Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/Editor's Table
BACK TO DOGMA!
THE Marquis of Salisbury did not adopt the above words as the motto of his recent presidential address to the British Association, but he might have done so, for they fairly sum up the drift and spirit of that able but decidedly reactionary performance, the full text of which will be found in our present number. His lordship, it will be seen, thought it well to remind his hearers of "the condition in which we stand toward three or four of the most important physical questions which it has been the effort of the last century to solve," or, as he also described them, "stupendous problems of natural study which still defy our investigation." It is well to have our attention drawn as often as may be necessary to unsettled problems, provided it be done for the purpose of facilitating and encouraging further effort toward their solution. Whether that was the object which his lordship had in view, or at heart, is rendered a little doubtful by the tenor and particularly by the conclusion of his discourse. lie showed that chemical science has not yet succeeded in explaining the nature and origin of the so-called elementary bodies, of which not less than sixty-five are recognized. He next observed how completely we had also failed to obtain any knowledge of the ether beyond the necessary assumption that it is an undulating medium. Turning to biology, he dwelt upon the fact that, although chemists have succeeded in manufacturing certain substances which had previously only been produced in living bodies, no living organism had ever been produced by human art, nor had the principle of life ever discovered itself to human investigation. Lastly, after a courteous acknowledgment of the services rendered by Darwin to biological science, he reached the point to which all his previous remarks had been tending, proclaimed his personal conviction that the doctrine of natural selection was inadequate to explain the origin of species, and that there was nothing left for us but to fall back on the hypothesis of intelligent and beneficent design as the ruling and guiding principle in the universe.
The end of his lordship's address thus throws light on the beginning. In reality it was an allocution not to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but to the British public. The British Association did not require to be reminded that the ultimate atom of matter had not yet been discovered, nor that the ether still remained not much more than a working hypothesis, nor that chemical synthesis had not yet compassed the production of a definite living organism. The British public, on the other hand, would find a general declaration of failure on these several lines of research more or less comforting; seeing that, like most other publics in so-called civilized countries, while it is quite prepared to acclaim the results of science when they take the form of cheapened goods or increased conveniences of life, it dearly loves to think that philosophers make blunders and meet with disappointments, and, on the whole, are not so much wiser than other people. Consequently, the communication that was of little value or significance to the learned body to which it was addressed, was of much (misleading) significance to the unlearned body of the public for whom, we can not but believe, it was mainly intended.
In dealing with the doctrine of natural selection his lordship does not seem to us to have been altogether fair. He made as much as possible of the difficulties in the way of its acceptance, but gave no hint of the considerations which have forced it on the belief of nearly all students of zoölogy and biology. In like manner he brought forward the objection urged by Sir William Thompson (now Lord Kelvin) and Prof. Tait, as regards the time limit fixed by the laws of radiation for the possible existence of life on the earth, and left it to be understood that it was of an altogether insuperable character, which is far from being the case. The greatest disservice, however, which he did to the cause of science was in taking his stand, against the theory of natural selection, upon the doctrine of design. It needs but a few moments of careful and candid consideration to show that the doctrine of design means the death of scientific investigation. If things are so because they were intentionally made so, or because certain processes were miraculously expedited, then the universe may be the theater of Will, but not of forces the operation of which we can hope to understand. It is worthy of remark that his lordship did not even mention the familiar phenomenon of the struggle for life. That is something which can not be denied; and yet nothing is plainer than that the struggle for life means natural selection, and must, under certain circumstances, tend to the formation of new species. Prof. Karl Pearson, discussing this point in the Fortnightly Review for September, well observes that "every man who has lived through a hard winter, every man who has examined a mortality table, every man who has studied the history of nations, has probably seen natural selection at work." Lord Salisbury himself admits that Darwin "has, as a matter of fact, disposed of the doctrine of the immutability of species. . . . Few" (he adds) "are now found to doubt that animals separated by differences far exceeding those that distinguish what we know as species have yet descended from common ancestors," Well, how has this been brought about? Did the Divine Being, by an arbitrary act of will, simply change at a given moment the progeny of a given pair of animals so that one or more new species, or what we call species, should be originated, or was there some natural process of physical causation at work to produce the result? If the former alternative is to be adopted, then, as we have already said, all investigation ot causes becomes futile: if the latter, then it matters little whether we accept Darwin's theory or some other; and certainly no one would wish to take his stand on Darwin's theory if a better—one which would fit the facts more closely—were available. The reason why the doctrine of design is so popular is partly because it is such a saver of intellectual toil, and partly because, by making knowledge impossible, it glorifies ignorance. It reduces biology to that "merely statistical" level from which, according to Lord Salisbury himself, it was the glory of Darwin to have raised it. What is left for the student of Nature save to record facts as he finds them, when every question as to how things have come to be as they are receives but the one reply, "The Creator designed them so"?
The unfriendly attitude of Lord Salisbury toward the doctrine of evolution is clearly shown by a remark he dropped when talking about the elements. "If," he said, "they were organic beings, all our difficulties would be solved by muttering the comfortable word 'evolution'—one of those indefinite words from time to time vouchsafed to humanity, which have the gift of alleviating so many perplexities and masking so many gaps in our knowledge." Lord Salisbury was addressing a presumably learned audience: why should men of the caliber of his hearers be disposed to "mutter "the word evolution without regard either to its proper meaning or to its application to the matter in hand? What the unlearned public would mutter is not much to the point, but it would hardly be the word "evolution." Prof. Pearson, however, in an article already alluded to, furnishes plausible reason, as other writers before him have done, for holding that "evolution" might be a very pertinent word not to mutter, but to utter, in connection with the very question his lordship had in view, and certainly a better word than "design." Lord Salisbury says that, although it is not easy to give a precise logical reason for the feeling, still the feeling is irresistible, that there can not really be sixtyfive primordial bodies, but that the facts as cognized by us to-day conceal some much simpler condition of things. Why? If, when we are confronted with the difficulties which beset the origin of species, our duty is to fall back upon the doctrine of design, why should we not equally fall back on that doctrine when confronted with a seemingly ridiculous number of elements? It is very difficult to see why dogma should interfere to cut off one line of investigation and not another. Is it because Lord Salisbury is chiefly interested in physical studies that he repudiates for them the fetters he is only too willing to impose on biology? It would almost 8eem so; but if he is not impious in wishing to free physics from all dogmatic entanglements, neither is the biologist who desires and claims as much for the study of his choice.
It is too late to try to turn men aside from the unfettered, unbiased pursuit of natural knowledge. The method that Lord Salisbury prescribes for the students of organic Nature has been abundantly tried in the past and been found abundantly unfruitful. The more excellent way which Darwin has shown has, according to Lord Salisbury's own confession, already fertilized wide fields of knowledge; and its impulse and efficacy are far as yet from being exhausted. Darwin never supposed that he had furnished a key to all the mysteries of organic Nature, nor do the wiser of his followers entertain any such notion to-day. If some are foolish enough to think so, they will become wiser in time; but better far is it to place undue faith in a definite physical principle than, abandoning the search for causes, to adopt an arbitrary and stereotyped explanation which raises a barrier to all further intellectual advance.
A Missouri paper of the "Populist" faith predicts that when the state assumes control of the railways—which it says is but a question of time and a very short time at that—"the employees will be well paid, and we will hear no more of strikes and boycotts, while the great mass of the people who patronize the roads will for the first time know how little it actually costs to transport persons, products, and intelligence." As an instance of how cheaply the Government can do things, it cites the fact that a newspaper publisher can send one hundred pounds weight of his papers all over the country by post, and have them delivered, say, to twelve hundred different persons, for one dollar—a charge, it goes on to say, which is found "ample to meet all expenses." It is a great pity that journals which profess to deal with facts, and especially those which, from a basis of supposed facts, venture to draw most important and sweeping conclusions, do not take a little more trouble to state things correctly. What evidence is there, we would ask, that one cent per pound postage on newspapers is a paying rate? It is not to be found in the Postmaster General's report, which shows for the year 1893 a deficit of $5,177,171 This deficit arises on the whole business of the Post Office, which includes the carrying of letters at the rate of about fifty cents a pound; so that, could this part of the business, which undoubtedly yields a profit, be separated from the carrying of inferior grades of matter, the deficit arising on the latter would be vastly greater than that shown by the general balance sheet. Again, could newspaper matter paying only a cent a pound in bulk be separated from matter paying one cent per ounce, one cent per two ounces, and one cent per four ounces, it would still more clearly be seen at what an enormous loss the conveying of newspapers at the rate mentioned is carried on. It is too bad that people should be imposed on in this way; they support a paper specially to defend their interests, and it does so by feeding them with sophistry and misinformation. That is not the way to bring on the millennium.
THEOSOPHIST LOGIC NO BETTER.
Inthe August number of the Nineteenth Century a leading theosophist writer, Mr. A. P. Sinnett, undertakes to explain to us by an analogy the position of superiority which persons who are theosophically enlightened enjoy with reference to those who use only their ordinary senses and faculties. Conceive, he says, that mankind at large, while sensitive to light and shade, possessed no sense for color, but that a certain number of individuals were endowed with such a sense: the result would be that the latter would be regarded by the great majority "as guilty (to say the least) of a very gross affectation in professing to regard the tints of a flower as more agreeable to the eye than the color of a lump of clay." If the color-distinguishing minority were to go a step further and profess to be able to distinguish claret from sherry by simply looking at them, they would offend, we are told, still more deeply the common sense of the majority and would create doubt "as to the healthiness of their understanding."
It is indeed, we must confess, very difficult to have full confidence in the healthiness of the understanding of a writer who tries to palm off upon us an argument of this kind. In the case supposed the persons possessing the more-developed faculty would demonstrate every day of life, and in matters coming within the cognizance of all, that they had a definite power not possessed by men in general; and, instead of offending the common sense of the majority, they would be in high honor, and would have their choice of lucrative employments. But if these persons merely professed to have a sense, and now made a hit and now a miss, but far more often a miss than a hit in the pretended application of it, and if they charged money for their exercises in guess work they would make some dupes, but they would certainly offend both the common sense and the common honesty of right-thinking people. We venture to say in the most positive manner that theosophists can do nothing whatever parallel, in the world as it is to-day, to the distinguishing of colors in a color-blind community. If they can, tests can be made anywhere and everywhere, before any class of persons, with equal and unvarying success. The person who could distinguish claret from sherry by the color could go on doing it all day long, and it would not matter in the least to him before whom he exercised the power. He would do it so infallibly, so unvaryingly, and under such every-day conditions, that the non-recognition of his possession of a special faculty would be out of the question. But is there any theosophist to-day who, as theosophist, can claim to be able so much as to play an unvaryingly successful game of poker, to take a most familiar, and we hope not too vulgar, illustration? If there is, a grand career is open to him in some of our social circles. But Mr. Sinnett makes no such claim for his co-religionists. He goes no further than to say that, "although still a minority as compared with the whole, those persons who exercise what occult students generally call the 'astral senses' in varying degrees, are sufficiently numerous to confirm one another's observations and reports." The Italics are ours. Here we have the whole case. Reducing it to the terms of the former illustration, instead of the persons claiming to be endowed with the color-sense being in a position to experiment before the whole world in the distinguishing by sight of claret from sherry and other similar feats, they simply form a clique who perform experiments in more or less secret conclave, and then profess "to confirm one another's observations and reports." The two things are very different. Mr. Sinnett had better have chosen a different illustration.