AN EXAMINER UPON EXAMINATIONS.*
IT was a good thought of the Linacre Professor; whose recent election shows that Oxford knows when to be generous as well as wise, to rescue these essays from the semi-oblivion of periodical literature. With one exception, they deal with biological subjects, and while not so technical as to deter the ordinary reader who takes any interest in natural science, they may fairly claim to be recognised by the specialist as forming a distinct contribution to the advancement of learning. The opening essay, on " Degeneration," is, in some respects, the most important of the series, leading as it does to conclusions of the highest significance for the welfare of mankind. Its object is to show that the Darwinian theory by no means necessarily involves morphological progression. The lower places in the economy of Nature have to be filled as well as the higher, and a retrogression of structure is thus often brought about through the survival of the fittest,—not the fittest absolutely, but relatively to surrounding conditions and opportunities of existence. The most striking illustration, perhaps, of this at first sight singular action of the principle of selection, is to be found in the case of the common sea-squirts, or ascidians.
The freely-swimming ascidian larva is, in fact, a vertebrate organism, as the comparative figures of tadpole and ascidian given by Professor Lankester show at a glance. After a time, it fixes itself by its head to a stone, loses its vertebral character, and becomes an immobile, bag-shaped creature, with a very simple structure. The lesson to be learned from facts like these is that mankind too is subject to degenerative retrogression, and the Professor tells us that " possibly we are all drifting, tending to the condition of intellectual Barnacles or Ascidians." The only safeguard is so to order the institutions of a people that there may be as few as possible of the lower places in its economy, for such lower places as may exist will assuredly be filled under the operation of selection, which is an incessant and inde- structible, but within certain limits, manageable agency, by lower forms of humanity. At the same time, care must be taken to make due allowances for those antecedents and con- comitants of national life, past history, and accidents of soil, climate, geographical position, and political environment that can neither be modified nor removed,—a necessity which renders many of the comprehensive formulas constituting the stock-in-trade of political and social agitators, both futile and injurious.
• The Advancement of Science : Occasional Essays and Addresses. By R. Bay Lankester, M.A., LL.D., F.R.S. London : Macmillan and Co. 1890. Among the remaining essays and lectureslon biological subjects contained in this volume, we can only call attention to those on " Centenarianism " and " Heredity," which should be read in conjunction with Weismann's theories recently reviewed in these columns, and to an interesting paper on "The Relations of the State to Biology," in which it is quite pro- perly urged that such a science as biology has strong claims upon public support. It is a science of which the pursuit is unremunerative to the individual, yet in many ways, indirect rather than direct, of the highest importance to society. The revolution which Darwinism is effecting in many branches of human inquiry markedly illustrates the kind of service biologists may render.
The essay on "Examinations," to which we have already adverted, can scarcely be said to tend to the advancement of science. In it Professor Lankester states his general agreement with the diatribe fulminated a couple of years ago against the whole system of examinations, which, however, he was unable to sign, on account of the indiscriminate nature of the attack. To pass examinations, indeed, Professor Lankester is not opposed, if only the standard be thrown down low enough, and no distinctions arc associated with them. They must, in addition, be conducted by the teachers of the candidates,—a principle of great importance just now, as upon it has been based an agitation for the reorganisation of the University of London, which appears likely to be successful, though quite recently the principle itself seems to have been abandoned. A biologist should know human nature better than to imagine that teachers, on the whole, would teach well upon the mere stimulus of their own criticism of their own work, or that students would overcome the laziness natural to man, and especially to boys, in the absence both of compulsion and emu- lation. That the very opposite system to that advocated in the essay is in principle the right one, there can be no manner of doubt, and its imperfections in practice must be ascribed to the fact that the science of education has hardly got beyond the empirical stage. To the enormous majority of students and teachers alike, examinations which apply testa as high rather than as low as compatible with the public weal, and do not lack the competitive element, are indispensable ; they oblige the latter to teach up to a standard which is neither stationary nor retrograde, but progressive; and in compelling the former to exert themselves up to a reasonable limit in acquiring definite and accurate knowledge, frequently bring out unsuspected capacities and activities. Like other good things, however, the principle of competition may be abused, and no doubt is abused in many ways, especially, as Professor Lankester points out, in relation to scholarships at the great Public Schools and at the older Universities.
Professor Lankester has been during ten years an examiner at the University of London, whose system of examination he nevertheless believes to be injurious, both positively and relatively to other systems. Now, is the University a failure in any reasonable sense of the expression, as it ought to be if the new principle be the true one ? On that principle, the dis- tinguished graduates selected by a had system should be dis- tinguished graduates and nothing more. But, as a matter of fact, the distinguished graduates of London, with a few ex- ceptions, susceptible doubtless of a satisfactory explanation, have fully justified their earlier laurels by their after-careers. A glance at any calendar of the University will prove the truth of this statement, and judging by its fruits—the only test applicable in the present condition of educational science —the University system, if injurious at all, is so only in the sense of being less good than the best.