O delight of the headlands and beaches!
O desire of the wind on the wold,
More glad than a man’s when it reaches
That end which it sought from of old,
And the palm of possession is dreary
To the sense that in search of it sinned;
But nor satisfied ever nor weary
Is ever the wind.
The delight that he takes but in living
Is more than of all things that live:
For this world that has all things for giving
Has nothing so goodly to give:
But more than delight his desire is,
For the goal where his pinions would be
Is immortal as air or as fire is,
Immense as the sea.
Though hence comes the moan that he borrows
From darkness and depth of the night,
Though hence be the spring of his sorrows,
Hence too is the joy of his might;
The delight that his doom is for ever
To seek and desire and rejoice,
And the sense that eternity never
Shall silence his voice.
Addison desired his readers ‘to consider the world in its most agreeable aspects’. Times have changed. Not so, our modern teachers. They trample upon human pride and show no mercy to human pretensions. And this very disregard of our feelings seems to confer merit upon their verdicts, and to invest them with the mantle of truth. Yet the pleasant is not necessarily false, nor the unpleasant always true. Nevertheless, to many men, whether they are right or not in so interpreting modern knowledge, it has brought disillusion. It bears the stamp of honesty, and so much the more chills their hearts, and gives the lie to their most cherished hopes and aspirations. We are assured indeed by some of our spiritual comforters that nothing of importance has occurred, nothing to shake the foundations of religion and morals. But the world has not been deceived. It is conscious that an earthquake has taken place, that the veil of the old temple has been rent in twain, from the top to the bottom. It is not merely that the universe has expanded to terrifying proportions, that human beings have become ridiculous Lilliputians, hardly discernible in the stupendous expanse. It has dawned upon men that there is no escape from the conclusion that they are simply animals, one species among thousands, and with no claim to any royal or divine prerogative: lords of creation, if you will, but certainly not heirs of heaven.
I cannot accept the view of some theologians that man’s animal ancestry may be set aside without anxiety as of no serious import, that their predecessors of the last century had no cause for alarm when Darwinism received the imprimatur of science, and that they needlessly exaggerated its bearing upon faith and doctrine. If man could be proved a separate and unique being, how eased were the situation for theologians. The old belief in the human species as a special creation, altogether peculiar and outstanding, laid a firm foundation for the great cathedral of religious thought. Regard man as a creature among other creatures, of the same lineage, and you are involved in a very delicate and difficult operation. You are immediately driven to the question: How then is he to be distinguished from the rest? You cannot make light of the query: it is crucial for religion and ethics. No doubt he has by virtue of superior intelligence placed all the other tribes under his feet. The distinction is not sufficient. Too much hangs in the balance. Is this difference one of kind, or merely of degree? Such a difference as anyone can see between the octopus and the camel, the caterpillar and the eagle, or something far deeper? The churches have built high upon the difference, whatever it be, but have they built on quicksand or the eternal granite?
It has been the habit of theologians and moralists to overlook the lower creation. These unpretentious beings were left out of account as spiritually and ethically negligible. They have had their revenge. To treat the whole animal kingdom, as most religions have done, with calm disdain, is no. longer possible. Personally I am not at ease with a theology which has forgotten them, as Christianity appears to have done. And when you are now asked, ‘Where yawns the impassable gulf between us and them?’ when you are requested to produce the title-deeds for man’s unique status, you must make some answer. A supreme dignity and a grave responsibility attach to the rank you claim for him. You base upon it the assertion that he stands in a peculiar relation to God, has need of religion, and is responsible for his actions. To these matters the other creatures appear to be indifferent, and to do without them well enough. What need have we of religion, if they have none, or of morals, if they have none? ‘They do not lie awake in the dark, and weep for their sins,’ as Whitman wrote. ‘They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.’ They are not expected to display virtuous habits, exercise self-discipline, or respond to the calls of conscience. They adapt themselves to nature with the most perfect composure, appear, indeed, to know all about it, and without much thinking, and with far less hubbub and noise seemingly manage their affairs rather better than we, with all our elaborate machinery of talk and thought. I have a great respect for them. To conclude curtly with Bacon that ‘men are not animals erect, but immortal gods’, however agreeable a proposition, and turn your attention elsewhere, will no longer serve.
You may say that theories, such as those of Lamarck or Darwin, are no doubt of great interest, yet they add little of consequence to what everyone knows. True enough. What do we all know without their assistance? No exhausting enquiry is needed to instruct us that the inhabitants of the earth form one family. The similarities between all animals, even between plants and animals, are obvious to any observer. Their protoplasmic basis, their cellular and bodily structure, their respiratory and digestive processes, their capacity for growth and reproduction, and if we like to go further, the presence, for example, of the same blood groups in men and anthropoid apes—a great multitude of such resemblances almost leaps to the eye, and quite apart from Darwinism, or any other theory, proclaims the solidarity of living things.
Moreover, if we reflect, we see that they are inevitable. The various forms of life accommodated themselves to the situation here on earth as they found it, and similar methods and structures were necessary to fulfil the conditions. Similarity of anatomical structure, of physiological processes, therefore, proves very little. All forms of life, if life were to establish itself upon this planet, necessarily made use of the materials available, the oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, by similar devices. If you have no other materials with which to build your house but clay, or wood, or stone, you must use wood, or clay, or stone, and your design will be governed by the substance you employ. There is no need to labour the point of physical resemblances, or to make much of them. Animals are very much like ourselves in a hundred ways. We all know that, and there are many men who feel that the affectionate relations between a dog and his master go further to establish the unity of living creatures than all the scientific doctrines. Life is one. And we may add consciousness in some form is to be found where life is to be found, dreaming as in plants, half-awake as in animals, or wide awake as in ourselves.
That living things form a single community, then, is no new thought. How could it be? All animals, including man, Archelaus taught two thousand years ago, were generated out of mud, and had the same manner of life. Many ancient sages had like thoughts. The Indian doctrine of reincarnation recognised the links between the various species. Buddha himself allowed that he had been in previous lives an animal. ‘Before this’, said Empedocles, ‘I was born once a boy, and a maiden, a plant, and a bird, and a darting fish in the sea.’ Leibniz held strongly by the law of continuity, and believed that ‘all the orders of natural beings necessarily form one chain’, that they were, so to say, parts of one and the same curve, that plants were in some sense imperfect animals, and that there could not be ‘separation between the different orders of beings which together fill the universe’. Berkeley was of the same opinion. ‘There is no chasm in nature, but a chain or scale of beings.’
Allow all this. Nevertheless the publication of Darwin’s books came as a shock. It clinched the matter, and brought it a little too near for comfort, out of the realm of airy speculation into that of knowledge. And the vexatious question recurs: Can any distinction, keeping in mind the immense weight of the theological structure it must bear, can any distinction capable of supporting it be drawn? What is to be said?
Of course men are animals, it may be answered, but how much more. Leave aside for the moment man’s ethical and spiritual instincts, his ideals and aspirations. Consider only his obvious characteristics. The first witness to his astonishing ascendancy is his erect posture, his lifted gaze, contrasted with the hanging head of the quadruped. The second that he alone invented speech, the magic-working instrument, beside which all other inventions are childish toys. ‘The differentia of man,’ wrote that eminent anthropologist, Dr. Marett, ‘the quality that marks him off from the other animals, is undoubtedly his power of articulate speech. If language is ultimately the creation of the intellect, yet hardly less fundamentally is the intellect a creation of language.’ How the ages meet! Homer knew it long ago. He spoke of μέροπες ἄνθρωποι, beings endowed with, or dividing the voice, articulately speaking men.
A third witness to man’s unique status, upon which the philosophers have laid the greatest emphasis, lies in his singular talent to frame ideas with which nothing in nature corresponds, images and thoughts which outrange and transcend the visible world and all that it contains, which deal in meanings and values utterly remote from our material surroundings. Socrates in the Phaedrus makes of this the final criterion. Man is the only reasoning being, and reason, as Schopenhauer phrased it, is ‘the faculty of forming concepts’, that is, of framing ideas, as of justice, beauty, truth, imperceptible to sense. These are conceptions without physical counterparts, and have no substantial existence in space. Search earth and the heavens, and you will find no trace of them. Nature never heard of such things. They are of man’s own making, the exclusive property of the human soul. If nature has done what man has never done, and cannot do, he also is a creative agent, and has done many things of which she never dreamt. He is a being with double vision. ‘Sagacious of his quarry from afar’, he looks before and after, recalls the past in memory, and builds the future in imagination, the cities and palaces of his spacious dreams, patterns of his own, never planned by nature, built in the empyrean, and beyond even her regal powers. Show me, for example, her sonatas and her symphonies. Thus it is that he has made his escape from the prison of material things, thus emerged into the open air of mental and spiritual freedom. Have any animals looked round the world and evolved religions, or wondered at the stars and constructed astronomies? Have they invented music or mathematics? What have the lizards and the apes done for geometry? Or what have they to say about the gods? They do not ask ‘Why was I born?’ ‘Why am I cold, hungry, miserable?’ ‘Who made me thus?’ There is no speculation in their eyes, and for them the wildernesses of space hold no secrets, the starry labyrinths no symbols of a high romance.
How did man come to evolve abstract thought, to discover general principles? Does his anatomy account for it, or his breathing system, or digestive or glandular? In the realm of thought if not elsewhere he has achieved an element of freedom. He can at least think what he pleases, view the world in which he finds himself as good or bad, treat it with disdain, contempt or approval, accept or reject it in his heart. The prospect widens, infinity opens to his gaze—
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise.
In many, if not in all respects man resembles the ape. Place the bones and structure of apes and men alongside each other and there is not much to distinguish them. The skeleton of Newton did not differ so greatly from that of a chimpanzee. At an early stage in their respective careers there was nothing to choose between them. Emphasise the resemblances by all means, but the more you emphasise these resemblances the more trouble-some it becomes to account for the Principia, for the imperial mind,
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.
One begins to suspect that, despite the likeness, in some fashion man differs from the animals. You will not, however, discover it from reading the books of the biologists. They never mention anything save his animal characteristics. The discovery that he transcends them biology leaves to you. You must go elsewhere for this information. The origin and bodily structure of the human species may not greatly instruct and may even mislead us. Nevertheless let us hear what has been said.
Life took possession of its estate, we are told, five hundred or a thousand million years ago. The exact figures have not been issued. It has blossomed into all the forms we see around us, from the daffodil to the dromedary, from the amoeba to man. The origins of life are still shrouded in mystery, but there is a formidable array of arguments from embryology, palaeontology, genetics, or experimental breeding, to suggest that all the different species, plants and animals alike, have a common ancestry. The eternal quest of the human mind for unity will have it so. Nothing can shake its determination to derive the many from the one. How, then, has it come to pass? And here the magic word is Evolution, which to use is, indeed, a sad affliction, since it has lost all meaning, but a word which is unavoidable, which our age is persuaded opens all the locks. Ask yourselves this question—‘Does evolution mean improvement, progress?’ Or, more simply, ‘Is it better to be a monkey than a tadpole, a tiger than a crab, a man than a gorilla?’ Our scientific friends, having nothing to do with matters of ‘better’ or ‘worse’, cannot tell you. Does evolution, that is to say, mean merely that as time goes on things are altered—we have first one species and then another, perpetual changes—is that all it means, or are we getting somewhere? Upon this point science preserves a rigid silence. Evolution is its favourite word, but what exactly evolution is, or what it means, I have personally been unable to discover. What a boon it would be if the Royal Society would only define it for us. But they know better than to try.
The publication of Darwin’s world-shaking books, The Origin of Species in 1859, and The Descent of Man, twelve years later, opens a fascinating chapter in the history of human thought. Huxley, his champion, ‘Darwin’s bull-dog’, tells us how the theory was received; on the part of men of science with immediate and delighted acceptance, on the part of the theologians with horror and passionate opposition. What is of equal interest with the doctrine is the light it throws upon human nature, human reasoning and human motives. How profoundly we are affected by our secret wishes, our instinctive preferences and prejudices. It is vital to distinguish, though the plain man takes little interest in the distinction, between ‘the fact of evolution and the manner of it’, in the phrase of Romanes. Darwin’s singularly modest programme was not in fact an evolution theory at all, nor does he use the word, subsequently popularised by Herbert Spencer. He confined himself to a single issue, the origin of species. Given the existing variety of living things, must we regard each variety as immutable, each now as it was from the first? Is it not more probable, is it not the truth, that new species originate from the selective action of the environment upon the chance variations among the individual members of each family? Darwin’s was in no sense a philosophic doctrine. It refrained from speculations upon the origin of life. It passed over without mention the metaphysical problems associated with substance, change, growth, causation. However powerful, for example, as a method, evolution possesses no originating impulse. It is not a form of energy, a force or a power; ‘it cannot create the conditions of its own possibility.’ It operates, if it can be said to operate, within a situation already present. Evolution doubtless may be supposed capable of much, but how did the conditions necessary to evolution arise? Is evolution a god, which created these conditions as well as itself?
The supreme attraction of Darwinism lay in its exclusion of special creation and the idea of purpose. That was its peculiar charm. For that reason it was exultantly received and proclaimed as the final truth. ‘It is very absurd’, remarks Kant, ‘to expect enlightenment from reason, and yet to dictate to her in advance upon which side she must necessarily determine.’ None the less it was agreed that the doctrine must be true, and there followed a sustained effort to prove it true. Never has there been greater zeal and industry displayed in search of corroborative evidence. We see it to-day in the search for fossil remains of early man or man’s immediate predecessors, the interest in the human or sub-human types found in Java, Pekin, Piltdown, Heidelberg, Neanderthal and Rhodesia. Here you have a faith, which so seized upon the mind, such was the devotion it inspired, as to energise thought to find the grounds upon which it might be firmly established—a belief, that is to say, which preceded the evidence. And why? Because the thought that it might not be true was utterly hateful and intolerable. With the utmost frankness Huxley himself gives us the clue to the jubilation with which Darwinism was received, and espoused before it was demonstrated. The doctrine, he tells us, did men of science the immense service of freeing them from the dilemma, ‘Refuse to accept the Creation hypothesis, and what have you to put in its place?’ Expressed succinctly, we may say, the theory was a God-send to the disbelievers in God. It postponed at least, though it could not finally expunge, the alternative of God as the cause of all things. For the moment the unwelcome concept of a creator sinks below the horizon of thought, and so ceases from troubling. Mysteries, indeed, are not disposed of, they are merely shelved by removing them into the far distance. They become, however, less vexatious, as someone we dislike may be forgotten in his absence, much less exasperating than his presence. Thus God died away into the infinite beyond, and freed of his immediate company many philosophers and men of science breathed more freely. The theory eased the mind, and offered leisure to develop further the thesis of naturalism as against supernaturalism. Let us be just, too, and bear in mind that there was no alternative within sight. Evolution theory must be true, because otherwise we should not know what to believe, a humiliating and monstrous situation. It was this or nothing, or rather it was this or a choice between God and blank amazement, a most disagreeable dilemma.
Could any history be more interesting or instructive? Let us recommend it for study to the psychologists.
To return to the origin of species. ‘In dim outline’, wrote that eminent biologist, Bateson, ‘evolution is evident enough. From the facts it is a conclusion which inevitably follows. But that particular bit of the theory which is concerned with the origin and nature of species remains utterly mysterious.’ No one will deny the grandeur of the evolution conception. The picture makes a powerful appeal to the imagination. The prospect is vast and pleasing. We have a magnificent bird’s-eye view, as from a mountain-top, of the whole history of life unrolled before our wondering eyes. The panorama is spread out there before us. We are enchanted, and need no further evidence that here is the explanation of all things.
Descend, however, from your mountain height, look a little closer and what do you find? Everywhere a pertinacious discontinuity, everywhere gaps and barriers, separation, a great diversity of disconnected species. Examine into the matter, condescend to particulars, to details, and you come to a dead stop. Throughout the whole scene you are at a loss to show exactly how a single species has given birth to another. You rub your eyes. How is this possible? Since evolution is a certainty, why should the petty particulars prove so troublesome? ‘Ideas’, said Bateson, ‘which in the abstract are apprehended and accepted with facility, fade away before the concrete case. It is easy to imagine how man was evolved from the Amoeba, but we cannot form a plausible guess as to how Veronica agrestis and Veronica polita were evolved, either one from the other, or both from a common form.’
All then is not easy sailing. Lamarck, to whom is due the first likely theory which attempted to account for new species otherwise than by the separate creation of each, believed that they were differentiated from each other by the influence exerted upon living things by their surroundings. In response to the environment they changed their habits. These new habits produced changes in the organism, which were inherited by succeeding generations from their parents, who first acquired them. The offspring of the giraffe, for instance, inherited the long neck, which the habits of its ancestors, stretching for food on the higher branches of trees, had produced. The inheritance of acquired habits was thus the pivot of Lamarck’s theory, and the chief agent at work the environment.
Darwin took a different view. Reading, he tells us, Malthus’ Theory of Population in 1838, he was struck by the struggle for existence present in nature, and concluded that, as a result of this struggle, favourable variations among individual members of a species would tend to their preservation, and the preservation of their equally fortunate progeny, by whom these natural variations, as distinct from those acquired by habit, would be inherited. Variations certainly occur in every family; no two children are ever exactly alike. Offering no explanation of these variations—a different and difficult problem—he concluded that natural selection, that is, the selection by the struggle for existence, of the more vigorous individuals, or those better adapted to the prevailing conditions, would lead to their survival, and thus to the emergence of the different species.
Darwin, then, trusted to the inheritance of slight, random variations of a kind favouring survival. Take a look over the whole scene. Some forms of life remained stationary, satisfied; worms, for example, sharks and crabs. The limpet has remained unaltered for three hundred million years. How unenterprising! Was it placidity of temperament or sheer indolence? Others, like the dinosaur family, are extinct. A vaulting ambition for majestic dimensions worked their ruin. Throughout the whole dramatic story you may read of success and failure, advance or degeneration. And, throughout, two factors, and only two, as far as we can tell, have been at work—the organism and its surroundings, the germ and its environment—the germ with all its hidden talents, its secret powers, the environment with all its potencies, the influences it brought to bear upon the germ—light, heat, nutrition, climate—whose several and combined effects upon plant and animal we can but dimly guess. To which of these factors are we to assign the leading part, to the internal or to the external factor? On this issue no agreement has been reached. Somehow they are interwoven. Then we have the third unknown, heredity itself. What does the living creature transmit to its posterity? What does it not transmit? Does it bequeath acquired habits? Can it be shown that somatic modifications, as they are called, are in fact inherited? Some biologists answer ‘Yes’, others ‘No’. If they can be inherited, are they permanent? Again no agreement among the experts.
Who shall decide when doctors disagree?
Once more. Variations occur: what causes them? Neither for the small, nor for the great, called mutations, has any satisfactory reason been assigned. They must, we are informed, be looked for deep down in the obscure region of the invisible genes, conjectured entities, like the electrons. And it is as much a question why a child resembles its parents, as why it differs from them.
Each school of thought, and there are many, has its own difficulties to meet. There is no disputing that the organism responds to the influence of its surroundings. In the same environment, however, a limit to change is quickly reached, as has been shown by artificial breeding. A species is ‘an interbreeding community’, and when adjoining species are mated, their descendants are usually sterile hybrids. And how in the world could a variation in a single individual of a species consisting of millions give rise to a new and different type? Again the fossils indisputably exhibit the extinct species, but the intermediate forms, the half-way animals, the links between the species, where are they? Evolution is a Becoming, a chain in which we must believe, but it appears to be a chain which consists chiefly of missing links. There is a curious absence of the immediate parents of the existing species, and where in plants are these transitional forms to be found?
For a layman it is all very confusing. I have been unable to discover any accepted view of the origin of species. There are Darwinians and Neo-Darwinians and Neo-Lamarckians. Agreed they are that evolution must have taken place, but how? Transformism remains a dark secret. You would think that if the Darwinians believed in the doctrine for the right reasons, the Lamarckians believed in it for the wrong, yet both are staunch believers. But any reasons are good enough for a foregone conclusion.
We must leave a good deal to the future, and to the experts to put the finishing touches to the picture, to bridge the awkward interval between the reptile and the bird, to provide a well-accredited ancestor for the vertebrates, the back-boned animals, still orphans. We must also leave it to them to decide the part, if any, played by sexual selection, of which Darwin wrote so interestingly, and how in especial it applies to plants. As for natural selection, it is now clearly seen to explain nothing, and for the reason that it is a negative, not a positive factor, which can eliminate but not create characters. The evidence from embryology which at one time seemed so convincing, the idea that the development of the individual, ontogeny, repeated the development of the branch to which it belonged, phylogeny, the theory of recapitulation, has encountered unexpected obstacles, and is already rather tarnished. Again the rising of the sap in spring, how it climbs the tree, seems a simple matter. If you can show how it comes about you will earn great praise from the biologists. And lastly the miracles of mimicry, they also have to be accounted for: butterflies which look like leaves, beetles which resemble moss, and insects which can imitate anything, twigs or stones. If you are searching for artists, do not visit the National Gallery, if for miracles there is no need to turn to the pages of the Bible. For both, go to nature.
As for ourselves, and how we came to be what we are, there are some points still to be settled. Do not tell us that man has progressed owing to his superior brain. We can see that for ourselves. Tell us rather how he secured the brain. There are ten thousand generations between us and our simian ancestors. Was the human brain the result of a series of happy marriages? Biologists are unanimous that our progenitors became men at least a hundred thousand years ago. Some give us a more ancient lineage, and believe the human species has been in existence for half a million; others that it has undergone practically no change for two or three million years. With these speculators time counts for nothing. As some experts give us a longer, others provide us with a more aristocratic descent. It is said that our progenitors were arboreal animals. It is also said that they never passed through the monkey stage, but descended, or ascended, from a creature of the Tarsius type, a nocturnal mammal. Others are convinced that our forefathers branched off the tree of life at a much earlier stage than either of these animals. You are at liberty, within limits, to choose your own pedigree. The difficulty is that you cannot recall past conditions, or say what did, or did not happen a million years ago. Experiment, that is, nature speaking here and now, is the only voice before which science bows its head.
Man’s ancestry then is not so simple and blunt a matter as it was in Darwin’s or Haeckel’s day, and the tree of life tends in the pictures rather to resemble an open long-handled fan, or a pollarded willow, whose many branches spring direct from the main trunk. So stern is now the task of the evolutionist that some thinkers have been forced back to the conclusion that not only does no theory so far presented fit the facts, but that evolution means nothing more than a gradual unfolding of what was present from the first, the unrolling of a scroll, or a picture, of which the parts appear as they are successively illuminated. If that were so, then evolution would be so diluted as to differ little from creation. A factor essential to the solution of the problem appears to be missing, or it may be that a wholly new conception is needed to unify our knowledge and illumine our darkness, a conception the future may supply. When I remember how in physics the old firmly established views on gravitation and causality have gone by the board, I pause, I reflect, I withhold my decision.
Evolution theory is a grand, even an inspired conjecture, yet wears an unfinished air. And behind all this play of arguments and counter arguments stand the great unknowables, time, space, substance, change, causation, smiling ironically down upon the to-and-fro excursions of our troubled minds. With a great show of wisdom we are telling ourselves little, with profound learning exploring fathomless depths, where all soundings fail. Not at one stride, non uno itinere, as we fondly fancy, shall we reach the truth.
We know what we knew at the beginning, that in respect of his physical structure man is part of the animal kingdom. Detach or disentangle ourselves from the rest of the organic world we cannot. It seems probable, indeed, that the human race is immeasurably older than we were originally told, and that before us were sub-men, not monkeys. It seems probable, too, that in bygone ages there were not only many races, but several varieties of men, to whom the different types in the modern world, red men and yellow, black men and white, owe their respective origins. If we seek for ourselves an incommensurable rank, matchless, incomparable, if we claim a standing all our own, it must be looked for in the region of mind, associated, we know not how, with an animal organism, the body,
Which has so many rare and curious pieces
Of mathematical motion.
The origin of species, the history of life, is one thing, but what is life itself, the breath of existence, in which all are sharers? What is this palpitating principle, this awareness of ours, without which there is in effect nothing, since without it nothing can be known, and before which the mind itself, possessing it, recoils with stupefaction? And the scientific answer is, something recent, something, as far as our vision extends, altogether new, utterly unlike anything that had previously existed, and that need never have been. There is no apparent reason why life should ever have appeared. The star galaxies were not in need of living things. The universe could have done very well without them. If we are to believe what we are told, it got along for incalculable ages quite comfortably without our society, without any form of life or mind, and the greater part of its stupendous bulk does not now contain a trace of this mysterious essence. How this information has been obtained I am ignorant. Life, it seems, is a new comer, a thing of yesterday, a late arrival out of the void, which stepped upon the stage, and made its first bow to the universe only a thousand million years ago. Before that, through all past eternity, the Cosmos did not contain a living thing, or living soul. This is what you are asked to think. This current, this indefinable energy, life, emerged apparently from nowhere, and for no ascertainable cause. When it appeared, however, it exhibited the most startling and fantastic abilities. This chance arrival proved a perfect genius. You would suppose it would instantly have been swept away by the torrent of flying matter, the furious cascade of whirling atoms. But no! the interesting stranger declined to leave. He had, perhaps, no other home. The quarters provided were not too promising, draughty and comfortless, shaken by earthquakes and electric storms, yet he decided to make the best of them. Undiscouraged, the new and enterprising arrival, life or consciousness, resisting and overcoming the force of gravity, took hold upon matter, and proceeded to work up against the tide—the ebbing tide of energy, to make use of its loss or dissipation, the increase of entropy, which the passage of material nature ordains. By this ingenious device it made headway. So far from drifting with the stream, it made use in all manner of surprising ways of the flowing current, borrowing in fact from the failing bank of cosmic resources.
Thus on the river of time life appears as an eddy, a movement running counter to the main current, to the direction of inanimate nature. Deriving strength from a source not its own, it proceeded to adapt itself to the conditions, to filter into crevices, to grow, to reproduce itself, a very clever trick, and gave rise to innumerable forms, patterns and novelties unknown in the previous history of the universe. One is lost in admiration of this novice’s performances. Its inherent powers of adaptation are extraordinary. That simplest of creatures, the single-celled amoeba, can by degrees accommodate itself to life either in fresh or salt water. Animals can become habituated to deadly poisons, men, as we know, to breathing at altitudes they could not at first endure and live.
At no point in the remarkable history could a human observer, had he been present, have foreseen a single step in the journey to come. Ere the planets were born, the story of the solar system, or our earth, could not by such an observer have been so much as guessed at. Nor when the planet was a molten mass, ‘a fiery clod’, when continents were taking shape, could any spectator have foretold this strange new power which was to reverse the flow of things, and mount as it were the cataract, employing the force of Niagara to climb it as it fell. In that far time it would have needed more than archangelic intelligence to predict the plant and animal, the surging life to come of air and sea and forest. Nor when it appeared, or the predecessors of man appeared, could human history have been imagined—the emergence of mind, of the dynasties and religions, the pomp and splendour of the great empires, the achievements of man in the arts and sciences. Nature, whatever she is, guards her secrets well, and what her next undertaking may be, what now
the prophetic soul
Of the wide world, dreaming of things to come,
broods in the deep recesses of her imagination no prophet can foretell. Life appears the result of the back-wash of the tide of energy which produced the solar system; but some inscrutable agency is here at work, behind and within and throughout all things, after which our puny minds toil in vain, unable to decipher its character, aims or purposes, or even to determine whether these words, coinages of the mortal brain, have any meaning when applied to this supreme, immeasurable power.
Life, then, appeared as an uninvited guest in the material world. It was not there, and behold, it was there. We can add nothing to this meagre information. Its assault upon inorganic matter, its storming of the citadel, has all the appearance of an essay against mighty odds, like a battle between David and Goliath. The material elements do not appear to have offered it a kindly welcome, or rushed to its assistance. Life has no salamander qualities, and as far as we can tell is not very comfortable save within the narrowest limits of temperature, those of ice and boiling water. Who could have believed that this frail flesh, this delicate system of equilibriums, so easily shattered, could, even when a foothold had been obtained, have successfully contended with the unruly elements, the stormy energies, ‘the tumult and confusion all embroiled’, of the wild original abyss. Yet somehow it prevailed. And by tactics all its own.
Life seems to have gained its famous victory over matter by the use of weapons new and unknown in the universe, as the Carthaginians secured their early triumphs by the use of elephants. Suddenly appearing as if out of some other dimension, employing devices and resources of a surprising kind, instinct or intelligence, call them by what name best pleases you, turning the flank of awkward obstacles by a sort of stealth or peaceful penetration, it took possession of the whole realm. For life to make its home upon a burnt-out star, looks like the result of a forlorn hope, promising no success. Yet look what it has accomplished. The waste spaces covere with verdure, forests with trees of a hundred thousand varieties, sea, air and land swarming with living things of all conceivable shapes and forms, sunning themselves in the satisfaction of existence. If you have room left for further wonder read the recent discoveries of the marine biologists. In the ocean depths, where a great darkness reigns, there are fish which carry with them their own lanterns, of many and amazing designs, hung on bracket-like filaments, or disposed in different portions of their bodies, so dexterously contrived, that beside these tiny lights the stars themselves appear poor and commonplace.
If life had a battle to fight for a standing on the earth, the advantage once gained was rapidly consolidated. Myriads of creatures established themselves on the narrow ledge they had won. And now arose a desperate struggl;f a spectacle from which our timid natures recoil with horror, a struggle among these creatures to maintain their hold upon e tey and treacherous slope. How numerous were the competitors for a place, for so doubtful and ephemeral a benefit as life! The rule appears to have been ‘Anything to keep alive’. There are fish which shelter in the gastric cavities of sea anemones, within the shells of molluscs or crabs, animals like the remora, which attaches itself by suction to the skin of the shark, partaking of such fragments of its patron’s diet as come its way. There are beetles which board themselves upon ants, and companionships within the same burrow between certain birds and reptiles. The puffin keeps house with the rabbit, and the owl with the snake, a risky and often fatal dwelling for the former’s brood. The louse has adapted itself to life, a relatively harmless life, we are told, on the human species, but is to be pitied when typhus invades the body of its host. It is infected and doomed to die. Life scatters its seed like dust. Its fecundity is its mainstay, and the accompanying waste appalling. The herring produces forty thousand eggs a year, the tape-worm a hundred million. The plain truth is there is not room upon the earth for a tithe of the creatures which desire to possess it, and but for the most drastic destruction the world could not contain the living things it engenders. Famine, drought, pestilence, and especially the war of species upon species preserve the balance. The infant mortality of the human race, prodigious as it has been, could not of itself suffice to check its increase beyond all bounds. Primitive peoples commonly sacrificed their children that the tribe might survive. We think this expedient inhuman and prefer to prevent their coming to birth. One thing is beyond debate. Only by interference with nature can you hope to provide room or sustenance for the multitudes which would otherwise cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. It is to that problem that the League of Nations should direct its anxious attention—that above all.
What is the origin, one asks oneself, of this so urgent, so invincible an impulse to exist even for a passing hour, or what is the attraction of being over not being, of life in the crowded and warring world, which makes it worth the turmoil and the hardship, the anxiety and ceaseless strife? In what consists the satisfaction of an ant’s existence, of a worm’s or a crocodile’s, we can form no conception. To account for our own passionate attachment to living is not easy. Their minds, if they have minds, are a terra incognita.
The power or energy which operates throughout nature, animate and inanimate, by which her whole system is sustained, manifests itself, modern science teaches, not in a continuous, unbroken current, but is discontinuous, that is, periodic, rhythmical. The flow exhibits phases of activity followed by phases of repose, and of repose by activity. Matter itself, physics assures us, is granular, and as Quantum theory demonstrates, all energy displays itself in spurts, or gusts, in units or particles, described as ergs. When the electron swings from one orbit to another it gives rise to a unit of radiation, of energy equivalent to that lost by the atom. Whether we think in terms of waves or particles, adopt the vibration or the corpuscular theory of light, or combine them under some new conception, like wavicles, the principle remains unaltered. Energy invariably shows itself disconnectedly, in quanta, in packets or gushes. Pause precedes action and action is succeeded by pause. Throughout the whole realm of nature it is the same. The very crust of the earth rises and falls in long and stately rhythms. Spring, a phase of activity, is followed by winter, a phase of repose. We see it in the mating impulse among living creatures. We see it in the processes of reproduction and growth. We observe it in the eleven year cycles of sunspots, in the alternations of sleeping and waking, in the action of the lungs and heart, even in the pulse of mental attention. ‘There is no such thing’, says William James, ‘as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time.’ We attend, that is, to any subject not continuously but by fits and starts, in waves. The principle may be seen at work everywhere and in everything. Our diseases exhibit the same discontinuity. Fevers have their rhythms, returning in strength on the third or fourth day, and in certain types of mental disorder there is a similar recurrence. Language, too, is essentially rhythmical. We make our accents strong or weak. In all words which consist of more than one syllable there is always an accented and an unaccented syllable. Go deeper, and study the phonographic record of a single word, and you find it consists of a series of minute vibrations. The word ‘Constantinople’, on such a record, shows five or six hundred. The greater rhythms of the world are reproduced in the lesser. And the human organism contains in itself innumerable rhythmical processes, which preserve it in an environment, itself a system of undulations. To crown all, we may be sure—I am at least myself convinced—consciousness, too, which lies at the very centre of our being, has its pulse, shares in the rhythmic beat of the cosmic measures.
We may agree, then, that the efforts of nature in every region may best be described as intermittent and recurrent. Evolution theory cannot overlook, though, as far as my knowledge extends, its exponents have taken little note of this pertinent fact. To these periodic bursts of nature’s energy, then, in my judgment, are due the varieties of species the world contains. That they have resulted merely from a series of random variations, and by insensible gradations, appears in the highest degree improbable. It appears much more likely that, as the unpredictable leap of an electron, for which no cause can be assigned, gives birth to a photon, a unit of radiation, so in the organic world sudden and equally unpredictable changes, gushes of nature’s pulsing and eternal fire, produced the multiform variety of living things. It is by way of a staircase, and not a slope, that man has mounted the eminence on which he stands.
Whatever be the truth, the term evolution is but a mask for our ignorance. No cause can be assigned for nature’s rhythms, her spurts of activity and repose, save that it is her way, the essential character of her operations from everlasting to everlasting. And had we vision we should foresee summers of the mind, and winters yet to come, cycles without end. Nature has, like ourselves, her days, and nights, and months and years, her seasons of rising sap and flowery spring, of autumnal withdrawals and slumber before another dawn. Man is a microcosm of the macrocosm. We have not found the measure of nature’s cycles, and can fix no dates for her recurrences. They are too vast for our scale. Death will overtake her, say our modern instructors, and doubtless they are right. But her death will be a sleep. Refreshed, she will shake her hyacinthine locks, and rising get to her task again.