Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/August 1896/Scientific Literature

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Scientific Literature.

In his recently published History of the Warfare of Science,[1] Dr. Andrew D. White has given the world a work of great practical value—a work to which we can confidently refer any one who desires to know not only what is thought to-day in the principal departments of scientific inquiry, but by what stages the crude and illogical fancies of an earlier period gave way to conclusions founded on observation and induction. The title of Dr. White's book, we have no doubt, will give offense in certain quarters, but it would be difficult to say how the actual content of the book could be otherwise expressed. It is a narrative of conflict in which we invariably find that conclusions derived from the study of facts have bad to make their way against opinions resting on the supposed authoritative utterances of a sacred book. In whatever direction we turn we find that theology has been beforehand with science in telling men what to believe, even in matters that turn on the evidence of the senses, and that science has to climb over mountains of obstruction and wage many a desperate battle before it can secure the right to deliver its message to mankind. How can this conflict be described otherwise than as Dr. White has described it? It is not a conflict merely between true science and false science, between sound views and unsound views, but a conflict between the observation of Nature and of facts generally and an utterly unreasoning adherence to things said. It is a struggle of data against dicta, science taking its stand on the former and theology on the latter. It is true that theology has, in these later days, reconsidered its position, and consented to hand over to the jurisdiction of science vast regions of thought which it once assumed to rule with absolute authority; but none the less was it theology which fought science step by step in the past, and that not by argument m any true sense, but by the weapons of physical force, and often in a spirit of intolerable arrogance and cruelty.

Although the rôle in which theology is necessarily made to appear in the volumes before us is a decidedly unamiable one, it would be unjust to Dr. White not to recognize the kindly and charitable spirit in which his work is written. He deplores the crimes against intellectual liberty that were perpetrated by ecclesiastical powers, but he rarely excites our enmity against the individuals concerned. He shows that they acted according to their lights, that their judgments were overpowered by the authority which it was common in their day to ascribe to sacred texts, and that, in resisting the most convincing demonstrations of scientific truth, they honestly believed they were following a surer and higher guidance. To them science, or the observation of Nature, represented at best the unaided operations of the human intellect, whereas Holy Writ contained the direct and authentic teaching of the Divine Spirit. How, then, could they hesitate between the two? How could they fail to consider as guilty of dangerous impiety those who ventured to set up the former against the latter? As we read Dr. White's interesting pages we are made to feel the strength of the theological case as it presented itself to the minds of churchmen and devout believers. The Scriptures were divinely inspired: that was the first postulate. The Scriptures stated so and so in express terms, and had been understood and accepted in their plain sense by the greatest doctors and saints of the past, men whose dicta had an authority only less than that of Scripture itself. That was the second half of the argument. Was the authority of Scripture to be impugned and discredited because a few men of no authority, as authority was reckoned in those days, professed to have made this or that discovery in one region or another of physical observation? To let Scripture go was to let everything go, to destroy the whole basis of church authority, the whole foundation of social and moral order; and how to twist Scripture into seeming agreement with the alleged discoveries they had not yet learned. How the intellectual life of Europe was crushed for centuries under the weight of scriptural authority, how the scientific impulse, though a thousand times slain, a thousand times revived, how little by little true views of Nature forced themselves upon a priest-led world, and how in the end Science too gathered to herself authority and made for herself the dominant position which she enjoys to-day—all this, most graphically and sympathetically related, is the burden of the two handsome volumes before us.

There is one point upon which Dr. White has especially labored to be fair. He has not laid, as some winters have been more than half disposed to do, the whole reproach of obstructing and persecuting science upon the Roman Catholic Church. He makes it plain that science, so to speak, had to be persecuted by any body of men who were in the toils of such a theology as that which the early Christian Church formed for itself and bequeathed to later ages; and he shows how the several Protestant churches just in so far as, and so long as, they held to that theology were no less hostile to rising science than the old Church bad been. It would indeed almost seem as if, within the last generation, the Catholic Church had more frankly made its peace with the methods and conclusions of science than the several Protestant churches have done; certainly the most recent examples of opposition to science which are quoted in these volumes are drawn from the proceedings and utterances of Protestant authorities, not of Catholic ones.

It is only right, however, that we should give a more adequate indication than we have yet done of the scope of the present work. The first chapter, which is entitled From Creation to Evolution, deals with the history of opinion on the subject of the origin and development of the physical universe. The crude ideas of ancient times are well represented, the author tells us, by a design which appears in one of the stained-glass windows of the cathedral at Ulm in Würtemberg, where the Almighty appears as busily engaged in the creation of animals, and has just turned off his hands an elephant fully accoutered with armor, harness, and housings, ready for war. In like manner we may still see in the Egyptian temples at Philæ and Denderah representations of the Nile gods modeling lumps of clay into men. "So literal," says our author, "was the whole conception of the work of creation that in these days it can scarcely be imagined. The Almighty was represented in theological literature, in the pictured Bibles, and in works of art generally, as a sort of enlarged and venerable Nuremberg toy maker." The slightest statement of Scripture in regard to the constitution of the natural world was a sufficient foundation for the most highly elaborated beliefs; and the "yarns," if we may so designate them, which were told about the dragon, the unicorn, the leviathan, and one or two other unique animals mentioned in the Bible showed plainly that the imagination of our ancestors was in a state of high activity, whatever may have been the case with their logical faculties. The gap between such a condition of mind and that which prevails among the educated classes of our own day is vast; but Dr. White enables us to see by what successive accretions of knowledge a pathway was made from one to the other. To-day the idea of development is supreme, and that of creation, which was the only one our ancestors could entertain, has become almost an intellectual impossibility. In other words, we do not know how to go about thinking of creation, while familiarity with the fact of development, as it takes place in many ways before our eyes, has caused us to regard it as the typical and characteristic process by which all the constructive work of Nature is wrought.

The second chapter deals with the progress of thought on the subject of geography, including the form and size of the earth and the once muchvexed question of the antipodes. The third chapter takes up the subject of astronomy and gives a deeply interesting account of the struggle for the establishment of the Copernican system. Dr. White makes it clear that the opposition to the true view of the universe was almost if not quite as keen on the part of Protestant as of Catholic churchmen. Luther is quoted as saying: "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." Melanchthon argued in the same strain, and Calvin asked who would dare "to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" In many universities, we are told, as late as the end of the seventeenth century, "professors were forced to take an oath not to hold the Pythagorean—that is, the Copernican—idea as to the movement of the heavenly bodies." University authorities used to make it their boast in those days that such pernicious doctrines had no place in their system of teaching, just as university authorities in our own day—it is our author who draws the parallel—sometimes boast that they discourage the reading of Mill, Spencer, and Darwin.

Further chapters are entitled From Genesis to Geology, Antiquity of Man, Fall of Man and Anthropology, Magic to Chemistry, Miracles to Medicine, Babel to Philology, etc., and all are replete with important information interestingly presented. Considered alone as a popular presentation of modern views upon the great scientific questions of the day, the work deserves to be widely read; but its value is greatly increased by the light which it sheds upon the development of opinion and the clearness with which it establishes the contrast between the fruitful methods of science and the unfruitful ones of theology in the domain of nature. Finally, it is, as we have already hinted, written in a large, tolerant, and sympathetic spirit, suggesting a mind raised altogether above petty prejudices and narrow enmities. It is a pleasure to us to think that the greater part of the matter contained in the work was first given to the public in the pages of the Popular Science Monthly.

The readers of this magazine have already had a chance to enjoy more than half of Prof. James Sully's volume of Studies of Childhood[2] in the series of articles which the author has contributed to our pages within the past two years. The additional matter consists of an introduction, part of the chapter on the Young Draughtsman, about ninety pages of Extracts from a Father's Diary, and a chapter on George Sand's Childhood based on that talented, woman's Story of my Life. Prof. Sully by no means regards these studies as a complete treatise on child-psychology. They "merely deal," he says, "with certain aspects of children's minds which happen to have come under my notice, and to have had a special interest for me."

The first topic discussed is imagination—the happy faculty that gives playmates to the child isolated from others by distance, dangers of the outdoor world, illness, or other circumstances, and that turns familiar surroundings into scenery and accessories appropriate for imitating any desired activity of adults. From an examination of the examples that he has collected Prof. Sully concludes that imaginativeness varies greatly in different children, and that "there must be a much wider and finer investigation of children's action and talk before we can feel quite sure that we have got at their mental whereabouts." He maintains further that imagination and practicalness are not mutually exclusive in the minds of children, and gives evidence to show that first one tendency, then the other, may be dominant for days, and also that the one may succeed the other with astonishing rapidity in the same child. Probably the most entertaining chapter is that on The Little Linguist, in which the various phases of the child's struggle with the mother tongue are described and copiously exemplified. It is peculiarly difficult for the adult to put himself in the child's place with respect to fear of darkness, unusual objects, etc., so that the data that Prof. Sully is able to furnish on this subject are especially welcome. The part of the volume that will probably most interest the non-scientific parent or teacher is the two chapters bearing on the question why children seem to be imbued with so much concentrated naughtiness. Prof. Sully shows that it is not necessary to assume innate viciousness to account for acts of the child that inflict pain on other persons and on animals, for persistent lying, or for disobedience. Further, he shows that the child has a natural tendency to orderly procedure which needs only to be encouraged by consistency on the part of the parent to make the departures from right conduct very few. Prof. Sully draws conclusions freely from his facts, but probably no one would affirm more readily than he that these conclusions should be held subject to modification in. the light of further evidence. It might have been better if this caution had been explicitly stated, or if some of the conclusions had been less confidently expressed.

  1. History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. By Andrew D. White, LL. D., L. H. D. 2 vols., 8vo, New York: D. Appleton & Co. Price, $5.
  2. Studies of Childhood. By James Sully. Pp. 527, 8vo. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Price, $2.50.