Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/July 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


TWO articles contributed to the April and May numbers of the Fortnightly Review by Mr. J. G. Frazer, the learned author of The Golden Bough, and more recently of a monumental edition of Pausanias, are worthy of the close attention of all who are interested in the early history of mankind. The articles are entitled The Origin of Totemism, and the object of the writer is to show that on this obscure subject a flood of light has been shed by the lately published researches of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen into the beliefs and practices of the native tribes of central Australia, those tribes being perhaps the best representatives now anywhere surviving of the most primitive condition of the human race. Mr. Baldwin Spencer, formerly a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, is at present Professor of Biology in the University of Melbourne, while Mr. Gillen is a special magistrate in South Australia, charged with the protection of the aborigines. In their work, Mr. Frazer observes, "We possess for the first time a full and authentic account of thoroughly primitive savages living in the totem stage and practically unaffected by European influence. Its importance," he adds, "as a document of human history can, therefore, hardly be overestimated."

Evolution, it has often been remarked, and is again remarked by the writer of these articles, is an outcome of the struggle for life, and is rapid and vigorous or slow and feeble, according to the intensity of the struggle and the number and variety of the competing elements. Among the great land masses of our planet Australia is the smallest; and, owing to this circumstance, and also to its physical conformation, which renders large areas unfit for the maintenance of life, population has been much restricted and competition has been at a minimum. Hence the extremely backward and undeveloped condition of its native tribes, a condition which enables us, as Mr. Frazer observes, to detect humanity in the chrysalis stage, and mark the first blind gropings of our race after liberty and light.

The account given of these tribes contains indeed some very remarkable details. For example, "though they suffer much from cold at night under the frosty stars of the clear Australian heaven, the idea of using as garments the warm furs of the wild animals they kill and eat has never entered into their minds." They attribute the propagation of the human race wholly to the action of spirits, to whom they attribute a fecundating power, treating as wholly irrelevant to the matter any contact of the sexes. The idea of natural causation seems to be one which they have no power to grasp. They believe that various results are dependent on special antecedent conditions, but it is a pure matter of accident what they shall conceive the conditions in any case to be. Here we come to the origin of totemism. Heretofore totemism has been considered, broadly speaking, as the identification of themselves by some group of savages with a particular plant or animal or other manifestation of the powers of Nature, accompanied by a complete or partial taboo, so far as the group in question is concerned, of the animal or other object adopted as totem, and also by a rule prohibiting marriage within the group. What Messrs. Spencer and Gillen have succeeded in doing has been to observe and detect the significance of certain practices of the Australian tribes which have never been observed, or at least never understood, before.

At a certain time of the year, it appears, each totemistic tribe goes through elaborate ceremonies of a purely magical character for the purpose of promoting the growth and multiplication of the particular animal or plant, if it be one useful for food, with which the tribe is identified, or of antagonizing its evil effects if it be of a hurtful character. As "there is scarcely an object, animate or inanimate, to be found in the country occupied by the natives which does not give its name to some totemic group of individuals," the general scheme of things is pretty well looked after in the various ceremonies that are practiced by the different groups. Attention is here drawn to the essential difference between religion and magic, religion being an attempt to propitiate or conciliate the higher powers, while magic undertakes to coerce them. "To the magician," as Mr. Frazer observes, "it is a matter of indifference whether the cosmic powers are conscious or unconscious, spiritual or material; for in either case he imagines that he can force them by his enchantments to do his bidding." The ceremonies of the native Australians, as we have said, are wholly magical. They have the same kind of faith in their incantations and other strange performances that the modern man of science has in the preparations he makes for a physical experiment. The difference is that imagination or the crudest kind of symbolism has suggested the methods of the savage, while a careful scrutiny and comparison of facts has dictated those of the man of science. The proprium of the savage mind is an utter insensibility to evidence, or rather a lack of all power of conceiving what evidece is, and therefore a total incapacity for feeling any need of it. The scientific man, on the other hand, feels that he needs it every hour and every moment.

It may be interesting to quote the description given by Mr. Frazer, after Messrs. Spencer and Gillen, of the ceremonies performed by the men whose totem is the "witchetty grub," a creature much prized as an article of diet by the natives.

"The men of the witehetty-grub totem repair to a shallow cave in a ravine where lies a large block of quartzite, surrounded by some small rounded stones. The large block represents the full-grown grub; the small stones stand for the eggs. On reaching the cave the head man of the totem group begins to sing, while he taps the large block with a wooden trough, such as is used for scooping the earth out of burrows. All the other men at the same time tap it with twigs of a particular gum tree, chanting the while. The burden of their song is an invitation to the insect to go and lay eggs. Next, the leader takes up one of the smaller stones, representing an egg, and strikes each man in the stomach with it, saying, 'You have eaten much food,' after which he butts at the man's stomach with his forehead. … Ceremonies of the same sort are performed at ten different places. When the round has been completed the party returns home. Here, at some distance from the camp, a long structure of boughs has been got ready; it is designed to represent the chrysalis from which the full-grown insect emerges. Into this structure the men, each with the sacred design of the totem painted in red ochre and pipe clay on his body, enter and sing of the grub in the various stages of its development. After chanting thus for a while they shuffle out of the mock chrysalis one by one, with a gliding motion, singing all the time about the emergence of the real insect out of the real chrysalis, of which their own performance is clearly an imitation."

The Emu men have their own ceremonies, equally elaborate and quite as well adapted to promote the multiplication of emus as those of the witchetty-grub men to produce an abundance of witchetty grubs. The earnestness which is thrown into these ceremonies is beyond all question; and it seems to be clear that each totemic group in turn takes up its own burden of social responsibility: each has its duty to the tribe as a whole, and performs it to the best of its ability. Through their united efforts, as they firmly believe, the various processes of Nature are maintained in satisfactory activity; the succulent grub comes forth in due season and in reasonable quantity; the emu, the kangaroo, the bandicoot, and other useful animals keep up their numbers and continue to furnish food for the community; the hakea flower and the manna of the mulga tree grow in normal abundance; the winds blow; the streams flow; the clouds yield rain and the sun goes on shining by day and the stars by night, with, on the whole, an admirable regularity. A more satisfactory system it would really be difficult to conceive. How absurd, not to say profane, it would be for any one to suggest that ceremonies which were so abundantly justified by results might without danger be omitted! Skepticism is indeed very much out of place in certain stages of human development.

The interesting feature, however, as Mr. Frazer holds, in the descriptions given by the two Australian writers we have named is the proof they afford that totemism, instead of being an irrational, unexplainable aberration of the nascent intellect of man, was really a scheme for securing the greatest possible multiplicity of benefits for the savage community. The whole tribe was divided into groups, and each group undertook to look after some function of Nature and keep it up to the mark. Here was a notable step in the direction of division of labor. How it came about that the particular animal or plant which was the totem of a group became wholly or partially taboo to the group is not very easily explained; but it seems not impossible that some sense of tribal duty, gradually developed, kept those who were credited with providing any particular food element from being themselves greedy consumers of it. So far as that article was concerned they may have felt themselves as sustaining somewhat the character of hosts or entertainers of the tribe, and it may thus have became the custom that they should either not partake at all of that special thing, or partake of it only sparingly. If so, we find the foundations already laid both of politeness and of morality. It is an interesting question how far the notions which have been described have died out of modern civilized society. That they are wholly extinct it would be rash to affirm. There are many traces, indeed, of the surviving influence of symbolism, and here and there lingering tendencies toward a belief in magic are easily discoverable. Perhaps the wisest of us may learn to understand ourselves a little better by studying the operations of the human mind in its very earliest stages, before reason had yet shaken itself free from the random suggestions of sense.


Apropos of the recent notable issue, by the Boston Public Library, of a comprehensive Bibliography of the Anthropology and Ethnology of Europe, to accompany Professor Ripley's Races of Europe, the twofold and diversely opposed interests of a great institution of this sort are called to mind. On the one hand are its manifold obligations to the great mass of the public, to the average reader, to the ubiquitous novel and fiction consumer, to private clubs, and to school children. A field of activity and value in popular education is involved, scarcely secondary to that of the public schools, appealing to the general reader, the taxpayer, and, above all, to the well-wisher for democratic political institutions and representative government in the future. In stimulating work of this character in Boston, in bringing the Public Library into deserved prominence among the educational institutions of the community, Mr. Herbert Putnam achieved great and deserved success during his administration, winning commendation upon all sides.

The second aspect of public library duty is revealed by the recent undertaking at Boston above mentioned. It concerns the relations of great libraries to science, to original research, not to the average reader, but to the specialist. Instead of the purchase of twenty copies of David Harum, or perhaps of A Bloodthirsty and Self-laudatory History of the Recent Spanish War, by One who killed fifty men with his own hand, to meet a sudden demand on the part of readers, the expenditure of perhaps an equal sum of money for some rare and costly work in a foreign language, intelligible to but half a hundred men in the entire city, is involved. Such obligations do not of course rest upon libraries of secondary size and importance. Their path of duty is clearly marked out for them in the interests of the public, both on the score of financial ability and of demand as well. With the leading libraries of the country the case is different. Our universities are fast taking rank with the very best in Europe. Specialists in science and technology, the peers of those abroad, are plentiful on every hand. Oftentimes their private means are as limited as their appreciation and ambition are great. Without these rare books—the tools of their trade—they are powerless. In former days they were denied the opportunity for research, or else were obliged to spend months of study in Europe. We have the men and the minds here in America now; there is every indication that the books and apparatus are speedily becoming available as well.

This Bibliography of the Boston Public Library is a case in point. A collection of works relating to the physical history, the origins, migrations, and languages of the peoples of Europe is indicated upon its shelves, in all probability, we venture to predict, superior to any single one existing in Europe. This startling statement is based upon several considerations familiar to any specialist. Scientific book materials are of two classes. The first are the expensive and compendious volumes, generally to be found in great libraries, although oftentimes the paucity of their scientific collections is very surprising, especially in all that concerns the newer sciences of biology, anthropology, and the like. The second order of publications, often rarer and scientifically more valuable than the first, are the scattered monographs or pamphlets published in all manner of forms and by societies, oftentimes ephemeral and of all degrees of eminence. This second class of materials is generally richly represented in the collections of the various scientific societies, especially in the form of reprints presented by the authors. But the great and expensive tomes are seldom thus presented, and the societies can seldom afford to purchase them. Thus it comes about that these two classes of raw materials have to be separately hunted down, being rarely found together. For example, the library of the Société d'Anthropologie at Paris, judging by its printed catalogues, while abounding in scattered monographs and reprints, contains very few of the expensive volumes. One must seek these, and if they be in English or German, very likely in vain, in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The Public Library of the city of Boston has apparently tried an experiment in this direction, and is certainly to be congratulated upon the result. To a very rich collection of standard works has been added, by co-operation with a special investigator, a large part of the flotsam and jetsam which is of such extreme value to the student of original sources. The library has set a worthy example of encouragement to research; it has offered definite proof of the ability of our American institutions to rival their European contemporaries. And a peculiarly appropriate rounding-out to the successful career in the distinctively popular phases of administration of the institution of the late librarian, Mr. Herbert Putnam, is afforded in this work, the last at Boston officially, perhaps, to bear his signature and the stamp of his approval.


The article which we publish in the present number of the Monthly, under the title of The Race Problem in the United States, is a sequel to one which appeared in the May number entitled The Negro Question. Both writers have a special acquaintance with the subject, and are widely known as active workers for the elevation of the negro race—Mr. Booker T. Washington, the writer of the second article, being himself one of its most distinguished representatives. While both manifest abundant sympathy with the negro, and a deep sense of the pressing nature of the problems to which the presence of a large negro element in the population of certain of our States gives rise, they virtually acknowledge that it is extremely difficult in discussing the subject to do more than present a few broad general views. That there is a very bad condition of things in some of our Southern States no one will dispute. The crimes which have been committed by white men, in avenging real or supposed crimes committed by black men, stamp a character of utter savagery on the communities in which they have occurred, and in which they have remained unpunished. At the same time there is no doubt that the existence of so large a negro element in the South constitutes a serious obstacle to the moral and intellectual as well as to the economic development of that part of the country, and tends to keep alive a dangerous condition of public feeling. Our contributor, Dr. Curry, states significantly that he could give very impressive details on this point, were it not that it would furnish altogether too unpleasant reading.

What are we going to do about it? No doubt we have before us an illustration of the old adage, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." The South had its "peculiar institution" for some generations, and held to it with extraordinary tenacity—went to war rather than give it up. Now, by the simple force of events, the old patriarchal and slaveholding system is broken up, and there the former slaves and their descendants are—emancipated citizens who have their rights under the Constitution, and who therefore have to be reckoned with. They can not be deported against their will; they have the same right to live in the country that any white man has.

Manifestly there is but one honorable way of dealing with the blacks, and that is to treat them with absolute justice. Upon this point we are in entire agreement with Mr. Booker T. Washington. If a black man is excluded from the suffrage on account of his ignorance, let the equally ignorant white man be equally excluded. We have great faith in the educative effect of justice, and a firm administration of law. It would at once raise the self-respect of the negro to know that what was law for the white man was law for him, and vice versa; and self-respect is a sure ground for further advance. In the matter of education, we hold that education for the colored race should be almost wholly of a practical kind. We go further, and say that the education given to white children everywhere might with great advantage be much more practical than it is. The proper education for any individual is that which will tend to make him more efficient, successful, and self-sufficing in the position which he is called to occupy. This principle, far from implying a stationary condition of the individual, is precisely the one which provides best for his advancement. It is the man who is thoroughly competent for the work he has at any given moment to do who passes beyond that work to something better. The misery of existing systems of education is that to so large extent they educate for a hypothetical position beyond that for which an immediate preparation is necessary. The result is that the schools unload upon the community year by year a levy of adventurous youths who at once begin to live by their wits in no very creditable sense, and who constitute a distinct menace to the stability of society.

We would therefore urge most earnestly upon all who take an interest in the education of the colored race to keep in view above all things the importance and necessity of fitting the negro to take an active part in the practical industries of the country, and above all in agriculture. An education directed mainly to this end would do far more to develop his intelligence than one of a more abstract and ambitious character and would furnish a far better foundation for success in life. Far from tying the negro down to manual occupations, it would prepare the way for his eventual participation in all occupations. But occupation for occupation, where is there one that can reasonably be rated higher than the intelligent and successful cultivation of the soil? If the negro problem can not be solved by common sense and common honesty it can not be solved at all. Before giving it up as insoluble we should make full proof of these homely specifics. We have long been proclaiming that the negro is a man and a brother; let us therefore treat him as such, and if we find out anything that is particularly good for his moral and intellectual improvement, let us try a little of it ourselves. It surely will not do us any harm.