Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/Editor's Table
IT is admitted on all hands that the rôle of science in the modern world has been a splendid and beneficent one, and that if our present civilization differs for the better in many important respects from that of any preceding age the fact is mainly due to progress in scientific knowledge. The world had greater poets in past times than any it can boast to-day—at least this is generally assumed—and greater artists and greater metaphysicians; but who would wish to go back to the age of Shakespeare, or that of Dante, or that of Phidias and Plato? We all prefer a world in which an extensive knowledge of natural law prevails, in which natural forces have been bent, as we see them bent to-day, to human uses, and in which man has decisively gained the victory over the principal destructive agencies which once were a constantly recurring menace to his life and happiness. The basis, the firm foundation, of this civilization, which, in spite of any drawbacks attaching to it, we all prize so highly, is knowledge—sifted, verified, definitely acquired knowledge of the laws of nature. The adjustments of modern life are dependent in the most absolute manner on the facilities which scientific discovery has furnished for the production and interchange of commodities and for communication between individuals. And just as knowledge advances does society as a whole assume toward its component units more and more the character of an earthly Providence. Comte spoke of it in this character fifty years ago, and, with every passing year, the term becomes more and more appropriate. "Society," says Prof. Toy, in a recent article in the International Journal of Ethics, "has come to be an efficient moral guide and support. It has worked out great ideals which have become the heritage of a small but controlling section of the race. It offers great rewards for well-doing, and inflicts terrible punishment for ill-doing. The individual is not a moral orphan in the world; society stands to him in the place of a parent, with all of a parent's power and none of a parent's weaknesses." Society, we may add, aided by science, is every day improving and beautifying the environment into which the individual is born, every day surrounding his life with new safeguards, every day bringing within his reach wider ranges of thought and increased means of enjoyment.
All this hardly admits of question; or, if a question were raised, it would probably be not as to the existence of such a general movement as we have described, but as to whether a certain section of society is not more or less cut off from its benefits. That question doubtless deserves discussion, but we are not concerned with it to-day. What we wish to point out is that, in spite of the vast benefits which natural science is daily conferring on the world, the attitude of many of its principal beneficiaries is not a friendly one. We have heard an amusing but altogether authentic tale of a very wealthy and pious lady who cautioned a friend not to have anything to do with "Christian science," not because it was a system of quackery and delusion, but because it had the word "science" in its designation. "I confess, dear," she said most earnestly, "I don't like that word ' science.'" Can such things be, amid the blaze of nineteenth-century enlightenment? Yes, they can be and are. Not often, perhaps, do we hear the naïve confession, "I don't like that word science"; but proofs abound that multitudes of presumably educated people, many of them living in luxury made possible only by scientific invention, dislike both the name and the thing. They dislike the exactness of science, dim as their apprehension of it may be; they dislike its methods; they dislike the standard it sets up—truth, conformity to fact, without regard to previously established opinions. The apostle of truth who preaches severe doctrine in the wilderness is not to their liking; give them one clad in soft raiment who preaches comfortable doctrine in a richly upholstered church. And how is it with the men into whose hands the practical applications of science bring measureless wealth? Do they, as a general thing, show any recognition of its importance to the world? Are they interested in aiding research? Do they determine that no one who has an impulse toward scientific discovery shall, if they can help it, lack the means of laboring in so noble a direction? Alas, no! The favorite direction for the rich man's wealth is toward the theological college. From the number and magnificence of the donations and bequests to theological colleges, in this country particularly, one would suppose that the age was starving for theological knowledge, or perchance that theology had produced the wealth that was the source of these benefactions. How the theological or denominational colleges treat science, in so far as they may adopt it as a branch of study, two or three well-known instances suffice to show—Dr. Winchell driven from the chair of Geology in Vanderbilt University; Prof. Woodrow from the chair of Natural Science at the Columbia (S. 0.) Theological Seminary; and Prof. Toy, now of Harvard, from a position held by him in a similar institution at Louisville. As we write, Prof. Briggs, of this city, who, though not a student of natural science, believes in the application of scientific principles to questions of ecclesiastical history, is in danger of losing his chair at the Union Theological Seminary; while a Canadian scholar, Prof. Workman, of Victoria University (Methodist), is running a similar risk from an exactly similar cause. We have no wish to speak unkindly of theological colleges in general; some of them, as we know, are doing excellent work in certain directions; but we are strongly of opinion that bequests or donations to such colleges are not apt to advance the cause of science. That cause will no doubt gain ground more and more through the general advance of society, however much money our millionaires may devote to impeding its progress; but it might be greatly helped by judicious benefactions. A French savant, M. Cahours, has lately bequeathed the sum of one hundred thousand francs to the French Academy of Sciences for the purpose of assisting young men of a scientific bent of mind to pursue original researches or experiments for which they may not themselves possess the means. This we regard as one of the most hopeful ways in which wealth seeking a useful social application could be expended. Much work that would be valuable remains undone simply because the person possessing the germ-idea is unable, through lack of pecuniary resources, to develop it. Or the man with the idea puts himself in the hands of others, who, taking advantage of his poverty, make such terms as leave him with only a vestige of interest in the product of his own brain. There is room for much improvement in the attitude of men of wealth, and indeed of society at large, toward science; and, as Prof. Mendenhall showed last year in his address at Indianapolis, there is room for improvement in the attitude of men of science toward the community at large. The best fruits of science will not be reaped, and society will not undergo its great transformation, until, on both sides, the needed improvement is accomplished—until science receives the place of honor in the thoughts of all, and those who ore its ministers wait on their ministering with a due sense of the sacredness of their calling.