Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


TIME was when John Stuart Mill's little book on the subject of Liberty was thought rather advanced reading. It advocated individualism—the right of every man to think his own thoughts, utter his own views, and live his own life without unnecessary control or intimidation by law or public opinion. It was an attack on every form of bigotry and an earnest appeal to all that is best and most generous in human nature to assert itself and make the world richer and better by doing so. That idea of liberty, however, is to-day to many of our social reformers an outworn mode of thought, quite inadequate, they declare, to the needs of the present time. An eminent writer, Mr. W. D. Howells, has undertaken to enlighten us on the subject in a recent number of The Forum. Part of his article is very much on the lines of certain chapters in Mr. Spencer's Justice, but the rest strikes out from those lines at a wide angle.

Mr. Howells tells us that he was in Venice "during the last years of Austrian oppression," and was a witness of the earnest longings of the people for the liberty which they anticipated from union with Italy. With these longings he strongly sympathized, though his position being an official one, that of consul, he could not venture to express his sympathy openly. He says he had a suspicion that the people were expecting more from "liberty" than they were likely to get out of it; but he assumed that "by and by, when they had been free long enough," they would take the American view of the matter and be satisfied. "They would be able to vote for this one and against that one; to make their own laws or choose legislators to make them; to speak or to print anything they liked; to go and come without asking for a passport; and this would be sufficient, though it was not all they had expected of liberty. It did not," Mr. Howells goes on to confess, "then occur to me that the Venetians had a right to expect from a free state what they unconsciously and yet really expected—security from want and from the fear of want." Had such a notion been suggested to him, he adds, he would have laughed it to scorn.

Mr. Howells has lived to recognize that citizenship in a free country does not always make a man free. It is here that he agrees with Mr. Spencer. Political liberty, he says, "appears something final, absolute, a good in itself; but it is never a good in itself, and is never final; it is a means to something good." According to Mr. Spencer (Justice, Chapter XXII), the man's real rights are the right to live, or, as he more comprehensively expresses it, to "physical integrity," the right to freedom of movement, the right to receive and enjoy what he has earned, the right of free exchange, free contract and free industry, and, finally, the right of free belief, free worship, and free speech. Apart from these, any claims a man may have must, Mr. Spencer says, be of a different kind and "can not be classed as rights." As regards the franchise, all we can properly say of it is that it "gives the citizens in general powers of checking trespasses upon their rights"—powers, he adds, "which they may or may not use to good purpose." That they are not always used to good purpose is evidenced by the fact that, in more than one country where universal suffrage exists, real rights are trampled on. Our own country, we regret to say, is used by the author of the Synthetic Philosophy as an example. "Universal suffrage," he observes, "does not prevent the corruptions of municipal governments, which impose heavy taxes and do very inefficient work; does not prevent citizens from being coerced in their private lives by dictating what they shall not drink; does not prevent an enormous majority of consumers from being heavily taxed by a protective tariff for the benefit of a small minority of manufacturers and artisans; nay, does not even effectually preserve men from violent deaths, but in sundry States allows of frequent murders, checked only by law officers who are themselves liable to be shot in the performance of their duties."

When Mr. Howells, therefore, made the discovery that political liberty might not mean liberty in any very wide sense, he discovered a truth, and one of serious import; but when he went on and attached to the idea of liberty certain advantages which individual success in the carrying on of life alone can give, he went, in our opinion, very far astray, and formulated a doctrine essentially dangerous to the well-being of society. We really wonder how so broad and serious a thinker can bring himself to write as he does in the article to which we have referred. He says: "If the Venetians had agreed with Italy when they were united to it that thenceforward all should be guaranteed the means of livelihood, they would really have all freed themselves. If the French Revolution had established these conditions, the first republic would still be one and indivisible." The nature of liberty, then, according to Mr. Howells, is not alike for all men: to some it means the right to claim a livelihood from others, and to those others it means the obligation to provide the first with a livelihood. It would be interesting to see a document drawn up which should establish liberty in this sense of the word; and after it was drawn up it would be interesting to witness its execution. The visages of the guaranteed parties would, no doubt, betoken a considerable degree of relief and satisfaction at having life's problem so comfortably settled for them; but the guarantors might be pardoned if they were not in an equally jovial mood. Where liberty comes in for the latter is a question we are not prepared to answer. If it be explained that under such an agreement everybody would guarantee everybody, the answer, which every one must feel to be true and sufficient, is, briefly, that that is nonsense.

A man is a freeman, Mr. Howells says, "if he has the means of livelihood and is assured in their possession; if he is independent of others." Other similar observations are: "Liberty and poverty are incompatible." "If (a man) has not the means of livelihood in his hand.s, he can not come and go when he will; he can not command his time, etc." "Liberty is for those who have the means of livelihood." Now, with the utmost respect for the motives of this very able writer, we are compelled to say that, in our opinion, he has here written some very mischievous stuff. By identifying liberty with the advantages which flow from a more or less successful conduct of life he virtually authorizes, so far as his words carry weight, those who have failed to secure such advantages, or who are not satisfied with the share they have gained, to lay violent hands on the possessions of others. It is deeply ingrained in the general consciousness that liberty is something which communities and individuals may vindicate for themselves—that liberty is not a thing to sue for, but to seize the moment you feel strong enough. Mr. Howells comes forward and says: "In wealth consists liberty. You have not wealth, and therefore you have not liberty; you are not free men. The only free men in this nation are the men of means, the men whose livelihood is secure." Surely this is warrant enough for those who accept it as true for taking, without more ado, the means of liberty; in other words, for overthrowing violently the present organization of society. Mr. Howells may say that he does not think much of the present order of society; but does he see his way clear beyond the chaos which would ensue if his hint were taken?

This is an old story; still, as the attacks on the true principle of liberty are unceasing, we do not see how the believers in that principle can do aught else than continually come forward in its defense. The important distinction to be observed is this: liberty is one thing; what a man can accomplish with his liberty is another. Some men can accomplish, and do accomplish, much; others, whether they can or not. do, in point of fact, accomplish little or nothing. It might not unreasonably be said that such men are not fit for liberty, and some of them prove it by getting themselves incarcerated for criminal practices. That, how ever, is another matter. Mr. Howells and others refuse to make this distinction; they say that liberty is not liberty unless you add thereto the fruits of a successful conduct of life, and that the community ought to guarantee these fruits to every man. We thus get the question into a nutshell. Mr. Howells and those who think with him must hold that the community could give such a guarantee and render it effectual; we hold that it could not, and there the argument must rest for to-day.


Prof. C. Lloyd Morgan, of Bristol University, during January gave a course of public lectures in New York, under the auspices of Columbia College. The main question considered was, How far is it likely that the individual experiences of parents are transmitted to offspring? In discussing this question Prof. Morgan gave the results of some recent experiments by himself and his students. A chick of a common fowl, hatched in an incubator, was secluded from parental care, and found to be destitute of knowledge that water is good to drink. The little creature would wade in water, and only when it pecked its toes, and so incidentally thrust its bill in the water, did it fill its mouth and turn up its head in the familiar thirst-quenching attitude. Prof. Morgan inferred that it is only by imitating its mother or in imitating another chick that drinking is usually learned. Hence, as a chick is not left to its own ignorance in the matter, natural selection has never had a chance to eliminate birds through their not knowing how to drink. From the fact that the instinct to drink is not transmitted in perfection, Prof. Morgan argues that it is not the inheritance of experience acquired during the individual life, but the natural selection of favorable variations, that determines survival. However, in the case of the megapode of the Philippine Islands, which is hatched in a mound of vegetable matter without parental care, it must be that the chick is born with perfect instinct as to drinking.

Prof. Morgan found his chicks born with an instinct to peck—at no matter what beads, pinheads were as enticing as grain. One experiment or two at most with a nauseous caterpillar proved enough for careful avoidance thereafter. Young bullfinches left to themselves were observed to pull primroses to pieces in an utterly random fashion; but some thirty trials taught them their work perfectly, so that they came as expertly as adult birds at the drop of sweet dew within the flower. Their intelligence did not create a new activity, but selected from a number of indeterminate acts the one act which was both useful and pleasant, the impulse, and the impulse only, being instinctive.

A London bird fancier, in a large way of business, was quoted by Prof. Morgan as finding that young linnets and thrushes brought up among various other birds, nevertheless sang true; young bullfinches, in the same circumstances, imitated their neighbors. A student of Prof. Morgan's secluded a young bullfinch from all opportunity of observing nests: its first nest was true in form, but not true in material, although the usual material could have been chosen by it; its second nest was true in both form and material. A cat taught by Prof. Morgan to retrieve did not transmit the talent to its family. There are on record three cases of dogs and one of a cat which did transmit to their offspring the capacity to "beg."

Prof. Morgan is to continue experiments the prime interest of which is in denoting that natural history has entered upon a new stage. Instead of merely repeating old observations of birds and beasts, instead of gathering their nests, eggs, and skins as thousands have done before, the naturalist, young or old, can easily carry forward experiments intended to throw light on unsettled questions of profound interest. He can observe how a bird varies its song or the building of its nest under circumstances which exclude the possibility of imitation. He can note the degree of domestication, very great in the case of the quail, possible with easily secured specimens of wild birds. He can ascertain whether "begging" or pointing taught a dog, and unknown before in its race, is transmitted to its puppies when these are secluded from all chance of instruction or imitation. The students who make natural selection the be-all and the end-all of evolution assume that it seizes upon favoring variations, even the slightest, as they appear. Whether these variations are indebted to parental experience directly transmitted is a question which only careful experiment can decide. The significance of the work when interpreted, the charm of coming upon results wholly new, must do much to extend interest in natural history. Often that interest comes early to a weary end in the dust of common-place and meaningless adding of shell to shell and butterfly to butterfly.