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Lecture II: The Biological Background

Just as the last lecture of my first series, The Living Stream, was intended as a bridge between the two courses, so also will this lecture be another link connecting my present theme with the biological background; there is more I want to say about man’s relation to the rest of the animal world than I was able to say at the end of the last series. Let me very briefly recapitulate the argument I there put forward to show that the process of evolution is not entirely the mechanistic one it is often thought to be.

I granted that the physical process was performed by the action of selection upon the almost infinite range of variation presented by the random mutations of genes and their recombinations—the changes in the DNA code—but I had more to say about the nature of the selecting agents. I hope I was successful in demonstrating that the selective act was not only carried out by the rigours of the physical environment or by the action of predators or rival competitors, but in an equally important manner by the development of new habits of life among the members of a population of the particular species in question. When any new habit became widespread in a population, then those members whose genetic make-up provided them with an improved bodily equipment for carrying out that new behaviour would tend to survive rather than those which were inferior in this respect. No doubt such bodily improvement would often include better nerve connections. It is true, of course, that changes in the environment, such as a shortage of normal food or the destruction of the usual breeding sites, may often dictate changes in behaviour, but not always; there is in addition the animal’s restless, inquisitive exploratory nature which discovers new ways of life and is of paramount importance as a creative element in the living stream. Evolutionary progress is now seen to be due as much to the developing psychic life of the species as to the blind action of the environment. The evidence for this formed a large part of my former thesis. Lamarck had been right after all in stressing the importance of habit in the working of evolution, although his proposed mechanism of the inherited effects of use and disuse of parts of the body to bring about evolutionary change had long been shown to be wrong. The influence of habit and behaviour is now seen to be effected through a somewhat subtle kind of Darwinian selection—a particular form of what was originally called organic selection by Lloyd Morgan and Baldwin at the turn of the century; for this I propose the term behavioural selection.

In the brief review I made of the evolution of the vertebrate animals we saw how short—how remarkably short—has been the period of Man’s existence in relation to that long and ancient history; and we then realized that the stream of life must have been flowing on in time for hundreds of millions of years before even the vertebrate animals appeared. The brevity of man’s evolution is even more surprising when we contemplate what has happened within this tiny fraction—perhaps no more than a thousandth—of the time living organisms have been upon the earth. We saw how man, by the development of his culture, has altered the very nature of the living stream itself; not only has he dominated the whole of the animal world but he has changed the method of his own evolution from a largely Darwinian to a largely Lamarckian one. By the development of speech, and with it reasoning powers, man has provided himself with a new form of inheritance; by the spoken, written and printed word, and by all manner of new methods of communication, he can pass on to later generations all the newly acquired knowledge and experience obtained in his lifetime. Life has passed into a new phase: one which differs as fundamentally from that of ordinary animal life as animals differ from plants. It is what Huxley has called the psycho-social phase of evolution—and it is mediated by what Waddington calls socio-genetic transmission.

In the brief historical sketch of the development of our modern evolution theory which I gave in my first series of lectures I referred on a number of occasions to the brilliant insight of Alfred Russel Wallace in seeing the correct solution to various problems ahead of other thinkers in this field. It was the same in regard to man; he came to realize the fundamental change that had taken place in the very nature of the evolutionary process well before others had grasped its full significance. He put forward his views in 1864 in a paper in the Anthropological Review (vol. 2. pp. clviii-clxx), a journal which soon ceased to exist. I shall quote from it at some length because it is only to be found in a limited number of libraries and has been largely forgotten. We should remember that it was published only five years after Darwin’s Origin of Species and seven years before Darwin’s The Descent of Man; it bore the title “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection.”

Thus man, [he wrote] by the mere capacity of clothing himself, and making weapons and tools, has taken away from nature that power of changing the external form and structure which she exercises over all other animals. As the competing races by which they are surrounded, the climate, the vegetation, or the animals which serve them for food, are slowly changing, they must undergo a corresponding change in their structure, habits, and constitution, to keep them in harmony with the new conditions—to enable them to live and maintain their numbers. But man does this by means of his intellect alone; which enables him with an unchanged body still to keep in harmony with the changing universe.

From the time, therefore, when the social and sympathetic feelings came into active operation, and the intellectual and moral faculties became fairly developed, man would cease to be influenced by “natural selection” in his physical form and structure; as an animal he would remain almost stationary; the changes of the surrounding universe would cease to have upon him that powerful modifying effect which it exercises over other parts of the organic world. But from the moment that his body became stationary, his mind would become subject to those very influences from which his body had escaped; every slight variation in his mental and moral nature which should enable him better to guard against adverse circumstances, and combine for mutual comfort and protection, would be preserved and accumulated; the better and higher specimens of our race would therefore increase and spread, the lower and more brutal would give way and successively die out, and that rapid advancement of mental organization would occur, which has raised the very lowest races of man so far above the brutes, …

If the views I have here endeavoured to sustain have any foundation, they give us a new argument for placing man apart, as not only the head and culminating point of the grand series of organic nature, but as in some degree a new and distinct order of being. From those infinitely remote ages, when the first rudiments of organic life appeared upon the earth, every plant and every animal has been subject to one great law of physical change. As the earth has gone through its grand cycles of geological, climatal and organic progress, every form of life has been subject to its irresistible action, and has been continually, but imperceptibly moulded into such new shapes as would preserve their harmony with the ever changing universe. No living thing could escape this law of its being; none could remain unchanged and live, amid the universal change around it.

At length, however, there came into existence a being in whom that subtle force we term mind, became of greater importance than his mere bodily structure. Though with a naked and unprotected body, this gave him clothing against the varying inclemencies of the seasons. Though unable to compete with the deer in swiftness, or with the wild bull in strength, this gave him weapons with which to capture or overcome both. Though less capable than most other animals of living on the herbs and the fruits that unaided nature supplies, this wonderful faculty taught him to govern and direct nature to his own benefit, and make her produce food for him when and where he pleased. From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist in the chase, the first seed sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in nature, a revolution which in all the previous ages of the earth’s history had had no parallel, for a being had arisen who was no longer necessarily subject to change with the changing universe—a being who was in some degree superior to nature, inasmuch, as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her, not by a change in body, but by an advance of mind.

Here, then, we see the true grandeur and dignity of man. On this view of his special attributes, we may admit that even those who claim for him a position as an order, a class, or a sub-kingdom by himself, have some reason on their side. He is, indeed, a being apart, since he is not influenced by the great laws which irresistibly modify all other organic beings. Nay more; this victory which he has gained for himself gives him a directing influence over other existences. Man has not only escaped “natural selection” himself, but he actually is able to take away some of that power from nature which, before his appearance, she universally exercised. We can anticipate the time when the earth will produce only cultivated plants and domestic animals; when man’s selection shall have supplanted “natural selection”; and when the ocean will be the only domain in which that power can be exerted, which for countless cycles of ages ruled supreme over all the earth.

Darwin was delighted with the paper and wrote on May 22, 1864 to Hooker:

I have now read Wallace’s paper on Man, and think it most striking and original and forcible. I wish he had written Lyell’s chapters on Man.1 … I am not sure that I fully agree with his views about Man, but there is no doubt, in my opinion, on the remarkable genius shown by the paper. I agree, however, to the main new leading idea.

and on May 28th he wrote to Wallace:

… But now for your Man paper, about which I should like to write more than I can. The great leading idea is quite new to me—viz. that during late ages the mind will have been modified more than the body; yet I had got as far as to see with you, that the struggle between the races of man depended entirely on intellectual and moral qualities. The latter part of the paper I can designate only as grand and most eloquently done… I am not sure that I go with you on all minor points: …

Wallace replied at length to Darwin’s criticisms and clarified his views regarding the lesser points raised.

I shall now devote the greater part of this lecture to a discussion of some new ideas that have recently been put forward regarding man: firstly those of Professor Michael Polanyi, and secondly those of Professor C. H. Waddington expressed in his book The Ethical Animal (1960). Both, I believe, are important for our consideration of the foundations of a natural theology.

The ideas of Polanyi which I want here to discuss form only a part of his much larger theory of knowledge that he first put forward in his Gifford Lectures of 1951–2 and published later in his books Personal Knowledge (1958) and The Study of Man (1959). I very briefly referred to his views in the last of my first series of lectures; here I shall treat them a little more fully, for they demonstrate how much nearer we are to the animal kingdom than perhaps many, even confirmed evolutionists, may have realized.

Fundamental to his thesis is his demonstration that human know-edge is essentially of two kinds:

  1. (1) that set out in written words, maps, mathematical formulae, etc.: such formulated knowledge he calls explicit knowledge.
  2. (2) unformulated knowledge, for example the knowledge of what we are at this very moment in the act of doing, before we have expressed it to ourselves in words: this he calls tacit knowledge.

Let me now quote from the first of his Lindsay Memorial Lectures which he published in The Study of Man.

Tacit knowing appears to be a doing of our own, lacking the public, objective, character of explicit knowledge. It may appear therefore to lack the essential quality of knowledge.

This objection cannot be lightly overruled, but I believe it to be mistaken. I deny that any participation of the knower in the shaping of knowledge must invalidate knowledge, though I admit that it impairs its objectivity.

He goes on to show

… that tacit knowing is in fact the dominant principle of all knowledge, and that its rejection would, therefore, automatically involve the rejection of any knowledge whatever.

He sets out to demonstrate that the personal contribution, by which the knower shapes his own knowledge, predominates not only at the lowest levels of knowing, but also, as he says, “in the loftiest achievements of the human intelligence”; he then goes on to show that this tacit coefficient, as he calls it, though not so easily recognizable, plays a decisive rôle in “the intermediate zone forming the bulk of human knowledge.”

The most primitive forms of human knowing, the forms of intelligence which man shares with the animals, are situated behind the barrier of language:

Animals have no speech, and all the towering superiority of man over the animals is due almost entirely to man’s gift of speech. Babies and infants up to the age of eighteen months or so are mentally not much superior to chimpanzees of the same age; only when they start learning to speak do they rapidly outdistance and leave far behind their simian contemporaries. Even adults show no distinctly greater intelligence than animals so long as their minds work unaided by language. In the absence of linguistic clues man sees things, hears things, feels things, moves about, explores his surroundings and gets to know his way about, very much as animals do…

The essential logical difference between the two kinds of knowledge lies in the fact that we can critically reflect on something explicitly stated, in a way in which we cannot reflect on our tacit awareness of an experience.

Polanyi now illustrates this by comparing the tacit and explicit knowledge of the same operation. As he has said, man can look round and explore his surroundings tacitly just as animals can. He quotes Tolman, who has worked so much on the behaviour of rats in mazes, as saying that a rat gets to know its way about a maze as if it had acquired a mental map of it. He goes on to say that observations on human subjects suggest that a man, however intelligent, is no better at maze-running than a rat, unless assisted by notes, whether these are remembered verbally or sketched out in a drawing. Man, of course, can make such notes and the advantages of a map are obvious; in addition, however, a man has, with his explicit knowledge, the power of reflecting critically upon such a map, checking its validity with reality and seeing if perhaps at some point it may be inaccurate. If it is a map he has previously made himself, it is telling him something he has put down before; it is like the playing-back for criticism of something he said before. Nothing like this can take place at a prearticulate level. If we have only a mental memory of a fairly familiar region and we then lose our way we can only correct our mistake by plunging from one view of a scene to another. Knowledge held in this inarticulate manner he calls a-critical. He then uses the map simile further to heighten the contrast between tacit and explicit knowledge. A proper map is drawn up by triangulation; it is built up according to strict rules from a set of observations collected in a systematic way and critical thought is all the time examining the process.

The contrast between the two domains [Polanyi says] should now be sharp enough. Pre-verbal knowledge appears as a small lighted area surrounded by immense darknesses, a small patch illuminated by accepting a-critically the unreasoned conclusions of our senses; while man’s articulate knowledge represents a panorama of the whole universe, established under the control of critical reflection…

And yet [he says a little later] this exalted valuation of strictly formalized thought is self-contradictory. It is true that the traveller, equipped with a detailed map of a region across which he plans his itinerary, enjoys a striking intellectual superiority over the explorer who first enters a new region—yet the explorer’s fumbling progress is a much finer achievement than the well-briefed traveller’s journey. Even if we admitted that an exact knowledge of the universe is our supreme mental possession, it would still follow that man’s most distinguished act of thought consists in producing such knowledge; the human mind is at its greatest when it brings hitherto uncharted domains under its control. Such operations renew the existing articulate framework. Hence they cannot be performed within this framework but have to rely (to this extent) on the kind of plunging reorientation which we share with the animals. Fundamental novelty can be discovered only by the same tacit powers which rats use in learning a maze.

Can we go further, asks Polanyi, and show that at all mental levels it is the tacit powers of the mind which are decisive? He believes we can. We see things in different ways and find our way about a new neighbourhood by our tacit powers organizing our experience so as to gain control over it. They make sense of it; one word covers this—“understanding”.

He goes on to show that not only are the purely tacit operations of the mind processes of understanding, but the understanding of words and symbols is also a tacit process. As he says a little later “our whole articulate equipment turns out to be merely a tool-box, a supremely efficient instrument for deploying our inarticulate faculties.” The tacit element, then, also predominates in the domain of explicit knowledge, and represents at all levels man’s ultimate faculty for acquiring and holding knowledge.

When we understand something, or confront a statement with the facts to which it refers, we exercise our tacit powers in search of a better intellectual control of the matter in hand. We seek to clarify something said or experienced, and to move from one position which we feel to be uncertain to another we find more satisfying. “And this”, he emphasizes, “is how we eventually come to hold a piece of knowledge to be true.” Or again he says “All human knowledge is now seen to be shaped and sustained by the inarticulate mental faculties which we share with the animals.”

This last point is one I particularly want to stress. I cannot here discuss the full development of Polanyi’s theory of knowledge, and, indeed, I am not competent so to do; I must leave that to the philosophers. In more recent papers he has developed still further the philosophical implications of tacit knowing2. I am only introducing his basic idea here because I regard it as so important for appreciating our relationship to the animal world; for this, in turn, I regard as fundamental in considering a theory of natural theology. Before leaving it, however, I must follow his argument just a step further in regard to relating tacit knowing to the act of understanding. The characteristics of understanding—the grasping of disjointed parts into a comprehensive whole—have been traced by gestalt psychology. We cannot comprehend a whole without seeing its parts, but we can see the parts without comprehending the whole.

These psychological observations [says Polanyi] can be transposed now into the elements of a theory of knowledge. We may say that when we comprehend a particular set of items as parts of a whole, the focus of our attention is shifted from the hitherto uncomprehended particulars to the understanding of their joint meaning. This shift of attention does not make us lose sight of the particulars, since one can see a whole only by seeing its parts, but it changes altogether the manner in which we are aware of the particulars. We become aware of them now in terms of the whole on which we have fixed our attention…

To illustrate this, he says:

Take words, graphs, maps and symbols in general. They are never objects of our attention in themselves, but pointers towards the things they mean. If you shift your attention from the meaning of a symbol to the symbol as an object viewed in itself, you destroy its meaning. Repeat the word “table” twenty times over and it becomes a mere empty sound. Symbols can serve as instruments of meaning only by being known subsidiarily, while fixing our focal attention on their meaning. And this is true similarly of tools, machines, probes, optical instruments. Their meaning lies in their purpose; they are not tools, machines, etc., when observed as objects in themselves, but only when viewed subsidiarily by focusing attention on their purpose. The skilful use of a tennis racket can be paralysed by watching our racket instead of attending to the ball and the court in front of us.

This brings out an essential point. We use instruments as an extension of our hands and they may serve also as an extension of our senses. We assimilate them to our body by pouring ourselves into them. And we must realize then also that our own body has a special place in the universe: we never attend to our body as an object in itself. Our body is always in use as the basic instrument of our intellectual and practical control over our surroundings. Hence in all our waking hours we are subsidiarily aware of our body within our focal knowledge of our surroundings. And, of course, our body is more than a mere instrument. To be aware of our body in terms of the things we know and do, is to feel alive. This awareness is an essential part of our existence as sensuous active persons.

Here I would like to refer back to the main thesis of my first series of lectures which I have briefly mentioned at the beginning of this one. It is, I believe, the psychic or behavioural side of animal life which has, together with the environment, fashioned the form of the body from the material world by the continual selection within a population of those chance genetic varieties which give the better manifestation of its pattern of activity. The death of the body is an absolute necessity in a progressive evolution of better and better incarnations of a gradually changing behavioural element—the “spirit of life” if you like. The organs, the parts of the body, the hands and feet and so on, are all tools carved out of the physical world by the behavioural selection I have discussed. It is, I believe, the mental element in the universe that is the real operating factor in organic evolution; the constantly varying DNA code supplies the changing material for this selection to work on.

Before I leave Professor Polanyi’s ideas to lead back to my main reason for introducing them—his demonstration, through his conceptions of tacit knowledge and understanding, of how close is man’s relationship to the animal kingdom—I must give one more quotation to illustrate an important suggestion he makes that the tacit powers of animals may in fact be greater than our own.

It is of course impossible [he says] to compare exactly the level of tacit performances involved in the works of human genius, with the feats of animals or infants But we may recall the case of Clever Hans, the horse whose powers of observation far exceeded those of a whole array of scientific investigators. They believed the animal was solving problems set out on a blackboard in front of it, while it was actually taking its clues for correct answers by watching the involuntary gestures made by the scientists themselves in expectation of these answers. Remember also how readily and how well children learn to read and write, compared with hitherto illiterate adults. There is enough evidence here to suggest that the highest tacit powers of an adult may not exceed, and perhaps actually fall short of those of an animal or an infant, so that the adult’s incomparably greater performances are to be ascribed predominantly to his superior cultural equipment. Genius seems to consist in the power of applying the originality of youth to the experience of maturity.

Now I would like to refer to one of Sir Peter Medawar’s essays, “Tradition: the Evidence of Biology” in his The Uniqueness of the Individual (1957), for what he has to say here is very pertinent to my earlier quotation from Polanyi. He asks:

… in what fundamental biological way do human beings differ from other animals? One possible answer, which I shall try to justify, is this: man is unique among animals because of the tremendous weight that tradition has come to have in providing for the continuity, from generation to generation, of the properties to which he owes his biological fitness.

He goes on to discuss the tools and instruments used by man and points out that they are of two main kinds: those assisting or increasing our motor activities, such as hammers, cutlery, motor cars, megaphones and guns, which may be called motor instruments, and those amplifying our sense organs such as spectacles, ear-trumpets, radio sets and thermometers which we can call sensory instruments. He adopts the terms proposed by Lotka to distinguish the organic, bodily organs (eyes, ears, teeth, etc.) as endosomatic instruments, from all the accessory tools and devices manufactured to assist them, which are exosomatic instruments. He reminds us, as did Polanyi, that these exosomatic instruments are functionally parts of the body, although anatomically distinct: sensory instruments like microscopes and geiger counters only serve as such when linked to our sense organs, and motor instruments obviously only act as such when used. “It is not spectacles” he says “but spectacles worn and looked through that are instruments of vision, and the hammer is only a tool when wielded by the hand.” He now continues:

The relationship between instrument and user may be very remote, as it is with guided missiles and with engines designed to work without attention, but their conduct is built into them by human design and in principle, their functional integration with the user is just the same. It is for this reason I deplore the habit of describing the brain as a kind of calculating machine; the truth is that a calculating machine is a kind of exosomatic brain. It performs brain-like functions, much as cameras have eye-like, and clothes have skin-like functions, and motor cars the functions endosomatically performed by legs. We may indeed learn something about the brain by studying calculating machines, as we have learned something about the eye by studying lenses; but it need not be so: the internal-combustion engine has no lessons to teach us about how muscles work…

In passing let me say how much I agree with Medawar in deploring the habit of describing the brain as a kind of calculating machine. After making a comparison of the evolution of endosomatic and exosomatic organs he proceeds:

I now at last come to the point. There is one crucial distinction between endosomatic and exosomatic evolution. Ordinary evolution is mediated by the process of heredity. Exosomatic “evolution” is mediated not by heredity but by tradition, by which I mean the transfer of information through non-genetic channels from one generation to the next. So here is a fundamental distinction between the Springs of Action in mice and men. Mice have no traditions—or at most very few, and of a kind that would not interest you. Mice can be propagated from generation to generation, with no loss, or alteration, of their mouse-like ways, by individuals which have been isolated from their parental generation from the moment of their birth. But the entire structure of human society as we know it would be destroyed in a single generation if anything of the kind were to be done with man. Tradition is, in the narrowest technical sense, a biological instrument, by means of which human beings conserve, propagate and enlarge upon those properties to which they owe their present biological fitness, and their hope of becoming fitter still.

The fundamental difference between man and the other animals certainly lies in this new factor of tradition, in this development of speech leading to explicit knowledge and reasoning powers, and so to the new cultural life which has changed the very nature of the evolutionary process. All this has been increasingly realized, and particularly stressed by Huxley and Waddington, in the last twenty-five years or so. The great importance of speech and culture was emphasized by E. Cassirer in his An Essay on Man (1944) and Waddington’s 1946 articles on “Science, Ethics, Religion” in World Review.

The development of speech and the corresponding increase in the size of the brain of man has all happened, as we have seen from the fossil evidence available, in an extremely small fraction of time compared with the long history of animal evolution. The resulting explicit statements of knowledge and the culture to which they have given rise, while so important and so novel, can hardly have introduced some fundamentally different element that was not present in the universe before. Some biologists would seem to suggest that consciousness is confined to man, but this new explicit system, I would submit, cannot have produced the state of awareness. I agree, of course, that the complex human personality has indeed been built up in some such manner as the psychologists suggest, although the advocates of the different schools still differ very much amongst themselves as to the exact nature of the process. Personality, however, is not the same as consciousness. I shall be arguing later that some, at any rate, of the elements which go to make up religion—the sense of the sacred, the numinous and the feelings of being in contact with some power other than the self, are unlikely in themselves to be products of the explicit system, although only that system can give a verbal expression of them; they are, I believe, more likely to be part of a tacit, inarticulate, extra-sensory knowing which is linked with elements going much further back in biological history. Nevertheless the coming of speech and culture must have had a profound influence on the evolution of religion which could not be formulated before their appearance; here the bold ideas put forward by Professor Waddington in his The Ethical Animal deserve and must receive most careful consideration.

It is not my intention to come down with any finality on one side or the other of an argument as to whether Waddington’s thesis is a valid one or not; I will, however, say at once that it does seem to me to be eminently reasonable. I can only present the merest outline of it, or just a part of it; but enough, I hope, to show that his ideas must indeed be taken seriously and examined from every point of view in building the foundations for our science of natural theology. He points out, as did Polanyi, that the human intellect, as a product of evolution, has been moulded to cope with the external natural world; it is an instrument, he says, “forged for the specific purpose of coming to terms with things.” And it is his thesis that any rational discussion and comparison of the different systems of ethics can only be carried on within a framework of animal and human evolution. He certainly realizes the theological significance of what he is saying:

Although the points I shall be making are certainly not without importance from a religious point of view, or viewed as factors in man’s spiritual life, I shall not attempt to treat them in this manner, nor to venture into the field of inspirational writing of which Teilhard de Chardin and Huxley have provided us with such splendid examples.3

I will come at once to what I believe is the most important point in relation to theology that Waddington is making. It is this. The new cultural system developed in man through the coming of speech, i.e. the passing on of acquired experience, which he calls the socio-genetic method of transmission, can only work successfully if there is developed, not only the means of offering the information to the new generation, but also if the members of the new generation are made to receive it. The new-born infant has, as he says, to be “moulded into an information acceptor”, to be in fact made “ready to believe (in some general sense of the word) what it is told.” The mechanism of information transfer cannot work successfully until the human being has been turned by evolution into someone who entertains beliefs, “who goes in for believing”. We really want, as Waddington says, some special word for this; the development, by evolution, of the new-born infant into an authority acceptor. Once this has happened and the mechanism comes into operation “then the socio-genetic system carries out a function analogous to that by which the formation and union of gametes transmit genetic information …” Further the conversion of man into an entertainer of beliefs “involves the formation within his mind of some mental factors which carry authority, and that it is some aspects of these same authority-bearing systems that are responsible for his simultaneous moulding into an ethicizing creature.”

If the thesis he is putting forward is true, and, as I have said, to me it seems most reasonable, then at the basis of our natural theology we have this important link with the evolutionary system: a building into the mind of man of a capacity for belief. Here many might be inclined to think that this surely cuts away another, perhaps the last remaining, support for religion; in the light, however, of other evidence, to be considered later, I do not believe this to be so at all. And from what Waddington himself writes I do not think that he would say that it destroys the spiritual side of religion. He writes:

In particular, I use the phrase “human revolution” to refer to all the cultural changes which differentiate human life at the present day from that of our Stone Age ancestors. It includes spiritual and intellectual changes as well as those concerning materials and tools.4

He goes on to outline two main hypotheses to be developed: (I) that the function of ethical beliefs is to be a means of bringing about human evolution and (2) that evolution exhibits a recognizable direction of progress. I shall not be able here to discuss his second line at all but from what I have said in my last lecture and also in my first series, it will be seen that I am wholeheartedly in sympathy with him when he writes:

As soon as one places the problem of free will in juxtaposition with that of consciousness, it becomes apparent that it cannot be solved either by any manipulation of our existing physico-chemical concepts, since these include no hint of self-awareness, or by any analysis of the language used in formulating the situation, since no linguistic analysis can annul our experience of self. We need ideas which depart more radically from those of the physical sciences; something perhaps akin to the thought of philosophers such as Spinoza and Whitehead, who have suggested that even non-living entities should not be denied qualities related to the self-awareness and will, which we know, in much more highly evolved forms, in ourselves.5

There are certain aspects of thought in biology which he regards as more relevant to epistemology and general philosophy than anything physics can offer about the ultimate nature of matter: particularly those concerned with the facts of evolution and development. To the biologist, he says: “I think it is bound to remain almost inconceivable that one can talk much sense about the relation between man and the external world if one leaves out of account the fact that man has been brought into being by evolution in relation to the external world.” He says this immediately after drawing attention to the fact that:

Remarkably few professional philosophers of the present day so much as mention the fact that the human sensory and intellectual apparatus has been brought into being by an evolutionary process whose observed effects in all other instances are to produce operative systems conformable to the situations with which they will have to deal. Take two examples more or less at random: the word evolution does not occur in the index of either Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind or A. J. Ayer’s The Problem of Knowledge.6

Waddington does not wish to imply that evolution has given man the perfect intellectual apparatus for dealing with the external world. It is clear, as he says, that not only do our sense organs offer many opportunities for improvement (as for example in response to electromagnetic vibrations) but that “there can be no reason to doubt that our conceptualizing and logical faculties might also be susceptible of betterment.” He goes on to say:

Man is a part of nature, he forms a certain picture of what we may crudely call the external world, not as an outside observer of it but just because the forces of the external world have moulded his evolution into a being capable of reflecting it in a way adequate for carrying on the activities of life. We can, I think, be quite confident of this statement in relation to the physiological, sensory and intellectual capacities of man for handling his environment. Theologians might wish to reserve a small but crucial element in the human constitution outside the sphere of relevance of evolution. Such a thesis cannot be rejected out of hand, but it requires special arguments to support it. The great bulk of human nature, and the part that is most easy to observe, has undoubtedly been produced by evolution, and has been moulded by the necessity to interact reasonably successfully with the non-human components of the universe.

Such a point of view has of course many implications for questions of general epistemology. It implies, for instance, that we have a mind capable of grasping logical structures because the universe exhibits regularities which make logical thinking a useful activity. It has implications also for the theory of perception. It argues that we experience tables and chairs, and not only (if at all) mere sense data, because it is evolutionarily useful to perceive, as Whitehead put it (1928), in the mode of causal efficacy as well as in that of presentational immediacy.7

Here he makes a point which has special relevance to our attempt at outlining a more scientific natural theology. “Theologians,” he says, “might wish to reserve a small but crucial element in the human constitution outside the sphere of relevance of evolution.” This is indeed an important point; its relevance, however, must depend upon one’s view as to the nature of the evolution process. I am not prepared to agree, as you will have gathered from the case I have argued in my first series of lectures—and I don’t think Waddington does—that all that is important in the evolutionary process is part of the physico-chemical system which is perceived by our sense organs. I have expressed my view that there are good grounds for believing that the “psychic” or mental side of animal life plays a vital part in the process by the means of behavioural selection and that our religious feelings are linked with this. It is a matter to which we shall be returning as our discussions proceed, particularly in lecture VII (p. 156).

I cannot in part of one lecture do more than pick out from Waddington’s thesis some of those points which I feel are likely to be of special relevance to natural theology. After discussing various aspects of the evolutionary system, its genetical side, his idea of genetical assimilation, the behavioural aspects of an animal’s choice of environments and so on, he leads on to a fuller discussion of the socio-genetic system of cultural transmission in man. In the course of developing these ideas he makes the following interesting suggestion:

Man appears to develop ideas whose nature is not a necessary consequence of the environmental circumstances, and in so far as this is the case, these ideas can scarcely arise solely as acquired characters. It is difficult, for instance, to deny that there is some arbitrary element in the distinction between the great religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism. There would seem to be a place in the genesis of new human ideas for some process which shares with gene mutation a characteristic of randomness and unpredictability.8

After discussing the three main categories of animal learning, i.e., reflex, exploratory and social learning, and the means of communication between animals by signs and signals, he points out that students of animal behaviour seem to be agreed that there is a radical difference between all such examples of animal communication and the language system characteristic of man: animals use only signs but man uses symbols as well as signs. A symbol relates not just to an object or action but refers to a concept, an idea that can be thought about. He quotes Langer as saying: “To me language begins only when a sound keeps its reference beyond the situation of its instinctive utterance, e.g. when an individual can say not only: ‘my love, my love!’ but also: ‘He loves me—he loves me not’.” He draws attention to the remarkable efficiency of even primitive languages which only lack vocabulary, and to the fact that nowhere among primitive races have there been found languages in a truly undeveloped state. As soon as symbolic speech appeared natural selection must have accelerated the development of language so that very soon any traces of its earlier stages were eliminated to give the great gap that exists today between animal signs and the simplest human language. This links well with what Polanyi says (quoted on p. 41) about our whole articulate equipment being “a tool-box—a supremely efficient instrument for deploying our inarticulate faculties”; and again it links with what Alfred Russel Wallace said more than a hundred years ago (quoted on p. 36) concerning the power of selection in the evolution of the mind giving “that rapid advancement of mental organization … which has raised the very lowest races of man so far above the brutes.” Waddington leads on to consider more fully the evolutionary steps that must have been taken before the system of cultural socio-genetic transmission became possible and particularly the psychological modifications that must have been made to form the authority-bearing systems within the mind that he regards as essential to the process.

The question [he says] I should like to ask is not, what are the prerequisites for a moral order; but rather what, over and above rôle discrimination and self-awareness, is necessary for the functioning of a socio-genetic system? …

The essential feature in the rôle of the taught, of the recipient of information is to act as though under the authority of something… In sub-human animal societies so far as we know the authority-bearing entity is always external to the recipient individual. This is no longer the case in man. We find, as an empirical fact, that man can as it were “internalize” authority. He can with one part of his mental make-up play the rôle of the taught in relation to some other part which functions as a teacher. Conscience may, as we well know, become a stern internal authority…

… the point I wish to stress is that the functioning of a socio-genetic system depends essentially on the existence of the rôle of authority-acceptor. In man the formation of this rôle is brought about by processes which involve the internalization of authority. And some aspects of this internalized authority have the character for which we give the name ethical. Thus “going in for ethics”, or “ethicizing”, is for man an integral part of the rôle of the taught or the authority-acceptor, without the existence of which his cultural socio-genetic evolutionary system could not operate.9

A little later he says that any discussion as to how the human personality can accept authority and so function as a receiver of socially transmitted information must now “lean very heavily” on the work of the psychologists Piaget and Freud:

It is during the first of Piaget’s10 two periods that the child becomes an “ethicizing” creature; and it is this period, therefore, rather than the second co-operative period, which is of particular interest in the context of this book. What is the nature of the “respect” which appears at this stage, characterizing the relation between the child and its parents? Piaget realizes that “respect”, in its ordinary meaning at least, does not fully describe the situation he finds. “It is a fact,” he writes (p. 379), “that the child in the presence of his parents has the spontaneous feeling of something greater than and superior to himself. Thus respect has its roots deep down in certain inborn feelings and is due to a sui generis mixture of fear and affection which develops as a function of the child’s relation to his adult environment.”11

The last sentence of that quotation must be of particular interest for us when we consider man’s emotions in relation to Divinity. Again I would say, in view of later evidence, this is not necessarily destructive of the idea of a theistic relation; on the contrary I believe it binds our natural theology more closely to the biological system and so gives it a more rational validity. This theme, however, I shall develop in later lectures after we have discussed the evidence from social anthropology.

After a further discussion of Freudian psychology he comes again to the question of authority in the human mind:

The authority which is necessary if man is to be a receiver of socially-transmitted messages seems to be produced by a mechanism which usually leads to its over-development. Without an internal system of authority an individual of the species homo sapiens could not become a human person, but the price he pays is to be inflicted, by the excessive development of authority, with feelings which are described as guilt, anxiety and despair…

Psychoanalysts have discussed extensively the mechanism by which systems having authority are formed within the mind, and the reasons why this process so often, though not inevitably, produces authority which is stronger and more demanding than would seem to be necessary. There is still, of course, considerable debate about the details of the process, but there seems to be general agreement on the one major and essential feature of it; that the authority tends to be personalized…12

He now discusses the difficult concept of personality and the various psychoanalytical theories as to how the baby becomes a person, particularly the three systems into which the adult mind has been analysed: the id, the ego and the super ego. I shall be coming back to these conceptions later in the lecture on the relations of psychology to natural theology.

There is so much more in Waddington’s thesis that I would like to quote and discuss, but time will only allow me to round off his argument with the following extracts from his penultimate chapter which show again how relevant are his ideas to the natural theology we are contemplating and also how far they are from implying an anti-religious materialism:

The functions proper to the belief-structure of the mind are, potentially, best filled by ideals which are of extremely wide range. The brotherly love of the Christians, the intellectual curiosity and good sense of the Greeks, even the orderly British ideal of conduct appropriate to one’s station in life, were beliefs general enough in character to apply to almost all the situations which arise in a full and active life. While representing very clearly the ultimate parental authority on which the whole process of social learning rests, they reflect this as a leading and guiding, rather than a merely restraining influence…

An intellectual formulation of such a belief must, indeed, be of a highly abstract nature, and is beyond the capacity of any but a highly-trained mind. Non-intellectual people may, of course, apprehend such ideals; in fact it sometimes appears as if it is easier to attain to a really profound ideal by some unformulated process of an intuitive nature than by close abstract reflection—we must all have met the instances of the simple good man. But even these are all too rare. The beliefs one notices as operative in the personalities one meets are usually focused on some comparatively minor particular, some specific political or religious or ethical point. A devotion which constantly refers back to one of the great large-scale ideals of humanity is something of a rarity in human characters as they are formed by society at the present day. It is surely one of the major tasks of civilization to remedy this, to see that as the child’s reverence and love passes on from its parents to some wider authority, it finds itself in the presence not merely of a particular doctrine but directly confronted with the major premises of human society.13

This indeed is one of the major tasks before us. A devotion to the great large-scale ideals of humanity is rare today because they have been based upon earlier theologies which are rightly questioned and usually doubted by those with a modern outlook.

There are [he continues] several current ideals of breadth and scope sufficient to rank among the mainsprings of civilization. Perhaps it is not always realized that science, as it has grown under the co-operative efforts of so many men, has by now become one of the most compelling of the possible candidates for the position of internal authority in the human belief-structure…

I would not say that the scientific ideal alone is a wholly adequate foundation for the good life of the individual, or the highest civilization of society; but my main reason for this is the conviction … that no single ideal is sufficient. The authority of science gives its sanction to one of the greatest creations of the human mind—the attitude of logical thought continually checked by the empirical appeal to the experiment—but it needs, in my view, to be supplemented by the ideal of the creative artist—an ideal which expresses itself in thought-processes which move in a different dimension to those of logic and experiment.

These two ideals—the combination of reason and empiricism which is usually held to comprise the whole of science, and the creative imagination or intuition which is considered to be characteristic of art—form a dualism in different dimensions, of the kind I have been discussing. Actually a simultaneous belief in both of them is already incorporated in the practice, though not usually explicitly in the theory, of scientific work. Logic and experiment begin only after intuition has apprehended the problem. A really new scientific idea, of wave-mechanics, of genes, or even a new hunch about some quite specialized and technical matter, is an imaginative production, dependent on faculties which do not differ in kind from those which gave rise to Cubism or Ulysses.14

The creative imagination or intuition which is characteristic of both art and the sudden realization of a new scientific idea are certainly in a different category of nature from that containing physical matter and energy as we now understand them. There is indeed a dualism here—the one I discussed in the last lecture; it is one that must be acknowledged, although, as I have said, it may well be resolved in a philosophic monism of the future. In a later lecture I shall be suggesting that the inspiration of art, the love of natural beauty, and the numinous are all facets of the reality in human life which I am calling the Divine Flame.

  • 1.

    See Life and Letters, III, pp. II et seq. for Darwin’s disappointment over Lyell’s treatment of the evolutionary question in his Antiquity of Man.

  • 2.

    “The Unaccountable Element in Science” in Philosophy Today, London, 1962, and “Tacit Knowing, its bearing on some problems of philosophy”, Review of Modern Physics, vol. 34, pp. 239–62, 1962.

  • 3.

    In the first lecture of my former series I have discussed the essential difference between the views of Chardin and Huxley; the former is a theist and the latter not.

  • 4.

    The Ethical Animal, p. 31.

  • 5.

    loc. cit., p. 63.

  • 6.

    loc. cit., p. 74.

  • 7.

    loc. cit., p. 77.

  • 8.

    loc. cit., p. 119.

  • 9.

    loc. cit., p. 50.

  • 10.

    Piaget, J., The Moral Judgement of the Child. Kegan, Paul, 1932.

  • 11.

    The Ethical Animal, p. 157.

  • 12.

    loc. cit., p. 164.

  • 13.

    loc. cit., p. 197.

  • 14.

    loc. cit., p. 198.

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