Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/April 1884/A Defense of Modern Thought

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644461Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 April 1884 — A Defense of Modern Thought1884William Dawson Le Sueur



FROM the point of view of the present writer, there are good reasons for believing that a general readjustment of thought is now in progress, and that it is destined to go on until old forms of belief, inconsistent with a rational interpretation of the world, have been completely overthrown. This progressive readjustment is not a thing of yesterday; it is simply that gradual abandonment of the theological stand-point which has been taking place throughout the ages. As a modern philosopher has remarked, the very conception of miracle marks the beginnings of rationalism, seeing that it recognizes an established order of things, a certain "reign of law," with which only supernatural power can interfere. The progress beyond this point consists in an increasing perception of the universality of law, and an increasing disposition to be exacting as to the evidences of miracle. No candid person can read the history of modern times without arriving at the conclusion that the whole march of civilization illustrates, above everything else, this gradual change of intellectual stand-point. Man's power keeps pace ever with his knowledge of natural law and his recognition of the uniformity of its operations. What we see to-day is simply the anticipation by thousands of the conclusion to which all past discoveries and observations have been pointing, that the reign of law is and always has been absolute. This is really what "agnosticism," so called, means. It means that thinking men are tired of the inconsistencies of the old system of belief, and that they desire to rest in an order of conceptions not liable to disturbance. The great Faraday, who had not brought himself to this point, used to say that when he had to deal with questions of faith he left all scientific and other human reasonings at the door, and that when he had to deal with questions of science he discarded in like manner all theological modes of thought. The region of science was one region, that of faith was another; and between these he placed a wall so high that once on either side he could see nothing that lay on the other. He did not attempt to reconcile faith with science, as some do; he separated them utterly, feeling them apparently to be irreconcilable. Thus he virtually lived in two worlds—one in which no miracles took place, but in which everything flowed in an orderly manner from recognized antecedents, and another in which the chain of causation might be broken at any moment by supernatural power. Since Faraday's time, however, men of science have grown bolder. They have renounced the attempt to live a divided life. They do not believe in insuperable barriers between one field of thought and another. They believe in the unity of the human mind and in the unity of truth. They have made their choice—those of them at least whom the Bishop of Ontario designates as agnostics—in favor of a world in which cause and effect maintain constant relations. In doing so they do not act willfully, but simply yield to the irresistible weight of evidence. Miracle is a matter of more or less uncertain testimony, while the unchangeableness of natural law is a matter of daily observation. Miracles never happen in the laboratory. Supernatural apparitions do not haunt the museum. Distant ages and countries or lonely road-sides reap all the glory of these manifestations. What wonder, then, that the man of science prefers to trust in what his eyes daily see and his hands handle, rather than in narratives of perfervid devotees, or in traditions handed down from centuries whose leading characteristic was an omnivorous credulity? There is nothing negative in this attitude of mind. On the contrary, it is positive in the highest degree. The true man of science wants to know and believe as much as possible. He desires to know what is and to adapt his thoughts to that; and the universe is to him simply an inexhaustible treasure-house of truths, all of more or less practical import.

It is right, however, before proceeding further, to examine this word "agnosticism" a little, to see whether it is one that is really serviceable in the present controversy. That some have been willing to apply the term to themselves and to regard it as rather ben trovato, I am quite aware; but I think there are good reasons why serious thinkers should decline to call themselves by such a name, and should object to its application to them by others.

A question proposed for discussion either can or can not be settled; it either lies within or beyond the region in which verification is possible. If it lies within that region, no man should call himself an agnostic in regard to it. He may withhold his judgment until the evidence is complete, but suspension of judgment is not agnosticism, which, if it means anything, means a profession of hopeless and, so to speak, invincible ignorance in regard to certain matters. But if it would be absurd for a man to profess himself an agnostic in regard to problems admitting or believed to admit of solution, is it not idle for any one to accept that designation because he believes that there are other problems or propositions which do not admit of solution? All one has to do in relation to the latter class of problems is to recognize their unreal or purely verbal character. It is the nature of the problem that requires to be characterized, not our mental relation thereto. The latter follows as a matter of course from the former. Moreover, why should any one wish or consent to be designated by a term purely negative in its meaning? It is what we know, not what we do not know, that should furnish us with a name, if it is necessary to have one. The little that a man knows is of vastly more consequence to him than all the untrodden continents of his ignorance. The chemist calls himself so because he professes to have a knowledge of chemistry: he does not invent for himself a name signifying his ignorance of political economy or metaphysics. Why, then, should any man adopt a name which defines his relation not to things that he knows or to questions to which he attributes a character of reality, but to things that he does not know and to questions which, so far as he can see, have no character of reality? Let others give him such a name if they will, but let no man voluntarily tie himself to a negation.

There are some, as I believe, who have adopted the appellation of agnostic thoughtlessly: some through indolence, as appearing to exempt them from the necessity of a decision in regard to certain difficult and, in a social sense, critical questions; and some possibly for the reason hinted at by the Bishop of Ontario, namely, lack of the courage necessary to take up a more decided position. Whatever the motive may be, however, I am persuaded that the term is a poor one for purposes of definition; and I should advise all earnest men, who think more of their beliefs than of their disbeliefs, to disown it so far as they themselves are concerned. If it be asked by what appellation those who do not believe in "revealed religion" are to be known, I should answer that it is not their duty to coin for themselves any sectarian title. They are in no sense a sect. They believe themselves to be on the high-road of natural truth. It is they who have cast aside all limited and partial views, and who are opening their minds to the full teaching of the universe. Let their opponents coin names if they will: they whom the truth has made free feel that their creed is too wide for limitation.

The Bishop of Ontario stands forth in the pamphlet before us simply as the champion of the two great doctrines of God and immortality. In reality, however, he is the champion of much more, for he does not profess that these doctrines can stand by themselves apart from a belief in revelation. The issue between the bishop and those whom he styles agnostics is not really as to these two abstract doctrines, but as to the validity of the whole miraculous system of which his lordship is a responsible exponent. If we can imagine a person simply holding, as the result of his own individual reasonings or other mental experiences, a belief in God as a spiritual existence animating and presiding over the works of Nature, and a further belief in a future existence for the human soul, I do not see that there would necessarily be any conflict between him and the most advanced representatives of modern thought. No, the trouble does not begin here. The trouble arises when these beliefs are presented as part and parcel of a supernatural system miraculously revealed to mankind, and embracing details which bring it plainly into conflict with the known facts and laws of Nature. To detach these two doctrines, therefore, from the system to which they belong, and put them forward as if the whole stress of modern philosophical criticism was directed against them in particular, is a controversial artifice of a rather unfair kind.

We are reminded by the right reverend author that no chain is stronger than its weakest link, and we are asked to apply the principle to the doctrine of evolution, some of the links of which his lordship has tested and found unable to bear the proper strain. The principle is undoubtedly a sound one; but has it occurred to his lordship that it is no less applicable to the net-work of doctrine in which he believes than to the doctrine of evolution? Some links of that net-work are snapping every day under no greater strain than the simple exercise of common sense by ordinary men. It is a beautiful and well-chosen position that his lordship takes up as champion of the doctrines of God and immortality against "agnostic" science; but it would have argued greater courage had the banner been planted on the miraculous narratives of the Old and New Testament. A gallant defense of the scriptural account of the taking of Jericho, of the arresting for a somewhat sanguinary purpose of the earth's rotation, of the swallowing of Jonah by a whale, and his restoration to light and liberty after three days and nights of close and very disagreeable confinement, of the comfortable time enjoyed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, of the feeding of five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes and the gathering up of twelve basketfuls of the fragments—a gallant defense, I say, of these things would be very much more in order; for these are the links that criticism has attacked and which the common judgment of the nineteenth century is daily invalidating. Modern philosophy in its negative aspect is simply a revolt against the attempt to force such narratives as these upon the adult intelligence of mankind—against the absurdity of assigning to Hebrew legends of the most monstrous kind a character of credibility which would be scornfully refused to similar productions of the imagination of any other race. Let there, then, be no misunderstanding: science is not concerned to prove that there is no God, nor even that a future life is an impossibility; it simply obeys an instinct of self-preservation in seeking to repel modes of thought and belief which, in their ultimate issues, are destructive of all science.

One has only to reflect for a moment, in order to see how much theological baggage the orthodox disputant throws away, when he confines his arguments to the two points of God and a future life. Were it thrown away in sincerity, argument might cease; but no, the manœuvre is first to make a formidable demonstration as champion of two cardinal doctrines which in themselves arouse little opposition, even where they do not commend assent, and then to apply the results of the proceeding to the benefit of those parts of the system which had been kept in the background. It is not in the interest of a simple theistic belief, unconnected with any scheme of theology, that the Bishop of Ontario writes: what he has at heart, I venture to say, is that men may believe as he does. The theism of Francis Newman, or of Victor Hugo, or Mazzini—all convinced theists—would be very unsatisfactory in his eyes, and it may be doubted whether he would take up his pen for the purpose of promoting theism of this type. It should, therefore, be thoroughly understood that, while his lordship is professedly combating agnosticism, he is really waging war on behalf of that elaborate theological system of which he is an exponent—that system which bids us look to the Bible for an account of the creation of the world and of man; and which requires us to believe that the Creator found it necessary in former times, for the right government of the world, to be continually breaking through the laws of physical succession which he himself had established. In arguing against the doctrine of evolution, he labors to establish the opposite doctrine of the creation and government of the world by miracle.

The question therefore is, Can science be free and yet accommodate itself to the whole elaborate scheme of Christian orthodoxy? The great majority of those who are most entitled to speak on behalf of science say No; and it is this negative which his lordship of Ontario converts into a denial of the two doctrines above-mentioned. But let those who are at all familiar with the course of modern thought ask themselves if they recall in the writings of any leading philosopher of the day arguments specially directed against the hypothesis of God, or even against that of a possible future state of existence for humanity. What every one can at once remember is, that the writers who are called "agnostics," the Spencers, Huxleys, Tyndalls, and Darwins, plead for the universality of Nature's laws and the abiding uniformity of her processes. That is what they are concerned to maintain, because it is upon that that all science depends. Scientific men in general are but little disposed to disturb any one's faith in God or immortality, so long as these doctrines are not associated with or put forward as involving others which really invade the domain of science and tend to cast uncertainty upon its methods and results.

In seeking to account for "the modern spread of agnosticism," the bishop finds that it is to "the widely-spread popularity of the theory of evolution, leading as it does to materialism," that the phenomenon is to be attributed. Consequently the theory of evolution must be destroyed. The Episcopal edict has gone forth, and the Episcopal batteries are raised against this later Carthage of infidelity. But, alas! it does not sufficiently appear that the right reverend director of the siege understands either the nature of the task he has undertaken or the significance which would attach to success could he achieve it. To take the latter point first: science was making very rapid progress before the evolution theory had acquired any wide popularity, before in fact anything was known of it outside of one or two speculative treatises; and already the opposition of science to a scheme which makes this earth the theatre of miracle-working power was well marked. Twenty-two years ago, when "The Origin of Species" was but two years old, and had still a great deal of opposition to encounter even from men of science, before even the term evolution had any currency in the special sense it now bears, a leading prelate of the Church of England, Bishop Wilberforce, discerned a skeptical movement "too wide-spread and connecting itself with far too general conditions" to be explained otherwise than as "the first stealing over the sky of the lurid lights which shall be shed profusely around the great Antichrist."[2] To charge the present intellectual state of the world, therefore, on the doctrine of evolution is to ignore that general movement of thought which, before the idea of evolution was a factor of any importance in modern speculation, had already, as the Bishop of Oxford testified, carried thousands away from their old theological habitations, and which, with or without the theory of evolution, was quite adapted to produce the state of things which we see to-day in the intellectual world.

The doctrine of evolution is simply the form in which the dominant scientific thought of the day is cast. As a working hypothesis it presents very great advantages; and the thinkers of to-day would find it hard to dispense with the aid it affords. But supposing it could be shown that the doctrine, as at present conceived, was untenable what then? Would men of science at once abandon their belief in the invariability of natural law and fly back to mediæval superstitions? By no means. If there is any class of men who have learned the lesson that the spider taught to Bruce, it is the class of scientific workers. Destroy one of their constructions and they set to work again, with unconquerable industry, to build another. In fact, they are always testing and trying their own constructions; and we may be sure that if the evolution theory is ever to be swept away it will be by scientific not theological hands. It holds its ground now, because it is a help to thought and investigation; if it should ever become so beset with difficulties as to be no longer serviceable, it will be withdrawn from use, as many a theory has been before it, and as many a one will be in the days to come. Among contemporary men of science there is probably none who believes more strongly in the doctrine in question than the editor of "The Popular Science Monthly"; yet in a recent number of his magazine he has marked his attitude toward it in a manner which for our present purpose is very instructive. "It is undeniable," he writes, "that the difficulties in the way of the doctrine of evolution are many and formidable, and it will no doubt take a long time to clear them up; while the solution of still unresolved problems will very possibly result in important modifications of the theory as now entertained. But the establishment of the doctrine of evolution, as a comprehensive law of nature, is no longer dependent upon its freedom from embarrassments, or that absoluteness of proof which will only become possible with the future extension of knowledge. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the evidence for it is so varied, so consistent, and so irresistible, as to compel its broad acceptance by men of science, who, while disagreeing upon many of its questions, find it indispensable as a guide to the most multifarious investigations."

We now come to the further question of the validity of the criticisms directed in the pamphlet before us against the doctrine of evolution, in discussing which the competency of the critic for his self-imposed task will necessarily come more or less under consideration. Let us first notice the quotations which his lordship brings forward, remembering that the doctrine of evolution in its present shape may be said to be the work of the last twenty years. Well, his lordship quotes three leading scientific authors—Owen, Agassiz, and Lyell; but it is noticeable that in no case does he give the date of his quotation, and in the case of the first two does not even mention the work in which the passage he refers to is to be found. The quotations are intended to show that these eminent authors rejected the doctrine of the "origin of species by natural selection." As regards Agassiz, who died ten years ago, every one knows that this was the case; and most are also aware that the great Swiss naturalist left behind him a son, a naturalist almost equally great, who supports the Darwinian theory as strongly as his father opposed it. Owen, though not a Darwinian in the full sense, held views which were clearly in the direction of natural selection. It is, however, when we come to Lyell that we have cause for astonishment. Here we have the most eminent of English geologists, whose adhesion to the Darwinian theory, announced for the first time in 1863—the date of the publication of the first edition of his "Antiquity of Man"—created such a sensation in the scientific world, quoted, at this time of day, as an anti-Darwinian! What are we to think of this? I can not and do not believe, nor would I wish to suggest, that the Right Reverend the Bishop of Ontario was carried so far in his zeal against evolution as deliberately to misrepresent Sir Charles Lyell's attitude toward that doctrine. The only other hypothesis, however, is that of extreme ignorance. Of this his lordship must stand, not only accused, but convicted. The fact of Sir Charles Lyell's conversion to the views of Darwin on the origin of species was one of which the whole reading world took note at the time, and which has been known to every tyro in general science from that day to this. His lordship, quoting from the "Principles of Geology," but without any mention of edition, represents Sir Charles as holding "that species have a real existence in nature, and that each was endowed at the time of its creation with the attributes and organization by which it is now distinguished." That these were Sir Charles Lyell's views when the earlier editions of his "Principles" were published every one is aware; but it is a most extraordinary thing that any one should have quoted them as his full twenty years after he had distinctly abandoned them. The preface to the fourth edition of the "Antiquity of Man" opens as follows: "The first edition of the 'Antiquity of Man' was published in 1863, and was the first work in which I expressed my opinion of the prehistoric age of man, and also my belief in Mr. Darwin's theory of the 'Origin of Species' as the best explanation yet offered of the connection between man and those animals which have flourished successively on the earth." In the tenth edition of his "Principles," published in 1868, he says (page 492) that "Mr. Darwin, without absolutely proving this (theory), has made it appear in the highest degree probable, by an appeal to many distinct and independent classes of phenomena in natural history and geology." Darwin himself would not have claimed more for his theory than this. Professor Huxley would not claim more for it to-day. Enough for either of them the admission that, by arguments drawn from many quarters, it had been rendered "in the highest degree probable." In his "Antiquity of Man,"[3] Sir Charles Lyell expressly acknowledges the inconclusiveness of the arguments he had used at an earlier date to prove that "species were primordial creations and not derivative." His reasonings, he frankly confesses, could not hold their ground "in the light of the facts and arguments adduced by Darwin and Hooker." As regards the "descent of man," after quoting a passage from Darwin to the effect that "man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor," he observes that "we certainly can not escape from such a conclusion without abandoning many of the weightiest arguments which have been urged in support of variation and natural selection considered as the subordinate causes by which new types have been gradually introduced into the world." On every point, therefore, the real views of Sir Charles Lyell, as formed in the light of the facts adduced by Darwin and of his own maturer reasonings, were totally opposed to those quoted in the bishop's pamphlet. Is it not remarkable, such being the case, that not one member of the reverend and learned clergy of the diocese of Kingston, by whose special request this document was given to the world, should have suggested a correction on this point? Was there not a lay delegate who could have done it; or were they all bishop, clergy, and laymen equally in the dark? It would really seem so. Who can wonder that the doctrine of evolution does not make much progress in certain quarters?

Sir Charles Lyell unfortunately is not the only author misrepresented. Huxley is said to "discredit" the origin of life from non-living matter. Huxley does nothing of the kind; he simply says that the experiments heretofore made to show that life can be so developed have not been successful. On the page of the pamphlet immediately preceding that on which this statement is made in regard to Huxley, we are informed, correctly, that the same great naturalist professes "a philosophic faith in the probability of spontaneous generation." Surely his lordship could not have understood the force of these words, or he would not have said, almost immediately after, that "the origin of life on earth . . . is not only discredited[4] by Huxley but by many other great scientists." A writer who finds such comparatively simple language beyond his comprehension is not, one would judge, very well fitted to enter the lists against the leading thinkers of the day, except perhaps for strictly diocesan purposes.

That his lordship is really hopelessly at sea in discussing this question is evident by many signs. Such sentences as the following speak volumes for the mental confusion of their author: "Agnosticism takes refuge in evolution in order to get rid of the idea of God as unthinkable and unknowable." Here, again, inaccuracies of language. An idea may be unthinkable in the sense of not admitting of being thought out, but can an idea be said to be "unknowable"? What is an unknowable idea? An idea must be known in order to be an idea at all. But this mere verbal inaccuracy is not the worst. We had been told that agnosticism was a form of opinion according to which nothing could be known of God. Now, it seems that agnosticism has to fall back on evolution, "in order to get rid of the idea of God as unthinkable and unknowable." Now, the so-called agnosticism could not have been agnosticism in reality, otherwise it would not have required the help of evolution in such a matter. If we ask how evolution helps agnosticism to regard "the idea of God as unthinkable and unknowable," we shall only find the confusion growing worse confounded.

Evolution has nothing to do with such questions: it is a simple theory as to the mode of generation and order of succession of different forms of existences.

It is, however, when his lordship comes to discuss the doctrine of the survival of the fittest that his sad want of acquaintance with the whole subject shows itself most conspicuously. Let me quote: "By some means or other 'the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence' is assumed to be a law of Nature, and if it be so our faith is severely taxed. Survival of the fittest—fittest for what? If the answer be, fittest for surviving, we argue in a circle, and get no information whatever. The only rational answer must be, they survive who are fittest for their environments in size, strength, and vigor." Let me here ask what sense the learned author can possibly attach to these last words execpt the very one he had just discarded as meaningless—"fitness to survive"? How is fitness to environment proved except by the actual fact of survival? Do environments always require "size" as an element of fitness? By no means, they sometimes require smallness. When a mouse escapes into a hole, where the cat can not follow, it survives not by reason of its size, but by reason of its smallness. Strength, again, is one element of adaptation to environment, but only one; and it may fall far below some other element, swiftness, for example, or cunning, in practical importance. The fact, however, that the learned author sees no meaning in the answer "fitness to survive," tells the whole story of his own unfitness for the special environment in which he has placed himself in attempting to discuss the doctrine of evolution, and rather tends to create doubt as to the survival of the work he has given to the world. This is a matter in which no aptitude in quoting Horace is of any avail. The road to an understanding of the terms and conceptions of modern science lies in a careful study at first hand of the works in which these terms and conceptions are expounded. His lordship assumes that, if we say that those survive who are fit to survive, we utter a barren truism. It is a truism we may grant, but not a barren one, any more than the axioms of geometry are barren. The simple word "fitness" implies a definite external something, adaptation to which is the price of existence. The definiteness of the mold involves the definiteness of that which is molded; and all the miracles of life and organization we see around us are in the last resort merely examples of adaptation to fixed conditions of existence. "Born into life we are," says Matthew Arnold, "and life must be our mold." By "life" understand the universe, and we have a poetical version of the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. It so happens, and this is a further truth which it would not be well to pass over, that adaptation does more or less imply excellence even from the human stand-point. All those adaptations that favor human life and happiness we of course call excellent, even though they may not be favorable to the life and happiness of other living creatures. And as man has thriven mightily and prevailed, adaptation in general presents itself to him in a favorable light. Occasionally, when his crops are destroyed by some insect-pest wonderfully adapted for its work, or when his cattle are infested with deadly parasites, or when some germ of disease is multiplying a million-fold in his own frame, he sees that all adaptations are not yoked to his especial service.

His lordship seems to suppose that the believers in the doctrine of the survival of the fittest are bound to show that there has been a steady improvement of type from the first dawn of life. To show how gross and inexcusable a misunderstanding this is, I need only quote two sentences from Sir Charles Lyell's "Antiquity of Man": "One of the principal claims," observes the great geologist, "of Mr. Darwin's theory to acceptance is that it enables us to dispense with a law of progression as a necessary accompaniment of variation. It will account equally well for what is called degradation or a retrograde movement toward a simpler structure, and does not require Lamarck's continual creation of monads; for this was a necessary part of his system in order to explain how, after the progressive power had been at work for myriads of ages, there were as many beings of the simplest structure in existence as ever."[5]

Writing thus in ignorance of what the law of the survival of the fittest, as formulated by Darwin, and accepted by modern men of science, really means, his lordship is able to ask such pointless questions as whether the law is illustrated in the slaughtering of the flower of a nation in war, and whether it is the fittest who survive famines, pestilences, shipwrecks, etc. His lordship evidently does not himself believe there is any provision for the survival of the fittest in the providential government of the world; yet, strange to say, he taunts evolutionists with this lack in the general scheme of things. If it be an embarrassment to their theory, how much more should it be to the bishop's theology! The evolutionist might, however, turn round and instruct the divine out of his own pocket Bible, where it is expressly stated that the wicked shall not live out half his days; and then out of the newspapers which continually show us what happens to the violent and bloody man, to the intemperate, and to various other classes of evil-doers. The evolution philosophy does not guarantee, as has been already shown, continuous progress in what, from the human stand-point, may seem the best directions; but evolutionists are able to note, and do note with satisfaction, that the qualities which the moral sense of mankind most approves do in point of fact tend to the survival of their possessors. War itself illustrates the principle; seeing that the most important element of strength abroad is cohesion at home, a condition which must depend on a relatively high development of social justice. To take an example from our own history: English arms would not have been so successful as they have been abroad, Lad there not been a united country behind them. It was the virtues, not the vices, of the Roman people that enabled them to conquer the world. It was their vices, not their virtues, that led to their fall. Fitness to survive is a quality the import of which varies according to circumstances. In shipwrecks (to pursue his lordship's illustrations) the fit to survive are those who can swim, or who have readiness of resource or strength of constitution. In famines and pestilences the physically stronger will as a rule survive; though here prudence and self-control become also most important elements of safety. Let it always be remembered that the problem with which evolutionary philosophy has to grapple is not how to account for a perfect world, or a perfect state of society, but how to account for just such a mingling of good and evil (accompanied by general tendencies toward good) as we actually witness. This once settled, most of the objections of the theologians would be seen to fall wide of the mark.

To persons unfamiliar, or but slightly familiar, with the present subject, it is possible that the Bishop of Ontario may appear to have touched a weak point in the doctrine under discussion where he says: "Laws of nature should be obeyed and co-operated with, not fought against and thwarted; and, if the survival of the fittest be one of those laws, we ought to abolish all hospitals and asylums for the blind, the deaf, the drunkard, the idiot, and the lunatic, and we ought to expose to death all sickly, puny, and superfluous infants." A word, therefore, in regard to this objection may not be thrown away. The first observation to make is, that there is nothing whatever in the law of the survival of the fittest, as understood by men of science to-day, which could possibly be converted into a rule of conduct. The scientific world is not aware that Nature has any ends in view, or is capable of having any ends in view, which she needs the help of man to enable her to realize. Science does not attribute purpose to Nature. Science has simply obtained a glimmering of how, in point of fact, Nature works. It sees that survival is a question of fitness, in other words a question of the fulfillment of the conditions on which continued existence depends. In some cases, as is well known, superiority of type becomes an impediment, not a help, to the preservation of life; and in a vast number of cases the differentiations on which survival depends imply neither progress nor retrogression.[6] What moral guidance, therefore, can possibly be found in a simple perception of the fact that in the realm of Nature there are conditions attached to survival? We may ask, in the next place, whether there is any single law of Nature which men "obey," or ever have obeyed, in the sense in which his lordship bids us obey the law of the survival of the fittest. When a conflagration rages, do we "obey" and "co-operate" with Nature by adding fuel to the flames? When pestilence is abroad, do we try to increase its deadly activity? When we stumble, do we make a point of yielding to the law of gravitation and throwing ourselves headlong? When the winter winds are howling, do we throw open doors and windows that we may feel all the force and bitterness of the blast? Or do we, in these and all other cases, seek to modify the action of one law by that of another—a process his lordship calls "thwarting"—in order that their combined or balanced action may yield us, as nearly as possible, the results we desire? We throw water on the fire. We use disinfectants and prophylactics against the plague. We set muscular force against that of gravitation. We oppose warmth to cold. In none of these cases do we ask what Nature wants; we are content to know what we want. We don't really believe that Nature wants anything; so we have no hesitation or compunction in letting our wants rule. In the matter of the weak and sickly, they might perish if unconscious forces alone were at work, or even in certain conditions of human society; but it does not suit our interests, for very obvious reasons, to let them perish. To do so would strike at all human affections, and would so far weaken the bonds of society and render the whole social fabric less secure. Moreover, a sick man is very different from a sick animal. The latter is inevitably inferior as an animal, whereas the former may not only not be inferior, but may be superior as a man, and capable of rendering much service to society. Two instances occur to me as I write—that of the late Professor Cairnes, in England, and of the late Professor Ernest Bersot, in France, both smitten with cruel and hopeless maladies, but both fulfilling, in an eminent degree, the highest intellectual and moral offices of men. What the well do for the sick is of course obvious, and attracts sufficient attention; but what the sick do for the well, not being so obvious, attracts less attention than it deserves. Yet how many lessons of patience, fortitude, and resignation—lessons that all require—come to us from the sick-bed, or at least from those whom weakness of constitution or perhaps some unhappy accident has robbed of a normal activity and health! At times we see superiority of intellectual and moral endowment triumphing over the most serious physical disabilities; as in the case of the present Postmaster-General of England, who accidentally lost his sight when quite a youth. The late M. Louis Blanc, a man of splendid talents, never advanced beyond the stature of a child. The ancient Spartans might have exposed one of so feeble a frame on Taygetus; for with them every man had to be a soldier; but, in modern life, with its greatly diversified interests, many a man too weak to be a soldier can yet render splendid service to the community. It will, therefore, I trust, be sufficiently obvious, first, that Nature has no commands to give us in this matter; and, secondly, that there are excellent reasons why we should not treat the sick and weakly, as the lower animals commonly, but not universally, treat the sick and weakly of their own kind.[7]

There is, however, another view of this question which should not be overlooked. While human beings in civilized countries manifest, and always have manifested, more or less sympathy with the physically afflicted, their steadfast aim has been to get rid of physical evil in all its forms. No care that is taken of the sick has for its object the perpetuation of sickness, but rather its extirpation. We do not put idiots to death; but when an idiot dies there is a general feeling of relief that so imperfect an existence has come to an end. Were idiots permitted to marry, the sense of decency of the whole community would be outraged. Public opinion blames those who marry knowing that there is some serious taint in their blood; and commends, on the other hand, those who abstain from, or defer, marriage on that account. There is probably room for a further development of sentiment in this direction. We need to feel more strongly that all maladies and ailments are in their nature preventable, inasmuch as they all flow from definite physical antecedents. As long as our views on this subject are tinged in the smallest degree with supernaturalism, so long will our efforts to track disease to its lair and breeding-grounds be but half-hearted. How can we venture to check abruptly, or at all, the course of a sickness sent expressly for our chastisement? Is it for us to say when the rod has been sufficiently applied? How do we dare to fortify ourselves in advance against disease, as if to prevent the Almighty from dealing with us according to our deserts? We vaccinate for small-pox, we drain for malaria, we cleanse and purify for cholera, we ventilate and disinfect, we diet and we exercise—and all for what? Precisely to avoid the paternal chastenings which we have been taught are so good for us, and the origin of which has always been attributed by faith to the Divine pleasure. Evidently our views are undergoing a change. We all wish to be fit to survive, and all more or less believe that it is in our power to be so and to help others to be so. We believe in sanitary science, and, if we attribute any purpose in the matter to the Divine mind, it is that all men should come to the knowledge of the truth, as revealed by a study of Nature, and live.

  1. From a pamphlet reply to a lecture on "Agnosticism," delivered by the Lord Bishop of Ontario.
  2. Vide preface to "Replies to Essays and Reviews."
  3. See fourth edition, p. 469.
  4. His lordship means "discredited not only by Huxley, but by etc." The inaccuracy of expression observable here is paralleled in many other passages of the pamphlet. For example, his lordship says, page 5, "They are not content to speak for themselves, but for all the world besides." A bishop should write better English than this.
  5. Fourth edition, p. 459.
  6. Vide Spencer, "Principles of Sociology," vol. i, pp. 106, 107; and Haeckel, "History of Creation," vol. i, p. 285.
  7. See Romanes, "Animal Intelligence," pp. 471, 475, as to the sympathy exhibited by the monkey tribe toward their sick.