Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/The Flower or the Leaf

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"Quod she agen, 'But to whom do ye owe
Your service? and which wolle ye honour,
Tel me I pray, this yere, the Leaf or the Flower?'"

Chaucer, "The Flower and the Leaf."

THE comments made by Miss Youmans,[1] upon a single remark in my article on "Primary Education," show how much can be unfolded out of an apparently limited subject, when all its bearings are thoroughly discussed. Already this discussion trenches upon several philosophical principles which involve much more than the apparently trivial question whether children should begin the study of botany by the flower or the leaf. An inquiry into these principles may therefore be not uninteresting.

Miss Youmans lays down certain propositions, with some of which I do in reality agree, while with others I am in decided disagreement, for reasons I will take the liberty of here setting forth. Thus:

1. Children should study the external characters of plants before attempting to study their life-processes or physiology.

2. Children can not be suitably impressed with such "tremendous ideas as evolution," and therefore it is useless to signalize these to them.

3. Children should not be detained to draw the leaves or other natural objects they study, because of "the delay" thus entailed, and because "they could not draw one in a hundred of the specimens with which it is necessary that they become familiar."

4. The modern systems of botanical classification are based on the sum total of the characters of the plant, and not on the corolla. It is therefore unphilosophical to study the flower containing the corolla first, merely because it is more showy. The sensuous pleasure derived from its contemplation is superficial as compared with the deeper intellectual pleasure of tracing the scientific relations of the leaf.

5. Finally, it is an axiom that can not be disputed, that mental effort should advance from the simple subject to the more complex. The leaf is much simpler than the flower, and is therefore much better suited for beginning the study of botany.

To consider these propositions in order: 1 and 2. In regard to the first I am substantially in entire agreement with Miss Youmans, as indeed is shown by the examples given in the "Experiment." No attempt was made to really study the physiology of plants; while the external and obvious characters of the most conspicuous portions, the parts, namely, of the flower, were studied, or rather submitted to a prolonged contemplation. Only, upon first crossing the threshold of this new world, the most characteristic facts which distinguished it were pointed out in a manner designed to make as profound an impression as possible upon the imagination. These are the facts of life and growth and death, the germination of the seed, the influence of surrounding media, the circumstance that the plant offers a constant succession of changing phenomena, and thus was an entirely different object from a stone, or a mathematical figure, or a rainbow. Now, while it is perfectly true that the term "evolution" and the vast series of ideas and masses of facts suggested by it can not be rendered comprehensible to a child, and that it would be the grossest pedantry to even mention it to him, yet the great fact of growth and incessant change in living organisms is perfectly appreciable through impressions made on his senses, and is well fitted to arouse in him a lively interest and curiosity. The fact of life—the essential nature of life as a series of incessant changes—is perhaps the most fundamental fact with which the mind will ever become acquainted. It is also among the most primitive and earliest encountered; the mode of impression it makes upon the mind permanently stamps all the thoughts and systems of thought the mind ever entertains. For, whence spring all religions, and cosmogonies, and even ethical systems, but from the primitive thoughts held upon life and death? How many immoralities depend upon false estimates of life, of its nature, its values! How many erroneous theories of life might be corrected by the early habit of direct, unbiased observation of living things! In the building of a brain, the earliest ideas always remain the most powerful, because upon them the entire mental structure is destined to repose; or, since the mind is a living organism, it were better to compare its primitive ideas, not to the foundation-stones of a house, but to the central medullary rings of a tree. What is on the surface while the plant is young soon becomes central by the successive superposition of new impressions, the new circles being constantly intersected by rays prolonged from the central pith. The selection of the earliest ideas and impressions is therefore of the highest importance; they should be not only negatively good, that is, innocent, but, when possible, really powerful, that is, brought from the depths of things, and able to sustain all the future life of the mind possessing them. And, since direct perception of facts must precede reasoning upon the inferences which may be drawn from them, it is not only legitimate but important to impress the imagination with typical and fundamental facts, long before these can be reasoned upon, or their laws really understood. This is my lengthy reason for the simple experiment of studying the growth of beans on a saucer of cotton-wool—experiment designed not to teach physiology, but to make an early revelation of life.

In this connection, however, is worth noting a special reason for preferring the flower to the leaf for early study. It is agreed that the functions of living organisms are too difficult for such study; nevertheless, it is desirable to indicate functions when possible, because the fact of function is one eminently characteristic of living things. Now, the function of the leaf is respiration, which can not possibly be made intelligible to the child. It involves chemical relations, which are the latest appreciable, and can not be exhibited except by means of experiments, for which the young child is quite unprepared. The absence of the visible phenomena of animal respiration, moreover, that is of the exhalation of the breath and movements of the thorax, render an attempt to identify the function in plants and animals confusing and apparently contradictory.

On the other hand, the function of the flower—reproduction—can be rendered perfectly intelligible to the child, when he is told that the pollen feeds the ovules, which then visibly grow into seeds, while the ovary ripens to fruit. This statement seems to the child in accordance with his own most urgent personal necessities, and in the common facts of feeding and growth he finds himself linked with other organisms in Nature. It is quite congenial to the normal fetichism of a young child's mind to regard plants as animals; and legends of dryads are as natural to him as to the infancy of the human race.

But the assimilation of animals to plants through the molecular processes of nutrition common to both (though perhaps unconsciously foreshadowed in the story of Narcissus) was not for mankind distinctly formulated until the time of Bichat; and, for the individual intelligence, its comprehension must be deferred until nearly to adolescence.

3. I must plead guilty to an inaccuracy when, quoting from memory, I said that Miss Youmans recommended her pupils to draw the leaves that they studied. But I fell into the error all the more readily, because such a direction entirely commended itself to my own judgment. Nor can I agree at all with the reasons which Miss Youmans now advances in opposition to this method. If the aim at the time be not to learn botany, but "to cultivate the observing powers of children," what danger is there in a "delay" which permits the object to become more deeply graven on the child's mind? Why is it so "necessary to become familiar with hundreds of specimens" in a given time? Why not rather with a few, a very few striking and typical forms, around which subsequent knowledge can group itself? The comparison of a multitude of objects in order to abstract their common characters, and thus obtain the generic or class conception, is suited to the scientific but not to the pre-scientific stage of progress. It does not, therefore, belong to the fruitful moment of first attraction to an object, which, for the adult mind, precedes scientific discovery, and contains the hidden forces which lead to this. Still less does it belong to the first mental efforts of childhood. Early childhood is a period for the differentiation of the details of a universe, which, to the earliest perceptions, appears to consist entirely of homogeneous masses of light and shade. In the first efforts of the mind these masses are broken up and separated from one another, and portions reintegrated into actual individuals. Thus the moon is separated from the windowpane, the child's limbs are integrated into a body, which at last is positively known to be different from other moving forms, etc. It is in accordance with this spontaneous and, indeed, inevitable mode of development of perception that the first educated efforts of perception should be directed toward the more intense individualization of objects, and not to their classification; toward the thorough appreciation of specific differences rather than to that of generic resemblances. Hence, a second reason for beginning the study of botany—say, rather, the observation of life—with the flower, although more complex, and not with the simpler leaf. It is because the individual differences of the flower are so much more striking, and—as the poets show us—the flower is so much more readily individualized and personified.[2]

The period of development with which my "experiment" was concerned may be called the pre-scientific stage of mental existence. It is that during which the mind may be busily occupied in collecting the data for science, but can not itself wield scientific methods. Its efforts should be directed in accordance with scientific principles of psychology, and the knowledge acquired arranged in such orderly sequence that, when the mind is ripe for them, scientific relations will be readily perceived and understood. But discussion of such relations seems to me entirely premature for the age here considered, and, indeed, for a much later period.

Scientific observation is observation of the relations between things. But, before any attempt be made to study these relations, the things themselves should be firmly and clearly apprehended. The different degree of grasp possessed by different minds depends largely upon differences in the degree of vividness and fervor with which they are impressed by individual objects, which leave so many persons in the most limp indifference, while exciting in others an absorbing and even passionate interest. When the individual impressions are so clear, distinct, characteristic, and interesting as to be quite unforgettable, they soon force upon the mind, after prolonged contemplation of them, suggestions of their multiple relations, and the knowledge which was at first simply picturesque becomes, sooner or later, scientific. The mental power which arrives at this is largely innate, and beyond the capacity of any education to bestow. But if any educational method can increase and develop it, it is that which most nearly imitates the spontaneous habits of fertile and original minds, apart from all systematic intention.

Three characters are conspicuous in the observation exercised by this class of minds: it is single, it is imaginative, and it is indefinitely prolonged. It is single—that is to say, the mind which is powerfully attracted to any object—and none ever discovers anything in any object to which it is not powerfully attracted, is in no haste to detach itself and pass on to anything new; on the contrary, it lingers and hates to go, and delays, and returns again and again to catch still another glimpse of what has been so delightful. To say that an object is suggestive is to say that it constantly opens up new trains of thought, and, so long as this is the case, the mind can not bear to abandon it. It is on this account that the contemplation is indefinitely prolonged, and irregularly so, according to no fixed rule or extrinsic necessity, not even that of mastering a certain quotum of information, but varies in accordance with the infinitely varied accidents of the mental intercourse. Finally, to be fruitful, this intercourse must be imaginative. First, in the lowest and most literal sense of the term, since the mind can not directly handle the sense-perception of the object, but only the mental image of the object, revived and remembered. But, in addition, to detect all its hidden meanings, properties, and possible aspects, many functions of the imagination must be brought into play, and none are useless. Fertility of fancy, rich association of ideas, are as important in collecting the premises for scientific argument as is the argument itself in the discovery of truth.[3]

During the pre-scientific period, therefore, either in the history of the race, the development of the individual, or the evolution of any single idea in an inquiring mind, the cardinal necessity is that of filling the mind with an abundance of distinct concepts and visual images of real concrete existences. Any prolonged attempt to compare, generalize, or reason about these should be deferred, under penalty of substituting a mere verbal imitation of reasoning for a real effort of the mind. A certain amount of reasoning and comparison will, of course, arise incidentally, but it must be kept subordinate to the main purpose. The soil must be enriched before it is plowed. Ideas must be clustered into dense and rich groups, individualities magnified and intensified, as, to keep to our subject, the flowers which are classified by the botanist may be individually magnified into almost conscious beings by the poet.[4] Hence the suitableness of flowers for making large, forcible, indelible impressions on the imagination and the memory, and for storing the mind at the outset with the most vivid and beautiful conceptions of Nature.

The leaf offers, indeed, a variety of beautiful forms and outlines, which are not, however, either so numerous or so conspicuous as those displayed by the various organs of the flower. Leaves contrast less conspicuously with one another; their sensible differences are much less striking, and the eye of the child is not sufficiently trained to adequately appreciate the subtile differences of color which really exist. To him leaves can scarcely fail to present the vast monotony of green which the primitive vegetation of the earth is said to have exhibited before variegated corollas appeared. It is certainly desirable to repeat for the individual mind the experience of the race; but is it necessary for that to go back to the ages which antedated even the prehistoric man?

In a word, the differences of flowers resembles the "legend writ in large letters" which Plato advised should be first studied; the differences of leaves make the same legend repeated in the "small letters," and therefore more difficult to decipher.[5]

4. Miss Youmans's reason derived from botanical systems of classification I scarcely understand. It is very true that classification by the corolla is abandoned, and indeed never could have been carried very far. But the natural system, which sums up the total characters of the plant, certainly derives a much larger number of its data from the flower than from any other part of the plant. The great function of the plant is reproduction, and around the organs of reproduction contained in the flower center all its peculiarities. The mutual relations of stamens and pistils have been found inadequate for classification; but the extension of the class lines has still been chiefly in the direction of other parts of the flower, especially the fruit, ovule, and embryo.

Toward the flower converge all the forces of the plant; it is the culmination, the perfection of the entire vegetable organism. It should therefore be contemplated first, because, as it seems to me, it is eminently desirable that the child should, whenever possible, see the principal thing first; since whatever comes first is always liable to remain for him the most important. The habit of ranking things in the order of their real relative importance is certainly a most valuable habit to cultivate, both morally and intellectually. As has already been pointed out, the mind in its growth closely resembles that of a tree; for it, primary facts constantly tend to become central facts, and due organic proportions are only maintained between ideas when the principal, by being placed first, is enabled to become really central, a vitalized center of fitly organized knowledge. For all life develops from centers; and in Nature there are no single lines.

5. Miss Youmans's final proposition, that progress must always be made from the simple to the complex, is the one with which I do most decidedly disagree. The expression itself is ambiguous: for it may mean the transition from the easy to the difficult; or it may mean the study of elements as a preliminary to the study of the compounds into which they enter. In the latter meaning, the proposition can not surely be applied to the leaf and the flower. Morphologically speaking, it is true that all the parts of the flower result from transformations of the leaf, but this fact is altogether too recondite for a child's appreciation. In no other sense can the leaf be said to enter into the flower as an element—to be a "simpler" part of it. No knowledge to be gained of the flower, other than these facts of embryology, presupposes or requires knowledge of the leaf. Study of the one can only be said to prepare for the other by the degree of menial discipline it affords. And the very question at issue is, What is the best for mental discipline, the contemplation of objects with the fewer and less obvious characters, or of objects at once more conspicuous, and more abounding in interesting details? I have already stated the reasons which seem to me to justify the selection of the second method.

The first seems indorsed, and perhaps is intended to be so, by the Comtist classification of the sciences, and by the rather arbitrary attempt of its author to identify this with the actual order of their historic evolution. As regards their subject-matter, it would certainly be untrue to assert that this attracted the attention of mankind in the order of its (philosophically considered) simplicity.[6] At what appear to us to be the opening periods of Greek thought we find already coexisting the germs of all the six fundamental sciences, if we may assume that even chemistry was foreshadowed in the doctrines of the Four Elements. Such coexistence was inevitable, for the moment that the human mind was aroused enough to observe and theorize about anything, its attention could not fail to be attracted in several different directions simultaneously. It noticed the form and number of objects, and founded the sciences of geometry and arithmetic. But it was quite unaware that these sciences deal with simpler elements than make up human organisms, and believed that physiology and medicine are far simpler subjects, and far less involved in sublime mysteries, than are mathematics. All subjects were studied, or at least speculated upon, in no other order than that of their apparent nearness to human interests and that of the obviousness of their phenomena.[7]

Exactly the same is true for every individual mind, whose perceptions are not regularly successive, but simultaneous, and are as liable to be attracted toward infinitely complex objects as toward the simplest details. It is true, as has been pointed out in the "Experiment," that a child's first perceptions are necessarily of form and color, and the ideas of form belong to mathematics. But color is a physical property of bodies, and therefore the subject of a science which is, according to the Comtist measure of simplicity, two degrees removed from mathematics. On the other hand, the property of number, although like forms, mathematical, is not grasped till much after color and many other physical properties have been appreciated.

Other properties of bodies become known in direct proportion to their obviousness, and to their accidental impact on the senses, or to their association with the personal experience of the child. These may be mathematical, physical, biological, or even social. The mind of the child, like that of the race, looks over the surface of all things at once; its progress is not from the simple toward the complex, but from the superficial and obvious toward the profound and hidden. The mutual aid rendered by sciences, when, to use Herbert Spencer's expression, they become arts to one another, is only required after the observation and registration of accessible facts are completed, and when analysis is required to bring to light new facts or to explain others. But the child's mind does not reach this stage, and it is either illusory or fatal to attempt to force it prematurely.

It is very interesting to notice, by study of the actual evolution of knowledge, what a large amount of knowledge was obtained simultaneously in each department by independent observation, and before the necessity for mutual help, other than that derived from elementary mathematics, had been perceived. During this period the advance was made in each science, not by deductions from some simpler science, but by observations and methods peculiar to itself. Thus, as already stated, the germs of mathematics, physics, biology, and sociology, are all found coexisting at what seem to us the opening periods of Greek thought; nor was their degree of development at all proportioned to their degree of simplicity. If some truths of geometry and arithmetic were really established, so, in spite of the obscurity surrounding biological laws, were many phenomena of living beings also observed. The pulse was known, if the circulation was not, and numerous are the clinical observations of Hippocrates which still hold good even in the scientific sphere of prognosis; and who could deny the permanent value of many of the ethical, political, and historical speculations of the ages of Plato, Thucydides, and Aristotle, even though, according to the Comtist doctrine, sociological speculations should have been valueless at this time, because entirely premature?[8]

The epoch of acquisition of facts, which must precede the discovery of their laws, often stretches over long periods of time—periods which interest us, because corresponding to the moment of education with which this discussion is concerned. The labors of the alchemists accumulated immense material on the composition of bodies and on their more recondite properties long before the scientific relations of chemistry could be established through the law of definite proportions. Physiology, the most complex of the physical sciences, has been most heterogeneous in the methods by which it has established its fundamental facts. The nature of respiration was, indeed, established by a chemist, from chemical data and from chemical experiments. But the nature of the circulation was partly inferred from anatomical facts—the presence of valves in veins—partly demonstrated by vivisection, a method of investigation which could not possibly be suggested by any other science than physiology. Knowledge of physics has materially assisted the interpretation of blood-pressure, of the expansion of the lungs, and many other phenomena, first known by direct observation of them. But the demonstration of the functions of the nervous system has been made exclusively by means of physiological experiment and clinical observation. "Science," observes Kenan, "in order to formulate her laws, is obliged to make abstractions and to create simple circumstances, such as Nature never presents."[9] This is done usually with the aid of a simpler science, or one of wider generality, whose mastery thus becomes indispensable to further progress. But, until the moment for analysis and experiment has arrived, observation of the complex object is not more, but rather less difficult than that of the simple one, because in it so many varieties of details offer themselves spontaneously to the attention that the mind is at once fully occupied BO soon as it begins to carefully observe; whereas pure observation Boon exhausts the details of a simple object or phenomenon, and no further progress can be made until after a profound analysis has plunged below the surface. Let any one compare the rate of progress in the discovery of new knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, and even physics, with that of its incessant registration in chemistry and in all the biological sciences; registration often effected, moreover, by a relatively mediocre order of minds.

The child, like the race, begins at once with two sets of mental activities—sense-impressions, and speculations suggested by them and by emotional experience. Since complex objects are capable of making impressions on its senses, and of suggesting speculation, it is often both possible and profitable to study the external and perceptible characters of these objects, as well as those of simpler ones. The child, like the infant humanity, is incapable of profound anlysis, and a premature habit of analysis is morally destructive.[10] It is this very incapacity which makes the complexity of objects a matter of indifference, since it is only by analysis that the difference between simple and complex objects can be recognized or felt. Whatever makes a large impression upon the senses is, other things being equal, easy of apprehension, even when not of comprehension. Whatever does not do so, whatever demands the intervention of abstract reasoning and inference, is difficult—often so difficult as to be really impossible—even though the child pretend and appear to understand.

And thus, to return to our starting-point, it is for all of these reasons that I have preferred to introduce the world of plants by the flower, with its marvelous variety in form and color, in port and expression and inflorescence, in contrivance of petal and stamen and pistil, and in manifold destiny of fruit. I would, undoubtedly, and in accordance with the principle already laid down of indicating many things on the mental horizon before the time should arrive for paying systematic attention to them, bring forward a few salient leaves as types: the needles of the pine, the rounded floating leaves of the water-lily, the truncated leaves of the tulip-tree, the five-fingered leaves of the maple, the pinnated leaves of the sumach, the asymmetrical leaves of the begonia, the woolly leaves of the mullein. But I should reserve the systematic study of "hundreds of specimens" to a much later period, and then enter upon it with all possible enthusiasm, and prepared to especially consider the numerous mathematical relations presented by these exquisite organic forms. Not only through study of their geometric outline, but in their multiple arithmetic combinations of insertion and section, may the pupil be led to the fruitful modern methods which involve the application of mathematics to the non-mathematical sciences.[11]

  1. "Popular Science Monthly," October, 1885.
  2. Trees, however, seem to have occasionally shared the poetic individualization. There is Emerson's "Pine-Tree," and "The Pine and the Palm" of Heine, not to speak of "The Fir-Tree" of Hans Andersen; and who could forget "The Talking Oak"?
  3. In these respects the mental history of the celebrated Faraday offers a mine of interesting facts and illustrations.
  4. "A nun demure of lowly port,
    Or sprightly maiden, of Love's court,
    In thy simplicity the sport
    Of all temptations;
    A queen in crown of rubies drest,
    A starveling in a scanty vest,
    Are all, as seems to suit thee best.
    Thy appellations."—Wordsworth, "To a Daisy."

    "While the patient primrose sits
    Like a beggar in the cold.'"—Wordsworth.

    "Here are sweet-peas, on tiptoe for a flight
    With wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white.
    And taper fingers catching at all things
    To bind them all about with tiny rings."—Keats.

    "Bloomy grapes, laughing from green attire.—Ibid.

    "And the rose like a nymph to the bath addrest—
    And the hyacinth's purple and white and blue.
    Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
    Of music, so delicate, soft, and intense,
    It was felt like an odor within the sense."—Shelley.

    ". . . daffodils,
    That come before the swallow dares, and take
    The winds of March with beauty; violets dim.
    But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
    Or Cytherea's breath."—"Winter's Tale."

    "Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle in the milky way; . . .
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance."
    Wordsworth, "The Daffodils."

    "Daisies, those pearled arcturi of the earth.
    The constellated flower that never sets."—Shelley.

    "The gold-eyed king-cups fine.
    The frail blue-bell peereth over
    Rare broidery of the purple clover."—Tennyson.

    "Open afresh your round of starry folds.
    Ye ardent marigolds!"—Keats.

    "Death in the wood—
    In the death-pale lips apart.
    Death, in a whiteness that curdles the blood.
    Now black to the very heart.


    To show that life by the spirit comes.
    She gave us a soulless flower."
    Elaine Goodale, "The Indian Pipe."

  5. "Republic," book ii, 308 (Jowett's translation).
  6. "While be [Comte] asserts that the rational order of the sciences, like the order of their historic development, 'is determined by the degree of simplicity, or, what comes to the same thins, of generality of their phenomena,' it might, contrariwise, be asserted that, commencing: with the complex and the special, mankind have progressed step by step to a knowledge of greater simplicity and wider generality."—Spencer, "The Genesis of Science."

    Mr. Spencer goes on to quote a remark of Whewell's that "the reader has already repeatedly seen in the course of this history complex and derivative principles [read 'objects'] presenting themselves to men's minds before simple and elementary ones."

  7. "The broad distinction between the two orders of knowledge [the ordinary and the scientific] is not in their nature, but in their remoteness from perception."—Spencer, loc. at.
  8. "What has often led linguists to regard the elementary monosyllabism of the Chinese as the primitive condition of all languages is the tendency which leads us to consider simplicity as indicating a state of infancy, or, at least, as the sign of a high antiquity. But tins is an error. The Chinese language, though monosyllabic, has served a highly developed civilization; on the other hand, the languages of the savages of America, of Central and Southern Africa, offer a surprising richness of grammatical forms."—Renan, "De l'Origine du Langage," p. 13 of preface.
  9. Loc. cit., p. 59.
  10. The effect of this is shown in the autobiography of John Stuart Mill, as the author himself points out in a striking chapter.
  11. See "Études comparées des Feuilles," par M. Fermond, 1864.