Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/July 1896/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.


Under the able editorship of Sir Henry E. Roscoe the Century Science series continues to afford popular biographies of the leading European scientists of the nineteenth century, written by those who are to-day filling the places of their departed masters.[1] The life of Lyell was a steady and comfortable progress in knowledge and fame. He did not have congenital poverty or other serious obstacle to contend with, and his talents were high enough and his opportunities broad enough to insure his efforts a rich reward. The English universities had little of science to give in the second decade of the present century, so that Lyell's training in geology was picked up from outside sources in vacations and during his few years of not very arduous practice of the law. Prof. Bonney gives us a vivid sense of the paralyzing influence which was still exerted upon geology and all other branches of science in Lyell's early life by the supposed necessity for making all discoveries in the realm of Nature conform to the language of the Scriptures. Lyell was always in the van of the advanced thinkers in his chosen field, and apparently maintained this position without open rupture with the theologians. In describing his epoch-making work, the Principles of Geology, Prof. Bonney says, "It proved the writer to be not only a careful observer and a reasoner of exceptional inductive power, but also a man of general culture and a master of his mother tongue." Doubtless his literary ability joined with a happy endowment of tact enabled him to contribute greatly to the scientific revolution which culminated in Darwin, without being pilloried as Darwin was. Most of the events of Lyell's life are given in chronological order, but the author departs from this plan to give in one chapter a connected history of the eleven editions of the Principles that appeared in Lyell's lifetime. That he was a scientist of a high order is shown by the fact that he was able to change his opinion on an important question late in life, namely, the origin of species, when such evidence as Darwin presented was brought to bear upon it. This conduct caused Darwin to write, "Considering his age, his former views, and position in society, I think his action has been heroic"; and Prof. Bonney estimates as perhaps a greater service than any of his contributions to knowledge the constant readiness of Lyell to learn from others, and the manifestation of a judicial mind raised far above all partisanship and pride of opinion.

It needs but a glance at the finely cut features and long, high-vaulted cranium represented in the portrait of James Clerk Maxwell to show that his biographer has to record the life and labors of a genius. No one but a genius could have united Maxwell's mathematical penetration with his poetical ability, and the fact that his intellect was not well rounded on all sides is also characteristic of genius. His chief defects were a weakness in analysis and an inability to bring his teaching down to the level of the ordinary student. Mr. Glazebrook tells the story of Maxwell's life in a little less than the first half of the book before us, devoting the rest to an account of his works. The first part is enlivened by a sprinkling of characteristic incidents, while many extracts from his letters and addresses, together with a few of his verses, help to show the real nature of the man. His scientific work is grouped under three heads: Color perception, molecular physics, and electrical theories. He made researches experimentally as well as by mathematical processes, and a spinning top carrying various colored disks of paper became in his hands a most effective piece of apparatus. His later views on the molecular theory are to be found in the articles Atom and Diffusion in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but more important than his achievements in the two foregoing subjects were his theories as to electricity and magnetism. What these were our author tells with considerable fullness, giving some history of the subject before Maxwell, and quoting frequently from Maxwell's papers. A concluding chapter shows how discoveries made since his death, especially those of Hertz, have firmly established his views. Throughout the volume the effort has been constant to give readers with little knowledge of mathematics a realizing sense of the truths of physical science discovered by Maxwell, but it was impossible to avoid some details which only adepts will appreciate.

In the two parts of his recent book[2] Prof. Zahm has performed two services for Christians, especially Catholics, who are not quite clear as to what evolution is, and are concerned about the alleged conflict between this doctrine and religion. He first explains evolution with mi;ch fullness of detail and in an entirely nontechnical manner. He corrects at the outset the common error which restricts evolution to Darwinism, although he states that in this book he will deal especially with evolution in the organic kingdoms. He finds some rudiments of the theory in the speculations of the Greek philosophers, and traces its history down to the present time; he tells of the fanciful notions concerning fossils and gigantic bones found in the earth, which were held down to a recent period; he gives a sketch of the spontaneous generation controversy; and in two chapters he presents the evidences of evolution and the objections that have been urged against it. Then taking up the alleged conflict, which he everywhere treats as unreal, he ascribes many of the misunderstandings on this matter to misuse of terms, especially the terms "Creation" and "Nature," which he undertakes to define in accordance with Catholic theology. Classifying evolutionists as monists, agnostics, and theists, he discusses in succession their several standpoints as regards religion. In discussing monism he deals only with the utterances of Ernst Haeckel, whom he handles without gloves. He is more moderate with the exponents of agnosticism, although rating this view as worse than atheism, because the atheist will discuss the existence of God, while the agnostic denies that there are any data for such a discussion. He falls into the common error as to the source from which Huxley obtained the word agnostic, but gives in a footnote a quotation from a writer who evidently knew its real origin. He sees nothing hostile to religion in theistic evolution, finding its germs even in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, while he shows that learned doctors of the Church have defined creation in a way which readily admits the operation of the evolutionary process. Taking up spontaneous generation again, he declares that belief in the possibility of this action—provided that force and matter he always regarded as under Divine guidance—is contrary to neither faith nor philosophy. It is allowable also to believe that man's body was derived from an ancestry of the lower animals, though his soul must be held as "in the case of each individual, directly and immediately created by God himself." Prof. Zahm expresses himself everywhere clearly, temperately, and in a readable manner. This is not his first publication on the relations of science and religion, but it is likely to be his last, as he has been called since it appeared to honorable duties at Rome, which probably will not leave him opportunity for further work in this field.

Although giving quite a full and coherent account of his scientific work, the Life, of Romanes[3] derives its chief value from the insight it gives into the private life and religious experiences of its subject. For a book written by his wife and completed just a year after his death this is entirely natural and commendable, and being thus largely a memorial tribute of affection it does not challenge the ordinary criticism of the reviewer. The first twenty-five years of Mr. Romanes's life are disposed of in eight pages. Then comes an account of his writing the essay which won the Burney Prize of 1873. The record of his life-work in biological investigations begins with researches on the nervous system of the Medusæ; and continues with his work on pangenesis, animal intelligence, physiological selection, inheritance of acquired characters, and various excursions on minor matters. The information given on these subjects is contained mainly in the correspondence which Romanes carried on with Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, Thiselton-Dyer, E. B. Poulton, E. Schaefer, and others, for his wife has endeavored "to let him, especially in matters scientific, speak for himself." In this respect she is somewhat hampered by the fact that he "lived in almost daily intercourse for parts of many years with more than one of his most intimate friends. Hence there are no letters to several people with whom he was in the habit of discussing scientific, philosophic, and theological questions." There are also many letters relating to his personal affairs, his journeys for recreation or pleasure, and his diversions, of which music, writing poetry, and shooting were the chief. There is an evident solicitude on the part of Mrs. Romanes to show that her husband died in the Christian faith. Early in the volume she describes his period of agnosticism as an "eclipse of faith," and toward the end she devotes much space to his correspondence and his expressions of favorable views on religious matters. No attempt has been made to weigh the value of his contributions to science. The volume is illustrated with a frontispiece portrait and views of two houses in which Mr. Romanes resided.

  1. Charles Lyell and Modern Geology. By Prof. T. G. Bonney. Pp. 224, 12mo.—James Clerk Maxwell and Modern Physics. By R. T. Glazebrook, F. R. S. Pp. 224, 12mo. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd. New York: Macmillan & Co. Price, $1.25 each.
  2. Evolution and Dogma. By Rev. J. A. Zahm, C. S. C. Pp. 461, 12mo. Chicago: D. H. McBride & Co.
  3. The Life and Letters of George John Romanes. Written and edited by his Wife. Pp. 360, 8vo. London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green & Co. Price, $4.