Life and its Science


"Life and its Science" at The Database of Ornament

To some readers, as certainly to some
of our brethren in science, it may seem
a strange thing that we biologists
should make much ado about the
Seasons, and yet stranger that, for-
saking our specialist societies with
their Proceedings and Transactions,
their Microscopical Journals and the
rest, we should be seeking to range
ourselves in pages like these along
with the painter-exponents, the poet-
observers, of the changing year. Nor can we wonder if these
look at such self-invited allies somewhat askance.
In the poet and the artist, with their thirst for actual, their
dream of possible beauty, such keen interest in the Seasons
is familiar and intelligible enough; so, also, albeit in widely
differing ways, in the farmer and the gardener, in the sportsman
and the mariner, in all who, outside the life of cities, have
elected to do rather than to know or feel. As for Science,
one remembers the astronomer and the geographer once explaining
to us the Seasons in some dimly remembered lecture
with their globes; but where should the biologist come in—
the reveller in cacophonous terminology, the man of lenses
and scalpels, the reducer of things to their elements of deadness?
What can he tell us of the seasons, what (beyond the time
of getting this or that specimen) have they to say to him?
For is not the popular picture of the botanist, for instance, that
of a mild yet somewhat mischievous creature, whose chief
interest is in picking flowers to pieces, like the sparrow among
the crocuses? His remaining occupation is supposed to be that
of gentle exercise on holiday afternoons; when, as a kind of
sober academic nursemaid, he has to march out with him upon
his rounds the unwilling neophytes of medicine, each fitly



equipped, in place of outgrown satchel (so prophetic is nature)
with a small tin coffin upon his back.
His skill these measure by the frequency with which he stops
like a truffle-hunter's pig,—say rather like a new, a vegetarian
breed of pointer. See him loudly ejaculating in the most
unmistakably canine Latin as he grubs up the unlucky
specimen, as he coffins it with a snap, what the student (as
his manner is) swiftly scribbles down and forgets, as the one
thing needful to know, its technical 'name'—really of course
its index letter or reference mark in that great nature-catalogue,
which so few consult at all.
Similarly, is not the zoologist a kind of mad huntsman who
slays and grallocks the meanest vermin for his game; or a
child who pricks beetles and hoards shells and boxes butterflies
into lines and battalions; or a pedant who' pins faith on a basipterygoid
process'? And is not the physiologist the man who
gives electric shocks to frogs, and analyses their waste products?
These appreciations are of course grotesque, but like all
caricatures, they have one side of truth, and that the obvious
one. The fact is that the Biologist has a familiar, a 'Doppel-
g̈anger,' his necessary and hence masterful, often tyrannous
and usurping slave, whose name is Necrologist; and now-a-
days most people know only him. The dead and the abnormal,
being dissonant, are more striking than the living and the
normal which are harmonious; and thus the doings of the
necrological Mr. Hyde attract more attention than those of
the biological Dr. Jekyll. Collection and dissection have their
place, their necessary and ample place, but they are not all,
they are not first. The study of life—the sum of living
functions, and of their resultants-in temperament, in sex,
in variety, in species—is again beginning to claim, and will
again recover, precedence in thought and in education over
that post-mortem analysis of organs and tissues and cells
which has for the present usurped its place. And as teachers
of biology our serious desire and daily work is towards a



distant revolution, which our pupils' pupils will accomplish,
though we may never see. When this comes, those learned
anatomical compendia, these text-books of 'Biology' falsely
so called, which now dominate every School of Science in the
world, shall be rewritten line by line, and from cover to cover.
We shall have done with beginning with the analysis of dead
structure; Physiology will precede Anatomy, and Bionomics
will precede both. Physiology, too, despite popular and too
authoritative manuals, Huxley's and the rest, sets out not by
creaking a skeleton, by unpacking the digesting or the circula-
ting organs, not even by observing the sensory or by experiment-
ing upon the instinctive life. Not even with the marvel of the
developing egg, nor with the mystery of seed-bearing in the
flower, does the naturalist begin; but with the opening bud,
with wandering deep into forest and high upon hill; in seeing,
in feeling, with hunter and with savage, with husbandman and
gypsy, with poet and with child, the verdant surge of Spring
foaming from every branchlet, bursting from every sod, break-
ing here on naked rock-face, there on rugged tree-bole till
even these are green with its clinging spray. Day after day he
shall drift on the Sea of Life as it deepens in verdure over
plain, as it eddies and ripples in blossom up the valleys; he
shall keep unslaying watch upon the myriad creatures that
teem upon its surface and crowd within its depths, till they
show him the eager ways of their hunger, the fury and the
terror of their struggle, the dim or joyous stirrings of their love.
He shall listen to the Sounds of Life, the hum of insect and the coo
of dove, the lilt of pairing mavises, the shivering child-cry of the
lambs, till he too must lift up his voice with lover and with poet,
with the greeting-song of the returned Proserpina, with the
answering chant of Easter—Life is arisen! Life is arisen indeed!
All this, quite seriously and definitely, is what we biologists
want to teach him who would learn with us-say rather what
we want him to see and hear, to live and feel for himself. Only
to him, we say, who has lived and felt with Life throughout the



Seasons, till memories of Nature throng the labyrinths of brain
and tingle the meshes of the blood, has there been any
'adequate preparation in Elementary Biology' at all. Only
him would we admit into our winter-palace of museum, its
crypt of laboratory; only him initiate into the perilous mystery,
the alluring mastery, of analysis; only to him who can approach
in contemplation no less reverent, in questioning no less vital
than that of ancient sacrifice and augury, shall the corpse be
opened, the skull laid bare, the magic glass be given, the secret
of decay be told.
For among the initiates of Necrology, he and he only, and
hardly even he, who has first gathered flowers with Proserpine
in her native valleys may ever return to a fuller Spring with
her in the open world again. For the rest, their home is in
the shades; for where the love and the wonder and the
imagination of Life are dead, there remains only unceasing
labour in the charnel-house and ossuary, here to disintegrate
or there to embalm, with only, at best reward, the amassing of
some mouldering treasure, the leaving for the bibliographer
some fragment-record, the winning of some small mummy-
garland upon a tomb.
But for him who has truly been in the greenwoods, who has
met and kissed their faerie queen, the wealth of the museum
palace still lies open; its very crypts are free. Yet with the
Spring her messengers come for him as for the Rhymer of
old; her white hart and hind, unseen of other eyes, pace up
the unlovely street; and he too must follow them back to their
home, home to his love.

As the simplest greetings of 'good morning' and 'good day'
remind us, some sympathy with Nature, some interest in our
fellows, are instinctive and universal. No one but is so far a
Nature-lover and a Season-observer; Spring with her buds and
lambs and lovers, Autumn amid her fruits and sheaves, Summer



in her green, and Winter with her holly, are all themes as unfail-
ing as human life. Even the best-worn rhymes of dove and
love, of youth and truth, will be fresh song-notes for adolescent
sweethearts till rhyming and sweethearting end. And even the
hardest day's labour closes sweetly, which can pause at the
home-coming and bathe its weariness in the evening sky.
That the child posy-gathering is a naturalist, the child drawing
out of his own head an artist, the child singing and making-
a poet, are all obvious enough. Obvious, too, are
becoming the general lines and conditions of these developments
up to those children of larger growth whose impressions
have been more richly gathered, more vitally assimilated, more
fully organised, till they appear not as mere crude attempts in
the child, mere fading memories in the adult, but in fresh life
and new form which we call 'original '—discovery, picture, or
poem. And were this the season, we might study the far
stranger (albeit more common) marvels of human failure. For
what is that shortcoming of beauty, common in the human
species above all others? how comes that blunting of sense and
stunting of soul which befall us? How shall we unriddle the
degeneration which the bio-pessimist has shown as well-nigh
overspreading Nature, the senescence which he has proved to
begin at birth?
But from the strange abnormalities we group as ugliness, from
that subtlest arrest of evolution which we once thought as well
as called the Commonplace, let us return, as befits beginners, to
the simple and the natural, the normal and the organic. That
is, to the growth in activity and variety of sensory and psychic
life, the growth of original and productive power, in discoverer,
painter, and poet. Scant outline is indeed alone possible in these
limits, yet every one has this latent in his own mind. The
most inarticulate rustic knows and watches his fields from day
to day; yet here is the stuff of biology. Simple satisfaction in
fresh landscape, notice of at least some aspects of human face
and form can hardly die wholly out of any mind; yet this is the

E          33


stuff of painting. So in the prosaic description of place or
person or event one detects the touch and tinge of literature,
alike in thought and style.
As poetic intensity and poetic interpretation may be true at
many deepening levels, so it is with the work of the painter; so
too with the scientific study of Nature. And here, too, the
extremes of thinker and child meet in the same mind. In
twenty years of microscopic teaching, for instance, the writer
has been rewarded by no such simple and joyous outburst of
juvenile delight in any mortal as he once silently provoked by
pushing his microscope, aswim with twirling Spirillum and
dancing Monads, under the eye of Darwin. ' Come here, come
here; look! look here! look at this! they're all moving!
they're all MOVING!' cried the veteran voyager, his deep
eyes sparkling, his grey face bright with excitement; the aged
leader of the century's science again a child who 'sees the
wheels go wound.'
The naturalist, as compared with his artist and poet comrades,
is generally neither so much of a babe nor so much of a man as
they; but primarily a boy or bird-nester, a hoarder of property
in the old comprehensive schoolboy fashion, before the example
of degenerate adults who specialise upon metal counters and
paper securities had reduced his collecting to postage-stamps.
Yet the naturalist, too, attains manhood upon the plane of
intellect; and if his museum of accumulated wealth be not too
much for him, he may gain new strength by systematising and
organising it. Thus on the more abstract and philosophic side
develops the systematist and thinker like Linmeus, on the
more concrete and artistic the encyclopedist and stylist like
Buffon. Each too in his way, in his world-museum and garden
of life, is an Adam naming and describing the creatures.
From these great treasure-houses and libraries of the science
the naturalist, too, may go out into the world not only to search
and discover and collect, but to labour also. His level of action
is primarily of a humbler and more fundamental sort than that



of his artist comrades. Fishery and rustic labour are to his
hand, he learns to dredge and to sow; forests, too, he may plant
and tend. By-and-by, in ordered park and garden great, he even
attains to artistic expression, and this upon a scale vaster than
that of cities; he transforms Nature, shaping herself and not
her mere image. Then strengthened and suppled in mind no
less than in body he returns to his science with fresh questions
and problems and perplexities, yet richer in resources, more
fertile in devices for solving them. From the slight modifica-
tion of certain forms of life by domestication and culture, from
the breeding and selecting with farmer and fancier, he gains
fresh light upon the problem of evolution; Darwin's, of course,
being the familiar, the classic case, but not the only or the final
one. But again riddles multiply, and even those that seemed
solved a few years ago appear anew from fresh sides and in
slightly altered forms. Again he must observe and ponder,
again also return to practice; and beyond the comparatively
limited range of domesticated animals and plants he needs
wider and more thorough observations. In course of these he
must rear under known conditions in laboratory and garden,
in field and farmyard, all manner of living things, low and
high, wild and tame, useful and malignant—and pass, in fact,
the life of his whole zoological and botanic garden under fresh
and keener review. This is what we begin to speak of as
Experimental Evolution. It is Comparative Agriculture,
Hygiene, Medicine; and all these with widening range.
Before long it will have its institutes as well as they.
The poet is but a simple poet who does not see that this is no
dead science, but a very Alchemy, a higher Alchemy than that
of metals—the Alchemy of Lif—and that the search for the
Elixir Vitae is indeed again begun.
Already at each stage of its progress the study of man has
thrown light upon that of lower creatures; conversely their
study upon our view of men. The interaction of these kindred
lines of thought is even now entering a new and fuller



phase, and a higher series of scientific institutes, those of the
Experimental Evolution of Man, are thus logically necessary.
These indeed are already to hand: asylum and hospital, prison,
workhouse and school, orphanage and university (to name
only the more obvious groups), are not far to seek. Each, too,
has been changing its purpose and ideal within the past
century, from the initial ones which were practically little more
than of social rubbish-heaps into which society could more or
less mercifully shoot its senile, diseased, or troublesome mem-
bers, or of lumber-heaps for its immature and weak ones.
First, common humanity showed us the festering of these social
sores, opening the way for medicine, as this for hygiene; now
psychology is entering upon school and asylum, even crimin-
ology forcing its way into court and prison; before long a
fuller sociology and ethics will have entered all. The secrets
of evolution and of dissolution of body and mind, the corresponding
interpretations, economic and ethical, of evolution
and dissolution for each type of human society, are thus being
laid bare. And here we may note in passing the scientific (necrological)
justification of much of our contemporary decadent
But the night of pessimism has passed its darkest. Its social
explanation and standpoint remain clear enough. The physical
sciences, their associated industrial evolution, have created a
disorder they are powerless to re-organise-hence progressive
ruin of all kinds, individual and social, material and moral,
to which church, state, and the negations of these, are all alike
powerless to find remedies. But such pessimists overlook an
old saying of the prophets-of Descartes before Comte, doubtless
of old Greeks before these, of older Egyptians before them—
that 'if the regeneration of mankind is to be accomplished, it
will be through the medical sciences.'
With this regeneration defined as Experimental Evolution, the
prophecy is making a fresh start towards fulfilment. In the
simpler institutes which we call school, college, or the like,



the problem is to grow good fruit from good or average seed.
In those of a pathological kind (asylum, prison, hospital)
beyond the obvious aim of restoration to a low or average norm
of health, is arising, however, the seemingly more difficult
(perhaps easier) problem, already hinted at—that of Life-
Alchemy, of Redemption. For again we are dreaming of a
Secret of Transmutation, that of disease into higher health,
of baseness into generosity, of treason into honour, of lust into
love, of stupor into lucidity, phantasmagoria into drama, mania
into vision.
Beyond this there is yet another step of practice; the physician
is bringing experience and method from the hospital into the
service of the home; so in their way are all his brother evolu-
tionists. And thus they begin to discern and prepare for their
immediate task—to cleanse and change the face of cities, to
re-organise the human hive.
For them as for their rustic fellows, the task begins with the
humblest drudgery, the scavenging of dirt, the disposal of
manure. Soon, however, they will grapple with the central
and the supreme Art possible to mortals, the very Mystery of
Masonry itself, which has its beginnings in the anxieties of
calculation and the perplexities of plan, in the chaotic heaps of
quarry, in the deep and toilsome labour, the uncouth massive-
ness of the foundations: yet steadily rises to shelter and sacred-
ness of hearth, to gloom of tower and glory of pinnacle, to leap
of arch and float of dome. With this renewal of Environment,
there arises a corresponding renewal of economic and moral
Function which shall yet be Industry, the renewal and develop-
ment of Life as well—what shall yet be Education. And thus even
painter and poet find, through what seemed to them an irrele-
vant science, new space for beauty and new stimulus of song.
Yet even here the Three comrades have no Continuing city.
  For each, for all, the faerie messengers are waiting; and
     they must ever return to Her from whom they came.

                                                                                                PATRICK GEDDES.


MLA citation: Geddes, Patrick. "Life and its Science." The Evergreen 1 (1895): 29-37. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2016. Web. [Date of access]