Scientific Essays and Lectures by Charles Kingsley

Transcribed by David Price, email Scientific Lectures and Essays Contents: {0} On Bio-Geology The Study of Natural History Superstition Science Thoughts in a Gravel-Pit How to Study Natural History The Natural Theology of the Future ON BIO-GEOLOGY {1} I am not sure that the subject of my address is rightly chosen. I am not
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Transcribed by David Price, email

Scientific Lectures and Essays

Contents: {0}
On Bio-Geology
The Study of Natural History
Thoughts in a Gravel-Pit
How to Study Natural History
The Natural Theology of the Future


I am not sure that the subject of my address is rightly chosen. I am not sure that I ought not to have postponed a question of mere natural history, to speak to you as scientific men, on the questions of life and death, which have been forced upon us by the awful warning of an illustrious personage’s illness; of preventible disease, its frightful prevalency; of the 200,000 persons who are said to have died of fever alone since the Prince Consort’s death, ten years ago; of the remedies; of drainage; of sewage disinfection and utilisation; and of the assistance which you, as a body of scientific men, can give to any effort towards saving the lives and health of our fellow-citizens from those unseen poisons which lurk like wild beasts couched in the jungle, ready to spring at any moment on the unsuspecting, the innocent, the helpless. Of all this I longed to speak; but I thought it best only to hint at it, and leave the question to your common sense and your humanity; taking for granted that your minds, like the minds of all right-minded Englishmen, have been of late painfully awakened to its importance. It seemed to me almost an impertinence to say more in a city of whose local circumstances I know little or nothing. As an old sanitary reformer, practical, as well as theoretical, I am but too well aware of the difficulties which beset any complete scheme of drainage, especially in an ancient city like this; where men are paying the penalty of their predecessors’ ignorance; and dwelling, whether they choose or not, over fifteen centuries of accumulated dirt.

And, therefore, taking for granted that there is energy and intellect enough in Winchester to conquer these difficulties in due time, I go on to ask you to consider, for a time, a subject which is growing more and more important and interesting, a subject the study of which will do much towards raising the field naturalist from a mere collector of specimens–as he was twenty years ago–to a philosopher elucidating some of the grandest problems. I mean the infant science of Bio-geology–the science which treats of the distribution of plants and animals over the globe, and the cause of that distribution.

I doubt not that there are many here who know far more about the subject than I; who are far better read than I am in the works of Forbes, Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, Moritz Wagner, and the other illustrious men who have written on it. But I may, perhaps, give a few hints which will be of use to the younger members of this Society, and will point out to them how to get a new relish for the pursuit of field science.

Bio-geology, then, begins with asking every plant or animal you meet, large or small, not merely–What is your name? That is the collector and classifier’s duty; and a most necessary duty it is, and one to be performed with the most conscientious patience and accuracy, so that a sound foundation may be built for future speculations. But young naturalists should act not merely as Nature’s registrars and census-takers, but as her policemen and gamekeepers; and ask everything they meet–How did you get there? By what road did you come? What was your last place of abode? And now you are here, how do you get your living? Are you and your children thriving, like decent people who can take care of themselves, or growing pauperised and degraded, and dying out? Not that we have a fear of your becoming a dangerous class. Madame Nature allows no dangerous classes, in the modern sense. She has, doubtless for some wise reason, no mercy for the weak. She rewards each organism according to its works; and if anything grows too weak or stupid to take care of itself, she gives it its due deserts by letting it die and disappear. So, you plant or you animal, are you among the strong, the successful, the multiplying, the colonising? Or are you among the weak, the failing, the dwindling, the doomed?

These questions may seem somewhat rude: but you may comfort yourself by the thought that plants and animals, though they deserve all kindness, all admiration, deserve no courtesy–at least in this respect. For they are, one and all, wherever you find them, vagrants and landlopers, intruders and conquerors, who have got where they happen to be simply by the law of the strongest– generally not without a little robbery and murder. They have no right save that of possession; the same by which the puffin turns out the old rabbits, eats the young ones, and then lays her eggs in the rabbit-burrow–simply because she can.

Now, you will see at once that such a course of questioning will call out a great many curious and interesting answers, if you can only get the things to tell you their story; as you always may if you will cross-examine them long enough; and will lead you into many subjects beside mere botany or entomology. So various, indeed, are the subjects which you will thus start, that I can only hint at them now in the most cursory fashion.

At the outset you will soon find yourself involved in chemical and meteorological questions; as, for instance, when you ask–How is it that I find one flora on the sea-shore, another on the sandstone, another on the chalk, and another on the peat-making gravelly strata? The usual answer would be, I presume–if we could work it out by twenty years’ experiment, such as Mr. Lawes, of Rothampsted, has been making on the growth of grasses and leguminous plants in different soils and under different manures–the usual answer, I say, would be–Because we plants want such and such mineral constituents in our woody fibre; again, because we want a certain amount of moisture at a certain period of the year: or, perhaps, simply because the mechanical arrangement of the particles of a certain soil happens to suit the shape of our roots and of their stomata. Sometimes you will get an answer quickly enough; sometimes not. If you ask, for instance, Asplenium viride how it contrives to grow plentifully in the Craven of Yorkshire down to 600 or 800 feet above the sea, while in Snowdon it dislikes growing lower than 2000 feet, and is not plentiful even there?–it will reply–Because in the Craven I can get as much carbonic acid as I want from the decomposing limestone; while on the Snowdon Silurian I get very little; and I have to make it up by clinging to the mountain tops, for the sake of the greater rainfall. But if you ask Polypodium calcareum–How is it you choose only to grow on limestone, while Polypodium Dryopteris, of which, I suspect, you are only a variety, is ready to grow anywhere?–Polypodium calcareum will refuse, as yet, to answer a word.

Again–I can only give you the merest string of hints–you will find in your questionings that many plants and animals have no reason at all to show why they should be in one place and not in another, save the very sound reason for the latter which was suggested to me once by a great naturalist. I was asking–Why don’t I find such and such a species in my parish, while it is plentiful a few miles off in exactly the same soil?–and he answered–For the same reason that you are not in America. Because you have not got there. Which answer threw to me a flood of light on this whole science. Things are often where they are, simply because they happen to have got there, and not elsewhere. But they must have got there by some means, and those means I want young naturalists to discover; at least, to guess at.

A species, for instance–and I suspect it is a common case with insects–may abound in a single spot, simply because, long years ago, a single brood of eggs happened to hatch at a time when eggs of other species, who would have competed against them for food, did not hatch; and they may remain confined to that spot, though there is plenty of food for them outside it, simply because they do not increase fast enough to require to spread out in search of more food. Thus I should explain a case which I heard of lately of Anthocera trifolii, abundant for years in one corner of a certain field, and only there; while there was just as much trefoil all round for its larvae as there was in the selected spot. I can, I say, only give hints: but they will suffice, I hope, to show the path of thought into which I want young naturalists to turn their minds.

Or, again, you will have to inquire whether the species has not been prevented from spreading by some natural barrier. Mr. Wallace, whom you all of course know, has shown in his “Malay Archipelago” that a strait of deep sea can act as such a barrier between species. Moritz Wagner has shown that, in the case of insects, a moderately- broad river may divide two closely-allied species of beetles, or a very narrow snow-range, two closely-allied species of moths.

Again, another cause, and a most common one, is: that the plants cannot spread because they find the ground beyond them already occupied by other plants, who will not tolerate a fresh mouth, having only just enough to feed themselves. Take the case of Saxifraga hypnoides and S. umbrosa, “London pride.” They are two especially strong species. They show that, S. hypnoides especially, by their power of sporting, of diverging into varieties; they show it equally by their power of thriving anywhere, if they can only get there. They will grow both in my sandy garden, under a rainfall of only 23 inches, more luxuriantly than in their native mountains under a rainfall of 50 or 60 inches. Then how is it that S. hypnoides cannot get down off the mountains; and that S. umbrosa, though in Kerry it has got off the mountains and down to the sea- level, exterminating, I suspect, many species in its progress, yet cannot get across County Cork? The only answer is, I believe, that both species are continually trying to go ahead; but that the other plants already in front of them are too strong for them, and massacre their infants as soon as born.

And this brings us to another curious question: the sudden and abundant appearance of plants, like the foxglove and Epilobium angustifolium, in spots where they have never been seen before. Are there seeds, as some think, dormant in the ground; or are the seeds which have germinated, fresh ones wafted thither by wind or otherwise, and only able to germinate in that one spot because there the soil is clear? General Monro, now famous for his unequalled memoir on the bamboos, holds to the latter theory. He pointed out to me that the Epilobium seeds, being feathered could travel with the wind; that the plant always made its appearance first on new banks, landslips, clearings, where it had nothing to compete against; and that the foxglove did the same. True, and most painfully true, in the case of thistles and groundsels: but foxglove seeds, though minute, would hardly be carried by the wind any more than those of the white clover, which comes up so abundantly in drained fens. Adhuc sub judice lis est, and I wish some young naturalists would work carefully at the solution; by experiment, which is the most sure way to find out anything.

But in researches in this direction they will find puzzles enough. I will give them one which I shall be most thankful to hear they have solved within the next seven years–How is it that we find certain plants, namely, the thrift and the scurvy grass, abundant on the sea-shore and common on certain mountain-tops, but nowhere between the two? Answer me that. For I have looked at the fact for years–before, behind, sideways, upside down, and inside out–and I cannot understand it.

But all these questions, and especially, I suspect, that last one, ought to lead the young student up to the great and complex question–How were these islands re-peopled with plants and animals, after the long and wholesale catastrophe of the glacial epoch?

I presume you all know, and will agree, that the whole of these islands, north of the Thames, save certain ice-clad mountain-tops, were buried for long ages under an icy sea. From whence did vegetable and animal life crawl back to the land, as it rose again; and cover its mantle of glacial drift with fresh life and verdure?

Now let me give you a few prolegomena on this matter. You must study the plants of course, species by species. Take Watson’s “Cybele Britannica” and Moore’s “Cybele Hibernica;” and let–as Mr. Matthew Arnold would say–“your thought play freely about them.” Look carefully, too, in the case of each species, at the note on its distribution, which you will find appended in Bentham’s “Handbook,” and in Hooker’s “Student’s Flora.” Get all the help you can, if you wish to work the subject out, from foreign botanists, both European and American; and I think that, on the whole, you will come to some such theory as this for a general starling platform. We do not owe our flora–I must keep to the flora just now–to so many different regions, or types, as Mr. Watson conceives, but to three, namely, an European or Germanic flora, from the south-east; an Atlantic flora, from the south-east; a Northern flora, from the north. These three invaded us after the glacial epoch; and our general flora is their result.

But this will cause you much trouble. Before you go a step farther you will have to eliminate from all your calculations most of the plants which Watson calls glareal, i.e. found in cultivated ground about habitations. And what their limit may be I think we never shall know. But of this we may be sure; that just as invading armies always bring with them, in forage or otherwise, some plants from their own country–just as the Cossacks, in 1815, brought more than one Russian plant through Germany into France–just as you have already a crop of North German plants upon the battle-fields of France–thus do conquering races bring new plants. The Romans, during their 300 or 400 years of occupation and civilisation, must have brought more species, I believe, than I dare mention. I suspect them of having brought, not merely the common hedge elm of the south, not merely the three species of nettle, but all our red poppies, and a great number of the weeds which are common in our cornfields; and when we add to them the plants which may have been brought by returning crusaders and pilgrims; by monks from every part of Europe, by Flemings or other dealers in foreign wool–we have to cut a huge cantle out of our indigenous flora: only, having no records, we hardly know where and what to cut out; and can only, we elder ones, recommend the subject to the notice of the younger botanists, that they may work it out after our work is done.

Of course these plants introduced by man, if they are cut out, must be cut out of only one of the floras, namely, the European; for they, probably, came from the south-east, by whatever means they came.

That European flora invaded us, I presume, immediately after the glacial epoch, at a time when France and England were united, and the German Ocean a mere network of rivers, which emptied into the deep sea between Scotland and Scandinavia. And here I must add, that endless questions of interest will arise to those who will study, not merely the invasion of that truly European flora, but the invasion of reptiles, insects, and birds, especially birds of passage, which must have followed it as soon as the land was sufficiently covered with vegetation to support life. Whole volumes remain to be written on this subject. I trust that some of your younger members may live to write one of them. The way to begin will be; to compare the flora and fauna of this part of England very carefully with that of the southern and eastern counties; and then to compare them again with the fauna and flora of France, Belgium, and Holland.

As for the Atlantic flora, you will have to decide for yourselves whether you accept or not the theory of a sunken Atlantic continent. I confess that all objections to that theory, however astounding it may seem, are outweighed in my mind by a host of facts which I can explain by no other theory. But you must judge for yourselves; and to do so you must study carefully the distribution of heaths both in Europe and at the Cape, and their non-appearance beyond the Ural Mountains, and in America, save in Labrador, where the common ling, an older and less specialised form, exists. You must consider, too, the plants common to the Azores, Portugal, the West of England, Ireland, and the Western Hebrides. In so doing young naturalists will at least find proofs of a change in the distribution of land and water, which will utterly astound them when they face it for the first time.

As for the Northern flora, the question whence it came is puzzling enough. It seems difficult to conceive how any plants could have survived when Scotland was an archipelago in the same ice-covered condition as Greenland is now; and we have no proof that there existed after the glacial epoch any northern continent from which the plants and animals could have come back to us. The species of plants and animals common to Britain, Scandinavia, and North America, must have spread in pre-glacial times when a continent joining them did exist.

But some light has been thrown on this question by an article, as charming as it is able, on “The Physics of the Arctic Ice,” by Dr. Brown of Campster. You will find it in the “Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society” for February, 1870. He shows there that even in Greenland peaks and crags are left free enough from ice to support a vegetation of between three hundred or four hundred species of flowering plants; and, therefore, he well says, we must be careful to avoid concluding that the plant and animal life on the dreary shores or mountain-tops of the old glacial Scotland was poor. The same would hold good of our mountains; and, if so, we may look with respect, even awe, on the Alpine plants of Wales, Scotland, and the Lake mountains, as organisms, stunted it may be, and even degraded by their long battle with the elements, but venerable from their age, historic from their endurance. Relics of an older temperate world, they have lived through thousands of centuries of frost and fog, to sun themselves in a temperate climate once more. I can never pick one of them without a tinge of shame; and to exterminate one of them is to destroy, for the mere pleasure of collecting, the last of a family which God has taken the trouble to preserve for thousands of centuries.

I trust that these hints–for I can call them nothing more–will at least awaken any young naturalist who has hitherto only collected natural objects, to study the really important and interesting question–How did these things get here?

Now hence arise questions which may puzzle the mind of a Hampshire naturalist. You have in this neighbourhood, as you well know, two, or rather three, soils, each carrying its peculiar vegetation. First, you have the clay lying on the chalk, and carrying vast woodlands, seemingly primeval. Next, you have the chalk, with its peculiar, delicate, and often fragrant crop of lime-loving plants; and next, you have the poor sands and clays of the New Forest basin, saturated with iron, and therefore carrying a moorland or peat- loving vegetation, in many respects quite different from the others. And this moorland soil, and this vegetation, with a few singular exceptions, repeats itself, as I daresay you know, in the north of the county, in the Bagshot basin, as it is called–the moors of Aldershot, Hartford Bridge, and Windsor Forest.

Now what a variety of interesting questions are opened up by these simple facts. How did these three floras get each to its present place? Where did each come from? How did it get past or through the other, till each set of plants, after long internecine competition, settled itself down in the sheet of land most congenial to it? And when did each come hither? Which is the oldest? Will any one tell me whether the healthy floras of the moors, or the thymy flora of the chalk downs, were the earlier inhabitants of these isles? To these questions I cannot get any answer; and they cannot be answered without, first–a very careful study of the range of each species of plant on the continent of Europe; and next, without careful study of those stupendous changes in the shape of this island which have taken place at a very late geological epoch. The composition of the flora of our moorlands is as yet to me an utter puzzle. We have Lycopodiums–three species–enormously ancient forms which have survived the age of ice: but did they crawl downward hither from the northern mountains or upward hither from the Pyrenees? We have the beautiful bog asphodel again–an enormously ancient form; for it is, strange to say, common to North America and to Northern Europe, but does not enter Asia–almost an unique instance. It must, surely, have come from the north; and points–as do many species of plants and animals–to the time when North Europe and North America were joined. We have, sparingly, in North Hampshire, though, strangely, not on the Bagshot moors, the Common or Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris); and also, in the south, the New Forest part of the county, the delicate little Pinguicula lusitanica, the only species now found in Devon and Cornwall, marking the New Forest as the extreme eastern limit of the Atlantic flora. We have again the heaths, which, as I have just said, are found neither in America nor in Asia, and must, I believe, have come from some south-western land long since submerged beneath the sea. But more, we have in the New Forest two plants which are members of the South Europe, or properly, the Atlantic flora; which must have come from the south and south-east; and which are found in no other spots in these islands. I mean the lovely Gladiolus, which grows abundantly under the ferns near Lyndhurst, certainly wild, but it does not approach England elsewhere nearer than the Loire and the Rhine; and next, that delicate orchid, the Spiranthes aestivalis, which is known only in a bog near Lyndhurst and in the Channel Islands, while on the Continent it extends from Southern Europe all through France. Now, what do these two plants mark? They give us a point in botany, though not in time, to determine when the south of England was parted from the opposite shores of France; and whenever that was, it was just after the Gladiolus and Spiranthes got hither. Two little colonies of these lovely flowers arrived just before their retreat was cut off. They found the country already occupied with other plants; and, not being reinforced by fresh colonists from the south, have not been able to spread farther north than Lyndhurst. Thus, in the New Forest, and, I may say in the Bagshot moors, you find plants which you do not expect, and do not find plants which you do expect; and you are, or ought to be, puzzled, and I hope also interested, and stirred up to find out more.

I spoke just now of the time when England was joined to France, as bearing on Hampshire botany. It bears no less on Hampshire zoology. In insects, for instance, the presence of the purple emperor and the white admiral in our Hampshire woods, as well as the abundance of the great stag-beetle, point to a time when the two countries were joined, at least as far west as Hampshire; while the absence of these insects farther to the westward shows that the countries, if ever joined, were already parted; and that those insects have not yet had time to spread westward. The presence of these two butterflies, and partly of the stag-beetle, along the south-east coast of England as far as the primeval forests of South Lincolnshire, points, as do a hundred other facts, to a time when the Straits of Dover either did not exist, or were the bed of a river running from the west; and when, as I told you just now, all the rivers which now run into the German Ocean, from the Humber on the west to the Elbe on the east, discharged themselves into the sea between Scotland and Norway, after wandering through a vast lowland, covered with countless herds of mammoth, rhinoceros, gigantic ox, and other mammals now extinct; while the birds, as far as we know, the insects, the fresh-water fish, and even, as my friend Mr. Brady has proved, the Entomostraca of the rivers, were the same in what is now Holland as in what is now our Eastern counties. I could dwell long on this matter. I could talk long about how certain species of Lepidoptera–moths and butterflies–like Papilio Machaon and P. Podalirius, swarm through France, reach up to the British Channel, and have not crossed it, with the exception of one colony of Machaon in the Cambridgeshire fens. I could talk long about a similar phenomenon in the case of our migratory and singing birds; how many exquisite species–notably those two glorious songsters, the Orphean Warbler and Hippolais, which delight our ears everywhere on the other side of the Channel–follow our nightingales, blackcaps, and warblers northward every spring almost to the Straits of Dover, but dare not cross, simply because they have been, as it were, created since the gulf was opened, and have never learnt from their parents how to fly over it.

In the case of fishes, again, I might say much on the curious fact that the Cyprinidae, or white fish–carp, etc.–and their natural enemy, the pike, are indigenous, I believe, only to the rivers, English or continental, on the eastern side of the Straits of Dover; while the rivers on the western side were originally tenanted, like our Hampshire streams, as now, almost entirely by trout, their only Cyprinoid being the minnow–if it, too, be not an interloper; and I might ask you to consider the bearing of this curious fact on the former junction of England and France.

But I have only time to point out to you a few curious facts with regard to reptiles, which should be specially interesting to a Hampshire bio-geologist. You know, of course, that in Ireland there are no reptiles, save the little common lizard, Lacerta agilis, and a few frogs on the mountain-tops–how they got there I cannot conceive. And you will, of course, guess, and rightly, that the reason of the absence of reptiles is: that Ireland was parted off from England before the creatures, which certainly spread from southern and warmer climates, had time to get there. You know, of course, that we have a few reptiles in England. But you may not be aware that, as soon as you cross the Channel, you find many more species of reptiles than here, as well as those which you find here. The magnificent green lizard which rattles about like a rabbit in a French forest, is never found here; simply because it had not worked northward till after the Channel was formed. But there are three reptiles peculiar to this part of England which should be most interesting to a Hampshire zoologist. The one is the sand lizard (L. stirpium), found on Bourne-heath, and, I suspect, in the South Hampshire moors likewise–a North European and French species. Another, the Coronella laevis, a harmless French and Austrian snake, which has been found about me, in North Hants and South Berks, now about fifteen or twenty times. I have had three specimens from my own parish. I believe it not to be uncommon; and most probably to be found, by those who will look, both in the New Forest and Woolmer. The third is the Natterjack, or running toad (Bufo Rubeta), a most beautifully-spotted animal, with a yellow stripe down his back, which is common with us at Eversley, and common also in many moorlands of Hants and Surrey; and, according to Fleming, on heaths near London, and as far north-east as Lincolnshire; in which case it will belong to the Germanic fauna. Now, here again we have cases of animals which have just been able to get hither before the severance of England and France; and which, not being reinforced from the rear, have been forced to stop, in small and probably decreasing colonies, on the spots nearest the coast which were fit for them.

I trust that I have not kept you too long over these details. What I wish to impress upon you is that Hampshire is a country specially fitted for the study of important bio-geological questions.

To work them out, you must trace the geology of Hampshire, and indeed, of East Dorset. You must try to form a conception of how the land was shaped in miocene times, before that tremendous upheaval which reared the chalk cliffs at Freshwater upright, lifting the tertiary beds upon their northern slopes. You must ask- -Was there not land to the south of the Isle of Wight in those ages, and for ages after; and what was its extent and shape? You must ask–When was the gap between the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Purbeck sawn through, leaving the Needles as remnants on one side, and Old Harry on the opposite? And was it sawn asunder merely by the age-long gnawing of the waves? You must ask–Where did the great river which ran from the west, where Poole Harbour is now, and probably through what is now the Solent, depositing brackish water- beds right and left–where, I say, did it run into the sea? Where the Straits of Dover are now? Or, if not there, where? What, too, is become of the land to the Westward, composed of ancient metamorphic rocks, out of which it ran, and deposited on what are now the Haggerstone Moors of Poole, vast beds of grit? What was the climate on its banks when it washed down the delicate leaves of broad-leaved trees, akin to our modern English ones, which are found in the fine mud-sand strata of Bournemouth? When, finally, did it dwindle down to the brook which now runs through Wareham town? Was its bed, sea or dry land, or under an ice sheet, during the long ages of the glacial epoch? And if you say–Who is sufficient for these things?–Who can answer these questions? I answer–Who but you, or your pupils after you, if you will but try?

And if any shall reply–And what use if I do try? What use, if I do try? What use if I succeed in answering every question which you have propounded to-night? Shall I be the happier for it? Shall I be the wiser?

My friends, whether you will be the happier for it, or for any knowledge of physical science, or for any other knowledge whatsoever, I cannot tell: that lies in the decision of a Higher Power than I; and, indeed, to speak honestly, I do not think that bio-geology or any other branch of physical science is likely, at first at least, to make you happy. Neither is the study of your fellow-men. Neither is religion itself. We were not sent into the world to be happy, but to be right; at least, poor creatures that we are, as right as we can be; and we must be content with being right, and not happy. For I fear, or rather I hope, that most of us are not capable of carrying out Talleyrand’s recipe for perfect happiness on earth–namely, a hard heart and a good digestion. Therefore, as our hearts are, happily, not always hard, and our digestions, unhappily, not always good, we will be content to be made wise by physical science, even though we be not made happy.

And we shall be made truly wise if we be made content; content, too, not only with what we can understand, but, content with what we do not understand–the habit of mind which theologians call–and rightly–faith in God; the true and solid faith, which comes often out of sadness, and out of doubt, such as bio-geology may well stir in us at first sight. For our first feeling will be–I know mine was when I began to look into these matters–one somewhat of dread and of horror.

Here were all these creatures, animal and vegetable, competing against each other. And their competition was so earnest and complete, that it did not mean–as it does among honest shopkeepers in a civilised country–I will make a little more money than you; but–I will crush you, enslave you, exterminate you, eat you up. “Woe to the weak,” seems to be Nature’s watchword. The Psalmist says: “The righteous shall inherit the land.” If you go to a tropical forest, or, indeed, if you observe carefully a square acre of any English land, cultivated or uncultivated, you will find that Nature’s text at first sight looks a very different one. She seems to say: Not the righteous, but the strong, shall inherit the land. Plant, insect, bird, what not–Find a weaker plant, insect, bird, than yourself, and kill it, and take possession of its little vineyard, and no Naboth’s curse shall follow you: but you shall inherit, and thrive therein, you, and your children after you, if they will be only as strong and as cruel as you are. That is Nature’s law: and is it not at first sight a fearful law? Internecine competition, ruthless selfishness, so internecine and so ruthless that, as I have wandered in tropic forests, where this temper is shown more quickly and fiercely, though not in the least more evilly, than in our slow and cold temperate one, I have said: Really these trees and plants are as wicked as so many human beings.

Throughout the great republic of the organic world the motto of the majority is, and always has been as far back as we can see, what it is, and always has been, with the majority of human beings: “Everyone for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.” Overreaching tyranny; the temper which fawns, and clings, and plays the parasite as long as it is down, and when it has risen, fattens on its patron’s blood and life–these, and the other works of the flesh, are the works of average plants and animals, as far as they can practise them. At least, so says at first sight the science of bio-geology; till the naturalist, if he be also human and humane, is glad to escape from the confusion and darkness of the universal battle-field of selfishness into the order and light of Christmas- tide.

For then there comes to him the thought–And are these all the facts? And is this all which the facts mean? That mutual competition is one law of Nature, we see too plainly. But is there not, besides that law, a law of mutual help? True it is, as the wise man has said, that the very hyssop on the wall grows there because all the forces of the universe could not prevent its growing. All honour to the hyssop. A brave plant, it has fought a brave fight, and has its just deserts–as everything in Nature has– and so has won. But did all the powers of the universe combine to prevent it growing? Is not that a one-sided statement of facts? Did not all the powers of the universe also combine to make it grow, if only it had valour and worth wherewith to grow? Did not the rains feed it, the very mortar in the wall give lime to its roots? Were not electricity, gravitation, and I know not what of chemical and mechanical forces, busy about the little plant, and every cell of it, kindly and patiently ready to help it if it would only help itself? Surely this is true; true of every organic thing, animal and vegetable, and mineral too, for aught I know: and so we must soften our sadness at the sight of the universal mutual war by the sight of an equally universal mutual help.

But more. It is true–too true if you will–that all things live on each other. But is it not, therefore, equally true that all things live for each other?–that self-sacrifice, and not selfishness, is at the bottom the law of Nature, as it is the law of Grace; and the law of bio-geology, as it is the law of all religion and virtue worthy of the name? Is it not true that everything has to help something else to live, whether it knows it or not?–that not a plant or an animal can turn again to its dust without giving food and existence to other plants, other animals?–that the very tiger, seemingly the most useless tyrant of all tyrants, is still of use, when, after sending out of the world suddenly, and all but painlessly, many an animal which would without him have starved in misery through a diseased old age, he himself dies, and, in dying, gives, by his own carcase, the means of life and of enjoyment to a thousandfold more living creatures than ever his paws destroyed?

And so, the longer one watches the great struggle for existence, the more charitable, the more hopeful, one becomes; as one sees that, consciously or unconsciously, the law of Nature is, after all self- sacrifice: unconscious in plants and animals, as far as we know; save always those magnificent instances of true self-sacrifice shown by the social insects, by ants, bees, and others, which put to shame by a civilisation truly noble–why should I not say divine, for God ordained it?–the selfishness and barbarism of man. But be that as it may, in man the law of self-sacrifice–whether unconscious or not in the animals–rises into consciousness just as far as he is a man; and the crowning lesson of bio-geology may be, when we have worked it out after all, the lesson of Christmas-tide–of the infinite self-sacrifice of God for man; and Nature as well as religion may say to us:

Ah, could you crush that ever craving lust For bliss, which kills all bliss, and lose your life, Your barren unit life, to find again
A thousand times in those for whom you die– So were you men and women, and should hold Your rightful rank in God’s great universe, Wherein, in heaven or earth, by will or nature, Naught lives for self. All, all, from crown to base– The Lamb, before the world’s foundation slain– The angels, ministers to God’s elect–
The sun, who only shines to light the worlds– The clouds, whose glory is to die in showers– The fleeting streams, who in their ocean graves Flee the decay of stagnant self-content– The oak, ennobled by the shipwright’s axe– The soil, which yields its marrow to the flower– The flower, which feeds a thousand velvet worms Born only to be prey to every bird–
All spend themselves on others: and shall man, Whose twofold being is the mystic knot
Which couples earth with heaven, doubly bound, As being both, worm and angel, to that service By which both worms and angels hold their life, Shall he, whose every breath is debt on debt, Refuse, forsooth, to be what God has made him? No; let him show himself the creatures’ Lord By free-will gift of that self-sacrifice Which they, perforce, by Nature’s law’s endure.

My friends, scientific and others, if the study of bio-geology shall help to teach you this, or anything like this, I think that though it may not make you more happy, it may yet make you more wise; and, therefore, what is better than being more happy, namely, more blessed.


Gentlemen: When I accepted the honour of lecturing here, I took for granted that so select an audience would expect from me not mere amusement, but somewhat of instruction; or, if that be too ambitious a word for me to use, at least some fresh hint–if I were able to give one–as to how they should fulfil the ideal of military men in such an age as this.

To touch on military matters, even had I been conversant with them, seemed to me an impertinence. I am bound to take for granted that every man knows his own business best; and I incline more and more to the opinion that military men should be left to work out the problems of their art for themselves, without the advice or criticism of civilians. But I hold–and I am sure that you will agree with me–that if the soldier is to be thus trusted by the nation, and left to himself to do his own work his own way, he must be educated in all practical matters as highly as the average of educated civilians. He must know all that they know, and his own art besides. Just as a clergyman, being a man plus a priest, is bound to be a man, and a good man; over and above his priesthood, so is the soldier bound to be a civilian, and a highly-educated civilian, plus his soldierly qualities and acquirements.

It seemed to me, therefore, that I might, without impertinence, ask you to consider a branch of knowledge which is becoming yearly more and more important in the eyes of well-educated civilians; of which, therefore, the soldier ought at least to know something, in order to put him on a par with the general intelligence of the nation. I do not say that he is to devote much time to it, or to follow it up into specialities: but that he ought to be well grounded in its principles and methods; that he ought to be aware of its importance and its usefulness; that so, if he comes into contact–as he will more and more–with scientific men, he may understand them, respect them, befriend them, and be befriended by them in turn; and how desirable this last result is, I shall tell you hereafter.

There are those, I doubt not, among my audience who do not need the advice which I shall presume to give to-night; who belong to that fast-increasing class among officers of whom I have often said–and I have found scientific men cordially agree with me–that they are the most modest and the most teachable of men. But even in their case there can be no harm in going over deliberately a question of such importance; in putting it, as it were, into shape; and insisting on arguments which may perhaps not have occurred to some of them.

Let me, in the first place, reassure those–if any such there be– who may suppose, from the title of my lecture, that I am only going to recommend them to collect weeds and butterflies, “rats and mice, and such small deer.” Far from it. The honourable title of Natural History has, and unwisely, been restricted too much of late years to the mere study of plants and animals. I desire to restore the words to their original and proper meaning–the History of Nature; that is, of all that is born, and grows in time; in short, of all natural objects.

If any one shall say–By that definition you make not only geology and chemistry branches of natural history, but meteorology and astronomy likewise–I cannot deny it. They deal each of them, with realms of Nature. Geology is, literally, the natural history of soils and lands; chemistry the natural history of compounds, organic and inorganic; meteorology the natural history of climates; astronomy the natural history of planetary and solar bodies. And more, you cannot now study deeply any branch of what is popularly called Natural History–that is, plants and animals–without finding it necessary to learn something, and more and more as you go deeper, of those very sciences. As the marvellous interdependence of all natural objects and forces unfolds itself more and more, so the once separate sciences, which treated of different classes of natural objects, are forced to interpenetrate, as it were; and to supplement themselves by knowledge borrowed from each other. Thus–to give a single instance–no man can now be a first-rate botanist unless he be also no mean meteorologist, no mean geologist, and–as Mr. Darwin has shown in his extraordinary discoveries about the fertilisation of plants by insects–no mean entomologist likewise.

It is difficult, therefore, and indeed somewhat unwise and unfair, to put any limit to the term Natural History, save that it shall deal only with nature and with matter; and shall not pretend–as some would have it to do just now–to go out of its own sphere to meddle with moral and spiritual matters. But, for practical purposes, we may define the natural history of the causes which have made it what it is, and filled it with the natural objects which it holds. And if any one would know how to study the natural history of any given spot as the history of the causes which have made it what it is, and filled it with the natural objects which it holds. And if any one would know how to study the natural history of a place, and how to write it, let him read–and if he has read its delightful pages in youth, read once again–that hitherto unrivalled little monograph, White’s “Natural History of Selborne;” and let him then try, by the light of improved science, to do for any district where he may be stationed, what White did for Selborne nearly one hundred years ago. Let him study its plants, its animals, its soils and rocks; and last, but not least, its scenery, as the total outcome of what the soils, and plants, and animals, have made it. I say, have made it. How far the nature of the soils, and the rocks will affect the scenery of a district may be well learnt from a very clever and interesting little book of Professor Geikie’s, on “The Scenery of Scotland as affected by its Geological Structure.” How far the plants, and trees affect not merely the general beauty, the richness or barrenness of a country, but also its very shape; the rate at which the hills are destroyed and washed into the lowland; the rate at which the seaboard is being removed by the action of waves–all these are branches of study which is becoming more and more important.

And even in the study of animals and their effects on the vegetation, questions of really deep interest will arise. You will find that certain plants and trees cannot thrive in a district, while others can, because the former are browsed down by cattle, or their seeds eaten by birds, and the latter are not; that certain seeds are carried in the coats of animals, or wafted abroad by winds–others are not; certain trees destroyed wholesale by insects, while others are not; that in a hundred ways the animal and vegetable life of a district act and react upon each other, and that the climate, the average temperature, the maximum and minimum temperatures, the rainfall, act on them, and in the case of the vegetation, are reacted on again by them. The diminution of rainfall by the destruction of forests, its increase by replanting them, and the effect of both on the healthiness or unhealthiness of a place–as in the case of the Mauritius, where a once healthy island has become pestilential, seemingly from the clearing away of the vegetation on the banks of streams–all this, though to study it deeply requires a fair knowledge of meteorology, and even of a science or two more, is surely well worth the attention of any educated man who is put in charge of the health and lives of human beings.

You will surely agree with me that the habit of mind required for such a study as this, is the very same as is required for successful military study. In fact, I should say that the same intellect which would develop into a great military man, would develop also into a great naturalist. I say, intellect. The military man would require–what the naturalist would not–over and above his intellect, a special force of will, in order to translate his theories into fact, and make his campaigns in the field and not merely on paper. But I am speaking only of the habit of mind required for study; of that inductive habit of mind which works, steadily and by rule, from the known to the unknown; that habit of mind of which it has been said: “The habit of seeing; the habit of knowing what we see; the habit of discerning differences and likenesses; the habit of classifying accordingly; the habit of searching for hypotheses which shall connect and explain those classified facts; the habit of verifying these hypotheses by applying them to fresh facts; the habit of throwing them away bravely if they will not fit; the habit of general patience, diligence, accuracy, reverence for facts for their own sake, and love of truth for its own sake; in one word, the habit of reverent and implicit obedience to the laws of Nature, whatever they may be– these are not merely intellectual, but also moral habits, which will stand men in practical good stead in every affair of life, and in every question, even the most awful, which may come before them as rational and social beings.” And specially valuable are they, surely, to the military man, the very essence of whose study, to be successful, lies first in continuous and accurate observation, and then in calm and judicious arrangement.

Therefore it is that I hold, and hold strongly, that the study of physical science, far from interfering with an officer’s studies, much less unfitting for them, must assist him in them, by keeping his mind always in the very attitude and the very temper which they require.

If any smile at this theory of mine, let them recollect one curious fact: that perhaps the greatest captain of the old world was trained by perhaps the greatest philosopher of the old world–the father of Natural History; that Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander of Macedon. I do not fancy, of course, that Aristotle taught Alexander any Natural History. But this we know, that he taught him to use those very faculties by which Aristotle became a natural historian, and many things besides; that he called out in his pupil somewhat of his own extraordinary powers of observation, extraordinary powers of arrangement. He helped to make him a great general: but he helped to make him more–a great politician, coloniser, discoverer. He instilled into him such a sense of the importance of Natural History, that Alexander helped him nobly in his researches; and, if Athenaeus is to be believed, gave him eight hundred talents towards perfecting his history of animals. Surely it is not too much to say that this close friendship between the natural philosopher and the soldier has changed the whole course of civilisation to this very day. Do not consider me Utopian when I tell you, that I should like to see the study of physical science an integral part of the curriculum of every military school. I would train the mind of the lad who was to become hereafter an officer in the army–and in the navy likewise–by accustoming him to careful observation of, and sound thought about, the face of nature; of the commonest objects under his feet, just as much as the stars above his head; provided always that he learnt, not at second-hand from books, but where alone ho can really learn either war or nature–in the field; by actual observation, actual experiment. A laboratory for chemical experiment is a good thing, it is true, as far as it goes; but I should prefer to the laboratory a naturalists’ field- club, such as are prospering now at several of the best public schools, certain that the boys would get more of sound inductive habits of mind, as well as more health, manliness, and cheerfulness, amid scenes to remember which will be a joy for ever, than they ever can by bending over retorts and crucibles, amid smells even to remember which is a pain for ever.

But I would, whether a field-club existed or not, require of every young man entering the army or navy–indeed of every young man entering any liberal profession whatsoever–a fair knowledge, such as would enable him to pass an examination, in what the Germans call Erd-kunde–earth-lore–in that knowledge of the face of the earth and of its products, for which we English have as yet cared so little that we have actually no English name for it, save the clumsy and questionable one of physical geography; and, I am sorry to say, hardly any readable school books about it, save Keith Johnston’s “Physical Atlas”–an acquaintance with which last I should certainly require of young men.

It does seem most strange–or rather will seem most strange a hundred years hence–that we, the nation of colonists, the nation of sailors, the nation of foreign commerce, the nation of foreign military stations, the nation of travellers for travelling’s sake, the nation of which one man here and another there–as Schleiden sets forth in his book, “The Plant,” in a charming ideal conversation at the Travellers’ Club–has seen and enjoyed more of the wonders and beauties of this planet than the men of any nation, not even excepting the Germans–that this nation, I say, should as yet have done nothing, or all but nothing, to teach in her schools a knowledge of that planet, of which she needs to know more, and can if she will know more, than any other nation upon it.

As for the practical utility of such studies to a soldier, I only need, I trust, to hint at it to such an assembly as this. All must see of what advantage a rough knowledge of the botany of a district would be to an officer leading an exploring party, or engaged in bush warfare. To know what plants are poisonous; what plants, too, are eatable–and many more are eatable than is usually supposed; what plants yield oleaginous substances, whether for food or for other uses; what plants yield vegetable acids, as preventives of scurvy; what timbers are available for each of many different purposes; what will resist wet, salt-water, and the attacks of insects; what, again, can be used, at a pinch, for medicine or for styptics–and be sure, as a wise West Indian doctor once said to me, that there is more good medicine wild in the bush than there is in all the druggists’ shops–surely all this is a knowledge not beneath the notice of any enterprising officer, above all of an officer of engineers. I only ask any one who thinks that I may be in the right, to glance through the lists of useful vegetable products given in Lindley’s “Vegetable Kingdom”–a miracle of learning–and see the vast field open still to a thoughtful and observant man, even while on service; and not to forget that such knowledge, if he should hereafter leave the service and settle, as many do, in a distant land, may be a solid help to his future prosperity. So strongly do I feel on this matter, that I should like to see some knowledge at least of Dr. Oliver’s excellent little “First Book of Indian Botany” required of all officers going to our Indian Empire: but as that will not be, at least for many a year to come, I recommend any gentlemen going to India to get that book, and while away the hours of the outward voyage by acquiring knowledge which will be a continual source of interest, and it may be now and then of profit, to them during their stay abroad.

And for geology, again. As I do not expect you all, or perhaps any of you, to become such botanists as General Monro, whose recent “Monograph of the Bamboos” is an honour to British botanists, and a proof of the scientific power which is to be found here and there among British officers: so I do not expect you to become such geologists as Sir Roderick Murchison, or even to add such a grand chapter to the history of extinct animals as Major Cautley did by his discoveries in the Sewalik Hills. Nevertheless, you can learn– and I should earnestly advise you to learn–geology and mineralogy enough to be of great use to you in your profession, and of use, too, should you relinquish your profession hereafter. It must be profitable for any man, and specially for you, to know how and where to find good limestone, building stone, road metal; it must be good to be able to distinguish ores and mineral products; it must be good to know–as a geologist will usually know, even in a country which he sees for the first time–where water is likely to be found, and at what probable depth; it must be good to know whether the water is fit for drinking or not, whether it is unwholesome or merely muddy; it must be good to know what spots are likely to be healthy, and what unhealthy, for encamping. The two last questions depend, doubtless, on meteorological as well as geological accidents: but the answers to them will be most surely found out by the scientific man, because the facts connected with them are, like all other facts, determined by natural laws. After what one has heard, in past years, of barracks built in spots plainly pestilential; of soldiers encamped in ruined cities, reeking with the dirt and poison of centuries; of–but it is not my place to find fault; all I will say is, that the wise and humane officer, when once his eyes are opened to the practical value of physical science, will surely try to acquaint himself somewhat with those laws of drainage and of climate, geological, meteorological, chemical, which influence, often with terrible suddenness and fury, the health of whole armies. He will not find it beyond his province to ascertain the amount and period of rainfalls, the maxima of heat and of cold which his troops may have to endure, and many another point on which their health and efficiency–nay, their very life may depend, but which are now too exclusively delegated to the doctor, to whose province they do not really belong. For cure, I take the liberty of believing, is the duty of the medical officer; prevention, that of the military.

Thus much I can say just now–and there is much more to be said–on the practical uses of the study of Natural History. But let me remind you, on the other side, if Natural History will help you, you in return can help her; and would, I doubt not, help her and help scientific men at home, if once you looked fairly and steadily at the immense importance of Natural History–of the knowledge of the “face of the earth.” I believe that all will one day feel, more or less, that to know the earth ON which we live, and the laws of it BY which we live, is a sacred duty to ourselves, to our children after us, and to all whom we may have to command and to influence; ay, and a duty to God likewise. For is it not a duty of common reverence and faith towards Him, if He has put us into a beautiful and wonderful place, and given us faculties by which we can see, and enjoy, and use that place–is it not a duty of reverence and faith towards Him to use these faculties, and to learn the lessons which He has laid open for us? If you feel that, as I think you all will some day feel, then you will surely feel likewise that it will be a good deed–I do not say a necessary duty, but still a good deed and praiseworthy–to help physical science forward; and to add your contributions, however small, to our general knowledge of the earth. And how much may be done for science by British officers, especially on foreign stations, I need not point out. I know that much has been done, chivalrously and well, by officers; and that men of science owe them and give them hearty thanks for their labours. But I should like, I confess, to see more done still. I should like to see every foreign station what one or two highly-educated officers might easily make it, an advanced post of physical science, in regular communication with our scientific societies at home, sending to them accurate and methodic details of the natural history of each district–details ninety-nine hundredths of which might seem worthless in the eyes of the public, but which would all be precious in the eyes of scientific men, who know that no fact is really unimportant; and more, that while plodding patiently through seemingly unimportant facts, you may stumble on one of infinite importance, both scientific and practical. For the student of nature, gentlemen, if he will be but patient, diligent, methodical, is liable at any moment to the same good fortune as befell Saul of old, when he went out to seek his father’s asses, and found a kingdom.

There are those, lastly, who have neither time nor taste for the technicalities and nice distinctions of formal Natural History; who enjoy Nature, but as artists or as sportsmen, and not as men of science. Let them follow their bent freely: but let them not suppose that in following it they can do nothing towards enlarging our knowledge of Nature, especially when on foreign stations. So far from it, drawings ought always to be valuable, whether of plants, animals, or scenery, provided only they are accurate; and the more spirited and full of genius they are, the more accurate they are certain to be; for Nature being alive, a lifeless copy of her is necessarily an untrue copy. Most thankful to any officer for a mere sight of sketches will be the closest botanist, who, to his own sorrow, knows three-fourths of his plants only from dried specimens; or the closest zoologist, who knows his animals from skins and bones. And if any one answers–But I cannot draw. I rejoin. You can at least photograph. If a young officer, going out to foreign parts, and knowing nothing at all about physical science, did me the honour to ask me what he could do for science, I should tell him–Learn to photograph; take photographs of every strange bit of rock-formation which strikes your fancy, and of every widely- extended view which may give a notion of the general lie of the country. Append, if you can, a note or two, saying whether a plain is rich or barren; whether the rock is sandstone, limestone, granitic, metamorphic, or volcanic lava; and if there be more rocks than one, which of them lies on the other; and send them to be exhibited at a meeting of the Geological Society. I doubt not that the learned gentlemen there will find in your photographs a valuable hint or two, for which they will be much obliged. I learnt, for instance, what seemed to me most valuable geological lessons from mere glances at drawings–I believe from photographs–of the Abyssinian ranges about Magdala.

Or again, let a man, if he knows nothing of botany, not trouble himself with collecting and drying specimens; let him simply photograph every strange and new tree or plant he sees, to give a general notion of its species, its look; let him append, where he can, a photograph of its leafage, flower, fruit; and send them to Dr. Hooker, or any distinguished botanist: and he will find that, though he may know nothing of botany, he will have pretty certainly increased the knowledge of those who do know.

The sportsman, again–I mean the sportsman of that type which seems peculiar to these islands, who loves toil and danger for their own sakes; he surely is a naturalist, ipso facto, though he knows it not. He has those very habits of keen observation on which all sound knowledge of nature is based; and he, if he will–as he may do without interfering with his sport–can study the habits of the animals among whom he spends wholesome and exciting days. You have only to look over such good old books as Williams’s “Wild Sports of the East,” Campbell’s “Old Forest Ranger,” Lloyd’s “Scandinavian Adventures,” and last, but not least, Waterton’s “Wanderings,” to see what valuable additions to true zoology–the knowledge of live creatures, not merely dead ones–British sportsmen have made, and still can make. And as for the employment of time, which often hangs so heavily on a soldier’s hands, really I am ready to say, if you are neither men of science, nor draughtsmen, nor sportsmen, why, go and collect beetles. It is not very dignified, I know, nor exciting: but it will be something to do. It cannot harm you, if you take, as beetle-hunters do, an indiarubber sheet to lie on; and it will certainly benefit science. Moreover, there will be a noble humility in the act. You will confess to the public that you consider yourself only fit to catch beetles; by which very confession you will prove yourself fit for much finer things than catching beetles; and meanwhile, as I said before, you will be at least out of harm’s way. At a foreign barrack once, the happiest officer I met, because the most regularly employed, was one who spent his time in collecting butterflies. He knew nothing about them scientifically–not even their names. He took them simply for their wonderful beauty and variety; and in the hope, too–in which he was really scientific–that if he carefully kept every form which he saw, his collection might be of use some day to entomologists at home. A most pleasant gentleman he was; and, I doubt not, none the worse soldier for his butterfly catching. Commendable, also, in my eyes, was another officer–whom I have not the pleasure of knowing– who, on a remote foreign station, used wisely to escape from the temptations of the world into an entirely original and most pleasant hermitage. For finding–so the story went–that many of the finest insects kept to the tree-tops, and never came to ground at all, he used to settle himself among the boughs of some tree in the tropic forests, with a long-handled net and plenty of cigars, and pass his hours in that airy flower-garden, making dashes every now and then at some splendid monster as it fluttered round his head. His example need not be followed by every one; but it must be allowed that–at least as long as he was in his tree–he was neither dawdling, grumbling, spending money, nor otherwise harming himself, and perhaps his fellow-creatures, from sheer want of employment.

One word more, and I have done. If I was allowed to give one special piece of advice to a young officer, whether of the army or navy, I would say: Respect scientific men; associate with them; learn from them; find them to be, as you will usually, the most pleasant and instructive of companions–but always respect them. Allow them chivalrously, you who have an acknowledged rank, their yet unacknowledged rank; and treat them as all the world will treat them in a higher and truer state of civilisation. They do not yet wear the Queen’s uniform; they are not yet accepted servants of the State; as they will be in some more perfectly organised and civilised land: but they are soldiers nevertheless, and good soldiers and chivalrous, fighting their nation’s battle, often on even less pay than you, and with still less chance of promotion and of fame, against most real and fatal enemies–against ignorance of the laws of this planet, and all the miseries which that ignorance begets. Honour them for their work; sympathise in it; give them a helping hand in it whenever you have an opportunity–and what opportunities you have, I have been trying to sketch for you to- night; and more, work at it yourselves whenever and wherever you can. Show them that the spirit which animates them–the hatred of ignorance and disorder, and of their bestial consequences–animates you likewise; show them that the habit of mind which they value in themselves–the habit of accurate observation and careful judgment– is your habit likewise; show them that you value science, not merely because it gives better weapons of destruction and of defence, but because it helps you to become clear-headed, large-minded, able to take a just and accurate view of any subject which comes before you, and to cast away every old prejudice and every hasty judgment in the face of truth and of duty: and it will be better for you and for them.

But why? What need for the soldier and the man of science to fraternise just now? This need: the two classes which will have an increasing, it may be a preponderating, influence on the fate of the human race for some time, will be the pupils of Aristotle and those of Alexander–the men of science and the soldiers. In spite of all appearances, and all declamations to the contrary, that is my firm conviction. They, and they alone, will be left to rule; because they alone, each in his own sphere, have learnt to obey. It is therefore most needful for the welfare of society that they should pull with, and not against each other; that they should understand each other, respect each other, take counsel with each other, supplement each other’s defects, bring out each other’s higher tendencies, counteract each other’s lower ones. The scientific man has something to learn of you, gentlemen, which I doubt not that he will learn in good time. You, again, have–as I have been hinting to you to-night–something to learn of him, which you, I doubt not, will learn in good time likewise. Repeat, each of you according to his powers, the old friendship between Aristotle and Alexander; and so, from your mutual sympathy and co-operation, a class of thinkers and actors may yet arise which can save this nation, and the other civilised nations of the world, from that of which I had rather not speak, and wish that I did not think too often and too earnestly.

I may be a dreamer; and I may consider, in my turn, as wilder dreamers than myself, certain persons who fancy that their only business in life is to make money, the scientific man’s only business is to show them how to make money, and the soldier’s only business to guard their money for them. Be that as it may, the finest type of civilised man which we are likely to see for some generations to come, will be produced by a combination of the truly military with the truly scientific man. I say–I may be a dreamer; but you at least, as well as my scientific friends, will bear with me; for my dream is to your honour.


Having accepted the very great honour of being allowed to deliver here two lectures, I have chosen as my subject Superstition and Science. It is with Superstition that this first lecture will deal.

The subject seems to me especially fit for a clergyman; for he should, more than other men, be able to avoid trenching on two subjects rightly excluded from this Institution; namely, Theology– that is, the knowledge of God; and Religion–that is, the knowledge of Duty. If he knows, as he should, what is Theology, and what is Religion, then he should best know what is not Theology, and what is not Religion.

For my own part, I entreat you at the outset to keep in mind that these lectures treat of matters entirely physical; which have in reality, and ought to have in our minds, no more to do with Theology and Religion than the proposition that theft is wrong, has to do with the proposition that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.

It is necessary to premise this, because many are of opinion that superstition is a corruption of religion; and though they would agree that as such, “corruptio optimi pessima,” yet they would look on religion as the state of spiritual health, and superstition as one of spiritual disease.

Others again, holding the same notion, but not considering that “corruptio optimi pessima,” have been in all ages somewhat inclined to be merciful to superstition, as a child of reverence; as a mere accidental misdirection of one of the noblest and most wholesome faculties of man.

This is not the place wherein to argue with either of these parties: and I shall simply say that superstition seems to me altogether a physical affection, as thoroughly material and corporeal as those of eating or sleeping, remembering or dreaming.

After this, it will be necessary to define superstition, in order to have some tolerably clear understanding of what we are talking about. I beg leave to define it as–Fear of the unknown.

Johnson, who was no dialectician, and, moreover, superstitious enough himself, gives eight different definitions of the word; which is equivalent to confessing his inability to define it at all:

“1. Unnecessary fear or scruples in religion; observance of unnecessary and uncommanded rites or practices; religion without morality.

“2. False religion; reverence of beings not proper objects of reverence; false worship.

” 3. Over nicety; exactness too scrupulous.”

Eight meanings; which, on the principle that eight eighths, or indeed eight hundred, do not make one whole, may be considered as no definition. His first thought, as often happens, is the best– “Unnecessary fear.” But after that he wanders. The root-meaning of the word is still to seek. But, indeed, the popular meaning, thanks to popular common sense, will generally be found to contain in itself the root-meaning.

Let us go back to the Latin word Superstitio. Cicero says that the superstitious element consists in “a certain empty dread of the gods”–a purely physical affection, if you will remember three things:

1. That dread is in itself a physical affection.

2. That the gods who were dreaded were, with the vulgar, who alone dreaded them, merely impersonations of the powers of nature.

3. That it was physical injury which these gods were expected to inflict.

But he himself agrees with this theory of mine; for he says shortly after, that not only philosophers, but even the ancient Romans, had separated superstition from religion; and that the word was first applied to those who prayed all day ut liberi sui sibi superstites essent, might survive them. On the etymology no one will depend who knows the remarkable absence of any etymological instinct in the ancients, in consequence of their weak grasp of that sound inductive method which has created modern criticism. But if it be correct, it is a natural and pathetic form for superstition to take in the minds of men who saw their children fade and die; probably the greater number of them beneath diseases which mankind could neither comprehend nor cure.

The best exemplification of what the ancients meant by superstition is to be found in the lively and dramatic words of Aristotle’s great pupil Theophrastus.

The superstitious man, according to him, after having washed his hands with lustral water–that is, water in which a torch from the altar had been quenched–goes about with a laurel-leaf in his mouth, to keep off evil influences, as the pigs in Devonshire used, in my youth, to go about with a withe of mountain ash round their necks to keep off the evil eye. If a weasel crosses his path, he stops, and either throws three pebbles into the road, or, with the innate selfishness of fear, lets someone else go before him, and attract to himself the harm which may ensue. He has a similar dread of a screech-owl, whom he compliments in the name of its mistress, Pallas Athene. If he finds a serpent in his house, he sets up an altar to it. If he pass at a four-cross-way an anointed stone, he pours oil on it, kneels down, and adores it. If a rat has nibbled one of his sacks he takes it for a fearful portent–a superstition which Cicero also mentions. He dare not sit on a tomb, because it would be assisting at his own funeral. He purifies endlessly his house, saying that Hecate–that is, the moon–has exercised some malign influence on it; and many other purifications he observes, of which I shall only say that they are by their nature plainly, like the last, meant as preservatives against unseen malarias or contagions, possible or impossible. He assists every month with his children at the mysteries of the Orphic priests; and finally, whenever he sees an epileptic patient, he spits in his own bosom to avert the evil omen.

I have quoted, I believe, every fact given by Theophrastus; and you will agree, I am sure, that the moving and inspiring element of such a character is mere bodily fear of unknown evil. The only superstition attributed to him which does not at first sight seem to have its root in dread is that of the Orphic mysteries. But of them Muller says that the Dionusos whom they worshipped “was an infernal deity, connected with Hades, and was the personification, not merely of rapturous pleasure, but of a deep sorrow for the miseries of human life.” The Orphic societies of Greece seem to have been peculiarly ascetic, taking no animal food save raw flesh from the sacrificed ox of Dionusos. And Plato speaks of a lower grade of Orphic priests, Orpheotelestai, “who used to come before the doors of the rich, and promise, by sacrifices and expiatory songs, to release them from their own sins, and those of their forefathers;” and such would be but too likely to get a hearing from the man who was afraid of a weasel or an owl.

Now, this same bodily fear, I verily believe, will be found at the root of all superstition whatsoever.

But be it so. Fear is a natural passion, and a wholesome one. Without the instinct of self-preservation, which causes the sea- anemone to contract its tentacles, or the fish to dash into its hover, species would be extermined wholesale by involuntary suicide.

Yes; fear is wholesome enough, like all other faculties, as long as it is controlled by reason. But what if the fear be not rational, but irrational? What if it be, in plain homely English, blind fear; fear of the unknown, simply because it is unknown? Is it not likely, then, to be afraid of the wrong object? to be hurtful, ruinous to animals as well as to man? Any one will confess that, who has ever seen, a horse inflict on himself mortal injuries, in his frantic attempts to escape from a quite imaginary danger. I have good reasons for believing that not only animals here and there, but whole flocks and swarms of them, are often destroyed, even in the wild state, by mistaken fear; by such panics, for instance, as cause a whole herd of buffaloes to rush over a bluff, and be dashed to pieces. And remark that this capacity of panic, fear–of superstition, as I should call it–is greatest in those animals, the dog and the horse for instance, which have the most rapid and vivid fancy. Does not the unlettered Highlander say all that I want to say, when he attributes to his dog and his horse, on the strength of these very manifestations of fear, the capacity of seeing ghosts and fairies before he can see them himself?

But blind fear not only causes evil to the coward himself: it makes him a source of evil to others; for it is the cruellest of all human states. It transforms the man into the likeness of the cat, who, when she is caught in a trap, or shut up in a room, has too low an intellect to understand that you wish to release her: and, in the madness of terror, bites and tears at the hand which tries to do her good. Yes; very cruel is blind fear. When a man dreads he knows not what, he will do he cares not what. When he dreads desperately, he will act desperately. When he dreads beyond all reason, he will behave beyond all reason. He has no law of guidance left, save the lowest selfishness. No law of guidance: and yet his intellect, left unguided, may be rapid and acute enough to lead him into terrible follies. Infinitely more imaginative than the lowest animals, he is for that very reason capable of being infinitely more foolish, more cowardly, more superstitious. He can–what the lower animals, happily for them, cannot–organise his folly; erect his superstitions into a science; and create a whole mythology out of his blind fear of the unknown. And when he has done that–Woe to the weak! For when he has reduced his superstition to a science, then he will reduce his cruelty to a science likewise, and write books like the “Malleus Maleficarum,” and the rest of the witch literature of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries; of which Mr. Lecky has of late told the world so much, and told it most faithfully and most fairly.

But, fear of the unknown? Is not that fear of the unseen world? And is not that fear of the spiritual world? Pardon me: a great deal of that fear–all of it, indeed, which is superstition–is simply not fear of the spiritual, but of the material; and of nothing else.

The spiritual world–I beg you to fix this in your minds–is not merely an invisible world which may become visible, but an invisible world which is by its essence invisible; a moral world, a world of right and wrong. And spiritual fear–which is one of the noblest of all affections, as bodily fear is one of the basest–is, if properly defined, nothing less or more than the fear of doing wrong; of becoming a worse man.

But what has that to do with mere fear of the unseen? The fancy which conceives the fear is physical, not spiritual. Think for yourselves. What difference is there between a savage’s fear of a demon, and a hunter’s fear of a fall? The hunter sees a fence. He does not know what is on the other side, but he has seen fences like it with a great ditch on the other side, and suspects one here likewise. He has seen horses fall at such, and men hurt thereby. He pictures to himself his horse falling at that fence, himself rolling in the ditch, with possibly a broken limb; and he recoils from the picture he himself has made; and perhaps with very good reason. His picture may have its counterpart in fact; and he may break his leg. But his picture, like the previous pictures from which it was compounded, is simply a physical impression on the brain, just as much as those in dreams.

Now, does the fact of the ditch, the fall, and the broken leg, being unseen and unknown, make them a spiritual ditch, a spiritual fall, a spiritual broken leg? And does the fact of the demon and his doings, being as yet unseen and unknown, make them spiritual, or the harm that he may do, a spiritual harm? What does the savage fear? Lest the demon should appear; that is, become obvious to his physical senses, and produce an unpleasant physical effect on them. He fears lest the fiend should entice him into the bog, break the hand-bridge over the brook, turn into a horse and ride away with him, or jump out from behind a tree and wring his neck–tolerably hard physical facts, all of them; the children of physical fancy, regarded with physical dread. Even if the superstition proved true; even if the demon did appear; even if he wrung the traveller’s neck in sound earnest, there would be no more spiritual agency or phenomenon in the whole tragedy than there is in the parlour-table, when spiritual somethings make spiritual raps upon spiritual wood; and human beings, who are really spirits–and would to heaven they would remember that fact, and what it means–believe that anything has happened beyond a clumsy juggler’s trick.

You demur? Do you not see that the demon, by the mere fact of having produced physical consequences, would have become himself a physical agent, a member of physical Nature, and therefore to be explained, he and his doings, by physical laws? If you do not see that conclusion at first sight, think over it till you do.

It may seem to some that I have founded my theory on a very narrow basis; that I am building up an inverted pyramid; or that, considering the numberless, complex, fantastic shapes which superstition has assumed, bodily fear is too simple to explain them all.

But if those persons will think a second time, they must agree that my base is as broad as the phenomena which it explains; for every man is capable of fear. And they will see, too, that the cause of superstition must be something like fear, which is common to all men: for all, at least as children, are capable of superstition; and that it must be something which, like fear, is of a most simple, rudimentary, barbaric kind; for the lowest savage, of whatever he is not capable, is still superstitious, often to a very ugly degree. Superstition seems, indeed, to be, next to the making of stone- weapons, the earliest method of asserting his superiority to the brutes which has occurred to that utterly abnormal and fantastic lusus naturae called man.

Now let us put ourselves awhile, as far as we can, in the place of that same savage; and try whether my theory will not justify itself; whether or not superstition, with all its vagaries, may have been, indeed must have been, the result of that ignorance and fear which he carried about with him, every time he prowled for food through the primeval forest.

A savage’s first division of nature would be, I should say, into things which he can eat and things which can eat him: including, of course, his most formidable enemy, and most savoury food–his fellow-man. In finding out what he can eat, we must remember, he will have gone through much experience which will have inspired him with a serious respect for the hidden wrath of nature; like those Himalayan folk, of whom Hooker says, that as they know every poisonous plant, they must have tried them all–not always with impunity.

So he gets at a third class of objects–things which he cannot eat, and which will not eat him; but will only do him harm, as it seems to him, out of pure malice, like poisonous plants and serpents. There are natural accidents, too, which fall into the same category, stones, floods, fires, avalanches. They hurt him or kill him, surely for ends of their own. If a rock falls from the cliff above him, what more natural than to suppose that there is some giant up there who threw it at him? If he had been up there, and strong enough, and had seen a man walking underneath, he would certainly have thrown the stone at him and killed him. For first, he might have eaten the man after; and even if he were not hungry, the man might have done him a mischief; and it was prudent to prevent that by doing him a mischief first. Besides, the man might have a wife; and if he killed the man, then the wife would, by a very ancient law common to man and animals, become the prize of the victor. Such is the natural man, the carnal man, the soulish man, the [Greek] of St. Paul, with five tolerably acute senses, which are ruled by five very acute animal passions–hunger, sex, rage, vanity, fear. It is with the working of the last passion, fear, that this lecture has to do.

So the savage concludes that there must be a giant living in the cliff, who threw stones at him, with evil intent; and he concludes in like wise concerning most other natural phenomena. There is something in them which will hurt him, and therefore likes to hurt him; and if he cannot destroy them, and so deliver himself, his fear of them grows quite boundless. There are hundreds of natural objects on which he learns to look with the same eyes as the little boys of Teneriffe look on the useless and poisonous Euphorbia canariensis. It is to them–according to Mr. Piazzi Smyth–a demon who would kill them, if it could only run after them; but as it cannot, they shout Spanish curses at it, and pelt it with volleys of stones, “screeching with elfin joy, and using worse names than ever, when the poisonous milk spurts out from its bruised stalks.”

And if such be the attitude of the uneducated man towards the permanent terrors of nature, what will it be towards those which are sudden and seemingly capricious?–towards storms, earthquakes, floods, blights, pestilences? We know too well what it has been– one of blind, and therefore often cruel, fear. How could it be otherwise? Was Theophrastus’s superstitious man so very foolish for pouring oil on every round stone? I think there was a great deal to be said for him. This worship of Baetyli was rational enough. They were aerolites, fallen from heaven. Was it not as well to be civil to such messengers from above?–to testify by homage to them due awe of the being who had thrown them at men, and who though he had missed his shot that time might not miss it the next? I think if we, knowing nothing of either gunpowder, astronomy, or Christianity, saw an Armstrong bolt fall within five miles of London, we should be inclined to be very respectful to it indeed. So the aerolites, or glacial boulders, or polished stone weapons of an extinct race, which looked like aerolites, were the children of Ouranos the heaven, and had souls in them. One, by one of those strange transformations in which the logic of unreason indulges, the image of Diana of the Ephesians, which fell down from Jupiter; another was the Ancile, the holy shield which fell from the same place in the days of Numa Pompilius, and was the guardian genius of Rome; and several more became notable for ages.

Why not? The uneducated man of genius, unacquainted alike with metaphysics and with biology, sees, like a child, a personality in every strange and sharply-defined object. A cloud like an angel may be an angel; a bit of crooked root like a man may be a man turned into wood–perhaps to be turned back again at its own will. An erratic block has arrived where it is by strange unknown means. Is not that an evidence of its personality? Either it has flown hither itself, or some one has thrown it. In the former case, it has life, and is proportionally formidable; in the latter, he who had thrown it is formidable.

I know two erratic blocks of porphyry–I believe there are three–in Cornwall, lying one on serpentine, one, I think, on slate, which–so I was always informed as a boy–were the stones which St. Kevern threw after St. Just when the latter stole his host’s chalice and paten, and ran away with them to the Land’s End. Why not? Before we knew anything about the action of icebergs and glaciers, that is, until the last eighty years, that was as good a story as any other; while how lifelike these boulders are, let a great poet testify; for the fact has not escaped the delicate eye of Wordsworth:

As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy, By what means it could thither come, and whence, So that it seems a thing endued with sense; Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.

To the civilised poet, the fancy becomes a beautiful simile; to a savage poet, it would have become a material and a very formidable fact. He stands in the valley, and looks up at the boulder on the far-off fells. He is puzzled by it. He fears it. At last he makes up his mind. It is alive. As the shadows move over it, he sees it move. May it not sleep there all day, and prowl for prey all night? He had been always afraid of going up those fells; now he will never go. There is a monster there.

Childish enough, no doubt. But remember that the savage is always a child. So, indeed, are millions, as well clothed, housed, and policed as ourselves–children from the cradle to the grave. But of them I do not talk; because, happily for the world, their childishness is so overlaid by the result of other men’s manhood; by an atmosphere of civilisation and Christianity which they have accepted at second-hand as the conclusions of minds wiser than their own, that they do all manner of reasonable things for bad reasons, or for no reason at all, save the passion of imitation. Not in them, but in the savage, can we see man as he is by nature, the puppet of his senses and his passions, the natural slave of his own fears.

But has the savage no other faculties, save his five senses and five passions? I do not say that. I should be most unphilosophical if I said it; for the history of mankind proves that he has infinitely more in him than that. Yes: but in him that infinite more, which is not only the noblest part of humanity, but, it may be, humanity itself, is not to be counted as one of the roots of superstition. For in the savage man, in whom superstition certainly originates, that infinite more is still merely in him; inside him; a faculty: but not yet a fact. It has not come out of him into consciousness, purpose, and act; and is to be treated as non-existent: while what has come out, his passions and senses, is enough to explain all the vagaries of superstition; a vera causa for all its phenomena. And if we seem to have found a sufficient explanation already, it is unphilosophical to look farther, at least till we have tried whether our explanation fits the facts.

Nevertheless, there is another faculty in the savage, to which I have already alluded, common to him and to at least the higher vertebrates–fancy; the power of reproducing internal images of external objects, whether in its waking form of physical memory–if, indeed, all memory be not physical–or in its sleeping form of dreaming. Upon this last, which has played so very important a part in superstition in all ages, I beg you to think a moment. Recollect your own dreams during childhood; and recollect again that the savage is always a child. Recollect how difficult it was for you in childhood, how difficult it must be always for the savage, to decide whether dreams are phantasms or realities. To the savage, I doubt not, the food he eats, the foes he grapples with, in dreams, are as real as any waking impressions. But, moreover, these dreams will be very often, as children’s dreams are wont to be, of a painful and terrible kind. Perhaps they will be always painful; perhaps his dull brain will never dream, save under the influence of indigestion, or hunger, or an uncomfortable attitude. And so, in addition to his waking experience of the terrors of nature, he will have a whole dream-experience besides, of a still more terrific kind. He walks by day past a black cavern mouth, and thinks, with a shudder–Something ugly may live in that ugly hole: what if it jumped out upon me? He broods over the thought with the intensity of a narrow and unoccupied mind; and a few nights after, he has eaten–but let us draw a veil before the larder of a savage–his chin is pinned down on his chest, a slight congestion of the brain comes on; and behold he finds himself again at that cavern’s mouth, and something ugly does jump out upon him: and the cavern is a haunted spot henceforth to him and to all his tribe. It is in vain that his family tell him that he has been lying asleep at home all the while. He has the evidence of his senses to prove the contrary. He must have got out of himself, and gone into the woods. When we remember that certain wise Greek philosophers could find no better explanation of dreaming than that the soul left the body, and wandered free, we cannot condemn the savage for his theory.

Now, I submit that in these simple facts we have a group of “true causes” which are the roots of all the superstitions of the world.

And if any one shall complain that I am talking materialism: I shall answer, that I am doing exactly the opposite. I am trying to eliminate and get rid of that which is material, animal, and base; in order that that which is truly spiritual may stand out, distinct and clear, in its divine and eternal beauty.

To explain, and at the same time, as I think, to verify my hypothesis, let me give you an example–fictitious, it is true, but probable fact nevertheless; because it is patched up of many fragments of actual fact: and let us see how, in following it out, we shall pass through almost every possible form of superstition.

Suppose a great hollow tree, in which the formidable wasps of the tropics have built for ages. The average savage hurries past the spot in mere bodily fear; for if they come out against him, they will sting him to death; till at last there comes by a savage wiser than the rest, with more observation, reflection, imagination, independence of will–the genius of his tribe.

The awful shade of the great tree, added to his terror of the wasps, weighs on him, and excites his brain. Perhaps, too, he has had a wife or a child stung to death by these same wasps. These wasps, so small, yet so wise, far wiser than he: they fly, and they sting. Ah, if he could fly and sting; how he would kill and eat, and live right merrily. They build great towns; they rob far and wide; they never quarrel with each other: they must have some one to teach them, to lead them–they must have a king. And so he gets the fancy of a Wasp-King; as the western Irish still believe in the Master Otter; as the Red Men believe in the King of the Buffaloes, and find the bones of his ancestors in the Mammoth remains of Big-bone Lick; as the Philistines of Ekron–to quote a notorious instance–actually worshipped Baal-zebub, lord of the flies.

If they have a king, he must be inside that tree, of course. If he, the savage, were a king, he would not work for his bread, but sit at home and make others feed him; and so, no doubt, does the wasp-king.

And when he goes home he will brood over this wonderful discovery of the wasp-king; till, like a child, he can think of nothing else. He will go to the tree, and watch for him to come out. The wasps will get accustomed to his motionless figure, and leave him unhurt; till the new fancy will rise in his mind that he is a favourite of this wasp-king: and at last he will find himself grovelling before the tree, saying–“Oh great wasp-king, pity me, and tell your children not to sting me, and I will bring you honey, and fruit, and flowers to eat, and I will flatter you, and worship you, and you shall be my king.”

And then he would gradually boast of his discovery; of the new mysterious bond between him and the wasp-king; and his tribe would believe him, and fear him; and fear him still more when he began to say, as he surely would, not merely–“I can ask the wasp-king, and he will tell his children not to sting you:” but–“I can ask the wasp-king, and he will send his children, and sting you all to death.” Vanity and ambition will have prompted the threat: but it will not be altogether a lie. The man will more than half believe his own words; he will quite believe them when he has repeated them a dozen times.

And so he will become a great man, and a king, under the protection of the king of the wasps; and he will become, and it may be his children after him, priest of the wasp-king, who will be their fetish, and the fetish of their tribe.

And they will prosper, under the protection of the wasp-king. The wasp will become their moral ideal, whose virtues they must copy. The new chief will preach to them wild eloquent words. They must sting like wasps, revenge like wasps, hold altogether like wasps, build like wasps, work hard like wasps, rob like wasps; then, like the wasps, they will be the terror of all around, and kill and eat all their enemies. Soon they will call themselves The Wasps. They will boast that their king’s father or grandfather, and soon that the ancestor of the whole tribe was an actual wasp; and the wasp will become at once their eponym hero, their deity, their ideal, their civiliser; who has taught them to build a kraal of huts, as he taught his children to build a hive.

Now, if there should come to any thinking man of this tribe, at this epoch, the new thought–Who made the world? he will be sorely puzzled. The conception of a world has never crossed his mind before. He never pictured to himself anything beyond the nearest ridge of mountains; and as for a Maker, that will be a greater puzzle still. What makers or builders more cunning than those wasps of whom his foolish head is full? Of course, he sees it now. A Wasp made the world; which to him entirely new guess might become an integral part of his tribe’s creed. That would be their cosmogony. And if, a generation or two after, another savage genius should guess that the world was a globe hanging in the heavens, he would, if he had imagination enough to take the thought in at all, put it to himself in a form suited to his previous knowledge and conceptions. It would seem to him that The Wasp flew about the skies with the world in his mouth, as he carries a bluebottle fly; and that would be the astronomy of his tribe henceforth. Absurd enough: but–as every man who is acquainted with old mythical cosmogonies must know–no more absurd than twenty similar guesses on record. Try to imagine the gradual genesis of such myths as the Egyptian scarabaeus and egg, or the Hindoo theory that the world stood on an elephant, the elephant on a tortoise, the tortoise on that infinite note of interrogation which, as some one expresses it, underlies all physical speculations, and judge: must they not have arisen in some such fashion as that which I have pointed out?

This, I say, would be the culminating point of the wasp-worship, which had sprung up out of bodily fear of being stung.

But times might come for it in which it would go through various changes, through which every superstition in the world, I suppose, has passed or is doomed to pass.

The wasp-men might be conquered, and possibly eaten, by a stronger tribe than themselves. What would be the result? They would fight valiantly at first, like wasps. But what if they began to fail? Was not the wasp-king angry with them? Had not he deserted them? He must be appeased; he must have his revenge. They would take a captive, and offer him to the wasps. So did a North American tribe, in their need, some forty years ago; when, because their maize-crops failed, they roasted alive a captive girl, cut her to pieces, and sowed her with their corn. I would not tell the story, for the horror of it, did it not bear with such fearful force on my argument. What were those Red Men thinking of? What chain of misreasoning had they in their heads when they hit on that as a device for making the crops grow? Who can tell? Who can make the crooked straight, or number that which is wanting? As said Solomon of old, so must we–“The foolishness of fools is folly.” One thing only we can say of them, that they were horribly afraid of famine, and took that means of ridding themselves of their fear.

But what if the wasp tribe had no captives? They would offer slaves. What if the agony and death of slaves did not appease the wasps? They would offer their fairest, their dearest, their sons and their daughters, to the wasps; as the Carthaginians, in like strait, offered in one day 200 noble boys to Moloch, the volcano- god, whose worship they had brought out of Syria; whose original meaning they had probably forgotten; of whom they only knew that he was a dark and devouring being, who must be appeased with the burning bodies of their sons and daughters. And so the veil of fancy would be lifted again, and the whole superstition stand forth revealed as the mere offspring of bodily fear.

But more: the survivors of the conquest might, perhaps, escape, and carry their wasp-fetish into a new land. But if they became poor and weakly, their brains and imagination, degenerating with their bodies, would degrade their wasp-worship till they knew not what it meant. Away from the sacred tree, in a country the wasps of which were not so large or formidable, they would require a remembrancer of the wasp-king; and they would make one–a wasp of wood, or what not. After a while, according to that strange law of fancy, the root of all idolatry, which you may see at work in every child who plays with a doll, the symbol would become identified with the thing symbolised; they would invest the wooden wasp with all the terrible attributes which had belonged to the live wasps of the tree; and after a few centuries, when all remembrance of the tree, the wasp- prophet and chieftain, and his descent from the divine wasp–ay, even of their defeat and flight–had vanished from their songs and legends, they would be found bowing down in fear and trembling to a little ancient wooden wasp, which came from they knew not whence, and meant they knew not what, save that it was a very “old fetish,” a “great medicine,” or some such other formula for expressing their own ignorance and dread. Just so do the half-savage natives of Thibet, and the Irishwomen of Kerry, by a strange coincidence– unless the ancient Irish were Buddhists, like the Himalayans–tie just the same scraps of rag on the bushes round just the same holy wells, as do the Negros of Central Africa upon their “Devil’s Trees;” they know not why, save that their ancestors did it, and it is a charm against ill-luck and danger.

And the sacred tree? That, too, might undergo a metamorphosis in the minds of men. The conquerors would see their aboriginal slaves of the old race still haunting the tree, making stealthy offerings to it by night: and they would ask the reason. But they would not be told. The secret would be guarded; such secrets were guarded, in Greece, in Italy, in medieval France, by the superstitious awe, the cunning, even the hidden self-conceit, of the conquered race. Then the conquerors would wish to imitate their own slaves. They might be in the right. There might be something magical, uncanny, in the hollow tree, which might hurt them; might be jealous of them as intruders. They, too, would invest the place with sacred awe. If they were gloomy, like the Teutonic conquerors of Europe and the Arabian conquerors of the East, they would invest it with unseen terrors. They would say, like them, a devil lives in the tree. If they were of a sunny temper, like the Hellenes, they would invest it with unseen graces. What a noble tree! What a fair fountain hard by its roots! Surely some fair and graceful being must dwell therein, and come out to bathe by night in that clear wave. What meant the fruit, the flowers, the honey, which the slaves left there by night? Pure food for some pure nymph. The wasp-gods would be forgotten; probably smoked out as sacrilegious intruders. The lucky seer or poet who struck out the fancy would soon find imitators; and it would become, after a while, a common and popular superstition that Hamadryads haunted the hollow forest trees, Naiads the wells, and Oreads the lawns. Somewhat thus, I presume, did the more cheerful Hellenic myths displace the darker superstitions of the Pelasgis and those rude Arcadian tribes who offered, even as late as the Roman Empire, human sacrifices to gods whose original names were forgotten.

But even the cultus of nymphs would be defiled after awhile by a darker element. However fair, they might be capricious and revengeful, like other women. Why not? And soon, men going out into the forest would be missed for awhile. They had eaten narcotic berries, got sun-strokes, wandered till they lost their wits. At all events, their wits were gone. Who had done it? Who but the nymphs? The men had seen something they should not have seen; done something they would not have done; and the nymphs had punished the unconscious rudeness by that frenzy. Fear, everywhere fear, of Nature–the spotted panther as some one calls her, as fair as cruel, as playful as treacherous. Always fear of Nature, till a Divine light arise, and show men that they are not the puppets of Nature, but her lords; and that they are to fear God, and fear naught else.

And so ends my true myth of the wasp-tree. No, it need not end there; it may develop into a yet darker and more hideous form of superstition, which Europe has often seen; which is common now among the Negros; {223} which we may hope, will soon be exterminated.

This might happen. For it, or something like it, has happened too many times already.

That to the ancient women who still kept up the irrational remnant of the wasp-worship, beneath the sacred tree, other women might resort; not merely from curiosity, or an excited imagination, but from jealousy and revenge. Oppressed, as woman has always been under the reign of brute force; beaten, outraged, deserted, at best married against her will, she has too often gone for comfort and help–and those of the very darkest kind–to the works of darkness; and there never were wanting–there are not wanting, even now, in remote parts of these isles–wicked old women who would, by help of the old superstitions, do for her what she wished. Soon would follow mysterious deaths of rivals, of husbands, of babes; then rumours of dark rites connected with the sacred tree, with poison, with the wasp and his sting, with human sacrifices; lies mingled with truth, more and more confused and frantic, the more they were misinvestigated by men mad with fear: till there would arise one of those witch-manias, which are too common still among the African Negros, which were too common of old among the men of our race.

I say, among the men. To comprehend a witch-mania, you must look at it as–what the witch-literature confesses it unblushingly to be– man’s dread of Nature excited to its highest form, as dread of woman.

She is to the barbarous man–she should be more and more to the civilised man–not only the most beautiful and precious, but the most wonderful and mysterious of all natural objects, if it be only as the author of his physical being. She is to the savage a miracle to be alternately adored and dreaded. He dreads her more delicate nervous organisation, which often takes shapes to him demoniacal and miraculous; her quicker instincts, her readier wit, which seem to him to have in them somewhat prophetic and superhuman, which entangled him as in an invisible net, and rule him against his will. He dreads her very tongue, more crushing than his heaviest club, more keen than his poisoned arrows. He dreads those habits of secrecy and falsehood, the weapons of the weak, to which savage and degraded woman always has recourse. He dreads the very medicinal skill which she has learnt to exercise, as nurse, comforter, and slave. He dreads those secret ceremonies, those mysterious initiations which no man may witness, which he has permitted to her in all ages, in so many–if not all–barbarous and semi-barbarous races, whether Negro, American, Syrian, Greek, or Roman, as a homage to the mysterious importance of her who brings him into the world. If she turns against him–she, with all her unknown powers, she who is the sharer of his deepest secrets, who prepares his very food day by day–what harm can she not, may she not, do? And that she has good reason to turn against him, he knows too well. What deliverance is there from this mysterious house-fiend, save brute force? Terror, torture, murder, must be the order of the day. Woman must be crushed, at all price, by the blind fear of the man.

I shall say no more. I shall draw a veil, for very pity and shame, over the most important and most significant facts of this, the most hideous of all human follies. I have, I think, given you hints enough to show that it, like all other superstitions, is the child– the last born and the ugliest child–of blind dread of the unknown.


I said, that Superstition was the child of Fear, and Fear the child of Ignorance; and you might expect me to say antithetically, that Science was the child of Courage, and Courage the child of Knowledge.

But these genealogies–like most metaphors–do not fit exactly, as you may see for yourselves.

If fear be the child of ignorance, ignorance is also the child of fear; the two react on, and produce each other. The more men dread Nature, the less they wish to know about her. Why pry into her awful secrets? It is dangerous; perhaps impious. She says to them, as in the Egyptian temple of old–“I am Isis, and my veil no mortal yet hath lifted.” And why should they try or wish to lift it? If she will leave them in peace, they will leave her in peace. It is enough that she does not destroy them. So as ignorance bred fear, fear breeds fresh and willing ignorance.

And courage? We may say, and truly, that courage is the child of knowledge. But we may say as truly, that knowledge is the child of courage. Those Egyptian priests in the temple of Isis would have told you that knowledge was the child of mystery, of special illumination, of reverence, and what not; hiding under grand words their purpose of keeping the masses ignorant, that they might be their slaves. Reverence? I will yield to none in reverence for reverence. I will all but agree with the wise man who said that reverence is the root of all virtues. But which child reverences his father most? He who comes joyfully and trustfully to meet him, that he may learn his father’s mind, and do his will; or he who at his father’s coming runs away and hides, lest he should be beaten for he knows not what? There is a scientific reverence, a reverence of courage, which is surely one of the highest forms of reverence. That, namely, which so reveres every fact, that it dare not overlook or falsify it, seem it never so minute; which feels that because it is a fact it cannot be minute, cannot be unimportant; that it must be a fact of God; a message from God; a voice of God, as Bacon has it, revealed in things; and which therefore, just because it stands in solemn awe of such paltry facts as the Scolopax feather in a snipe’s pinion, or the jagged leaves which appear capriciously in certain honeysuckles, believes that there is likely to be some deep and wide secret underlying them, which is worth years of thought to solve. That is reverence; a reverence which is growing, thank God, more and more common; which will produce, as it grows more common still, fruit which generations yet unborn shall bless.

But as for that other reverence, which shuts its eyes and ears in pious awe–what is it but cowardice decked out in state robes, putting on the sacred Urim and Thummim, not that men may ask counsel of the Deity, but that they may not? What is it but cowardice, very pitiable when unmasked; and what is its child but ignorance as pitiable, which would be ludicrous were it not so injurious? If a man comes up to Nature as to a parrot or a monkey, with this prevailing thought in his head–Will it bite me?–will he not be pretty certain to make up his mind that it may bite him, and had therefore best be left alone? It is only the man of courage–few and far between–who will stand the chance of a first bite, in the hope of teaching the parrot to talk, or the monkey to fire off a gun. And it is only the man of courage–few and far between–who will stand the chance of a first bite from Nature, which may kill him for aught he knows–for her teeth, though clumsy, are very strong–in order that he may tame her and break her in to his use by the very same method by which that admirable inductive philosopher, Mr. Rarey, used to break in his horses; first, by not being afraid of them; and next, by trying to find out what they were thinking of. But after all, as with animals, so with Nature; cowardice is dangerous. The surest method of getting bitten by an animal is to be afraid of it; and the surest method of being injured by Nature is to be afraid of it. Only as far as we understand Nature are we safe from it; and those who in any age counsel mankind not to pry into the secrets of the universe, counsel them not to provide for their own life and well-being, or for their children after them.

But how few there have been in any age who have not been afraid of Nature. How few have set themselves, like Rarey, to tame her by finding out what she is thinking of. The mass are glad to have the results of science, as they are to buy Mr. Rarey’s horses after they are tamed; but for want of courage or of wit, they had rather leave the taming process to someone else. And therefore we may say that what knowledge of Nature we have–and we have very little–we owe to the courage of those men–and they have been very few–who have been inspired to face Nature boldly; and say–or, what is better, act as if they were saying–“I find something in me which I do not find in you; which gives me the hope that I can grow to understand you, though you may not understand me; that I may become your master, and not as now, you mine. And if not, I will know; or die in the search.”

It is to those men, the few and far between, in a very few ages and very few countries, who have thus risen in rebellion against Nature, and looked it in the face with an unquailing glance, that we owe what we call Physical Science.

There have been four races–or rather a very few men of each four races–who have faced Nature after this gallant wise.

First, the old Jews. I speak of them, be it remembered, exclusively from an historical, and not a religious point of view.