The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 53
The Rev. Joseph Cook a Critique
The Rev. Joseph Cook a Critique.
"The small philosopher is a great character in New England; His fundamental rule of logical procedure is to guess at the half, and multiply by two. [Applause.]"* It is only two or throe years since the "philosopher," front whom this text is quoted, was himself "a great character in New England," inasmuch as he could give a lecture once every week, in one of the largest halls of New England's principal city, and could entertain his audience of two or three thousand people with discussions of the most vast and abstruse themes of science and metaphysics. The success with which he entertained his audience is carefully chronicled for us in the volumes made up from the reports of his lectures, in which parenthetical notes of "laughter," "applause," or "sensation" occur as frequently as in ordinary newspaper reports of stump-speeches or humorous convivial harangues. As a social phenomenon, this singular career of Mr Cook possesses considerable interest—enough, at any rate, to justify a brief inquiry as to his "fundamental rule of procedure."
Among the wise and witty sayings of the ancients with which our children are puzzled and edified in the first dozen pages of the Greek "Reader," there is a caustic remark attributed to Phokion, on the occasion of being very violently applauded by the populace: "Dear me," said the old statesman, "can it be that I have been making a fool of myself?" So, when three thousand people are made to laugh and clap their hands over statements; about the origin of species, or the anatomy of the nervous system, the first impulse of any scientific inquirer of ordinary sagacity and experience is to ask in what meretricious fashion these serious subjects can have been treated, in order to have produced such a result. The inference may be cynical, perhaps, but it is none the page 2 less likely to be sound. In Mr. Cook's case, one does not need to read far in the published reports of his lectures to see that his fundamental rule of procedure is something very different from any of the rules by which truth is wooed and won by scientific inquirers. Among Mr. Mill's comprehensive canons of logical method one might search in vain for a specimen of the method employed by Mr. Cook. Of the temper of mind, indeed, in which scientific inquiries are conducted, Mr. Cook has no more conception than Laura Bridgman could have of Pompeian red, or of a chord of the minor ninth. The process of holding one's judgment in suspense over a complicated problem, of patiently gathering and weighing the evidence on every side, of subjecting one's own first-formed hypotheses to repeated verification, of clearly comprehending and fairly stating opposing views, of setting forth one's conclusions at last, guardedly and with a distinct consciousness of the conditions under which they are tenable,—all this sort of thing is absolutely foreign to Mr. Cook's nature. To Mr. Cook, a scientific thesis is simply a statement over which it is possible to get up a fight. The game-cock is his totem; to him the bones of the vertebrate sub-kingdom are only so many bones of contention, and the sponge is interesting chiefly as an emblem which is never, on any account, to be "thrown up." He talks accordingly of scientific men lying in wait for Mr. Darwin, ready to pounce on him like a tiger on its prey; he is very fond of exhibiting what he calls the "strategic point" of a scientific book or theory; and altogether his attitude is bellicose to a degree that is as unbecoming in a minister of the gospel as it is out of place in a discussion of scientific questions. His favorite method of dealing with a scientific writer is to quote from him all sorts of detached statements and inferences, and, without the slightest regard to the writer's general system of opinions or habits of thought, to praise or vituperate the detached statements according to some principle which it is not always easy for the redder to discover, but which has always doubtless some reference to their supposed bearings upon the peculiar kind of orthodoxy of which Mr. Cook appears as the champion. There are some writers whom Mr. Cook thinks it necessary always to berate, no matter what they say. If they happen to say something which ought to be quite satisfactory to any reasonable person of orthodox opinions, Mr. Cook either accuses them of insincerity, or represents them as making "concessions." This last device, I am sorry to be obliged to add, is not an uncommon one with theological controversialists, whose zeal exceeds their scrupulousness. When a man makes a statement which expresses his deepest convictions, there is no easier way of seeming to knock away the platform on which he stands than to quote his statement, and describe it as some- page 3 tiling which he has reluctantly "conceded." With the principal writers on evolution, Mr. Cook is continual])' found resorting to this cheap and vulgar device. For example, when Professor Tyndall declares that "if a right-hand spiral movement of the particles of the brain could be shown to occur in love, and a left-hand spiral movement in hate, we should be as far off as ever from understanding the connection of this physical motion with the spiritual manifestations,"—when Professor Tyndall declares this, he simply asserts what is a cardinal proposition with the whole group of English philosophers to which he belongs. With Professor Huxley, as well as with Mr. Spencer, it is a fundamental proposition that psychical phenomena cannot possibly be interpreted in terms of matter and motion, and this proposition they have at various times set forth and defended,—and what is still more to the purpose, have proved it. In the chapter on "Matter and Spirit," in my work on "Cosmic Philosophy," I have fully expounded this point, and have further illustrated it in treating of the "Unseen World." With the conclusions there set forth, the remark of Professor Tyndall thoroughly agrees, and it does so because all these expressions of opinion and all these arguments are part and parcel of a coherent system of anti-materialistic thought adopted by the English school of evolutionists. Yet when Mr. Cook quotes Professor Tyndall's remark, he does it in this wise: "It is notorious that even Tyndall concedes," etc., etc.
By proceeding in this way, Mr. Cook finds it easy to make out a formidable array of what he calls "the concessions of evolutionists." He first gives the audience a crude impression of some sort of theory of evolution, such as no scientific thinker ever dreamed of, or, to speak more accurately, he plays upon the crude impression already half formed in the average mind of his audience, and which, to do him justice, he seems to share himself. The average notion of the doctrine of evolution possessed in common by an audience big enough to fill Tremont Temple, would no doubt seem to Mr. Darwin or to Mr. Spencer something altogether fearful and wonderful. Playing with this sort of crude material, Mr. Cook puts together a series of numbered propositions, which remind one of those interminable auction-catalogues of Walt Whitman, which some of our British cousins, more ardent than discriminating, mistake for a truly American species of inspired verse. In this long catena of statements, almost everything is easily seen to disagree with the crude general impression to which the speaker appeals, and almost everything is accordingly set down as a "concession." And as the audience go out after the lecture, they doubtless ask one another, in amazed whispers, how it is that sensible men who make so many "concessions" can find it in their hearts to maintain the doctrine of evolution at all!page 4
Sometimes Mr. Cook goes even farther than this, and, in the very act of quoting an authors declared opinions, expressly refuses to give him credit for them. Thus he has the impudence to say: "Even Herbert Spencer, who would be very glad to prove the opposite, says, in his Biology, 'The proximate chemical principles or chemical units—albumen, fibrine, gelatine, or the hypothetical proteine substance—cannot possess the property of forming the endlessly varied structures of animal forms.' "Mr. Cook here lays claim to a knowledge of his author's innermost thoughts and wishes that is quite remarkable. For a fit parallel one would have to cite the instance of the German who flogged his son for profanity, though the boy had not opened his mouth. "You dinks tamn," exclaimed the irate father, "and I vips you for dat."
As there are some writers whom Mr. Cook thinks it always necessary to vituperate, no matter what they say, so there are others whom he finds it convenient to quote, as foils to the former, and to mention with praise on all occasions, though it is difficult to assign the reasons for this preference except on the hypothesis that Mr. Cook has an implicit faith in the simple and confiding nature of his audience. Before giving these lectures, Mr. Cook had studied a while in Germany, and his citations of German writers show how far he deems it safe to presume on New England's ignorance of what Germany thinks. It is nice to have such a learned country as Germany at one's disposal to hurl at the heads of people whose "outlook in philosophy does not reach beyond the Straits of Dover"; it saves a great deal of troublesome argument, and still more painful examination of facts. This English opinion is all very well, you know, but it conies from a philosopher "whose star is just touching the western pines," and a German whom T am about to quote, whose book I "hold in my hand," and "whose star is in the ascendant," does not agree with it. All this is extremely neat and convincing, apparently, to the crowd in Tremont Temple. With all Germany at his disposal, however, it must be acknowledged that Mr. Cook makes a very sparing use of his resources. He quotes Helmholtz and Wundt every now and then with warm approval, though wherein they should be found any more acceptable to the orthodox world than Tyndall and Bain, it is not easy to see, save that the ill-repute of German free-thinkers takes somewhat longer to get diffused in New England than the ill-repute of English free-thinkers. Then, among these great Germans who are to set the English-speaking world aright, we have Delitzsch! To speak of Wundt and Delitzsch is as if one were to speak of John Stuart Mill and Stephen Pearl Andrews! And then comes the admirable Lotzo, whom Mr. Cook is continually setting page 5 off as a foil to Herbert Spencer. On page 170 of the lectures on "Heredity" he enumerates, with special emphasis, those opinions of Lotze which he deems as of especial importance with regard to the relations between matter and mind, and then proceeds to deprecate the "thunder" which he presumes he has evoked "from all quarters of the Spencerian sky." But, considering that the propositions he quotes from Lotze express the very views of Herbert Spencer, only somewhat inadequately worded, it would seem that the alarm Mr. Cook expresses cannot be very real, and the thunder in question is only a kind of comic-opera thunder manufactured behind the curtain for the benefit of the acquiescent audience. By way of example, the fourth proposition quoted with approval from Lotze by Air. Cook reads thus: "Physical phenomena point to an underlying being to whom they belong, but do not determine whether that being is material or immaterial." Now this is Spencerism, pure and unmitigated, and it is a crucial proposition too, pointing out the drift of the whole philosophy before which it is set up. The fact that Mr. Cook adopts such an opinion when stated by Lotze, but vituperates the same opinion when stated by Spencer, reveals to us, with a pungent though not wholly delicious flavor, the "true in wardness'" of his "fundamental method of procedure."
That method, it must be acknowledged with due reference to the bon mot of the old Greek statesman, is a method well adapted to conciliate the favor of an immense audience, even in so cultivated a city as Boston. We are descended from fighting ancestors, and many of us, who care little for the disinterested discussion of scientific theories, still like to see a man knocked down or impaled, provided the knocking down be done with a syllogistic club, or the impaling be restricted to such a hard substance as is afforded by the horns of a dilemma. It satisfies our combative instincts, without shocking our physical sympathies or making any great demand on our keener thinking powers, which most people do most of all dislike to be called upon to exercise. To this kind of feeling Mr. Cook's lectures appeal, and the peculiar character of his success seems to show that he knew very well how to deal with it. In a moment of winning frankness he exclaims: "Do you suppose that I think that this audience can be cheated? I do not know where in America there is another weekly audience with as many brains in it; at least, I do not know where, in New England, 1 should be so likely to be tripped up if I were to make an incorrect statement as here." ("Biology," page 67.) After this persuasive little dose of what the newspapers call "toffy," Mr. Cook proceeds to show his respect for the learning of his audience in some remarks on bathybius, which, as he condescendingly explains, is a name page 6 derived from two Greek words, meaning deep and sea!! The profound knowledge of elementary Greek thus shown is quite equalled by his account of bathybius from the zoological point of view. He begins by telling his hearers that, in a paper published in the "Microscopical Journal" in 1868, Prof. Huxley "announced his belief that the gelatinous substance found in the ooze of the bods of the deep seas is a sheet of living matter extending around the globe." Furthermore, of "this amazingly strategic (!) and haughtily trumpeted substance . . . Huxley assumed that it was in the past, and would be in the future, the progenitor of all the life on the planet." Now, it is not true that, in the paper referred to, Prof. Huxley announces any such belief, or makes any such assumption, as is here ascribed to him; but we shall see, in a moment, that Mr. Cook's system of quotation is peculiar in enabling him to extract from the text of an author any meaning whatever that may happen to suit his purposes. This slanderous misrepresentation enables the lecturer to come in with great effect at the close of his third lecture, and earn an ignoble round of applause, by holding up the current number of the "American Journal of Science and Arts" (which he would appear to have picked up at a book-store on his way to the lecture-room) and citing from it, as the fifty-first and closing "concession" of evolutionists, "that bathybius has been discovered in 1875, by the ship Challenger, to be—hear, 0 heavens! and give ear, 0 earth!—sulphate of lime; and that when dissolved it crystallizes as gypsum. [Applause.]" This is what Mr. Cook calls striking, with the "latest scientific intelligence," at the "bottom stem" of the great tree of evolution. The "latest scientific intelligence" with him means the last book or article which he has glanced over without comprehending its import, but from which he has contrived to glean some statement calculated to edify his audience and scatter the hosts of Midian. In point of fact, the identification of bathybius with sulphate of lime was set down by Sir Wyville Thomson only as a suspicion, to which Prof. Huxley, like a true man of science, at once accorded all possible weight, while leaving the question open for further discussion. Only a mountebank, however, dealing with an audience upon whose ignorance of the subject he might safely rely, could pretend to suppose that the fate of the doctrine of evolution was in any way involved in the question as to the organic nature of bathybius. The amazing strategy was all Mr. Cook's own, and the haughty trumpeting appears to have been chiefly done with his own very brazen instrument.
I said a moment ago that Mr. Cook's system of quotation is peculiar. The following instance is so good that it will bear citing at some length. According to Mr. Cook, Prof. Huxley says, in his article on Biology in page 7 the ninth edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica": "Throughout almost the whole series of living beings, we find agamogenesis, or not-sexual generation." After a pause, Mr. Cook proceeded in a lower voice: "When the topic of the origin of the life of our Lord on the earth is approached from the point of view of the microscope, some men, who know not what the holy of holies in physical and religious science is, say that we have no example of the origin of life without two parents.' Mr. Cook then cites the familiar instances of parthenogenesis in bees and silk-moths, and proceeds: "Take up your Mivart, your Lyell your Owen, and you will read [where?] this same important fact which Huxley here asserts, when he says that the law that perfect individuals may be virginally born extends to the higher forms of life. I am in the presence of Almighty God; and yet, when a great soul like the tender spirit of our sainted Lincoln, in his early days, with little knowledge but with great thoughtfulness, was troubled by this difficulty, and almost thrown into infidelity by not knowing that the law that there must be two parents is nut universal. I am willing to allude, even in such a presence as this, to the latest science concerning miraculous conception. [Sensation.]"
Concerning the good taste, or the orthodox propriety, of "approaching the origin of the life of our Lord on earth from the point of view of the microscope," something might be said were there need of it. The rhetorical vulgarity of the above passage will be as obvious to most of our readers as its logical absurdity. All that I am now concerned with, however, is its unscrupulous misstatement. Let us look back for a moment at the italicized quotation from Prof. Huxley's article and see what he really does say. Treating of the whole subject of agamogenesis in the widest possible way by including it under the more general process of cell-multiplication, Prof. Huxley says: "Common as the process is in plants and in the lower animals, it becomes rare among the higher animals. In these, the reproduction of the whole organism from a part, in the way indicated above, ceases. At most we find that the cells at the end of an amputated portion of the organism are capable of reproducing the lost part, and, in the very highest animals, even this power vanishes in the adult. . .. Throughout almost the whole series of living beings, however, we find concurrently with the process of agamogenesis, or asexual generation, another method of generation, in which the development of the germ into an organism resembling the parent depends on an influence exerted by living matter different from the germ. This is gamogenesis, or sexual generation." (Encyc. Brit., 9th edition, "Biology," page 686.) Comparing the italicized passage here with Mr. Cook's italicized quotation, we see vividly illustrated page 8 the "fundamental method of procedure" by which the "Monday Lectureship" jumps from a statement about the reproduction of a lobster's claws to the inference that a man may be born without a father. Every one has heard of the worthy clergyman who introduced a scathing sermon on a new-fangled variety of ladies' head-dress by the appropriate text, "Top-knot come down!" On being reminded by one of his deacons that the full verse seemed to read, "Let him that is upon the house-top not come down," the pastor boldly justified his abridgment on the ground that any particular collocation of words in Scripture is as authoritative as any other, since all parts of the Bible are equally inspired. Probably Mr. Cook would justify his own peculiar principle of abridgment on the familiar ground that the end sanctifies the means, and that if a statement seems helpful to "the truth" in general, it is no matter whether the statement itself is true or not.
Enough of this. If we were to go through with Mr. Cook's volumes in detail, we should find little else but misrepresentations of facts, misconceptions of principles, and floods of tawdry rhetoric, of which the specimens here quoted are quite sufficient to illustrate his "fundamental method of procedure." I have not treated him seriously or with courtesy, because there is nothing in his matter or in his manner that would justify, or even excuse, a serious method of treatment. The only aspect of his career which really affords matter for grave reflection is the ease with which he succeeded for the moment in imposing on the credulity and in appealing to the prejudices of his public. The eagerness with which the orthodox world hailed the appearance of this new champion—whose very orthodoxy withal seems to be but little sounder than his science—cannot but remind one, with sad emphasis, of Oxenstjern's famous remark: "Quam parva sapientia mundus regitur!"
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