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   Chapter 3 GENERAL STATE OF LEARNED SOCIETIES IN ENGLAND.

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes By Charles Babbage Characters: 11145

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The progress of knowledge convinced the world that the system of the division of labour and of cooperation was as applicable to science, as it had been found available for the improvement of manufactures. The want of competition in science produced effects similar to those which the same cause gives birth to in the arts. The cultivators of botany were the first to feel that the range of knowledge embraced by the Royal Society was too comprehensive to admit of sufficient attention to their favourite subject, and they established the Linnean Society. After many years, a new science arose, and the Geological Society was produced. At an another and more recent epoch, the friends of astronomy, urged by the wants of their science, united to establish the Astronomical Society. Each of these bodies found, that the attention devoted to their science by the parent establishment was insufficient for their wants, and each in succession experienced from the Royal Society the most determined opposition.

Instituted by the most enlightened philosophers, solely for the promotion of the natural sciences, that learned body justly conceived that nothing could be more likely to render these young institutions permanently successful, than discouragement and opposition at their commencement. Finding their first attempts so eminently successful, they redoubled the severity of their persecution, and the result was commensurate with their exertions, and surpassed even their wildest anticipations. The Astronomical Society became in six years known and respected throughout Europe, not from the halo of reputation which the glory of its vigourous youth had thrown around the weakness of its declining years; but from the sterling merit of "its unpretending deeds, from the sympathy it claimed and received from every practical astronomer, whose labours it relieved, and whose calculations it lightened."

But the system which worked so well is now changed, and the Zoological and Medico-Botanical Societies were established without opposition: perhaps, indeed, the total failure of the latter society is the best proof of the wisdom which guided the councils of the Royal. At present, the various societies exist with no feelings of rivalry or hostility, each pursuing its separate objects, and all uniting in deploring with filial regret, the second childhood of their common parent, and the evil councils by which that sad event has been anticipated.

It is the custom to attach certain letters to the names of those who belong to different societies, and these marks of ownership are by many considered the only valuable part of their purchase on entry. The following is a list of some of these societies. The second column gives the ready-money prices of the tail-pieces indicated in the third.

SOCIETIES. Fees on Admission Appended

including Composition Letters

for Annual Payments.

L. s. d.

Royal Society............. 50 0 0 F.R.S.

Royal Society of Edinburgh. 25 4 0* F.R.S.E.

Royal Academy of Dublin... 26 5 0 M.R.I.A.

Royal Society of Literature 36 15 0 F.R.S.Lit.

Antiquarian............... 50 8 0 F.A.S.

Linnean................... 36 0 0 F.L.S.

Geological................ 34 15 0 F.G.S.

Astronomical.............. 25 4 0 M.A.S.

Zoological................ 26 5 0 F.Z.S.

Royal Institution......... 50 0 0 M.R.I.

Royal Asiatic.............. 31 10 0 F.R.A.S.

Horticultural............. 43 6 0 F.H.S.

Medico-Botanical.......... 21 0 0 F.M.B.S.

[* The Royal Society of Edinburgh now requires, for composition in lieu of annual contributions, a sum dependent on the value of the life of the member.]

Thus, those who are ambitious of scientific distinction, may, according to their fancy, render their name a kind of comet, carrying with it a tail of upwards of forty letters, at the average cost of 10L. 9s. 9d. per letter.

Perhaps the reader will remark, that science cannot be declining in a country which supports so many institutions for its cultivation. It is indeed creditable to us, that the greater part of these societies are maintained by the voluntary contributions of their members. But, unless the inquiries which have recently taken place in some of them should rectify the SYSTEM OF MANAGEMENT by which several have been oppressed, it is not difficult to predict that their duration will be short. Full PUBLICITY, PRINTED STATEMENTS OF ACCOUNTS, and occasional DISCUSSIONS and inquiries at GENERAL MEETINGS, are the only safeguards; and a due degree of VIGILANCE should be exercised on those who DISCOURAGE these principles. Of the Royal Society, I shall speak in a succeeding page; and I regret to add, that I might have said more. My object is to amend it; but, like all deeply-rooted complaints, the operation which alone can contribute to its cure, is necessarily painful. Had the words of remonstrance or reproof found utterance through other channels, I had gladly been silent, content to support by my vote the reasonings of the friend of science and of the Society. But this has not been the case, and after frustrated efforts to introduce improvements, I shall now endeavour, by the force of plain, but perhaps painful truths, to direct public opinion in calling for such a reform, as shall rescue the Royal Society from contempt in our own country, from ridicule in others.

On the next five societies in the list, I shall offer no remarks. Of the Geological, I shall say a few words. It possesses all the freshness, the vigour, and the ardour of youth in the pursuit of a yout

hful science, and has succeeded in a most difficult experiment, that of having an oral discussion on the subject of each paper read at its meetings. To say of these discussions, that they are very entertaining, is the least part of the praise which is due to them. They are generally very instructive, and sometimes bring together isolated facts in the science which, though insignificant when separate, mutually illustrate each other, and ultimately lead to important conclusions. The continuance of these discussions evidently depends on the taste, the temper, and the good sense of the speakers. The things to be avoided are chiefly verbal criticisms-praise of each other beyond its reasonable limits, and contest for victory. This latter is, perhaps, the most important of the three, both for the interests of the Society and of truth. With regard to the published volumes of their Transactions, it may be remarked, that if members were in the habit of communicating their papers to the Society in a more finished state, it would be attended with several advantages; amongst others, with that of lightening the heavy duties of the officers, which are perhaps more laborious in this Society than in most others. To court publicity in their accounts and proceedings, and to endeavour to represent all the feelings of the Society in the Council, and to avoid permanent Presidents, is a recommendation not peculiarly addressed to this Society, but would contribute to the well-being of all.

Of the Astronomical Society, which, from the nature of its pursuits, could scarcely admit of the discussions similar to those of the Geological, I shall merely observe, that I know of no secret which has caused its great success, unless it be attention to the maxims which have just been stated.

On the Zoological Society, which affords much rational amusement to the public, a few hints may at present suffice. The largeness of its income is a frightful consideration. It is too tempting as the subject for jobs, and it is too fluctuating and uncertain in its amount, not to render embarrassment in the affairs of the Society a circumstance likely to occur, without the greatest circumspection. It is most probable, from the very recent formation of this Institution, that its Officers and Council are at present all that its best friends could wish; but it is still right to mention, that in such a Society, it is essentially necessary to have men of business on the Council, as well as persons possessing extensive knowledge of its pursuits. It is more dangerous in such a Society than in any other, to pay compliments, by placing gentlemen on the Council who have not the qualifications which are requisite; a frequent change in the members of the Council is desirable, in order to find out who are the most regular attendants, and most qualified to conduct its business. Publicity in its accounts and proceedings is, from the magnitude of its funds, more essential to the Zoological than to any other society; and it is rather a fearful omen, that a check was attempted to be given to such inquiries at the last anniversary meeting. If it is to be a scientific body, the friends of science should not for an instant tolerate such attempts.

It frequently happens, that gentlemen take an active part in more than one scientific society: in that case, it may be useful to derive instruction as to their merits, by observing the success of their measures in other societies.

The Asiatic Society has, amongst other benefits, caused many valuable works to be translated, which could not have otherwise been published.

The Horticultural Society has been ridden almost to death, and is now rousing itself; but its constitution seems to have been somewhat impaired. There are hopes of its purgation, and ultimate restoration, notwithstanding a debt of 19,000L., which the Committee of Inquiry have ascertained to exist. This, after all, will not be without its advantage to science, if it puts a stop to HOUSE-LISTS, NAMED BY ONE OR TWO PERSONS,-to making COMPLIMENTARY councillors,-and to auditing the accounts WITHOUT EXAMINING EVERY ITEM, or to omitting even that form altogether.

The Medico-Botanical Society suddenly claimed the attention of the public; its pretensions were great-its assurance unbounded. It speedily became distinguished, not by its publications or discoveries, but by the number of princes it enrolled in its list. It is needless now to expose the extent of its short-lived quackery; but the evil deeds of that institution will long remain in the impression they have contributed to confirm throughout Europe, of the character of our scientific establishments. It would be at once a judicious and a dignified course, if those lovers of science, who have been so grievously deceived in this Society, were to enrol upon the latest page of its history its highest claim to public approbation, and by signing its dissolution, offer the only atonement in their power to the insulted science of their country. As with a singular inversion of principle, the society contrived to render EXPULSION* the highest HONOUR it could confer; so it remains for it to exemplify, in suicide, the sublimest virtue of which it is capable. [* They expelled from amongst them a gentleman, of whom it is but slight praise to say, that he is the first and most philosophical botanist of our own country, and who is admired abroad as he is respected at home. The circumstance which surprised the world was not his exit from, but his previous entrance into that Society.]

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