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SCIENCE AND LIFE
“Science is the great instrument of social change, all the greater because its object is not change but knowledge, and its silent appropriation of this dominant function, amid the din of political and religious strife, is the most vital of all the revolutions which have marked the development of modern civilisation.”—A. J. BALFOUR, Decadence, 1908.
The curiously limited outlook of the devotees of scientific inquiries, the strange contrast between the recluseness of the individual and the cumulative consequences to society of their work, has been the note struck by many modern commentators. The spirit of the mythical don, who thanked the Almighty at the close of a life-long tussle with a mathematical problem that its solution could never be of the least possible use to anyone, is still revered as the pure distilled essence of scientific endeavour. That this cloisteral attitude is essential to the highest and most practical discovery is patent from a casual examination of the history of science. But whether it is sane to leave entirely to the unscientific wisdom of the age the proper direction and utilisation for the many of the treasure so acquired, is a question to which the answer is equally patent from a casual examination of the history of the application of science. The immense acquisition to the wealth and resources of mankind which has been the result of the past century of science, should have been the golden opportunity of statesmen and humanitarians and the raw material out of which the sum total of human happiness could have been augmented. Instead, it has but revealed a growing incapacity and failure on the part of the altruist to appreciate the nature and power of the new weapon that science has placed in his hands, and an ever-increasing rapacity and far-sightedness on the part of the egotist to secure it for his own ends.
1 This is a revised and abbreviated version of an article which appeared in The Candid Quarterly some years ago, and subsequently in The Student Movement, December 1918 to February 1919.
For many a decade now, owing primarily and indisputably to the intellectual achievements of a comparative handful of men of communistic and cloisteral habit of thought, a steady shower of material benefits has been raining down upon humanity, and for these benefits men have fought in the traditional manner of the struggle when the fickle sunlight was the sole hazardous income of the world. The strong have fed and grown fat upon a larger and ever larger share of the manna. Initial slight differences of strength and sagacity have become so emphasised by the virile stream that the more successful are becoming monstrously so, and the unsuccessful less and less able to secure a full meal than before the shower began.
Already it savours of indelicacy and tactlessness to recall that the exploiters of all this wealth are not its creators; that the spirit of acquisitiveness which has ensured success to them, rather than to their immediate neighbours, is the antithesis of the spirit by which the wealth was won.
Amid all the sneers at the impracticability and visionary character of communist schemes, let it not be forgotten that science is a communism, neither theoretical nor on paper, but actual and in practice. The results of those who labour in the fields of knowledge for its own sake are published freely and
THE MATERIAL BASIS OF LIFE
pooled in the general stock for the benefit of all. Common ownership of all its acquisitions is the breath of its life. Secrecy or individualism of any kind would destroy its fertility.
THE MATERIAL BASIS OF LIFE. By To the altruist, to whom wealth and human happiness are far from being synonyms, science is viewed with distrust. A phrase "like the growing materialism of the age" is a curious betrayal of a habit of thought which would be ludicrous if it were not fraught with disaster. The physical conditions of existence are more fundamental than the æsthetic, moral or intellectual. A child must be fed before it can be taught. A certain standard of living above that of animals is a preliminary condition for the development of any of the special qualities of human beings. Philosophies, codes, political systems and religions must follow the lead of science and range themselves in alliance with, rather than in defiance of, these inanimate fundamentals, or, like a machine designed in ignorance of the principles of mechanics, they constitute themselves a danger to the community. Of these elementary physical conditions, which absolutely control existence, and which take precedence over every other, mankind remained in total ignorance until they suddenly changed. Most fish probably remain utterly oblivious of the existence of water until rudely hauled into the upper air. In the essentially unchanging physical environment, in which all but the latest epoch of recorded history has been enacted, lies the probable explanation of the seeming paralysis which has overtaken the sources of constructive thought and action since science in the last century revolutionised the major physical condition of life.
The results of a sudden acquisition of wealth without effort, or with a relative minimum of effort, are proverbial, and science, that has secured wealth beyond precedent and promises wealth beyond belief, has till now been too closely pursued by the proverbial results. But is the whole accumulated wisdom of the ages really sterile and impotent before this problem of how to use wealth, of how to secure that a greater part of the sum-total of increased material resources shall be made to contribute to the sum-total of human happiness ? For at present, it has not only shown itself powerless to bring about this result, but it is, an uncharitable observer might conclude, in league with the other side, and is active, so far as it is active at all, in ensuring that the improvement in material conditions shall increase the sum-total of human misery.
THE APPLICATION OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY.
The statesman from whom the writer has ventured to borrow the quotation at the head of this article, showed a rare insight into the character of the world movement which has followed the application of scientific discovery, and was able to penetrate beneath the superficial consequences “appropriately associated with materialism and greed.” Something
seriously to be ranked with religion and patriotism as an important force for raising men's lives above what is small, personal and self-centred,” “a source not merely of material convenience but of spiritual elevation" was hinted at from a remote standpoint, over and beyond the nearer prospect of "smoky cities, polluted rivers and desecrated landscapes. But those who can take a nearer, narrower and less clouded view, feel as though they had “stared at the Pacific.” For, from the point of vantage attained