Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/August 1895/The Motive for Scientific Research



AT the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Oxford in August, 1894, the president, the Marquis of Salisbury, delivered a remarkable address on Unsolved Problems of Science, which called forth much criticism, particularly from scientific journals. The speaker called the especial attention of his audience to four great questions which, with all the boasted advances of science, still remain unsolved, and the solution of which seems as far distant to-day as ever. These questions were, the origin of the chemical elements, the problem of the ether, the origin of life, and the theory of evolution. The tendency of the address was certainly not to give encouragement that these problems would soon or even ultimately be cleared up by the work of scientists, but rather indicated a certain satisfaction that there were nuts to crack which even the British Association would find too hard. This tone was especially evident in the treatment of the subject of organic evolution, and the speaker made it plain that he considered certain of the objections to that doctrine conclusive and was ready, for one, to fall back on the doctrine of design to explain all the innumerable variations and adaptations which we see in animal and plant life about us. That the whole address was certainly reactionary there can be no doubt, but it seems to be unfortunately true that certain of the criticisms which it has called forth are to be equally condemned for going at once to the other extreme. In one of the leading scientific magazines of this country the reviewer says, under the heading Back to Dogma:

“It needs but a few moments of careful and candid consideration to show that the doctrine of design means the death of scientific investigation. If things are so because they were intentionally made so or because certain processes were miraculously expedited, then the universe may be the theater of will, but not of forces the operation of which we can hope to understand. . . . The reason why the doctrine of design is so popular is partly because it is such a saver of intellectual toil, and partly because by making knowledge impossible it glorifies ignorance. What is left for the student of Nature save to record facts as lie finds them when every question as to how things have come to be as they are receive but the one reply, ‘The Creator designed them so’?”

It is not my intention or wish to defend in itself the doctrine of design, nor is this the place to review the reviewer or criticise the above-quoted criticism; but such uncalled-for prejudice and illogical reasoning as shown therein do cause the question to arise, What, after all, is the real motive for scientific research?

A little over fifty years ago a young Englishman was busily engaged in gathering and arranging all kinds of facts in regard to changes in animals and plants, either under domestication or in a state of Nature. For twenty years or more he worked patiently and carefully gathering his facts, comparing and arranging them and mentally digesting all this mass of material, and, at last, in 1859, he offered to the world his theory of the Origin of Species. Before Charles Darwin, all naturalists were engaged in gathering and recording facts, and arranging them in a more or less natural order, but they failed to compare and digest them, as he did, because they were content with statistics and did not ask for reasons. That this was due to a belief in the immutability of species and the doctrine of design there can be little doubt; but that the great men who accepted that doctrine did so because it “saved intellectual toil” or “glorified ignorance” is a gross slander. They did so partly because of early training, but very largely because it was a satisfactory explanation of such problems as they happened to meet and so proved its sufficiency. When Darwin, however, came to apply it to the facts as he found them in his day, he soon proved it was not sufficient, and then was asked for the first time in biology, How did these things come to be so? The question had been asked long before in physics, chemistry, and astronomy; but until the middle of this century biologists and even geologists had been chiefly concerned with the question What? and had neglected the far more important one How? It was the asking of this question, and the answer to it which he gave, which makes Darwin the bright particular star in the scientific firmament of the nineteenth century, and no lapse of time can ever dim the luster of that honored name. However inadequate we may consider the theory of natural selection to account for all the innumerable forms of animal and plant life which have existed or do now inhabit and beautify the earth, there can be no doubt that the question as an answer to which it was offered has been for thirty-five years the mainspring of research not merely in biology but in all the field of natural science. It is easy to see how this condition was itself the result of evolution, for one can not ask the means to an end until the end is seen or known. Up to the time of Linnæus there was little general interest in zoölogy and botany, but after he had placed in systematic order such facts as were known to the scientific world of his day, others began to find all about them additional facts which had been theretofore unrecorded, and so interest in Nature began its steady rise toward the high position which it holds to-day. So long as the great majority of forms were unknown or undescribed, the only question was concerning what existed, and naturalists everywhere were busy with these facts of the existence of species; but as the records became more complete and the knowledge of natural phenomena wider spread, of course the tendency would naturally be toward inquiry as to how these innumerable forms arose. Even as early as the latter part of the eighteenth century some of the deepest thinkers were turning this question over in their minds, although they did not appreciate its great importance or its bearing on the acquisition of knowledge. Darwin himself began his career as a gatherer of facts, but his active mind soon saw the inadequacy of the doctrine of special creations, and demanded something more in accordance with the facts. The history of the development in his own mind of the famous theory to which his name is attached is a most fascinating story, but it is not necessary to enter into any details here. Suffice it to say that he became thoroughly convinced in his own mind, and actually convinced the whole scientific world, even including his most bitter opponents, that the question of the hour was not one of which species was which, nor to what family it belonged when identified, but “How did species arise?” From that day to this the whole trend of scientific study has been toward the solution of that problem, and an enormous amount of investigation by biologists, far and near, has thrown much light on its intricacies, although, when we consider all phases of the subject, including the difficulties of heredity, we feel that we have hardly made more than a beginning.

This change of position in the subject-matter of scientific research has brought about a most remarkable and far-reaching change in method, which is universally recognized as vastly superior to the old. But it seems also to have brought about an equally radical change in the spirit of investigation; and instead of the reverent work of an Owen, an Agassiz, or a Lyell, who believed they were studying the creations of an Omnipotent God, Maker and Father of all, we have the enthusiastic, energetic, all-embracing investigations and theories of a Haeckel, a Huxley, or a Spencer, who certainly can not be accused of holding any pronounced religious beliefs whatever. There can be no doubt that this change too was a very natural one; for as long as men felt that they were studying immutable creatures, there was a sense of restraint in the work, a feeling that investigation had a definite limit beyond which we could not go, and so there was little chance for speculation or theorizing on the nature of causes. When this restraint was suddenly and entirely removed by the theory of evolution the reaction was inevitable, and a strong tendency toward the other extreme set in, clearly shown by the number and variety of the theories that have been suggested and published to explain all kinds of natural phenomena. Scientists have been so entirely taken up with explaining how all the wonderful things which we find in the world about us have taken place; the doctrine of evolution has proved so completely satisfactory at every turn that there is great danger that the ultimate motive for scientific research will be completely lost to sight. Indeed, one may search a great majority of scientific works without finding a hint as to any higher motive than mere curiosity,—a curiosity differing greatly in quality and extent in differing writers, but very rarely that pure eagerness for “truth” which it sometimes professes to be. So long as the answer to the question How? is the all-important thing, and so long as that is considered the ultimate question, no proper conception of a nobler motive can be formed. But we must now consider if there is not still another question beyond the How? which is as far more important than that as that is beyond the question What? The extraordinary reverence which a certain school of scientists feel toward the question How? is clearly shown by the quotation in the earlier part of this article, and it will, no doubt, be considered impious by them that any one should presume to go beyond that question. At the same time one can not read that criticism without having forced upon him the belief that there is another and greater question to be considered, and that question may be briefly stated in the form of Why?

It is not by any means a new question, and I claim no merit of originality in bringing it forward here; but since we have come to see the importance of the means to the end, we seem to have lost sight of the far greater importance of the causes of those means. That is, while we have been busy inquiring how things came to be so, we have either confused with that question, or forgotten altogether to ask, the why. Probably the first objection that will be raised to the consideration of this question will be the futility of seeking ultimate causes; and the limits of human knowledge will be emphasized to show the folly of going beyond the How? Now, it is no part of my purpose to consider the question whether there is an Absolute Unknowable; but I will merely suggest that when it was first proposed to consider how species came to be what they are, it was not only the theologians who raised a great hue and cry about the impiety and folly of the act; a very large number of scientific men really supposed that the question was beyond the limits of actual knowledge. And yet is not the doctrine of evolution becoming less and less of an hypothesis and more and more of an actually established law every year? Is not the evidence all tending to establish it completely, and to prove that even the obscure problems of life and heredity are all within the limits of human knowledge? Can we then be sure that the knowledge of why evolution has worked as it has is unattainable? Is not the presumption strongly in favor of the probability that some day, somewhere, some race of men, our posterity and the legatees of our knowledge, will know and understand the causes and the “reasons why” which have led to and are now leading toward that

“. . . one far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves”?

If, then, it is granted that this knowledge is a possibility, it is fitting that we should consider whether there is any clew to the solution of the problem in the work already done, and what effect the question will have on the methods and spirit of scientific research. We have already seen how long a time the doctrine of immutability of species held in check the tendency to theorize and led students to devote themselves to the collection and tabulation of facts. Both questions, how and why, were confused together and were answered promptly and positively: “The Creator designed them so”; and there was the end beyond appeal. When it was found, however, that this was really no answer at all to the question How? and that the true answer to that question was within the immediate grasp of the scientific world, the whole argument of design was promptly thrown aside as rubbish, and we were free! But we were not long to remain so, for now we find a new limit set to our knowledge beyond which there is no appeal, and the answer to our question Why? is now given us, “Evolution evolved them so”! Distinguishing now as we do between how and why, we find this limit is equally distasteful and causes a similar feeling of restraint; and it is only natural that, having been freed from the other, we should demand emancipation from this. Why did evolution evolve some birds into objects of such marvelous beauty? Surely we can conceive of peacocks, humming birds, and birds of paradise fully as well, perhaps even better, fitted for the struggle for existence without their gleaming colors and gorgeous plumes. Why are some flowers so fragrant to our sense of smell? We certainly know that it is no advantage to them to please us, as long as they attract insects, and we also know that odor without fragrance will answer that purpose. Was it only chance that brought about these results? It seems incredible that any person familiar with Nature's conformity to law and the mathematical improbability of inheritance of accidental variation along a favorable line can believe that these marvelous results have been governed only by chance. Surely Nature could never thrive under such a shiftless and haphazard system, and we are therefore justified in searching for the reason why. Not how beautiful birds and fragrant flowers were evolved is the essential question, but why. Yet we can never hope to know the causes until we know perfectly the means, just as we could never have hoped to know the means until we were tolerably familiar with the ends. Darwin could never have formulated his theory if he had not had the vast array of facts on which to base it, and it would never be proved if men were to give up the gathering of the still unrecorded facts. Of course, all this routine work appears in a new and far more glorious light now, and much the greater number of scientific workers are engaged in the collection of such facts as have hitherto been unknown or overlooked. Only a very few are giving the greater part of their time to theorizing on how evolution works, although we all realize the importance of that question. So it will be when we see that the question Why? is the ultimate one, for there can be no solution of this problem until the lesser ones are solved. It is neither probable nor desirable that any change of method will result, for the present historical system is so far ahead of any other that there is no danger of our giving it up; but it is both probable and desirable that investigators should approach the phenomena of Nature in a different spirit.

As we look about for a clew as to how the question Why? may be answered, let us examine more carefully that dogmatic assertion which we threw aside so promptly when we accepted the doctrine of evolution: “The Creator designed them so.” Have we any hint here as to the causes which have governed the evolutionary methods? That depends on some other things which we must examine first. The means by which an end is accomplished we know by experience may be purely impersonal, but causes are always dependent on personality. This may not appear at first sight, so prone are we to confuse how and why, but it will be clearly seen by means of an illustration. We are accustomed to say that we know why it rains, but in reality we only know how it is that it rains—that is, we know the natural processes by which rain is produced. On the other hand, we say we know why we went to a given place at a given time, and in this case we not only know how we went, but we do know the actual reasons or causes which put the means at work. If this be granted, as it seems to me it must be, we are at once presented with the condition that the answer to our question why is dependent on our knowledge of the personality who is the cause of the phenomena. If, therefore, the phenomena are in point of time or space as compared with ourselves infinite, their cause must be infinite; and since it is admitted that cause is dependent on personality, we are justified in speaking of an Infinite Personal Being, and our knowledge of the cause of natural phenomena and the origin of natural law will be dependent on our knowledge of that Being whom we may reasonably call God. The dogmatic assertion, then, which we were examining does contain a clew to the solution of the problem. That “the Creator designed them so” is no answer to the question of the origin of species, is palpably evident, nor does it throw any light on the question of how things have come to be as they are; but it does give a clew as to why things are so, although, of course, it does not answer the query. If we examine the acts of any person we find that they throw light on his character, and if we become fully acquainted with the means which he has used, we become better acquainted with the character, and as we know that, we come to understand his motives. So we shall find it in the study of natural science. As we learn more and more of the facts of Nature, we shall become better acquainted with the means, and will understand then how things have been evolved; and as we solve these lesser problems we will become better and better fitted to understand why evolution has worked as it has, and to comprehend the character of God. This, then, is the true motive for scientific research, that we may know him who is the only true God, and by knowing his character and motives understand our relations to him. That the appreciation of this motive would have a marked effect on the spirit of scientific work is plainly evident, and, instead of the tone of shallow materialism so common to-day, we would have a religious reverence for truth as it is, without regard to possible effects on our pet theories—that truth which we shall some day know and which shall make us free. The doctrine of design certainly failed to explain the many phenomena of Nature, but that a re-examination of it, or even a temporary acceptance of it as explaining the why of those phenomena, means “the death of scientific investigation,” is the most arrant nonsense. The universe certainly is the “theater of Will,” otherwise there could be no universe; but it is also the theater of “forces the operation of which we can hope to understand,” and to deny the latter fact is as ridiculous as to ignore the former. Much discredit has been cast on religious teachers and workers because of ignorance and shallow reasoning, but there is great danger that in the closing days of this century scientific teachers and workers will bring discredit on themselves and their calling by an equally erroneous position, not toward religion only but toward Science herself. As soon, however, as one comprehends the real motive for scientific research all such danger is dissipated, and he will earnestly seek to add his life work as—

" . . . a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race

"Of these that eye to eye shall look
On knowledge; under whose command
Is Earth and Earth's, and in their hand
Is Nature like an open book;

"No longer half akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffered is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit.