Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/August 1897/Editor's Table

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Editor's Table.


IT seems as if every age must have its fad, and perhaps we should not disquiet ourselves too much about it. Long ago the question was asked why the heathen raged and the people imagined a vain thing. The question, especially the latter part of it, is equally pertinent to-day; and the answer we venture to suggest is, because they like it. It is very sweet to the unregenerate mind to be able, or seem to be able, to fly in the face of facts. Just as there are persons so constituted morally that they are unable to conceive of liberty except as defiance of law, and who, therefore, when they want to feel particularly free, resort to disorderly conduct of one kind or another, so there are those—in much greater number—to whom natural law seems an intellectual tyranny from which any escape is welcome. This we take to be the philosophy of so-called "Christian science," a delusion which to-day is playing havoc with the intellects of thousands of presumably sane and well-meaning persons.

The great beauty and merit of Christian science in the eyes of its devotees is that it affirms the thing that is not and denies the thing that is. It has to make grudging concessions to the law of gravitation and a few other primary conditions of existence. In a kind of a way it admits that certain injuries to the bodily frame may impair activity and even destroy life. That a man can not walk without legs or do much useful thinking without his head are propositions which it has not yet seen its way to combat; but it takes its revenge on the system of visible things by comprehensive denials in a host of matters only a little less indisputable. It scornfully refuses to recognize pain or functional irregularities of any kind. Fevers, indigestions, inflammations, and the whole tribe of maladies which challenge the physician's art have no foundation in reality, and only need to be suitably ignored in order to be put to flight. If Job of old could only have planted himself at the Christian-science point of view, he could have got rid of his boils in short order, and perhaps saved himself from the interminable and not over-cheerful discourses of his friends. The great remedy, as recommended to-day in Christian science circles, is not to think about these things at all, and in case you can not think hard enough, to send for a Christian-science adept to help you. The adept will then, with cheerful and enthusiastic mendacity, inform you that you haven't any pain, that you haven't any boils, that you haven't any rheumatism or sciatica, or whatever it may be; and if you should point ruefully to the affected part, will exclaim: "Why, that isn't you; that's a mere mass of matter—soulless matter—and you are a soul, a spirit. You ought to rule your matter and not let your matter rule you." This is a point in the proceedings at which the faith of the sufferer is sometimes severely tried. Cases have been known in which, breaking into language neither wholly Christian nor rigorously scientific, the patient has demanded to know why, if that wasn't him—even grammar may be sacrificed in these emergencies—he should be enduring such abominable tortures on account of it; and up to date the satisfactory answer of Christian science to that particular question has not been formulated.

Give people a fad, however, that they thoroughly enjoy and they will make great sacrifices for it, looking pleasant under circumstances which would test the good humor even of a Mark Tapley, Here is where the Christian scientists may sometimes score; for good spirits are certainly both a prophylactic and a remedial agency of no mean value in various physical troubles. This is the one grain of truth in their bushel of nonsense. On the other hand, they do widespread and serious moral mischief by promoting the bad habit of ignoring facts. We have heard of the case of a Christian-science practitioner who, called in to see a child whose head was covered with a herpetic eruption, declared, while looking steadily at the head, that she could not see any eruption. A little girl who by accident had cut her hand at school somewhat objected to having it bound up by the teacher, giving as her reason that her parents were "Christian science." It certainly is lamentable that, in addition to all the other influences which tend to weaken the sense for truth and fact, there should have sprung up a so-called religious society which places a willful blindness to fact at the foundation of its creed and practice. Surely that kind of thing does not need encouragement or cultivation.

Meantime, Wisdom is crying aloud. Science has revealed itself as the helper and guide of mankind, and, in reply to all questioning of its claims, points to the works it has wrought. "They are they," it may say, "which testify of me." The essential and peculiar mark of science is that it ignores no fact. "Hold thou the fact!" might be taken for its motto. It holds the fact, it wrestles with it till it yields a blessing. The individual scientific thinker, honest though he be, may ignore a fact, may turn aside from evidence that ought to command his attention; but, in so far as he does this, he is unfaithful to the mandate of Science. The fact, however, abides; and Science, through some other of her servants, or perhaps later through this very one, will take it up and make it yield its meaning. Science has all truth for its domain, and for that reason there can be but one science. To apply to science such an epithet as "Christian" involves a total misunderstanding of what science is. Science can do no more than investigate all truth, nor can it, consistently with its essential nature, do less.

In the matter, however, of relieving human suffering and prolonging human life, what is the record? The record is that since science obtained a secure footing in the world it has been steadily making better conditions of life for mankind; that it has almost extirpated certain diseases and greatly mitigated the virulence of others; that its prophylactic methods in regard to epidemics that used periodically to scourge the most civilized nations are of proved and signal efficacy; and that by the use of anæsthetics and antiseptics it has assuaged an absolutely incalculable amount of human anguish. A writer in a recent number of The Nineteenth Century, describing the progress of medicine and surgery during the last sixty years, quotes an account given by a distinguished physician of his own experiences in undergoing a surgical operation before the days of anæsthesia. The passage is a painful one, but we shall be pardoned, we hope, for reproducing it, as it is very pertinent to the occasion:

"Of the agony occasioned I will say nothing. Suffering so great as I underwent can not be expressed in words, and thus fortunately can not be recalled. The particular pangs are now forgotten; but the black whirlwind of emotion, the horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close upon despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart. I can never forget, however gladly I would do so. . . . Before the days of anæsthesia a patient preparing for an operation was like a condemned criminal preparing for execution. He counted the days till the appointed day came. He counted the hours of that day till the appointed hour came. He listened for the echo on the street of the surgeon's carriage. He watched for his pull at the door-bell; for his foot on the stairs; for his step in the room; for the production of his dreaded instruments; for his few grave words and his last preparations before beginning. And then he surrendered his liberty and, revolting at the necessity, submitted to be held or bound and helplessly gave himself up to the cruel knife."

Less than fifty years ago these were daily experiences; and whence did relief come? From any hocuspocus speculations upon mind and matter? From any looking away from phenomena and trying to disbelieve them out of existence? No, but from assuming the reality of phenomena, and bringing a material agent to bear on a physical condition. True, theological objections were raised to this new and most beneficent extension of medical science; but it would have taken more theology than was contained in all the catechisms to make the world renounce the new hope thus tendered to it. And now, if further progress is desired, can any sane and honest man doubt the direction in which it is to be sought? What science has done is but an earnest of what it will yet do. All that is needed is a patient following out of her methods—the first of which is a careful measuring and recognition of facts as they are—in order to reach forward to all possible good. We can only trust that many minds now entangled with "Christian science" will work their way to a knowledge and love of true science. If they do, they will gain a sense of intellectual emancipation such as they never before experienced; they will know also of the doctrine that its foundations are in the truth of things, and that its mission is the healing and regeneration of the human race.


In these bright summer days, when most of us get glimpses of rural scenery and not a few are privileged to enjoy it for days and weeks together, it would be fitting if we were occasionally to reflect how wonderfully this world which we find so beautiful has become adapted to us and we to it. We are too much accustomed to take the world as it actually exists for granted as something that always has been and that always will be. We are apt to forget that the whole human period is but as a narrow fringe upon the vast space of geologic time, and that the world before the advent of man was a very different world from that in which we live. We talk of the everlasting hills and of the primeval forest, but to the geologist the hills are not everlasting and the forest is but a creation of yesterday. The poet Tennyson has caught the true geological standpoint in the following fine verses of In Memoriam:

The earth, which we find to-day bright with varied hues, vocal with innumerable sounds, rich in fruits and fragrant with odors, lay for an almost incalculable period of time destitute, or all but destitute, of color, soundless save for the noise of wave and tempest, and with no promise as yet of the rich profusion of vegetable and animal forms that now diversify its surface and fill it with the thrill and manifold activities of life. We often speak of man as "the heir of all the ages," but not often, probably, do we pause to realize the significance of the word. We talk of evolution, but seldom make any due effort to grasp the plenitude and grandeur of the thought. These senses of which we have the use, and each of which brings a different world within our ken, whence are they? It seems so natural to see; it seems so natural to hear, to touch, to smell, to taste, that we forget through what slow processes, by what an incalculable number of slight accretions and delicate modifications these wonderful channels of knowledge and sensation have been made for us. We go back through the ages and we come to a sightless, voiceless world. For a period probably as long as all the rest of geological time the only forms of life were protozoa. Sight was developed among the wonderful crustaceans of the Silurian period, but as yet there were no organs of hearing. The first stridulation of an insect wing was heard (if it was heard) in the Devonian age, the birth epoch of the first vertebrates, fishes; but long ages had to pass before the first bee hummed over a flower or the first butterfly fluttered its wings in the sunshine. There were no flowers in the Devonian age nor yet in the ensuing Carboniferous, though in both there was a mighty vegetation.

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes thou hast seen!
There, where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

The earliest birds belong to the Cretaceous period—the classic age of reptiles. They were not songsters, however—far from it; nor were they beautiful to look upon, for they had strong points of affinity with the reptile tribe from which there is reason to believe they were developed. It was not till well into the Tertiary period that birds as we know them began to trill and twitter in the woods. It was in the same period that the mammals began to take masterful possession of the earth. The earliest mammalian forms were not the perfect organisms as regards form or activity with which the modern world is familiar, and many of them had but a comparatively short existence. In the Tertiary period, however, there was a vast out-break of insect, bird, and mammalian life, and now began in earnest the struggle for existence—that struggle which has carried existing forms of life to so high a point of perfection.

In the Quaternary period appears man. Whence? How? These are questions which it is impossible not to ask, but for satisfactory answers to which we may have to wait a long time. All analogy leads us to believe that man was developed from some humbler form of life. Upon him was bestowed the great and unique gift of a superior thinking faculty, the material organ of which is undoubtedly his brain. Man "looks before and after," and if he also "sighs for what is not," that too is a notable mark of his superiority. Other animals learn from experience, but to man it is given sometimes to anticipate experience. He sees things in their relations, and a relation becomes to him as real as the thing itself. His thought is, therefore, compared with the thought—if we may so characterize it—of the nearest to him of the lower animals, like a higher algebra compared with the processes of a very elementary arithmetic. His senses are not in general keener than those of the lower animals. The latter, indeed, often surpass him in this respect, but what he sees or hears is for practical purposes increased a hundredfold by what he is able to infer therefrom. He knows what to look for over a wide range of possible phenomena, and separates the significant from the insignificant.

So equipped, the human race has entered upon a world already prepared in a wonderful manner for its habitation. Many were the struggles it had to endure in the early ages; but society was formed, and man, by the aid of his fellow-man, triumphed over all his foes—triumphed, at least, sufficiently to perpetuate his race and hand down from generation to generation a slowly bettering inheritance. And now, in these later days, the human individual in a civilized land can look forth on scenes of peace and plenty and beauty. In this advanced stage of the physical world the song of the bird, the hum of the bee, the gleam of the firefly, the colors and odors of flowers, the golden ripple of the cornfields, the tints and flavors of autumn fruits, are his richly to enjoy. He gazes at the clouds, at the stars, at the brimming tide of the ocean, with thoughts that have been widened and strengthened by the mental efforts of a thousand buried generations. If there is any duty, therefore, that is incumbent on the man of to-day it is to know something by his own efforts of the wonderful and beautiful world in which he has so great an inheritance. Not without feelings of love should he gaze on the landscapes which the labors of his forefathers have helped to make beautiful; and not without feelings of reverent interest should he regard the daily play of natural forces in the world around him. We should all be students in our way; it may not be much that we can do, but some little plot or corner of the great field of knowledge we should religiously till, that we may add, if not a sheaf, at least a blade to the harvests which the workers are bringing in.

Who can reflect, however, on the beauty and harmonies of Nature without remembering that human society is far as yet from having reached its perfect harmony! If there is a natural landscape there is also a human landscape; and here the blots are many, so many that it is difficult not to be discouraged at times, even when making full allowance for all the good that society has realized and represents. The man of strenuous mind will not, however, be discouraged. He will acknowledge the existing evil, and will patiently seek out remedies in the storehouse of natural knowledge. Nature duly interrogated will supply the remedy. For the world apart from man she has established the beneficent law of natural selection; for man also she has established that law, but in the heart of the human being she has implanted, as an adjunct to it, the law of justice. The full scope of that law has never yet been adequately understood by any human society; and four fifths of the legislative tinkering that is done by our politicians springs from a simple ignoring of it. We wish most strongly that every man of science, instead of turning away from politics as something most alien to his studies, would make a duty of asking himself this question: What light do my studies throw upon the questions, or some one or other of the questions, that are now most debated in the political world? It may be that the particular facts with which a given man of science deals may have no visible bearing on any question of the day; but what about the scientific methods he pursues—have they no bearing? We are convinced that light must come some day from the direction of science. It is for the men of science to see that they do not fail in their duty in this most important respect.