Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/August 1911/Feeling in the Interpretation of Nature


By Professor WM. E. RITTER


HUMAN beings, in common with all others, are as fundamentally esthetic and emotional as they are cognitive and rational. This conclusion I believe to be warranted not only by the facts presented by adult man in civilized society, but also by those observable in very early, simple stages of life everywhere. We do not say that an amœba knows the sensation it has when it comes in contact with a food-particle; nor that a babe knows the sensation that gives rise to the sucking reflex when first its lips touch the nipple or a finger tip. Yet both amœba and babe convert, or elaborate, the raw fact of contact into a set of activities that meets the needs of its existence. Each makes its contacts serve its own larger ends as surely as does the adult man; and no knowledge is worth anything if it does not do that.

So we have to recognize that the esthetic, the merely responsive aspect of our natures, and the psychically elaborative, the recognitive aspect, send their roots down to the very deepest layer of organic constitution; that the two come side by side from a common matrix of organization. Neither can be proved to have arisen earlier than the other, nor can either be shown to be derived from the other. This fundamental parity between intellect and feeling has vast significance for human welfare. Every philosophic system, every educational theory, every religious interpretation of life, which fails to recognize it is sure to be by so much inadequate.

One phase of this inadequacy is subjectivism in its many forms. Whether as idealism, vouched for in our day by Oxford and Harvard, and dressed out in great learning and brilliant dialectic as the "Absolute Good"; or as occultism, vouched for by Mahatmas and the "Mother Church, Scientist," and somewhat scorned by the more scholarly, the same error runs throughout. The former ignore all of man except that part of him which makes syllogisms; the latter goes to the opposite extreme and stifles the legitimate demands of the intelligence for clear and rational thinking. Both fail to recognize that we know-and-feel, all in one breath, whenever we respond in an unsophisticated, natural manner to contacts with men and things.

One of the places in which the intellectualist form of subjectivism has got in its stultifying work most disastrously, is in the education of children. In spite of spasmodic efforts at reform, the factors of spontaneous interest and emotional attitude have been practically ignored. We have been trying to educate pieces of children.

We choose for discussion here one phase of the educational situation, education touching the living world. We choose this not because it is of transcendent value as compared with other aspects, but because the writer happens to be a biologist and a teacher.

Why is it that so few persons even among the educated are genuinely and broadly interested in and informed about plants and animals? Of course everybody cares for plants to the extent of wanting good table vegetables and fruits, and nearly everybody cares for flowers. Everybody, too, is interested in the domestic products of the animal world; and most of us have more or less fondness for a few pet animals. After this much has been said it will be allowed, I think, that nine tenths of all grown persons in Christian lands are quite indifferent to the myriads of plants and animals by which they are surrounded. Why is this? Perhaps some one asks what sense there is in such a question. To justify the contention that the great rank and file of mortals ought not to be thus indifferent, we must reflect a bit on the state of being alive, on its nature and scope.

Are you fond of living? Are you one of that great number of human beings who assent to the saying that life is the most interesting thing in the world, the thing to be most sought after, most watchfully tended? What life is it which you thus appraise? Human life, you say promptly; and that is well, so far. But what is human life? Is it something wholly apart from the living things round about you? Surely you have noted some elements in common between the human life you love so dearly and the lowly life you care so little for. And you have heard something of what the learned have made out about "Man's place in Nature."

I ask you to summon the best thought of which you are capable, and tell me if you have no feeling of selfishness, of smallness, of meanness, when you assert your love of life and mean by "life" nothing more than your own life and that of your family and friends, or even of humanity generally. On the other hand, tell me with equal candor, do you not have a sense of largeness, of generosity, of outgoing to all about you, when your love of life encompasses everything that lives?

By asking the question, Why are most persons so indifferent toward most living things, we approach the answer to the question: It is because our theory of life does not include all life, and because it is not made by our whole selves. It is made by the intellectual side of our natures; the affective, the emotional side having almost no part in the process.

I am sure that if the development of our race and our civilization goes on normally, man will reach after a time a synthesis of himself far more thoroughgoing than any yet attained; he will consolidate himself, will get together his powers and faculties, will reach a degree of integrity as yet only foreshadowed. When that time comes man will see as never before how much bigger a being he is than his intellect; how much more he can be and do by putting his whole self, his feeling, his emotion, his sentiment, as well as his mind and will, into his work.

In that day popular sentiment will not hold almost all creatures which are more or less obscure as utterly good-for-nothing and to be trodden underfoot without a passing thought; will not hold every worm, every spider, every snake forejudged and forecondemned as a poisonous "horrid thing." There will be a suspension of popular judgment in these matters, as there now is of scientific. There will be a general disposition to fair play toward all things that live; a desire to treat each according to its merits—to kill it, humanely, if it prove really harmful, or if undoubted benefit may come from so doing; but otherwise to allow it to go its way. And be it specially noted that the benefits of this new day will not end in better sentiment and feeling alone. Equally great good will come to knowledge and interpretation. A tinge of feeling, of sentiment, toward organisms promotes interest, interest promotes attention, and attention is an essential prerequisite to the acquisition of knowledge and to sound reasoning. We learn most quickly, most spontaneously, most comprehensively, most securely, things that interest us, and things interest us most toward which the affections go out.

It used to be said of Louis Agassiz that he handled his specimens as though he were in love with them; I submit the question to my fellowstudents in zoology and botany: Do you not ordinarily come to have a real fondness for the animals and plants you study? I do, and do not hesitate to say that through this affectionate interest has come one of my main impulses to and satisfactions in zoology. I have no doubt that feeling has been an element in whatever of effectiveness my work has had. Of course the orthodox intellectualist's reply to this will be prompt and in its accustomed tone of finality. "Yes," most biologists will say, "we certainly are fond of the organisms we deal with. We have an eye for the gracefulness of form and movement and the beauty of color that abound everywhere among living things; but this has nothing to do with our biology." Some will go further and declare that not only does feeling contribute nothing to achievement in science, but that it is actually hostile to such achievement. To keep sentimentalism at arm's length is exactly one of the things biology has to do, they will say; and will point to the mischievousness of the modern nature-fakers.

This is not the place to consider either illegitimate or legitimate fancifulness in writing about animals. I merely express the conviction that much as is to be deplored the flood of mercenary falsity concerning nature that has been poured upon this generation, the whole thing has come about from a certain unappeased popular demand. There is a widespread and rapidly growing curiosity about and interest in animate beings. Such curiosity and interest lead inevitably to efforts for increased knowledge. The authoritative biology of the day has failed and is failing to meet this demand.

Let any teacher of botany or zoology in school or college, whose experience reaches back twenty years, consider the men and women of today who were once his pupils. Let him ask himself to what extent his efforts succeeded in making the plants and animals by which these men and women have since been constantly surrounded, vital, potent, perennial elements in the effectiveness of their lives. Testing your work thus, does the voice of conscience say well done? It surely does not for me, and I have no reason to suppose the instruction I gave during some fifteen years to general classes in the University of California was particularly worse than that given by most teachers. I made use of the regulation paraphernalia in the regulation way. There were the innumerable wall-charts carefully drawn and colored, with the proper conventions for ectoderm, mesoderm and entoderm, and for the various cell-parts during indirect cell-division, fertilization, and so forth. A fairly complete set of preparations to illustrate the lectures was at hand, some in bottles, some dry. The fundamental nature of living substance, "according to the latest and best authorities," and the fundamental difference between plants and animals, were early and concisely set forth. Near the beginning of the course the doctrine of evolution was made clear and impressive, and strong enough to sustain the weight of every fact that should later be brought forward.

The vast importance from the evolutionary standpoint of a few fundamental types, amœba, volvox, the calcareous sponges, the primitive annelid, Amphioxus, the shark, was duly insisted upon. The gastrula, the cœlome, the nephridia, the somites of the vertebrate head, and the rest of the thirty-nine articles of evolutionary faith were set forth. The "factors" of evolution were treated with generosity. Natural selection was of course given first place, but later mutation became its close second. Not only colored figures, but an actual specimen, naturally environed in a glass case, of Kallima, that wonderful leaf-butterfly which has been the cornerstone of a whole philosophy, was provided to illustrate protective resemblance; and various other instances of adaptation were shown. When the topic of animal psychology was reached, it was pointed out how easily and completely the tropism theory disposes of the vagary of earlier notions about the intelligence of lowly creatures, and the interesting point was made that in a simple caterpillar "reacting" up a stick we probably have in our hands the key to the whole mystery of mind in the living world.

Yet, in spite of this shining program, very, very few general students elected zoology and little glow of enthusiasm could be seen on the faces of those who did. Students in need of some biological knowledge for their later professional studies, and drifters from the nonscientific departments of the university in need of credits for graduation, were the chief constituency of the successive classes. Undoubtedly a few earnest men and women sought the course out of genuine desire for knowledge of the kind it was supposed to furnish. But how scattering these were I see as I look back in memory over the groups that came and went year by year.

And were my efforts of no avail at all? Did nothing whatever lodge permanently and potently in the minds of those students? I try to believe the case is not quite as bad as that, for the lectures and the laboratory work were given with much conscientious preparation and with real labor in the actual doing. Probably the level of general intelligence of the men and women who took the course is somewhat higher than it otherwise would have been. That is all, I much fear, that can be rightly claimed. None but we teachers whose professional reputations and personal interests are at stake will maintain for an instant that this is enough. Our teaching of botany and zoology has failed miserably, judged by what is due from it to the spiritual side of men's lives and to the higher reaches of civilization. Why? The central reason is clear: It is that certain fine-spun theories about "life," rather than animals and plants themselves, have been the main spring of our teaching. The metaphysics of biology and the microscope have stood as almost impenetrable screens between the perennially-interesting, everywhere-present, easily-seen facts of the living world, and the natural responsiveness of young learners.

We have not been metaphysicians by intent or even consciously. Indeed, a supposed fidelity to objective reality has made us loud in denunciation of metaphysics. Nevertheless, "fundamental questions," "ultimate problems," "complete explanations," "final solutions" and other phrases which abound in many biological discussions held as strictly up-to-date are but thin disguises, to discerning eyes, of genuine metaphysics. Far be it from me to pronounce general condemnation on metaphysics. Every domain of knowledge has, from the nature of things must have, its particular metaphysics. The indictment against metaphysics in this case is two-fold. First, metaphysics belongs by right only to advanced stages of learning in all fields, and so has no business whatever in formal instruction of the young. Second, the metaphysics that has dominated recent biology, while being bad in many ways, is especially sinister in its influence on education. Materialism, the theory now in widest favor, and vitalism, its chief rival, might be classed together so far as concerns some of their most essential aspects, under the designation minutism, the theory, that is, that the "final explanation" of all things is to be found only in the excessively small, mostly invisible parts or elements of those things. Hence the idolatrous attitude which much of biology has long held toward cells, nuclei, protoplasm, chromosomes, enzymes, biophores, determinants, etc., and hence the exclusion to so large an extent from real biological interest and endeavor, of organisms and parts of organisms which are large enough to be easily examined without the aid of the microscope.

The extent to which the zoology of our institutions of higher learning deals with invisible or difficultly visible animals; scraps of dead animals, and very small living animals either mutilated or placed in wholly unnatural surroundings, is remarkable once one comes to look at the situation broadly. The management of a zoological park or museum, in need of a trained zoologist as superintendent or curator; or the director of an agricultural station who should want an expert on the higher animal life of the region, might about as well appeal to a village kindergarten or a corner grocery for men equipped for such positions as to the department of zoology of most of the great universities of the country.

Persons who devote themselves to the study of living animals and plants, especially rather large, common ones like mammals and birds, and trees and grasses, and those who study the larger structural features of these larger organisms, can not, according to the prevalent view, be admitted to the small, inner-chambered class of philosophical biologists, but must remain outside with the great commonality as mere "mammal men" and "bird men," or, with some condescension, as "mammalogists" and "ornithologists," and as mere "systematic botanists."

We have made the sorry blunder of reasoning that since it has been found impossible to make knowledge of organisms thoroughgoing at any point without becoming microscopists and chemists, therefore, by becoming these exclusively, after awhile we shall have plumbed the deepest depths of the living world.

The only justification for speaking of these family dissensions within the biological household is that this much seemed necessary as preliminary to the expression of my conviction that should speculative biology ever become as strongly dominated by a carefully thought-out, wholesome metaphysics as it is now dominated by a meagerly informed, badly reasoned, unwholesome metaphysics, human beings and the higher animals and plants, taken living and whole, would be seen to be more interesting than simpler organisms and parts of organisms, just in proportion as the higher exceed the lower in complexity.

This reassessment of the living world as to degrees of interest would follow such a reformation in the metaphysics of biology since it would be seen that higher and the highest organisms are just as "ultimate," just as "fundamental," as are the lower and lowest organisms, and that the whole of any organism is as "ultimate" and "fundamental" as are any of its parts.

What this means said in every-day language is that a sorely defective general theory, or philosophy of living things, is preventing the recognized leaders in biological science from having any vital interest in the actual, living plants and animals with which common observation and intelligence come in contact.

So far my point has been that we can not interpret plant and animal life broadly and soundly either in technical science or in common intelligence unless the esthetic side of our nature joins with the intellectual side in determining our attitude toward the beings we deal with. Now I want to insist that the business of truly original study is always suffused and quickened by feeling. What investigator of nature who has ever made a real discovery, however small, does not know that an element of emotion was involved? True discovery is always, it seems, proportional to the imagination put into the effort that led to it; and imagination, even partially fulfilled in actual experience, is emotional through and through. The famous story that Newton was so agitated that he had to ask a friend to write for him when he saw his calculations concerning the attraction of the earth for the moon were finally going to be confirmed by Picard's lately corrected observations on the size of the earth might easily be true, whether it is or not.

Divorce science from feeling as completely as some men of science seem to believe it ought to be divorced, and science is dead formalism. Real progress in it is at an end. Highly specialized research untouched by imagination is worse than dead, it is a birth that has never been "quickened." In it you have "science for its own sake" sure enough, for it becomes so much a thing of technique, of strange new words, and of old words with twisted meanings, that none but the esoterics can make any sense out of it, much less any practical use. Normal warmblooded human beings are not greatly attracted to a science

Where soul is dead, and feeling hath no place;
Where knowledge, ill begun in cold remark
On outward things, with formal inference ends,
Or, if the mind turn inward, 'tis perplexed,
Lost in a gloom of uninspired research.

But a practical difficulty, the question of what is possible in one short lifetime, is sure to be raised here. Does this liberal attitude toward nature, this breadth of interest and knowledge, spell its own practical if not its theoretical defeat? Does it make demands upon investigation and upon instruction of the young which can not be met because of the limited capacities of mortal beings? Does it mean superficiality still more wide-spread and debilitating than it is now? Not at all. Paradoxical as it may seem, the very conditions that would produce a broader knowledge of living things would make that knowledge more accurate and penetrating.

Once see clearly how much more educational effort can accomplish with small children when it takes advantage of curiosity about, and spontaneous interest in, nature, than when it tries to compel interest, and one of the main ways of escape from the difficulty here indicated will have been found. As to more advanced youths and adults, the belief is altogether too widely and influentially held that interest in nature is more dependent upon continuous work with and exhaustive knowledge of the particular sections of nature concerned, than is actually the case. Under the guidance of a free and expansive general theory of living nature a keen and genuinely elevating interest in a vast range of things about which one's technical knowledge is rather meager, is undoubtedly possible.

The dread of superficiality entertained by professional biologists, while justifiable to a certain extent, is yet often strongly tinctured with the notion that profundity of knowledge means knowledge of the deeply located parts of organisms; and contrariwise, that any knowledge of the exterior, easily visible parts and activities is superficial. This tincturing is another of the results of the bad metaphysics already referred to.

But perhaps the most important consideration under this head concerns the powers of men. Human beings are indeed limited in capacity. No one can learn or do everything. Yet exactly where are the bounds of human capacity? What psychologist has determined accurately the utmost limits of the power of acquisition by any given human mind? When we ascribe limitations to the powers of the mind it is vitally important that we measure our words. There is a vast difference between recognizing that limits do exist and knowing just where they are.

Such expressions as "we can do anything we really want to do," and "we can do what we must do," though so long familiar in common life, are only now coming to scientific definiteness of meaning in psychology and biology. We must presently become aware that the discovery of the unused spiritual and physical capacities of the human being is of transcendent importance; and but for the circumstance that our dominant biological philosophy has had no use for, and hence no interest in, the facts, it would be surprising that so little notice has been taken of them.

Who that has had anything to do with children has not noticed the facility with which they learn certain things, which they take up all by themselves, and which it seems there is no reason why they should learn? Conspicuous illustrations before us everywhere in the United States just now are the extent to which boys go into electricity, particularly wireless telegraphy; and the extent of their mastery over the automobile. Nothing has astonished me more than the quickness and thoroughness with which I have in several instances seen boys of from six to ten years learn the automobile when one has come into the family for the first time. I believe thousands of men throughout the land will bear witness from their own observations that an ordinary lad of ten will learn an automobile as readily and nearly as thoroughly as a full-fledged man, and with no seeming effort whatever.

How long, I ask any school teacher, do you suppose it would require for the same boy to master the automobile with equal thoroughness, were it to be taken into the school and studied in the usual school way with no other interests and notions than those ordinarily present in school learning? My own earlier experience as a teacher in the elementary schools, and my later observations on learning and acquiring skill, lead me to venture the opinion that no matter how long a boy should be taught the automobile by school methods under school conditions, he would never gain such a mastery over it as thousands of boys are now doing in a month or six weeks with no particular instruction at all. The principle is the same, I take it, as that of learning languages. We ordinarily make the sharpest distinction between native and foreign tongues. As a matter of fact, there is no such distinction to a child beginning to talk. To it one language is as native or as foreign as another and two or three, who knows how many? will be acquired simultaneously and with equal facility during the proper language-getting period and under the exigencies of real life.

The point for education is that in our systems as they are, the natural correlations between the stages of individual development and subjects to be acquired, native curiosity and interest, spontaneous spiritual and physical activity, and social and other environmental impingements upon the growing boy and girl, are given the most haphazard attention by those who make and operate the systems. In the matter of the child's contacts with and attitude toward natural history, I merely point out how objectively and largely a child's first knowledge is biological. Its contacts with its mother and its nurse, through all the avenues to its inner life, are continuous and vital. The first hours and days and months of a babe's life are a continuous laboratory course in biology. Then come the earliest wider contacts and noticings and curiosities and attentions and movings about. Think of the inevitable conquest of the family cat and dog, and the cow, the horse, the pig, the sheep, if by good fortune the youngster's world contains these animals. The nursery and the toy-shop, not the schoolroom and the educational supply store, tell the story of how the natural education of children runs.

Only a few days ago, in a discussion of the perennially debated, but never settled, nature-study question, a gentleman affirmed with considerable warmth that as to subject-matter the teacher must teach what "is interesting to her." There we have in a nut-shell one of the chief factors in the sore inadequacy of nearly all our efforts at formal instruction. The supposed needs of the future men and women rather than the present capacities, curiosities and activities of the children determine both subject and method. What is interesting, not to the child, but to the teacher, is the thing to be taught from the vast stores of physical nature.

Unfortunately even this topsy-turvy theory does not get much chance to show itself at its best, for too often what the teacher is really interested in is her pay. Thanks to the alertness and omnivorous curiosity of most children, things would go better if each teacher could handle subjects that do genuinely interest her. As a matter of fact, it is often true that the topics taught are not those which thoroughly interest any one in particular; they are rather those which, it is held, ought to interest everybody. The course of study, like the famous Mr. Herbert Spencer, "goes fishing with a generalization" for the interest of the "average child," which has not yet been shown to exist in the flesh. No wonder the actual Jacks and Jills fail to rise to the highly rational and theoretically attractive bait.

I have recently examined a large number of elementary text-books in zoology and botany, and several general works on the theory and practise of teaching, and have been much interested to find how unmistakably and almost invariably they reflect biological and psychological doctrines which are thoroughly antiquated. The word "antiquated" I use with deliberation. Basal conceptions have to be overhauled now and then; that is the way civilization gets ahead.

It is obvious to me that Dr. Boris Sidis is on the right road doctrinally, and the example he has given us in educating his own son is most important. Looking at young Sidis through the eyes of a biologist, I see not necessarily a "mutant," or "sport," but the result of a carefully worked out demonstration in nurture. It is an experiment I am able to verify at any time by giving the feral, stunted plants of our dry mesa lands about San Diego a better chance through stirring the soil around them, or summer watering.

There is no doubt in my mind that under a thoroughly natural educational procedure carried on partly in the home and partly in the school, any boy or girl capable of being well educated might be better educated at seventeen than any but very exceptional students are now when they are invested as bachelors by our best universities. By "better educated" I mean more broadly educated, more accurately, and, above all, more sympathetically and growingly educated. One of the most unfortunate things, it seems to me, about the education young people now get is the supposed completedness of it when the class-room door has been passed for the last time.

Any normal man or woman who looks back over his childhood finds at least a few great enthusiasms entering in the makeup of his early world, which came upon him unawares and were only dimly connected with the little exact knowledge he may have possessed. Some of the brightest memories of childhood are of feelings, vague, perhaps, but none the less real, as to the beauty, the vastness, the mystery of the world. The time

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,

is no fiction for most persons. Poets' fancies are apt to find response somewhere in the constitution of most of us, however successfully we may have Bessemerized ourselves by mental discipline or business. Nearly all children, like nearly all primitive peoples, have in their natures the material out of which mystics are made; and of all the flames in human nature none burn higher and holier than that of mysticism. To utilize this raw material, not to the making of mystics but of sane, wholesome men and women, I conceive to be one of the great educational problems on the hands of this generation.

Education is failing so signally to meet the needs of rapidly advancing civilization because it is not calling forth the best powers of the boys and girls. It is not getting at these powers because it is not appealing to the real interests of the children; and it is not appealing -to these interests because it is not taking the children whole; it is trying to educate pieces of children. Under an educational regime that should do no violence either to the nature of children or the nature of nature, I am convinced that much of the alert curiosity, lively imagination, automatic attention, and spontaneous acquisition characteristic of early childhood could and would be carried up into the later inevitable strenuosity and anxiety of advanced scholarship and "sure-enough" life.

Emerson somewhere exclaims, "The earlier generations saw God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to nature?"

The kernel of the educational problem, at least as regards nature, is here. Not only "earlier generations "but our own children, enjoy" an original relation to nature." That they ever lose that relation, is largely chargeable to defective education.