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Biological Training and Studies

An Address delivered to the Biological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science [1870]

[Chapter XLIII, Rolleston's Scientific Papers]

... I wish first to make a few observations as to the kind of preparation which is indispensable, as it seems to me, as a preliminary to an adequate and intelligent comprehension of the problems of biology; or, in other words, to an adequate and intelligent comprehension of the discussions which will take place in this room and in the two other rooms which will be assigned to, and occupied by, the department of Ethnology and Anthropology, and that of Physiology, pure and proper, with Anatomy.

... Here comes the question, What is a well-arranged museum? The answer is, a well-arranged museum, for the particular purpose of which we are speaking, is one in which the natural objects which belong to the locality, and ... are clearly explained in a well-arranged catalogue. The curiosity which is the mother of science is not awakened for the first time in the museum, but out of doors, in the woods, by the side of the brook, on the hillside ... it is the function of the museum, by rendering possible the intellectual pleasure, which grows out of the surprise with which a novice first notes the working of his faculty of inspiration, to prevent this curiosity from degenerating into the mere woodman's craft of the gamekeeper, or the rough empiricism of the farmer. The first step to be taken in a course of natural instruction is the providing of means whereby the faculties of observation and of verification may be called into activity ... Edward Forbes, [1] has left it as his opinion that 'It is to the development of the provincial museums that, I believe, we must in future look for the extension of intellectual pursuits throughout the land.' ... With the words of Edward Forbes I might do well to end what I have to say, but I should like to say a word as to the policy of confining the contents of a local museum to the natural-history specimens of the particular locality. No doubt the first thing to be done is the collection of the local specimens, and this alike in the interest of the potential Cuviers and Hugh Millers who may be born in the district, and in the interest of the man of science who may visit the place when on his travels. But so long as a specimen from the antipodes or from whatever corner of our world be really valuable, and be duly catalogued before it is admitted to the museum, so that the lesson it has to teach may be learnable, I do not see my way towards advising that foreign specimens be excluded. It is to my mind more important that all specimens should be catalogued as soon as received, than that any should be rejected when offered.

... I shall not be suspected in this place and upon this occasion, nor, as I hope, upon any other, of a wish to depreciate the value of scientific instruction as an engine for training the mind; but neither, on the other hand, should I wish to depreciate the value of literary culture, my view of the relations of these two gymnastics of the mind being the very simple, obvious and natural one that they should be harmoniously combined:

Alterius sic
Altera poscit opem res, et conjurat amice.

I know it may be said that there are difficulties in the way, and especially practical difficulties ... The various ways of getting over these difficulties are obvious enough, and have been hinted at or fully expressed by several writers of greater or lesser authority on many occasions. It is, however, of some consequence that I should here say what I believe has not been said before, namely, that a purely and exclusively literary education, imperfect and one-sided as it is, is still a better thing than a system of scientific instruction (to abuse the use of the word for a moment) in which there should be no courses of practical familiarising with natural objects, verification and experimentation. A purely literary training, say, in dialectics, or what we are pleased to call logic, to take a flagrant and glaring instance first, does confer certain lower advantages to the person who goes through it without any discipline in the practical investigation of actual problems. ... It is true that such sophists [with such training] gain this dexterity [of thought] at the cost of losing, in every case, the power of fairly and fully appreciating or investigating truth, of losing in many cases the faculty of sustaining and maintaining serious attention to any subject, and of losing in some cases even the power of writing. A well-known character ... used to speak of a pen as his torpedo. Still they have their reward, they succeed now and then of convincing juries, and they are formidable at dinner-tables. It would not be fair, however, not to say that a purely literary training can do much better things than this. By a purely classical education a man, from being forced into seeing and feeling that other men could look upon the world, moral, social and physical, with other (even if not larger) eyes than ours, attains a certain flexibility of mind which enables him to enter into the thoughts of other and living men; and this is a very desirable attainment. And, finally, though I should be sorry to hold with a French writer that the style makes the man, the benefit of being early familiarised with writings which the peculiar social conditions of the classical times ... conspired and contributed not a little to make models of style, is not to be despised. Such a familiarity may not confer the power of imitating or rivalling such compositions, but it may confer the power of imitating or rivalling such compositions, but it may confer the power of appreciating their excellences, the one power appearing to us to be analogous to the power of the experimenter, and the other to that of the pure observer in Natural Science; and we should undervalue neither.

Masters of Science, it must be confessed, are not always masters of style ... I have already said that I am strongly of opinion that literary should always combined with scientific instruction in a perfect educational course; these somewhat lengthy remarks refer therefore only to systems in which it is proposed that we should have not only a bifurcation but a radical separation of studies and students; and the moral of this may be summed up by saying that a purely scientific education must be a thoroughly practical one, familiarising the student with actual things as well as with words and symbols. It was upon the solid ground that Antaeus learnt the art of wrestling; it was only when he allowed himself to be lifted from it that he was strangled by Hercules.

Coming now to the second part of my address, I beg to say that the word Biology is at present used in two senses, one wider, and the other more restricted. In this latter sense the word becomes equivalent to the older, and till recently more currently used word 'Physiology.' It is in the wider sense that the word is used when we speak of this as being the Section of Biology; and this wider sense is a very wide one, for it comprehends, first, Animal and Vegetable Physiology and Anatomy; secondly, Ethnology and Anthropology; and thirdly Scientific Zoology and Classifactory Botany, inclusively of the Distribution of Species. It may have been possible in former times for a single individual of great powers of assimilation to keep himself abreast of, and on a level with, the advance of knowledge along all these various lines of investigation; but in those times knowledge was not, and could not, owing to difficulties of intercommunication, the dearness of books, the costliness or non-existence of instruments, have been increased at the rate at which it is now being, year by year, increased; and the entire mass of actually existing and acquired knowledge was of course much smaller, though man's power of mastering it was no smaller than at present. It would now be an indication of very great ignorance if anybody should pretend that his own stock of information could furnish him with something in each one of the several departments of knowledge I have just mentioned ... What I propose to do is merely to draw your attention to a very few of the topics of leading interest which are at the present moment being, or rather will shortly begin to be, discussed with experts in the Department of Physiology and Anatomy, in the Department of Ethnology and Anthropology, and, thirdly, in the Department of Scientific Zoology.

A considerable number of the papers which will be read before this Section, indeed a considerable part of the Section itself, will be devoted to the Natural History of man. Nothing, I apprehend, is more distinctive of the present phase of that 'proper study of mankind' than the now accomplished formation of a close alliance between the students of archaeology strict and proper and the biologist with the express purpose of jointing occupying and cultivating that vast territory. Literature and art and the products of the arts furnish each their data to the ethnologist and anthropologist in addition to those which it is the business of the anatomist, the physiologist, the palaeontologist and the physical geographer to be acquainted with; nor can any conclusion be attained to by following up any single one of these lines of investigation be considered as definitely absolved from the condition of the provisional until it has been shown that it can never be put into opposition with any conclusion legitimately arrived at along any other of the routes specified. [Boldening by transcriber: key passage of Rolleston's view on anthropology?] In political alliances the shortcomings of one party necessarily hamper and check the advance of the other; a failure in the means or in the perseverance of one party may bring the joint enterprise to a premature close; mutual forbearance, not to dwell longer upon extreme cases, may finally be as effectual in slackening progress as even mutual jealousies. No such disadvantages attach themselves to the alliance of literature with science, as the German 'Archiv für Anthropologie,' issued to the world under the joint management of Ecker the biologist and Lindenschmit the antiquary, will show any one who consults its pages, replete with many-sided but not superficial, multifarious but never inaccurate, information.

The antiquary is a little prone, if he will allow me to say so, when left alone, to make himself but a connoisseur; the historian, whilst striving to avoid the Scylla of judicial dullness, slides into the Charybdis of political partisanship; and the biologist not rarely shows himself a little cold to matters of moral and social interest whilst absorbed in the enthusiasms of speciality. The combination of minds varying in bent is found efficacious in correcting these aberrational and by this combination we obtain that white and dry light which is so comforting to the eye of the truth-loving student, to say nothing as to its being so much stronger than the coloured rays which the work of one isolated student may sometimes have cast upon it from the work of another. It would be invidious to speculate, and I have forborne from suggesting, whether the literary contingent in the conquering though composite army have learnt more from observation of the methods and evolutions of the scientific contingent, or the scientific more from the observation of the literary; it is, however, neither invidious nor superfluous to congratulate the general public upon the necessity which these, like other allies, have been reduced to, of adopting one common code of signals, and discarding the exclusive use of their several and distinctive technicalities. Subjects of a universal interest have thus come to be treated, and that by persons now amongst us, in a language universally 'understanded of the people.' I have been careful to include the palaeontologist amongst the scientific specialists whose peculiar researches have cast a helpful and indeed an indispensable light upon the history of the fates and fortunes of our species. But it is not organic science only which anthropology impresses into its service; and it would be the sheerest ingratitude to forget the help which the mineralogist gives us in assigning the source whence the jade celt has come or could come, or to omit an acknowledgment of the toil of the analytical chemist, who has given the percentage of the tin in the bronze celt, or in the so-called 'leaden' and therefore Roman coffin. [Boldening by transcriber]

I am very well aware that many persons who have honoured me by listening to the last few sentences have been thinking that it is at least premature to attempt to harmonise the two classes of evidence in question; and that the best advice that can be given to the two sets of workers severally is, that they should work independently of each other. Craniography is said, and by irrefragable authority, to be a most deceptive guide; works and articles on ethnology tell us stories of skulls being labelled, even in museums of the first order of merit, with such Janus-like tickets as 'Etruscan Tyrol or Inca Peruvian;' and one of the most celebrated anthropotomists of the day has been so impressed with the fact that Peruvian as well as Japanese and Ethiopian skulls may be found on living shoulders within the precincts of a single German university town, that he has busied himself with forming a pseudo-typical ethnological series from the source and area just indicated. Great has been the scandal thence accruing to craniography, and the collector of skulls has thence come to be looked upon as a dilettante with singular ghoul-like propensities, which are pardonable only because they relate to savage races of modern days, or to cemeteries several hundred years old, but which are not to be regarded as being seriously scientific. Now to me the existence of such a way of estimating such a work appears to argue a sad amount of ignorance of the laws of the logic of practical life, or, indeed, of the unpractical, can read in a treatise on logic. A man's features and physiognomy are instinctively and intuitively, or, if you prefer so to put it, as a result of the accumulated social experiences of generations of men, taken as a more or less valuable and trustworthy indication of his character; were this not so, photographers would not, as I apprehend, and hope they do, make fortunes; yet the face is at least as often fallacious as an index of the mind as the skull is fallacious as an index of race. ... The living faces in a gaol, again, to put the same argument upon other grounds, are as dangerous to judge from as are the skulls in a museum; yet every detective is something like a professor of physiognomy, and most of them could write a good commentary on Lavater. The true state of the case may, perhaps, be represented thus;--A person who has had a large series of crania through his hands, of the authenticity of which, as to place and data, he has himself had evidence, might express himself, perhaps, somewhat to the following effect if he were asked whether he had gathered from his examination of such a series any confidence as to his power of referring to, or excluding from, any such series any skull which he has not seen before. He might say, 'The human, like other highly organised types of life, admits of great variety; aberrant forms arise, even in our own species under conditions of the greatest uniformity possible to humanity; amongst savages great variety exists ... even though all of them may live the same "dull grey life" and die the same "apathetic end;" and consequently it may never, except in the case of Australian or Esquimaux, and perhaps a few other crania, be quite safe to pledge one's-self as to the nationality of a single skull. Still there is such a thing as craniographical type; and if half a dozen sets, consisting of ten crania apiece, each assortment having been taken from the cemeteries of some well-marked nationality, were set before me, I would venture to say, after consultation and comparison, that it might be possible to show that unassisted cranioscopy, if not invariably right, even under such favourable circumstances, was nevertheless not wrong in a very large number of cases.' ...

If we are told that the attempt to harmonise the results, not merely of cranioscopy, but of any and all natural science investigation, with the results of literary and linguistic research, is needles and even futile, this is simply equivalent to saying that one or other of these methods is worthless. For as Truth is one, if two routes purporting both alike to lead to it do not sooner or later converge and harmonise, this can only be because one or other of them fails to impinge upon the goal. It is true that by certain lines of investigation light is thrown upon a problem only at a single point, and that all further prosecution of investigation along that line will but lead us off at a tangent. Still the throwing of even a single ray upon a dark surface is an achievement with a value of its own; and it is a cardinal rule in our sciences never to ignore the existence of seemingly contradictory data, in whatsoever quarter they may show themselves. ...

The argument from identity of customs and practices to identity of race is liable to much the same objections, and to much the same fallacies, as is the argument from identity of cranial conformation. The case may be found admirably stated in Mr Tylor's work on the 'Early History of Mankind,' p. 276, ed. 2; and I may say that the means of bringing the problem home to one's-self may be found by a visit to any collection of flint implements. In such a collection, as Mr Tylor has pointed out, p. 205, we are very soon impressed with the marked uniformity which characterises these implements, whether modern or thousands of years old, whether found on this side of the world or the other. For example, a flint arrow-head which came into my hands a short time back, through the kindness of Lord Antrim, after having done duty in these iron times as a charm at the bottom of a water-tub for cattle in Ireland, was pointed out or at to me by a very distinguished Canadian naturalist, who was visiting Oxford the other day, as being closely similar to the weapons manufactured by the Canadian Indians. Now after such an experience one may do well to ask in Mr Tylor's words ('Early History,' p. 206),--

'How, then, is this remarkable uniformity to be explained? The principle that man does the same thing under the same circumstances will account for much, but it is very doubtful whether it can be stretched far enough to account for even the greater proportion of the facts in question. The other side of the argument is, of course, that resemblance is due to connexion, and the truth is made up of the two, though in what proportions we do not know. It may be that, though the problem is too obscure to be worked out alone, the uniformity of development in different regions of the Stone age may some day be successfully brought in with other lines of argument, based on deep-lying agreements in culture which tend to centralise the early history of races of very unlike appearances, and living in widely different ages and countries.'

If the pyschological identity of our species may explain the identity of certain customs, its physiological identity may explain certain others. Some of this latter class are of a curious kind, and relate not to matters of social or family, but to matters of purely personal and individual interest, concerning as they do the sensibility, and with it all the other functions of the living body. Such customs are the wearing of labrets or lip-rings, nose-rings, and, if I may add it without offence, of certain other rings inserted in the wide region supplied by the fifth or trifacial nerve. A physiological explanation may lie at the base of these practices, which appear to put at the disposal of the persons who adopt them a perennial means of setting up an irritation, whence reflex consequent in the course of reflex nutrition and reflex secretion, as of gastric juice, may flow. ...

Sir John Lubbock's recently published work on 'The Origin of Civilisation' may, I anticipate, cause the history and genealogy of manners and customs to enter largely into the composition of our lists of papers. ...



Added Notes

[1] Edward Forbes (1815-1854) Manx naturalist

AP transcribed December 2013

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