Note: An Address given to the Scientific Society of Winchester, 1871.
I am not sure that the subject of my address is rightly chosen. I am not sure that I ought not to have postponed a question of mere natural history, to speak to you as scientific men, on the questions of life and death, which have been forced upon us by the awful warning of an illustrious personage’s illness; of preventible disease, its frightful prevalency; of the 200,000 persons who are said to have died of fever alone since the Prince Consort’s death, ten years ago; of the remedies; of drainage; of sewage disinfection and utilisation; and of the assistance which you, as a body of scientific men, can give to any effort towards saving the lives and health of our fellow-citizens from those unseen poisons which lurk like wild beasts couched in the jungle, ready to spring at any moment on the unsuspecting, the innocent, the helpless. Of all this I longed to speak; but I thought it best only to hint at it, and leave the question to your common sense and your humanity; taking for granted that your minds, like the minds of all right-minded Englishmen, have been of late painfully awakened to its importance. It seemed to me almost an impertinence to say more in a city of whose local circumstances I know little or nothing. As an old sanitary reformer, practical, as well as theoretical, I am but too well aware of the difficulties which beset any complete scheme of drainage, especially in an ancient city like this; where men are paying the penalty of their predecessors’ ignorance; and dwelling, whether they choose or not, over fifteen centuries of accumulated dirt.
And, therefore, taking for granted that there is energy and intellect enough in Winchester to conquer these difficulties in due time, I go on to ask you to consider, for a time, a subject which is growing more and more important and interesting, a subject the study of which will do much towards raising the field naturalist from a mere collector of specimens–as he was twenty years ago–to a philosopher elucidating some of the grandest problems. I mean the infant science of Bio-geology–the science which treats of the distribution of plants and animals over the globe, and the cause of that distribution.
I doubt not that there are many here who know far more about the subject than I; who are far better read than I am in the works of Forbes, Darwin, Wallace, Hooker, Moritz Wagner, and the other illustrious men who have written on it. But I may, perhaps, give a few hints which will be of use to the younger members of this Society, and will point out to them how to get a new relish for the pursuit of field science.
Bio-geology, then, begins with asking every plant or animal you meet, large or small, not merely–What is your name? That is the collector and classifier’s duty; and a most necessary duty it is, and one to be performed with the most conscientious patience and accuracy, so that a sound foundation may be built for future speculations. But young naturalists should act not merely as Nature’s registrars and census-takers, but as her policemen and gamekeepers; and ask everything they meet–How did you get there? By what road did you come? What was your last place of abode? And now you are here, how do you get your living? Are you and your children thriving, like decent people who can take care of themselves, or growing pauperised and degraded, and dying out? Not that we have a fear of your becoming a dangerous class. Madame Nature allows no dangerous classes, in the modern sense. She has, doubtless for some wise reason, no mercy for the weak. She rewards each organism according to its works; and if anything grows too weak or stupid to take care of itself, she gives it its due deserts by letting it die and disappear. So, you plant or you animal, are you among the strong, the successful, the multiplying, the colonising? Or are you among the weak, the failing, the dwindling, the doomed?