Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/January 1912/The Duties to the Public of Research Institutions in Pure Science

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 80 January 1912 (1912)
The Duties to the Public of Research Institutions in Pure Science by William E. Ritter
1542570Popular Science Monthly Volume 80 January 1912 — The Duties to the Public of Research Institutions in Pure Science1912William E. Ritter


By Professor WM. E. RITTER


THOSE most familiar with the Marine Biological Station of San Diego must have recognized that while up to the present moment it has devoted itself almost exclusively to research, an undoubted tendency has been manifested to depart from the strait and narrow way. Elementary instruction was given to young people several summers; an aquarium and museum open to the public free of charge were maintained a number of years; from time to time popular lectures and demonstrations have been given by the investigators connected with the laboratory; recently relations have been entered into with the California State Game and Fish Commission and with the United States Bureau of Soils for the investigation of industrial problems pertaining to the sea; and in various less obvious ways efforts have been made to be of service outside the realm of exclusive research.

It seems desirable to place on record more fully than has hitherto been done the ideas held by the scientific director touching the duties to the public of institutions for research in science generally and of this station particularly.[1]

As a point of departure for what is to be said we take the assertion that "Science for its own sake" as frequently understood is a false and unrealizable ideal. Science "for its own sake," art "for its own sake," wealth or anything else "for its own sake," if held without fundamental qualification, bears the germs of its own degradation if not of its death. Science can no more live "to itself alone" than can a human being. The fallacy prevalent here is in reasoning that because science and because art each has an exalted intrinsic nature and worth, it therefore has a nature and worth quite apart from its relation to other things and to men. Somehow it seems difficult to grasp the truth that the worth of science is in deepest essence partly intrinsic or resident, and partly extrinsic and relative. However, that its essential worth is thus twofold becomes obvious upon reflection. On the one hand science has a nature of its very own, an absolute nature. It is not anything else whatever. It is not religion, it is not philosophy, it is not art of any kind, it is not mathematics, it is not commerce. At the same time, equally true is it that science never has existed, nor can it be conceived as existing wholly apart from the world of other interests. For instance, science simply could not be without objects of nature to operate on, and appliances such as instruments and chemicals and literature to work with. And more interesting still from the standpoint of method, verification and confirmation (almost always by more than one worker) are entirely essential to science. Science is as certainly communal as it is individual.

The communal functions of science on the material side are sufficiently recognized in what is known as modern civilization. The incalculable worth of "applied science," commonly so-called, for human life under this type of culture is questioned to only a negligible extent. There is no need of either exposition or apologetic on behalf of this aspect of science.

Not so with science in its relation to the higher, the spiritual, life of men. Looked at from this standpoint it is truly surprising that the value attached to science should be so largely that of physical utility. To be sure, there is a rather general recognition that science, or certain aspects of it, are valuable for mental discipline, especially of the powers of observation. It is allowed, too, that science has an important function in delivering men from superstition. Beyond this little is claimed for science as a contributor to the higher needs and life of humanity. All along the line, educators, publicists, clergymen, politicians, journalists and, surprisingly, scientific men themselves, appear to take it for granted that the office of science is primarily to minister to man's bodily needs, and secondarily to sharpen his wits. If anything beyond this comes from it, so current opinion holds, this is quite incidental and secondary.

My belief is that science must justify its right to live and flourish, not alone by its ministrations to physical well-being, but also to the higher and highest reaches of man's nature. While 1 do not for a moment subscribe to the view held by a few, that science is everything, that by and by it will supplant religion, philosophy, ethics, art and the rest, I am fully persuaded that as civilization advances it must become ever more and more an underpinning and ally of all these.

The distinction between an institution of applied science and one of pure science might be stated thus: The former is one the primary aim of which is to use certain more or less well-established truths and principles of science to the answering of man's needs and desires in certain well-defined directions. For example, the Bureau of Soils of the United States Department of Agriculture is for the purpose of applying chemistry, physics and geology to the end of increasing the productivity of the land of the United States. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine is for the "perfection of physicians in tropical hygiene" and for "investigations in tropical diseases." An institution of pure science, on the other hand, should be one the primary aim of which is to extend the bounds of man's knowledge of nature in a specified field, and to show something of the significance of the new knowledge for the higher life of mankind. To be more definite, an institution of research in biology or in astronomy could justify its existence, in a democratic country like ours, only by making considerable additions to knowledge and then by showing in language comprehensible to the generally hut non-technically educated members of the community, something of the meaning of this knowledge for human beings in both the physical and the spiritual aspects of their natures.[2]

I now mention certain biological discoveries and generalizations which have, as I believe, very great importance to civilized men but which are by no means as widely known as they ought to be and might be, and which can become thus known only through the efforts of professional biologists.

The significance of omne vivum ex vivo (all life from preceding life) not only for philosophic biology, but for the attitude of thoughtful people generally toward the problems of practical living, should be more clearly and firmly grasped than it has been. That the dictum is solely an expression of the summed-up results of technical science and practical experience, that so far it has not encountered the crucial "one exception" and hence ranks with gravitation as one of the best established of nature's laws, and that its unescapable implication is that the succession of living beings in nature was without beginning, that is to say, has come from an infinite past, are matters readily susceptible of popular presentation and may be counted on to greatly interest many people were the subject to be presented by the biologist who himself had fully grasped the problems and clearly seen their significance for human life and conduct.

The generalization, based on an enormous range of observations, that all organisms, including human beings, are subject in all aspects of their natures to the principles of evolution, needs to be and may be far more widely and firmly implanted in popular intelligence than it is; and its bearings on general ideas of progress, social and other, and on popular estimates of perfection and imperfection, are very important.

That biology has been forced, through its own advances, to recognize the struggle-survival doctrine, upon which she earlier staked so much as the cause of evolution, is really of very subordinate importance in this way, needs to be set forth to the general public far more emphatically and convincingly than it has been. Undoubtedly this strictly biological doctrine has been used to justify much cruel, destructive practise, particularly in the industrial world, and now that biology herself has found the doctrine to be so largely erroneous, it would seem the bounden duty of biology to rectify as far as may be the harm that has been done.

The conception of "the reign of law" in the organic world ought to be much more widely and concretely established than it is in the public mind. Under stress of the necessity of dethroning notions of supernaturalism from living nature, biologists have up to now been so occupied with explaining phenomena in terms of natural causation that the orderliness of organic phenomena has had to take a back seat both in research and in speculation.

The well-established truth that apparently all organic beings have in nearly, if not quite, all their parts and functions, capacities far beyond those needed for ordinary life, frequently far beyond what are ever used, except under very unusual circumstances, is of great significance for a general theory of life. But being a comparatively recent discovery, and standing in sharp contradiction to the widely prevalent views about the "economy of nature," and the utilitarianism of the Darwinian theory of natural selection, it has as yet found little place in either the learned or the popular theories of life. The general enlightenment needed on this matter might come partly from teachers, secular and religious, partly from psychologists, but most basally from biologists.

The conception of the organism as a whole that has been forcing itself into biology, particularly from the side of embryology, is destined to have a far-reaching, elevating influence on general beliefs, attitudes and practises. There is no likelihood that the idea will be brought into the full light of day unless biologists are the prime movers in bringing it there. Poets and poetical humanists in all ages have had much to say about "the whole man"; but the idea appears never to have germinated to the extent of greatly influencing the every-day lives of ordinary mortals. Biologists must be the original culturists here as they have been in so many other realms of things germinal.

The hypothesis that all phenomena of organic beings, including those pertaining to the very highest aspects of human nature, are correlated with chemico-physical phenomena, though not yet rigorously demonstrated in most of the subtler psychic and esthetic provinces, is securely established over so wide a range of life phenomena and has thus far so well withstood rigorous efforts of disproof, that without doubt it has already greatly influenced general thought and attitude toward the deep problems of human life, and will more and more influence them. In a matter so vital, and one about which general intelligence is bound to be so widely astir for such information as can be had, it is of the greatest moment that information from the best sources should be readily available.

The laws of heredity, particularly those discovered by Mendel, have been tested to such an extent as to make them of positive moment to human life. The eugenics idea, started in England by Sir Francis Galton, aims at a practical application of the known principles of inheritance to the good of the human race. In view of the wide theoretic interest attached to these laws, and to the possible good that may come from their application to the propagation of man himself, the intelligent, thoughtful members of the community could undoubtedly be far better instructed than they are. Not only the possibilities, but the limitations of eugenics as a practical program ought to be and might be presented in simple readable language.

That imperium in imperio of human concerns, the problem of the relation between the sexes, is calling almost frantically to the biologist for help at certain points where, it is coming to be seen, he alone can help. A few investigators are doing splendid things in this domain, though what has been done is but as molecule to mountain relative to what remains undone.

Finally, without a doubt, innumerable bald, unphilosophized facts of living nature ihat would entertain and instruct, and consequently keenly interest thousands upon thousands of generally intelligent persons, are buried in the technical language of biological narration and description beyond the possibility of extraction for such purposes except at the hands of biologists themselves. Now many, perhaps not all, professional biologists are abundantly endowed by nature with the ability to do this extracting and preparing for general consumption. Acquiring the knack to do it is dependent first and foremost on being convinced that it ought to be done. The fact that many biologists develop splendidly the talent for graphic art in response to the need of illustrating the organisms and organs with which they deal, is proof positive that the art instinct is not wanting in them; and there is every reason to believe that this instinct would come out as literary skill here and there, as well as in the form of skill in delineation, were the need felt as keenly in the one case as in the other.

Assuming the contention to be sound that biological knowledge ought to be more widely disseminated than it is, and that so far as concerns the capabilities and desires of people such dissemination is possible, the familiar question arises, "What are you going to do about it?" "The Schools!" Nine out of ten, I suppose, of those who would assent to my contention, would turn automatically in this direction.

To forestall doubt about my just appraisement of the school, the college, the university, in educating the young, I refer to an article ("Feeling in the Interpretation of Nature," The Popular Science Monthly, August, 1911) in which I have taken the ground that these instruments ought to and could do vastly more than they do toward making the people appreciative of and intelligent toward nature. Here I would insist that no matter how efficiently and broadly the tasks of institutional instruction might be performed, they would still have to be extensively supplemented before the real saving power of knowledge could be realized. This supplementing would have to be done in two places particularly: In the home, for young children before school age is reached; and for grown-ups after the school period is passed.

Our eyes must be opened in some way to the fact that education, taken in the full sweep of its meaning, is too life-and-death a matter for us as a nation to be left to the formalities of the schoolroom, the university lecture hall and the laboratory, even though these be excellent beyond the possibility of improvement. This truth is being forced upon us at a few points. As one instance, it is becoming clear that wider instruction on sex matters is imperative, and that parents and the home primarily, and the school secondarily, must be looked to for the broader, better knowledge. Again the simply incalculable power of the press and the speaker's platform for educating and influencing the voting part of the population are recognized and resorted to upon occasion.

I may now state my views summarily: Biological science, as now developed, contains numerous facts and generalizations of very great moment to the higher intellectual and spiritual life of the people generally. The essence of these can be stated in language readily comprehensive to persons of average intelligence and education. Most, if not all, the facts and generalizations are of such nature as to make their strongest appeal to the majority of people only from their bearings on problems of personal experience, so that in the nature of the case they can be of living interest and significance to such persons only after the period of formal schooling is past and the business of actual living is on. Instruction concerning them must, consequently, be given by other means than the school. Some of the most important instrumentalities for such instruction are the botanical and zoological garden, the natural history museum, the aquarium, the library, the lecture platform and, in some ways most important of all, the public press.

And now for the culminating point: In the main the instruction given through all these instrumentalities must be by professional biologists. It will never be done well, that is, in a manner at the same time vivacious, convincing, and dependable, by persons who have merely "read up" on biology with nothing but an elementary training to start from. Only persons constantly occupied with the first-hand gathering of data, with the making and testing of hypotheses, and with the submitting of results and conclusions to fellow workers for criticism and verification, can do the safest teaching in these ways.

Here comes not only the opportunity but the obligation of those whose vocation is in research institutions. The university teacher may generally be considered to have done his share when in addition to his research work he has instructed his regular classes. Those, on the other hand, whose lots are cast in institutions of research, being relieved of the round of duties incident to the university professorship, would seem to be marked as the ones to use such instruments of general education as are most suitable for reaching the great public outside the schools and colleges. The press, as already said, is probably the most available and powerful of all such instrumentalities.

I would not be understood to mean that every person regularly employed by institutions of research in non-industrial science should be held responsible for a certain amount of popular writing or lecturing or arranging of collections or the like. Such an idea put into practise would undoubtedly carry disaster in its train not alone to the institutions, but to the cause designed to be promoted. My view is that these institutions, as institutions, ought to hold themselves obliged, from time to time, to give out in a form readily accessible to and comprehensible by the rank and file, the results of their most significant achievements. Indeed, I am willing to go a step farther and say that such institutions might well be held to something of the sort by their boards of administration. I am persuaded that such a course would be, in the long run, not only not obstructive, but actually promotive, of the work of investigation itself.

It is true something in this way is being done by some, possibly all, of the research foundations of the country. But in very few, if any, so far as I can judge, is the doing accepted as a weighty obligation and as a set policy. So it happens that what is done is an exceedingly small fraction of what ought to be and might be done.

Under its present management the Marine Biological Station of San Diego holds duties in this direction to be as incumbent upon it as are those of making discoveries about the Pacific Ocean and the things that live in it.

  1. Indeed this little essay is in the first instance an administrative document addressed to the patrons and board of managers of the station.
  2. The soundness of this view is dependent upon the soundness of two assumptions which can not be argued here, but which may be briefly stated: (1) The person of average natural endowment and education in the United States is capable of understanding the most essential things in any scientific discovery that has ever been made or is likely to be made for many years to come. (2) It does "matter" enormously not only to the individuals, but to the nation as a whole, whether or not those who are capable of this much understanding have an opportunity to get it.