Celebrating 24 Years on the Web
Find science on or your birthday

Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it... That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That�s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
more quiz questions >>
Thumbnail of John Burroughs (source)
John Burroughs
(3 Apr 1837 - 29 Mar 1921)

American naturalist and author whose many writings and books, by celebrating nature in highly readable essays, significantly nurtured the conservation movement in the United States.

John Burroughs

Illustrated Quote - Medium (500 x 250 px)

“Science sees the process of evolution from the outside, as one might a train of cars going by…”
— John Burroughs
'A Prophet of the Soul' (1916)

More John Burroughs quotes on science >>

This quote comes from a chapter in Under the Apple Trees which John Burroughs chose to entitle, “A Prophet of the Soul.” He uses that line from Emerson, to introduce an essay on the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Burroughs says of Bergson, “that he is the friend and aider of those who would see with the spirit and enter into the mystery of creation through intellectual sympathy or intuition, instead of making the vain attempt to do so through the logical and scientific understanding.” Of Bergson’s essays, Burroughs admires “Creative Evolution” as a masterpiece, and finds it inspiring. His own view parallels Bergson’s position, Burroughs explains, saying:

“Descriptive science is powerless to portray for me the bird or the flower or the friend I love; only art and literature can do that. Science deals with fixed concepts, art with fluid concepts.”

Applied to the story of organic evolution, Burroughs says Bergson applies his “creative and sympathetic way,” and not

“solely through his equipment as a man of science, but primarily through his equipment as a great creative artist and inspired seer. Not intellectual analysis, but intellectual sympathy, gives him the key to the problem of life. Intuition is his method, which he opposes to the analytical method of science.”

At this point, Burroughs makes his statement, which is the subject quote, to introduce his own philosophical view of organic evolution:

“Science sees the process of evolution from the outside, as one might a train of cars going by, and resolves it into the physical and mechanical elements, without getting any nearer the reason of its going by, or the point of its departure or destination.

Intuition seeks to put itself inside the process, and to go the whole way with it, witnessing its vicissitudes and viewing the world in the light of its mobility and in determinateness.

All the engineering and architectural and mechanical features of the railway and its train of coaches do not throw any light upon the real significance of railways. This significance must be looked for in the brains of the people inside the coaches and in the push of the civilization of which they are some of the expressions. In like manner when we have reduced biological processes to their mechanical and chemical equivalents, we are as far as ever from the true nature and significance of biology.

Organic evolution is something more than an illustration of the working of the laws of dead matter. A living body is the sum of its physicochemical factors, plus something else. The dead automatic forces of the earth went their round of ceaseless change for untold ages without escaping from the grip of mechanical necessity in which they were held; then there came a time when the spell was broken and the current of life arose. We have to speak of the event in this anthropomorphic way, as if it were an event, as if there were discontinuity somewhere, as if the creative spirit began its work as we begin ours. But evidently life did not begin in our human, practical sense, any more than the line we call a circle begins, or any more than the sphere has ends and boundaries. Our logical faculties, cast in the moulds of our experience, fail to grasp these problems. Life is, and, in some inscrutable way, always has been, and always will be, because it is one with the cosmic spirit.”

Text by Webmaster with quotes from John Burroughs, 'A Prophet of the Soul', Under the Apple-Trees (1916), 210-213. (source)

See also:
  • Science Quotes by John Burroughs.
  • 3 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Burroughs's birth.
  • John Burroughs - The Friendly Rocks - an excerpt from Under the Apple-Trees (1916), giving a naturalist's view of rocks: “The rocks are not so close akin to us as the soil ... [but they] are the final source of all.”
  • John Burroughs - Great Questions In Little: Astronomic Grandeur - an excerpt from Under the Apple-Trees (1916) - reflections on the Universe, the Why and How of science, the Limitations of Science, the Beginnings of Life, and Evolution.
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Stone brigades” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Stone brigades” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Evolution” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • “A Prophet of the Soul” - John Burroughs on Henri Bergson’s philosophy.
  • John Burroughs - Chap XV - 01 The Ether - from Under the Apple-Trees (1916).
  • John Burroughs - 'Scientific Faith', from The Outlook (1911)
  • Theodore Roosevelt - naturalist - In Memoriam by John Burroughs in Natural History magazine (1913).

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
Quotations by:Albert EinsteinIsaac NewtonLord KelvinCharles DarwinSrinivasa RamanujanCarl SaganFlorence NightingaleThomas EdisonAristotleMarie CurieBenjamin FranklinWinston ChurchillGalileo GalileiSigmund FreudRobert BunsenLouis PasteurTheodore RooseveltAbraham LincolnRonald ReaganLeonardo DaVinciMichio KakuKarl PopperJohann GoetheRobert OppenheimerCharles Kettering  ... (more people)

Quotations about:Atomic  BombBiologyChemistryDeforestationEngineeringAnatomyAstronomyBacteriaBiochemistryBotanyConservationDinosaurEnvironmentFractalGeneticsGeologyHistory of ScienceInventionJupiterKnowledgeLoveMathematicsMeasurementMedicineNatural ResourceOrganic ChemistryPhysicsPhysicianQuantum TheoryResearchScience and ArtTeacherTechnologyUniverseVolcanoVirusWind PowerWomen ScientistsX-RaysYouthZoology  ... (more topics)

Thank you for sharing.
- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton

by Ian Ellis
who invites your feedback
Thank you for sharing.
Today in Science History
Sign up for Newsletter
with quiz, quotes and more.