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Luther Burbank Speaks Out
by Joseph McCabe
There were two Pillars of Hercules in the United States whom I wished to see. Thomas A. Edison towers on the eastern coast, but I had to rush through New York and could not stay for my friend to present me. In San Francisco I had the—for so restless a wanderer—unusually long stay of six days, when the imperious voice of E. Haldeman-Julius, vibrating over the wires, roused me from my slumbers and bade me seek the shrine of Santa Rosa. I responded with alacrity. No, that is not poetry. I rose at 7 a. m. For me that is deadly prose.
And prosy was the journey of fifty miles to see the great master of practical science. The Golden Gate was of ancient lead. The hills were sullen. A gray-blue haze screened the fair maid California. She was just recovering, maidlike, from a prolonged fit of weeping, and seemed cold even to the amorous sun, though the stately palms and rich green oranges bore witness to the warm blood pulsing in the heavy bosom, and the soft sibilants of the Spanish names suggested saints and sinners. San Rafael, San Anselmo, and so on. We have wiped out these superstitions, of course. Now we have St. Riley and St. Straton. Well, Anselmo was at least a conscientious scholar in his time, and Rafael, if tradition be worth aught, was a comely youth. But these modern saints and sages. . . .
We are in Santa Rosa and this is the house of the man who did as much as any to impress on the world the beneficent power of science. He added billions to the wealth of the world, but this is no marble palace softly gleaming through the palms and cypresses. A very plain house, and a very pretty maid looks at me cynically through the mosquito-net door. She is used to visitors, and does not trouble to unfasten the door.
“Is Mr. Burbank in?”
“Yes, he is in,” she says, and she does not add in words, “And you are out.” Even the dog is hostile, silently disdainful. “Another old fool trying to see the master,” it insinuates. But my card throws down all defense and a moment later.I am shaking (very gently) the rather limp hand of the man I would have gone far to see.
Pathetically he points to a pile of opened letters, ankle-deep, on the floor. “Today’s crop,” he says. A smaller pile lies on the desk and must be answered. We must hurry, though there is no mistaking his genuine pleasure to see me.
“Well, what about this recent misconduct of yours?” I ask, sternly.
Candidly he is puzzled, and I have to tell him that the world is shocked or elated, according to the length of its hair, at his recent pronouncement on the future life—I mean, on the absence of a future life. Henry Ford, his friend, had recently declared his belief, not only in incarnation, but in reincarnation. Henry always does things big, and, incidentally, it is always the people who know most about ~machines~—Kelvin, Lodge, Faraday, Ford—who talk most about spirit. Psychologists and biologists, who ought to know, are very shy of spirits.
However, Burbank was asked what he thought about the matter, and he did not speak in parables. We no more survive, he said, to the representative of the San Francisco ~Bulletin~, than does the automobile you fling on the scrap-heap. Those are his words. We survive only in “the good we have done in passing through.” Souls? Why, said Burbank, “the universe is not big enough to contain perpetually all the human souls and the other living beings that have been here for their short span.” Very comforting to some people, these religions, he said, but “as a scientist I cannot help feeling that all religions are on a tottering foundation.” God? Well, there is “a great universal power,” but whether it is “a conscious mind” or not, Luther Burbank did not know. What is worse, he did not care. “As a scientist I should like to know, but as a man I am not so vitally concerned.” No wonder California, the land of saints and angels, wept.
Not much to be added to, or explained, in that,” Mr. Burbank said to me, smiling. He disliked talking. Looking rather frail, pale and artistic—he somehow reminded me at once of my good friend Eden Philpotts, the most artistic of living writers after D’Annunzio—he seemed born to finger a brush or a pen, not a spade. Artist he was, of course: the great artist of modern science. He ~worked~ with its flower. He did not speculate about it.
“There is nothing at all new in this interview,” he said. I had, of course, read his ~Training of the Human Plant~, and had for that enshrined him in my ~Dictionary of Modern Rationalists~, but, on the rare occasions when he does speak in public, he speaks out in a way that goes far to redeem the credit of American science. “Here,” he said to me, “you have the sentiments I lately expressed in the pulpit of a chapel at Santa Rosa.”
It was Just the same outspoken denunciation of theology. “No avenging Jewish God, no Satanic devil, no fiery hell, is of any interest to me,” he said. Jesus? He liked the literary figure, but “the clear light of science teaches us that we must be our own saviors.” God? “The God within us is the only available God we know.” We must come out from “behind theological barbed-wire fences,” into “the great ocean of scientific truth.” “Science, unlike theology, never leads to insanity.” The word “ceremony,” he pungently said, “is derived from cerements” or “grave clothes.” Very topical, in a chapel. Religion is a matter of feeling, and “feelings are all right if one does not get drunk on them.” “Obsolete misleading theologies,” he said, “bear the same relation to the essence of true religion that scarlet fever, mumps, and measles do to education.” But what will become of the children? If there was one thing Burbank was zealous about it was the training of children, and children are, he said, “the greatest sufferers from outgrown theologies.”
No, there is not much to add to that. Luther II threw his ink- pot at the devil—the parson—with a vigor that surprises when one recalls the fleshy physique of the first Luther, and contrasts it with the gentleness and silver hair of the second. But he is as disgusted as I at the “timidity” of his brother scientists in America. I explain, almost apologetically, that I have entitled an article “The Cowardice of American Scientists.”
“Quite right,” he says. “And it is not only cowardice, but wrong tactics. What is the use of assuring Fundamentalists that science is compatible with religion. They retort at once, ‘Certainly not with our religion.'”
Burbank uses the word religion, but it is never misleading. It is, he says, “Justice, love, truth, peace and harmony, a serene unity with science and the laws of the universe.” It is idealism, and there is not the slightest countenance of any sort of theology in Burbank’s use of the word.
I remind him that Dr. David Starr Jordan is popularly supposed to have hinted that his friend went too far. “Not in the least,” he says disdainfully. “Jordan is one of my best friends, and thinks as I do.”
And, in fact, though the language is a little more diplomatic, Jordan’s pronouncement is, substantially, Agnosticism. Mr. Burbank did not believe in knocking a man down when it is not good for him to stand up. He provided a chair. Dr. David Starr Jordan is inclined to provide a feather bed. There are physicians who think a wooden chair the most healthful seat. Anyhow, there is no Millikanism or Osbornism about either of these two fine American gentlemen.
“Bryan—a great friend of mine, by the way—had a Neanderthal type of head,” Burbank says. “As to Riley, he has not even the oratorical skill of Bryan. The whole movement is based on the poor whites of the south.”
I remind him of the ten million religious colored people of the United States.
“Yes, another big element in the movement,” he assents. “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis.”
I almost felt at times as though I were talking to Darwin, and I expected some deprecation of my vigor and lack of diplomacy, such as Darwin used gently to administer to Haeckel. Not a bit. I took courage and remarked that Fundamentalism must be fought “with both fists.”
“Of course it must,” he said, “and our scientific men must be criticized boldly. They will not feel comfortable when you and I are through with them.”
He spoke with envy of the Rationalist Press of England and its honorable company of distinguished men of science and letters. I told him that I am to do a bigger work in America than I have ever done in England. “Mr. Haldeman-Julius,” I began. . . .
“Doing splendid work,” he said. “Can we have some of these Little Blue Books to help in the work?”
He lighted up with enthusiasm when I described the plan which Mr. Haldeman-Julius and I have hatched—fifty Little Blue Books covering the entire ground of religious controversy and inquiry, systematically and courteously, but firmly and inexorably. “That will be magnificent help,” he said. “And let us have some of the Big Blue Books too.”
I explained that some of the latter are already in circulation and more of a Rationalist nature will come. The old man was visibly delighted. Almost alone in his scientific world he outspokenly disdained creeds and ceremonies. Undermining ancient dogmas is not enough. The people, who begin to see the power of science, must know what men of science, with their trained minds and their grasp of realities, think about man and the universe.
So out I went, to continue my mission in California, with the hearty “good-speed” of this wonderful man. Santa Rosa, nay California, is proud of him, and there must be some temptation to avoid friction. What, no danger in California? Why, here in a suburb of San Francisco I hear of an audience of five thousand Fundamentalists rocking with laughter at some of the elementary truths of science. Even the educated run after iridescent verbiage and shun facts. Hindu word-spinners dig gold here.
As I sped away my eye caught a board in a field by the road: “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life,” it said. This after 1900 years experimental verification of his efficacy! And in the heart of California, where Luther Burbank showed that the only way and truth and life is science. All honor to him that he did not leave it to such obtuse minds to “draw their own conclusions,” as so many do. “Science is the only savior,” he said to people. He said it in church one memorable day.
“I very rarely speak in public, and, curiously, my two addresses are in churches,” he said, eyeing me, I thought, apprehensively.
“I know no better place to say such things,” I retorted, and I thought sadly of the very different things which American men of science had recently, been saying in the churches of Kansas City during the convention of the American Association ~for~ the Advancement of Science.