Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/The Scientific Age
THE Association of German Naturalists and Physicians, which is so numerously and brilliantly represented here, having sixty years ago raised the banner of free investigation in our fatherland, has since, by its meetings, held from place to place, made the sciences, which had been previously pursued only in the narrow circle of experts, accessible to the life of the public, and therefore serviceable. The step was one fruitful in results. With it began a new age for mankind, which we have a right to call the scientific age. Nature had, indeed, given to primitive man—only weakly equipped in bodily strength—mental power and the faculty of observation, as the strongest of all weapons, in aid of his struggle for existence, and had taught him something of the use of her forces, his growing knowledge of the suitable application of which early smoothed his way to a higher civilization; and the arts of the earlier ages could be developed in many fields to a height at which we may still wonder, and means could be afforded for the achievement of artistic results of a perfection which has not since been reached; but all this came about by the toilsome and often fallacious way of the accumulation of empirical, uncomprehended, and unconnected observations and experiments, or by a way which could only slowly lead to the development of higher degrees of civilization.
These stages in civilization, however, comprised only a narrowly limited circle of development, and constancy was wanting to them, for they were attached to the person, and perished with it. Hence we see that, in the course of time, many eras of local civilization have bloomed out, to disappear amid the commotions of the following age without leaving a trace behind them. Even after the art of the mechanical multiplication of writings and pictures had made the achievements of mind the common good of mankind; after the foundations of our present science had been laid, and it had been recognized that unchangeable laws lie at the bottom of all natural phenomena, and the only sure way of learning these laws lay in questioning Nature herself, through properly directed experiments—still, scientific and technical progress was toilsome, slow, and insecure. There was still needed a coming out of learning into public life, an infection of empirical art by the spirit of modern science, to release it from the ban of the traditional and mechanical and raise it to the dignity of a scientific art.
We older men among you have had the good fortune to be witnesses of the immense impulse that has been given to human activity, in nearly all departments of life, by the vitalizing breath of natural science. "We have also seen, on the other hand, how science has been advanced by the achievements of art; how art has brought to it a fullness of new phenomena and problems, and with these the stimulation to further investigations; and how, with the spread of scientific knowledge, a host of observers and fellow-workers have grown up to her, in whom, although they may not stand on the full height of scientific knowledge, the love of science has repeatedly made up for that lack.
I will not attempt here to follow up the history of the growth of natural science, and its offspring, scientific art, or to describe the powerful transforming influences which science and art together have exercised upon the spiritual and material development of our period. It has been done many times, in convincing words and a masterly manner.
For us older men it suffices to acquire a view of the great difference between the past and the present—to cast a brief glance back to our own youth. We can still recollect the time when steamboats and locomotives made their first feeble experimental trips; we still hear with credulous astonishment the news that light itself can be made to paint the picture which it renders visible to our eyes; that the mysterious new force, electricity, could transmit news with the velocity of lightning through whole continents and the oceans separating them; that the same force would separate metals, in fixed form, from their solutions; and that it could drive away the night with a light as clear as that of day. Who wonders to-day over these now self-evident things, without which our youth could hardly imagine a civilized life—to-day, in an age when, according to Reuleaux's calculations, several iron laborers work day and night for every civilized man; when millions of men and immense quantities of goods are carried great distances at velocities which were once hardly conceivable; when the world-binding telegraph is not sufficient for the wants of our commerce, and has to make way for the transmission of the living word through the telephone; when photography is at the service of all classes; and when the latest fruit of the association of science and art, electro-technics, is opening to man, in its rapid unfolding, ever-new regions of inconceivable extent for further research and useful applications of the forces of Nature? To the investigator—who, more than any other class of men, is accustomed to draw conclusions from the course of observed phenomena as to the law controlling them—it is, however, not the latest state of development, but its causes, and the laws on which they depend, that are of surpassing importance. The clearly recognizable law is that of the progressive acceleration of our present advance in civilization. Periods of development, which in former times required hundreds of years for their accomplishment, which in the beginning of our age needed decades, are now completed in years, and sometimes come into being in full perfection. This is the natural result of our highly perfected system of instruction, by which the acquisitions of science, and particularly the scientific method, have been introduced into the broad stream of art and popular life in all their forms of efficacy.
Thus we see how, by virtue of our now excellent system of communications, every new scientific thought is at once flashed through the whole civilized world, and how thousands endeavor to grasp it and to apply it in the most diverse spheres of life. Sometimes it may be only modest observations, sometimes only the overcoming of small impediments that stand in the way of the recognition of the scientific relations of phenomena. They may often be the point of departure for a new course of advance, previously quite unanticipated, but important for human life. The progressive development conditioned upon these principles will therefore continue, if man does not himself in his conceit interrupt it, as long as science keeps going on to higher degrees of knowledge. The deeper insight we get into the secret processes of Nature, the more we are convinced that we are still standing in the extreme outer court of science, that an as yet immeasurable field of work lies before us, and that it still appears at least very questionable whether man will ever reach a complete knowledge of Nature. There is, therefore, no ground for doubting the continuance of the progressive ascent of scientific and technical evolution, unless man himself interferes with it by conduct inimical to civilization. But even hostile attacks can henceforth cause only temporary interruptions in the course of development, or at most only partial reversions, for, in the presence of the printing of books and the wide diffusion of the results of modern civilization, the scientific and technical accomplishments of mankind can never again be lost. Moreover, the peoples who cultivate these arts and lift them higher acquire through them such a dominant ascendency, so great a fullness of power, that their subjection in the contest with uncivilized people, and the breaking out of a new barbaric age, appear impossible.
While we thus regard the present development of civilization as incessant and impregnable, the end to which it is tending remains hidden to us; but we can discern from its beginnings the direction into which it is to turn the principles on which popular life has hitherto rested. For this purpose we need only to carry out further the changes which have been already begun. We can then easily perceive that, in the age of the reign of the sciences, severe manual labor, by which man has been very hardly and still is considerably oppressed in the struggle for existence, will be more and more reduced by the increasing utilization of natural forces in mechanical service, that the work that falls to man will become continually more of a mental character, while it will be his part to direct the work of iron laborers (or machines) but not himself to perform rough bodily labor. We see, further, that in the scientific age the necessaries of life and luxuries will be supplied with far less human toil, and that a much larger share of these products of labor wall fall to each man at the expense of less working-time. We shall see, also, that, through scientific and properly directed cultivation, a very much larger quantity of food-products will be obtained from the soil than heretofore, and that the number of men devoted to this branch of industry may be correspondingly diminished. We shall find that through the improvement and greater expedition of communication and transportation an ever-more ready exchange of the products of different lands and climates will be made possible by which the life of men will be rendered more enjoyable and their existence assured against the consequences of local scarcities. It also appears very probable that chemistry in connection with electrotechnics will some time succeed in composing real food-substances out of the inexhaustible abundance of their elements everywhere present, and thereby make the number of those who may be supported independent of the ultimate productive capacity of the soil. This progressively augmenting facility in obtaining the material means of existence will, by the shortening of the working-time that will have to be applied to that purpose, afford to men the leisure they will need for their better mental cultivation; the better perfected and cheapened making of mechanical reproductions of artistic creations will also prepare the way for bringing these works into the cottages, and will make art, beautifying the life and elevating the moral standard, accessible to all mankind, instead of to privileged classes only. We are strongly of the conviction that the light of science, penetrating more deeply into the whole of human society, combats in the most effective manner degrading superstitions and destructive fanaticism, and that we shall be able therefore to go on in proud satisfaction with the building up of the age of science, in the sure prospect that it will lead mankind to a better moral and material condition than it has been or is enjoying to-day.
Our complacency on this subject has been disturbed very recently by gloomy pessimistic views which hare been formed in learned circles as well as in the broad popular strata, respecting the influence which the rapid advance of science and art is exercising upon the character of popular life, and respecting the end to which that advance is tending.
The questions have been raised and discussed whether man is really better and happier for all these achievements of science and art, or whether they do not rather lead to the destruction of all ideal qualities of good, and to a coarse pleasure-seeking; whether the inequality in the division of the goods and pleasures of life will not be magnified through them; and whether the opportunities for work of individuals will not be diminished through the growth of machine-industry and the division of labor resulting from it, and the laborer himself be brought into a more restrained, dependent condition than before; or, in short, whether, instead of the lordship of birth and the sword, there will not prevail the still more oppressive rule of inherited or acquired wealth.
It can not be denied that there is now some show of justification for these gloomy anticipations. The rapid and continuous advance of scientific technics must necessarily, as it goes on, have a disturbing effect on many branches of industry. Better working methods may in many ways cause production to rise faster than consumption, and reduce the demand for labor, while manual labor, which formerly employed a much larger number of workmen to produce the same results, will no longer be able to compete with special machines. The like may be observed in the production of food-materials. Cheaper means of transportation are bringing to the old civilized lands the products in masses of thinly inhabited regions, whose virgin soils are not yet in need of artificial fertilization, but in which the scarcity of labor has led to the perfection of mechanical processes. It is true that scientific art provides means of equalizing these disadvantages by more rational methods of fertilizing and working; yet it is very hard to replace old accustomed but untenable conditions by better ones. Complaints are multiplying over the general depression in prices, and the falling off of the demand for labor, and the strangest theories are proposed for curing these evils by the isolation of certain lands against the products of others, and by forced limitations of production. The adherents of such theories go so far as to deny all utility to mankind of the scientific tendency, and to dream of a return to the methods of former presumed happier days. They do not recollect that, in this case, the number of men would also have to be brought back to the old figure. The number of happy shepherds and huntsmen is very small, and yet it must enter as an essential factor into the estimation of the greater or less prosperity of any period. It is a very hard but at the same time an unalterable social law, that all transitions to other, even if they be better, conditions, are connected with suffering. It is, therefore, certainly a humane proceeding to alleviate these sufferings to the present generation by a careful direction and partial limitation of the new, continually reverting revolutions of the social conditions of popular life; but it would be hopeless to try to stop the stream of this development, or to turn it back. It must necessarily follow its predestined course, and those countries and peoples will be least affected by its disturbing influence, and wil be the first to participate in the benefits of the scientific age, which do the most to bring it on. But that the coming age will really present better conditions to mankind, and will heal again the wounds that it makes, notwithstanding the unavoidable inconveniences of the transition to new modes, is recognizable from many signs.
Is not the generally apparent lowering of the prices of all the necessaries of life and products of labor with a simultaneous, vastly increased consumption, an indubitable evidence that the human labor required to provide them has become less as well as lighter than before? And that the tendency of the development is such that men in the future will have to labor a much shorter time to provide for their needs? Does not also the fact, evident at the same time, that wages are not falling in a corresponding degree with prices, show that the lot of the working-classes will be a continuously improving one as the scientific age advances? Cheaper production of necessaries means the same thing as higher wages. Higher wages, and shorter hours of work! This louder and louder sounding demand of the so-called working-classes will be realized, therefore, as the natural result of scientific progress. For, except for crises and states of transition, no more will be made than is used, and the average time of work will of necessity diminish with the augmented speed and ease of production.
Another generally evident fact is the reduction of interest. To discern the significance of this fact, we must keep in view that capital—the savings of wages, as political economy calls it—is the standard of value of all wealth. His own or borrowed capital enables a man to obtain the usufruct of the labor of other men. If capital were really abolished, as fanatical and mistaken men are trying to have done, mankind would fall back into a condition of barbarism in which every one would be relegated to the work of his own hands for the provision of necessaries. But the demand for capital can not keep pace with its increase, because the arrangements for the production of goods are growing more facile, simpler, and cheaper. There is, therefore—always allowing for the transitional variations and violent disturbances of natural progress—a larger average accumulation of capital than can be usefully applied; or, in other words, an overproduction of capital is taking place, which must find, and is, in fact, already finding, its expression in a reduction of the rates of interest. The value of the savings of former labor, or of capital, will, therefore, continue to decline in comparison with the labor of the present, and must in the course of time be annihilated.
For the other and seemingly the most weighty objection of the opponents of our social progress—that by its operation the larger number are condemned to work in large factories, and that in the progressive division of labor no room is left for the free exertion of individuals—for this, also, the natural course of the advance of the scientific age bears the remedy in itself. The necessity of large factories for the cheap production of useful articles depends essentially on the present imperfection of machine technics. Large machines just now give cheaper effects than small ones, and the introduction of the latter into the houses of workmen is still beset with great difficulties. But ingenuity will certainly succeed in overcoming the impediments in the way of the return to competitive manual labor, by bringing cheapened mechanical powers, the basis of all industry, into the smaller shops and workmen's homes. Not a number of great factories in the hands of rich capitalists, in which the "slaves of toil" shall wear out their hard existence, is to be the ending of the development of the age of science, but the return to individual labor, or, where the circumstances call for it, the conduct of co-operative establishments by associations of workmen, for which a sound basis has first been furnished by the general spread of knowledge and training, and the possibility of a cheapened supply of capital.
The complaint is likewise unjust that the study of science, and the application of the natural forces to the arts, give a material tendency to men, making them vain in their knowledge and power, and diverting them from ideal aims.
The more deeply we look into the harmonious administration of the powers of Nature, regulated by eternally unchangeable laws, yet so profoundly veiled from our full understanding, the more, inversely, we feel ourselves moved to an humble modesty; the smaller appears the scope of our knowledge, the more earnest is our effort to draw more from this inexhaustible fountain of knowledge and power, and the higher rises our admiration of the infinite regulating wisdom which pervades the entire creation. And the admiration of this infinite wisdom gives a new stimulus to that spirit of investigation, that devout pure love of knowledge, which finds its final object in itself, which has been lifted to a position of high honor in the German scholar, where it stands a hopeful mark to future generations.
Hence we should not be disturbed in our faith that our zeal in investigation and discovery will raise mankind to higher grades of civilization, will ennoble it and make it more amenable to ideal efforts, and that the dawning scientific age will diminish its suffering and disease, heighten its enjoyment, and make it better, happier, and more satisfied with its lot. And, although we may not always see clearly the conviction that the light of truth which we are seeking for will not lead us into error, and that the fullness of power which it gives to man can not depress him, but must raise him to a higher degree of the way that leads to these better conditions, we shall yet hold fast to being.
- An address delivered before the meeting of German Naturalists and Physicians, in Berlin, September 18, 1886. Translated for "The Popular Science Monthly."