Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/June 1900/Correspondence

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Whether or not great men are favored by an increase of years above those allotted to more ordinary mortals has long been a question of interest, and has acquired a special importance in connection with the study of the natural history of men of genius, and the discussions of the possible relation of greatness to degeneracy and to insanity. Questions of this type can only be decided on the basis of extensive and carefully collected data, which unfortunately it is difficult and at times impossible to collect or to find. It is therefore natural that such evidence as seems to exist and to carry with it some degree of logical force should be brought forward in proof of a claim which on general principles is both pleasing and plausible. Of this type is the problem of the relation between longevity and greatness, and of this type is the evidence now and then brought forward to substantiate the belief that great men are, as regards longevity, an unusually favored class.

The most recent presentation of the topic (by Mr. Thayer in the Forum, February, 1900) collects a list of some five hundred prominent men and women of the nineteenth century and finds that these persons lived on an average sixty-eight years and eight months; that is, nearly thirty years longer than the population as a whole. And on the basis of this conclusion the writer combats the notion that nineteenth-century men of genius or of eminence exhibit signs of degeneracy, because longevity and the ability to do sustained work for a large number of years is in itself a sign of unusual vitality and vigor. As these conclusions are apt to be extensively quoted, and as they seem to me founded upon a serious fallacy, I shall attempt to present as simply as possible the nature of the desired evidence which alone could prove that great men are longer lived than others, and to show that the evidence thus far presented is inadequate to support the conclusion which has been drawn. Mr. Thayer is not the first one to present the average age at death of a number of eminent-persons as evidence of unusual longevity. In an article which was reprinted in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1884, the average age at death of 1,741 astronomers was given, and found to be sixty-four years and three months; and on the basis of this fact the author claimed that astronomers enjoyed unusual longevity. In a brief contribution published in Science, October 1, 1886 (and republished in Nature, November 4, 1886), I called attention to the fallacy inherent in such conclusions, and also presented some new contributions to the question of the longevity of great men. The materials of that article I shall utilize in the present discussion.

To reach the kernel of the matter at once, the reader must note that the fallacy consists in neglecting to consider that in dealing with astronomers or with great men, or with persons of eminence of the nineteenth century, one is dealing with a group which is already carefully selected, and the selection of which inevitably involves the attainment of a certain age. The result is that we are not dealing with average persons as regards longevity, but with persons who in the very nature of things have already reached a certain period of maturity. No one can become a poet, or a novelist, or a painter. or a philosopher, or a commander or a statesman unless he lives at least a sufficient number of years to acquire the development of an adult, and to have the opportunity of developing his abilities and distinguishing himself. If great men were great from their infancy, and if we had the means of as certaining this fact, then, and only then, would the method used be correct.

It is ordinarily stated that the average duration of life is somewhere between thirty-three and forty years, and Mr. Thayer considers that in the present century it has moved forward towards the latter figure. What this means is that if we were to keep a record of the age at death of all Americans who are to be born within the first ten years of the coming century, we should find that their average age at death would be some thirty odd years. But this number can by no means be used as a standard with which to compare the average age at death of men of distinction, or indeed of any other class of men selected according to a standard which involves on their part the attainment of mature years. If we were investigating the longevity of twins, or of persons with supernumerary toes, or indeed of persons possessing any quality which one could detect in new-born infants, and if we could determine the average life-period of this class of persons and find that it markedly exceeded the average of the entire community, we should be entitled to conclude that twins, or persons who have supernumerary toes, are blessed with a greater longevity than the average man. But so long as men who are to acquire distinction bear no traces upon them of this power until they exhibit their powers and actually gain distinction, it is obvious that we are concerned with their longevity only from that moment when they have entered, or have become promising candidates for that class of selected individuals whose longevity we are investigating. Proceeding on this basis, I tried to determine the age at which, on the average, men of genius had accomplished a work sufficient to entitle them to be so denominated. This investigation was instigated by Mr. C. S. Peirce, then in charge of courses in logic at the Johns Hopkins University. Under his leadership a small company, of whom I was one, proposed to study certain traits of great men, and for this purpose we tried to select the three hundred greatest' men of all times. The work was never carried on to completion, so that the final selection of the names, and particularly their use in the present connection, must rest on my sole responsibility. I mention these facts mainly to indicate the general representative character of the list which I used. I take from my previously published article the following essential facts: Omitting all doubtful names, about two hundred and fifty names remain, presenting a list which most persons would agree to be fairly representative of the greatest men of all times. Of these again I selected at random those about whom it was easiest to fix the age at which they had done work which would entitle them to a place on this list, or work which almost inevitably led to such distinction. It is a date about midway between the first important work and the greatest work. The average of over sixty such ages is thirty-seven years; which means that, on the average, a man must be thirty-seven years old in order to be a candidate for a place on this list. The real question, then, is, How does the longevity of this select class of thirty-seven-year-old men compare with that of more ordinary individuals? The answer is given by the expectation of life at thirty-seven years, which is twenty-nine years, making the average age at death sixty-six years. And this is precisely the age at death of these sixty great men; showing that, as a class (for these sixty may be considered a fair sample) great men are not distinguished by longevity from other men."

It will thus be seen that my own conclusion is entirely opposed to that I of Mr. Thayer. But this opposition rests not upon a difference of data, but upon a difference of logic. To my mind the enumeration of ages at death of any number of great men cannot prove unusual longevity unless we take into consideration and can determine the number of years which, on the average, a person must have lived in order to become a candidate for the class under consideration. The comparison with the average age (that is, the period of about thirty-five or more years) is not only false; it is essentially absurd; for it would become possible only if we had among poets, and painters, and musicians, and historians, and scientists, and generals a goodly number who succumbed to the diseases of early infancy, or to some of the ills that juvenile flesh is heir to.

It may be well to illustrate at this point just what conclusions may be drawn from the data which Mr. Thayer and other writers have presented. The first conclusion is that it takes a considerable length of time to become eminent—on the whole a very natural and comprehensible statement. And with regard to the astronomers previously mentioned it is even possible to go farther; for these astronomers have been divided into four degrees of eminence, and it is found that astronomers of the first rank are longer-lived than those of the second, and these in turn are longer-lived than those of the third class, and these in turn are longer-lived than those of the fourth class. Therefore, the author concludes, the greatest astronomers have been most favored with length of years, and adds, as practical advice, "Be an astronomer and live long." Now, of course, the true conclusion is that it takes longer to accomplish work which will entitle one to pre-eminence amongst astronomers than to do work which will only achieve moderate distinction. And the practical conclusion would read, "Live long enough to become great as an astronomer and you will probably, with the ordinary expectation of life, have a good chance of completing your three score and ten." In the same way Mr. Thayer's list of nineteenth-century celebrities might fairly be said to suggest the conclusion that in the present century one must already have labored for a goodly number of years before one's name would be selected by a student of the longevity of great men. So far, then, these facts have an interesting interpretation.

It may also be worth while to note that if all the men whose longevity is to be compared are of a comparable class (that is, comparable with regard to the attainment of years which they assume), then the longevity of different groups of celebrities may be compared with one another. Thus it is possible to compare the longevity of musicians with that of scientists (of about equal eminence), and according to Mr. Thayer*s lists the scientists lived ten years longer than the musicians. The same conclusion appears in my own study, in which the scientists appear amongst the longest-lived, and the musicians amongst the shortest-lived men of genius. This conclusion must not be pressed too far, but in a general way it certainly is a bit of evidence worthy of consideration as proving that distinguished scientists live longer than distinguished musicians. It would be wrong to draw rigid conclusions from comparisons of small groups, and therefore it is better to contrast the average age at death of the various men studied in as large and as general classes as possible; e. g., as men of thought, men of feeling and men of action. All of the studies with which I am acquainted point to the conclusion that men of thought live longer than those who achieve distinction through unusual qualities of their emotional natures.

We may now approach the question, whether or not it is possible to prove that the men of distinction of the nineteenth century are longer-lived or shorter-lived than their every-day contemporaries. It would be possible to do this had we statistics of the age at death of the various professions; and again, had we these deaths classed according to the distinction which the individuals attained. In addition to this it would be necessary to ascertain (with some rough approximation, as I have attempted to do with regard to the greatest men of all times) the age at which they had accomplished sufficient work to entitle them to be enrolled in their special class. To take concrete instances, let us suppose that we wish to investigate the longevity of American lawyers. Now to be a lawyer in name only requires the candidate to have lived twenty-one years, and the average number of years which the average person of twenty-one years of age will continue to live is about forty; so that the mere fact that a man is a lawyer would bring his average age at death up to sixty-one years. I find in Mulhall's Dictionary of Statistics the statement made that the lawyers of Frankfurt die at the average age of fifty-four years, while merchants live to be fifty-seven years old. I know nothing about the authority of these figures, and am using them for illustration only. Assuming all the data to be correct (and twenty-one seems not too high an age for this purpose), this would seem to suggest that the ordinary lawyer of Frankfurt is not favored with abundance of years. In passing, it is interesting to note that these Frankfurt statistics of lawyers and merchants and other classes show a uniformly lower age at death than those of the more eminent representatives of their professions. This is just what we should expect; for to be included in the one group one must have lived only long enough to prepare and establish one's self as a lawyer or as a merchant; while for the other group one must in addition have had opportunity to cultivate one's ability to a riper fruitage, and in a keen, and often long competition gain public recognition. It thus follows that the average longevity of the most distinguished lawyers will be greater than that of ordinary lawyers, because it takes longer to enter the more select class. But this argument, like many others, should not be pressed too far; innate ability may accomplish in a brief period what for more moderate powers is the work of many years. Nonetheless, in the study of comparative longevity it is the average that is significant; and it is the fluctuation of the average that we aim to discover. Thus, in the investigation of the longevity of an unwholesome occupation, such as would be accepted by a life insurance company only at special rates, we should expect to find the age at death of such individuals less than that of other classes involving an equal period of apprenticeship; but, of course, not less than that of the 'population as a whole.' And, to continue with the main argument, if we wish to investigate the longevity of shoemakers we should again have to decide upon some age at which on the average a person has probably already acquired the dexterity requisite to be a shoemaker. Even if we fix this so low as ten years, at which time the expectation of life is forty-eight years, it would bring the average age at death of shoemakers to fifty-eight years. It has thus become extremely obvious that if we compared these ages at death with the average life-period it would be just as easy to prove that lawyers and shoemakers and merchants enjoy exceptional longevity, as to prove that great men do. The average longevity is low because of the very large infant mortality, which enters into the composition of this average. When once the first ten years of life are passed the further expectation of life increases quite slowly. Roughly speaking, for every ten years between ten and fifty years the added expectation of life is but three years for each decade. We therefore see that in the very nature of things no one class of adults can possibly live as much as thirty years longer than 'the population as a whole.' The differences with which we are dealing are differences of a finer order, of a small number of years, and being slight differences, must be substantiated by a relatively large number of cases; the cases, moreover, must be collected in a wholly unobjectionable manner; that is, in a manner in which the principle of selection bears no influence upon the longevity. To my knowledge adequate statistics which exhibit the relative longevity of different classes do not exist, and they certainly do not exist with regard to great men. We may therefore conclude that the facts which have thus far been collected are not opposed to the conclusion that great men enjoy favorable longevity, but they certainly have not established or contributed to the establishment of this fact. While it is not impossible to collect material which may serve as corroborative evidence of the longevity of great men, it seems probable that we must be content with evidence of a far inferior character.

Although I regard Mr. Thayer's argument concerning longevity as entirely fallacious, I find myself in sympathy with his main contention. It seems to me that much of the evidence which has been brought forward to assimilate greatness with degeneracy is of questionable value and that the logical force of such evidence has been very much overrated. That genius and insanity are related is probably capable not of demonstration, but of a moderate degree of substantiation; but this evidence must be both judiciously collected and judiciously interpreted. It cannot be presented in a popular form without subjecting it to the danger of serious and harmful misrepresentation. In the same way the question of degeneracy and its bearing upon modern life has been frequently misstated, so that statements of protests such as Mr. Thayer offers are both opportune and likely to have a wholesome effect. But the present concern is only with the relation of longevity to greatness as an indication of the absence of degeneracy. That long life is inconsistent with a general degeneracy may be admitted; but that great men exhibit this quality to any unusual degree has certainly not been proven.

Joseph Jastrow.
University of Wisconsin.


School teachers and educational reformers undoubtedly take themselves and their ideas too seriously. Accordingly one rejoices to see an eminent man put his own affairs aside for a moment and discuss educational theories in a humorous vein. Even ridicule should be welcomed if it can relieve the sombre earnestness of the educational platform and press. Professor Münsterberg, in the Atlantic Monthly for May, has done pedagogy this service by subjecting the elective system and professional training for high-school teachers to considerable good-natured ridicule. His article is so readable that one is led to suppose that it was written to be read, not to be believed. Moreover, Professor Münsterberg's eminence as a psychologist should not be taken as a sign that he thinks he knows aught of education. He has himself warned us against the illusion that psychology can derive truth about teaching, or that the psychologist can inform the teacher or anything of value. It may be that the wholesome matters of fact, as well as the brilliant imaginative criticism of this article are only play. The very strenuousness of the teacher's nature, however, will probably lead him to try to extract some new gospel of reform from Professor Münsterberg's lightest pleasantry; consequently it seems wise to consider the article as a serious argument and provide a possible antidote for it.

Professor Münsterberg contends that it is unwise to give high-school teachers special professional education apart from knowledge of the subjects which they are to teach; that it is folly to replace a prescribed course of study by an elective system; that the salvation of our schools depends upon the scholarship of the teachers and the attitude of parents. As the reformers agree heartily with this last claim (unless it is made an exclusive aim), and as its meaning is so vague that almost anything can be urged as a corrolary to it, it may be dismissed. The first two contentions are about concrete matters of educational practice which need to be thought over. If professional preparation is a waste of time, there is every reason why we should omit it; if a prescribed course of study is better for the boys and girls, we can conscientiously lessen the expense and labor of administration in many schools.

The argument on the first point is, briefly, that Professor Münsterberg's teachers were good teachers and that they had no notion of even the vocabulary of educational theories. But obviously that may not have been the secret of their success. A majority of the high-school teachers in New England have had no professional training, yet no one has observed that they are superior to those of their class who have. The argument is really a bare assertion of an unverified guess. It is the hap-hazard opinion of an eminent psychologist who perchance is trying to furnish evidence of his previous theory that psychology does not give one knowledge about teaching. It is worth while to note here a certain interesting aspect of human nature. Training in one sphere of intellectual activity need not bring ability in other spheres. The habit and power of observation or reasoning acquired in connection with chemistry need not make a man a good observer or reasoner in politics or philology.-So we should not be surprised that a man eminent for his scientific habits as a psychologist should, on a question in another field, offer imaginative hypotheses without an attempt to verify them, or to collect pertinent evidence or to eliminate factors outside those he discusses. We may be allowed to feel sorry. If a scientist wishes to really clear up the question of the value of professional training, why does he not find representatives of the classes, 'teachers with professional training' and 'teachers their equals in other respects, who have replaced the effort after professional training by equal effort after further scholarship,' and compare the work of the two classes? If other factors enter to disturb such an investigation, why not carefully look at the facts to ascertain their influence? Until he does so his dicta will stand as mere opinions. It would be a blessing if scientific men would use the weight of their reputations, not to bolster up their after-dinner opinions about things in general, but to teach the public scientific methods of studying them.

Apart from the danger of offering pedagogy an unproved opinion as a fact, it seems poor economy to leave a question in such shape that only the opinion of another eminent man on the opposite side is required to destroy the result you have attained. Precisely this has occurred in the case of Professor Münsterberg's contributions to educational discussion two years ago. Another eminent man, Professor Dewey, has recently squarely denied what Professor Münsterberg affirmed. It only remains for some equally eminent German professor to rise and declare that his teachers were bad and that they had no professional training, or that his teachers were good and had it, and Professor Münsterberg's effect is neutralized.

Professor Münsterberg's argument against the elective system is more complex. He regards the elective system as partly a concession to the obvious need of fitting young people earlier for their occupations in life and partly an attempt to use the likes and dislikes of children as a guide to what is good for them. This is a very narrow view. The elective system has been in part the result of the progress of science and the consequent conviction that the scientific study of things and human affairs should be a part of one's education. The elective system furnished a compromise by which such studies found a place in the college and school curricula. If the student is left to choose among them, instead of having a new prescribed course made out on the basis of modern views of life's needs, it is partly because they are more easily introduced and retained as electives and partly because there is no agreement as to which studies will be the best to prescribe.

The idea that reformers desire to have a course containing studies good for children and studies not good for them and to trust the scholars' likes and dislikes to guide them to the former, is absurd. Whether they are right in assuming that what is best for one boy may not be best for another, that his teachers and parents can help him to pick out a course of study better for him than any inflexible course prescribed for all can be, is a question of importance, but one which Professor Münsterberg does not try to answer. Instead, he tells us about his gratitude to his parents and teachers for never letting him neglect his steady toil at prescribed Greek for the pursuits which he himself elected out of school, such as electrical engineering, botany, novel-writing, reading Arabic, writing books on the prehistoric anthropology of West Prussia, etc., etc. Now, this confession about his early life absolves us from paying any further attention to his experience as a lesson to our high-school youths. The youth Münsterberg and the average high-school student do not belong in the same class. For he was evidently an eminent boy as he is an eminent man. We must admit, however, that the rigorous discipline afforded by the prescribed Latin and Greek is evidenced in the present stern moral sense of the professor, who is willing to abandon his chosen and favorite pursuit, laboratory experimentation, and at the call of duty give himself to the hated but necessary tasks of writing philosophical disquisitions, political discussions and articles on school reform.