RECORD: S158. Wallace, A. R. 1870. Government aid to science. Nature 1: 315.

REVISION HISTORY: Body text helpfully provided by Charles H. Smith from his Alfred Russel Wallace Page

[page] 315

Government Aid to Science.

I cannot but feel flattered that my letter on this subject should have been thought so dangerous as to require a leading article in the same number by way of immediate antidote, but I must beg you to allow me to correct one or two errors into which you have fallen as to the views I really hold, and which it seems I failed clearly to express. You say, you "understand Mr. Wallace to mean that the main result of cultivating science is merely the gratification of those directly engaged in the pursuit, and that they who do not take this personal interest in it derive little or no benefit from it."

The first half of this passage does express, though imperfectly, what I believe to be the truth; the latter half expresses the exact opposite of what I have ever thought or intended to write on the subject. The main result of the cultivation of science I hold to be, undoubtedly, the elevation of those who cultivate it to a higher mental and moral standpoint; while the secondary, but not less certain result, is the acquisition of countless physical, social, and intellectual benefits for the whole human race. But if these are the secondary and not the primary results of cultivating science, it seems to me to be radically unsound in principle, and sure to fail in practice, if by means of any system of State support we seek to find a short cut to these secondary results.

The only logical foundation for advocating the furtherance of scientific discovery by the expenditure of public money, would be the belief that science can be most successfully pursued by those whose chief object is to make practical and valuable discoveries; whereas the whole history of the progress of science seems to me to show that the exact opposite is the case, and that it is only those who in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice give up their time, their means, even their lives, in the eager and loving search after the hidden secrets of Nature, who are rewarded by those great discoveries from which spring a rich harvest of useful applications.

One more point. I do not admit that it is just to tax the community for all the Government institutions you name, but in the short space at my command I could not go into details. I have stated how I think some of these institutions require modification to make them accord with the fundamental principle of just government; and if that principle is a sound one, it is easy to see in what way the others should be dealt with. As an example I may indicate, that a detailed survey, like that of the large-scale Ordnance-maps, being primarily a boon to the landowners of the country, should not be wholly paid for by the public.

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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (

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