Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Specialization in Science
A JESUIT with whom I was conversing on educational questions once told me, in depreciation of my position as a man of science, that the naturalist of to-day can be a physiologist or a physicist, mineralogist, geologist, zoologist, botanist, or chemist, and no more; that he can not overlook the whole of science, but can at most only really know a part of his own branch, from which he is not, of course, justified in drawing any general conclusion. It was otherwise with the Jesuit, who excluded himself from no department of knowledge. This man touched accurately what is now recognized as a growing peril to the general significance of science in mental development—the continuous contraction of the individual's field of labor, or specializing. It is right for naturalists in these days to make themselves masters in their own branch, and masters usually in that alone, unless they are in a position to obtain a survey over the whole of the sciences. But it is wrong, in the present condition of knowledge, to deny them a general acquaintance with all scientific matters. That would be to put their capacity below that of the Jesuit, who only desires to obtain a superficial view of science in order to aid him in holding his position in sophistical disputations against it and in favor of his own dogma. Most naturalists and scientifically educated persons have, moreover, been trained in a liberal range of studies, and are well qualified to form a judgment on general scientific as well as upon important and fundamental philosophical questions. Yet we are living, to a large extent, upon the provision left by the fathers. The dividing up is daily becoming more and more minute, and is destined in time to throw a broad shadow over the outlook, unless the demand for a many-sided basis of training as a defense against the evil is universally insisted upon. It is not necessary to have always at hand, at every moment of life, all the details of knowledge which one has once made his own, any more than it is to put what one learns to immediate practical use; if it were so, we should be at a loss to determine the value of the gymnasial training which demands the best of the time and the best of the strength of our youth. This principle, and the danger of promoting a one-sided practical training, in specialties, as opposed to general culture and more ideal views of life, were entirely lost sight of when the Imperial Government a few years ago made the far-reaching step in the direction—which was itself opposed from the practical side—of curtailing the required preparatory scientific instruction of physicians.
From this point of view the words receive a new prominence, which State Minister Von Gossler recently spoke in welcoming the fifty-ninth meeting of the German Naturalists and Physicians to Berlin. "The number of those," he said, "who have accurately mastered most of the branches of science seems to be growing less, and the question whether another mind will ever appear who will be able to write a 'Cosmos' for his time is becoming harder to answer. And yet the conviction remains inextinguishable that there is a 'Cosmos' and there must be a 'Cosmos.' It is certainly necessary that an incessant accumulation of scientifically ascertained facts shall continue to go on, whether by the way of logical comparison or by the aid of the imagination, and lead to the acquisition of new theories and new conceptions. But the other principle is just as valid, that the essential nature and the law of what is can not be apprehended without a harmonious intimate association of the individual sciences; and the perception is perhaps constantly becoming more clear that the separation among the branches of knowledge has its ultimate reason in the limitations and finitude of human power. Where we formerly thought we were in the presence of a number of forces and unknown causes, "we now try to discern one force in different forms of manifestation; and we can not exclude the thought that the great progress that can be shown in single branches of science, is in many respects a kind of induction effect of that which is made in other branches."
These are golden words, which might well be applied by the state in the training of its citizens—particularly in the circle of the higher schools. Is it not by specializing carried to an extreme that our gymnasial teachers have devoted themselves to the ancient languages, till they are hardly competent to do any better work than to carry youth through these, their specialties during nine years, without their pupils giving a glance at the all-forming spirit of Nature around them? Let me be permitted to add to Minister Von Gossler's expressions a word of protest against this most untimely and damaging of all specializing, in favor of the sciences, which are treated by the schools in so step-motherly a way. There is an impression still current that scientific training is mischievous to the "peaceful citizen"; that it fits him to plot against the order of the state, or leads him to adopt extreme views in politics and religion. On the contrary, I believe that the importance and value of scientific training must be recognized by every unprejudiced observer in the sound, tolerant, temperate bearing which scientifically educated members of society maintain with reference to questions of public life ; which is evident both in itself and as compared with the bearing of men in other conditions. Nothing promotes free, independent thought in men, so well as the sense of obligation to the demands of the generality, so much as the knowledge of the great diversity with unity and the all-prevailing order that rule in Nature. Against the demands of priestly rule and anarchical lawlessness, natural science asks for freedom of movement and orderly subjection, insisting that both are necessary conditions. It must be conceded that neither the order of the theologians nor that of the Jesuits, notwithstanding the nature of both in principle inclines to the conservative rule, affords relatively so few representatives of extreme or radical tendencies as that of the naturalists. The time certainly can not be far distant when the natural sciences shall be given a very different position from that they now hold in general education. Only they can, in the future, furnish the basis, which is becoming more needed as the significance of our public life increases, for the removal of unnatural contradictions in the thoughts of men, for the bringing on of sound, practical, and likewise ideal—I might say, normal—views on the fundamental questions -of human society and human life; after exclusive theological and philosophical instruction in these matters has been abrogated.
What an amount of contention, strife, misunderstanding, and hostility among men might have been extinguished or prevented by a more general knowledge of the relative importance of natural processes and laws! Yet the great majority—and of "educated" men, too—even in Germany, die without having obtained more than a vague knowledge of the structure and functions of their own bodies, and that only serving to the preservation of bodily health. And this deficiency is associated through life with the erroneous and cruel doctrine that there is an impassable gap between man and the rest of Nature; while the best force of instruction is wasted upon fruitless philosophical speculations that contradict the most incontestable principles of natural science. Still these zealots demand for their faith the right to stand at the head of the schools and of the state. Should it not be the task of the state to provide for the filling up of the gulf which is thus kept open amid the most fundamental ideas of men, by means of an education conducted on a scientific basis? But the state unwittingly fosters these contradictions of spirit and fritters away its resources, when it leaves its most important representatives, the jurists, who, by the practical nature of their calling and the many-sided character of their relationships, should have the broadest fundamental training, to grope in as complete a childish ignorance of natural things as the narrowest specialists in the service. That we of the present day in Germany have made so little advance in obtaining for science its proper place in education is certainly not least due to the reserve which our learned men usually observe with reference to questions of public life, and especially to their voluntary burial of themselves in special fields.
It is persistent application to special work that naturally forces the student so far away from all contact with things without, and which, while it makes him a monarch on his own little field, frequently also makes his circuit too narrow and himself too self-important. It is not my purpose to condemn the specializing of science, and occupation with a single branch, in themselves. The more a man studies one thing, the more he sees in it; and the investigator who has engaged himself assiduously with one object sees in it a whole world, in the view of which all other things pass from notice. It is a joy to work in this way on one's own field, and it is also necessary for every one to undergo rigorous schooling in such exercises, especially previous to appearing before the world with any general treatise. Tendencies like that of contemporary science toward specializing are naturally inevitable. The time will come again in which the pressure will in like manner impel students, sifting out the now concluded results of science, to work them up into a whole.
It is, however, not doubtful that the majority of students, so far at least as they are public teachers, to-day go too far in their specializing. Whoever uninterruptedly looks upon a single thing year after year learns no more of the whole. Not alone that the view over science is wholly lost to him, but even in his own branch is such a man at last no longer able to be at home. It is almost the fashion to-day, as among the zoologists and botanists, for example, no longer to make themselves acquainted with entire animals and plants. At all events, many zoologists of the day—and the same is the case with the botanists in their sphere—have hardly ever accurately examined an animal as a whole; but they have with the microtome dissected ever so many animals of a group into fine slits, have pulled them to pieces with the needle under the microscope, and have described their observations in monographs. Every one who has done this kind of work in any considerable degree, as has the present writer, must know that while it is going on there is not much time left for the learning of other things. I will not go too deeply into the merits of the work in itself—it must be done. But I hold that in the immediate present it has become too exclusively predominant.
Hand-in-hand with the exaggeration of special work goes the growing inability to write understandingly to the general public. The German student appears only too often to think that he must present his subject in the most difficult phraseology, excessively interlarded with strange words, as if he purposely would permit a glance into the treasures of his science and his knowledge only to an extremely narrow circle. Nothing better shows this than the style of most of our (German) text-books when compared with that of the majority of the English books, which nevertheless are not behind ours in thoroughness. Even once to write something "popular"—who does not know how many of our students look loftily down upon this art? Now I think it is a valuable art, and worthy of recognition. It can not be expected that every one shall become possessed of it, and every one shall exercise it; but the art is very often wanting simply because exclusive devotion to "purely scientific" work in some extremely narrow field of knowledge has prevented its ever having been put in practice. Many also deliberately hold themselves aloof from it because whoever among us writes understandingly to the public appears to compromise his reputation as a man of science.
Why is it entirely different in England ? Why do the first men of science there—those who are recognized and admired by the German scientific world—write understandingly to every one? Who does not enjoy the famous essays of Faraday on "A Candle," of Tyndall on "The Forms of Water," of Huxley on "The Crayfish," etc.? I do not forget that there are also a few scientific men having this talent among us, but they do not escape the shrugs of their contemporaries. It is true that a student who should make such general representation his principal work would soon forfeit his importance as an investigator. But it is also desirable, on the other hand, that the naturalist should not exhaust himself in the examination of details, but that he should, for the sake of keeping himself fresh, come forward with his conclusions from time to time immediately before the cultivated world, and not let the great value of his investigations be recognized by strangers only. In sequence with this general reserve of students—besides the resulting deficiencies in scientific school-instruction—exists also a backwardness among our laymen in expressing themselves respecting their observations of Nature. Nature invites every one to observation and reflection ; and even the inexpert inquirer is not excluded from the privilege of being led up to the noblest experiences through this observation and reflection. What does not scientific zoology, to mention but one example, owe to the bee-master. Pastor Dzierzon, for his determination of the parthogenesis of bees? And did not Goethe, without being a professional naturalist, arrive at his famous fruitful ideas of the composition of the skull out of vertebrae, of the human intermaxillary, and of the tracing of the parts of the plant back to the leaf? He repeatedly expresses in plain terms the thought of the unity of all Nature and of the continuous development of her forms, on grounds not of pure speculation, but of observation and reflection upon it. Darwin's corresponding conclusions also originated from the simplest observations that presupposed no scientific character, and were open to be made, with a little tact, by every sharp eye and clear head. The English can also furnish us with the model for this participation of unprofessional persons in the observation of Nature. Not only their many colonies, their residencies, and their domains, in the farthest parts of the globe, permit individuals to make numerous new and valuable observations, but there are also in England numbers of wealthy persons who, having no official positions, are animated by a spontaneous scientific enthusiasm, and are able to come forth again and again as patrons of scientific researches. Thus the gap between amateurs and professionals in the sciences is necessarily becoming narrower. The closer relation of the world of students to the public must, on the other side, give heart to the individual — yes, raise up a positive desire in him to make known what he has observed, and inspire him to experiments of his own. Community in work of this kind can already show its results. A perusal of the journal "Nature," in which students and laymen publish their researches and observations from the fields of science in all the five quarters of the globe, wherever Englishmen dwell, will illustrate this in the plainest manner. Inquiry is active, then, and is stimulated by the constant contribution of new facts. The most distinguished men of science are not ashamed to take part in these proceedings; but their communications give the nation opportunity to become immediately acquainted with their researches, to estimate their value, and rejoice over the good that accrues to the nation from them. In Germany such a usage could, in consequence of the closer relations of the different members of society, be made to be of much wider significance than in England.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from "Humboldt."