Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/May 1872/Literary Notices

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Featured text
Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 May 1872  (1872) 
Literary Notices

Instinct: its Office in the Animal Kingdom, and its Relation to the Higher Powers in Man. By P. A. Chadbourne, LL. D. George P. Putnam & Sons.

This is a very interesting volume on a fascinating subject. Dr. Chadbourne is well known as an able student of natural history, which he has long cultivated both by independent observation and in a philosophic spirit, and in this little book he gives the results of much study of instinctive action as displayed in the lower animals, and of much reflection on its bearings upon the mental and moral nature of man. Conceding fully man's close relation to the forms of life below him, Dr. Chadbourne recognizes the scientific necessity of investigating the lower to get a true interpretation of the higher; or of tracing out the workings of instinctive impulse in the simpler creatures, in order to understand the springs of movement in our own more complex mental nature. The volume is full of fresh and suggestive facts, and the author discusses the doctrines put forth by some of the recent biologists in the most liberal temper. Natural selection is recognized as a true principle of Nature, producing real effects; but it is held insufficient to account for much that is attributed to it. We cordially indorse his claim for greater breadth of culture as indispensable to a true understanding of the science of human nature: "It is with a deep conviction of the need of the hearty cooperation of the cultivators of different fields of science, especially of Naturalists and Mental Philosophers, in the full study of man, that these Lectures are presented to the public. Broad culture as a foundation for scientific attainments, respect for other sciences than our own, and intercourse with those who view the same subjects from other standpoints than our own, are absolutely essential for safe generalizations in those complex sciences that relate to animal and rational life."

The Tomorrow of Death; or, The Future Life According to Science. By Louis Figuier. Roberts Brothers.

In this little book the great French compiler turns religious romancer, as he has a perfect right to do if it suits him. But the pretence that his childish vagaries are "according to science" is in the last degree absurd. A great deal of talk about science is mixed up with the most preposterous speculations concerning the supernatural, until the reader is puzzled to decide whether the writer is wag, fanatic, or fool. If honest, it is a case of emotion upsetting intellect. The author begins by propounding to the reader the safe induction that he must die. He then says that he lost a beloved son, and, falling into great grief, he at once began to speculate about the future life and the spiritual world, and came to the conclusions that light and heat are emanations of soul substance; that some human souls migrate into the bodies of newborn children; and that the sun is the home of human souls after death. The book is not worth reading, and would not be worth mentioning, but that the writer has a sort of reputation which may mislead many as to the character of his performance.

A Dictionary of English Etymology, by Hensleigh Wedgewood. Macmillan & Co.

This is a painstaking and exhaustive work on the derivation of English words from other languages, and the origin and history of their meanings. It has passed to a second edition, and the author has had the assistance of Mr. George P. Marsh in making its thorough revision. We took it up in utter innocence, supposing it to be sound and safe, and never for a moment dreaming of any thing wrong or dangerous between its honest looking lids. But what was our astonishment to find that the pestilent doctrine of "Darwinism," that is thrusting itself into every place where it is not welcome, and taking away the peace of so many worthy people, had got in here also. Darwinism, rank and outright, in an arid etymological dictionary! It seems that the author could not escape it. Etymology opens the question of the origin of words and language. It goes back to beginnings, and is fundamentally concerned to know by what law or method language has been formed. As language is an attribute of man, it links itself at once to the question of the origin of man. Were man and language created perfect at first, and has their onward course been a movement of degeneracy; or did they begin low and imperfect, and has the movement been a gradual unfolding—an evolution? This is more than a mere speculative question; it involves the interpretation that shall be given to the facts before us. If man and language have come to be what they are through a principle of slow and gradual evolution, our mode of regarding them will be very different from that which must be adopted if they came by an opposite method. And so the author prefixes to the second edition of his volume an elaborate essay on the origin of language, in which he rejects the old and still current view, and declares for the doctrine of evolution. We extract a portion of his statement: "If man can anyhow have stumbled into speech under the guidance of his ordinary intelligence, it will be absurd to suppose that he was helped over the first steps of his progress by some supernatural go cart, in the shape either of direct inspiration, or, what comes to the same thing, of an instinct unknown to us at the present day, but lent for a while to Primitive Man in order to enable him to communicate with his fellows, and then withdrawn when its purpose was accomplished.

"Perhaps, after all, it will be found that the principal obstacle to belief in the rational origin of Language is an excusable repugnance to think of Man as having ever been in so brutish a condition of life as is implied in the want of speech. Imagination has always delighted to place the cradle of our race in a golden age of innocent enjoyment, and the more rational views of what the course of life must have been before the race had acquired the use of significant speech, or had elaborated for themselves the most necessary arts of subsistence, are felt by unreflecting piety as derogatory to the dignity of Man and the character of a beneficent Creator. But this is a dangerous line of thought, and the only safe rule in speculating on the possible dispensations of Providence (as has been well pointed out by Mr. Farrar) is the observation of the various conditions in which it is actually allotted to Man (without any choice of his own) to carry on his life. What is actually allowed to happen to any family of Man cannot be incompatible either with the goodness of God or with His views of the dignity of the human race. And God is no respecter of persons or of races. However hard or degrading the life of the Fuegian or the Bushman may appear 'to us, it can be no impeachment of the Divine love to suppose that our own progenitors were exposed to a similar struggle.

"We have only the choice of two alternatives. We must either suppose that Man was created in a civilized state, ready instructed in the arts necessary for the conduct of life, and was permitted to fall back into the degraded condition which we witness among savage tribes; or else, that he started from the lowest grade, and rose toward a higher state of being, by the accumulated acquisitions in arts and knowledge of generation after generation, and by the advantage constantly given to superior capacity in the struggle for life. Of these alternatives, that which embodies the notion of continued progress is most in accordance with all our experience of the general course of events, notwithstanding the apparent stagnation of particular races, and the barbarism and misery occasionally caused by violence and warfare. We have witnessed a notable advance in the conveniences of life in our own time, and, when we look back as far as history will reach, we find our ancestors in the condition of rude barbarians. Beyond the reach of any written records we have evidence that the country was inhabited by a race of hunters (whether our progenitors or not) who sheltered in caves, and carried on their warfare with the wild beasts with the rudest weapons of chipped flint. Whether the owners of these earliest relics of the human race were speaking men or not, who shall say? It is certain only that Language is not the innate inheritance of our race; that it must have begun to be acquired by some definite generation in the pedigree of Man; and as many intelligent and highly social kinds of animals, as elephants, for instance, or beavers, live in harmony without the aid of this great convenience of social life, there is no apparent reason why our own race should not have led their life on earth for an indefinite period before they acquired the use of speech; whether before that epoch the progenitors of the race ought to be called by the name of Man or not.

"Geologists, however, universally look back to a period when the earth was peopled only by animal races, without a trace of human existence; and the mere absence of Man among an animal population of the world is felt by no one as repugnant to a thorough belief in the providential rule of the Creator. Why, then, should such a feeling be roused by the complementary theory which bridges over the interval to the appearance of Man, and supposes that one of the races of the purely animal period was gradually raised in the scale of intelligence, by the laws of variation affecting all procreative kinds of being, until the progeny, in the course of generations, attained to so enlarged an understanding as to become capable of appreciating each other's motives; of being moved to admiration and love by the exhibition of loving courage, or to indignation and hate by malignant conduct; of finding enjoyment or pain in the applause or reprobation of their fellows, or of their own reflected thoughts; and, sooner or later, of using imitative signs for the purpose of bringing absent things to the thoughts of another mind?"

The First Book of Botany. By Eliza A. Youmans. New edition. D. Appleton & Company.

A schoolbook which declares itself to be little else than a fingerboard, pointing to something else to be studied, and which is designed to avoid lesson learning and to break up school routine, is certainly something unusual in the educational world, and we might suppose from all analogy that it would meet with little favor. Yet such are the character and object of the "First Book of Botany." It was prepared, not to enable the pupil to memorize a certain amount of information about the vegetable kingdom, but to put him in the way of training his observing powers by the actual, systematic study of plants themselves. It is a handbook of guidance in the work of observation. It is an encouraging sign of improvement in methods of instruction that a book so thoroughly constructed on this plan should still not be a day ahead of the time. Its prompt and extensive adoption by the Boards of Education in many cities is an encouraging evidence of progress in the art of elementary teaching. The work has been reprinted in England, and is reviewed in the Pall Mall Gazette by Prof. Payne, of the College of Preceptors, under the title of "Botany as a Fourth Fundamental Branch of Study." He says:

"This book is so remarkably distinguished from the ordinary run of school books that no apology is necessary for calling the attention, not only of teachers, but of all who are interested in education, to its pretensions and merits. Too many school books, professedly compiled for the use of children, are really fit only to be handbooks for the teacher or the adult scientific student. Abounding with definitions and abstractions which presuppose a knowledge of the facts on which they are founded, they tend to quench rather than quicken the dawning intelligence of the child. These abstractions, though called principia or beginnings, are, in fact, such only to the mind already trained in deduction. Induction, on the other hand, appears to be the only possible method that a child can employ in gaining a real knowledge of principles. We may, of course—and we usually do—cram him with those intellectual boluses called definitions and rules, in the hope and belief that some time or other he will digest them; but we also very commonly and here is the absurdity of our plan—leave his process of mental digestion to chance, instead of regarding it as the end to be secured by the training of the teacher. Thousands of children carry about with them this crude, undigested matter, throughout the whole of their school life; and, if it is ever assimilated and appropriated by the mental system, it is after school life is over, and the youth takes his education into his own hands and begins it anew. Holding, then, as we do, that the primary aim of all teaching should be the quickening of intellectual life in the pupil, and trying school books generally by this test, we cannot but pronounce the great mass of them to be hinderances rather than helps to the object in view. They are hinderances and not helps, whenever they supersede the action of the pupil's own mind on the facts which they describe. In matters of science especially, the facts, the concrete things, are the true teachers, and should be allowed to impress their lessons by direct contact—without any foreign intervention—on the mind of the learner. These lessons gained by the authoritative teaching of facts will necessarily be productive of clear, definite, and permanent impressions, and must, therefore, be far more valuable than those given by the conventional bookmaker on his own authority. We go further, and maintain that the principle we have suggested furnishes a true test of the suitability of any given subject for elementary instruction, which, as we believe, should be confined in its earliest stages to those subjects in which the pupil can gain his knowledge at first hand from facts within his own cognizance. If, therefore, as has been declared by good authorities on the subject, that kind of teaching alone is effective which makes the pupil teach himself, it is obvious that elementary education should consist in eliciting the native powers of the child, and make him take an active share in the process by which knowledge is acquired; in setting him forth, in short, however young, on the path of investigation. The implicit reception of truths gained by the observation and experiments of others is, as things are, often unavoidable in the case of the adult man, presumed to be already educated, but is antagonistic to educational training, which consists in the development and direction of the native intellectual forces of the child.

"This conception of the nature and power of education has been firmly grasped and exhibited with remarkable skill by the author of the little book now under notice, which is expressly designed to make the earliest instruction of children a mental discipline. Miss Youmans, of New York, presents in her work the ripe results of educational experience reduced to a system. Wisely conceiving that all education—even the most elementary—should be regarded as a discipline of the mental powers, and that the facts of external Nature supply the most suitable materials for this discipline in the case of children, she has applied that principle to the study of botany. This study, according to her just notions on the subject, is to be fundamentally based on the exercise of the pupil's own powers of observation. He is to see and examine the properties of plants and flowers at first hand, not merely to be informed of what others have seen and examined. His own observation, resulting in the perception for himself of form, color, interrelation of parts, likeness and unlikeness, etc., is to be the primum mobile of his whole course of learning. His own examination and investigation of phenomena, his own reasoning and judgment on discovered relations, are to constitute the process by which he learns not only the facts and phenomena of botany, but also the use of his mental faculties. Inasmuch, moreover, as the phenomena that he observes are coordinated in Nature, the process becomes one not only for acquiring separate facts but organized knowledge, and, therefore, a systematic training in the art of observation. 'This plan,' Miss Youmans remarks, 'first supplies the long recognized deficiency of object teaching by reducing it to a method, and connecting it with an established branch of school study. Instead of desultory practice in noting the disconnected properties of casual objects, the exercises are made systematic, and the pupil is trained not only to observe the sensible facts, but constantly to put them in those relations of thought by which they become organized knowledge.' It is obvious that a course of instruction which secures such results as these, and which is applicable to the most elementary education, involving not merely the acquisition of sound knowledge, but the systematic training of the mind as a preparation for subsequent studies, literary as well as scientific, is a very valuable contribution to our educational resources. It supplies 'that exact and solid study of some portion of inductive knowledge' which is pointed out by Dr. Whewell (lecture 'On Intellectual Education,' delivered at the Royal Institution) as a want in education, and which would end in a real discipline for the mind by enabling it to 'escape from the thraldom and illusion which reign in the world of mere words.' 'The knowledge of which I speak,' he adds, 'must be a knowledge of things, and not merely of names of things; an acquaintance with the operations and productions of Nature, as they appear to the eye, not merely an acquaintance with what has been said about them; a knowledge of the laws of Nature, seen in special experiments and observations, before they are conceived in general terms; a knowledge of the types of natural forms gathered from individual cases already made familiar.'

"The desideratum here indicated is, we repeat, supplied for the first time by Miss Youmans's plan of teaching botany, which she accordingly proposes as a 'fourth fundamental branch of study, which shall afford a systematic training of the observing powers.' Some may of course question the pretensions of botany to the position here claimed; but it will be found more easy to object than to propose a substitute.

"It may, however, with better reason, be objected that the study of a descriptive science like botany, which is founded essentially on observation, fails to elicit the inventive and constructive faculties of the child, and to secure that training in the experimental knowledge of the action and reaction of forces, cause and effect, etc., which constitutes the method of scientific investigation. We should, therefore, suggest, as equally, or almost equally, suitable for elementary instruction (see Edgeworth's 'Practical Education,' and 'Harry and Lucy'), a collateral or supplementary training, similar in spirit and plan to Miss Youmans's in experimental mechanics founded on the phenomena of mechanical action. Botany for observation, mechanics for experiment, would complete that foundation of nature and fact on which technical education, if it is to be a reality and not a pretence, must be ultimately based."