Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/March 1878/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 12 March 1878  (1878) 
Editor's Table
 

EDITOR'S TABLE.
THE PROGRESS OF AMERICAN BIOLOGY.

WE publish this month the first half of the able and interesting address delivered by Prof. Marsh, before the American Association, at Nashville, last August, on the "Introduction and Succession of Vertebrate Life in America," and which is the first complete edition that has appeared in any periodical. The paper is, from its nature, somewhat technical, but the author could not help that, as, in dealing with newly-discovered forms of life, he is compelled to use new terms a little freely, and to make his account complete he includes some lists of genera, which will be of great service to biological students, and should not frighten off unscientific readers, who will find much to interest them in the general treatment of the subject. There is nothing more remarkable in our time than the activity of its scientific thought, and the importance of the new results that are being reached in all the spheres of investigation. Of this, we have a striking illustration in the fact that four months was sufficient almost to antiquate Prof. Marsh's address, and make it necessary to post it up to the beginning of the present year, by notes from the author, stating what new things have been discovered since its delivery. Among these are mentioned a new species of fossil fish (Ceratodus), that has recently attracted much scientific attention, and is significant as the first found in the Mesozoic formations of this country. A number of new Jurassic reptiles, some of enormous size, and a new genus (Epihippus), a missing Eocene link in the genealogy of the horse, have also come to light. The interesting point here is, that these are all forms that the evolutionist was expecting from our marvelous Rocky Mountain region, and they show how rapidly the biological evidence of this theory is accumulating. The whole address is indeed a weighty contribution to the literature of this doctrine, as, besides the mere record of ancient life which it affords, the genealogies of many groups of animals are now traced for the first time. It is well known that Prof. Marsh, by his skill, enterprise, and assiduity, has made the field of the exploration of the Western fossil-beds very much his own; and in this address, which first attempts a summary statement of what is known of the extinct vertebrate life of this continent, he necessarily includes his own results. Among its leading features there is a discussion of the migrations of extinct mammals, and strong evidence is presented (in opposition to previous opinion upon the subject) that North America is really the oldest continent, from which South America, as well as Asia and Europe, derive many of their animals. The author's observations have led him also to conclude that there is at present no evidence that any of the supposed bird-tracks of the Connecticut River sandstone were made by birds, but were probably all made by reptiles. In discussing the unsettled question among geologists as to the line between the Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks in the West, Prof. Marsh puts forward a new principle or law as to the value of different kinds of fossils in determining geological age. His investigations show that the higher the grade of life, the better is the evidence they yield; plants, for example, being poor witnesses in such a case, and the higher vertebrates the best. Geologists will be interested in the researches of the author, the results of which are also given, into the origin and succession of the Tertiary fresh-water lakes of the Rocky Mountain region; a subject upon which but little accurate information has been hitherto attainable. The portion of the paper printed in the present Monthly includes the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and birds; and the second part will be devoted to the mammals, which will be discussed more in detail. Prof. Marsh has kindly prepared for us a geological section of the earth's crust, revised so as to illustrate the present aspect of the subject of the introduction and succession of vertebrate life on this continent, and which the reader will find valuable for reference in studying the address.

 

 
SOME TEACHINGS OF THE TELEPHONE.

We commend to those who persist in ventilating the ancient prejudice against the material medium of which all things around us are constituted, as "dead matter," "gross matter," "brute matter," etc., a little meditation on the remarkable powers manifested by the telephone.

In another part of the Monthly will be found an excellent explanation of the mechanism and mode of working of this remarkable contrivance. But, to appreciate its deeper meaning, we must recall some of the characteristics of sound and the conditions of the production of voice. The brain, the spinal centres, the nerves, and the muscles, have all to be coördinated in that expulsion of air through the apparatus of speech which results in the utterance of words. The vocal cords are thrown into vibration by the air-current which sets up wave-motions that are transmitted in all directions. To appreciate what here goes on in this light, invisible medium, we must strive to keep in mind the behavior of the air-particles. In the propagation of sound, a stream of thrills is shot out from its source, at the rate of about eleven hundred feet per second, and the series of air-waves is simply a succession of condensations and rarefactions of the elastic medium, in which the aërial particles successively take up and pass on the motions of the original impulse. According to the extent and complexity of these molecular motions is the intensity and quality of the noise. The size of the waves varies with the pitch of the sound; the first A of the bass in a piano producing air-waves about forty feet in length, while the waves of the last A of the treble are not quite four inches long. But these sound-waves are far more complex than at first seems, so that the motion of the air-particles involves something else than a mere backward-and-forward movement. A stretched string, vibrating its whole length, gives its fundamental tone, but while it thus swings as a whole, its different parts are thrown into separate and quicker vibrations, which are executed in harmonic ratio—2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 times—during the vibration of the whole string. These over-vibrations produce what are called overtones, which are, so to speak, drowned in the fundamental note, but which, nevertheless, serve to give it a peculiar character. It is thus that sounds from all sources acquire distinguishing marks, by which they are identified. It is by the effects of these frills, or fringes, of the larger waves, that different musical instruments, and different human voices, are distinguished from each other. The infinite varieties of sound are thus due to the subtile capacity of complex motion possessed by the air-particles. They always move exactly in the same way in the production of the same effects, and differently in yielding different effects. If we could see the dance of the air-particles when music is executed, it would be a picture of mathematical exactness, and infinite complication, that has no analogy in anything we observe. It has always been regarded as one of the mysterious miracles of vital structure how the little membranous drum of the human ear can take up so perfectly this rapid stream of intricate motions in the air, which are all so exactly reproduced by the layer of adjacent particles striking upon the membrane, that thousands of tympanums will be all affected precisely alike, while the nerves transmit the thrills to the brain, awakening the same musical sensations and sentiments in the consciousness of as many people as can be brought within hearing. This chain of effects is wonderful, indeed; but we are now confronted with the fact, more impressively than ever, that it is no prerogative of the living organism to respond to these subtile and exquisite changes in the air; the inert, dead matter of which we hear so much—mere cold iron—will do exactly the same thing.

When we begin to use a telephone for the first time, there is a sense of oddity, almost of foolishness, in the experiment. The dignity of talking consists in having a listener, and there seems a kind of absurdity in addressing a piece of iron, but we must raise our respect for the metal, for it is anything but deaf. The diaphragm of the telephone, the thin iron plate, is as sensitive as the living tympanum to all the delicate refinements of sound. Nor does it depend upon the thinness of the metallic sheet, for a piece of thick boiler-plate will take up and transmit the motions of the air-particles in all the grades of their subtilty. And not only will it do the same thing as the tympanum, but it will do vastly more: the gross, dead metal proves, in fact, to be a hundred times more alive than the living mechanism of speech and audition. This is no exaggeration. In quickness, in accuracy, and even in grasp, there is a perfection of sensitive capacity in the metal, with which the organic instrument cannot compare. We speak of the proverbial "quickness of thought," but the telephone thinks quicker than the nervous mechanism. Let a word be pronounced for a person to repeat, and the telephone will hear and speak it a hundred miles away in a tenth part of the time that the listener would need to utter it. Give a man a series of half a dozen notes to repeat, and he cannot do it accurately to save his life; but the iron plate takes them up, transmits them to another plate hundreds of miles off, which sings them forth instantaneously with absolute precision. The human machine can hear, and reproduce, in its poor way, only a single series of notes, while the iron ear of the telephone will take up whole chords and trains of music, and, sending them by lightning through the wire, its iron tongue will emit them in perfect relations of harmony. The correlations and transformations of impulse are besides much more extended in the telephone than in the living structure. The volitional mandate from the brain incites nervous discharges, expended in producing muscular contractions that impel the air across the vibrating cords, where it is thrown into waves. But in the case of the telephone, the airwaves are spent in producing mechanical vibrations of the metal; the secreate magnetic disturbances, which excite electrical action in the wire, and this again gives rise to magnetic changes that are still further converted into the tremors of the distant diaphragm, and these finally reappear as new trains of air-waves that affect the listener, while the whole intermediate series of changes is executed in a fraction of the time that is required by the nervous combinations of speech. And not only does the telephone beat the living machine out of sight in speed, accuracy, compass of results, and multiplicity of dynamical changes, but it distances it also in the simplification of its resources. The same bit of dead metal serves equally for both ear and tongue; the offices of the diaphragm are interchangeable, and the machine works backward and forward with exactly the same facility.

The lesson here taught is, that we are to elevate our conceptions of the powers of matter. Science is making constantly fresh revelations of its potencies and capacities, and we are probably still only upon the threshold of this world of wonders.

 

 
CONCERNING THE BELIEF IN HELL.

A lively discussion has recently been carried on by the pulpit and the press as to whether there is a future state of eternal torment. Two or three eminent orthodox clergymen spoke out in rather strong denunciation of the idea, and this was followed by an epidemic of controversy. Certain people seem to have been perplexed as to what is meant by so free a handling of a solemn old subject. We think it simply means that people have been thinking about it until expression is a relief, and that many have reached conclusions that they are glad to have a chance of ventilating. There has been, thanks to the influence of science, a pretty rapid liberalizing of theological opinion during the past generation; and this discussion about hell is an instructive indication of the advance that has been made.

The question of the existence of a veritable hell is, of course, a theological one, which we cheerfully leave to those interested, but the topic has also a scientific side. The rise and course of the idea, or what may be called the natural history of the belief in hell, is a subject quite within the sphere of scientific inquiry. It is legitimate to ask as to how the notion originated, as to its antiquity, the extent to which it has been entertained, the forms it has assumed, and the changes it has undergone, and from this point of view it of course involves the principle of evolution. We cannot go into so large a discussion here, but as this is an aspect of the subject not much dwelt upon, a few suggestions regarding it may not be inappropriate.

In the first place, it is necessary to rise above that narrowness of view which regards the doctrine of hell as especially a Christian doctrine, or as the monopoly of any particular religion. On the contrary, it is as ancient and universal as the systems of religious faith that have overspread the world. The oldest religions of which we have any knowledge—Hindoo, Egyptian, and the various Oriental systems of worship—all affirm the doctrine of a future life, with accompanying hells for the torture of condemned souls. We certainly cannot assume that all these systems are true, and of divine origin; but if not, then the question forces itself upon us, how they came by this belief. The old, historic religious systems involved advanced and complicated creeds and rituals, and if they were not real divine revelations in this elaborated shape, we are compelled to regard them as having had a natural development out of lower and cruder forms of superstition. To explain these religions—as to explain the earliest political institutions—we must go behind them. There is a prehistoric, rudimentary theology of the primitive man, the quality of which has to be deduced from his low, infantine condition of mind, interpreted by what we observe among the inferior types of mankind at the present time.

It is certain that early men, in profound ignorance of the surrounding world and of their own natures, must have grossly misinterpreted outward appearances and their internal experiences, and analysis of the conditions has abundantly shown how these primitive misunderstandings led inevitably to manifold superstitions. Herbert Spencer, in his "Principles of Sociology," recently published, has carefully traced out this working of the primitive mind, and explained how the early men, by their crude misconceptions of natural things, were gradually led to the belief in a ghost-realm of being appended to the existing order. The idea of a life after death, so universally entertained among races of the lowest grades of intelligence, is accounted for, and is only to be accounted for, in this way. Through experiences of sleep, dreams, and loss and return of consciousness at irregular times as in swoon, catalepsy, trance, and various forms of insensibility, there grew up the idea of a double nature—of a part that goes away leaving the body lifeless, and returns again to revivify it; and thus originated the theory of immaterial ghosts and spirits. At death the ghost departed, but not to return and reanimate the body in the usual way; it went to inhabit another place. Thus arose the conception of a separate and future life, which, at first, could not have been supposed to differ much from that of the present order of things. No doubt what is said of the Fijians, that after death "they plant, live in families, fight, and, in short, do much as people in this world," represents the common beginnings of belief upon this subject. Yet the. hope of better things could not fail to come soon into play, as indicated by the belief of the Creeks, that after death they go where "game is plenty, and goods very cheap; where corn grows all the year round, and the springs of pure water are never dried up." Von Tschudi tells us that in Peru "a small bag with cocoa, maize, quinua, etc., is laid beside the dead that they might have wherewithal to sow the fields in the other world." The condition of the future life, where the ghosts go to dwell, is believed to be so similar to that which they have left that it is almost universal among savages to bury food, weapons, implements, ornaments, clothing, and whatever they may be likely to want, with the bodies of their dead friends. Even dogs and cattle are slain, and women and servants immolated, that they may accompany and minister to the departed.

But this bald conception of a future life, as a kind of literal continuance of present materialities, could not last. As knowledge accumulated the conception grew incongruous, and underwent important modifications, so that similarity gradually passed into contrast. The intimacy of the intercourse supposed to be carried on between the two worlds decreased; the future world was conceived of as more remote, and as having other occupations and gratifications more consonant with developing ideas of the present life. Rude conceptions regarding good and evil could not fail to be early involved with considerations of man's futurity. Good and evil are inextricably mixed up in this world, which seems always to have been regarded as a faulty arrangement, and, as there was little hope of rectifying it here, the future life came to be regarded as compensatory to the present. But the problem was solved, not by the absorption and disappearance of evil, but by supposing good and bad to be mechanically separated; and, as good and bad means good people and bad people, the belief arose that in the future world they would be divided off, the good being all collected in a good place, and the bad ones all turned into a bad place.

This idea of using the next world to redress the imperfections and wrongs of this grew up early and survives still, and it has exerted a prodigious influence in human affairs. As the grosser superstitions were gradually developed into systematic religions, a priestly class arose, and religious beliefs were embodied in definite creeds. Fundamental among these was the belief in heaven as a place of happiness, and of hell as a place of penal torment for the wicked. To one or other of these places, it was held, all men are bound to go after death; but to which depended—and here the office of the priesthood assumed a terrible importance, for they knew all about it, and had the keys. It is impossible to conceive any other idea of such tremendous power for dominating mankind as this! It raised the priesthood and ecclesiastical institutions into despotic ascendency, brought it into unholy alliance with civil despotisms, and became the mighty means of plundering the people, crushing out their liberties, darkening their hopes, and cursing their lives. So productive an agency of unscrupulous ambition could not fail to be assiduously cultivated, and the conception of hell, the most potent element in the case by its appeal to fear, was elaborated with the utmost ingenuity. Language was exhausted in depicting the terrors of the infernal regions and the agonies of the damned. We by no means say that these ideas were mere priestly inventions, but only that they grew up under the powerful guidance of a class consecrated to their exposition, and incited by the most powerful worldly motives to strengthen their influence. In order to enforce belief, to compel obedience to ecclesiastical requirements, to coerce civil submission, and to extort money, people were threatened with the horrors of hell, which were pictured with all the vividness of rhetorical and poetic fanaticism. As the hierarchical spirit grew in strength, and became a tyrannical rule, obedience to its minutest rites was enforced by the most appalling intimidations. To neglect some trivial ceremony was sufficient to incur damnation. Alger says, in his "History of the Doctrine of a Future Life:" "The Brahmanic priest tells of a man who, for neglecting to meditate on the mystic monosyllable Om before praying, was thrown down into hell, on an iron floor, and cleaved with an axe, then stirred in a caldron of molten lead till covered all over with the sweated foam of torture, like a grain of rice in an oven, and then fastened, with head downward and feet upward, to a chariot of fire, and urged onward with a red hot goad."

In noticing the causes of the extent, influence, and perpetuity of this sombre belief, we must not forget that the future life, being beyond experience and inaccessible to reason, offers an attractive play-ground for the unbridled imagination. It opens an infinite realm for sensuous imagery and creative invention, stirs the deepest feelings, and concerns itself with the mystery of human destiny. It accordingly offers a favorite topic for poetic treatment, and this is more especially true of the darker aspects of the future world, poets having ever taken with avidity to delineations of hell. From Hesiod to Pollok, pagans and Christians have vied with each other in their poetical representations of the tortures and terrors of the infernal state. The mythological form of the doctrine figures largely in the great epics of Greece and Rome; the Italian "Inferno" pictures the Christian hell with terrible intensity, and the grand poem of the English language, "Paradise Lost," has hell at the root of its plot, and hell's master for its hero. Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, working through poems of immortal genius that have fascinated mankind, some of them through thousands of years, and others through centuries, have thus combined to familiarize countless millions of people with the conception, and to stamp it deep in the literature of all countries.

Yet the doctrine of hell is now growing obsolete. Originating in ages of savagery and low barbarism, and developed in periods of fierce intolerance, sanguinary persecutions, cruel civil codes, and vindictive punishments, it harmonized with the severities and violence of society, and undoubtedly had use as a means of the harsh discipline of men when they were moved only by the lowest motives. But, with the advance of knowledge, and the cultivation of the humaner sentiments, the doctrine has become anomalous and out of harmony with the advance of human nature. Hence, though still a cardinal tenet of orthodoxy, it is now generally entertained in a vague and loose way, and with reservations and protests that virtually destroy it. Only revival preachers of the Moody type still affirm the literal "lake of fire and brimstone," and it is certain that the doctrine in any shape recurs much less prominently in current preaching than it did a generation or two ago. Sober-minded clergymen have got in the way of neglecting it, except now and then when rehearsing the creed, or, as at present, under the spur of controversy, or when rallied about the decay of the old theology. The hell of Jonathan Edwards is gone. That sturdy theologian wrote: "The world will probably be converted into a great lake, or liquid globe of fire—a vast ocean of fire in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed, which will always be in tempest, in which they shall be tossed to and fro, having no rest day or night, vast waves or billows of fire continually rolling over their heads, of which they shall forever be full of a quick sense within and without: their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their feet, their loins, and their vitals, shall forever be full of a glowing, melting fire fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torments; not for one minute, nor for one day, nor for one age, nor for two ages, nor for a hundred ages, nor for ten thousands of millions of ages, one after another, but for ever and ever without any end at all, and never, never be delivered."[1]

This is sufficiently explicit, but no man of the rank of its author talks in such a strain nowadays. In the current pulpit utterance there is a perfect chaos of discordant speculation, open repudiation, tacit disavowal, and ingenious refining away, but no stern and sturdy defense of it, in the old form and spirit, from any source that commands respect. The doctrine of hell is still conserved in popular creeds, but, if not eliminated, it will be pretty certain to carry the creeds with it into the limbo of abandoned superstitions.

 

  1. Edwards's Works, vol. viii., p. 166.