Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Response to Tinkle "The Principle of Growth as an Obsession"
William A. Smalley

From: JASA 7 (June 1955): 23-24.


Many members of the ASA probably believe that ministers and other non-scientists who use scientific data or theories in public should first check their statements with a specialist. We have all been embarrassed by the unfounded statements about science or scientific subjects in sermons, and we feel that such statements do harm to the cause of Christ. Would it not be well for us, who may be specialists in one or more of the branches of science, but who cannot possibly be more than intelligent "laymen" in others, to be humble also, and check our statements in another field before we publish them?

I am referring to several statements which have been made about human culture (under such phrasings as "knowledge", "history", etc.) by ASA members, particularly some made in the pages of the JASA. There is a rapidly developing science of culture which is a branch of anthropology. Sociology and psychology also touch on it, but the largest bulk of cultural data and of culture theory are in the province of anthropology. The fact that we are human beings, live in a culture, and observe, is not reason for considering ourselves qualified to speak on culturological questions any more than the fact that we have bodies makes us anatomists, biologists, or zoologists.

Certainly there should be no objection to a scientist of one field drawing together the data and theories of other fields into a broad synthesis. For that we have real need. However, the person who undertakes to do so should be sure of his data and theory. He further has the right to question the theory of another field if he knows what it is, and if he can support his critique by a scholarly, documented, accurate presentation. What has happened in the instances referred to is not such a careful consideration of anthropological material, but a hasty generalization or "illustration" about human behavior which a knowledge of anthropology would show to be untrue, or unproved, or very questionable.

The instance which calls forth this letter is William J. Tinkle's "The Principle of Growth as an Obsession" (JASA 6:4, pp 8, 9). In this article at least the following assumptions about human culture are untrue or doubtful: 1) "Knowledge" grows approximately like an icicle, by adding elements almost indefinitely. "Growth of human knowledge also is a process of accretion, tending to accumulate an ever larger stockpile". 2) People who are "depending on the muscles of men and beasts rather than upon steam and electricity" are not growing in knowledge. Also, if the present industrial growth stops (as Tinkle thinks it must) that will be the end of the growth of knowledge. 3) Culture will not develop to a point where it can compensate for the disrupting effects of the present rapid expansion of industry because the "area of the earth is a fixed amount".

The first of these assumptions is an oversimplification. Accretion of culture or of "knowledge" is a structural-function process, subject to severe cultural limits, and occurring in functionally related groups of items, not in any way analogous to an icicle. It gets bigger in branches and miscellaneous directions, one direction growing when another is not, taking spurts, and often losing whole branches or areas of knowledge while others grow.

The second assumption is reminiscent of Leslie White's one-sided culturology which places efficient use of energy as the only real measure of progress. As stated by Tinkle, the Mayas, Aztecs, Incas, Cambodians, Ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc., knew no growth. The third assumption is the most controversial of the lot, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion that cultural developments of technology would not make it possible eventually to build a world of ever-mounting skyscrapers, a mass of city solidly covering the earth, with food grown in giant algae tanks on the roof-tops. (Obviously I'm fooling so far as the details are concerned, but the present industrial growth is quite possibly no greater a disruption of the balance of culture than was the industrial revolution for its time.)

I happen to agree with much of Dr. Tinkle's conclusion, though obviously not with his anthropological arguments. I would put it this way, that the idea of growth is a principal myth in contemporary American culture, and that, as such it is virtually an unquestioned assumption. Most of the doubts about it which are expressed in contemporary America skirt its periphery. A part of the myth is the assumption that growth takes place without outside cause, stimulus, or limitation. Many aspects of this myth can be questioned; and I believe, a priori of anthropology, in God as a transcendent, originating, controlling, and limiting force, working both indirectly and directly on His creation.

South Boulevard
Nyack, New York
January 23, 1955

William A. Smalley