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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.

 
THE DUKE OF ARGYLL ON EVOLUTION.

THE Duke of Argyll is a writer who finds it very hard to reconcile himself to the doctrine of evolution in the only form in which it can ever prove satisfactory to the scientific world. He believes in evolution, or, as he prefers to call it. development; but he wants to have it in a shape to suit himself, with little touches of special creation thrown in here and there, to ease off the difficult places and keep in touch with older modes of thought. He has lately returned to the subject in an article in The Nineteenth Century, some of the observations in which seem to us deserving of attention.

In the first place, we have the complaint that "the very word 'development' was captured by the Darwinian school as if it belonged to them alone, and the old familiar idea was identified with theories with which it had no connection whatever." The fact is that, if the Darwinian school captured the word development, it was not so much the result of a freebooting raid on their part as of the complete abandonment and rejection of the idea of development, in all that related to the origin of species, on the part of that orthodox school to which the duke gives so much sympathy. As his Lordship remarks, the facts of development had long been conspicuous in embryonic growth and in the production of plants from seeds; and yet when the idea was broached that one species might have been "developed" out of another, or that the work of creation could have proceeded otherwise than by a succession of special divine fiats, the whole orthodox world was up in arms. The "facts" of development, in spite of the "familiarity" on which the duke lays stress, had really done nothing to modify popular conception on this subject; on the contrary, opinion in the age just preceding Darwin was less enlightened by far than had been the views of many early thinkers, including that rigid doctrinarian St. Augustine. The idea of development, as applied to the origin of species, was, we may therefore say, forced upon an unwilling world by Darwin; and it is no wonder, consequently, if to some extent the idea became identified in the public mind with the Darwinian theory.

We can not agree with the duke in his criticism of the term "natural selection." The question is not how the term has been understood by careless or ignorant people, because such will always make a bungle of things, but whether it has concealed any false implications for those who have made a thoughtful use of it. The duke says that "it resorted to the old, old Lucretian expedient of personifying Nature and lending the glamour of that personification to the agency of bare mechanical necessity and to the coincidences of mere fortuity." We doubt whether, in the minds of serious thinkers, such a "glamour" ever attached to the term. On the contrary, we are persuaded that to such it suggested nothing beyond a kind of automatic movement in Nature by which the adaptation of organisms to their cosmic surroundings became ever closer and closer. His Lordship says that Darwin was led to the phrase "by an intellectual instinct which is insuperable—viz., the instinct which sees the highest explanations of Nature in the analogies of mental purpose and direction. But," he adds, "Darwin neither saw nor admitted its implications." If Darwin neither saw nor admitted its implications—by which the writer means its teleological implications—it was a very blind instinct indeed which led him to choose the term because of those implications. The fact is that Darwin had little choice in the matter. Human language is necessarily so tinctured with the idea of purpose that it is extremely difficult to find terms expressive of action which do not in some degree or other seem to imply purpose. Then we are told that "the great bulk of Darwin's admirers rejoiced in his theory for the very reason that it rested mainly on the idea of fortuity." How does this agree with the previous statement that the success of the term "natural selection" was chiefly due to the glamour it threw over men's minds as being a kind of personification of Nature? It seems as if his Lordship had not quite made up his mind as to what his views really are on this point.

We are told, not for the first time, that "it would be as rational to account for the poem of the Iliad, or for the play of Hamlet, by supposing that the words and letters were adjusted to the conceptions by some process of natural selection, as to account by the same formula for the intricate and glorious harmonies of structure with function in organic life." Statements of this kind, we must confess, seem to us rather inept. The argument is: the words of the Iliad or of Hamlet are so arranged as to render certain meanings; we know that these words were chosen by a conscious intelligent agent; wherever, therefore, we find that any arrangements in Nature are adapted to produce definite effects, we are entitled to conclude that those arrangements also had their origin in conscious and purposive effort. In other words, because results are reached in one case, or in certain cases, by purposive efforts, they must be so in all cases. Manifestly the conclusion is illicit, and yet the argument is continually being served up to us in essentially this shape. The duke talks of the "intricate and glorious harmonies" of Nature, but does he rest his argument on harmonics of this rich order? If so, where does he draw the line? How intricate and how glorious must a harmony be in order to make good its claim to a purposive origin? And may it be assumed that humbler harmonies may be the result of unconscious processes? This is no trivial logic-chopping question; it is all-important. We presume, from the duke's seeming to rest his argument on the higher harmonies, that he is prepared to abandon the lower to the reign of purely physical law; and if so, the believer in natural selection and other evolutionary formulas would like to know the extent of his conceded domain. Our impression is that, if he once gets a foot of space in the world of action and reaction, no "pent-up Utica" will long confine his powers. We may say as much of the contrary theory: once make it plain that any adaptation in Nature is distinctly purposive, and the dominion of purpose will become a universal dominion.

From our point of view, we must frankly confess, the idea of purpose is simply a drag on the interpretation of Nature. It is one of those short cuts which it does not pay to take. In so far as we assume purpose we cease to be interested in method or process. Voluntary action only comes in to do that which could not be effected by involuntary action; and therefore if, in tracing back any chain of causation, we come to a point where we conclude that voluntary action manifests itself, we do not seek an explanation of that. It does not follow, however, that, because the idea of purpose is a drag on the scientific interpretation of Nature, it has no place in a rational scheme of thought. It is possible to believe, and with deep conviction, in purposes that can not be traced; and this, in our opinion, implies a more truly religious spirit than the attempt to read the petty thoughts of man into the everlasting statutes of the universe. To undertake, as the Duke of Argyll does, to indicate at what precise points in the sequence of events there must have been the introduction of a divine power does not seem to us to be religious in the best sense. At best of times we know but in part; where we know not at all let us acknowledge our ignorance, but let us not say that, because we are ignorant, we must surely be upon holier ground.

 

 

Since the above was written, a further article by the Duke of Argyll in criticism of Mr. Spencer's views has been given to the world; and, as we have our hand in, we may as well deal with it in the remaining space at our disposal. The writer declares very positively that we deceive ourselves "when we think or talk of organs being made or fitted by use," the idea being, he says, "strictly speaking nonsense," as organs are made "for use, not by use." This would be an important statement if there was only the least reason for believing it to be true, which there is not. The distinguished disputant simply assumes the conclusion which it is the purpose of his lengthy argumentation to prove. We can claim with tolerable confidence to know that organs are formed, or have been formed, by the combined action of use and natural selection, but we have absolutely no knowledge in regard to the deliberate formation of organs for use. We can not even begin to imagine what the nature of such a process would be.

The duke makes, however, a true and important remark when he says that "we have no antecedent knowledge of the Creator which can possibly entitle us to form any presumption as to his methods of operation." How vain, then, to say that He intervenes to form organs for use, creating them first in a very rudimentary form, and gradually improving them in the course of ages! It is because of their profound conviction that the Creator's ways are past finding out—that they can not possibly be level with the comprehension of man—that evolutionists limit themselves so strictly to the simple sequence and filiation of phenomena. When the duke says that he "can not accept, or even respect, the opinion of men who, in describing the facts of Nature, use perpetually the language of intention, and then repudiate the implications of that language when they talk what they call science of philosophy," he overlooks the fact referred to above, that as a general thing "the language of intention" is chosen because none other is available. When we say that running water sifts earthy matter, we may seem to use the language of intention, sifting being a definite action resulting in a definite, and what might look like a purposive, arrangement of the materials subjected thereto; but surely we are not required to attribute intention to the running water. It is difficult to please the duke, however; he declines to respect the opinions of those who use the language of intention without fully accepting all its implications; and, on the other hand, when Mr. Spencer seeks out the word "equilibration" to express adjustment of structure to function, he is indignant at him for not using the language of intention. He declares the word to be "laboriously barbarous and incompetent in its meaning," and altogether a "hideous creation." It always comes round to this in the end that the duke is entirely right and his opponents entirely wrong; and if that gratifying conclusion can not be proved, why, then it is assumed. We wonder "whether the critic could not possibly make a personal application of the following judicious observation which we find in his article: "It is one of the infirmities of the human mind that, when it is thoroughly possessed by one idea, it not only sees everything in the light of that idea, but can see nothing that does not lend itself to support the dominant conception." This is precisely the duke's case: he sees nothing that does not to his mind seem to support his dominant conception; and yet, strange to say, after delivering himself of the apothegm, the only application he can make of it is to "the Darwinian school." If ever there was a case in which one might whisper, "De te fabula narratur," this seems to be one.

On the subject of rudimentary organs Mr. Spencer's critic indulges in much special pleading. He says we can never be sure "whether these represent organs which have degenerated or organs which are waiting to be completed." Few naturalists, we think, would agree to this. But why should any organ "wait to be completed," unless its completion is dependent on some prolonged natural process? And if a natural process can complete an organ, why might not a natural process have created its first beginnings? The duke seems to us to do here something more illegitimate than anything he charges on the Darwinian school. Confronted with the fact that organs are developed by a series of actions and reactions, of increments and adaptations, each one of which has its place in the chain of physical antecedents and consequents, he deliberately uses the expression "waiting to be completed" for the purpose of creating the impression that natural processes count for nothing, but that the "completion" depends on some kind of divine fiat. If the organs in question are in reality being completed by small improvements in adaptation from generation to generation which, no doubt, the duke believes is it honest to speak of them as "waiting to be completed"? We do not speak of a tree "waiting" to grow when it is growing, or of fruit "waiting" to ripen when it is ripening.

Finally, the duke says that a philosophy which is neutral "on the most fundamental of all questions respecting the interpretation of the universe"—the question, namely, "whether the physical forces are the masters or the servants of that house in which we live"—"can not properly be said to be a philosophy at all." It seems to us, on the contrary, that it is just because Mr. Spencer leaves that question unanswered, and shows that it must remain unanswered at least in any sense that would satisfy the Duke of Argyll—that his system may claim to be a philosophy. His real answer to the question, as we conceive, would be that the physical forces are alternately servants and masters. They are servants as ministering to our mental operations and masters as determining their limits. The powers of mind are servants as being everywhere conditioned by the laws of matter, and they are masters as being alone interpretative of the universe. We are only landed in blank confusion and hopeless contradiction if we try to assign a positive and undivided supremacy to either mind or matter. No one can doubt that the Duke of Argyll is very sincere in his attachment to pre-Darwinian modes of thought; but it is no less certain that the arguments which he directs against the new philosophy have a singularly unconvincing quality. He is a writer who seems to have exhausted all his intellectual forces in convincing himself: the more carefully we read him, the more the impression grows that he has compassed sea and land, and laid a vast amount of knowledge under contribution, in a strenuous and successful effort to be on the wrong side.

 

 
A NEW SOCIAL PROBLEM.

As must have been long apparent to a critical observer of "the tendencies of the times," the department store, to which so many master minds applied themselves during the legislative season just closed, was bound, sooner or later, to rise to the dignity and importance of a new "social problem." It exhibited precisely those traits that appeal so powerfully to the shortsighted philanthropy and superficial knowledge of the "new" social reformer. It required a large concentration of capital, which has come to be regarded as prima facie evidence of "social peril." Because of certain economies it was able to effect, it brought about a reduction in prices, which is likewise believed by a well-known school of "uninstructed economists" to be a deplorable evil. Finally, it tended to crowd to the wall smaller concerns dealing in the same class of goods, that found themselves unable to compete with it.

Here were all the elements that go to make up a first-class "social problem." A vivid imagination, inflamed by a deep sympathy with immediate inconvenience and suffering, drew a harrowing picture of the distress to individuals and to society. In the first place, there were the small shopkeepers, high-spirited and independent, driven out of business and compelled to become "mere clerks" under the roof of their merciless rival. In the second place, there were the empty stores scattered all over a city that had been occupied to the advantage of their owners. In the third place, there were the loss of general knowledge of any given business, the confinement of the poor clerks to some special department, and their reduction to the humiliating and paralyzing position of "only cogs in a great piece of commercial machinery." Is it any wonder that such a spectacle moved the hearts of the philanthropists and statesmen in the Legislatures of Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, and New York? Was it not as plain as a pikestaff that something was wrong? Was it not "the duty of society" to remedy it? Who could be so ignorant and callous as to insist that these questions were absurd—that they applied to the spinning jenny and the power loom as well as to the department store?

Yet such is the fact. The department store is as much a labor-saving device as a steam engine or the telegraph and telephone. One as much as the other is a product of industrial evolution. Like the mediæval fair or the modern market, the department store is a segregation of commodities and of buyers and sellers. Like the perfecting press also, which unites in one machine several distinct processes, such as inking, printing, cutting, and folding, it is an integration under one management of a number of forms of trade carried on under different managements. It enables capital to gain such generous rewards that it can command executive talents of a far higher order than those content with the profits of a small concern. As a consequence, its management is the most efficient—that is to say, the most economical. Obeying still further the law of evolution, the several departments also fall into the most efficient hands. The subordinates are likewise intrusted with the particular duties they are best fitted for. Thus, from top to bottom, there is an adaptation of means to ends far beyond the reach of an establishment where the management is of a low order of ability and the subordinates unite in their duties a variety of functions. A further gain is had from saving in rents, and from the purchase of goods in large quantities. Besides economy in prices, so important to the multitude of consumers, whose welfare the "new" social reformer seldom considers, there is economy in time and effort. The department store enables them to obtain what they want with a minimum of movement.

In absolute ignorance of the nature and achievements of the immutable law that has called the department store into existence, the "new" social reformer has begun to wrestle, as already stated, with the "problem" it presents. He has begun to repeat the follies that every inventor from Arkwright down has had to face. To be sure, no department store has been sacked or burned; but the legislation proposed as a "remedy" has virtually the same object in view, namely, the destruction of an important labor-saving device. But, most happily, it presents difficulties to its enemies that a mere machine does not offer. Not long ago, when a number of them met in Chicago to propose a solution of the "problem," they could not, as might have been foreseen, agree upon the limit to put upon the kinds of goods the department store should sell. Hardly had the druggist vented his grievance and suggested the rigid exclusion of his goods before the tobacconist arose to protest against the incursion of the druggist into his domain. The grocer filed a like complaint against the butcher, who sells vegetables as well as meat. It was discovered also that the butcher trespassed upon the fishmonger and the oyster dealer. In selling beer and liquor, the grocer was guilty of a similar offense against the saloon keeper. Equally culpable was the tobacconist who sold papers and umbrellas; the shoe dealer who sold, trunks and valises; the bookseller who dealt in candy and stationery; and the milliner who sold corsets and toilet articles. In fact, the meeting contained hardly a protestant that did not deal in one or more articles outside of his specialty, and thus present the same "serious problem" that the department store docs. Naturally, it broke up without having reached a decision as to how the "problem" should be solved.

Although the same insuperable difficulties confront the "new" social reformer and are not unlikely to prevent him from getting the legislation so generally regarded as the solvent of most troubles, the "problem" of the department store is not insoluble. That is to say, a limit upon its scope is not impossible nor improbable. But the limit will not be drawn by the "wise legislator," but by the law of evolution itself. There is reason to believe that the small store, devoted to special lines of goods, will not succumb altogether. Of certain staple goods and of all goods of a medium or inferior quality, the department store will doubtless retain the monopoly.

But in the highest class of certain goods, such as furs, linens, tailor-made gowns and suits, diamonds and jewelry, porcelain and furniture, the small dealer may be expected to control the retail trade. He alone will possess the high degree of special knowledge and be able to give the personal attention that his business requires. He alone will find it worth his while to cater to the few but wealthy customers that want the best to be had. The department store will find it more profitable, as indeed it does now, to cater to the larger class of customers that care more for cheapness than great excellence. Because of this fact, it is already noticeable, particularly in the inland cities, that specialists have begun to establish themselves, usually taking modest apartments in some large commercial building. Thus, in spite of the department store and without the aid of the "new" social reformer, there will be preserved to the world this class of people with all their "manhood" and "independence," thought to be so important to civilization.