Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/January 1914/The Biologist's Problem


By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL


THE problem is, to be free without being absurd. Confronted by a series of types, or a series of phenomena, one attempts to classify in an original and accurate manner. In the natural sciences, it is never possible to have the whole of the facts before us. Thus, in paleontology, there is never a complete series of fossiliferous strata; in taxonomy, the materials are always more or less insufficient and must be so. Moreover, were our series of specimens complete, we should still have to reason and speculate about their history and relationships. Still again, if we could assemble and correctly arrange all the data on a given subject, the borderlands of this subject would still remain nebulous, and this no matter how far our researches might extend, unless they compassed all reality, which is impossible.

Artificially, we devise a system which, bounding and restricting facts, gives us the appearance of great precision. We solemnly discuss whether this or that fact falls within this or that artificial category, as if the category were the more real and substantial of the two. We come to know our pigeon holes better than we know the pigeons which inhabit them; and as for those birds which nest in the trees or rocks, we will have nothing to do with them. Thus there arises a species of orthodoxy, quite analogous to that of the churches. A recent writer, referring to the desire of biologists to refer the vital phenomena of certain organisms to mechanical causes, frankly expresses the opinion that "this is a laudable desire." It is laudable to try to make your facts roost in the pigeon holes already provided, rather than elsewhere. In the classification of animals and plants, workers are sometimes divided into two camps, known as the lumpers and the splitters. The lumpers say, let us use large pigeon holes for our data; for all practical purposes, fine divisions are equally useless and unnecessary. The splitters say rather, let us discriminate as finely as we can; but even they have to draw the line somewhere. It is a singular thing that the lumpers actually pride themselves on their lumping; regard it as a virtue to ignore the little facts. The splitters are never quite so self-satisfied, because they are breaking new ground, and are not so sure of themselves. Nearly every naturalist has had a queer feeling when confronted by a long series of apparently new species; a sense of the uncanny, almost a distrust of his own eyesight. Yet in years after, when all these animals have been worked into the system, and each has a little history of its own in the literature, he is apt to find that he was really too timid when he thought himself too bold. He finds, of course, that he made mistakes, but often these are not the ones he feared he might be making.

What advice should be given to one beginning research in some field of biology? If you follow the well beaten path you will not perhaps make many discoveries, but you will not get into trouble. You will at least be biologically respectable. It seems to be the common opinion of university teachers that this is the best plan, if we may judge from the published theses of their students. These studies in cytology and ecology can be worked out much as one works out a problem in mathematics, the data being given, and the result unavoidable unless some gross blunder is made. Taxonomy is often decried by these very men as mechanical, and they avoid it in planning for doctors' theses. The fact is, that it is not mechanical enough; it is too full of if s and ands, of uncertainties and pitfalls, and as a rule they can not deal successfully with it. On this account we are probably saved from a great deal of bad taxonomy, which would cause infinite trouble to later workers; while the actual output, if not especially brilliant, is at least useful.

From the standpoint of science it seems evident that too much originality should not be encouraged in the young. We need experience in order to deal with difficult matters and break new ground. The older a man gets the more right he has to be free, to depend upon his own judgments even when they run counter to all others. Unfortunately, however, the very experience which seems to justify freedom is the cause of its restriction. Habits are formed, prejudices are developed, the mind is worn into ruts. There are few who can be really original in later life. Thus in the matter of ability, based on knowledge and experience, there is a curve which ascends until the powers begin to fail; but in the matter of originality and freedom the curve soon drops downward, gradually perhaps, but steadily. Obviously, there must be an optimum point somewhere at which it is most possible to make scientific discoveries. It will differ according to the character of the individual and his particular environment; it is for the psychologists to determine for us where it is most likely to occur. Its determination, even approximately, ought to be of some consequence to us.[1] If it is at thirty, then at thirty our brilliant young men and women ought to be most free to do as they will; most free from external difficulties and encumbrances of every sort. Arrangements have not been made to meet this need, but might they not be worth while? The history of science, literature and art alike is full of pathetic instances of men who have been to all intents and purposes enslaved at the golden time of their lives, reaching independence and opportunities for freedom only when it was too late to make much use of them.

If we had the will to make the most of what may be called the peak of efficiency, we might at the same time do something to increase its elevation. Nature has doubtless determined its position roughly as corresponding to the time when the growing family needs support and protection. Nature, however, has made no provision for intellectual work which benefits the race at large and in the fullness of time, rather than the individual responsible for it. The very coincidence of circumstances originally favored by natural selection here becomes a stumbling block, and we may only get around it by deliberately planning to do so. That is to say, society must adequately support scientific workers of ability at a sufficiently early age to get the best out of them. No provision for comfortable retirement at sixty-five will be of any particular value in this connection.

Granting the will to make the most of the able originality of our generation, to actively encourage the freedom of those who most deserve it from the standpoint of social utility; can we successfully pick out the right individuals? It is the experience of teachers that originality is a rare product. An eminent teacher of biology told me that he wished to put up in his laboratory the text "many are called, but few are chosen." We are most of us hunting for some genius to grow up under our care and make us famous by reflected light, even as Darwin did Henslow. Why is it that we are, on the whole, so unsuccessful in this quest? Is it that we, old fogies that we are, do not know the thing when we see it? Or is the thing so scarce that we might as well be hunting elephants in Trafalgar Square? Or again, is it that our educational system snuffs out all germs of genius in individuals originally possessing them? Perhaps all these things count in the matter; at the least, the problem is a complex one.

In literature, perhaps more than in science, we often see freedom combined with absurdity. The doctrine that genius and insanity are allied has a certain partial justification in the light of recent work on heredity. It is rare, with our extraordinary tangle of heritable qualities, for any man to have an approximately complete series of characters of the highest grade. Such men, when they occur, become famous, but what we call genius usually depends on one or a few special excellencies. A high quality is like a fine plant, which requires good supporting environment, better than that of common sorts. This should be found, not simply in outside circumstances, but more especially in the other qualities of the man himself. When it is not found there is apt to be a breakdown somewhere. We who are commonplace and undistinguished are not offered a competency for the rest of our lives as the price of a single crooked deal; or if our tastes are cheap and vulgar, they are not enshrined in sculpture or music to go down the ages to our disgrace and the corruption of others. We keep most of our cheapness, our stupidity, our dishonesty, for ourselves and our immediate circle, and much of it is never revealed at all. In the lottery which human inheritance at present is, good qualities will commonly, when they appear, lack the support we could wish for them; but when this is true, there can be no doubt that much of the evil resulting from this can often be remedied by good social conditions. That is to say, we can help the individual to leave unstimulated the bad and to make the most of what is good. Thus, in a sense, he may actually choose his ancestors. Instead of doing this, however, I fear we often do the reverse, and especially is this true when men have to appeal to the multitude rather than to their peers. The eccentricities of modern art and literature, so foreign to the mood of the great masters of the past, may have their root in the want of adequate balance in the make-up of the workers, but they are unquestionably stimulated by a public which, as a newspaper editor once put it, must have the "gewhiz sensation" every morning. Science workers must be sheltered from such demands, and this alone is enough reason for not hastening their public fame until such time as they are too old to learn new tricks.

The much-debated question whether training in one subject increases ability in other quite diverse ones may have some bearing on the peak of efficiency. If it is possible to increase the general ability to deal with problems, without unduly prejudicing the mind in respect to the particular problems to be solved, it seems that the altitude of the peak of efficiency will be increased. The indications are that when one has reached his peak in respect to his particular line of work he may yet find another peak ahead of him by shifting his base to a limited extent. How much, as a rule, it is profitable to shift it might be determined more or less by careful enquiry. I think, however, that from this point of view there is a good deal to be said for taking up a new subject every five or ten years. Even if the altitude of the successive peaks is not increased, it is worth something to have these successive maxima of ability in a life time.

  1. If a hundred persons of good ability would submit annually to a carefully considered series of tests from the years 20 to 40, or as many of these as possible, some pertinent data might be secured. This might be possible in a large city like New York.