Views of an Agnostic
Gleanings from History
by: Ross E. Browne
This is part 12 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.
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From a superficial knowledge of general history, I have derived the following impressions : There is no historic evidence of that improvement in the native ability of man which the principle of evolution might have led an imaginary observer to anticipate. To be sure the period is a very short one in the process of evolutionary development, still some improvement might have been expected. Some of the ancients left records of their accomplishments many centuries prior to the beginning of the Christian era, which show at least as great an inherent power as that of the ablest men of to-day. The Egyptian astronomers were men off genius who three or four thousand years ago devised a method of determining in advance the dates of eclipses of the sun, without telescopes to aid them in acquiring their data, and without a convenient system of mathematics with which to make their calculations. It was what we should today recognize as the highest order of genius in Euclid which enabled him to devise a system of geometry which practically forms the text-book of to-day ; in Hipparchus to discover the eccentricity of the apparent solar-orbit; in Homer and the Greek poets to compose epic poems and plays which have never been excelled; in the Greek architects and sculptors to invent and execute designs which have served as models ever since.
When we consider the lack of facilities in those time we feel impelled to doff our caps to the men who accomplished the many remarkable intellectual feats which are still of record. Galton, in his work on “Hereditary Genius” makes an estimate of the native abilities of different peoples, and places the Athenians of 400 or 500 B. C. at the top of the ladder, and our best type of European community of the present day on the next lower round. In the intervening time there must have been operative some deteriorating influences to counteract the normal evolutionary development from a lower to a higher type.
Persistent warfare was evidently one of the influences. The strong, the courageous, the enterprising, the able were repeatedly led to sacrifice, while the weak, the timid, the incompetent were left behind to propagate the race. Those among the strong and able who survived and succeeded, generally acquired power and wealth. Their. offspring, who might otherwise have handed down the fine qualities of their ancestors, too often rested upon the laurels of their parents, and lived upon their means. Original effort is an essential element in higher development. The offspring found that they could maintain a high position and gratify their tastes for luxury without the effort of providing the opportunity for themselves. Their innate energies naturally found vent in dissipation resulting in degeneracy.
Again, as Draper shows in his “Conflict between Religion and Science,” there prevailed in the dark ages much superstition leading to outbursts of religious fanaticism ; to the enforcement of deleterious dogmas ; to the prohibition of publication of many valuable results of investigation which were branded as dangerous heretic learning ; to the suppression of free intellectual effort ; and to the ultimate extinction of a large portion of the native genius of the people. Buckle shows plainly, in his remarkable “History of Civilization in England,” the retarding effects of intolerance.
During the last few centuries we have gradually emerged from the thraldom of many of these detrimental influences, though in a somewhat maimed condition. We are still subjected to the bad effects of hereditary wealth and position, of the unjust division of the results of labor, and of innumerable evils which have been handed down. We are now improving in various ways, but shall never make the marked strides we are capable of, until we learn how ; to better regulate the conduct of the citizen without unduly limiting his liberty; to provide safer outlets for the native energies of the people; to maintain more rational standards of right-living; and to control, by some reasonable process of selection, the propagation of the race, that is with some regard to the principles of what Galton calls the Science of Eugenics.
The great improvements of recent times consist: in the fundamental development of the sciences; in the extensive utilization of the forces of nature for man’s benefit; in the development of the mechanic arts, of the arts of surgery and sanitation ; in the provision of unprecedented conveniences and comforts for the masses; in the protection of the individual against personal enslavement and persecution ; in freedom of thought and liberty of speech; in the great spread of educational facilities for the masses.
The late outburst of destructive and brutalizing warfare will of course modify some of the advantages gained, but it is hoped that the results may bring us to realize, as never before, the vital importance of some systematic regulation of international affairs. The rapid development of the sciences since the dark ages is the most notable element of progress. The school-graduate of today, who has taken a reasonable advantage of his opportunities, has a better general knowledge of the nature of his surroundings, than the professional scientist had a few centuries ago. There has been no like progress in literature or in the aesthetic arts.
Aside from the art of printing, the discoveries, tending to promote the intellectual development of man, which have impressed me most, are those of Newton and Darwin.
Newton invented a mathematical method, called fluxions or calculus, which enabled the ready treatment of many physical problem that his predecessors could not handle. He adopted the astronomer’s estimate of the moon’s distance from the earth. He assumed the moon to be attracted to the earth in accordance with the now established law of gravity, and proceeded to test the assumption by means of his newly acquired-power of handling problems of motion. He calculated the rate at which the moon would fall toward the earth if actuated according to his assumption. This should be a measure of the deviation of the moon from a straight-line tangential The result was compared with the known path and was found to be not far from the truth, but too inaccurate for the valid application of the law. The paper upon which his estimates were made was laid aside.
After the lapse of sixteen years, Newton accidentally learned that recent measurements had caused a material change in the estimated distance to the moon, amounting to about 15 per cent. He eagerly examined his old paper, and upon realizing the effect the change must have upon his calculation, it is said that he was so much agitated that he had to call in a friend to assist him in figuring. The result was a substantially accurate verification, and practically established the extension of the law. Imagine the feeling of exultation over a discovery so controlling, so far-reaching as to encompass in anticipation the relative motions of all the suns, planets, meteorites and comets of the universe, a discovery resulting simply ‘from the persistent application of the reasoning faculties of man ! Is there an instance in history more sublime ?
The discovery was soon applied to all known bodies of our solar system. It introduced simple order where chaos was threatened, where under empiric methods, complication upon complication had arisen until further progress in the most important branch of astronomy seemed to be almost hopeless. Mathematical formulae were established by means of which there could be simply calculated the orbits of the planets due to the sun’s attractive force, and the minor perturbations due to the varying attractive forces of one planet to the other.
Many years afterwards the planet Uranus was discovered and an observed irregularity in its path was at first unaccounted for. By the application of Newton’s formulae a hitherto unknown planet was indicated to be in a position necessary to produce this perturbation by its attractive force. A large telescope of the Berlin observatory was directed in the calculated course and the planet Neptune was discovered. What a victory for the power of logical reasoning!
This is an oft-told tale, but it will still bear many repetitions.
Newton’s discovery, with one fell swoop, demolished for all time the claims of the occult scientists, the astrologers, by means of which they had been imposing upon the credulity of the masses during all historic time. It established a rational recognition of the order of nature, and of the inevitable and far-reaching character of its laws. It freed man from the intellectually debasing influence of a line of superstitions which were otherwise exceedingly, if not hopelessly, difficult to overcome.
In a few years Newton prepared his great work known as the “Principia.” It is a wonderfully comprehensive and masterful work, and is, according to the estimates of those who are able to comprehend it, the greatest book ever written.
Darwin’s establishment of the leading principles of evolution was another great step in the advancement of human understanding. His work is gradually releasing man from the thraldom of various superstitions which have prevailed for scores of centuries, notably from the barren belief in separate creation of species and arbitrary endowment of our mental and moral attributes as they now appear. It has already so released most of those who have given the matter intelligent and unbiased consideration, and their influence is rapidly spreading. It throws a wonderful light upon the natural history sciences. It offers the most promising means of enlightment regarding the development of the human faculties.
It is the recognition of the processes of evolution which distinguishes much of the philosophy, of Darwin’s contemporary, Herbert Spencer, to whom is doubtless due some of the credit which is commonly assigned wholly to Darwin and Wallace. Spencer’s method of treating ethical questions by considering the development from lower types, offers many valuable suggestions.