Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/August 1897/Sketch of James Croll

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IN awarding the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society of England to Mr. James Croll in 1872, President Prestwich spoke of the additional value Mr. Croll's labors had in the estimation of the society from the difficulties under which they had been pursued, and the limited time and opportunities he had had at his command. Prof. A. C. Ramsay, accepting the medal for Mr. Croll, said that he was all the more deserving of the honor from the circumstance that he had risen to the place he had among men of science without any of the recognized advantages of scientific training, having won his position by his own unassisted exertions. Mr. Croll indeed pursued the work which he carried to an achievement that marked an era in geology under disabilities and in the face of difficulties that would have deterred and disqualified any but a man of the highest ability and most vigorous energy.

James Croll was born, the second of a family of four sons, at Little Whitefield, parish of Cargill, Scotland, January 2, 1821, and died in Perth, December 15, 1890. His father was a stone mason, "mild, thoughtful, and meditative, and possessed of strong religious and moral sentiments"; his mother was firm, shrewd, and observing, and gifted with a considerable amount of " common sense." Being afflicted from early childhood with a pain in his head, he was not sent early to school, but was taught at home. He afterward went to the parish school for a short time, but showed little promise of scholarship, and never could acquire an accurate style of reading or become even a moderately good speller. He was withdrawn from school because of family exigencies just at the time he was beginning to have a longing desire for a better education. This had been awakened by the sight in a shop window of the first number of the Penny Magazine, which he bought; and he continued to buy the successive numbers, and read them with zest. Shortly afterward he read Thomas Dick's Christian Philosopher, and was struck with the novelty of the ideas. He then procured other books on physical science, among which was Joyce's Scientific Dialogues. "At first," he says, "I became bewildered, but soon the beauty and simplicity of the conceptions filled me with delight and astonishment, and I began then in earnest to study the matter. . . . Even at the very commencement of my studies it was not the facts and details of the physical sciences which riveted my attention, but the laws and principles which they were intended to illustrate. This necessarily determined me to study the sciences in something like systematic form; for, in order to understand a given law, I was generally obliged to make myself acquainted with the preceding law or conditions on which it depended. I remember well that, before I could make headway in physical astronomy, . . . I had to go back and study the laws of motion and the fundamental principles of mechanics. In like manner I studied pneumatics, hydrostatics, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism. I obtained assistance from no one. In fact, there were none of my acquaintances who knew anything whatever about these subjects." But he had no taste for chemistry or especially for geology, and a suggestion made at that time that he would one day be a professional geologist would have been repelled as incredible. Seeking for an occupation to give him a livelihood, he served an apprenticeship to a millwright and worked for a time as a journeyman, repairing thrashing machines on the estates where they were situated. The conditions of this life were not pleasant, and he applied himself to house joinering, in which he had acquired considerable skill, at Kinrossie, Glasgow, and Paisley. He had when a boy received a hurt on his left elbow, from the effects of which he had never recovered. The wound now began to assume a serious character, and he was obliged to give up the joiner business and find some easier pursuit.

Not having the education, qualification, or taste to be a clerk, he concluded that some sort of occupation in the tea trade might suit him. He went to Perth to see what could be done, and, approaching the city, saw a man distributing handbills. He resolved that if these bills should turn out to relate to tea, he would follow whatever guidance they might afford him. They were the advertisements of a coffee and tea warehouse which had recently been opened in the High Street. He went there, made an arrangement with the proprietor, Mr. Irons, father of his biographer, and in the spring of 1847 opened a shop in Elgin. The situation was congenial to him, and the business gave him opportunity to read. He read Edwards on the Will; was convinced by its reasoning; and in course of time failing to find in any of the writers of contrary opinions to Edwards what he considered effective answers to his arguments, from a sturdy Arminian and sympathizer with the Rev. James Morison, founder of the Evangelical Union of Scotland (now united with the Congregational Union), he became a fixed Calvinist. The tea business had begun to be a paying one, but the condition of Mr. Croll's arm becoming such that he was unable to attend to the shop properly, he was obliged, in order to avoid future loss, to give it up and retire to Perth.

He supported himself for a little while making induction apparatus for the curative application of electricity and galvanism; then, on the persuasion of a friend who had premises to let, engaged in keeping a temperance hotel at Blair-Gowrie. The house was not furnished, and, having no means to buy furniture, he made it while the building was being finished. The hotel business proved unsuccessful, and Croll's next effort was as a canvassing agent for insurance companies, in which occupation he spent four years and a half—about the most disagreeable part, he says, of his life.

About this time Mr. Croll published his first books, which indicated a leaning of his mind toward theological speculation. They were a pamphlet on Predestination, signed "A Moderate Calvinist," and pronounced by the Rev. Dr. Morison "an extraordinary production"; a pamphlet on the Bearing of Geology and Astronomy upon the Creation of the World; and a larger work on The Philosophy of Theism, a thoughtful book, displaying considerable philosophical insight and accumen, which was eagerly discussed by a knot of students who used to meet with the author. The direct object of this work was defined in the preface to be not to prove the existence of God, but to investigate the method to be pursued in order to arrive at a proof of his existence; or, as the author described it to Dr. Morison, the solution of the problem, Given an organic body, to show how it can be rationally proved that its cause must have been a personality endowed with intelligence, will, and sensitivity. The author maintained that a purely a priori or a purely a posteriori proof of the existence of God is impossible, and that the only way is by a method which combines both elements from experience and a priori elements. The Rev. Dr. John Cairns regarded the work as a positive contribution to theistic argument, and said that the author (whose name was not declared) need only to give himself entirely to this topic or any other to secure distinguished success. Five hundred copies of the book were printed, and it paid expenses and returned a small profit.

Notwithstanding it was anonymous, Mr. Croll gained a reputation from this work, which led to his connection, in 1858, with the Commonwealth newspaper, a journal at Glasgow devoted to the advocacy of temperance and social and political reform; a position which, as he was a total abstainer and a strong advocate of temperance and had forsworn the use of tobacco, suited him very well.

After he had worked a year and a half with the Commonwealth, the directors of the Andersonian College advertised for a janitor. Mr. Croll applied for the position, which involved the keeping of the museum and the free run of the libraries, and, obtaining it, entered upon its duties in the fall of 1859. He found it the most congenial position he ever occupied, notwithstanding one of its duties was the disagreeable one, of which no mention is found in his autobiography, of collecting subscriptions from private gentlemen for the support of the institution. "After twenty years of an unsettled life," he says, "full of hardships and difficulties, it was a great relief to get settled down into what might be regarded as a permanent home." But "Why so many changes, trials, and difficulties?" The disability of his arm precluded him from active work and compelled him to make changes of occupation which were not advantageous. But the main cause of his troubles, he confesses, "was that strong and almost irresistible propensity toward study which prevented me devoting my whole energy to business. Study always came first, business second; and the result was that in this age of competition I was left behind in the race." His situation in the college was compatible with study.

Mr. Croll's tastes were nearly evenly balanced between philosophical and theological speculation and the study of physical science, partly to his advantage and partly to his disadvantage; so that, as he observes, when he was engaged in physics he was continually tempted to turn aside into philosophy, and when in philosophy the attractions of physics frequently drew him over, and it was only by strong effort that he could keep in one region of inquiry without passing over into the other. Hitherto he had been engaged for about fifteen years in philosophical and theological studies, the culmination of which was his book on theism. Now the Andersonian Library afforded facilities for physical study that he could not resist, and he began again, where he had left off in former years, with the principle of the transformation and conservation of energy and the dynamical theory of heat. The question of the cause of the Glacial epoch was much discussed among geologists. Without knowing what Herschel and Lyell had written upon the matter, he conceived the change in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit as probably the real cause, and began in 1864 a series of papers of great importance on the subject, setting forth the solutions "which make his name one of the most illustrious in the history" of theoretic geology. They were published in the Philosophical Magazine and the Reader, and were elaborated in the course of ten years in the book Climate and Time. These papers are characterized by Mr. James Campbell Irons, Croll's biographer, as "distinguished by remarkable concentration of thought, joined to a very great lucidity of exposition," and are considered by him in detail in six groups, of which those on Geological Climate and Chronology, Glacial Epoch and Glaciers, and Ocean Currents include the most weighty contributions.

The papers as they appeared attracted the attention of men of science at home and abroad. The Geological Society of Glasgow in 1867 elected their author an honorary associate, and Prof. Alexander Ramsay, chief of the Geological Survey, and Dr. Archibald Geikie, director of the Scottish department of the survey, were so struck by them that Mr. Croll was offered a position in the Scottish service, to be resident surveyor and clerk in the office at Edinburgh. He was well satisfied with his position in the Andersonian College and reluctant to leave it, but besides a larger salary this place offered some other advantages over that, and its duties promised to leave him as much time and strength to accomplish the work of investigation on which he was engaged as the one at Glasgow. He was obliged to submit to a civil-service examination. His knowledge having been acquired in a life of work and not in the formal routine of school, and he being very nervous, he failed on questions of arithmetic, and in English composition. Dr. Geikie nevertheless insisted on having him, knowing his value, and was supported by other eminent geologists; and at last the Lords of the Civil List, in consideration of many special recommendations in his favor and much labor on the part of his friends, were induced, as Lord Kelvin has it, to accept Croll's "great calculations regarding the eccentricity of the earth's orbit and the precession of the equinoxes during the last ten million years as sufficient evidence of his arithmetical capacity, and his book on The Philosophy of Theism and numerous papers published in the scientific journals as proof of his ability to write good English," and he received the appointment. The duties of this office consisted simply in overseeing the various details of the work, and were not physically or mentally laborious; the hours were short and the labor did not produce mental exhaustion. Yet it did not leave him in quite as fresh condition as his work at Glasgow, and he was obliged to be very precise in the regulation of his life. He had early conceived a distaste for geology as involving too much the consideration of details and not giving due prominence to principles, but he had a special interest in the branch which bore upon the object of the particular study in which he was engaged—of surface geology or drift in its bearings on glacial and interglacial periods. He had begun his studies in this department before leaving the Andersonian College, and had made frequent excursions into the country in search of glacial phenomena. These excursions were continued with equal success after he went to Edinburgh; and Mr. James Bennie, who accompanied him on some of them, has left delightful accounts of them and of Mr. Croll, which are published in connection with Mr. Croll's correspondence.

In 1865 Mr. Croll suffered an affection which interfered seriously and permanently with his capacity for mental work. While bent down, assisting in putting a few tacks into a carpet, he felt a kind of twitch in his head. It did not affect his general health or impair his mental energy, but it was followed by a dull pain, which increased if he persisted in doing mental work for any length of time till it became unbearable; and he was never able afterward to keep his thoughts concentrated upon a single point as he had been before. Had it not been for this mishap, he says, all the private work which he was able to do during the twenty years that followed "might have easily been done, and would have been, in the course of two or three years." For a few years prior to the publication of Climate and Time it was with the greatest difficulty that he could manage to put together in one day as many sentences as would fill a half page of foolscap, and the appearance of the book was delayed on that account.

In the published correspondence of Mr. Croll appears a letter to him from Charles Darwin under date of July 19, 1871, stating that "Mr. Youmans [Prof. E. L. Youmans], of the United States, is very anxious to get a series of small monographs written by the most competent English authors on various subjects, to be published in the United States, and I suppose in England. Mr. Youmans is in some way connected with the great firm of Appletons in New York. He has asked me to name some of the most competent men, and I have thought that you would excuse my giving your name and this note as a kind of introduction. I should add that I do not know on what subject he wishes you to write. I do, however, know that some very good judges think highly of his scheme." This note seems to have been given to Prof. Youmans to present to Mr. Croll. Mr. Croll wrote to Mr. Darwin in reply to it that "the gentleman wished me to write a small treatise on Geological Time; but I explained to him that, in the present state of the question, nothing satisfactory could be written on it which would be of any service to general readers. I believe he felt satisfied that the better plan was to let this subject lie over for some time to come." In February, 1872, on motion of Prof. Ramsay, the Geological Society of England awarded the balance of the proceeds of the Wollaston Donation Fund to Mr. Croll "for his many valuable researches on the glacial phenomena of Scotland and to aid in prosecuting the same." In communicating the award to Prof. Ramsay, Prof. Prestwich, President of the society, added, "Mr. Croll is also well known to all of us by his investigation of oceanic currents and their bearings on geological questions, and of many questions of great theoretical interest connected with some of the large problems in geology."

The book embodying the results of Mr. Croll's glacial studies of twenty years—Climate and Time in their Geological Relations; a Theory of Secular Changes of the Earth's Climate—was published early in 1875. It was accepted at once by scientific men everywhere as a work of great importance and of equal merit and interest; and it has not fallen from the position it took then and has held since. Men might controvert some of the author's arguments or dispute his conclusions, but no one was found to deny that it was an honest and able book and a real contribution to knowledge. Honors came to him after its publication from various directions; in the form of personal acknowledgments from the most distinguished men of science in their letters to him, and in the recognition of learned institutions and societies. The University of St. Andrews gave him the degree of LL. D.; the Royal Society of London elected him a fellow; the New York Academy of Science made him an honorary member; and he was chosen an honorary member of the Bristol Natural Society, of the Psychological Society of Great Britain, of the Glasgow Geological Society, of the Literary and Antiquarian Society of Perth, and of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science. He received also the award of the Murchison Fund in 1876 and of the Badow-Jamieson Fund in 1884. His reply to the proffer of the St. Andrews degree reveals the character of the man. He said, "I hope you will not deem it affectation when I say that I do not consider that I have done anything deserving of such an honor, and that I must look upon it more as a reward to a self-taught man for a long and persevering struggle against difficulties than for any possible results which he has as yet been able to achieve."

Having completed Climate and Time, Dr. Croll desired to abandon the study of climatology and physics in order to engage in the investigation of the philosophy of evolution preparatory to a work on that subject which he contemplated. But his book had become a topic of general discussion in which he was obliged to participate, to the extent at least of seeing that his views were correctly quoted and understood; and consequently he still published articles and wrote much in correspondence on subjects treated in it. During the summer of 1880 he suffered a strain in the region of the heart which almost completely disabled him. Making an external application of aconite, under his physician's advice, to the seat of the pain, he lost the power of speech temporarily, and contracted an impediment in utterance which did not disappear for several years. He finally thought it his duty to resign his position on the Geological Survey, and accordingly retired from the Government service in the spring of 1881. Application was made by his friends for a liberal pension, corresponding with the merits of his work, under the superannuation act; but although the Government dealt at the time with considerable liberality with other persons whose deserts were no greater than his, an allowance of £100 from the Queen's bounty and a superannuation allowance of £75 16s. 8d a year were all that were granted him; and although repeated applications were made on various aspects of the case, and backed by what would appear to be among the most influential names in the kingdom, no more could be got.

Among the first fruits of Dr. Croll's new studies was the article on Evolution by Force Impossible; a New Argument against Materialism, which was published in the British Quarterly Review for January, 1883. It was a discussion of the question of "What determines molecular motion and force?" and an attempt to prove that force alone, motion alone, or any sort of act alone, that is, undetermined to any particular direction, is unable to account for evolution. If his conclusion were correct, it would follow that Mr. Spencer's theory of evolution by force was absolutely impossible. A copy of this article was sent, with a friendly letter, to Mr. Herbert Spencer, who answered, in substance, that he had not undertaken to deal with the ultimate cause, which he had alleged to be unknowable.

All the papers Mr. Croll had written on climatic subjects since the publication of Climate and Time in 1875 were collected, revised down to date, and republished at the end of 1885 under the title of Discussions on Climate and Cosmology. "This completed his work on geology and physics, and he quietly but deliberately closed his reading and writing on those subjects, which had engrossed his attention for a period of twenty-five years, in which he had earned a world-wide reputation, . . . to turn to his favorite theme of metaphysics; and now he resumed the subject of which he had never lost sight since his earliest manhood."

While engaged in his book on Stellar Evolution, and particularly while preparing an article on the Nebular Hypothesis, Dr. Croll wrote to Prof. Alexander Winchell, of Ann Arbor, for a copy of his book on World Life, which he desired to see before publishing. The new book, Stellar Evolution and its Relation to Geological Time, was published in the spring of 1889. It deals mainly with the prenebular condition of matter.

Dr. Croll was now able to dictate—not to write and hardly to read—only half an hour a day. But he had one thing to do before his life work could be completed—and he accomplished it. This was the publication of his Philosophical Basis of Evolution, a book in which he undertook to state the principle of determinism, which he declared to be the foundation stone of evolution; to examine its relation to Spencerianism and Darwinism, and to prove that "force, matter, and motion can never be determined by force, matter, and motion," reaching the conclusion that "the universe, in all its beauty, joy, and fullness of life, can never be explained in terms of matter, motion, and force; so that the whole process of evolution, natural selection included, evidently points to theism." Although it was largely of a metaphysical character, the author claimed that his main conclusions were, without exception, "deduced from facts or from fundamental principles." Dr. Croll substantially exhausted himself in finishing the manuscript of this book, and the proof sheets were revised with the help of the Rev. Dr. Caird. The publisher hurried the printing of the work, in order that the author might see a copy of it before he died. A bound copy of it was put into his hand, and he examined it with evident pleasure, observing: "My work is now done. I leave the world without a regret save one"—concern for the future support of Mrs. Croll. A few days after he had read to him the favorable review of the London Times. Two days before he died, though very weak and exhausted, he was mentally "as clear and alert as in his best days," and eager to discuss with a friend some of Mr. Herbert Spencer's views.

Dr. Croll was a man of a deeply religious nature, of the strictest orthodox belief, and of a religion the earnestness and intensity of which impressed his neighbors. His correspondence abounds in expressions marking this as one of the most essential elements of his character. His piety seems to have deepened as he grew older, and was never clearer or more emphatic than in his closing days.