Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/March 1877/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
BIOLOGY IN COMMON SCHOOLS.

WE call attention to the important paper sent to us by Prof. Huxley, on the study of biology. Science, as the highest expression, and the most accurate and methodical form of knowledge, is pressing its educational claims; and Prof. Huxley here offers us some very important considerations on the nature of biological science, and why and how it should be taken up in institutions devoted to mental culture. Perhaps no living man can speak with more authority upon this subject than Prof. Huxley, not only from his profound familiarity with this branch of knowledge, and his recognition of the demands of scientific education, but because of his own broad and liberal culture, which protects him from narrow views, and enables him to assign their relative values to different branches of study.

Nevertheless, when he comes to his fourth and final question as to "token biological study may be best pursued," we think he is less satisfactory than in dealing with his previous questions. This, as we look at it, is much the most important inquiry, and deserves a fuller investigation than Prof. Huxley had time to give it; while what he did say, from the use that will inevitably be made of it, will be liable to do more harm than good. Prof. Huxley is decided in the conviction that biological study should be made a part of ordinary school-training, and that it can be carried out with ease and profit to those who are taught. But he anticipates and yields to an objection which, as things are, will be certain to work the utter defeat of the study in "ordinary schools," and an objection, to the force of which, we think, he should not have made the slightest concession. He says, "There are difficulties in the way of a lot of boys making messes with slugs and snails." Prof. Huxley has here put his finger upon what is the formidable obstacle we have to encounter in the study of the real objects of Nature in common schools. Books, lessons, and recitations, are cleanly, and give no trouble; objects as matters of observation and study by individual pupils are dirty, cluttering, and untidy, if not messy, sloppy, and nasty. Experiments are tolerated, now and then, for an hour, when carried on by the teacher at one side, behind tables, or where assistants can clean up; and minerals and specimens are also allowed when they can make a show in inaccessible cabinets; but apparatus and objects of any sort, for the use of individual pupils—even microscopes, minerals, or plants—are the bore of the school-room, and the torment of tidy, methodical, and routine teachers. The superstition that education is purely a matter of books is profound and inveterate—so much so, that even the employment of blackboards, maps, and globes, is looked upon as something in the way of concession to the spirit of modern innovation. The ideal of the school is pure wordiness, with a minimum of bother from anything not included in the text-books.

As regards biology, of course, the difficulty takes its most aggravated form. There is a deeply-rooted and universal prejudice against the whole tribe of lower creatures, typified by Prof. Huxley's "slugs and snails." Our readers who have glanced at the biographical sketch, in the preceding pages, of an eminent Scotch naturalist, who has done noble work for science in his locality, will remember that he was turned out of three schools before he was seven years old, in consequence of his irrepressible passion for collecting the curious natural objects which fell in his boyish way. But the feeling which led to the treatment of little Tom Edward is far enough from being confined to his brutal and besotted teachers. We have seen cultivated, high-school instructors, and parents claiming to be liberal and intelligent, who would cry out with horror to see their children touch such repulsive things as worms and frogs, and threaten them with a thrashing if they brought them in or around the house. It is this vulgar and absurd prejudice that stands in the way of anything like rational biological study in our schools. Undoubtedly, it is very nice and pleasant to learn natural history out of textbooks full of pictures, and abounding in pretty anecdotes about animals; but we can only get the study, in place of this, of actual living creatures by battling with and conquering the foolish infatuation of people in regard to the repulsiveness of the inferior forms of life. Unperverted children are fond of them, and this feeling should be cherished and encouraged, and made available as an impulse in early study. Prof. Huxley knows how to deal telling blows at the various pestilent bigotries of society that stand in the way of its intellectual progress; and we should have been better pleased if he had denounced this prejudice as it deserves, rather than make tacit terms with it, as a "difficulty," because progress is only made as difficulties are overcome and got out of the way.

As to human physiology, we doubt if it is the proper door to biology, either for young or old—it is putting the complex before the simple; and, although viscera may be had at the butcher-shops, we fail to see what is gained on the score of "messiness" by substituting them for "slugs or snails," or the simpler forms of life that can be procured anywhere. Prof. Huxley says that "plants do not make a mess—at least, they do not make an unpleasant mess," but the quality of the mess is not the important thing. The study of plants is resisted in schools, and, when attempted, is often abandoned, simply because of this circumstance; and, when the principle has been once conceded, as in the case of plants, the difficulty practically disappears in regard to animate things. If there is the slightest interest in the subject, there need be no trouble. Classes of children a dozen years old can go through Prof. Morse's admirable "First Book of Zoology," collecting numerous specimens of insects, shells, and creatures found in ponds and puddles, and, if his directions are followed, which may be easily done, there will actually be less litter and inconvenience than is usual with the study of plants. The "difficulty," in fact, is not real or intrinsic in the conditions of the case, but, as we have had occasion to notice again and again, it comes from the stupid ignorance and fussy meddlesomeness of parents, who bully the teachers at every deviation from the "horrid demnition grind" of book-lessons and recitations in the schools. The fact is, if we ever get the study of Nature into the schools, it can only be by breaking down the superstitions by which they are dominated; the deadly order, by which Nature is kept out; and by a larger recognition of individual aptitudes, and much freer opportunity for the observation and study of natural objects.

 

 
SOME QUESTIONS ANSWERED.

A public appeal was made, through the Tribune, by Rev. Dr. Deems, to the editor of The Popular Science Monthly, to make good certain statements contained in the criticism of Dr. Taylor's letter. Dr. Deems avows that his "questions are submitted for information," but we suspect he is not half so ignorant as he pretends; as others, however, are also asking for explanations, we will consider his most important points.

We had remarked: "A theory is said to be demonstrated when it brings all the known facts into agreement, explains them, excludes all other interpretations, and is consistent with itself and. all that is understood, of the ways of Nature." Dr. Deems asks: "Did Prof. Huxley 'bring all the known facts into agreement?' Did he show that his theory was 'consistent with all that is understood, of the ways of Nature?' Did he not tacitly admit that he was not able to show that his theory was 'in agreement' with what physical astronomy teaches us of the 'ways of Nature?'"

Prof. Huxley certainly made no such admission in any form or degree, and we are at a loss to see how his utterance or the report of it can be so construed. Possibly it is because he dismissed the subject somewhat curtly, which was interpreted into an unwillingness to face it, accompanied by the further inference that he was unable to do so. But it is to be remembered that the question was thrust upon him by editorials in leading newspapers and by private communications, and was not embraced in the plan of his argument, to which he had not half time enough to do justice. He was, therefore, compelled, to be brief; but the case was squarely met. It had been objected that evolution cannot be true because physical astronomy proves that there has not been time enough since the cooling of the earth for the slow processes of life unfolding to have taken place. To this Prof. Huxley replied, first, that he had. already considered the subject in an address before the Geological Society of which he was president, and had showed that the "teachings of physical astronomy" as against geological time are not sound; and he, moreover, knew that this address was accessible to all interested, as it had been circulated by thousands in this country in his volume of "Lay Sermons." Is this to be construed into inability to maintain his theory against the objections raised in the name of physical astronomy?

Secondly, Prof. Huxley replied that, granting the validity of the case made out by the "physical astronomers" (which, of course, he did not grant), even then the biologist has little reason to trouble himself about the result. His proof of evolution comes from another source, and demonstrates to him that there must assuredly have been time enough for its occurrence. It has been customary to affirm that the evolution of life has proceeded at a very slow rate, and required vast periods of time; but what is the basis of the assumption? It is that the series of living forms is distributed through extensive deposits of stratified rocks which the geologist says it has taken vast periods of time to make, and, as the course of life-changes has been coeval with the course of strata-deposition, if the geologist is right, evolution must have been slow. But, if the geologist revises his data either way, the biologist will simply accept the result, and occupy the time. He only says: "There, in the vast succession of rocks, is our proof of evolution as a matter of fact; the geologist and the physicist may settle the question of time between them, and inform us, if they can, how long it has taken." And what is there here of tacit concession that his case was weak as against the "teachings of physical astronomy?"

Let us now briefly examine that case, and see how much occasion for anxiety it gives to the adherents of the doctrine of evolution. "The teachings of physical astronomy" here referred to mean the mathematical and physical speculations of Sir William Thomson in regard to the rate of cooling of the sun and of the earth, the retardation of the earth's rotation by the drag and friction of the tides, the influence of melting polar ice, etc., speculations that have by no means taken their place among the established principles of physical astronomy. But Sir William Thomson concludes that a limit is to be put to the time during which life can have existed upon the earth. Yet it must not be supposed from this that his chronology at all approximates to that of Archbishop Usher. He assumes, and draws his arguments from, the nebular hypothesis, and, instead of starving the geologists in their allowance of time, it must be confessed that he deals with them very liberally. He says he believes that "the existing state of things on the earth, life on the earth—all geological history showing continuity of life—must be limited within some such period of time as one hundred million years." "Some such period of time!" This is sufficiently vague, and raises the query, "Does it mean that the time may have been two, three, or four hundred million years?" Prof. Thomson himself puts this interpretation upon it when he says elsewhere of the high surface-temperature which made life impossible: "We must still admit some limit, such as fifty million years, one hundred million years, or two or three hundred million years ago. Beyond that we cannot go." And, again, he expresses the opinion that the sun has not really illuminated the earth for a period of five hundred million years.

But are the geologists so very badly cramped by these limitations—even assuming them to be established? The total thickness of stratified rocks containing traces of life may be taken, on the best geological authority, as one hundred thousand feet, or nearly twenty miles. The deposit of one hundred thousand feet of stratified rock, in one hundred million years, implies that the deposit has taken place at the rate of about one-eighty-third (183) of an inch per year. If the "some such period" was double that time, then a hundred and sixty years would be allowed for the accumulation of an inch of sedementary rock; or, if three hundred million years are taken, the rate of stratified growth would be one-two-hundred-and-forty-ninth (1249) of an inch annually. This is a very moderate pace, and certainly affords little ground of complaint on the part of the biologist that he is pinched for time by the geologist and physicist. Prof. Huxley, therefore, had not the slightest reason for admitting that his theory was not "in agreement" with what physical astronomy teaches us of the "ways of Nature."

Continuing the same line of thought, Dr. Deems quotes our remark that "it is a demonstrated fact that life has existed on the globe through periods so vast as to be incalculable," and asks: "Where, when, and how, was this ever 'demonstrated?' Has it not been shown that within a period not 'incalculable' life could not have existed on this globe?" We certainly did not mean that the resources of arithmetic are insufficient to express the time during which life has existed upon earth, but we did mean that the periods are so vast and obscure as not to be brought within definite estimate or "calculation." And of this the whole science of geology affords the demonstration. If the rocks have been formed in succession, as geology has proved, and twenty miles of strata have been piled over the earliest-appearing forms of life, then the time since living creatures came has been indefinitely vast, and that the periods are not amenable to anything like "calculation" or trustworthy estimate is shown by the way the subject is dealt with in our most authoritative geological works. Where uncertainty enters largely, positive calculation is excluded, and accordingly we find that when the ablest geologists approach this subject they either abstain from any attempt at calcidation, or they refuse to deal with it, in terms of years and talk of eras, epochs, and cycles. Prof. Dana speaks "of the relative lengths of the ages and periods, or their time-ratios," and says "future discovery will probably enable the geologist to determine these ratios with far greater certainty and precision. Although geology has no means of substituting positive lengths of time in place of such ratios, it affords facts sufficient to prove the general proposition that Time is long." This "proof" we hold as demonstration; and the substitution of "relative lengths of ages and periods" for "positive lengths of time" certainly justifies the use of the term "incalculable" as applied to them.

We had said that "it is a demonstrated truth of Nature that matter is indestructible," and Dr. Deems asks: "When, where, and how, was this ever 'demonstrated?' Even if it be true that matter is indestructible, can it be demonstrated? Dare any but an infinite intellect make such an assertion?" It was a theory held for thousands of years that, in the workings of Nature, matter is constantly created and destroyed—comes out of nothing and goes back to nothing. Modern science brought this theory to the test of experiment, and showed that it was erroneous. No facts were found to sustain it, but, on the contrary, all the facts prove the truth of the opposite theory, that the changes of matter are changes of form, and that matter itself is indestructible. A theory is demonstrated when all the facts verify it. Every experiment and observation in the whole body of science, physical and chemical; every fact, induction, and deduction, reached by the human mind, confirms the truth of the indestructibility of matter, and there is no shadow of evidence against it. What is this but a demonstration? And, if the proposition is sustained by this high degree of proof, we fail to see what there is of "daring" in giving it a label that expresses the fact.

There remains another important point suggested by a question of Dr. Deems, which, for want of space, we put over to next month.

 

 
PROFESSOR MORSE'S LECTURES.

Prof. Morse has been quietly delivering a course of four lectures, in the large hall of the Cooper Institute in this city, on "Evolution." We say quietly, because there has not been much said about them by the press, as they have been given in the admirable series of free Saturday evening lectures that run through the season, and have become matters of course with the lecture-going public. Yet these lectures of Morse's might well have attracted the prominent attention of our newspapers, as they were unequaled in the skillful presentation of biological facts and principles commonly dry and forbidding, so as to be perfectly understood and intensely relished by large audiences of non-scientific people. Prof. Morse has remarkable gifts as a lecturer, and in the field of science is without a peer on the American platform. In the first place, he knows his subject thoroughly, and is charged to overflowing with its latest and freshest facts and illustrations. In the second place, he has a faculty of rapid and accurate delineation of the forms and structures of life that he is dealing with, that is unique and unapproachable by any other man that we ever saw work with the blackboard. He chalks as fast as he talks, and while he talks, and without spoiling his talking; and by his marvelous creations he holds his auditors as closely through their eyes as their ears. His manner as a speaker is, moreover, free, colloquial, spirited, and impressive, and his utterances vigorous, pointed, and racy. These arts are, however, all subordinate to the solid work of instruction. The last lecture of his course, although dealing apparently with technical and formidable scientific facts concerning the relations of organized creatures, living and extinct, was yet nothing less than a delightful entertainment. His vast audience of three thousand people were held spellbound and so closely occupied with the interest of the discussion that the attempt at cheering was repressed as an interruption. Something, however, was due in this remarkable effect to the interest of the theme, and the rapid liberalization of public opinion that has latterly taken place; for fifteen years ago it would neither have been possible to get such a multitude together to listen to the uncompromising defense of evolutionary doctrines, nor could Prof. Morse have kept such a crowd in control even if they could have been got together.

 

 
BAIN ON EDUCATION.

The readers of the Monthly will hardly need any reminder as to the importance of carefully perusing the first article in our present number, concluded from last month, on "Education as a Science," Every art, when science comes to be applied to it, undergoes something like a revolution, as the principles which control it are gradually working out into such clearness that they can be followed in practice. And however important this fact may be in relation to the industrial arts, it becomes of infinitely greater moment when the object to be attained is the cultivation of the human mind. It is difficult to exaggerate the benefits which must follow the establishment of scientific principles for regulating the work of education, and every valuable contribution to this end is entitled to the most serious and sympathetic consideration.

Hitherto the dictators of educational method have been metaphysicians. Having taken possession of the province of mind, they have claimed to be law-givers in all that pertains to its management. But their method is vicious and misleading, from its incompleteness and want of a secure scientific basis. It has neglected the corporeal side of human nature. As mind is never manifested except by and through a material substratum, no analysis of it, no statement of its modes and conditions of working, can be scientifically grounded, or true to Nature, or full and trustworthy in its elements, that does not take into constant and essential account the organic concomitants of intellect and feeling, or the bodily organism. By doing this, mental science has not only been widened and deepened, but placed upon a positive foundation. Prof. Bain is a pioneer, and an eminent authority, in this great reform of mental philosophy. His principal works upon the human mind, "The Senses and the Intellect," and "The Emotions and the Will," are comprehensive expositions of mental science from this point of view, and have thoroughly prepared their author for treating the applications of scientific psychology to the practical business of culture. Indeed, no better vindication of this method of treating the subject of mind can be furnished than that which the reader will gather from his last essay on the conditions of mental acquisition in the paper herewith published. The vagueness of metaphysics here disappears, and the various forms of mental effort are graded, not with reference to abstract considerations, but with reference to the variable vigor and unequal plastic power of the corporeal system. The most important questions of practical education can only be resolved from this point of view, and from this point of view they are capable of being resolved in a way to command the confidence of teachers, and guide the operations of the school-room. Prof. Bain, is expected to pursue the subject in future into the details of educational practice, and the readers of the Monthly will probably hear from him again before very long.