Crawfordsville, Ind. H, Anthropology—Joseph Jastrow, Madison, Wis. I, Economic Science and Statistics—Edmund J. James, Philadelphia.
Permanent Secretary.—F. W. Putnam, Cambridge, Mass.
General Secretary.—Harvey W. Wiley, Washington, D. C.
Secretary of the Council.—A. W. Butler, Brookville, Ind.
Auditors.—Henry Wheatland, Salem, Mass.; Thomas Meehan, Germantown, Pa.
Treasurer.—William Lilly, Mauch Chunk, Pa.
The meeting for 1891 will be held in Washington, D. C.