Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/March 1898/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


A PROFESSOR of biology in one of our leading universities has lately been discussing the question how far an acceptance of the doctrine of evolution is compatible with religious orthodoxy of the evangelical type. The answer he gives is on the whole comforting to those who desire to recognize new truth without breaking entirely away from old and cherished opinions. He acknowledges that science has rectified our understanding of the word "create," and so far thrown new light upon the interpretation of a Hebrew term. We are ready to admit that a term in present use in our own language may undergo a change of meaning, for this is a process which we see in constant operation; but it seems a little arbitrary to say that a word in a virtually extinct language must be taken in a new sense simply because the new sense better fits lately discovered facts. The point, however, is not one which we care to discuss at length; and if the learned professor says that the Hebrew lexicon should be revised from time to time, so as to keep it abreast of modern physical science, we see no reason to object. Let the authorities on Semitic philology look to it.

It is admitted by the writer to whom we are referring that evolution compels us to "view types and design in a new light." Types are not to be considered as "artificial models to which all actual cases must more or less closely conform." We must rather look on them as "the generalized results of variations during past generations, the accumulated effects of growth and variations somehow or other acquired in the past and, we know not why, persisting by heredity." They are not, he distinctly says, "a stamp impressed from without." As to the manifestations of design, we must regard them as "dependent on some internal qualities by which organisms became accommodated to the exigencies of their place in the world." The choice is presented to them, we are told, of becoming so accommodated or perishing; some manage the accommodation and some perish. It is needless to say that there is very little left here of the old and venerable doctrine of design, and that in the account above given of type the classical idea is equally attenuated. There is, nevertheless, we are assured, no reason why we should not "regard all these phenomena as illustrating the method of divine creation and government."

Coming down to particular theological doctrines, the writer claims that they may one and all be held consistently with a full acceptance of the evolutionary standpoint; and here again we have no desire whatever to dispute his contention. What science demands above all things is intellectual sincerity and integrity. Science in its infinite variety interests different minds in many different ways; and he who has the true scientific spirit will, so far as the order of facts in which he is especially interested is concerned, follow to the very best of his ability a rigorous scientific method. In other regions of thought or speculation he may be less exacting as to proof and more disposed to indulge what Bagehot called "the emotion of belief." Science grows by what is done for her in different fields by men who themselves may be widely at variance with one another as regards large sections of their thought. It is therefore unwise for any one to attempt to set up, in the name of science, one scheme of opinion upon all subjects for all classes of minds. We have known, or at least heard of, graceless zealots of materialism who called in question Faraday's claims to be a true man of science because he did not carry the inductive method into questions of religious belief. It is fortunate that the interests of science are not committed to the hands of such; for no possible rigor of method could make amends for the incurable narrowness of their imagination.

Science, we have said, demands intellectual integrity, and it rests with each individual, upon his own responsibility as an individual, to satisfy its demands. Science means truth; it exists to establish and advance truth, to build up in the world a coherent system of doctrine valuable for the guidance of human life and the further enlargement of human thought. It is not for one worker unnecessarily to judge another, or to impugn his fidelity to the great cause to which all owe a common allegiance. All that we can require of any man is that he should honestly present any facts with which he may be called upon to deal, and that he should not refuse a candid examination to any relevant evidence in matters that lie within the scope of his inquiries. It is no part of the business of science or of any one speaking in the name of science to say how a given individual shall assess the evidence on a given question. There is such a thing at times as force majeure in intellectual as well as in political or military matters; and where this manifestly exists for one who works strenuously for science in his own field, others who do not feel the stress may properly refrain from disrespectful comments. We hold that the message of science comes home to every man in some measure or other, bidding him to work for the truth, to rid his mind of delusion, of partiality, of prejudice, of distorting self interest. Some respond to the appeal more perfectly than others; hut it would not be safe to say that, where the most complete tabula rasa has been produced, there the greatest amount of scientific energy will be disengaged.

Holding these views, we are prepared to allow the fullest freedom to every one to reconcile in any way he pleases his religious convictions with his scientific views. How the reconciliation is effected is not our concern; it is the concern of each individual that it shall bean honest one. It is his concern and it is his responsibility; why should a stranger meddle therewith? The message of religion, reduced to its simplest terms, is identical with the message of science: "Be true!" and the man who consciously fails of intellectual sincerity will not feel much happier on the religious than on the purely intellectual side. It is that time that Ephraim ceased to envy Judah, and Judah to vex Ephraim. There is ample work in the world both for science and for religion. It is for science to establish order among ascertained phenomena and to deduce from them the laws, or some of the laws, which govern the succession of events and prescribe the conditions of human life. It is for religion to uphold the sanctity of the moral law, to which science might be tempted not to assign any special pre-eminence, and to keep open an outlook into the origin and essential nature of things, and into those as yet unrealized possibilities of existence which science, full fed upon certainties, might be disposed to ignore. Science and religion may each watch over the other with advantage, seeing that each has a besetting sin—science a tendency to a hard intellectual pride, and religion a tendency to superstition and general indifference to external evidence. If each would recognize its own weakness and accept in good part the services of the other, the result would be a higher type of moral and intellectual life than has hitherto prevailed.

Science, it must, however, be understood, is unyielding in its demand that the adhesion of the mind to any opinion or conclusion shall be governed by evidence and not determined by mere views of expediency or convenience. There is therefore a somewhat unscientific tone in the remarks of our professor when he says: "We will continue to believe that in our creation we received from God a moral nature and an immortal spirit; that we have somehow become demoralized, and that the taint of our degeneracy is hereditary." It is not scientific to say We will continue to believe" anything; if we will to believe, we turn our back on evidence, or at least are prepared to do so. And if it is not scientific to say we will believe," it is not very strictly theological to speak of believing that we have "somehow become demoralized." There is no "somehow," so far as we understand, in the orthodox view of this question, but a very definite "how." It is again very doubtful to our mind whether it is consistent with a profession of evolutionism to hold that the nature of man was originally pure and that "somehow" it degenerated. The course of evolution in the moral sphere is from actions guided by lower impulses to actions guided by higher impulses, from purely self-regarding actions to actions in which the welfare of others in ever-widening circles is taken into account. It is hard to imagine an evolution from a higher to a lower moral state.

There is a story told of John Wesley that a certain man who had come under his influence consulted him one day as to whether he might continue to wear a very handsome and expensive coat which he had bought. "Oh, yes," said Wesley, "just wear it as long as you can—as long as your conscience will allow you." More than this the great religious reformer would not say. Science has a very similar answer to give to certain inquirers: they are quite free to hold this or that opinion as long as they can—honestly. So long as they hold it honestly, Science has no fault to find with them. When the day comes, if it ever comes, that they can hold it honestly no longer, Science says, "Put it off." And any religion worthy of the name would say the same thing.


There is much in the present condition of society, not only in this country but in most of the civilized countries of the world, to give food for serious reflection as to the future to all thoughtful minds. The laws of social evolution, we commonly say, have brought us to the point where we now are; and, as this is a considerable improvement on the conditions which obtained at certain periods in the past, we have no reason whatever to be anxious as to what the future may bring forth. On the other hand, when things are demonstrably going wrong, it seems a little too much like indifference and levity to trust to the operation of some law wholly independent of our own volition or effort to put them right. Evolution, after all, is only a kind of moving balance of actions and reactions: and we do not think that Mr. Spencer himself would undertake to guarantee us against many a bad half hour in the future, if we do not ourselves see that measures are taken to remedy obvious faults in the social development of our time. One of his books, every one will remember, is entitled The Coming Slavery—not a word of promise, to say the least of it.

The difficulties of the present time are, to a large extent, the result of the very successes which society has achieved in the past. Improved economic conditions have produced vaster accumulations of wealth than the world ever saw before, and in doing so have brought the spectacle of luxury before the eyes of the multitude in a manner, and with a frequency, only too well fitted to produce envy and unrest. In former times there were a comparatively few great ones of the earth whose splendor was a dazzling vision that, seen at comparatively rare intervals, lent a certain amount of poetry to the lives of the poorer classes. To-day there is no poetry in wealth: it is something that everybody understands, and from which no one, broadly speaking, feels content to be shut out. It is looked upon as the key to the limitless satisfaction of desire, as the great emancipator from the otherwise hard conditions of life. In the days when wealth was associated with political power and responsibility, there was a kind of mute feeling in the multitude that such a combination required special qualities of mind and character which were not within the compass of all. To-day wealth stands by itself, wholly divorced in the popular mind from the notion of responsibility; and there is none so poor as not to consider himself fully qualified for the possession of any amount of it. It is not too much to say that many desire wealth, whether they are distinctly conscious of it or not, on account of the irresponsibility which they think or feel goes with it.

That this is not a healthful condition of the popular mind need hardly be insisted on. Yet it not only exists, but it is fed and ministered to in a thousand ways, and combated but in few. The rich, for the most part, justify by their mode of living and the education they give their children the popular idea of the irresponsibility of wealth. Their "pile" is made: henceforth let others labor for them. In their relations with the laboring classes they too often show a masterfulness bordering on tyranny. The conditions of business, they will perhaps say, if for a moment anything in the way of an excuse seems needed, make it necessary to be very authoritative and absolute in dealing with those whom they employ. Perhaps so, but all the same the situation is not a good one; for, just in proportion as relations of sympathy cease to exist between employer and employed, does the rich man rely more and more upon the power of his wealth, and the poor man look upon wealth as the one thing that counts in differentiating human beings from one another. In his idea it is not the "boss" who makes the wealth, it is the wealth that makes the "boss."

That the daily press greatly tends to intensify the all but universal worship of wealth is obvious to every reader. Everything is measured and discussed in terms of money. Other things, such as literature, art, science, and religion, are treated as the non-essentials: money is the essential. To express it otherwise, the former are all partial—some of them very partial—interests; money is the universal interest. The Armenian atrocities awoke much apparent and some real indignation; but how much action did they set in motion compared with the discovery of gold on the Klondike? The whole political movement of the country is based on money considerations. The offices which still remain within the politician's grasp are the mainspring of all his efforts, while those which the civil-service law has removed from his control give him the feelings which a bird seen through a closed window gives to the necessary cat. Popular education, too, is laid out upon lines which point to the supremacy of money as an object of human desire. Not first the health of the body or the health of the mind, or the harmony of the human faculties, or the right ordering of the affections, but first the preparation for grasping money. And so our schools turn out into the world annually vast multitudes of would-be money-graspers—though many of them are none too well prepared even for that function—and an extremely limited number of individuals who have imbibed any true mental or moral culture as the result of from five to ten years' alleged education.

The extraordinary amount of attention bestowed upon sport and other forms of amusement in the present day can not be considered a favorable sign. Open-air sports, no doubt, conduce to physical development; but it may be questioned whether the interest which they inspire arises from any sense of their importance in this respect. Local rivalries and the spirit of faction have much more to do with it. Another point is that talk about sport is the easiest kind of talk for empty minds; and what floods of it are sweeping the land to day no one needs to be told. Considering the wealth of matter for conversation which the modern world affords, it is lamentable to think how many households among the comfortable classes seem almost incapable of discussing any other subject morning, noon, and night than games of one kind and another and the "records" made by pitchers, batters, throwers, runners, kickers, and sluggers. People of presumed education, who will only scan the head lines of the news in regard to important social and political movements, will read every line of the prolix reports devoted to the doings of the sporting world. In the language of the day a match between two football or hockey clubs is an "event." All this means, we do not hesitate to say, a hurtful amount of mental dissipation; and it means also, we fear, the cultivation of idle habits. To what extent the work of our educational institutions is impaired by the undue devotion of the young to sports, many leading educators are prepared to attest. It is not, they will say, the time actually spent upon games that counts against study, so much as the everlasting occupation of brain and tongue with the discussion of games. It is there the evil lies.

Here again we see a result of the material advance of society. People are more self-indulgent because they have the means of being so. They give more time and thought to amusements, because amusements are continually being brought to their very doors, and in a hundred ways forced on their attention. And yet there is a residuum in society that knows little of amusement. There is even a section of the community that lives below the level at which amusement is possible. A race enervated by self-indulgence is not in a fit condition to grapple vigorously with its social problems, and yet social problems too long neglected may take on some day a very alarming form. It is evident that there is much for serious-minded men and women to do to prevent an actual degeneration of character and intellect in our time. We want new and higher social ideals, and the question is how to create them. We want to destroy the fascination of mere money. We want more of equality in the community and less of caste; but the equality, or the approach to it, should be produced by a leveling up of those who are now below a decent standard of culture, not by any debasing of those who have reached such a standard. We want, of course we want, a purer tone in our politics; and that we can not have till those who make the politician are imbued with some sense of public duty. There are hundreds of agencies for good at work in the land; but many of these condemn themselves to partial sterility through the comparative narrowness of their aims, and sometimes through the exaggeration of language with winch they urge their special reforms. It is human nature at large that wants uplifting; and if the light is in the world—as it is—the light of reason, of truth, of charity, why may we not hope to make it shine more widely, and so create for ourselves a social state whereof we shall not need to be ashamed?