BIO-OPTIMISM

The Evergreen. A Northern Seasonal. Published in
the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh by Patrick Geddes and
Colleagues. (London: Fisher Unwin, 1895).

IT is not often that a reviewer is called upon to write
art criticism in the columns of NATURE. But the
circumstances of the “Evergreen” are peculiar; it is pub-
lished with a certain scientific sanction as the expression of
a coming scientific Renascence of Art, and it is impossible
to avoid glancing at its aesthetic merits. It is a semi-
annual periodical emanating from the biological school
of St. Andrews University. Mr. J. Arthur Thomson
assists with the proem and the concluding article (“The
Scots Renascence”), and other significant work in the
volume is from the pen of Prof. Patrick Geddes. It
may be assumed that a large section of the public will
accept this volume as being representative of the younger
generation of biological workers, and as indicating the
aesthetic tendencies of a scientific training. What in-
justice may be done thereby a glance at the initial
Almanac will show. In this page of the “Scots Renascence”
design the beautiful markings of the carapace of a crab
and the exquisite convolutions of a ram’s horn are alike
replaced by unmeaning and clumsy spirals, the delicate
outlines of a butterfly body by a gross shape like a soda-
water bottle; its wings are indicated by a the three sausage-
shaped excrescences on either side, and the vegetable
forms in the decorative border are deprived of all variety
and sinuosity in favour of a system of cast-iron semi-
circular curves. Now, as a matter of fact, provided there
is no excess of diagram, his training should render
the genuine biologist more acutely sensitive to these ugly
and unmeaning distortions than the average educated
man. Neither does a biological training blind the eye to
the quite fortuitous arrangement of the black masses in
Mr. Duncan’s studies in the art of Mr. Beardsley, to the
clumsy line of Mr. Mackie’s reminiscences of Mr. Walter Crane,
or to the amateurish quality of Mr. Burn-Murdoch.
And when Mr. Riccardo Stephens honours Herrick on his
intention rather than his execution, and Mr. Laubach,
rejoicing “with tabret and string” at the advent of
spring, bleats

    “Now hillock and highway
    Are budding and glad,
    Thro’ dingle and byway
    Go lassie and lad."

it must not be supposed that the frequenters of the
biological laboratory, outside the circle immediately
about Prof. Patrick Geddes, are more profoundly stirred
than they are when Mr. Kipling, full of knowledge and
power, sings of the wind and the sea and the heart of the
natural man.

But enough has been said of the artistic merits of this
volume. Regarded as anything more than the first
efforts of amateurs in art and literature — and it makes
that claim — it is bad from cover to cover; and even the
covers are bad. No mitigated condemnation will meet
the circumstances of the case. Imagine the New
English Art Club propounding a Scientific Renascence
in its leisure moments! Of greater concern to the
readers of NATURE than the fact that a successful pro-
fessor may be an indifferent art editor, is the attempt on
the part of two biologists — real responsible biologists –
writing for the unscientific public, to represent Biology
as having turned upon its own philosophical implications.
Mr. Thomson, for instance, tells his readers that “the
conception of the Struggle for Existence as Nature’s sole
method of progress,” “was to be sure a libel projected
upon nature, but is had enough truth in it to be mis-
chievous for a while.” So zoologists honour their greatest!
“Science,” he says, has perceived “how false to natural
fact the theory was.” “It has shown how primordial,
how organically imperative the social virtues are; how
love, not egoism, is the motive which the final history of
every species justifies.” And so on to some beautiful
socialistic sentiment and anticipations of the “domin-
ance of a common civic ideal, which to naturalists is
known as a Symbiosis.” And Prof. Geddes writes
tumultuously in the same vein — a kind of pulpit science
— many hopeful things of “Renascence,” and the “Elixir
of Life.”

Now there is absolutely no justification for these sweep-
ing assertions, this frantic hopefulness, this attempt to
belittle the giants of the Natural Selection period of bio-
logical history. There is nothing in Symbiosis or in
any other group of phenomena to warrant the state-
ment that the representation of all life as a Struggle
for Existence is a libel on Nature. Because some
species have abandoned fighting in open order, each
family for itself, as some of the larger carnivora do,
for a fight in masses after the fashion of the ants,
because the fungus fighting its brother fungus has armed
itself with an auxiliary alga, because man instead of killing
his cattle at sight preserves them against his convenience,
and fights with advertisements and legal process instead
of with flint instruments, is life therefore any the less a
battle-field? Has anything arisen to show that the seed
of the unfit need not perish, that a species may wheel into
line with the new conditions without the generous assistance
of Death, that where the life and breeding of every indi-
vidual in a species is about equally secure, a degenerative
process must not inevitably supervene? As a matter of
fact Natural Selection grips us more grimly than it ever
did, because doubts thrown upon the inheritance of
acquired characteristics have deprived us of our trust in
education as a means of redemption for decadent families.
In our hearts we all wish that the case was not so, we all
hate Death and his handiwork; but the business of science
is not to keep up the courage of men, but to tell the truth.
And biological science in the study still faces this
dilemma, that the individual in a non-combatant species,
if such a thing as a non-combatant species ever exist,
a species, that is to say, perfectly adapted to static con-
ditions, is, by virtue of its perfect reactions, a mechanism,
and that in a species not in a state of equilibrium, a species
undergoing modification, a certain painful stress must
weigh upon all its imperfectly adapted individuals, and
death be busy among the most imperfect. And where your
animal is social, the stress is still upon the group of imper-
fect individuals constituting the imperfect herd or anthill,
or what not — they merely suffer by wholesale instead of by
retails. In brief, a static species is mechanical, an evolving
species suffering — no line of escape from that impasse has
as yet presented itself. The names of the sculptor who
carves out the new forms of life are, and so far as human
science goes at present they must ever be, Pain and Death.
And the phenomena of degeneration rob one of any
confidence that the new forms will be in any case or in
a majority of cases “higher” (by any standard except
present adaptation to circumstances) than the old.

Messrs. Geddes and Thomson have advanced nothing
to weaken these convictions, and their attitude is alto-
gether amazingly unscientific. Mr. Thomson talks of
the Gospel of the Resurrection and “that charming girl
Proserpina,” and Baldur the Beautiful and Dornröschen,
that hammers away at the great god Pan, inviting all and
sundry to “light the Beltane fires” — apparently with the
dry truths of science — “and keep the Floralia,” while Prof.
Geddes relies chiefly on Proserpine and the Alchemy of
Life for his literary effects. Intercalated among these
writings are amateurish short stories about spring, “de-
scriptive articles” of the High School Essay type, poetry
and illustrations such as we have already dealt with. In
this manner is the banner of the “Scots Renascence,”
and “Bio-optimism” unfurled by these industrious in-
vestigators in biology. It will not appeal to science
students, but to that large and important class of the
community which trims its convictions to its amiable
sentiments, it may appear as a very desirable mitigation
of the rigour of, what Mr. Buchanan has very aptly
called, the Calvinism of science.        H.G. WELLS.



 
 
 
 


 MLA citation:
 
 Wells, H.G. "BIO-OPTIMISM." Rev. of The Evergreen 2. Nature52.1348, 29 Aug 1895: 410-411. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=eg1_review_nature_1895.html