Popular Science Monthly/Volume 72/February 1908/Infant Industries

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By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL


THE university is, or ought to be, a nursery for young ideas as well as for young people. To an aged person like myself, there is something indescribably fascinating about a company of boys and girls. Who knows what they may do, what they may become? Do I not perhaps address myself to a Darwin, a Newton, or a Tennyson? Classes have grown up and gone away: not all their members have fulfilled our expectations; but yet, the harvest has been good—and who knows, who can tell, what is inherent in these particular green sprouts? It is the same with ideas as with people. Thoughts are born, mature, live their lives, struggle with one another, and finally reach their true position, if all is well. Alas! that is a large qualification, in either case. All may not be well; so much depends upon a favorable environment and that, of course, is what we are all trying to create.

There is one important difference between our young people and our young ideas. The former come to us at an age which—well, which seems to them quite grown up. The latter are often, we hope, born upon the premises, and raised by hand with tender care during their helpless infancy. Like other infants, they must not be forgotten, even for a little while, and they are subject to all sorts of infantile disorders. Unlike human infants, they have the unpleasant habit of destroying one another, and we, their nurses, are so heartless as to actually encourage this internecine conflict. Nevertheless, we prize them highly, and actively resent the sneers of passers by, who either have none of their own, or only horrid little brats we would not condescend to look at.

When very tender, they must often be kept at home. I used to be a student at a medical school in London, where we had a very original demonstrator of comparative anatomy. The results of our labors were tested in examinations held, not by the teachers, but by quite other and more aged professors. So our mentor used to say: "You see, gentlemen, this is so and so, but I only found this out the other day, and you must on no account tell it to the examiners, or they will give you zero." You will appreciate the immense advantage of being examined by your own professor, all of whose heresies can be produced and accepted as current coin—perhaps even a little above par. Oliver Wendell Holmes justly remarked that you can not lift a stone without creating a panic among some of the centipedes and other crawling things which enjoyed the darkness it provided. Infant industries in the intellectual field are apt to be destructive of more things than toys, and so they are justly feared by the powers that be. There is this curiously complicated situation, that whereas intellectual progress is not merely advantageous to a nation, but is in this day of the world essential, it is of positive disadvantage to that numerous company to whom change means injury or destruction. This, however, is exactly what may be said of infants of flesh-and-blood: they are costly, troublesome, often noisy and ugly, and quite unable to do anything useful to compensate for all the injury and expense they involve. In the latter respect, they are much worse than their psychological parallels, for these are usually capable of rendering some service at a very early day. Why, then, do people ever raise children at all? Simply because they have learned to love them; this sentimental attitude has undoubtedly saved the race from extinction, and may be relied upon to do so for some time to come.

I see nothing for it, but the cultivation of a like feeling toward our beloved progeny of the mind. It should be one of the chief aims of university training, it seems to me, to cultivate an appreciation of progress, and an ardent feeling—yes, a sentimental affecting for these babes of the intellect. We should be not merely willing, but happy, to struggle hard to give them birth, to watch them daily, and if need be walk the floor with them at night. Many a man has shown just this devotion, has remained through the small hours with his eye glued to the microscope, or has refused to be comforted while the threads of his argument were still in a tangle. To most, I fear, all this must seem fanciful. I am not so quixotic as to hope that the beginnings of change will ever be widely understood. Nobody supposes that the parents of Shakespear knew the extraordinary value of the little wailing thing they had; nor it is possible for the originators of lines of thought to see where they will lead—much less the general public. Not only are we unable to rightly value our infants, but we have an uncomfortable feeling that some of them will do us no credit—or if we have not that feeling, some of our friends entertain it on our behalf. The truth is, we can not tell the good from the bad at a very early age, and the experience of mankind indicates that a charitable attitude is the wisest. Some of the best thoughts ever born into this world have appeared nonsense to the best friends of their parents.

I may be permitted to cite some instances in which ideas, cherished for the mere love of them, have done unexpected things in their mature years. Somewhat more than forty years ago one Gregor Mendel, an Austrian priest, was raising garden peas. Instead of eating them, as you and I would have done, he observed and recorded the facts of inheritance they served to illustrate. Among other things, he discovered that in the case of pairs of opposing characters possessed by the parents of any given generation, some would be inherited in such a manner that half of the offspring, while apparently possessing only the character A, would in reality have also the other one, B, in their make-up—not visible at all, but ready to appear in another generation. That is to say, we may be indeed of the Jekyll-Hyde type, only the Jekyll alone appears in us, the Hyde in some of our children or vice versa. Without going into particulars, you can easily see that if, under such circumstances, the visible or dominant character is discriminated against by selection, the race possessing that character disappears; but as Dr. Shull has recently remarked, discrimination against the recessive or hidden character is ordinarily impossible, since in two thirds of the cases it is not visible at all, but is stored away in the germ cells to appear only in the next generation. The various important economic results flowing from the Mendelian researches—which were overlooked by naturalists for forty years, have been set forth in various places, but I may call attention to the possibility that certain forms of both virtue and vice, equally discriminated against by our modern civilization, are Mendelian recessives, and that is why they continue to appear in spite of everything. We stone the prophets, but it has not occurred to us to stone also the brothers and sisters of the prophets.

A few days ago, Dr. J. C. Arthur, of Purdue University, our foremost student of plant rusts, was here in Boulder. He told me something about his researches on the parasitic fungi of the different species of sunflower. It seems that certain sunflowers, which we will call A, have rusts which appear to grow exclusively upon them; while others, which we term C, are similarly afflicted. European mycologists had found that these parasites could not be transferred from A to C, or vice versa, and so had assumed that they were different species of fungi. But Dr. Arthur made the remarkable discovery that if the rust from A was sown on the common sunflower, which we will now term B, it would grow there, and would produce spores which would grow quite successfully on C. The process could also be reversed, causing the rust of C to grow on A, after a sojurn upon the intermediate B. It is greatly to the honor of the authorities of the Indiana Experiment Station, that they have—as I believe—supported Dr. Arthur in this work of his, and appreciated its value. In some places known to me, it would be quite otherwise, and I do not doubt that some of you are wondering whether, after all, this is a mere botanical curiosity.

However, putting aside the extraordinary scientific interest of such discoveries, and their bearing, ultimately, on the whole fabric of human thoughts; you will see readily enough that if a rust fungus can be transferred to a previously immune host through an intermediate form the planting of such a form in a certain region might be the cause of the ruin of a whole crop of wheat, oats, barley, or what not. Agriculturists have long sought, and thanks more especially to the knowledge derived from Mendel's researches, are learning how to isolate rust-proof types of cereals. In this way the pest may be overcome, but the vantage gained may again be lost in ways which would never be suspected, and could not be prevented, but for Dr. Arthur's illuminating researches.

Mr. W. L. Tower, of the University of Chicago, has been for many years conducting breeding experiments among beetles, choosing for that purpose the Colorado potato beetle and its immediate allies. Only the first part of his results has been published, but it is enough to show that he has found out some exceedingly interesting and important things and thrown new light on other matters not entirely new. For example, in breeding the beetles, he found that through a number of generations, the selection of extreme individuals (say dark, or light) for breeding did not sensibly modify the race. But by a process of very elaborate and careful breeding from isolated beetles, he discovered that sometimes a character was inherited fully, sometimes not to any appreciable degree, that is to say, it was possible to have two parents, AA and AB, looking exactly alike, but the first having, the second lacking, the property of producing offspring all closely similar to itself. The importance of such facts from an economic standpoint are hardly to be overestimated. Through such researches as those of Tower and Mendel, we are coming to understand why it is so difficult to improve a race by merely choosing those individuals which superficially appear to be of a desirable kind. It is necessary to isolate them, and test their properties through the character of their offspring, in order to separate pure races.

I have chosen only a few striking cases, and have said nothing about the infant ideas of our own vicinity. At some future time it may seem worth while to get up a local baby-show; the more so because, I regret to say, many of the infants known to me are lacking nurses, and I do not know of any hospitable door steps on which to leave them.

Ideas are not merely born once, but they suffer new births in the minds of many persons. In truth, they are not precisely repeated, but in each reincarnation are a little modified or augmented, so that the thought of every person about a given subject has its own individuality. This, however, presupposes that the child is alive, and not still-born. If it has any vitality, it will call attention to that fact by metaphorical kicks and screams, quite as much as any ordinary infant. In all of this, the analogy with living people is again complete, for we ourselves are not entirely new, but merely repeat, with all-important modifications—the forms of our ancestors. The old text-book must not be discarded. It is full of information—and information is the food upon which ideas subsist. Many a good child of the intellect has been starved or warped because the fact-food supplied to it was deficient or bad. Adulterated fact is as bad as adulterated butter, sugar or lard; we can not have it chemically pure, I suppose, but woe to him who intentionally mixes wrong ingredients. The scientific men is devoted to truth; he is a pure-food man on the intellectual plane, and those who distort the truth for the purpose of warping the public ideas, are to him the worst of living creatures.

However, just as food, pure or impure, is of no use unless it is consumed, so information unapplied to the nourishment of thought is thrown away. I fear there is too much such waste among us, for the reason that we have not yet learned to think. The other day I passed two very little children, a boy and a girl, on their way to the University Hill School. The boy said to the girl, with the air of one communicating a most interesting fact, "Do you know, t, h, e, spells the"! Here was an example of the true spirit of science, the pleasure in the apperception of a new thing in its relation to something else. I must confess that the plane of this conversation was higher than that I usually overhear on the university campus.

  1. Chapel address to the students of the University of Colorado, April 29, 1907.