Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/May 1899/The Interpretation of Nature


IT is an interesting and suggestive fact in Nature study that at the outset man was thrown utterly upon himself for the very vocabulary of the world-puzzle which presented itself to him for solution. He had not only to unriddle his "inscription in an unknown tongue," but to evolve even the possibility of an explanation out of his inner consciousness. His first theories of the universe were based, not on anything which the cosmos was, independently of him, but upon his own nature and activities as a living animal. This resort to himself as his chief means of interpretation resulted from the very nature of the knowing process; for knowledge of things is never in any absolute sense what things are, but is rather what they are like. When we cognize an object we do it by referring that object to the class of objects which in one or more respects it resembles. And as in this process we draw from the objects most familiar to us the principle of explanation which we need for the less familiar things that have not yet become part of our mental possessions, much depends upon priority in the setting up of mental classes, as well as on the strength of the impression which they make upon the mind. The earliest and deepest class impressions are necessarily those which arise out of man's knowledge of himself—of his body and the parts thereof, of his corporeal activities, and of his feelings and thoughts; next, of the bodies of other men and of their movements; finally, in the order of vividness, of the animate and inanimate objects most nearly related to his life. It is these classes which, by virtue of their priority and strength, naturally acquire dominating influence over all later acquirements, and it is to them that the mind refers the impressions gained from the more remote inorganic world.

Among the simpler illustrations of the effort man makes to assimilate the external system to himself are those with which we are more or less familiar in the domain of language. We find them first in the forms for gender by which, in all inflectional tongues, inanimate objects are to this extent likened to living animals. A similar tendency is at work in the widespread lingual habit of naming things after parts of the body, as in the case of "door," called the "eye of the house" by the native of Banks' Island; of "son-tree," the term applied by the Siamese to "fruit"; of the Malay's use of the noun "child" for "lock"; of "house-belly," the African Mandingo's equivalent for "in the house"; and of "hair," often used for "leaf" or "feather" in many Melanesian languages.[1] In more modern forms of speech the process is suggested by such expressions as the head of a bridge, the eye of a needle, the mouth of a river, the neck of an estuary, the trunk and arms of a tree, the lungs of a bellows, the bones of an umbrella, the nose of a promontory, the ears of a book, the fingers of a clock, the legs of a table, the veins of marble, the foot of a mountain. Then there are analogies based on the activities of the human body, for when we describe things as standing, sitting, or lying; as rising, falling, running, or climbing—when we use expressions like "striking clock," "dancing light," "sleeping lake," "yawning precipice," "laughing skies," "babbling brooks," "raging billows," we are applying to the objects named terms originally used to describe our own acts. The sense of hearing, again, is utilized in such expressions as taube Nuss ("with nothing in the shell") and taube Kohlen ("those which have burned out"). So the defect of blindness is objectified in the cæcum vallum of Roman speech, in ciego, said in Spanish of cheese that "has no eyes," and in the blinder Schuss of the Germans, whose more familiar Augenhlick everybody recalls. Not less suggestive are the numerous expressions which project conceptions of life and death into the environment, such as the caput mortuum (tête morte) of chemistry, eau vive (Quellwasser), "dead water" (turn of the tide), todte Farbe and lebhafte Farbe, vivus lapis (firestone), "quicksand" and "quicksilver," the "dead of night," "dead weight," a "dead level," and todtes Kapital. Nor must we forget that the reading of vitality into inorganic objects, common enough among savages, has by no means disappeared from civilized races. Dr. Stanley Hall's inquiries have shown that out of forty-eight children just attaining school age, twenty believed the moon and stars to be alive, fifteen thought a doll and sixteen thought flowers would suffer pain if burned. One pupil described the crescent moon as "half stuck" or "half buttoned" into the sky; the spluttering of coals in a fire was called "barking" by a girl four years and a half old. Miss Ingelow says that when over two years old, and for about a year after, she had the habit of attributing intelligence not only to all living creatures, but even to stones and manufactured articles.

This projection of words originally descriptive of the human body or of its activities into the objective world of Nature finds its richest illustrations in poetry,[2] where it may be held to represent less the elaborate artifice of a cultured mind than one of the most primitive tendencies of that mind powerfully swayed by emotion. Yet the process belongs equally to the more prosaic efforts which man puts forth to utilize the objects of his environment in the interests of self-maintenance. One of the earliest of these is seen in the use of words describing parts of the body to facilitate the description of the external world in its numerical aspects. Thus the Chinese use for "two" certain syllables (ny and ceul) which originally mean "ears," the Hottentots employing the word for "hand" in the same sense. In middle high German the word for "sheaf" (Schoch) signifies sixty, and is applied in that sense to all kinds of objects. The Letts, owing to their habit of throwing fish three at a time, employ the word mettens, "a throw," in the sense of "three." Among the same people flounders are tied in lots of thirty, whence has arisen the practice of designating thirty by the word kahlis, meaning "cord." The Quichuas attach the significance of ten to the word chuncu, "heap." The Gallas word for "half" has been traced to the verb chaba," to break," and is the equivalent of our own word "fraction." So in a large number of languages the term for hand signifies "five," "two hands" meaning ten, and "man" ("two hands and two feet") twenty.

A like origin must be claimed for the measures of space and weight needed by man in his industrial and commercial activities. The finger, the thumb, the hand, the palm, the forearm, the foot—the extended arms, as in the ancient orgya, and the extended legs, as in the modern yard—have all played a fundamental part in determining the standard measures of the civilized world. To the same class belong the γυη, the extent of field that could be worked by a laborer in one day; the stade, the distance which a good runner could traverse without stopping to take rest; also measures of time, such as the old division of the day based on the length of a man's shadow.

The human body was thus of primary importance as a means of comprehending and coming into relations with the external world. But men also sought to make the environment intelligible to them by projecting into it the images gained from the more general aspects of their life. Such phrases as "pig of iron," "monkey wrench," "battering ram," "lifting crane," remind us of a period in which objects were actually shaped so as to enable the mind to accommodate itself more completely to the thought of their vitality. The Greek sailing vessel, for example, was so constructed—with the body of a bird, with cheeks, eyes, and projecting ears—as to make it seem to the navigators of the time as almost alive. And the dolphins, eagles, ravens, and dragons which threatened England from the prows of the invading Danish fleet have had their prototypes in almost every nation that has betaken itself to the sea.

Not less suggestive are the more general aspects of the process. Our ancestor called the earth's satellite the "moon," or "measurer," because it served him as a divider of time. The familiar grains of wheat and barley which he harvested became the units of his measures. So the names of his seasons were based on the fall of the leaves, the reappearance of particular stars, or the periodical inundations upon which he depended for his food. The most primitive method in chronology is that which enables man to orient himself in the world of time by associating particular lunations with vicissitudes of weather, with seasonal aspects of vegetation, and with the constantly changing sights and sounds of the animal world. In the calendar of the Crees,[3] for example, we find such designations as "duck-month," "frog-moon," "leaf-moon," "berries-ripe-month," "buffalo-rutting moon," "leaves-entirely-changed," "leaves-in-the-trees," "fish-catching-moon," "moon-that-strikes-the-earth cold," "coldest-moon," "ice-thawing-moon," "eagles-seen-moon." So in the calendars of Central America and Mexico,[4] the months are named variously after the arrival of birds, the blossoming of flowers, the blowing of winds, the return of mosquitoes, and the appearance of fishes. The Greeks constantly used the movements of birds to mark the seasons; the arrival of the swallow and kite were thus noted. Hesiod tells us how the cry of the crane signaled the departure of winter, while the setting of the Pleiades gave notice to the plowman when to begin his work. The Incas[5] called Venus "the hairy," on account of the brightness of her rays, just as the Peruvians named her the "eight-hour torch," or "the twilight lamp," from the time of her shining. One at least of the three portions into which the Greeks divided their night received its name—περὶ λυχνων ἁφάς—from the social custom of lighting the lamps at dusk. For whole races the departure of the sun made night a time of danger, and man did his best to lessen the mystery of the heavens by filling their obscure depths with the figures of animals and heroes, or by likening their shining lines of cosmic cloud to a road or highway for the march of beings celestial and terrestrial. Thus, for the speakers of Sanskrit the Milky Way was "The Path of the Gods"; the Lithuanians dubbed it "The Bird Road"; in Low German it is known as "The "Way of Cows"; the Cymris associated it with, the course of the wind; for Scandinavians it was "The Road of Winter"; the Persians viewed it as the route along which the straw carrier drew his burden; to this day the Winnebagoes call it "The Way of the Chiefs."[6]

Science itself is indebted to terms and phrases in which outer realities are assimilated to the circumstances of the life lived by man and by the societies which he forms. Such words as "attraction," "repulsion," "resistance," "nature," "body," "atom," "current," contain obviously anthropomorphic elements. The human origin of the idea conveyed by the term "inertia" may be more or less veiled by unfamiliar Latin elements, yet it is recovered for us again in Trägheit, "idleness," the German form of the word. The phrase "natural selection" contains a teleological element which has more than once been used to throw discredit on the process which it describes. And when one observes how persistently such an anthropopathic expression as "affinity" is still applied to chemical reaction, or with what naïveté the term "law" is transferred from the realm of human jurisprudence into the domain of natural processes, one ceases to wonder at the constant confusions of outer with inner in which so much of the psychomorphism of the time has had its origin.

It would be strange, then, if, seen in so many of man's efforts to interpret the inanimate things around him, this process of self-projection should not also be valid for the larger relations of his mental activity to the universe. It is but a step, in fact, from the application of anthropomorphic words to the objects and processes of Nature, to the employment regarding such processes of anthropomorphic thought. As the child finds the satisfaction of its fancy in the discovery of some strange face as suggested to him in the decorations of the wall paper which surrounds his sick-bed, or in tracing out from the contours of clothes hung up within range of his vision the preposterous outline or figure of some human likeness or caricature, so the savage, with a deeper purpose born of necessity, traces out from the larger patterns of the moving world about him the organic shapes, embodying will and personality, that are to serve him as explanations of the external power which touches his existence for good or for evil, and which, thus serving him, enable him to come into relations with that power. It is the deepest interests of human life which make this process necessary, and it is of the very nature of the process that the characters thus projected into the environment must always—throughout the history of human ascent, and at every particular stage of it—be closely and definitely correlated with the degree and kind of the self-knowledge which is its source.

The earliest of the animal characters displaying this correlation, and used as a means of understanding the environment, could not well have been other than that of motion. That by the higher mammals, at any rate, moving things, even when inorganic, are generally regarded as alive, is a view rendered probable by a large body of evidence.[7] But when man finally appeared on the scene, a new element came in to complicate the merely animal attitude in which vitality was attributed to inanimate objects in motion. By contemplating the phenomena of his subjective life, and observing analogous phenomena in his fellow-beings—through the consideration of dreams, swoons, even death itself—our ancestor discovered in himself a character deeper than that of vitality; came to recognize that the living creature, animal and human, possesses an inner principle or essence underlying its activities; is not only "alive," but also "animated." At first the conception of vitality was one with the conception of bodily activity; at last man learned to differentiate the movements of the body from an inner essence to which he believed them to be due—learned, in a word, to distinguish between the corporeal existence and the soul. And having effected this first rude division of the characters of soul from the merely physical attributes of life, our ancestor soon projected the new view which he had reached of himself into the objects of his environment. The beneficent influences of Nature, so necessary to his life, he now invested with the good purposes of the better nature within him; in the maleficent forces of the cosmos he read the malignant will of his own angry passions.

But it is not as mere phenomena that these powers, thus finally ensouled and regarded as personal, can be thought about. In the beginning the human mind carries on its mental processes largely with the aid of images—recovered images of something seen, heard, felt, or tasted—and is yet far off from the stage of scientific thought in which abstract concepts take the place of the recovered mental pictures which have been yielded through the senses. Man thus needed concrete images with which to think about the personal powers of the external world, and he naturally found them in the animal and human shapes already familiar to him. Discovering some likeness between a Nature force and some animal, he henceforth associated the two, and recalled the image of the animal as the more concrete means of mental recovery when he wished to think of the abstract Nature power. Or, associating some departed ancestor, relative, hero, or king with the Nature force—an association which would be greatly strengthened by belief in the survival of the soul after death—he gradually confounded the disembodied human power with the soul of the Nature power, and through the law of least effort, used the concrete image of the departed human being to stand in his mental processes for the much more difficult thought of the Nature force. But, whatever the process, animal shapes were obviously needed to reduce the Nature powers to such a degree of concreteness as would make it possible for primitive man to deal with them as objects of thought. And it is not less certain that while, for some races, the earliest shapes thus utilized were those of the lower animals, the final form for all races was that of man himself.

In the anthropomorphic stage, then, there is the same effort to understand the external system by assimilating it to something with which man is already familiar. The worshiped deities may be many or few, numberless as the Nature forces, polytheistic as among the Greeks and Romans, or one as in the monotheism of the Semite. Man likens them to himself, attributes to them not only his outward shape, but also his failings and virtues, making his Pantheon resemble not only the social order, but also the political system under which he happens to live. It is the completeness of this assimilation which made anthropomorphism the most persistent aspect of man's intellectual growth the world has known. Yet the view could linger only as the possession of the intellectually slothful and immature. The inadequacy, the crudeness, of the conception in which Deity was imaged as a gigantic man gradually forced itself upon the attention of the more thoughtful. Increased mental activity, a better acquaintance with natural processes, brought the idea of a power above Nature rather than merely superior to man; and as the human mind passed from the conception of the superhuman to that of the supernatural—as, moreover, the thought of merely local gods gave way to the idea of gods not limited in their functions to particular areas—the anthropomorphic shapes naturally fell away from the powers they could no longer adequately represent.

Then other changes, strictly correlated with man's advancing knowledge of himself, ushered in the latest stage of his attitude toward the external system. For in the same mind which had been compelled to reject crude anthropomorphism, there had been growing the consciousness of man as something more than a mere compound of vitality, consciousness, and will—something more than a set of bodily and mental capacities essential to the work of self-maintenance—the thought that man was the sum of his higher, not of his lower qualities, that henceforth he must be measured by the activities which he carried on in the domain of pure thought. And this recognition of mental attributes as the most worthy, the most exalted characters of human personality, could not fail to impress itself upon the conception of deity already undergoing deanthropomorphization. More and more, therefore, in the higher mind of the race, the Divine Being, not only losing his former bodily form, but yielding even the grosser attributes of personality with which he has been invested, becomes for the thought of man a psychical being in the deepest sense of that term. Anthropomorphism, or man-likening, passes away, and in its place comes psychomorphism, or mind-likening.

Two aspects are thus recognizable in the mental interpretation of the environment: on the one hand an aspect which may be called causal, since it seeks the source of the power exerted by Nature forces and objects; on the other, an aspect which is obviously formal, its main significance being that it condenses, so to speak, groups of qualities into a single mental sign. The causal aspect yields, in howsoever simple or complex a form, a theory of the cosmos or of its parts; the formal aspect is no more than a means, ready at hand, in the visible bodies of animals and men for facilitating the use of that theory in processes of thought. Hence we may regard vitalism, animism, psychomorphism as so many stages of man's attitude toward the external system, corresponding with the degree of his power to apprehend the more abstract as distinguished from the more particular and superficial characters of things that come within the range of his knowledge. In the first, he explicitly recognizes vitality, the most obvious character of Nature force; in the second, subsuming vitalism, he raises the soul life to the place of honor; in the third, subsuming both vitalism and animism, he emphasizes in psychomorphism the highest human qualities which his mind enables him to recognize.

The passage from the idea of multiplicity to that of unity is itself an inseparable part of the total process. As at the beginning man reads vitality into the separate objects and forces of Nature, without any thought of their underlying unity, so he regards as discrete, unconnected, objectively unrelated, the multifarious souls with which, in his thought, these various powers of the environment have come to be animated. But in course of time, by an inner necessity of intellectual growth, relations come to be perceived between the forces of Nature, likenesses are recognized between the functions of spirits and deities—between the powers put forth and the results achieved. The result is a process of coalescence which, to describe it in the briefest way, first merges a large number of spirit-evolved gods into a smaller number of relatively independent divinities, forms these into pantheons of gods each subordinated to a superior, and finally unites all beings regarded as divine in the single, all-comprehending, omniscient and omnipotent Deity of monotheism.

In all this advance, moreover, we find that the process illustrated by the changing phases of man's mental attitude toward Nature also holds good of the multifarious acts by which, in what is known as religion, man has sought to realize that attitude in conduct. For, in seeking to adjust himself to the system of Power, man has been forced to conceive of his Pantheon in terms as well of his social arrangements as of the political system under which he happened to be living. The spirit world of a horde of savages could only reflect the indefiniteness and disunion of the nomads whose imagination it satisfied. But as the household made its appearance, as a definite social structure arose, and the straggling tribes began to be united into nations, the gods themselves took on the characters of an analogous transformation. The divine selfishness—the "remota ah nostris rebus"—long ago satirized by the poet Lucretius, obviously correlated with the attitude of man toward man, just as naturally gave way, with the growth of the social sympathies, to the thought of that more active concern in human affairs which is one of the salient characters of the later phases of monotheism. The original indifference of Deity toward ethical issues—a widespread feature of the earlier religious conceptions—could not but pass away with the moral stagnation of the ancient communities out of which it had arisen. So the comparatively new thought of a God definitely identified in his aims and activities with the cause of moral reform is no less obviously a result of the new attitude of man himself toward problems of social improvement; while the persistence with which, in human thought, morals remain associated with religion sufficiently illustrates the extent to which man's view of each has been determined by the self-knowledge which underlies his attitude toward both. Note also, finally, the manifest relation in which our human thought regarding mind and body has always stood toward conceptions of a world-soul, and then the dependence of man's view of the relation of God to the world upon the knowledge of his own planet and of its place in the universe. For as long as our ancestor held the old geocentric theory of the cosmos—regarded the heavens as a set of spheres revolving around a flat earth—the thought of a deity outside the world related to it as a mechanician might be to a cunningly devised piece of clockwork which he had brought into existence, was inevitable. But when the geographical discoveries of the fifteenth century co-operated with the revelations of Galilei to secure the final triumph of the Copernican over the Ptolemaic theory of the world-order, the ancient view of Deity as external to his creation gave place to the essentially modern conception of his immanence.

If now we attentively examine the progress above described, we shall find that the earliest attitude of the human mind toward the external system tends in the latest to repeat itself on a higher plane and with a richer content. Thus vitalism, by the process of unification and intensification, culminates in anthropomorphic monotheism, while animism, through the coalescence of objects and forces at first believed to be separately animated, finally develops into pantheism. These two lines of thought, moreover, tend themselves to converge, or, at any rate, to become interchangeable, since monotheism, by deanthropomorphizing itself, approximates to pantheism, as is well seen in the Christian theologies and ethical religions of the world; while pantheism, by emphasizing the characters of intelligence and will, is sometimes hardly to be distinguished from those modern forms of monotheism which teach the doctrine of immanence. The intellectual outcome of the whole movement, embodying the modern attitude in Nature philosophy, is thus no longer anthropomorphism, but psychomorphism, since it reads into the universe, not the characters which distinguish human beings from the lower animals, but the highest manifestation of the characters recognized to be common to both, namely, psychic characters—the characters, in a word, of mind. For the deepest reaches of human thought, the process of man-likening has thus given way to the process of mind-likening. On the subjective side of mental inquiry we get psychomorphic monotheism, or what may be called theological pantheism; while on the objective side we reach scientific pantheism, or monism. It is true that the psychomorphism of scientific monism is reached by a process different from that which has culminated in the mind-likening of theological pantheism. Yet in both cases there is the same projection of intelligence into the external system as a means of comprehending it. And as the intelligence of atoms implies their vitality, we really return in scientific monism to the vitalistic attitude of the primitive observer of nature. The salient difference between the two views is this: that while early man subsumed under his concept of vitality only the rudest characters thereof, the terms in the mind of the monist connotes in all their richness the ideas associated with mind.

Enough has now been said to show the basis on which rests the whole superstructure of man's mental attitude toward the cosmos. Despite all uncertainties regarding the details of the process, we may be assured of its fundamental nature, and are thus compelled to recognize the dependence of the forms of man's mental attitude toward the universe upon his knowledge of himself. It is because his own actions have their source in a personal will that he refers external movements to will. He is conscious of his own acts, and the world around him can not be devoid of a like illumination. Does he himself plan? Nature must also be intelligent. And the highest qualities which he can discover in himself he reads unhesitatingly into the cosmos.

At first sight, then, knowledge may seem inextricably involved in the process here described. If man can not know the external system to which he must adapt himself save by assimilating it to himself—save by interpreting it on the basis of analogies which he discovers between his own body and its activities, and the world with its activities—are we not committed by our very nature as organisms to all the errors which that nature imposes upon us? If, in other words, every effort to view the universe as it is, independently of us, be rendered impossible by the very nature of the knowing process, with what chance of success shall we seek to eliminate those vitalistic and psychomorphic characters which seem to belong to that process as its very warp and woof? In reality our knowledge inflicts upon us no such dilemma. Man is the helpless "measure of the universe" only to the extent that his reasoning processes are undeveloped. That knowledge must always have a subjective element is undoubted, but that man must always mistake the subjective vesture with which things are clothed by the senses for the things themselves is an inference which the whole history of thought negatives. While his life remained simple, primitive man could regard appearances as realities without prejudicing the overplus of utility brought to him by his knowledge. Yet as his relation to the natural surroundings grew in complexity, the importance of the reasoning process, with its veto power over the deliverances of the senses, began to assert itself. At first accepted with little or no demur, these deliverances came more and more to be challenged in the interest of self-maintenance; and finally, by expansion of a germ possessed by the mind in the beginning, there was developed that way of dealing with the testimony of appearances which we call the objective method. The evidence previously accepted had been, though on the whole useful, in large measure misleading. For in appearances men saw and felt mainly what nature was for them, and only to a minor degree what the external world was for and in itself. The great need of the investigator of Nature is to know what things are independently of man, in order to know how they act on one another, as a means of knowing how they will act on the human organism, and how that organism may react on them in the interest of its own life. The prejudice done by implicit reliance on sense testimony arose out of the fact that it presented objects as largely unrelated to each other—as so much being, rather than as so much doing, acting and interacting, determining and interdetermining. It became the function of reason to develop, out of the material furnished by the senses, a knowledge of the true nature of the system external to man and involving him in its scope which we call universe. In the carrying out of this function the analogical process has remained, but the analogies utilized, from being likenesses between what things seem to be to the senses, have more and more become analogies between propositions made regarding what things do, regarding how things act upon, are related to and determine each other.

Our knowledge of Nature, therefore, illustrates progress from a stage in which external objects are viewed as so much doing—from a stage in which they seem more or less isolated, more or less independent of each other—to a stage in which we know them as acting and interacting, and therefore, by virtue of this action and interaction, as interrelated and interdependent. It was because man had to begin with the thought of the world around him as a series of unconnected aspects that he fell into the error of regarding every object as containing within itself the powers which it put forth; it was by gradually progressing to the knowledge of the external system as a process that he discovered how inextricably the smallest "flower in the crannied wall" is linked to its vastest environment, and how dependent must be the mechanism of the molecule, as well as of the solar system, upon the whole universe Power which we call cosmos.

Thus also is it with man's method of interpreting the external world system. At first unable to fully perceive his own relation to that system, as part of his inability to perceive general cosmic relations, and therefore viewing himself as more or less independent of Nature—as something imposed upon it rather than as something arising out of it—he naturally sought to force it for purposes of explanation into the narrow limits of his knowledge of himself, of his feelings, his thoughts, his institutions. But as he grew in the power to comprehend his place in the system of things—to understand the way in which the objects and forces of the world were related to each other, together with the way in which he, as knowing organism, was related to the universe—he gradually ceased from his vain striving to subject the cosmos to himself, and at last learned not only to subordinate himself to the cosmos, but to trace to it unreservedly the whole method and meaning of his origin as a living, thinking organism. Man in the beginning could be no more than the measure of the universe. That he has come at last, wielding the objective method, to be its measurer, is the culmination of a struggle between false and true ways of interpreting Nature which has had the whole history of human thought for its arena, and for its final triumph the establishment of the objective or scientific method of investigation upon impregnable foundations.

  1. Codrington. The Melanesian Languages.
  2. See Henle. Poetische Personification.
  3. Contributions to the Ethnology and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. Dr. F. V. Hayden, 1862.
  4. The Native Calendars of Central America and Mexico. Daniel G. Brinton.
  5. Popular Science Monthly, vol. xlv, article Astronomy of the Incas.
  6. Les Origines Indo-Européennes. Pictet, p. 568.
  7. See a paper by G. K. Schneider in vol. ii of Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie.