Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/November 1895/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.


How many evil doers have escaped the just penalties for their acts and what great sums of money have been lost or expended in litigation for lack of an unfailing means of proving personal identity! If the police know that A. B. committed a certain crime and catch a man who they believe is A. B., but who stoutly denies it, they must establish his identity beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction. The testimony of acquaintances and even the photographs in the Rogues' Gallery frequently fail to give certainty on this point. There is, however, a set of marks which, in the words of Pudd'nhead Wilson, "every one carries with him from the cradle to the grave" that seem to afford an infallible test. These are the patterns formed by the little ridges on the tips of the fingers. Mr. Francis Galton, whose study of the subject has already extended over seven years, calculates that there is only one chance in 64,000,000,000 of the pattern on any human finger being identical with that on any other. If the patterns of three or four fingers (or the prints from them in printer's ink) be compared, all possibility of error is eliminated, while with a set of prints from the whole ten finger's assurance is made doubly and trebly sure. Mr. Galton has published on various phases of this subject from time to time, and in his latest book[1] deals with methods of handling large collections of prints so that reference to them may be simple and rapid. It appears that, with a few border-line exceptions, every print may be classified as a loop, a whorl, or an arch. A loop on the forefinger may open toward the ulnar (little finger) or radial (thumb) side of the hand. Loops on other fingers almost always open toward the ulnar side. Where these particulars are not sufficient, minor points, such as the number of ridges from the nucleus to the outside of a loop, and breaks, junctions, or forks of the lines, etc., which an expert can point out to any intelligent person, will be found conclusive. Mr. Galton presents an abstract of the report of a British departmental committee which fully indorses his system, recommending, however, for registering and identifying habitual criminals that a part of the French system of physical measurements be combined with it. The volume contains a specimen directory of three hundred sets of prints and plates in which nearly two hundred impressions are shown. Mr. Galton suggests that finger prints could be employed also for identifying deserters from the army and detecting impersonators of deceased pensioners. This by no means exhausts their possibilities. What an expensive and troublesome litigation could have been saved if a set of finger prints of the real Tichborne heir had been on file when the "claimant" appeared! An important class of life-insurance frauds would be prevented if the companies should require the taking of finger prints as a part of their physical examination, and the abortive attempt of the United States Government to prevent the personation by Chinese immigrants of fellow-countrymen who had been in the United States and gone home could be made effectual by the same means. Mr. Galton has secured abundant official recognition of his system, and the idea is being brought into wide popular cognizance by Mark Twain's story, cited above, and its dramatization.

No happier choice of a writer to tell The Story of the Plants could have been made than Grant Allen.[2] He knows what to tell in order to give his readers a satisfactory bird's-eye view of the subject, he has a most attractive way of telling it, and, above all, he knows what to leave untold. His story is not a string of definitions nor an annotated catalogue of genera and species. It tells how plants obtain their food, how they grow, rest, and perpetuate themselves, and what means they take to overcome obstacles and protect themselves from dangers. Something is told also about the way plants lived before there was any one to describe them, and how they came to differ from one another so much as they now do. Although it is thus seen that the physiology of plants is given chief prominence, considerable is told as to their anatomy. Thus, when showing that plants eat with their leaves, the author describes the chief forms of leaves, but in such a way as to indicate that each form results from an effort of the plant to meet some particular need. Roots are described in the same way. Under the headings How Plants Marry and Various Marriage Customs, the interesting subjects of fertilization and the production of seed are explained. In the chapter What Plants Do for their Young the chief provisions for the dissemination of seeds and the nutrition of the germs within them are described. Some acquaintance with the characteristics of the chief kinds of plants is given under the heading Some Plant Biographies, where whitlow grass, the Mexican agave, the beech tree, the vetch, the coltsfoot, etc., are described. Throughout the book the reasons of things and the adaptation of means to ends are made prominent. The author states that he has "freely admitted the main results of the latest investigations, accepting throughout the evolutionary theory, and making the study of plants a first introduction to the modern principles of heredity, variation, natural selection, and adaptation to the environment." He says further that he will be disappointed if this little book does not lead the reader to pursue the subject in the fields and woods by the aid of a flora. We do not think he will be disappointed.

Is there any limit to the operation of the evolutionary process within the universe as known to us? Is man an exception, and does the popular phrase "lord of creation" mark a real distinction? Mr. Edmond Kelly[3] is convinced that man is an exception now, although subject to evolution during the earlier part of his career. Man has developed physically and mentally as other animals have. In a struggle for existence he has shown himself the fittest of all to survive. But now, says Mr. Kelly, this mode of progress has stopped. Under the influence of religion man has developed the faculty of choice and the power of self-restraint, and he is now repressing some of the instincts by which he advanced during his evolutionary period, thereby better fitting himself to live in the social relation. As a member of society he has many grave problems before him, among which Mr. Kelly calls especial attention to municipal misgovernment, pauperism, socialism, and education. Religion is recommended as the guide to be followed in solving them. It might be queried how religion is to remedy the abuses in public affairs that have grown up when religion had a stronger hold upon men than it has now. Mr. Kelly recognises that abuses have grown up under and apparently in connection with religion, but he affirms that theology and various clerical institutions were then dominant rather than real religion. He would by no means bring back the partnership of Church and State where it has been dissolved, but would have religion govern individuals in their performance of social duties. It might be supposed that it would be a matter of indifference to Mr. Kelly whether religion or science were taken as the guide in social affairs, since he takes pains to show that they reach the same goal. Perhaps he could be brought to admit that, in a certain stage of their progress, men are less fitted to follow the guidance of the former than that of the latter. At the present time they are rapidly acquiring the capacity to govern their conduct on scientific principles, but they have so far had great trouble in keeping in touch with their guide when they have attempted to regulate their conduct by religion. Perhaps they may be able to do so in the future, but we think the evolutionary process which Mr. Kelly believes is ended must go on some time longer before man can afford to dispense with the aid which the scientific method gives him.

The bird-loving amateur need be at no loss for guidance. Three manuals adapted to his wants have come to us recently, the latest being a charmingly attractive one entitled Birdcraft[4] Emerson's query, "Hast thou named all the birds without a gun?" is its motto, and any one who will identify half the species it describes, or verify half it tells about their general appearance, habits, and song, will have occupation enough for several seasons without paying attention to the matters that can be learned only from the dead bird. The sprightliness of the smaller birds makes them delightful subjects of study, their elusiveness adds zest to their pursuit, while the various mental and moral traits indicated by the actions of all kinds well deserve the attention of the psychologist. This instance of the extreme politeness ascribed to the cedar waxwing was observed by the author: "A stout green worm (for they eat animal as well as vegetable food) was passed up and down a row of eight birds; once, twice it went the rounds, until halfway on its third trip it became a wreck and dropped to the ground, so that no one enjoyed it—a commentary, in general, upon useless ceremony," Much pains is taken to represent the songs of the birds described; thus the song of the red-eyed vireo is given in the words of Wilson Flagg as "You see it! you know it! do you hear me? do you believe it?" The bluebird seems to murmur, "Dear, dear, think of it, think of it!" The Carolina wren cries joyfully, "Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweet!" while there are several versions of the bobolink's rippling song to choose from, and any one may make another to suit his fancy. The song birds by no means monopolize the volume; birds of prey, game birds, shore birds, and waterfowl are all represented by species to be seen in southern New England. Fifteen double-page plates, each bearing from seven to twenty figures of birds in their natural colours, greatly enhance the value of the hook.

  1. Finger-print Directories. By Francis Galton, F. K. S. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. Pp. 123, 8vo. Price, $2 (5s.)
  2. The Story of the Plants. By Grant Allen. The Library of Useful Stories. Illustrated. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Pp. 213, 16mo. Price, 40 cents. London: George Newnes, Ltd.
  3. Evolution and Effort. By Edmond Kelly. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Pp. 297, 12mo. Price, $1.25.
  4. Birdcraft. By Mabel Osgood Wright. Illustrated. New York and London: Macmillan & Co. Pp. 317, small 8vo. Price, $3 net.