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Volume 71, 1942
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– XXIX –

Presidential Address

We have lately lost by resignation due to illness two members of this Council, Sir Thomas Easterfield and Mr. F. R. Callaghan. I feel sure you will wish that a letter be sent to each of them conveying our sympathy and hopes for their speedy recovery. Sir Thomas Easterfield has been a member of this Council almost continuously since 1904, first as one of the representatives of the Wellington Branch from 1904 to 1921, and then as the representative of the Nelson Institute from 1924 to the present time. He was President of this Society for 1920 and 1921.

I have great pleasure in welcoming Dr. D. Miller, who replaces Sir Thomas Easterfield as the representative of the Nelson Institute, Dr. L. Bastings, who replaces Mr. Callaghan as one of the representatives of the Wellington Branch, and Dr. F. J. Turner, who replaces Mr. G. Simpson as one of the representatives of the Otago Branch.

Before proceeding further, I desire to express the loyalty of this Council and of our Society to His Majesty the King, and our determination to aid by every means in our power the efforts that are being made by the Empire to ensure victory.

The death has recently been announced of a distinguished Honorary Member of this Society, Sir James George Frazer, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. During a long life of research he published many books on anthropology and the customs of primitive races. His most famous work was The Golden Bough, in twelve volumes, which was begun in 1890 and completed in 1915. He was knighted in 1914, and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1925. He received many honours from English and foreign learned bodies and universities.

Since the last annual meeting we have also lost by death a number of members of our various Branches:—

William Herbert Guthrie-Smith was a member of the Hawke's Bay Branch from 1894–1940. He was elected a Fellow of this Society in 1924. A notice of his activities has recently appeared in our Transactions. His book, Tutira, which deals with the natural history of his own district in Hawke's Bay, has made his name well-known both within and outside of New Zealand. It is rightly regarded as a classic in New Zealand literature. He was a notable observer and lover of our native birds. The results of his acute observations on their natural history, a study that took him into many parts of the country, were published as books under the titles Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste; Mutton Birds and Other Birds; Bird Life on Island and Shore; and Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist. His books have done much to stimulate interest not only in bird life, but also in the joys of the open in general.

– XXX –

James Hislop was Secretary and Treasurer of the Hawke's Bay Branch from 1899–1910. He was elected a life member of that Branch in recognition of his services.

Robert Malcolm Laing, whose death was announced only a few days ago, was science master at the Christchurch Boys' High School from 1886–1926, and continued after his retirement to live in Christchurch to the time of his death. During practically the whole of this long period he was a member of the Canterbury Branch, and was its President from 1894–1910, and again in 1927. He was elected Fellow of this Society in 1922.

During his Presidency the Canterbury Branch organised a scientific expedition to the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand. He himself was a member of this expedition, and subsequently contributed two articles in the published Report.

He had a wide knowledge of the general botany of New Zealand, and especially that of the Canterbury Province, and contributed a number of papers to our Transactions dealing with his botanical field work. In collaboration with Miss E. W. Blackwell he was the author of a very successful and widely-read book, Plants of New Zealand. He was our chief authority on the systematics of the New Zealand Marine Algae, and published his results in many papers in our Transactions.

Guy Brittin was a member of the Canterbury Branch. He specialised in the Coccidae, and contributed a number of papers to our Transactions on the systematics and life history of the New Zealand members of this group.

James Drummond was a member of the Canterbury Branch, and was for many years a well-known writer on natural history. He was the author of a small book for school use entitled Nature in New Zealand. He is widely known for his part, in collaboration with Captain F. W. Hutton, of the book Animals of New Zealand. He also published in book form two valuable biographies entitled The Life and Work of Richard John Seddon and The Life of Samuel Marsden.

I offer the congratulations of this Council to Dr. W. N. Benson on his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. I congratulate also Staff-sergeant D. C. Berry on his election as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Professor W. P. Evans is retiring this year from the position of Vice-President of the Society. Professor Evans was elected to this office in 1935. He was President for the years 1937 and 1938, and again Vice-President for the ensuing two years. During these six years the Society has had the benefit of his unremitting attention to the conduct of its affairs, and of his wise counsel. I should like to be permitted here to add my personal thanks to him for the generous help and advice he has given me.

– XXXI –

The Essential Spirit of Science.

For the second time our Annual Meeting is being held with the whole world under the cloud of war. To an even greater degree than twelve months ago the things of war are dominating all our thoughts.

The Cloud of War.

The cloud is especially dark because we are seeing the very foundations of our accustomed philosophy of life being struck at by the thorough-going ruthless system of Totalitarianism. The principle of voluntary co-operation is being challenged by the principle of coercion. The doctrine that frankness and truth always succeed in the long run is being challenged by the doctrine that for immediate purposes the lie is often better. We are becoming familiarised with the teaching that the end justifies the means, and that such qualities as mercy and chivalry are signs of weakness and must be scrapped.

Science has a Message of Inspiration to Deliver.

In the face of this threat to our outlook on life, every individual should accept, as a duty laid upon him, the task of emphasising whatever seems to him to be hopeful and of permanent value. This task is also laid, so it seems to me, upon corporate bodies such as the one that this Council represents. If any department of thought and activity can be styled “worthy,” it is so not merely because it performs some useful kind of practical work, but also because it has some characteristic message of inspiration to deliver.

The Royal Society of New Zealand is charged with the work of fostering those special fields of knowledge that are termed the Sciences. Since the modern outlook upon life has been in many ways influenced by scientific thought, and since also modern warfare so largely utilises for its own purposes the results of scientific activities, an especial duty is laid upon individual scientists and scientific institutions of emphasising the fact that the work of Science is essentially constructive and not destructive, and that its characteristic effect upon Man is to enlighten and uplift and ennoble him.

With this in mind I have selected for my address the subject of the Essential Spirit of Science, a subject that I touched on very briefly in my address last year.

Is Science Essentially Materialistic in Its Outlook?

There seems to be a common idea that Science tends to weaken our sense of reverence for human life, that it tends to place human life on a plane with that of the lower animals, and that it is largely responsible for the undoubted modern trend to a materialistic outlook, an outlook which finds its most thorough-going expression in the Nazi philosophy. I must first of all, therefore, consider this estimate of the influence of Science.

The Inquiry into the Actual Basis of Life.

A field of inquiry in which several of the Sciences take part is that which has to do with the actual basis of life itself. The structure and behaviour of protoplasm and of chromosomes, those essential components of the living cells of animals and plants, have


been intensively studied as representing the actual chemical and physical basis of life and heredity.

The researches of the cytologist and biochemist have succeeded to a certain extent in drawing back the curtain which veils that which we call the Mystery of Life. It is characteristic of Science that it endeavours to dispel mystery. Long ages ago our ancestors worshipped as their gods such natural phenomena as were mysteries to them—the sun, moon, lightning and thunder. They were much more impressed by what was mysterious than by what they could understand. We to-day recognise that their feelings of awe and reverence were largely superstition. Ever since Man first began to understand something of the world around him and of his own nature, has his Science been progressively uncovering mysteries, doing away with superstitions, and destroying his fear of the unknown.

Does the partial drawing back of the curtain that veils the mystery of life necessarily lower and cheapen our conception of it? There is a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. I want to say as forcibly as I can that this saying does not represent the attitude of the inquiring mind at its best. Our interest in, and appreciation of, a thing is not diminished but enhanced as we get to know more about it. The true spirit of reverence does not flourish in an atmosphere of ignorance: ignorance begets superstition. The true spirit of reverence grows in an atmosphere of enlightenment, and the more that we know about the actual basis of life, the higher will be the value that we set upon it.

It may, however, still be urged that the effect of these findings of Science that I have referred to has been to foster in a general way a materialistic explanation of life. It is true that many scientists would call themselves materialists. In their opinion there is no need to postulate anything more in living matter than ascertainable processes of a chemical and physical nature, and they are willing to assume that such of these processes as are not yet understood will yet be explained along similar lines. On the other hand, there are others who are not willing to make this assumption. They are impressed by the fact that the deeper the investigation goes, the more complex is the nature of living matter seen to be. It is the duty of Science to investigate the unknown, but Science does not commit itself to explanations of phenomena which are, at any rate as yet, clearly beyond its ken. It is, I suppose, in the nature of things that popular thinking on scientific matters does not differentiate between the findings of Science and the personal opinions of individual scientists. I suggest that it has been the confident teachings of some of the latter, rather than the limited and conservative findings of Science itself that have fostered a materialistic conception of the nature of life.

The Inquiry into the Origin of Man.

Another field of inquiry has been that of the origin of Man.

The most outstanding contribution made by the biological sciences to the modern philosophy of life has been the formulation of the doctrine of evolution. This deduction has served as a key


to unlock the mystery of the varied and bewildering pattern of animal and plant life as it exists to-day. As more and more of the facts of life, past as well as present, are uncovered, the manifold and intricate variety of it becomes more and more apparent, but at the same time it becomes, in the light of the teaching of progressive evolution, less and less bewildering.

The comparative study of the higher animals and of primitive Man makes it clear that he also occupies a natural place in this agelong story of progress. When we speak of Man as the highest of the animals we are not thinking merely of his bodily characteristics. It would be easy to show that in some respects certain other animals are more specialised than he, and possess more highly developed bodily powers. But in his powers of intelligence he stands on a plane higher than they. It is part of the doctrine of evolution that Man's intelligence has naturally developed out of the animal instincts of his far back ancestors. The science of Anthropology has succeeded in filling in many of the details in this part of the story of human evolution, and has made it a very convincing one. In the later chapters also of Man's history, those that concern his social and political life, do we see the evolutionary principle at work. Indeed we have come to take it for granted that this is the method of approach to the study of each and all of Man's activities that we must adopt if we are properly to understand them.

But Man has higher qualities still—those that belong to his moral nature. It is part of the doctrine of evolution that they also have had a natural origin and have developed out of more lowly instincts. All that I want to say here is that a belief in the natural evolution of even these highest qualities of Man should not cheapen them in our estimation. It is not necessary to put Man on a pedestal in order to preserve our sense of respect for him. To learn that a famous person has come from very humble surroundings, and has had a slow and chequered upward progress, does not diminish our respect for his character and ability as they now are. On the contrary such knowledge should greatly increase it. And the inquiry that Science makes into the origin and manner of development of Man's nature in its entirety, can only serve to emphasise the fact that he has proceeded very far along the road, and that it is possible for him to go further still.

The Inquiry into the Nature of the Laws that Condition Progress.

A further field of scientific inquiry has been concerned with the laws that condition progress in nature, and one of these laws, that of the Struggle for Existence, I must refer to.

Charles Darwin based his views on evolution in the plant and animal kingdoms upon the fact of over-population and the consequent struggle for existence. This struggle takes the form of a competition between individuals and between species, for food and for the opportunity to multiply and spread. It is also a struggle between living organisms and their environment. The struggle is a stern one, in which those that are less well equipped than their


fellows are ruthlessly eliminated. A further feature of the law is that the individual is relatively unimportant compared with the importance of the species.

There can be no doubt that in Nature this law does operate widely in conditioning evolution. Individuals and species are sorted out by agencies external to themselves, they themselves playing a passive role. From time to time new types of living organisms originate in one way or another, and at once come under the sway of those external factors which determine whether or not the new type is going to become established and so play a part in the story of progress. In the plant kingdom the struggle for existence is a quiet and bloodless one: in the animal kingdom it is much more in evidence.

This law acts sternly and ruthlessly, but from the point of view of progress its action is beneficial. Some of the new types that occasionally arise are inherently weak in one respect or another. Again, a long established type, when confronted with changing conditions, may be unable to harmonise with that change. Under the sway of the struggle for existence such weak or over-stereotyped forms of life are eliminated and so prevented from hindering the onward course of evolution.

This law operated effectively in the case of primitive Man also. His food and shelter were precarious. To obtain them he had to fight the wild animals and also his fellow wild men. It was only the virile and fierce who survived. As we look down the pages of Man's subsequent history we get the picture of a long series of intertribal and interracial wars, with periodic epidemics of invasions closely similar to the plagues of locusts and other animals which at times sweep over parts of the earth.

An important feature of Man's evolution has been that in its later stages he has developed powers which have given him a growing measure of control over the factors of his environment, and he has developed moral qualities which have gradually brought him to abhor the ruthlessness and wastage which characterise the struggle for existence in its primitive form. His evolution has followed lines which have slowly but surely been bringing him out from under the sway of that law. Thus he reaches a point at which in the desire to avoid war he tries the more rational method of mutual adjustment. Even when that method fails, and war is resorted to, it is evident that the spirit of his fighting has changed from what it was in the earlier days of his history, for he treats his wounded enemy with the same mercy and care that he would bestow upon his own wounded, and he acknowledges a code of chivalry and honour.

To-day, however, we see in the Nazi system a sudden reversion to the law of the jungle. This system agrees with the principle that war is necessary in order to keep up the virility of the race: it is a system of blood and iron. It is a return to the law of the struggle for existence in its primitive and ruthless form. It is a denial of the belief that man can devise new and more efficient and nobler conditions of progress.

– XXXV –

The biological sciences and Anthropology have indeed made us familiar with the operations of the struggle for existence in nature, but it is not part of the teaching of Science that because Man has originated from the lower animals he has remained very much on the same plane as they, or that the laws that condition their evolution are inevitable in his case also.

Science Emphasises Many of the Best Qualities in Human Nature.

Up to this point I have tried to show that the investigations of Science into the nature of life, and of human life in particular, do not tend to lower our estimate of the value and meaning of life. I want now to point out that Science emphasises some of Man's best qualities, and by doing so helps to ennoble him.

The Value of the Individual.

It is a principle of Nature in the wild that progress depends upon the preservation of the best types, and not necessarily upon the preservation of any particular individual. Thus the value of the individual is insignificant compared with that of the type.

In the Totalitarian system of thought this low estimate of the value of the individual is accepted as applying also in the case of Man. Science, on the contrary, lays stress upon the great value of individual effort and opinion.

There can be no doubt that the spread of knowledge leads to questionings, diversities of views, and frequently to lack of unanimity not only in thought but in action. There have always been those who fear the widespreading of knowledge, holding instead that it should be concentrated as far as possible in the few, and that the rest should follow along the path that the elect consider it good for them to tread. It is characteristic of the Nazi philosophy that in its new world order the backward races are to be treated as sub-human, that higher education is to be confined to the German people, and that the good German will form his opinions according to the pattern of those of his leaders.

Science has never feared the wide dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of individual opinion. It is, of course, true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but Science has faith enough to believe that the right way of meeting that danger is to go on spreading knowledge more widely still, and that the withholding of knowledge entails a far greater danger to sound progress.

And when we consider the special sphere of Science, that of investigation, we see how high is the value that it sets upon individual effort and individual opinion. This faith in the individual worker is warranted, for progress in knowledge does not take place along predetermined paths, but along paths which are gradually opened up by the unfettered investigations of many workers.

The Value of Criticism.

This leads on to another axiom of Science, namely that criticism is necessary and wholesome, and that in exercising his critical faculty the individual is carrying out a valuable function. It is through the critical comparison of one another's opinions that truth is elicited. This is the inner meaning of the saying that in the


multitude of counsel there is wisdom. It is a common fallacy that the critical attitude is essentially a hostile attitude, but this every scientific worker knows to be untrue. The characteristic effect of criticism is not destructive but constructive, and the true scientist hopes for criticism of his own work, and welcomes it, and is disappointed if it is not forthcoming.

It follows also that facts and teachings that have come to be commonly accepted must be continually re-examined in the light of new experience, and that the more important a thing is, the more must it be critically examined. Every branch of Science can provide innumerable examples of the benefits that accrue from this. What are “facts”? The facts of one generation have to be modified or even discarded in many cases by the next. The truth of a fact is relative to the knowledge available. Those who do not appreciate the attitude and spirit of Science may regard all this as a sign of weakness and confusion, but on the contrary it is a sign of courage and faith in progress. Science has its authorities and traditions like any other department of human thought, but it is characteristic of Science that it does not regard them as sacrosanct. Authority and tradition represent the accumulated experience and wisdom of past generations, and are not to be discarded lightly. But also they are not to be allowed to impede progress.

The Love of Truth.

The aim of scientific investigation can be stated very simply: it is to ascertain the truth, the whole truth if possible, and certainly nothing but the truth. Therefore anything that distorts or obscures truth, and is likely to lead to false conclusions, is anathema : it nullifies the very purpose of the search. It is in its devotion to truth that we see most clearly the essential spirit of Science.

The pursuit of truth demands a zeal for accuracy in investigation. A well-known scientist used to define the unpardonable sin as the publication of something that one knows to be untrue, or about which one has some doubt. The non-scientific reader sometimes thinks that scientific publications tend to be too meticulously accurate in description, and might well be made more “interesting.” The research worker himself, however, wishes to make clear each step of his work so that others may be able to bring their critical judgment to bear upon it. He also knows that even the less outstanding facts that he describes may later on attain a greater importance.

The pursuit of truth demands also perfect sincerity of aim and purpose. The aim of the scientific worker is not to find what he expects or wants to find, but simply to find truth no matter what form it may take. The doctrine that, the end justifies the means is an inversion of the teaching of science, which is that if truth is the end aimed at then the means used must be sound.

Very characteristic of the real scientific spirit is the readiness to learn from others, no matter who they may be, and the willingness to admit any error in oneself. These qualities are commonly regarded as demanding a certain degree of courage, and they are


rightly regarded as representing some of the best qualities in human nature. Science does not view them as extraordinary virtues but as simple common sense.

Science, of course, is practical: it deals with tangible things, and its knowledge of them can be put to useful ends. In its love of truth it is also idealistic, and it derives much of its strength from an unconquerable faith and hope.

Science is Altruistic.

My last point is that Science is altruistic. Its devotees are engaged upon a corporate task, the building of an edifice which all may use, and towards the completion of which the individual contributes a brick or two. This is what a bibliography at the end of a research publication bears witness to and the references in the footnotes in a textbook. One such brief reference may represent a lifetime of patient and faithful work.

It is true, of course, that the individual worker can derive much pleasure for himself from his Science. There is a satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that a task is completed, a problem elucidated. Much of this satisfaction remains his possession even if the credit of the work done is given wrongly to another. Further there is the satisfaction that comes from a fuller understanding of the mysteries of nature as the result of the work of other people or of himself. The true scientist gets a real joy in feeling his powers of appreciation grow, and he is not puffed up by this, but rather he is steadied.

Scientific pursuits can be, and are, undertaken by many people for the sake of the simple pleasure that they derive from them. Such pursuits are used as “hobbies.” This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate use to make of Science. On account of its uplifting effect upon the individual it would be all to the good if Science were more widely used in this way.

But it is the more serious scientific work that I have particularly in mind. This is not undertaken merely for personal benefits but as an act of service. We call it devotion to Science, but this really means the serving of others. Such work demands a measure of self-sacrifice. It is altruistic in a very wide sense, for Science works for the good, the ennoblement, of all, irrespective of class or nationality. Science is a brotherhood to which no bounds are set.

It is such things as these, a free scope for the powers of the individual, a free scope for criticism, a pursuit of truth at all costs, a belief that truth can be attained, and an opportunity for useful service, that have given to Science its characteristic enthusiasm and ability to progress. It is these things that constitute its characteristic message of inspiration. In its own particular way Science emphasises the value of, and throws light upon the meaning of each of those high human characteristics, Faith, Hope, and Charity.