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Discourses Biological and Geological Essays   By: (1825-1895)

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The contents of the present volume, with three exceptions, are either popular lectures, or addresses delivered to scientific bodies with which I have been officially connected. I am not sure which gave me the more trouble. For I have not been one of those fortunate persons who are able to regard a popular lecture as a mere hors d'oeuvre , unworthy of being ranked among the serious efforts of a philosopher; and who keep their fame as scientific hierophants unsullied by attempts at least of the successful sort to be understanded of the people.

On the contrary, I found that the task of putting the truths learned in the field, the laboratory and the museum, into language which, without bating a jot of scientific accuracy shall be generally intelligible, taxed such scientific and literary faculty as I possessed to the uttermost; indeed my experience has furnished me with no better corrective of the tendency to scholastic pedantry which besets all those who are absorbed in pursuits remote from the common ways of men, and become habituated to think and speak in the technical dialect of their own little world, as if there were no other.

If the popular lecture thus, as I believe, finds one moiety of its justification in the self discipline of the lecturer, it surely finds the other half in its effect on the auditory. For though various sadly comical experiences of the results of my own efforts have led me to entertain a very moderate estimate of the purely intellectual value of lectures; though I venture to doubt if more than one in ten of an average audience carries away an accurate notion of what the speaker has been driving at; yet is that not equally true of the oratory of the hustings, of the House of Commons, and even of the pulpit?

Yet the children of this world are wise in their generation; and both the politician and the priest are justified by results. The living voice has an influence over human action altogether independent of the intellectual worth of that which it utters. Many years ago, I was a guest at a great City dinner. A famous orator, endowed with a voice of rare flexibility and power; a born actor, ranging with ease through every part, from refined comedy to tragic unction, was called upon to reply to a toast. The orator was a very busy man, a charming conversationalist and by no means despised a good dinner; and, I imagine, rose without having given a thought to what he was going to say. The rhythmic roll of sound was admirable, the gestures perfect, the earnestness impressive; nothing was lacking save sense and, occasionally, grammar. When the speaker sat down the applause was terrific and one of my neighbours was especially enthusiastic. So when he had quieted down, I asked him what the orator had said. And he could not tell me.

That sagacious person John Wesley, is reported to have replied to some one who questioned the propriety of his adaptation of sacred words to extremely secular airs, that he did not see why the Devil should be left in possession of all the best tunes. And I do not see why science should not turn to account the peculiarities of human nature thus exploited by other agencies: all the more because science, by the nature of its being, cannot desire to stir the passions, or profit by the weaknesses, of human nature. The most zealous of popular lecturers can aim at nothing more than the awakening of a sympathy for abstract truth, in those who do not really follow his arguments; and of a desire to know more and better in the few who do.

At the same time it must be admitted that the popularization of science, whether by lecture or essay, has its drawbacks. Success in this department has its perils for those who succeed. The "people who fail" take their revenge, as we have recently had occasion to observe, by ignoring all the rest of a man's work and glibly labelling him a more popularizer... Continue reading book >>

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