Gospel Of Science
( Originally Published 1919 )
IN the days before the war the Annual Address delivered by the President of the British Association was wont to excite at least a mild interest in the breasts of the reading public. It was a kind of Encyclical from the reigning pontiff of science, and since that potentate changed every year there was some uncertainty as to his subject and its treatment, and there *as this further piquant attraction, wanting in other and better-known Encyclicals, that the address of one year might not merely contradict but might even exhibit a lofty contempt for that or for those which had immediately preceded it.
During the three years immediately preceding the war we had excellent examples of all these things. In the first of them we were treated to a somewhat belated utterance in opposition to Vitalism. Its arguments were mostly based upon what even to the tyro in chemistry seemed to be rather shaky foundations. Such indeed they proved to be, since the deductions drawn from the behaviour of colloids and from Leduc's pretty toys were promptly disclaimed by leading chemists in the course of the few days after the delivery of the address.
Further, the President for the year 1914 in his address (Melbourne, p. 18) 1 told us that the problem of the origin of life, which, let us remind ourselves, in the 1912 address was on the point of solution, " still stands outside the range of scientific investigation," and that when the spontaneous formation of formaldehyde is talked of as a first step in that direction he is reminded of nothing so much as of Harry Lauder, in the character of a schoolboy, " pulling his treasures from his pocket—' That's a wassher—for makkin motorcars ! ' " Nineteen hundred and twelve pinned its faith on matter and nothing else.
"Nineteen hundred and thirteen assured us that "occurrences now regarded as occult can be examined and reduced to order by the methods of science carefully and persistently applied."
Further, the examination of those facts had convinced the deliverer of the address " that memory and affection are not limited to that association with matter by which alone they can manifest themselves here and now, and that personality persists beyond bodily death." Nineteen hundred and fourteen proclaimed telepathy a " harmless toy," which, with necromancy, has taken the place of " eschatology and the inculcation of a ferocious moral code." And yet it is on telepathy, if we are to believe the daily papers, that Sir Oliver Lodge largely relies for his proofs. Here, at any rate, is a pleasing diversity of opinion which fully bears out what was said at the beginning of this paper. It is, however, with the third address, or rather pair of addresses, that we are concerned ; for the meeting of 1914, not only was the first to be held at the Antipodes, but also the first to be honoured with two addresses—one in Melbourne, the other in Sydney.
Their deliverer is a very distinguished and a very independent man of Science. It was he who insisted, at a time when the domination of a very rigid form of Darwinism was much stronger than it is today, that the picture of Nature as seen by us is a Discontinuous picture, though Discontinuity does not exist in the environment. And it was he who asked whether the Discontinuity might not be in the living thing itself, and prefixed to the monumental work 1 in which he discussed this question the significant text from the Bible :
" All flesh is not the same flesh ; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds." Nearer to our own times, he was one of a small body of men of science who almost synchronously disinterred the forgotten works of Abbot Mendel, and proclaimed them to the world, as containing discoveries of the first value. He was thus always something of a " Herald of Revolt," and maintains that character in these addresses. " We go to Darwin for his incomparable collection of facts.
We would fain emulate his scholarship, his width and his power of exposition, but to us he speaks no more with philosophical authority. We read his scheme of evolution as we would those of Lucretius or Lamarck, delighting in their simplicity and their courage " (M., p. 9). " Naturally, we turn aside from generalities. It is no time to discuss the origin of the Mollusca or of Dicotyledons, while we are not even sure how it came to pass that Primula obconica has in twenty- five years produced its abundant new forms almost under our eyes " (ib., ib.). And so on. To take one other example : there is nothing which was more insisted upon by Darwinians than the fact that all the various races of domestic fowl known to us came from Gallus bankiva, the jungle-fowl of India ; in fact I think I have seen that form enthroned amongst its supposed descendants in more than one museum. " So we are taught ; but try to reconstruct the steps in their evolution and you realise your hopeless ignorance " (M., p. 11). If we cannot construct a " tree " for fowls, how absurd to adventure into the deeper recesses of Phylogeny. If all that Professor Bateson says is true, is not Driesch right when he speaks of " the phantasy christened Phylogeny " ?
The addresses, however, were not solely concerned with throwing contempt upon views which were yesterday of great respectability, and which even today are as gospel to many. They devoted themselves chiefly to the consideration of the question of heredity, viewed, as might be expected, from the Mendelian standpoint.
Now, at this point it may be said that there are at least two things which we should like to know about heredity—the vehicle and the laws. It is clear that we might know something, perhaps even a good deal, about one of these without knowing anything about the other.
Such in fact is the case ; for we know, it may fairly be said, nothing about the vehicle. There are two very widely distinct opinions on this point. There is the mnemic theory, recently brought before us by the republication of Butler's most interesting and suggestive work with its translations of Hering's original paper and Von Hartmann's discourse and its very illuminating introduction by Professor Hartog.
And there is the continuity theory which teaches that in some way or another the characteristics of the parents and other ancestors are physical parts of the germ. An attempt to explain this was made by Darwin in his theory of Pangenesis. Others have essayed what Yves Delage calls " micromeristic " interpretations. As to all of these it may be said that when they are reduced to figures the explanation becomes of so complex a character as utterly to break down. We shall see that Professor Bateson adopts a third very nebulous explanation. But as regards the laws 'of heredity there is something else to be said ; for here we really do know something, and that something we owe in large measure to the innumerable experiments which have been made on Mendelian lines since the re-discovery of the methods first adopted by the celebrated Abbot of Brunn. It is no intention of the writer of this paper to describe the Mendelian theory, which is well known, at least to all biological readers, though one or two points in connection with it may yet have to be touched upon.
The point of cardinal importance in connection with Mendelism is that it does reveal a law capable of being numerically stated, and apparently applicable to a large number of isolated factors in living things. Indeed it was this attention to isolated factors which was the first and essential part of Mendel's method. For example, others had been content to look at the pea as a whole.
Mendel applied his analytic method to such things as the colour of the pea, the smooth or wrinkled character of the skin which covered it, its dwarfness or height, and so on.
Now, the behaviour of these isolated factors seems to throw a light even upon the vehicle of heredity. We often talk of " blood " and " mixing of blood," as if blood had anything to do with the question, when really the Biblical expression " the seed of Abraham " is much more to the point. For it is in the seed that these factors must be, whether they be mnemic or physical. Professor Bateson (M., p. 5) thinks it obvious that they are transmitted by the spermatozoon and the ovum ; but it seems to him " unlikely that they are in any simple or literal sense material particles." And he goes on to say, and this, I think, is one of his most important statements : " I suspect rather that their properties depend on some phenomenon of arrangement."
Now, if there be a law behind the phenomena made clear to us by Mendelian experiments (as Mendelians are never tired of asserting), then it becomes in no way impertinent to ask how that law came into existence, and who formulated it.
Darwinism, according to Driesch, " explained how by throwing stones one could build houses of a typical style." In other words, it " claimed to show how something purposively constructed could arise by absolute chance ; at any rate this holds of Darwinism as codified in the seventies and eighties." Of course the Blind Chance doctrine breaks down utterly when it comes to be applied to selected cases, and nothing more definitely disposes of it than the very definite law which emerges as the result of the Mendelian experiments. That is obvious to the prophets of Mendelism ; but, whilst they admit this, they will have nothing to say to the lawgiver. That is the " rankest metaphysics," as Dr. Johnstone puts it, or " mysticism," as others prefer to call it. And yet nothing is more clear than the logical sequence that, if you have a law, someone must have made it, and if you look upon something as" a phenomenon of arrangement," someone must have arranged it. But for reasons not obvious nor confessed, there is an objection to make any such admission. Perhaps it is the taint of the monism of the latter half of the last century which still persists.
At any rate, as I have elsewhere pointed out, there is a most curious passage in another paper by the same author in which he says : " With the experimental proof that variation consists largely in the unpacking and repacking of an original complexity, it is not so certain as we might like to think that the order of these events is not pre-determined." The writer hastens to denounce the horrid heresy on the brink of which he finds himself hesitating, by adding that he sees " no ground whatever for holding such a view," though " in the light of modern research it scarcely looks so absurdly improbable as before." It is curious that the writer in question does not seem to have been in any way influenced by the eliminative argument so potent in connection with the discussion on Vitalism. We ask for an explanation of the occurrences—say of regeneration. We find that no physical explanation in the least meets the needs of the case, and we are consequently obliged to look for it in something differing from the operations of chemistry and physics. Of this argument Dr. Johnstone 1 says : " It is almost impossible to overestimate the appeal which it makes to the investigator."
Now, this matter of " arrangement " or of " pre-determination," when put forward as an explanation, even tentatively, necessitates a step further. That step might possibly be in the direction of pantheism, though, according to Driesch, pantheism is the doctrine " that reality is a something which makes itself (` dieu se fait,' in the words of Bergson), whilst theism would be any theory according to which the manifoldness of material reality is predetermined in an immaterial way." And he concludes " that those who regard the thesis of the theory of order as necessary for everything that is or can be, must accept theism, and are not allowed to speak of ' dint qui se fait.' " It is difficult to see how anyone who has studied the rigid order exhibited by experiments on Mendelian lines can resist the logic of this argument unless indeed he takes a place on Plate's platform, which admits that a law entails a lawgiver, but declares that of the Lawgiver of Natural Laws we can know nothing.
There is a further point in connection with Mendelian theories which is worth noting in this connection. It would appear that no new factor is ever brought into being, that is, no addition is ever made by variation. According to this theory the things which appear to be added—a new colour or a new scent—were there all the time. They were " stopped down " or inhibited by some other factor, which, when eliminated, allows them to come into play, and thus to become obvious to the observer from whom they had been hidden. Thus, Professor Bateson (M., p. 17) has confidence " that the artistic gifts of mankind will prove to be due, not to something added to the make-up of an ordinary man, but to the absence of factors which in the normal person inhibit the development of these gifts. They are almost beyond doubt to be looked upon as releases of powers normally suppressed. The instrument is there, but it is stopped down.' "
That all sorts of things may exist in a very small compass no doubt is true. Professor Bateson reminds us that Shakespeare was once " a speck of protoplasm not so big as a small pin's head." The difficulty—insuperable on ordinary monistic lines—is how all these things got into the germ if no additions ever take place. It was so difficult to account, for example, for artistic appreciation on the part of man or for gifts of an artistic character that Huxley was fain to describe them as gratuitous ; but on this showing all characters are gratuitous in the sense that they are not acquired. We may reasonably inquire not merely how all these characters and factors got themselves " arranged " or " packed," but where they came from, and how they came to be in the germ at all, matters on which we receive no information in these addresses. No doubt the author of the addresses would say that it was no part of his business to explain this matter ; that he took this system of Nature as a going system and did his best to explain it as such and without attempting, perhaps even without desiring, to explain how it got a-going. If that be the case, and if ignorance on this head must be his confession, it is a little difficult to understand the confidence with which he sets himself to discuss the " extraordinary and far-reaching changes in public opinion [which] are coming to pass." We shall find these, as we pass them in review, to be extraordinary enough, though not very new.
In the first place, " genetic research will make it possible for a nation to elect by what sort of beings it will be represented not very many generations hence, much as a farmer can decide whether his byres shall be full of shorthorns or Herefords. It will be very surprising indeed if some nation does not make trial of this new power.
They may make awful mistakes, but I think they will try " (S., p. 8). It is curious how the war, which had just commenced when these addresses were being delivered, has absolutely disposed, or ought to have disposed, of some of the prophecies of the President. Nothing, at any rate, seems more certain than that one result of this most disastrous struggle will be an urgent demand by all the States engaged in it for at least as many male children as the mothers of each country can supply, without special regard to their other characters, breedable or not breedable. We are even told that Germany is resorting to expedients which cannot be justified on Christian principles to fill her depleted homes. Whether this be true or not the fact remains that nothing is now more to be desired by all the combatant nations than what we call in Ireland " long families." But even if there had been no war, there is one other factor which makes it quite certain that no country ever will try, or if it ventures to try, will ever succeed in any such experiment, and that factor, forgotten by philosophers of this kind, is human nature. Mr. Frankfort Moore years ago wrote a pleasant story, called " The Marriage Lease," in which doctrinaire legislation of a somewhat similar kind was described, and its inevitable failure most amusingly depicted. The war disposes of another of the President's maxims (S., p. 10), that the decline in the birth-rate of a country is nothing to be grieved about, and that " the slightest acquaintance with biology " shows that the " inference may be wholly wrong," which asserts that " a nation in which population is not rapidly increasing must be in a decline " (S., p. 10). Human nature was neglected in the first-mentioned case, and here it is the turn of history to pass into the shade, history which, pace the President, has really a good deal more bearing upon a question of this kind than the " school-boy natural history " which he thinks capable of settling it. Thus we advance from breeding to Malthusianism. It is perhaps not wonderful that our next step should be the quiet, and of course painless, extinction of the unfit.
" Thou shalt not kill, but needs't not strive Officiously to keep alive."
Thus wrote Clough ; but our author, it appears, would go further than this. " The preservation of an infant so gravely diseased that it can never be happy or come to any good is something very like wanton cruelty. In private life few men defend such interference " (S. 10). And so such unfortunates should be got rid of, and will be " as soon as scientific knowledge becomes common property "—when " views more reasonable, and, I may add, more humane are likely to prevail." Lest we should be depressed by this massacre of the innocents, we are told that " man is just beginning to know himself for what he is a rather long-lived animal, with great powers of enjoyment if he does not deliberately forgo them " (S., p. 9). In the past, poor fool that he has been, he has not availed himself of his opportunities : " Hitherto superstition and mythical ideas of sin have predominantly controlled these powers." Let us, however, take heart : " Mysticism will not die out ; for those strange fancies knowledge is no cure ; but their forms may change, and mysticism as a force for the suppression of joy is happily losing its hold on the modern world " (ib., ib.). Let us eat and drink—and, it may be added, sin—for tomorrow we die. Such is the new gospel of science, an old enough gospel, tried and found wanting years before its latest prophet arose to proclaim it to the world. Surely no more ridiculous utterance ever was made ; for its author evidently did not pause to consider that the sins which make life pleasant to some (for example, Thuggery) are apt to have quite another aspect to those through whose victimisation the pleasure is obtained. There is also here such a thing as the conscience, which has to be taken into account.
Even the biological hedonist must originally possess such a thing and, it may be supposed, must deal with it as he would with the gravely diseased children, and as something which would" predominantly control his powers of enjoyment."
Seriously, it may be doubted if a more pagan code of morals has ever been laid down, and this in the Encyclical of Science for the year, a code bad enough to make poor Mendel turn in his grave could he—good, honest man—be aware of it, and imagine that he was in any way responsible for it, which, by the way, is in no way the case.