A Suit Against Science

To say that humanity owes a vast debt to science is but to repeat what a thousand others have affirmed, and what all men know. It might almost be said that science is civilization; and while there are not lacking those who maintain that the more civilized we become the worse we grow, all such are either quibblers juggling with the meaning of words, or persons, who, while they are doubtless sincere enough, have fallen victims to a malady of the mind. And yet in one respect science deserves our censure and not our praise; in one matter of great moment she is the ally of error and not of truth; in one of the most important of the many ways in which she touches and affects human life her influence is bad, not good.

In order to perceive this fact one does not have to be either wise or learned: one need only be honest and ready to believe the evidence of his faculties. And perhaps — for there are thousands who have suffered by it — the thing is all the clearer because it is a part of personal experience. There was once a boy who reveled in the wonder of wild nature. Birds and beasts fascinated him; the sea was a fairyland because of the fishes in it; the garden was a paradise because it teemed with all sorts of life. He spent much of his time in boyish contemplation of these living things and he learned a good deal about them — not very much in the way of details, perhaps, but much of a somewhat vague and general sort that was, in spite of its vagueness, intimate and true. After a while the boy went to college. There he was introduced to a science called biology which was described to him as the science of life; and during the next four years he, in common with many of his fellow students, — some because the subject interested them, others because it seemed to fit in well with their other studies, — took courses in biology. The knowledge of the science which they acquired was of necessity very far from complete. Largely it was concerned with certain theories and natural laws, learned more or less by rote and accepted mainly on faith; and of these theories and laws the ones which impressed the boy most were those having to do with evolution. These interested him deeply because they were concepts brand-new to him — utterly different from those old-fashioned notions about nature with which his father, who got his education before Darwinism was taught in the schools, grew up. When the boy left college, his whole conception of nat ure and life had been changed. He felt that his eyes had been opened and that he had been shown a great light.

It was a great and wonderful light, indeed, but the things that it revealed were neither cheering nor beautiful. The garden was no longer a paradise, it was a battlefield. The countryside was no longer the abode of peace, it was the scene of constant war. There was no comer of the world, whether on land or sea, in which the struggle for existence was not raging in all its unspeakable cruelty. There was no living thing that was not either a slayer or doomed to be slain. Little harm would have been done, perhaps, — for all these things are true, — if the revolution which had been brought about in his conception of nature had stopped at that. But it went further than that, much further. He felt that he had been afforded a glimpse beneath the surface of things — that he had been shown the machinery of the animate creation in action, crushing out millions of lives each moment to make and maintain millions of other lives. And from this glimpse he drew a conclusion. Whereas in his earlier and more ignorant days he had conceived of the living things of the world as happy rather than unhappy, he now thought of them as in a constant state of misery and fear. They were the actors, the victims in this terrible struggle for life in which mercy was unknown; and the professor, at whose feet he had sat day after day, had made the struggle so real, had impressed on him so powerfully its cruelty and universality, that no doubt existed in his mind concerning the effect of that struggle upon the organisms taking part in it.

This, then, was the boy’s new conception of nature gained from science taught to him during those four years at college. Perhaps he did not at that time do any definite or careful reasoning about the matter. Certainly he did not at that time realize that to have such a conception of the world must darken his whole philosophy even if it did not dry the very springs of religion itself. He merely drew — more or less unconsciously — from the facts which had been taught to him a natural inference and formed a logical conclusion; and the sum and result was a conception of nature which, vague as it was in one sense, was definite enough in another, and could not but shape his thought and affect his whole view of life.

It is because science is forming in the minds of thousands of other young men at hundreds of other colleges this same conception of nature and the world, that science can be indicted on the charge of creating and disseminating disastrous error. For this conception is false — not in so far as it concerns the fact of the struggle for existence, but in so far as it concerns the effect of the struggle upon the living things which are subject to it. That effect is not what the boy thought it was, not what thousands of other young men are being made to think it is. Science has been showing them only the half of life, and consequently has been falsifying their vision of the whole. In all our colleges to-day the same lesson of a deadly, merciless, and never-ceasing battle is taught a thousand times until our minds are filled with the tragedy of nature.

Science does not actually lie to us or purposely lead us astray; but, obsessed by her great discoveries of the iron laws of the animate world, she devotes herself, in those elementary college courses which give to most of us all the science that we are ever to possess, wholly to teaching these laws in all their cold and frightful cruelty; and so, in the end, we are led to look upon nature as a vast charnel-house, an awful shambles wherein all animate creation undergoes constant butchery — wherein misery and fear must ever reign since death is ever imminent and slaughter never ceases. And to conceive of nature as such a thing as this is to see and shudder at a spectre that has no real existence.

We should perceive the unreality of this spectre if we were able to use our eyes, and were confident of our ability to form judgments based on the evidence of our own faculties. We should perceive that the world of animal life is a happy world in spite of all the suffering that it contains and in spite of the ceaseless struggle that is proceeding in every corner of it. The wood resounds with song: the river ripples merrily among its hills: the dragonflies, darting here and there above the millpond, are watchful but not cowering in dread. Through all the varying utterance of nature there runs a note of good cheer, of complete abandon, of full enjoyment of the moment. There is not in the whole catalogue of birds’ songs a song that is truly sad, nor is there in all the thin music of the insect population a single strain that tells of sorrow. Among the wild children of nature there is no such thing as abiding grief, no such thing as fear of the future. We hear now and then — and it is always a more or less doubtful tale — of a dog that pined away for his master; but that is the exception which proves at least the first half of the rule. It is a rule which observation would demonstrate at once if that false conclusion, which we drew from science and for which science gave us no alternative, were not a poison too powerful to be overcome. An hour spent in the garden would prove it as absolutely as a lifetime passed in the woods.

It happened one December day that I was invited to go upon a deer-hunt. Hunting the deer is a favorite sport in lowland South Carolina, where vast areas of swamp-land remain unreclaimed by man, and still constitute an asylum for wild animals and those larger and rarer birds which have been driven out of the cultivated and thickly settled portions of the country. This hunt — in the woods of Wappaoolah, one of those old and historic plantation estates which have come down through many decades in the hands of the same family — was not notably different from a hundred others. I was assigned to my post, or ‘stand,’ in the forest, near one of the ‘runs’ which the deer was likely to take when it was ‘jumped’ by the hounds, and the other hunters were similarly disposed at other points in the woods. Meantime the ‘drivers’ — two or three mounted men — set off with the dogs to beat those portions of the woods where the game was probably lying.

Before long I heard the music of the hounds, — full and clear and wonderfully sweet, and so softened by distance that at first it was pure music devoid of any note of menace. Louder it grew and still louder, until in a little while the softness of it was gone and it had become a furious medley of anger, hatred, and ferocity. They were coming, baying dogs and yelling horsemen, sweeping down the long resounding aisles of the woods, close in the wake of the quarry. At any moment a slim, dun-colored wraith might float into the field of my vision, fleet as the wind, graceful beyond description, quivering with fear, or — if it were an old and wily buck — exulting in the oft-tried speed that could mock at hound and horse. A minute, two minutes of suspense — a long, deep sigh of undisguised relief. The chase had passed me by. Deer and dogs and horsemen had swept on to the left, within a hundred yards of my station, but hidden always by the trees and the scattered thickets beneath them. Some other hunter might get a shot; but for me the day’s ‘sport’ was ended.

So much for the hunt. I had amused myself before the deer was jumped by watching the small wild life of the forest round about me. The trees and bushes were alive with birds — cardinals, towhees, myrtle and pine warblers, goldfinches, chickadees, titmice, kinglets, white-throated sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches; and though, even in this land of winter sunshine, December is not a month of song, the call notes of all these, intermingled with one another and punctuated now and then by the rat-tat-tat of a downy woodpecker or the bark of a gray squirrel, made a pleasant and cheery conversation in the wood. Then came the noise of the pack; and as the clamor grew louder and louder, I became aware that all movement had ceased in the copses around me and that the voices of the birds were hushed. When the chase had passed on and the baying of the dogs had been softened again by distance, I stood in a silent and empty forest. Nowhere was there a sign of life. The transformation was complete; the effect almost uncanny; and I had begun to regret that the chase had come my way, when suddenly a ruby-crowned kinglet on an oak-twig above my head began to scold. In a moment a towhee answered with his contralto call from the heart of a cassena thicket ; and at once, as if at a signal, the wood came to life again. The shadow of fear was gone. Two minutes ago the forest folk had listened in awe and dread to the cries of the bloodthirsty pack; but now it was as though the peace of the woods had never been disturbed.

This was no unusual or mysterious phenomenon. On the contrary, it was a very simple happening of a kind that anyone may observe. But at the moment, and as I pondered it there at the foot of my oak, it seemed to me a wonderful and memorable event. It caused me to become aware all at once of something which I recognized instantly as of transcendent importance to me — something of which, perhaps, I had been dimly aware for a long time, but. which never before had taken definite shape in my mind — something, moreover, which I knew must bring about a complete change in my whole philosophy of life — something which went even further and touched the springs of religion itself. And this great thing which on that day crystallized in my mind as a clear-cut and tremendous truth was this, — that all nature is abrim with happiness, happiness triumphant over terrifically cruel law.

The wild things are creatures of the moment. They live exclusively in the present. For them there is neither past nor future, and so there can be no regret for what has happened or foreboding of what may some time come to pass. There is present pain, of course, and there is present fear; but both are evanescent. When the immediate cause is removed, they vanish and there is no realization that they may return. It is true that the wild things live in constant danger, but it is not true that they live in constant terror. The operation of those unchanging natural laws which science writes out with her cold deliberate finger cannot be denied, nor can it be maintained that they are not as cruel as death itself. We cannot blind ourselves to the slaughter which results from the struggle for existence. But the great truth is that, in spite of all the slaughter and of all the pain through which nature works to some far-off and undiscoverable end, the living creatures of the earth — helpless though they be in the grip of immutable law — are happy.

‘There are moments,’ said Stevenson, expressing another but somewhat similar thought, ‘when the mind refuses to be satisfied with evolution, and demands a ruddier presentation of the sum of man’s experience.’ And so long as the evolutionist teaches only the half of evolution, so long will he fail to satisfy the mind. Teach us, by all means, the inexorable, immutable laws; show us, by all means, the merciless battle for existence; but, for pity’s sake, do not leave us then to form our judgment of the world. Take us a little further along the road of knowledge. Give us more of the facts in the case before bidding us go build our theory of life.

And you yourself, Professor Wiseman, get you out of doors. Let be your books and lock the laboratory behind you for a little while. Empty your brain of facts so that there may be room for a few new ones. Forget for an hour even the best and most firmly established of your theories so that you may not be tempted to interpret falsely what you see. Listen to the flicker as he laughs heartily in the distance. Watch the slim gray mockingbirds as they play hide-and-seek in the grove. Keep an eye on the amber-colored butterflies flitting carelessly from flower to flower. Ah, but there comes a kingbird and he crushes one of the butterflies in his bill. And you, Professor Wiseman, will now nod your head sagely and recognize an illustration of the deadly struggle for life. You will use the incident next day in your class as a practical demonstration of the bloody war of nature. See to it, then, that you do not lead those young men astray. Be careful that you do not give them a false idea of what you saw when you left your books and your dissecting table for an hour and, contrary to your custom, went out into the living world. When you tell them about the butterfly that met death, see to it that you tell them also about the hundred others that went on sipping honey in all delight of life, and about the flicker laughing in the distance and the happy mockingbirds flitting about the grove.

But no, you will not. The one tragedy that you witnessed upon this brief excursion is of more importance in your mind than all the numberless little comedies that you saw. It illustrated a natural law which it has long been your business to teach, whereas the comedies illustrated no law which you have ever seen stated in the science books. And so you will tell those young men that you could not spend a single hour with nature without seeing the death-dealing struggle going on before your eyes: and you will tell them not one word of all the happiness and enjoyment, of the sunshine and singing, of the careless play of the mockingbirds, of the beauty of the butterflies, or the sweetness of the nectar that they drank. And your listeners, believing you to be a man of clear and comprehensive vision (for are you not the author of a standard treatise on heredity and a four-hundred-page monograph on the digestive organs of the nematode worms?), wall be properly impressed; and from much repetition of such teachings they will presently see nature as one vast tragedy. Upon your head, then, will be the blame if they build for themselves dark theories of life, as deadly to the spirit as they are contrary to the facts. Some of them, after they have passed from under your influence, will discover for themselves the fallacy to which your teachings gave birth. But others will never rid themselves of the poison which has taken away their sight; these you will have blinded forever.

It is not to the teachers of science or to the savants that one must look for testimony concerning the truth or falsity of the charge here preferred. It is the young men fresh from college who, as the actual sufferers, must go upon the witness-stand. From some of these no evidence of any sort will be forthcoming; for in the cases of some, perhaps the majority, the science which they learned in college became so much dead lumber in their minds, to be forgotten absolutely, or, at least, to become the basis for nothing in the way of meditation. There are others, however, — and their number is not inconsiderable, — upon whose minds the teachings of evolution, administered during college days, exert a powerful and lasting influence. If a poll of these were taken, I believe that their testimony would sustain this suit against science as it makes itself known to most of us, against science as it is taught in its more elementary college courses — which, it is important to remember, arc the only science courses taken by a majority of students, the only science courses taken by all those who do not specialize in science and pursue advanced postgraduate studies at a university.

I believe that these witnesses would affirm that they, too, were led by those teachings of science to form the same false conception that was formed in the mind of the boy whose experience I have in part outlined. And, in all likelihood, introspection would lead some of them to go further and declare that whatever doubts they might have entertained concerning the existence of a benevolent God or First Cause were due in large part to the fact that they could not reconcile the idea of a beneficent Creator with this conception of a creation in which wretchedness was the common estate of hundreds of millions of sentient things brought into being by that Creator to inhabit this tiny particle of his infinite universe.