FIVE years ago I pointed out that it is well from time to time to take stock of our knowledge and our methods of inquiry, to see whether we are working on sound lines. As the business man finds it necessary to go over his stock periodically and to balance his books, so, also, the scientific man, especially the biologist, should perform an analogous operation, lest perchance he finds out too late that he has been entering on a comparatively non-profitable work, or has been neglecting valuable opportunities. While it is impossible to say that any scientific work will be ultimately unprofitable, it is right to point out that particular subjects for investigation may be of more immediate importance than others.
In order not to complicate the question, we will dismiss the practical applications of science by admitting that they are of immediate importance. This leaves the field clear for the consideration of scientific subjects which are studied solely for their own sake.
We can, perhaps, gain a clear view of the question by looking at it from the standpoint of our successors. What will be the opinion of the naturalist of a hundred, or of a thousand years hence of the work now being done? What is the scientific work he would wish us to have undertaken? This question is not a difficult one to answer.
He would not consider it very necessary for us to elucidate the structure, development or physiology of every common animal; these researches can be pursued at any time. The investigation of the life in the oceans—whether on the surface, in shallow water, or in abysmal depths—can be done by him as well as by us.
The naturalist of the future will certainly and most justly complain if we busy ourselves entirely with problems that can wait, which he can solve as well as we, and at the same time neglect that work which we alone can do. Our first and immediate duty is to save for science those data that are vanishing; this should be the watchword of the present day. Those students of botany, zoology and anthropology who have at all considered the matter are impressed with the fact that the present time is a very critical period for the native flora and fauna of many parts of the world. Owing to the spread of commerce, the effects of
- Nature, January 28, 1897, p. 305.