Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/July 1894/Editor's Table



THE readers of this magazine will, we are sure, appreciate the satisfaction with which we have lately hailed the appearance of a biography, done by a most competent hand, of the late Prof. E. L. Youmans. This biography is one which all who were measurably acquainted with the late professor's work in the cause of science felt must be given to the world. Many biographies are not much more than tributes to the interest which a man's personal friends take in his character and career; but in the case of the late Prof. Youmans a chapter in the history of the intellectual development of this country would have been missing had his biography not been written. He came at a critical time; he was the man for the crisis; he saw his work, and he did it. That work was preparing the public mind on this side of the Atlantic for the reception of a new order of ideas in science and philosophy, and then transplanting those ideas into the soil so prepared. Prof. Fiske, whose literary skill never appeared to greater advantage than in the production of this biography, quotes a country clergyman as having said to him in 1857, "There is a great intellectual movement going on in Europe of which scarcely anything is known or even suspected in this country." The professor himself adds: "Lyell's great work on geology was published in 1830; a quarter of a century later I do not believe there were five men in our town who had ever heard of 'uniformitarianism'; it was only a very bold spirit that ventured to allude to the earth as more than six thousand years old. Science in general was regarded as a miscellaneous collection of facts and rules. some useful, some curious or even pretty; as for looking upon it as a vast coherent body of truths concerning the universe and its interdependent provinces, few minds, indeed, had grappled with such a conception." As late as the year 1860 one of the most enterprising and liberal publishing houses in Boston declined to republish Spencer's essays on education. "The Americans at that time," says Prof. Fiske again, "were excessively provincial. There was much intellectual eagerness, along with very meager knowledge."

Edward L. Youmans was born in the year 1821. We need not recite any of the incidents of his life, which are given in the most interesting manner by Prof. Fiske, and were also sketched last month in another department of this magazine. What we wish to point out is that, born in what his biographer calls a "provincial" society, he had an intellectual eagerness which was not satisfied with meager knowledge, nor yet with meager scientific conceptions. There was in him a singular and happy union of practicality and philosophic breadth. He was utilitarian in his aims, but he loved a wide expanse for his thoughts. Domestic economy was with him a favorite field of investigation and study, but at another moment he would take the keenest delight in seeing the plowshare of a vigorous criticism ripping up the clods of old philosophical systems. He did not himself claim to be an original investigator—nor does his biographer make the claim for him in any important sense; but he was ever on the watch for some enlargement of human knowledge or some improvement in the instruments of intellectual research. His was a pre eminently open mind, and he loved science because, though it might have at any given time its dark corners, there were no corners in it that had to be left dark, the constant effort of the scientific worker, in every portion of the field, being to get light and yet more light. He loved science because in studying it he breathed the air of liberty and became conscious of intellectual growth. No sooner had he emerged from the cloud which a prolonged period of alternately partial and total blindness had cast over his early life, than he betook himself to the lecture platform, and began, as his biographer expresses it, to "interpret science for the people." In this field he accomplished most useful work. Possessing, as he did, a wonderful gift of exposition, and having the kind of mind that naturally seized upon the most instructive and interesting aspects of things, he was able both to charm and to stimulate his audiences in an unusual degree. There was about him, too, a stamp of candor, of liberality, of noble-mindedness that must have exerted a powerful influence for good upon those with whom he came into contact. Science with him was not a trade, it was a vocation; and, obeying at every moment what seemed the highest call, he was ever ready to listen to a higher.

The higher call came with his first serious introduction to the works of Herbert Spencer. Long had he been feeling his way toward some more comprehensive scientific view than any he had yet grasped, seeking, if haply he might find, some common principle of interpretation for the infinitely diverse phenomena of the universe, when an article in a London periodical directed his attention to Spencer's Psychology. The study of this work, which he shortly afterward ordered from England, convinced him, as his biographer has expressed it, that "the theory expounded was a long stride in the direction of a general theory of evolution." His interest in Spencer was strengthened by a perusal of his Social Statics and of the valuable articles he was contributing at the time to the English quarterlies, particularly the Westminster Review. The biography tells how, when he found that Spencer had issued a programme or syllabus of his proposed system of philosophy, and was soliciting subscriptions thereto, Mr. Youmans wrote to him, expressing indebtedness for the advantage he had derived from the study of what he had already written, and offering any assistance which it might be in his power to render toward the success of the forthcoming volumes. Thus was the foundation laid of one of the most honorable, interesting, and fruitful friendships of which our times possess any record. On the one side, ardent and enthusiastic devotion to an intellectual leader whose teaching was looked upon as a message of transcendent importance to the present generation; on the other, a quick and generous appreciation of that devotion and of all the practical service to which it led. Those who have not yet read the biography, and may wish to see in what ample terms Spencer acknowledged the disinterested labors of Prof. Youmans in his behalf, can not do better than turn to the book and read Spencer's letters. It was certainly the opinion of the great English philosopher that Prof. Youmans, by his energy and zeal, his tact and persuasiveness and business sagacity, almost created a public for him in America; and, by the help and encouragement thus afforded, greatly contributed to the success of his works in England.

Having adopted Spencer as his leader, Youmans never faltered in his allegiance to him. It was a case of loyal following, not of blind partisanship; if any fuller light had shone into our late friend's mind, he could not have turned away from it; for that to which he was supremely loyal was the truth. But, in point of fact, he never saw anything else in the guise of philosophy which seemed to him to possess half the merit or value for mankind that he discovered in the theory of evolution, as expounded by Spencer, and coupled by him with a strong: assertion of the rights of the individual. Evolution as a world-grasping hypothesis, and "the law of equal liberty" as the charter of individual rights, made an absolutely irresistible appeal to the deepest instincts of the late Professor's nature; and it is no wonder, therefore, that in them he found an abiding anchorage.

We need only mention, in passing, the important work done by Prof. Youmans in arranging for the publication of the International Scientific Series, of which over seventy volumes have now been issued; but it is fitting that we should speak a little more fully on the subject of his establishment of The Popular Science Monthly. Even before he became interested in Spencer he felt that there was a great need in this country for a periodical which should be devoted to popularizing, not so much the results, as the methods of science. He was too much of a philosopher ever to forget that what the people want, far more than a diet of facts, is education in correct thinking, in the right use of their intellectual faculties. He fully believed, with Spencer, that natural science affords incomparably the best means of discipline for the mind; and after he had become impressed with the importance of that writer's general scheme of thought, he was more than ever desirous of establishing a magazine that might help in the propagation of sound scientific views. How suddenly in the end The Popular Science Monthly sprang into existence, the biography will tell; and on what sound lines it was drawn may be judged from the fact that in the course of twenty-two years those lines have never been departed from. The Popular Science Monthly is to-day what it was in the first year of its existence, and what its name imports. It is not intended for specialists, though specialists have made many valuable contributions to its columns. It aims to bring before intelligent readers the best and most interesting results of contemporary scientific activity, and to keep science as a power, as a method, as an inspiration, as the ally of humanity in its warfare against evil, prominently before the public mind. The magazine has had its own battles to fight, and, in its earlier years particularly, a good deal of misrepresentation to encounter. It has been accused of hostility to particular modes of belief, simply because it has wished to open paths of independent investigation in all subjects. It has, however, outlived most of the prejudice that at one time it excited, and to-day is welcomed in every part of the country as one of the most useful of educational agents, as affording just that aid to sound living and right thinking which it was the most earnest desire of its founder that it should afford.

To some it has appeared that the Monthly set too small value on literary culture, and that its late director was too contemptuous in his attitude toward classical studies. In all questions of this kind, however, a time element enters. Twenty odd years ago it was hard work to get any kind of proper recognition for science in schemes of education; and many sophisms that have since been exploded as to the necessity of the study of the classics for the formation of a good literary style, or for the right discrimination of words, or even for the proper development of the logical faculties, were then widely current and aggressively asserted. It was necessary, therefore, for a periodical that had been started with the express object of championing the claims of science, to put its own case as strongly as possible, and attack with vigor what it considered the errors of the older educational systems. If sometimes it pushed its criticisms too far, that is only what happens when any warfare is being keenly waged. That the founder of the Monthly was no enemy of culture in the widest sense, all who were acquainted with him are well aware. In his youth he read even more of literature than of science. He had no acquaintance with the Greek or Latin classics in the original, but he read the best of them in translations, and with much enjoyment. His own literary style was a standing refutation of the plea that, in order to write good English, a man had to become familiar with Greek and Latin. It had the three great merits of accuracy, amplitude, and balance, and at times was even impressively eloquent.

Prof. Fiske has given a faithful presentation of the man, and it is not our purpose to add anything to his words of eulogy. Of no man can it be more truly said that his influence survives him. As the biography makes plain, he had a rare combination of qualities intellectual and moral, and he has laid an enduring impress, not only on the magazine which he founded, but on multitudes of minds with which he came into contact. The reason why he accomplished so much and wielded so great an influence may be found, we believe, in that disinterestedness which was one of his most conspicuous qualities. He was a true apostle, because he thought more of his cause than of himself. Had he thought more of himself, he might have been with us to-day; but who shall blame enthusiasm and devotion such as his? It led to oversight in matters pertaining to health, and that is to be regretted; but it stamped the man as one of the working, fighting heroes of the nineteenth century, and as such this generation will honor his memory.