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This Changing World

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

Essays in Popular Science. By Julian Huxley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00.

Ways of Living, Nature and Man. Edited by J. Arthur Thomson. New York: George H. Doran Company. $1.50.

Downland Man. By h. J. Massingham. New York: George H. Doran Company. $6.00.

That chapter of human history which began with the invention of printing should be entitled The Abolition of the Priesthood. I use the word in a broad sense to designate those custodians of traditional wisdom who must have been an essential part of any previous civilization, whose lore was their stock in trade, jealously guarded from the prying eyes and profane hands of the vulgar. Today the instruction of the ignorant is recognized as a duty. We no longer say to the idly inquisitive man in the street “These be mysteries,” but try to translate into the vernacular the subtlest probings of the intellect. The mathematician, it is true, still records his lore in hieroglyphs intelligible only to the initiates of the Pythagorean brotherhood; but such lonely folk are pitied even by their colleagues, who feel them also to be lacking in a proper sense of duty. How far this sense of duty is colored by the prospect of financial reward is a question courteous scholars do not ask one another. Moreover, the field of human knowledge is so vast that ignorance is the lot of all; thus scientific men as a class are not the least appreciative part of that public for which popular works are written.

The increase of books of this sort has received an impetus recently from a somewhat different source. The last few decades have witnessed a growing class consciousness among scientific workers. Something like a priesthood is re-emerging, but in a modified form; it is a priesthood which has come to terms with the printer. The scientific man claims a place in human society and must justify that claim to the society that supports him. The stockholders are entitled to a report from the management. Science must be shown to be economically productive; it must be “sold” to the public. Curiosity must not merely be satisfied, it must be whetted. Thus we see organizations like the National Research Council plotting publicity according to approved methods, employing high grade journalists who know the public mind, who bring out the full news value of a discovery, and whose choice of arguments is determined by their effectiveness rather than the writer’s conviction. The result is a public well-informed as to what the scientist is doing but ignorant as to why he does it. If a vote were taken in America today as to who is the greatest living scientist, Edison would be chosen by acclamation. This is the measure of its comprehension.

But if science is to take its rightful place in the lives of men it must be justified by faith rather than works. In a thousand and one ways it has transformed man’s daily life, teaching him to expect change in a world which our forefathers saw as static. But it has not satisfied his craving for something permanent. Either he flounders, profoundly, disillusioned, in a universe of blind unchanging “order,” perpetually chasing its own tail and getting nowhere; or he recoils passionately into medievalism, as at Dayton, Tennessee. If the man in the street is to catch something of that faith in the human spirit which is the soul of science, it must be by direct contact with those in whom the faith is made manifest; the writing of popular works must be done by those who believe as well as know. Oniy along this road lies any hope of science contributing to that high synthesis of the human faculties which we call religion. We must eliminate the middleman.

Peculiarly welcome therefore are books like Professor Huxley’s, not because the facts which he presents are more authoritative than if told at second hand, but because they come to us alive with the personality of the author. The seventeen essays are uneven in importance as well as in length; they vary from rather trivial book-reviews to the two long essays on the frog and the tadpole which make up the last third of the volume. But all are permeated with the spirit of science, of Promethean man—restless, relentless, rejoicing in its power. The biologist today, is doing startling things. Like his priestly brother of old he has sought his omens in entrails, and the gods have spoken to him. With a little thyroid he turns a baby tadpole into a frog in a few days, a feat recalling the Precocious Baby of the Bab Ballads. By taking thought and a little pituitary extract man may yet add a cubit to his stature. Rats fed exclusively on a certain wheat protein, gliadin, keep nourished but do not mature physically; the delayed development proceeds normally when the proper dietary element is introduced. Who knows but that some day we may use this scheme to make the physical development keep pace with the mental, not allowing, say, a child to become ten years old until he knows enough? Our bodies are seen to be machines over which we may yet exercise a control which our fathers would have thought diabolical. The frontispiece gives three views of a cretinous infant—the first before treatment, the second showing the effects, after a few months, of thyroid extract, while the third shows the relapse into cretinism upon refusal of the parents to continue treatment. Could Descartes have seen that picture he would have located the soul in the thyroid instead of the pineal gland.

These facts, and many more like them which Professor Huxley adduces, place a very large question mark after any facile denial of materialism. The domain of the spirit seems somehow contracted by them. Only when we reflect on the fact that there are biologists as well as biology, a knower as well as the thing known, do we realize that the universe may be more spiritual as well as more material, that matter and spirit are not necessarily antithetical. This the man who gets his science at second hand will never learn. The title of one of the essays, “Biology, in Utopia,” might serve as a title for the book. Here is the world as the biologist would like to run it. He persuades himself that men will be happier in this new society, but this is but the rationalization of a faith within him that is not articulate. At heart he is a fanatic; the power to try an experiment is its own justification. The physicist in his turn dreams dreams. He is seeking today for a way to release the vast stores of intra-atomic energy. In this quest he faces the possibility that the process once started may not be controllable, but may spread like a conflagration till the whole earth disappears in one glorious burst of vapor, and to the inhabitants of some distant world the papers announce the appearance of a new star. The prospect does not really disqniet him—at least it would be a fine finish, a “crowded hour of glorious life” worth all the trouble the human race had taken to achieve it. Those who do not like Professor Huxley’s biologically ordered world will no doubt find cheer in this program of the physicist.

“Ways of Living” is a collection of essays by different members of the faculty of the University of Aberdeen. These were originally given as lectures in response to a demand from the Workers’ Educational Association. Elementary in character they will none the less prove highly suggestive to those who are trying to understand human society as a natural phenomenon. The parallels which animals and plants afford to human ways of living have at all times attracted the attention of the curious. The proverb on the jacket—”Go to the ant, thou sluggard”—is a reminder of the antiquity of this form of human speculation. It is only a slight change from the attitude of the ancient moralists who looked upon nature as a series of lessons prepared by the deity for our edification to the attitude of these Aberdeen workers who sought to know more of nature’s ways that they, might better live according to nature’s general plan. This quest of a moral is satisfied only sparingly by the lecturers who, for the most part, confine themselves to the facts, showing that nature takes just as much care of the parasite as of the self-sufficing individual or the co-operative group. In spite of the diversity of authors, the essays have thus a certain unity of temper. The last essay by Dr. Robert D. Lockhart, forms an exception to this. Instead of the detached and dispassionate survey of facts simply and clearly told. Professor Lockhart indulges in some very crude moralizing in appropriately purple diction. This essay is a blemish in a book otherwise eminently, worth reading.

Mr. Massingham’s book is a first-hand study of those monuments of the so-called megalithic culture in England —the builders of Stonehenge, of the burial mounds or barrows, and of various other memorials of their energy. In subject matter therefore the three books on our list are in natural and logical sequence. In spirit it is otherwise; the reader of “Downland Man” finds himself transported to another intellectual climate. Instead of the bracing and austere air of science we find ourselves in the tropics, dense with redundant vegetation, steaming in the torrid heat. The writer puts forward two main theses, the one scientific, the other moral, and this conjunction of fervor and fact, though it vastly improves the book as literature, impairs one’s confidence in the author’s conclusions.

The scientific thesis is that this ancient civilization was an offshoot of Egyptian culture, derived probably by way of Crete, and centering round a quest for metals. This theory is upheld by Elliot Smith, W. J. Perry, and other anthropologists of the tjniversity of London. Ordinarily it would be presumptuous for a dabbler in anthropology to pass an opinion, but Mr. Massingham and Professor Smith both insist that the questions at issue require no special knowledge. Mr. Massingham thus appeals to the jury instead of to the judge, and courts deliberately the verdict of the uninformed. He at least cannot then charge his reviewers with incompetence.

On the whole he makes out an excellent case for his view. He shows with abundant detail that the monuments were the product of a highly, organized civilization, that the people who built them could in no sense be called either primitive or savage. The parallels and close similarities of the monuments to prototypes in Egypt, Crete, and Mycenae, and their constant association with anciently worked mines of flint and metals make highly probable the view that England was colonized about six thousand years ago by men who were possessed of the Mediterranean culture; tillers of the soil and keepers of cattle, whose priests knew the ways of the sun and stars and the proper seasons and rites for the planting of crops. The center of the civilization was at Avebury. The culture of ancient Britain is thus seen to be of one piece with that of the Mayas in Central America, with ancient Rhodesia, and probably with most of the civilizations of the globe. But while the origin is thus made abundantly probable, Mr. Massingham infers a closer constant connection between Egypt, Crete, and Britain than I think his evidence warrants. Even in Crete, close to the parent source, we find a language so different that it has not been deciphered, while in England we find these miners of metals apparently ignorant of their use; for a thousand years fashioning for themselves tools of polished flint while they exported tin and copper to the Mediterranean. These offshoots from the parent stock would seem to have grown up from small nuclei, bonnd together by commercial relations, but culturally isolated save for the occasional journeying of a priest. This must certainly have been true for the cultures of America, Rhodesia, and the Far East.

But Mr. Massingham is not content to establish the claims of a scientific theory. His real interest is the confounding of a horrid lot of people called Neo-Darwinians. I have noticed that anthropologists do most of their work with two prefixes, “paleo-” and “neo-“; in Mr. Massingham’s lexicon these are translated respectively as “the good old” and “new-fangled.” The Neo-Darwinians are those perverted folk who believe that struggle between races, that is war, has been an important factor in the welding of men into social groups. Here we come to the moral thesis. Mr. Massingham loathes war; for him it is the supreme evil, a sentiment which, as the saying goes, does more credit to his heart than to his head. This ancient civilization was peaceful, this much seems clear. Our author uses all his powers to show that it was superior to anything that followed it; that the Celtic invasion which overthrew it was a relapse into utter barbarism. It would be hard to imagine a life more idyllic than that of these happy mining folk as he pictures it, unless it were that of their primitive precursors, the men of the old stone age. Even had he owned an interest in those mines he could hardly better the description. The constant intrusion of this question of value, and of the difficult estimation of relative happiness into a work of scientific pretension makes the reading “curiouser and curiouser.” It is, for example, by no means clear that a civilization that built in stone is ipso facto higher than one that used wood, but the records of this last would be hard to trace. The fanciful biologist might interpret this preoccupation with, enormous stone structures as a symptom of decay akin to the tendency toward armor in moribund lines of animal development. It is easy to share Mr. Massingham’s admiration for the energy of people who could build pyramids and Stonehenges; it is not so easy to admire people who chose to build them. One is rather inclined to agree with Mr. Wells that the building of the great pyramids must have left Egypt wasted as by a war. Again it is a question of value, about which there can be endless argument but no decision. The picture of human progress as the constant espousal of some positive good is too idyllic. Man has generally a choice only between evils, and the Darwinian can hate war while believing that there are sometimes worse things. The Celtic invader was no doubt a savage, but the lot of some savages may have been better than that of the workers in those ancient mines. In those days at least war was democratic. The warrior missed perhaps that fulness of life which was the lot of the priest and noble, who walked the downs in peaceful contemplation of the beauties of nature, and who selected such fine sites for their tombs; but these may have been the flower of a civilization which was rotten to the core, and which crumpled up before the impact of small bands of men bound together in a brotherhood of common danger, and not afraid to die.

But if Mr. Massingham fails somewhat as a pleader of his cause, he succeeds eminently in writing an interesting book. Few will read “Downland Man” without wishing to delve more deeply into that dim past of the race. The virus of special pleading with which the book is infected carries thus its own antidote. Not least delightful are the numerous passages which have nothing to do with anthropology—charming descriptions of the English countryside, put in apparently because the author had not the heart to leave them out, each a memorial of some day afield

By meadows breathing of the past, And woodlands holy to the dead

which was too beautiful to be forgotten. One lays down the book with a feeling of regret at the ending of a ramble over such lovely country with such a charming, if cantankerous, companion.


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