Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/Editor's Table
THE NATION ON "GERMAN DARWINISM:"
SOME months ago a correspondent asked the Nation what were the best books to read on the theory of evolution. It replied, and seized the occasion to draw a contrast unfavorable to Herbert Spencer, whose books on that subject, it took pains to say, it did not recommend. In a more recent review of two books under the title of "German Darwinism," the same writer came forward and reaffirmed the positions of the former article, amplified the discussion, and continued to refer to Mr. Spencer in terms of contemptuous disparagement. More recently, in a eulogistic sketch of the character of the late Chauncey Wright, of Cambridge, the Nation recognizes him as the "great mind" of the town, and informs us that he was the author of the article on "German Darwinism." This was no news to many. A few years ago it was quietly given out from Cambridge that the pretensions of Mr. Spencer were to be once for all disposed of by Chauncey Wright, who would do the work in the North American Review. The onslaught was made, but, from divers indications, both at home and abroad, it seems to have failed of its intended effect. But Mr. Wright appears to have regarded it as his permanent function to put down this philosopher, and accordingly the last literary act of his life was another attempt to demolish him. It looks almost like a Cambridge fashion for its great men to die in their antipathies. The article on "German Darwinism," from its misleading character and its appearance in the Nation, was entitled to an answer; but this is still more necessary, now that its authorship is announced in connection
with very high claims put forth for the author. It is still further provocative of reply, as, upon careful perusal, it will be found to throw very little light indeed upon "German Darwinism;" that topic being used mainly as a convenient means of reviving and repointing the writer's old charges against Spencer. We have no desire to pursue this topic; but, as long as such charges are conspicuously and authoritatively made, they must be answered.
Referring first to the most trivial, it is insinuated that the system of Mr. Spencer has a footing with "English-thinking readers" only; while in fact various of his works are translated into Italian, German, Hungarian, Dutch, Russian, and French, and nearly all of them into the latter languages. Several of the translations, moreover, have been made by eminent philosophical scholars, and it is fairly to be presumed that their continued reproduction in foreign countries is due to a demand for them.
In noticing Schmidt's German work on "Darwinism and Descent," the writer makes a joint against Mr. Spencer by stating that he is nowhere named in it. Gegenbaur had done the same thing in his great work on "Comparative Anatomy," and he was reproached by Prof. Rolleston in the Academy for giving no account of Spencer's "Biology," which made his work defective. There are various reasons why the Germans have been slow to recognize Mr. Spencer's ideas. They are embodied in a "system of philosophy," and by philosophy the Germans understand only speculations like those of Kant, Hegel, and Schelling. They have no conception of a philosophy organized out of science, and their biologists do not dream of finding the development of species scientifically dealt with in a philosophical system. Understanding philosophy as the Germans do, and being wedded to their a priori system, they have habitually sneered at "English philosophy," and therefore pay little attention to its new books. Again, they are greatly given to titles of all orders, political, social, scientific. Every man is jealous of his distinctions—they glory in their "jewels five words long," as they have been called. Hence they think nothing of a man without scientific titles, and it is beyond their imagination that any one should refuse them. Mr. Spencer was, therefore, without due passports to German consideration. But against the fact that Schmidt has ignored him, we may put the fact that the translation of "First Principles" into German was made at the instigation of Darwin's chief German disciple, Haeckel, and was made by his assistant, Dr. Vetter.
Mr. Darwin is made out to be untheological by an exquisite bit of logic. It is true that he appeals to supernaturalism for the starting-point of his doctrine, and gives exactly the same account of it that theology has always offered, speaking of "life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms, or into one." But Mr. Darwin's science is saved by the charitable imputation that he used these words in a sort of Pickwickian or poetical sense, and was willing to conciliate the theologians by "a slight difference of style" in referring to the origin of life. But when to an extensive series of expository works, treating of the course of Nature by rigorous scientific method, Mr. Spencer prefixes an essay of a hundred and odd pages, to clear away religious difficulties and protect himself from the imputation of materialism, which was sure to be made against his scientific labors, there is neither kindly feeling to see the propriety of such a course, nor even a sense of justice to recognize the fact; but the whole system is declared to be theological in origin and character, because, forsooth, the author put theology aside at the outset of his undertaking.
We here touch upon the main source of misunderstanding of Mr. Spencer's system. The preliminary part which treats of religion is necessarily metaphysical. But Mr. Spencer does not regard religion as an illusion, nor metaphysics as necessarily futile. He holds that the order of the universe is not without its cause, although the nature of that cause is a mystery past finding out, and from the very nature of intelligence must forever transcend the human understanding. The infinite source of things is usually called God, and there are many who hold that man can have a knowledge of God as of other things; Mr. Spencer declines to use the current term; and, to mark his own sense of humility toward that infinite cause or power of which all phenomena are manifestations, he prefers employing the term The Unknowable. What is represented by it is not a negation or a nothing, but the most exalted object of religious feeling, though beyond the grasp and analysis of intellect. Having defined his ground in this preliminary dissertation, and shown that science deals with the phenomenal, while religion relates to that which transcends the phenomenal, so that there can be no radical or fundamental conflict between them, he then proceeds to his great work of organizing the highest and most certain knowledge attainable of the phenomenal universe into a system of philosophy. That system must be judged intrinsically, or on its own merits, as a coherent and consistent body of demonstrable and verifiable truth; yet his critics, from unscrupulous motives—resenting his assumption in undertaking so immense a task, or from incapacity—getting swamped among the factors of a great discussion, have a habit of representing him as basing his philosophical system on metaphysical speculations regarding the Unknowable, and as the author of an unknowable philosophy. The article on "German Darwinism" rings many changes on this gross misrepresentation.
The writer says that evolution is regarded by Darwin "as a theorem of natural history," while Mr. Spencer treats of evolution "as a philosophical thesis deductively, and as a part of a system of metaphysics;" and furthermore, "a system like Mr. Spencer's is obliged to stand on such positions," namely, "undemonstrated beliefs." Again, he says, "Evolution is, with Mr. Spencer, not a theorem of inductive science, but a necessary truth deduced from axioms." These statements—is it not almost needless to say it?—are altogether groundless. Mr. Spencer's system never could have taken the hold of the cultivated scientific mind of half a dozen nations in the present age, which it confessedly has, if the above characterization of it were true. Speaking of an important research of Mr. Spencer, the President of the Royal Society of London, when addressing the British Association, said: "I need dwell no further on it here than to quote it as an example of what may be done by an acute observer and experimentalist, versed in physics and chemistry, but above all thoroughly instructed in scientific methods." Testimony like this, that Mr. Spencer, whatever may be his shortcomings, is a master of scientific methods, might be accumulated to any extent. Is it probable or conceivable that a man so thoroughly equipped for their use should repudiate the sound and solid methods of science, and fly off into baseless speculation when dealing with the most comprehensive and important scientific problem of our time? The thing is absurd unless it is proved, and the author of "German Darwinism" stops with mere dogmatic assertion.
We aver, on the other hand, that the scope of Mr. Spencer's great argument for evolution is only equaled by the fidelity and completeness of his adherence throughout to the established canons of scientific inquiry, and his reputation as a master of true logical method is beyond doubt mainly due to his practical application of it in the construction of his system. In "First Principles" the law of evolution is placed upon the most comprehensive inductive basis; and, if we go back to the earlier enunciation of his views, we find the law propounded with no reference whatever to metaphysical speculations. The original form of the conception and the order of its development are seen in the essay on "Progress, its Law and Cause." There is here not a word of metaphysics, not a word implying the endeavor to derive the phenomena from the persistence of force, not a shadow of foundation for the alleged theologico-metaphysical origin of the doctrine. The first part of the essay is devoted entirely to establishing the induction, from all orders of phenomena, that every thing progresses in heterogeneity; and then, the induction having been established as universal, the second part of the essay is an inquiry into the dynamical law which determines it in all cases. This second part sets out thus: "And now from this uniformity of procedure may we not infer some fundamental necessity whence it results? May we not rationally seek for some all-pervading process of things? Does not the universality of the law imply a universal cause?" And then the course of the argument is, first, to show that the cause alleged, the multiplication of effects, affords a deductive interpretation of the induction previously established. Are we to be told that this is an illegitimate scientific procedure?
The author of "German Darwinism" pronounces Spencer unscientific and unbaconian, because he employs the deductive or a priori method. But is not that the method in which science finds its completion? Did it weaken the induction made by Mr. Spencer, to show that the facts are deducible from a general law in the redistributions of matter and motion? Was the induction made by Kepler respecting the laws of planetary motion weakened when Newton proved those laws to be deducible from the law of gravitation? If so, then truths are scientific only so long as they remain empirical generalizations, and become unscientific when they are reduced to the form of rational generalizations. In pursuance of this view we may say that, so long as the geometrical truth, that the square of the hypothenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the squares of the other two sides, is recognized as experimentally true, it constitutes a part of real science, but that it becomes metaphysical and worthless when it is shown to follow inevitably from necessary axioms and postulates. The strictures of the author of "German Darwinism," leveled at Spencer as an a priori thinker, thus spend their force against completeness of scientific method. The reproach cast upon him could have had no possible ground, if in elucidating the law of evolution Mr. Spencer had left it in the form of a generalization based upon all orders of phenomena—astronomical, geological, biological, psychological, and sociological—that is, if he had left the work half done. But when the law is explained, or when the universal course of transformation is shown to result from certain universal laws of physical action—laws which are themselves inductively established before they are deductively applied—then Mr. Spencer is to be discredited as a mere speculating metaphysician. It is now admitted as a principle—a universal principle—that force can neither come out of nothing nor disappear into nothing. It is "conserved," say some physicists; it "persists," says Mr. Spencer, and its persistence is an ultimate truth. The laws of physical action which result in evolution, undeniable as they severally are, are shown by Mr. Spencer to be all corollaries from this ultimate truth. They are established by induction, they are explained and verified by proving that they are consequences of a universal principle; therefore Mr. Spencer is metaphysical and unscientific.
The Nation declares that "there is nothing in Spencer's writing relating to what is really honored by men of science (namely, the scientific explanation of the origin of species) that is not to be credited either to Lamarck or Darwin." Lamarck is to be credited with the sagacious perception, and the courageous avowal, in opposition to Cuvier and the whole science of his time, of the doctrine of the variability of species, and the thinness of the partition between species and varieties. He saw many facts that led him to deny the Cuverian dogma of the fixity of species, and he had a strong conviction that their variation was in some way connected with surrounding conditions. That is, Lamarck has the great merit of having perceived the nature of the biological problem that was yet to be solved, but he can hardly be said to have entered upon its solution, Mr. Darwin is to be credited with the sagacious working out of one of the conditions of that problem, namely, the influence of natural selection in giving rise to the diversities of species. But the achievements of both Lamarck and Darwin only bring us to the threshold of the great general question of which they form a part. If their positions are held to be valid, they simply open the door to a new and immense scientific investigation which has for its object to determine the conditions, processes, and causes of evolution. That natural selection is not evolution, but only one of its elements, and that Mr. Darwin has never engaged in the investigation of evolution in its general principles as Science is bound to consider it, we have shown again and again in these pages. Mr. Spencer, therefore, undertook no illegitimate or superfluous task in devoting many years to evolutionary researches. If the work of Darwin and other biologists was not futile, the larger inquiry was imminent and lay straight in the path of progressive science. Mr. Spencer undertook it, and the language of the Nation implies that in his contributions to it there is nothing that is really honored by men of science. To this dictum we give a flat contradiction, and, if space allowed, we could weary our readers with the copious evidence that eminent men of science honor the work of Spencer by accepting his results as guides to their own investigations. Let one illustration suffice: Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the independent discoverers of the principle of natural selection, in his address as President of the Anthropological Society of London, in 1872, referred to a view propounded by Mr. Spencer on biological evolution as "one of the most ingenious and remarkable theories ever put forth on a question of natural history." Nor did he stop with turning a mere compliment. He went on to say: "More than sis years ago Mr. Herbert Spencer published, in his 'Principles of Biology,' a view of the nature and origin of the Annulose type of animals, which goes to the very root of the whole question; and, if this view is a sound one, it must so materially affect the interpretation of all embryological and anatomical facts bearing on this great subject, that those who work in ignorance of it can hardly hope to arrive at true results. I propose, therefore, to lay before you a brief sketch of Mr. Spencer's theory, with the hope of calling attention to it and inducing some of you to take up what seems to me a most promising line of research." Of course there are plenty of scientific men who do not honor what Mr. Spencer has done and care little for what anybody has done outside of his own narrow specialties. Human nature works in scientific men, it must be confessed, much as it does in other people, and they often exhibit petty jealousies toward each other that are a scandal to the scientific character. That from timidity, prejudice, and lack of interest in general ideas, many of them should decline to honor a broad and independent thinker like Spencer, is not surprising. But all scientific men are not of this class.
We again affirm that the task which Mr. Spencer accepted, of investigating the general principles of evolution, was one that stood clearly in the pathway of Science, and was not to be escaped. He was the first to grasp the full breadth of its implications, the first to analyze it into its elements, the first to organize its varied facts into a coherent system, and make it the basis of a comprehensive philosophy of Nature. His "First Principles," containing the full exposition of the doctrine, has now been before the world thirteen years, and its essential positions have not yet been impugned. There has not been even an attempt to invalidate his proofs that the processes of universal change are from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. There has never been even an attempt to invalidate his universal principle of the "Instability of the Homogeneous." There has not been even an attempt to invalidate the principle of the "Multiplication of Effects;" nor have his critics ever even tried to show that these great principles are not essential and fundamental factors of evolution; and until this is done they may as well hold their peace in regard to his claims as an original explorer in this field.
Finally, in his zeal to upset Spencer, the Nation's writer throws Bacon at his head, but he sadly misses his aim. It is now well understood that Bacon's attempt to lay down the rules of scientific pursuit was a signal failure. He tried his own rules in the investigation of heat, without discovering any thing about it; he was grossly inappreciative of the science and scientific men of his day, rejecting the Copernican system, and neglecting the immortal researches of Harvey. It will hardly be believed that the Nation's critic quotes against Spencer one of the most unfortunate passages that Bacon ever wrote: that in which he condemns the chemists of his day for philosophizing "from a few experiments of the furnace;" and disparages the work of the celebrated founder of the science of magnetism. Dr. Gilbert. Mr. Spencer can very well afford to be condemned with such company. Whatever weight, indeed, Bacon has as a philosopher must go into the other side of the scale. If he failed as a scientist, or in laying down the special rules of research, he did great service in calling men away from scholastic verbalism, and inciting them to the study of Nature; while there can be no doubt that he had great insight for comprehensive relations, and saw with the eye of prophetic genius the coming day when human knowledge would be so perfected and marshaled as to represent the unity and continuity of Nature. When Bacon is appealed to against Spencer, we say that if he had lived in our day, with the ripened sciences at command, it is not unlikely that he might have written "First Principles." At all events, if his eminent German interpreter, Dr. Hans Fischer, is to be trusted, his mind ran very much in the same direction of thought. In his work, "Francis Bacon of Verulam," Dr. Fischer says: "What in Bacon's sense is the proposed Fundamental Philosophy (Philosophia Prima)? The unity of all the sciences. Bacon seeks this unity by the method of analogy. Not on dialectical but on real grounds should the universal predicates of things (such as much and little, like and different, possible and impossible, essential and contingent, etc.) be determined." Again: "The very design of Bacon's analogies shows that he sought more than can be afforded by experience. He sought by this road what he could not discover by that of induction alone, namely, the unity of Nature as manifested in the affinity of all things, or the harmony of the universe."