Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/July 1893/Editor's Table
WE publish in this number an article by Major J. W. Powell, Director of the Geological Survey of the United States, in which much interesting information is given as to the problems, or some of them, which the Survey has taken in hand to solve, and as to the methods of investigation which have been employed. Major Powell's primary object is, however, to clear the Survey of the charge of having made a concerted and most bitter attack upon Prof. G. F. Wright's recently published book on Man and the Glacial Period, and in this respect we are compelled to say that we think his article a failure. We accept without the slightest reservation his disclaimer of any personal responsibility in the matter; but with the evidence before us we find it impossible to believe that a number of individuals, directly or indirectly connected with the Survey, did not, in a concerted manner, set themselves to attack Prof. Wright's book, and that in a spirit of personal hostility and spite far more than of zeal for scientific accuracy. Considering the nature of the language indulged in by Mr. W J McGee in regard not only to Prof. Wright's book, but to Prof. Wright himself, we think the director of the Survey might have spared a few words in which to express his personal disapprobation of it; but we look in vain in his article for anything of the kind. He admits that upon the publication of the work in question "his (Prof. Wright's) fellow-workers (on the survey) criticised the book in various scientific periodicals and sometimes spoke very disparagingly of it, as being unworthy of acceptance;" but he does not say that so prominent a member of the Survey as Mr. McGee penned and published an article breathing from the first page to the last the spirit of personal insult, and so far tried to set the key for the criticisms of other "fellow-workers." If the director had gone on and made this statement, which would have been quite relevant to the subject and purpose of his article, we think he would have felt it incumbent on him to express some opinion as to the expediency and propriety of his coadjutor's method of vindicating scientitic orthodoxy as established at Washington. There is a manifest lesson to be learned from the incident. The Geological Survey is a body with wide ramifications, and whether it has already done so or not, it is in danger, from the very nature of its organization, of becoming a kind of scientific hierarchy, and, as such, of exercising an influence unfavorable rather than favorable to the increase of scientific knowledge. We learn from the director that when Prof. Wright proposed to publish his first book. The Ice Age in North America, Prof. Chamberlin, under whose direction he had worked as an assistant in the Survey, "demurred." It is really hard to see why Prof. Chamberlin should have taken upon himself to demur. Prof. Wright was not seeking to compromise any one but himself, and it was known that his work, of whatever character it might prove to be, would be fully open to criticism. If some scientific gentlemen could get it into their heads that science is not a personal matter, but a simple question of the establishment of general truths, and that every man is free to labor toward that end by the aid of such lights as he possesses, subject to correction by those whose lights are stronger and clearer, things would go more smoothly than they do in the scientific world, and the laity would not so often have to exclaim (with sarcasm), "See how these men of science love one another!" The services of Prof. Wright were dispensed with from the Survey—so the director tells us—because he failed to distinguis "overplacement" from original glacial deposit. We are not in a position to judge of the adequacy of the reason; but admitting that it was a sound one, might we suggest to the director that the writing of so discreditable an article as that which proceeded from the pen of Mr. W J McGee might perhaps be at least as serious a reason for removal from the Survey as even the non-recognition now and then of "overplacement"? As our readers are aware, the general soundness of Prof. Wright's observations was defended in a carefully written article by Prof. E. W. Claypole, which appeared in the April number of this magazine. It is not our part to enter into the controversy, but we can not help remarking upon the magisterial manner in which the Director of the Survey dismisses Prof. Claypole's article as being "based upon error in every paragraph." Let nus hope that, if such is the case, some one will come forward and prove it otherwise than with a lofty wave of the hand.
We have often had occasion to notice the valiant struggles of our contemporary, The Nation, in the cause of rational journalism, and we earnestly trust it may not grow weary in well-doing, however potent the opposing forces may appear to be. We particularly wish it success—some measure of success, for there is no use in wishing too much—in its crusade against the fashion lately introduced by many of the daily papers of disfiguring their columns with woodcuts, far less for purposes of illustration in the true sense than as mere distractions for idle readers (save the mark!), who can not bear the stress of a score of lines of unbroken print. These cuts, the Nation says, with a measure of truth, are a natural sequence of the very childish editorial and news matter which many papers have for years past been serving up to the public. As our contemporary puts it, "The printed matter of some of them has for a good while been doing all that printed matter can to reduce the popular intelligence to that early stage which makes the life of nursery goveRnesses and mistresses of kindergartens so hard, in which all the resources of pedagogy have to be exhausted to keep the child's attention fixed on anything." In a later article the Nation remarks that, for the purpose for which they are now employed, the "cuts" do not in the least need to be accurate. Their whole and sole purpose is to give a grown-up child something to look at, and whether or not they represent correctly the things or persons they are supposed to represent has simply "nothing to do with the case." The mind exhausted by the perusal of a dozen lines of letterpress finds refreshment and repose in gazing at a picture of any object, however common, connected in any way, however insignificant, with any incident, however trivial that may form part of the gossip of the day. As the Nation sarcastically observes: "The great question of cabmen's beards might have been discussed indefinitely without the thorough elucidation given by a picture of a cabman with a beard, a cabman without a beard, and two or three cabmen prominent in the agitation."
Our contemporary fears that the end is not yet, that there is perhaps some lower depth of mental degradation to be sounded. A silly letter press prepared the way for yet sillier pictures, and the question now is wh; t these are likely to bring forth as an ulterior result. If it is any comfort, we may reflect that the complaint of a growing childishness of the public mind is a somewhat ancient one. Without going further back, we recall Cowper's lines published in 1782:
"Habits of close attention, thinking beads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads;
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
'Tickle and entertain us, or we die'"
Nearly fifty years ago we find the poet Wordsworth inveighing against "illustrated books and newspapers" in a sonnet which, judging by later developments, does not appear to have had much effect, but which seems to express our contemporary's views exactly:
"Discourse was deemed Man's noblest attribute,
And written words the glory of his hand;
Then followed Printing, with enlarged command
For thought—dominion vast and absolute
For spreading truth, and making love expand.
Now prose and verse, sunk into disrepute,
Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit
The taste of this once intellectual land.
A backward movement surely we have here,
For manhood—back to childhood; for the age—
Back towards caverned life's first rude carreer.
Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!
Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear
Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!"
If the poet found so much to object to in the scanty attempts at so-called illustration made at the date at which this sonnet was penned (1846), what would he say to the present day development of the illustration business? He could have seen, had he lived to the present t me, a picture, in a leading English paper, of the hide taken off the cow that ran down Mr. Gladstone; the cow itself was unfortunately killed and cut up before her likeness had been taken, but why that should have prevented the image of some other cow, of any cow, being offered to an intelligent public in her stead, or why the joints into which she was dissected should not have been severally photographed, and so exhibited as well as the hide, we have never quite understood.
It was a dictum of Auguste Corate, delivered about the time that Wordsworth was uttering his unavailing and, we must say, too undiscriminating protest against "illustrated books and newspapers," that the specific weakness of the present age was a tendency to idiocy, which he defined as a condition in which mere sensations dominate and suppress mental activity: or, in other words, a life of excessive objectivity and defective subjectivity—insanity, according to him, being the exactly opposite condition. If The Nation is right in its diagnosis of present day tendencies, Comte was not very far wrong; and as that journal is certainly right in part, the question arises, What are we going to do about it? The first thing to do is clearly to recognize the nature and proportions of the evil. Illustrations in books and papers are useful when they either serve an aesthetic purpose or convey information of value which could not otherwise be as effectively conveyed. In scientific works they are, of course, indispensable. On the other hand, they do harm and not good when they minister to simple intellectual indolence, or help to gratify an aimless and idle curiosity. We are inclined to think that in children's books, even good illustrations (from an artistic point of view) may have the specific disadvantageous result of checking the exercise of imagination. The mind in childhood can make its own pictures, and will do so if nobody steps in with a picture ready made. With pictures illustrating every phase and turn of a story, there is little left for imagination to do and the faculty is apt to remain undeveloped for want of exercise. And an undeveloped imagination means an undeveloped, or at least ill-developed, individuality. There has been, we believe, a great deal of misunderstanding on this point in the past. It has been assumed that the more pictures children could be shown the more their minds would be stimulated; but, for the reason stated we believe this to be a great mistake. We can not further discuss the subject to-day, but it is manifestly one of much importance for old and young. Idiocy, or anything approaching to it, is not a condition of mind to be lightly cultivated.
It is a good rule that a scientific writer, before castigating the expressions of another, should acquire a right comprehension of what is meant by them. The Popular Science News seems to have forgotten this rule. Referring to our article in the March number on The Everlasting Ghost, that periodical says that, just like "any superstitious savage," we had assumed that the appearances described by the Rev. Mr. Haweis as having developed themselves on certain photographic plates were "ghost photographs." If our contemporary had read the papers in the case more carefully—Mr. Haweis's article, for instance, or even only the heading of it, or had even read our article with closer attention to its bearing—it would have observed that the precise thing we were ridiculing was the assumption that the appearances on the plate were "ghost photographs," and would then have been able to direct its shafts toward the right quarter. We do not underrate the value of research in this domain, or in any part of the field of unexplained phenomena styled psychical: but we do condemn the spirit that enters upon the investigation occupied with the idea that a certain thing—as, for example, the ghosts in this case—is to be found. The savagery in the present instance, if there be any, appears to be illustrated in the uncontrolled impulsiveness that prompted an attack where there was no offense.