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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/December 1893/Editor's Table

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION.

THE close of the great Columbian Exposition at Chicago naturally suggests reflections as to its general significance and import. The Exposition was meant to furnish a conspectus, as it were, of what the art of man is able to accomplish toward the end of the nineteenth century; and, as a memorial of the civilization of to-day, its general catalogue would be to future ages a most important document. That the Exposition as a whole was a vast and overwhelming demonstration of the resources of modern life, no one can question. Until the riches of the world are gathered together in some such way we wholly fail to realize, and even when they have been so gathered together, we but imperfectly—very imperfectly indeed—realize what the achievements of our age have been. When the idea has, however, in some measure been brought home to us, we involuntarily ask, What has made our age to differ so much from past ages, when whole centuries would pass with very little change in the outward conditions of society? The answer lies on the surface: The modern world has found the key to real knowledge. In former ages a certain number of useful arts were discovered empirically and more or less fortuitously; to-day we have learned how to make discoveries, as it were, by rule. We regard Nature as a book, every leaf of which contains useful lessons, written sometimes in characters difficult to decipher, but always decipherable in the end if but proper pains be taken and proper methods pursued. In former ages men's minds were possessed by a number of absolute notions and a priori principles which they applied to the interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, of Nature; and as a consequence the discovery of truth lagged and languished. How greatly, for example, was the progress of astronomy retarded by the assumption that as the circle was a perfect figure, the planets must move in circles; that because the earth was big to the eye and the sun small, the former must be the central orb and the latter the satellite; that mystic powers resided in certain numbers, and so on! To-day we come to Nature as simple questioners, not telling her what she must be, but asking her what she is, and what are her laws, A certain amount of knowledge, of course, we have gained, and this we use as capital for the accumulation of more; but even our best-established conclusions we hold subject to revision, at least as regards their theoretical expression. Even on the strength of experience we do not undertake to dictate as to what must be, for all experience is, we are aware, imperfect. We know in part, and therefore, when we are wise, we prophesy but in part. To revert for a moment to the science of astronomy, it may be said that we find there an unending series of lessons against a priori and absolute views. The planets are not perfect sphere?; their orbits are not perfect circles, nor do they perfectly retain their form; their rates of movement are not uniform; their inclinations to the planes in which they move undergo constant changes. It might be supposed beforehand that they would all be developed on the same plan and in some regular order of gradation; but no, they increase in size from Mercury to the earth; then we have the moon (which is strictly a planet) of much inferior size; then Mars, much larger than the moon, but much smaller than the earth; then the fragmentary asteroids; then the giant Jupiter; then Saturn and Uranus successively smaller; and finally Neptune, larger than Uranus but smaller than Saturn. Again, as if to show a unique example of the way in which rings were thrown off from the original nebula, Saturn alone of all the planets is surrounded by rings which, in some way, managed to preserve their equilibrium as rings instead of being rolled together by gravitation into spheres. The solar system as a whole seems to speak to us in commanding tones and say, "When the laws and phenomena of Nature are concerned, don't assume to know what ought to be, but find out what is." On this line of the patient study of Nature all the victories of modern science, we might almost say of modern civilization, have been won.

Science is now of age and can take care of itself, but we have not to look back very far in the history of the world in order to come to the time when it had to ask the permission of Theology and so-called Philosophy for every step it took, and when frequently its progress was absolutely barred by some arbitrary mandate. In our own day even, what opprobrium has been heaped upon geologists like Lyell, and biologists like Darwin, simply because their conclusions threatened to disturb those in which the orthodox world, on wholly insufficient evidence, had been pleased to settle down! Henceforth Science will brook no dictation. She will not herself dictate to Nature, and she will suffer no arbitrary authority to dictate to her. What is scientifically true will be determined by evidence industriously gathered, carefully sifted, and cautiously interpreted; and the world will reap the benefit of the principles thus established in ever new additions to the comforts and refinements of life. Still more important, however, it may be hoped, will the progress of scientific thought prove in the intellectual and moral sphere. We want what we have never had as yet, but what the labors of that truly great philosopher Herbert Spencer have at least in part provided for us, a true science of life—that is to say, a scientific treatment of the duties of life and the means of happiness. But meanwhile much advantage will result from the gradual spread of scientific methods of thought—methods which incline to caution, to a careful scrutiny of causes and consequences, in the sphere of social action. Heretofore wisdom has been largely won through suffering; but we may hope that, with the wider establishment and recognition of sound principles of conduct, this will more and more cease to be the case. There does not seem any very good reason why men might not be taught to love right conduct just as they may be, and are, taught to prefer temperate and wholesome to intemperate and unwholesome eating and drinking. To tell the truth an advance of science is more wanted to-day in the sphere of conduct than in the mechanical arts. We could get on very well for the next quarter of a century without traveling any faster, or without any further cheapening of cotton goods; but every day we feel directly or indirectly the need of greater wisdom in the conduct of life; for daily we suffer either through our own errors or those of others. Ancient codes of ethics are very well—some of them at least—as far as they go; but it will be a good day for the world when it is universally recognized that the true canons of conduct are deducible by sound reasonings upon the facts of life and the relations of individuals, and that, so deduced, they have the highest authority that any moral code can possess.

 

 
A SCIENTIST, BUT NOT A PHILOSOPHER.

Among the papers contributed to the World's Congress of Religions was one by Sir William Dawson, of Montreal, entitled Religlo Scientiæ (the Religion of Science), This eminent geologist never loses an opportunity of attacking the doctrine of evolution, and it is not surprising, therefore, that he should have done so on this occasion. No evidence has ever been afforded, however, that Sir William Dawson has taken proper pains to ascertain what evolution, as understood and taught by the leading believers in the doctrine, means. Speaking of man's moral nature, he says: "On this point a strange confusion, produced apparently by the doctrine of evolution, seems to have affected some scientific thinkers, who seek to read back moral ideas into the history of the world at a time when no mundane moral agent is known to have been in existence. They forget that it is no more immoral for a wolf to eat a lamb than for a lamb to eat grass." Now, it would be simply impossible for any one who had read even so brief a treatise as Spencer's Data of Ethics with any attention to have made such a remark. Let any one to whom that treatise is in the least familiar try to imagine Spencer forgetting that "it is no more immoral for a wolf to eat a lamb than for a lamb to eat grass"! A man with Sir William Dawson's reputation should really not commit himself in this way. Not only is there not one word in Spencer's writings to indicate that he thinks it immoral for a wolf to eat a lamb, but his whole method of treating the subject of the development of morality shows that he utterly repudiates such a view. What Spencer does attempt to do is to prove that the conduct we now call moral must be regarded as a development from conduct to which it is impossible to apply the term. He traces for us in the most careful manner every stage of the process; and if Sir William Dawson would undertake to point out where the line of succession fails, or, to express it otherwise, where the evolution of one stage from that immediately preceding it has been incorrectly assumed, he would then be grappling seriously with the ethical side of the doctrine of evolution. To do this, however, he would have to study Mr. Spencer's Principles of Ethics with careful attention, and this would probably not be agreeable to him. It would be easy to note other points in Sir William's address to which, from a scientific point of view, exception might betaken. Our purpose, however, on the present occasion is sufficiently served by showing that this really able geologist allows himself to speak on philosophical subjects with altogether too slender an equipment of necessary knowledge.