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Newton and Darwin

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

Isaac Newton, By J. W.. N. Sullivan. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Charles Darwin. By Geoffrey West. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.50.

There has been a growing tendency in recent years to discover that Francis Bacon may not have said all there was to say about scientific method. It is unfortunate to observe that this neo-medieval note has scarcely touched certain biographers of the scientists. Geoffrey West and the late J. W. N. Sullivan, while seeming in their biographies to have made Darwin and Newton the objects of a somewhat restricted hero-worship, have apparently selected Bacon—although with reservations—as the keynoter of modern science. They both start with a blind belief that the true scientist always begins with the observation of, and experimentation with, phenomena, and thus by gentle stages proceeds to general principles or laws which are the pure dictates of an unviolated Nature. Mr. Sullivan finds himself in the end wrestling with an aesthetic mysticism, and Mr. West ends with an equally vague point of view that wavers between subjective idealism and the so-called modern operational theory of the concept.

In this connection it is interesting to consider Newton’s own statement of the scientific attitude in the famous General Scholium at the end of the “Principia”: “But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of [those] properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses whether metaphysical or physical . . . have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena and afterwards rendered general by induction.” Mr. Sullivan states the case for the Newtonian experimental philosophy thus: “The physical universe was something whose laws and properties might be anything; what they actually were could only be discovered by experiment.” He also suggests that “Newton believed that true and exact scientific laws of Nature existed, but he thought it possible that we had not yet discovered them, and that we might never discover them.” It follows that the general propositions of science can never account for real causes among phenomena but at best can merely describe their behavior. According to Mr. Sullivan the real secret of Newton’s success did not depend so much on these Baconian overtones as on what he calls his “physical insight,” which quality he calls the sine qua non of any genuine investigator. With it, any scientific conquest is possible; without it, “it is a mere matter of chance if one’s speculations are not irrelevant.” This insight is an indescribable super-logical quality. Tyn-dall attempted to describe it in his “Essay on the Scientific Imagination.” Perhaps the most apt statement of it was made in reference to Faraday: “He smells the truth.”

As for Darwin, we are told in his “Life and Letters” that “science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.” Mr. West also insists that “science extends the perception of law ever deeper into the working of observed phenomena. Lyell’s great achievement in geology was to establish unshakeably the inductive method, the proper scientific procedure from known to unknown, the acceptance of law as constant and continuous.” In the face of all this Mr. West comes to some amazing conclusions on the nature of scientific thought. He speaks of the “subjective, selective nature of perception, and still more of . . . scientific perception and statement.” Herman Melville is cited apropos of the arbitrary nature of any systematic thought. Conventions to a large extent determine conclusions. This somewhat subjective creation called the real world has emotional foundations too, as Gerald Heard has testified, greed and fear being among the fundamental formative influences. Mr. West even ventures to say that the subjective elements in scientific theory “suggest a dependence of the latter’s validity upon the individual conceiving and authenticating it.” And we have gone so far from the Baconian tenets asserted above, that concerning important Darwinian doctrines Mr. West notes that “the theory preceded the main business of collecting facts which either confirmed or else unconsciously became ‘difficulties’ to be considered and encountered.” The conclusion is that there is no such animal as an “hypothetical scientist” who can collect facts without a preconceived theory, and that some theory always determines, to a certain extent at least, or “biases,” observation. What would Bacon say to that?

Laying aside these questions of the nature of scientific enterprise, and of certain philosophical assumptions involved therein, Mr. Sullivan’s “Isaac Newton” and Mr. West’s “Charles Darwin” are both beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing accounts of the interrelations of the lives and ideas of England’s greatest scientific geniuses. In both books there is a fine balance between the history of the idea and the history of the man. The authors seem to have completely mastered the scientific works of their subjects—no small feat in the case of the “Principia”—and to have fitted the resulting insights into a vast store of personal memoranda and other previous studies of the subjects. Both authors’ resuits adequately refute the claim that all such efforts are mere gossip about private lives, with no proper understanding of the ideas for Avhich those lives stood.

In the case of Newton we gather that his life history had little or no connection with the work of the mathematical physicist. Perhaps it was because he had so little of life outside the several spheres of his intellectual activity—he was an ascetic to a marked degree—that the connection is not apparent. And yet, when his honor was touched, as in the quarrel with Leibnitz, or when an emotional state was produced, as in the controversies with Hooke and Flamsteed, he was goaded on by these very emotions to efforts which culminated in some of his best scientific works. Thus the “Principia” was “dashed off” in seventeen months, and later, the “Theory of Fluxions” was finally published only in order to establish priority and to controvert a veiled charge of plagiarism. And for all this Mr. Sullivan concludes that “the paradox of Newton’s scientific career is due to the fact, probably unique in the history of scientific men, that he was a genius of the first order at something he did not consider to be of the first importance.”

As for Darwin, it has been said that if it had not been for the stable and comforting economic security of the upper middle classes in Victorian England the “Origin of Species” would never have been written. This is doubtless true, but Mr. West points out what a tenuous chain of fortuitous circumstances brought him aboard the Beagle. The chain might have snapped at any one of a number of links, and nearly did. None the less, we have a strong feeling that the comfortable, simple, cheerful Darwinian-Wedgewood background and environment contributed much to the success of Darwin’s scientific thinking. Mr. West gives an entrancing account of it. And he too concludes: “I must confess to a very great liking for Charles Darwin the man, in himself, in his life, in his family circle, even in his labor, detached from their worse social consequences; and finally it is to the man rather than to his scientific achievement as a thing in itself that I would look for his enduring value.”

This last remark raises one further comment. Roth Mr. Sullivan and Mr. West have pointed out certain sociological implications of the work of Darwin and Newton. In Newton’s case, in spite of his having given great impetus to the philosophy of mechanistic materialism in modern science, the social influence seems to have been for the good. Not so for Darwin. Mr. West all but charges the theory of evolution with direct responsibility for the production of Communist and Fascist states with all their attendant bogey-men. He further suggests that Europe might not now be an armed camp if no one had ever heard of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Just so did one of our foremost philosophers in 1917 blame poor old Immanuel Kant for having started the World War with the empty concept of the Categorical Imperative. Once upon a time this used to be recognized as a common logical fallacy called the argu-mentum ad vericundiam.


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