Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/Editor's Table
WE called attention last month to a weak attack on the doctrine of evolution by a certain Mr. A. J. Smith, Superintendent of Public Schools in the city of St. Paul. The only thing which gave any consequence to the deliverance in question was that it was addressed to a large gathering of public-school teachers, who might possibly have been unduly influenced in their appreciation of it by the speaker's official position. We are glad now to learn that, very shortly after the publication of Superintendent Smith's address, an excellent statement of the true relation of the doctrine of evolution to education was made in one of the city pulpits by the Rev. S. G. Smith, who did not boast, as the superintendent had done, of having made an exhaustive study of the subject, but who, nevertheless, showed that he had a grasp of it which the other altogether lacked. The Rev. Mr. Smith's discourse would have merited attention wherever it might have been delivered; but, considered as a pulpit utterance, it seems to us to possess a special and very encouraging significance. We need hardly say that the pulpit has not always been friendly to broad scientific views, but in this case it has spoken with a candor, a breadth, and an intelligence which the lecture platform can not do more than equal, and which it would certainly be too much to look for in all our colleges.
"The law of evolution," said the reverend gentleman, "is as universal in its application as the law of gravitation. It holds that in every realm the simple tends to become complex, and that the complex is more stable than the simple. Motion and matter have a history in which the simple and the indefinite take on variety of organization and definiteness of adaptation." This is a statement in which the author of the Synthetic Philosophy would probably have very little change to suggest. Mr. Smith does not, like so many who discuss the subject in a superficial manner, confound evolution with Darwinism. Darwinism, he recognizes, may, in its particular explanations as to the origin of species and the descent of life, be in error; but evolution is universal in its scope, and can only fail if it can be shown that the fundamental postulates on which it rests, such as the instability of the homogeneous, the continuity of motion, the law of rhythm, etc., are not to be depended on. Must a person have made the circle of the sciences and comprehended all knowledge before he can reasonably profess a belief in evolution? No, says Mr. Smith; when the foundations of a doctrine have been clearly laid, when they have been tested by many different investigators from many different points of view, and when these, almost without exception, affirm that the doctrine is not only in harmony with, but lends a new and deeper significance to, the several orders of fact with which they are individually concerned, any person of ordinary intelligence is justified in considering that doctrine as satisfactorily proved and giving it his personal adhesion.
What chiefly excited the ire of Superintendent A. J. Smith was the contention of evolutionists that the modern child reflects the earlier stages of human development. He asked his audience if they really thought the children of to-day were young savages, and quoted Emerson and Longfellow as authorities on the question. The Rev. S. Gr. Smith takes up the point and expresses himself as follows: "When it is stated that the child has many points of contact with primitive man, it is not meant that the child is a savage, but that 'in its immaturity' we can learn much respecting it from the study of child races. The child has neither the virtues nor the vices of the savage, but he has many of the mental characteristics. Embryology does not teach that in prenatal life the child passes into the form of every animal in a menagerie, but that its life passes through the stages that mark the great subdivisions of all life. Nor do the comparisons of the child with primitive man imply that he must pass through all the activities of savage races, but that the development of his faculties, the tendencies of his desires, the state of his ignorance, all illustrate the history of the development of the race. Primitive man may be understood by a study of the child, and, conversely, the child may be illustrated by primitive man."
It must be borne in mind that the child is in constant contact with its elders, that it is subject to the restraints which they impose, and that it lives more or less in an atmosphere of affection and care. There is excellent reason, therefore, why it should not resemble primitive man in all points. Its daily life is really controlled and guided by a higher power. In some cases there is even too much control and guidance; the conditions are made too artificial, and the development of the child's nature suffers in consequence. When the age of manhood or womanhood is reached there is something lacking, precisely because enough scope was not left for the primitive or, as we may very properly say, the "savage" instincts of childhood. A great French writer, Joseph de Maistre, quotes a popular saying to the effect that "spoilt children always turn out well." So far as there is any truth in it, the explanation is that the spoilt child is one that has a great deal of its own way, and is left to work out the savage and so acquire a sounder foundation for its future life. In how many of us are there not chained savages that might have made their escape in earlier years if they had only been allowed! It is a dangerous thing to try to make little angels of children.
The Rev. Mr. Smith is quite right in what he says as to the predominance of the imagination in children, this being another strong point of resemblance to primitive man. "The beginnings of history and institutions," he truly says, "can only be understood when we remember that races in their early development do not have clearly marked activities of imagination, reason, and memory. They mix the three. So legends, myths, and heroics are earnest efforts of the undeveloped mind to make objective the truth, and are not clumsy lies at all." Applying this to the child, the conclusion is that "he must be fed through his imagination or he will not grow." A very imaginative child is apt to be accused of falsehood, when he simply fails to distinguish between things imagined and things remembered. Neither the child nor the savage can concentrate his attention, and to force either to do so beyond a certain very limited measure is simply to injure and deform such natural powers as he possesses. The amount of mischief which a dogmatic and over-logical teacher, wholly ignorant of the psychology of the child, can do is beyond all calculation.
It is needless, however, to pursue the parallel further, though the Rev. Mr. Smith very properly carries it into the region of morals, where it is no less close than in that of intellectual action. There is another interesting aspect of evolution which the reverend gentleman glances at, and that is its bearing on general courses of study. History and literature, considered as departments of research, it has largely transformed by substituting for conventional categories and abstract notions the perception of a genetic process pervading all the works of the human spirit and linking them into an organic unity. In conclusion, we may observe that, if Superintendent A. J. Smith had not made some foolish remarks in a rather ostentatious manner, it is probable the Rev. S. G. Smith would not have delivered the excellent discourse on which we have commented, and which we feel sure will far outweigh in general effect the performance which called it forth. The conclusions to be drawn are the pleasing ones that good may sometimes come out of evil, and that a free pulpit is admirably adapted to guard the interests of liberty and common sense.
The address delivered at the last meeting of the British Association by the president of the Anthropological Section contained nothing that was strikingly novel—it is not every year that striking novelties can be announced—but it dealt in an interesting manner with several phases of a most important subject. The speaker, Professor Brabrook, took the position that the order of the universe is expressed in continuity, not cataclysm, and that this principle will be found illustrated in every branch of anthropological research, in direct proportion to the completeness of the data obtained. He admitted the vastness of the gap which still separates the remains of palæolithic from those of neolithic man, but expressed the belief that further explorations would bring intermediate relics to light. To quote the speaker's words: "The evidence we want relates to events which took place at so great a distance of time that we may well wait patiently for it, assured that somewhere or other these missing links must have existed, and probably are still to be found."
Reference was made to the labors which are now being usefully expended in gathering what is called the folklore of various communities, and to the result which continually appears with fuller evidence, namely, that the tendency of mankind everywhere is to develop like fancies and ideas at a like stage of intellectual development. Full of detail as these stories are, they are found to contain but a few primitive ideas; and it seems not improbable that to a large extent they are essentially Nature myths. Mr. Brabrook happily quotes Lord Bacon's description of such narratives as "sacred relics, gentle whispers and the breath of better times." The "better times" are a part of the general system of myth; but who will deny that there is a special charm in these early documents of our race? "Let one of our literary exquisites," said a thoughtful French writer, "try to write a fairy tale which shall neither be a pretentious apologue nor a tiresome and transparent allegory, and he will soon feel that mere cleverness does not suffice to create these marvelous narratives, and will conceive a just admiration for those who constructed them, that is to say, everybody and nobody."
The progress of anthropology, according to the president of the section, seems more and more to confirm the theory adopted by Fustel de Coulanges in France and Spencer in England, that the belief in spirits lies at the basis of all religious systems. We thus see, to use his words, "that the group of theories and practices which constitute the great province of man's emotions and mental operations expressed in the term 'religion' has passed through the same stages, and produced itself in the same way, from rude early beginnings, as every other mental exertion." Mr. Brabrook mentions a work lately published by "a distinguished missionary of the Evangelical Society of Paris," the Rev. Mr. Coillard, in which an account is given of the superstitions prevailing among the natives of the upper Zambesi. The reverend gentleman tells of their belief in witchcraft, and gives a story of a young woman who was condemned to penal labor on suspicion of having bewitched, or tried to bewitch, another young woman who had taken her husband from her; the evidence of the crime being found in a dead mouse, which had been discovered in the second young woman's chamber. The missionary says: "She was made a convict. A few years ago she would have been burned alive. Ah, my friends, paganism is an odious and a cruel thing!" On which the president of the Anthropological Section observes: "Ah, Mr. Coillard, is it many years ago that she would have been burned alive or drowned in Christian England or Christian America? Surely the odiousness and the cruelty are not special to paganism any more than to Christianity." This is much to the point. If witchcraft is no longer a recognized crime in England or America, it is not because these lands are Christian, but because science is mixed with their Christianity. Even missionaries ought to know this.
A great many different sciences are grouped under the name "anthropology," but they all have their rallying point in man, whose nature and history they seek to explore. The fact is that all sciences should have the same rallying point; and we trust that the greater interest which is visibly being taken year by year in anthropological studies will tend to humanize in a beneficial degree the whole circle of human knowledge.
That the incessant encroachment of the Government upon the rights of the individual will produce social decadence is a truth that most Americans have yet to learn. With a light heart they are constantly approving scheme after scheme for social regeneration that involves some restriction upon freedom, or an increase of taxation, or both. It is not perhaps singular that the history of similar schemes in the past should possess no lesson for them. When President Eliot, of Harvard University, says that the experience of the Italian republics has no value for us, it is not to be expected that persons with less capacity to interpret the records of other times should attach little or no importance to them. But they ought not most certainly to maintain the same attitude toward the experience of the nations of today. It is to blind their eyes to what does not rest upon hearsay or upon dubious documents—to what admits of the clearest demonstration at the hands of living witnesses.
For this reason we urge upon all students of social science the study of the condition of the inhabitants of the black-earth region of Russia. In that field, one of the largest and most fruitful in the world for investigation, they will find the amplest evidence of the frightful havoc wrought hy the abridgment of individual freedom and the seizure of private property in the form of taxes for public purposes. If it be said that Russia is an autocracy, and can not therefore furnish instruction to a democracy like the United States, the answer is easy, if not obvious. Despotism, like gravitation, is the same all over the world. It makes no difference in the long run whether a law abridging freedom issues from the palace of a czar or from the legislative halls of a popular assembly. The individual objecting to it is obliged to regulate his life, not in accordance with his own notions, but in accordance with the notions of some one else. It makes no difference, either, whether taxation is imposed by an imperial edict or by a legislative vote. The citizens that have to bear it against their will contribute money for purposes that some one else only approves of. The only difference between Russia and the United States is that this kind of despotism has been carried to much greater lengths in one country than in the other. If, therefore, we can find out what the effect has been in Russia, we will be able to predict what the effect will be in the United States.
As every person familiar with Russia knows, the black-earth region is one of the richest and most productive in the world. It ought to be inhabited by one of the wealthiest and happiest of peoples. Yet such is not the case. According to Count Tolstoi, who contributed recently a letter to the London Times on the subject, the inhabitants are among the poorest and most miserable in the world. They are in a state of chronic starvation. They are obliged to content themselves with nearly a third less food than is sufficient to maintain normal health. The physical effect of this insufficiency of food is a decrease in vitality, a diminished stature, and a check to the growth of population. It is proved, first, by the failure of the peasants of the region to meet the requirements for military service, and, second, by the statistics of population, which show that the increase of births over deaths has fallen from the maximum reached twenty years ago to zero.
But the mental effects of the destitution wrought by the robberies of the Government are more distressing even than the physical. It gives birth to a stolidity and despair that tend to paralyze all effort toward betterment. The people subjected to it come to feel that there is no use of making any struggle beyond the maintenance of mere existence. Whatever they get in excess of this requirement will be taken from them. "A peasant," says Tolstoi, illustrating this fact, "feels that his position as an agriculturalist is bad, but he believes that it can not be improved; and, consequently, adapting himself to this hopeless position, he no longer fights against it, but lives and acts only in so far as he is stored by the instinct of self-preservation. Moreover, the very wretchedness of his condition increases still more his depression of spirit. The lower the economic condition of a population sinks, like a weight on a lever, the more difficult it becomes to raise it again; the peasants feel this, and, as it were, throw away the helve after the hatchet. 'Why should we trouble ourselves?' they say. 'We sha'n't get fat. If we can only keep alive.'"
The fruits of this mental state are as palpable as those of the lack of food. They are to be found in every direction. In manners, habits, and customs the peasants are hopelessly conservative. They belong, not to the nineteenth century, but to the ninth. Instead of adopting new and improved methods of agriculture, they cling to those of the subjects of Rurik. They use the old plow, distribute tillage in three crops, and divide their fields into long, narrow strips. So slowly do they toil with primitive implements and debilitated animals, and so indifferent are they to what they are doing, that it takes them a day to do the work that a well-fed and alert peasant would do in half the time. A more deplorable sign of demoralization is the prevalence of family discord and loss of interest in a higher life. The aggressions of the state have stimulated selfishness, bad temper, and incipient rebellion. The children disobey their parents, the younger brothers reject the primacy of the older, and money earned elsewhere is kept from the family treasury. With the decadence of family life there is a decadence of religious life. Although the peasants are nominally orthodox, they care nothing for religion. Even the clergy confirm the fact that they are becoming more and more indifferent to the church. What they seek is not to penetrate the mysteries of life, but to obliterate consciousness of them. "Under these circumstances," says Tolstoi, alluding to the economic and mental decadence," the craving for forgetfulness is natural, and accordingly spirits and tobacco are being consumed in ever greater and greater quantities" He adds that "even quite young boys drink and smoke."
Since the loss of freedom due to the seizure of property is the same in the last analysis as that due to an abridgment of the right to think and act, the evils of ecclesiastical and bureaucratic despotism do not differ from those of excessive taxation. Nevertheless, they receive separate attention at the hands of Tolstoi. As a proof of the blight of a church that the peasants have no part in directing, he points to the profound and beneficent change wrought the moment they fall in with a sect of dissenters. "Their spirits at once rise," he says, "and at the same time the foundation of their material prosperity is laid." A blight of the same kind can be traced to the attempt of the state to play the paternal role. "Nominally," says Tolstoi again, "there exist for the peasants special laws with regard to the possession and division of land, to inheritance, and to all the duties connected with it, but in reality there is a kind of hodge-podge of regulations, explanation, customary laws, decrees of courts of cassation, and so on, which naturally makes the peasants feel their absolute dependence on the will of innumerable officials." Knowing that they are powerless to resist the Government, which is constantly flogging them for disobedience or stupidity, they comply as best they can with the thousand rules and regulations made for them. Seldom do they think of acting upon their own responsibility. Thus they lose the power of private initiative. What the impoverishment of taxation has not done to ruin them is left to ecclesiastical and bureaucratic despotism to complete.
It is curious to note that Tolstoi's remedy for these evils is the one that Herbert Spencer himself might have suggested. With one stroke he dismisses the prescriptions that the social reformer in the United States as well as in Russia attaches so much importance to. It is not, in his opinion, "the ministry of agriculture, with all its contrivances," that will reclaim the peasants, nor is it "exhibitions nor schools for rural economy," nor that "unfailing" remedy "for all evils," i. e., parish schools. The thing they need is freedom. "It is necessary," says Tolstoi, "to give them religious liberty, to subject them to common instead of special laws—the will of rural officials; it is necessary to give them liberty of education, liberty of reading, liberty of moving about, and, above all, to remove the power to torture brutally by flogging grown-up people simply because they belong to the peasant class." But to give them such freedom means to deliver them not only from excessive taxation but from vexatious rules and regulations. It is to apply to them the same remedy that must be applied in the United States to save the American people, now so heavily taxed and so oppressed by countless laws, from the same social decadence that afflicts Russia.
The paper by Sir J. Norman Lockyer, which we publish in this number, recounts in an interesting manner the steps by which science gained a place for itself in the educational systems of the world. To us, in the latter years of the nineteenth century, it is apt to seem strange that the recognition of science as an essential element in all education should have come so late in the world's history; but reflection shows that it could not well have been otherwise. To view and examine any subject scientifically involves not only a deliberate and prolonged mental effort, but the holding in check of some of the most active propensities of the human mind, such as imagination and what Bagehot has called "the emotion of belief." In a certain sense imagination is the precursor of science; but, in the early stages of human development the precursor is mistaken for the true teacher. The lesson that there is no royal road to truth, nothing but a highway on which much wearisome plodding must be done, is one which human nature in general does not take to kindly. Even in the present day how many there are who chafe at the restraints which Science imposes on belief, whose disposition is to break her bonds asunder and have none of her reproof! When we think, indeed, of what the intellectual condition of the world is to-day, with the wonders which science has wrought raising their testimony on every hand, it is hardly surprising that, a couple of centuries ago, it was difficult to get any systematic provision made for the teaching of science. However, that battle has been fought and won, and Science has long since definitely entered on her career of beneficent conquest. Systems founded on imagination, or on merely abstract reasoning, come and go, wax and wane; but the empire of science once set up can never be subverted. We must hope that some day it will rule in the realm of morals as now it does in that of material things. Not till then will its perfect work be done.
- "Les enfans gâtés réussissent toujours."