The fashion of thought no longer permits us to separate things from their surroundings.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
So wrote Pope two hundred years ago, and with the omission of the last clause, the same verdict is given to-day. All things are patterns within a larger pattern, parts of a vast process, which is the process and the passage of nature. The essence of modern science, Sir James Jeans tells us, is that ‘man no longer sees nature as something distinct from himself’. Nineteenth-century men of science thought of nature as something quite apart from and outside themselves; there for ages past and to be, there for ages to come.
For convenience sake, let us, however, keep to the familiar division, and continue to say, where we have life we have of necessity two factors. As the organism needs an environment, the environment, if there is to be life, needs an organism. Where resides the virtue by which the germ develops into the mature animal—within itself, or within its surroundings? Where life is present they are never found apart. They belong to each other and work together. They are, indeed, manifestly one. There is an understanding between them.
If we take first the germ, we note that its genius, for it assuredly possesses some kind of genius, is inherited. Life in our experience arises only from previous life. Omne vivum ex vivo. Inheritance is thus, perhaps, the greatest, as it is the most obvious fact taught by observation. What then do we inherit? Or rather, what do we not inherit? From our ancestors we inherit the country to which we belong, its laws and customs, its institutions and social regime. We inherit from them our bodies, our sex, the fashion of our features, the colour of our skin and eyes, our hair, our very dimples. His finger-prints, if closely examined, reveal the race or community to which a man belongs. Does anyone suppose that we made any of these things, or have any responsibility for them? We are composite creatures, to whom our forbears have contributed each his share, parents a half-share, each of them a quarter, grandparents a sixteenth each, and so on in the grand chain. Our temper and talents, our graces and disfigurements, our tendencies to glaucoma or haemophilia, are inherited. We inherit the blood group to which we belong. In a word we inherit the genes, upon whose combination and distribution everything depends. In our genes lies our destiny. And what, then, are these dictatorial genes, which order, seemingly, our whole existence? Where shall we shelter ourselves from their despotic control? Can we hide from ourselves, or run away from ourselves? We are bound hand and foot. There is nothing of private ownership left to us. I had forgotten. One thing is left to us, our duty, obedience to the moral law, to the codes and conventions of our race and country. Society insists upon this duty, the moralists insist upon it. We are not responsible for our features, but only for our characters.
This burden of responsibility is, apparently, all that is truly our own. We are not accountable for anything in our surroundings or equipment, and are yet accountable for all that we do or think. A singular situation, and a disquieting prospect. You may argue that it is preposterous and unjust. You may say, ‘Very well, then, suppose I disclaim responsibility, what then becomes of human society, of the ethical and legal systems, which are its cement, and preserve it from total disruption? Individual responsibility is the pivot of society. Deny it, and the whole elaborate structure crumbles into immediate and irreparable ruin. Only if we suppose, as mankind has always supposed, that amid all that we patently do inherit there is in each of us something personal and ungiven, over which we have indisputable control, only on this assumption can human existence be preserved from a vast inconsequence, or regarded as more than an interminable inane procession of lay figures, on a “long fool’s errand to the grave” ’.
Take this line of argument, and you will be answered that, as far as society is concerned, society can very well look after itself, and has ways and means of compelling obedience, willing or unwilling, to its demands. Society takes a firm grip of the situation, and stands no nonsense. Science, too, is equally unruffled and indifferent. Science presents you with the facts to deal with as you please. Your conclusions are not her affair; if you become tiresome about the matter, she will probably refer you to the moralists. They cannot so easily and with nonchalance look the other way. Seeing that the case is serious, they make strenuous efforts to save the situation. If the plain man argues in this fashion, as he appears to have fair reason for arguing, their anger knows no bounds, they are virtuously and mightily indignant. They employ against him an elaborate and crushing dialectic. Whether you are a bundle of inherited qualities or not, whether you have free will or not, you are none the less most certainly responsible. They go so far as to assert that men are responsible for their behaviour only if their actions are throughout causally determined, and could not be responsible if they were not so determined. I can understand their exasperation, but I have a great difficulty in following their arguments. Doubtless they are excellent arguments, but their very subtlety gives me an uneasy sense of insecurity. So important a proposition as this of responsibility should, one thinks, speak for itself, be altogether beyond dispute, need no supporting walls and buttresses, and stand up like a mountain in the sight of all men. Fortunately for most men it does. They never doubt or disclaim responsibility. Perhaps I am wrong, but of one thing I feel sure. Had man not already believed in his freedom of choice, had a conviction of free will not been cunningly implanted in him by nature, had the arguments for its reality really been needed, the arguments of all the moralists, even had he understood them, would have failed to persuade him. Fortunately for them and for us they force an open door.
And now, what are these all-powerful genes of which I have spoken? Are they real or imaginary entities? The genes are the units of the characters upon which heredity depends. They are, you might say, the atoms of the organic world. They cannot be seen, and cannot be counted, so their number in a germ cell is unknown. But within this germ cell there is a nucleus, which consists of chromosomes, visible through the microscope, and within these chromosomes lie their constituents, the invisible ultra-microscopic entities, the conjectured genes, which are supposed to carry all the heritable qualities that are, or can be passed on from one generation to the next. Is each individual, are you or I, more than a bundle of inherited characteristics? Since extracts from the thyroid and pituitary glands have power to dislocate or to restore personality, our bodily life seems to be very much a matter of chemistry.
Were I a physiologist I could introduce you to a multitude of impressive and significant facts in respect of our physical structure. Physiology tells us, for example, of the hormones, like adrenalin and insulin, extracts from the pancreas; adrenalin which can arouse the emotion of fear, insulin, which alleviates diabetes. It tells us of the various vitamines, necessary constituents of a healthy diet, too much, or too little, of which may lead to beri-beri, to rickets or to scurvy. It tells us of the ductless glands: of the pituitary, the master gland, the most important of human organs, because of its intimate contact with the brain, and its action upon the other ductless glands; and because, also, it regulates growth and reproduction, and is the seat, if there be any, of personality. Physiology tells us how this gland, if stimulated, will produce a giant, if starved a dwarf. It tells us how a deficiency in the thyroid causes myxoedema, an excess exophthalmic goitre. It has been found that tadpoles if fed on thyroid gland become frogs hardly larger than flies, if fed on the thymus grow into large tadpoles, and never become frogs at all. Extracts from this gland work miracles, accelerate growth and prolong life. Certain aquatic newts, Mexican salamanders, become on thyroid diet a larger and terrestrial variety. So far from being intellectually or morally above our environment, we appear to be its slaves. We become angry or agreeable, reasonable or unreasonable, as it dictates. So susceptible are we to drugs and extracts at the disposal of the chemist that it seems as if Anatole France’s Doctor Socrates was right, and we could keep in bottles substances capable of altering our characters, making us virtuous or vicious, cheerful or despondent. The phials ranged on his shelves contained fluids which could transform or abolish the will of fifty thousand men. ‘These substances’, he claimed, ‘were not essentially laboratory products,’ but were ‘scattered throughout nature.’ ‘In their free state they envelop and penetrate us, they determine our will; they condition our free choice.’ What can we conclude but that in fact they are our creators?
Physiology has much more of interest to say. It tells us of the incidence of certain characteristics among first-born children, that left-handedness is more often found among criminals than normal persons, and is associated with disabilities like dumbness, that some feeble-minded types occur more frequently at the end of a family, that colour-blind men are much commoner than colour-blind women, that from some diseases, like haemophilia, women are exempt.
Many men of science like to think that the genes are physicochemical structures, and that life arose in a chemical ferment in the first, or protogene, through the action upon it of cosmic rays, an interesting hypothesis, not less probable, indeed, than that it was the work of an angel. In the absence of evidence all speculations are of approximately equal value, and you can take your choice.
When we approach the boundaries of life the organisms become progressively smaller and more numerous. Bacteria, whose habits can be studied under the microscope, are as the sands of the seashore in multitude, some harmful, some beneficial. But smaller still, so small as to be invisible, are the socalled ‘filter-passers’, the viruses, known to produce many among the deadliest diseases—distemper, foot-and-mouth disease, smallpox and influenza are examples. Whether the viruses can be described as living creatures is not known.
Next above the bacteria come the single-celled animals. Each living thing begins as a single cell, which by absorbing water and food grows and divides, and again divides, till in the various animals from the Amoeba, a single-celled creature, to man, the number of cells rises to millions and billions. If in this remarkable and immortal animal nothing hindered the subdivisions, its descendants would in a week equal the earth itself in size. And yet of this most primitive thing it has been said by Jennings: ‘If Amoeba were the size of a dog, instead of being microscopic, no one would deny to its actions the name of intelligence.’
When our biologists talk of cells they employ an appalling arithmetic which reminds us of the astronomers and the stars. The nerve cells in the cortex of the human brain number, it is computed, about nine billions within a single inch. Our bodies, like those of the various plants and animals, are composed of cells. We are one and all constellations, cellular communities. There are within these communities brain cells, and liver cells, and stomach cells, each variety engaged upon its own separate task, yet all working in harmony to keep the body healthy and alive.
You may ask, ‘Of what are these cells composed?’ The individual cell, which can by modern methods be immensely magnified, and its picture thrown upon the screen, is there seen to be a veritable vortex of an incredible complexity, a world in itself of filaments, globules, vesicles, each with its own peculiar function, and all in perpetual agitation. It is a whirlpool of snake-like gliding and darting movements, in the most intimate and interlocked associations. You must remember that these unceasing activities and gyrations within the cell are super-imposed upon the far deeper, unseen vibrations of the inorganic electrons which compose the ultra-microscopic and atomic foundations of the whole physical system, the system whose relations with space and time are unique and unascertainable. Living matter is said to consist of protoplasm, a mere word which like so many others is employed as a cloak for our ignorance. Nor will it help you here. For not a trace of it can be found either in the nucleus or the body of the cell. If, however, you like to use such words, you will be pleased to hear that it is a singular living substance, of different composition in different species of creatures, but ultimately analysable into chemical constituents. This substance, therefore, hides the secret of secrets, the mystery of life. But as you already know all about it, that it contains nothing but chemicals, the story has come to an end.
It is difficult to see how anything more is to be said. Life is the result of a chemical ferment, and we may leave it to the experts to work out at their leisure the history of the world, of life and mind in all their ramifications, in terms of chemistry. When that has been done, we shall return again to the beginning, and ask the physicists, ‘What are carbon, oxygen and hydrogen?’ And, after consultation with the mathematicians, they will answer—‘They are configurations of space-time.’ ‘The formation of celestial bodies,’ said Kant, ‘the causes of their movements, and in short, the origin of the entire Cosmos, will be explained sooner than the mechanism of a plant or a caterpillar.’
I have spoken of the germ cell. Within it is a nucleus, and within the nucleus are the chromosomes, and within these again the famous genes. The chromosomes, so called because they can be stained with colour, are of a definite and constant number for each species, 16 in the germ of the guinea-pig, 24 in the mouse, 48 in the hedge-hog as also in the human being. The body in the higher animals, like ourselves, develops from the union of two cells, the sperm and the ovum, contributed respectively by the father and mother, so that out of the 48, each parent contributes 24; but with a certain difference in one pair of the male chromosomes, called x and y. No two germ cells are alike, and the conjunction of a single sperm and ovum may give rise to an immense variety of patterns. We are partakers in a gigantic lottery. From a single marriage any one of innumerable, differently equipped, variously endowed individuals may come into existence. We are not, indeed, to imagine that the chromosomes, or their constituent genes, provide us with ready-made characters. Rather they provide the tendencies, the capacities, the idiosyncrasies, that is, the raw material out of which the character as a whole, under the stimulus of its surroundings, its upbringing and education, may be built. Yet if some men are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, others enter the world with a millstone round their necks.
In the end there remains something for which physiology is not yet prepared to give an account—our personalities. Where among these combinations of genes and chromosomes are we to suppose the self to be seated, the unique self, of which each one of us is vividly aware, as the centre of his whole existence? I do not forget that there are hard-hearted thinkers who deny the existence of the self. Let us postpone that question. At least they do not deny the existence of consciousness. That would be difficult, since here we are, you and I, manifestly self-conscious beings. And we must believe that our parents might have had many other and quite different children, wholly unlike us, each child possessed of, each endowed with, peculiarities of its own, and with this same sense of personality. So also their parents before them might have had quite other children, as might their forbears from the birth of time. The day and the hour of the marriage were the ministers of fate. Think of the fortuitous matings in the ages that are gone, tens of thousands and thousands of thousands. Thoughts like these bear us away with them into infinity.
Born into life, man grows
Forth from his parents’ stem,
And blends their blood, as those
Of theirs are blent in them.
So each new man strikes root into that far fore-time.
In each family a few, a very few, out of legions of possible human beings came into existence. They are, shall we say, among the favoured few? Why were they, like ourselves, so singled out? And at what moment did this self of ours, so precious to us, this ‘I, this individual person attach itself to the chromosomes from which our bodies have sprung? And are there somewhere souls awaiting their opportunity to be born? ‘I stand terrified and amazed’, wrote Pascal, ‘to see myself here rather than elsewhere, for there is not the slightest reason for the here rather than for the elsewhere, or for the now rather than for some other time.’ And we may add, ‘for any time at all’, no reason why your ‘I’ or mine should ever have entered into the world or life.
You might very naturally suppose—it was for long supposed—that within the living cell were parts corresponding to the different portions or organs of the body to be. That, as Leibniz taught, the original cell or egg was already the animal to come on a microscopic scale, that is, in miniature. Nothing so simple. That is not nature’s way. The germ cell is a unity and does not become specialised for the production of the heart or lungs, or any other part of the body till it has attained a certain maturity. If at an early stage it be divided or subjected to pressure, or even if a portion be removed, the germ retains all its powers. It possesses the astonishing faculty of providing any necessary organ out of any part of itself. Utterly unlike any machine, the cells, too, in living things can act for each other, and work together for a common purpose. This co-operation of parts is everywhere present in natural organisms. What governs the procedure? Who or what presides over the organisation? Where dwells the wisdom in the germ capable of detecting deficiencies in itself when they arise, where the intelligence, for it certainly simulates intelligence, which can transfer to the remaining parts duties previously performed by others? You would think a germ would hardly be aware that it had lost a portion of itself, and would work blindly on, quite unconscious of any injury or defect it had sustained. This pin-point of matter, which the physicists, taking up the tale where the biologists lay it down, analyse for you, as they do all substances, into spinning charges of electric energy, this speck of life, which is a whirlwind of billions of electrons, revolving in their orbits about 7000 million times in the millionth of a second—contains within itself the power of becoming a human being, with all its organs complete, brain, heart and lungs. It contains within itself the power to develop the eye, the ear, the will, the emotions, the thoughts that make a man. It contains within itself the power of reproducing its kind, of recalling the features, the smile, the complexion, the trick of speech, the grace of carriage that characterise the parent stock. This speck of matter contains within itself these noteworthy powers.
Take the eye alone. The germ contains the ability, among other odds and ends, to produce a retinal surface sensitive to light, which can distinguish between vibrations of 450 million millions a second, which give the sensation red, and 750 million millions a second, which give the sensation of violet. How did it come about that the eye responds exactly to a certain series of wave lengths among an immense series, picks out these waves from a multitude of others? You might be inclined to say these things were miracles, but the age of miracles is past. Miracles do not happen. Still if you can satisfy yourself that these accomplishments, these endless varieties of behaviour to meet unforeseen contingencies arose out of haphazard collocations of atoms in a white-hot gas, at a temperature of a million degrees, out of an incandescent maelstrom of darting electric flashes, if you are satisfied that any evolution theory can on this basis, juggling with genes, account for life and mind, I quit the field in your favour. I allow your superior penetration. For my part I am struck dumb. The spider mocks the mind, and the caterpillar or the cockroach terrify the imagination.
Aristotle thought there was nothing in the end that was not in a measure in the beginning. The beginning was prophetic, it foretold what was yet to come. In the view of Kant also, it was impossible to avoid the question, ‘To what end, or for what purpose was this organ, the eye or any other, developed?’ You may ask what caused it, but the answer to that question does not explain the organ, whose use or object cannot be brushed cavalierly aside. Do not, I pray you, confuse causes with reasons. You are, let us say, present at a naval’ battle. You hear the salvos and see the destruction of a vessel. You describe, and rightly describe, the shell fire as the cause of its destruction. But the reason of the firing is quite another thing—a quarrel between nations. If you propose to account for the eye, for example, the need for it, its value must be considered. To suppose it an accidental variation is sheer absurdity. For it appeared not in one line of evolution alone. As Bergson pointed out, the cuttlefish and the vertebrates, creatures not related to each other, both developed eyes on their own account in wholly different ways, and from different parts of the organism. Each was its own architect; each had the same end in view, but they took different routes to that end. Some fish provided themselves with a bi-focal arrangement, for sight not only in water, but in air. The eye of the bird is adapted both to near and far vision. The butterfly’s eye contains five thousand lenses and fifty thousand nerves. These various eyes were means to certain definite ends, the very obvious end in each case that the creature might have the advantage of vision, and that advantage of a kind specially suited to its own way of life. Except by reference to the purpose or use of these eyes you can say nothing sensible or intelligible about them. There are folk who tell you that these are fortuitous occurrences, that nature’s bow was drawn at a venture, and that all her millions of arrows struck each the centre of the target by sheer accident; they were aimed at nothing in particular. Were a painter without eyesight to produce Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Dresden Madonna, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, all by sprinkling canvases at random with a brush dipped in unseen and unselected colours, should we not crown such an artist with admiring and bewildered praise, and cry ‘This only a god could do’?
I am well aware that the doctrine of design is suspect, that it can be riddled with destructive criticism, yet how this ‘immanent end’, this internal teleology is to be got rid of, I cannot tell you. I recall Swift’s comment upon epic poetry. Easy it is to produce, said he, if one has the genius, but the skill lies in dispensing with genius, with any kind of talent. So with nature. Remarkable indeed, had been her works had she possessed mind, purpose and foresight, but how much more remarkable, how admirably skilful to produce these interesting things without a particle either of intention or sense! Perhaps intelligence, perhaps brains, are a mistake. How much better we might have got on without them!
Organisms, it is by all observers allowed, behave as if they had an end in view. They aim at self-preservation, their actions have a purpose. At times they appear unconscious of the purpose, yet conscious or not, they strain after it, they desire to attain it. An animal is interested in its environment, and continually attends to and adapts itself to the changing scene, according to its inherited and its own individual experiences. How can you ascribe interest to a blind mechanical process? Animals watch, listen, appear to ask themselves ‘What is that noise?’ ‘What is that moving object?’ You see the dog all alive, attentive, with lifted paw. ‘Is that a stranger’, he asks himself, ‘or only that stupid domestic cat of ours?’ The famous experiments of Pavlov, on ‘conditioned and unconditioned reflexes’, are beside the point. They do not prove, and cannot prove, as they claimed to prove, that behaviour on the part of living creatures is mechanically or automatically determined. The dog’s intelligence grasps, or attempts to grasp, the whole situation. His consciousness is all the time at work, for without it the gong he hears, the light he sees were without any meaning for him, and if uninterpreted could have no bearing of any kind upon his behaviour or the ends in view.
The activity of an organism is not a motiveless activity. Nor do we find biologists of any school, vitalist or mechanistic, who ignore final causes. They ask and ask continually, ‘What end does this organ, the eye or ear, the heart or muscle, serve in the animal economy?’ If it serves no end why is it there? They will tell you that an organ that serves no end degenerates and disappears. We judge organs as contrivances, by their uses and functions. How else could we judge them? They are there for some reason, and every creature may be described as the embodiment of its desires. The body is the outcome of its wants, adapted to strive after and to secure them.
We must conclude, then, that ‘a growing thing is known by what it grows to’, and that its body fulfils the needs of the animal. If you say the body creates the needs, you have to provide a reason for the body’s existence. There appears, as we have seen, no conceivable reason why animal bodies should ever have arisen. Space and time, the sun and stars, did not pine for their society. They were not restless in their solitude, unhappy because they were lonely, and wanted someone to talk to. Living creatures were quite superfluous and unnecessary additions to the universe; they bring no obvious profit to the sum of things. Why then are they there? Once more, if the atoms or particles, the oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, built up in combination the many million varieties of living organisms which support themselves and reproduce their kind, I should be obliged if you would inform me further whence and how these particles obtained their singular power of cooperating, constructing and organising, of combining together into a unity.
The unity of the organism, the co-ordination of its parts, there you have the supreme enigma. The organism involves some principle of integration, some ability certainly not present in the original atoms of carbon or oxygen taken by themselves. Whence did it come and where reside? Unless you first answer this question you can proceed no further. This first step includes all the rest. You have reached the foot of an inaccessible precipice. It towers high above all efforts to explain life, and ends in the clouds. The peak of this mountain is out of human sight.
We arrive then at the integrity of the organism. In living things there is an agency at work beyond the detective power of the microscope to trace. Leibniz defined an organism as anything that had a ‘soul’, or principle of unity. It was, he thought, rather in the nature of a force than of a substance or quantity. Well, matter or substance is now defined as energy at a certain velocity. Aristotle in his De Anima speaks of the ἐντελέχεια, the actual being of the body, its absoluteness, that which makes it what it is. This integrity or absoluteness belongs to the whole, and is, as it were, its mentor or adviser, though without spatial or measurable relations to the parts. None the less it directs their operations. It governs the activities of the organism, teaching it to undertake new and unaccustomed duties, to adapt means to ends, to respond to novel situations. Whatever it be, the inner being of the organism exhibits all the marks by which we recognise intelligence in ourselves.
We have not exhausted the hidden talents of the germ; whole libraries would be needed to record them. It is time, however, to turn to the second factor—the surrounding world, its environment. When life appears, it appears in a world which somehow supports it. Life in all its forms depends upon nutrition, and cannot get along upon its own resources. Moreover, on its arrival upon the scene the living creature anticipates without a particle of previous experience, yet with perfect confidence, that it will receive the necessary assistance. The baby is extremely annoyed if its food be not forthcoming. The chick, when it emerges from the egg, immediately begins to peck about, as if it had been in the world before, and knew all about the arrangements. It expects to be provided for, or to find what it requires. Nor, despite this tremendous assumption, is it usually disappointed. Animals are already experts, the moment they are born, in their several ways of life. The bee is an adept in the making and storing of honey, the beaver an engineer, and the spider a professor of web-spinning.
These curious circumstances suggest not only personal talents, they suggest a harmony between living things and their surroundings. It has occurred to many thinkers, Schopenhauer among the rest, that the world is just as suited to be the home of living creatures as they to make it their home. Our planet might have been, like most of the heavenly bodies, incapable of supporting any form of life known to us. We cannot, indeed, affirm that life in other conditions than ours is impossible. It might have been built upon other materials than the compounds of carbon. Perhaps elsewhere it has been. It might have developed a different type of metabolism. Life’s resources are quite unknown to us. Yet the fitness of the environment here and now is a matter of interest, and demands consideration.
There are certainly some remarkable features in this planet of ours which suggest that it was designed as a grand theatre for the performance to be later enacted, as if the coming of life had been somehow anticipated. Nature at least so arranged matters here as to provide the sea on which the ship could float. I do not overlook the fact that had things happened otherwise we had not been here to discuss them. They happened as they did happen. The very peculiar qualities of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon made possible a habitable world. The absence of these properties might have forbidden life’s entrance upon the stage, or turned it aside into quite different channels. And at first sight, as we have seen, the conditions looked far from promising. Yet there are notable peculiarities in the situation. There is an interweaving and interlocking so close and intimate that the absence of a single factor—for example, that the greatest density of water is at a temperature of 4 degrees Centigrade, a most singular feature in the economy of nature, of which no explanation of any kind is forthcoming—would alter the entire situation or render it wholly impossible.
Observe this also. Though local changes are continually taking place, through millions of years the climate of the world has remained astonishingly uniform—a notable fact when we remember how narrow are the limits of temperature within which life can exist, how slight a frost ruins crops, how drought destroys vegetation. There is, too, the curious inclination of the earth’s axis on its journey round the sun, a tilt of 23 1/2 degrees, which itself completes a rotation once in every 25,868 years, and gives us the precession of the equinoxes.
Much was needed to fit the earth for human habitation—chemical and physical preparations of its surface, the breaking down of rocks into soil, upon which the plants could take root and grow, and so provide food for the earliest animals. Even volcanoes assisted in the process, by raising to the surface and scattering in dust the deep-lying strata, rich in lime and phosphorus, to form fertile plains. Rain-water is filtered and purified as it sinks down below the surface soil, and emerges in fresh springs. There appears to be ‘a general harmony between organic and inorganic matter, a something that seems to show that nature is nature for a purpose.’ This purpose, too, is suggested by her care for the continuation of the species, if not for its individual members, the impulse to mating, for which, as far as I know, biology offers no explanation. What emphasis has been placed upon sex, and if nature is destitute of aims, how are we to give any rational account of it?
Last in our reflections upon the environment we come to climate. Wide as is the world, looked upon as a dwelling-place for mankind it is far from spacious, and might, indeed, be regarded as chiefly scenery, so narrow are the limits of habitable land. The oceans occupy three-fifths of the earth’s surface, and the Pacific alone rocks in a cradle of 70 million square miles. Add the mountain ranges, the Alps and Himalayas and the snowcapped Poles, add the lakes, rivers, deserts and forests, and how little is left. Nor are the resources of what we possess by any means inexhaustible. Soil erosion, as in China, where 400 millions have daily to be fed, is continuous and unrepaired. The march of the interminable and hungry generations treads out its fruitfulness. Grazing lands are stripped bare, forests cut down, dusty plains replace once fertile fields. In Northern Europe, with its regular rainfall and cool winds, the land recovers. But in America, not to speak of the swarming Orient, calamity is near at hand, so near, indeed, that farmers are already migrating from the exhausted territories, and in less than a century, the prophets foretell, a crisis will be reached, and economic ruin stare a great people in the face.
Civilisations are bought at a price, and great populations lay a heavy toll upon the countries they inhabit, reducing to penury for all her riches their mother earth. We but nurse delusions when we think the human race approaches the millennium. Vast migrations of peoples will take place in the future as they have taken place in the past. Men increase while the fertile lands are shrinking, and the hunger for them will not diminish.
It was illness, he tells us, that made Nietzsche a philosopher. It was for the sake of improving his delicate health that Nelson was sent to sea. Perhaps, then, philosophy and England owe something to poor health, a condition we all desire to avoid. Good health has always been prized as the first and greatest of blessings. Yet perfect health is not common. Out of 20 million school children in the United States 14 million were, after examination, reported to suffer from some defect. The proportion is high, and would probably be higher rather than lower, were the whole world made the basis of enquiry. That bad health lies at the root of a great proportion of human suffering and misery is beyond dispute. From this cause spring a legion of ills, ranging from bad temper to theft, from drugging and drunkenness to suicide and murder. Health is the high road to earthly happiness. So strangely blended, nevertheless, is human life that sickness and disease have at times played a beneficent part in the history of men and nations. Both health and illness are in part a matter of inheritance, yet hardly, if indeed at all, less a matter of climate. It has been demonstrated by Dr. Ellsworth Huntington that a high level of physical vigour and mental energy can be reached and maintained only in certain types of climate, and these are sparsely distributed, only to be found in very limited areas of the earth’s surface. Climate, too, is a factor of high economic importance. We speak of good times and bad times, but these appear to be closely related to good and bad seasons: when from drought or floods crops fail to ripen, the barometer of health falls, privation and unemployment, nervous disorders and diseases increase, the curve of a community’s prosperity takes a downward turn, and the death-rate rises. We in these islands are the most fortunate, the most favoured of nature’s children since we enjoy admittedly the healthiest climate in the world—a variable and stimulating temperature, which though continually changing rarely rises, and then only for a few days at a time, above 70 degrees, or falls much below 30; a region not too moist or too dry, and ventilated by storms, fresh currents of air. These are the conditions in which mankind is at its best both physically and intellectually—the best conditions for both closely correspond. They are also the conditions in which, if we accept Dr. Huntington’s findings, the great civilisations of the past have arisen.
There have been great climatic fluctuations in historic time, and geologists have proved that even greater fluctuations have taken place in the remoter past. These pulsations of climate, great and small, follow each other in a rhythmical series. The ice cap crept south at certain periods in our planet’s history to within thirty degrees of the equator, at others tropical or semitropical conditions prevailed as far north as Greenland. Where water was long ago plentiful there is now aridity, where the water level in lakes is at present high, it formerly was low, where forests stood there is little vegetation, and lands once tilled and fertile are to-day desert. What do we in these islands know of the sun’s power? ‘The heat of Arabia’, wrote Lawrence, ‘came out like a drawn sword, and struck us speechless.’
Whether we think of ourselves and our private lives, or of mankind in general, we perceive how closely human destiny is associated with the pulsing energies of nature, of which we are for the most part utterly unconscious. Continents float like rafts upon the earth’s surface. Greenland, for example, is drifting to the west. From the depths of space, from the furthest stars, influences pour down upon us, as in cosmic radiation, from sources at which we can but dimly guess. How significant is the cycle of sun-spots, some so large that all the planets might find room in one of them. Do they attract even our idle wonder? Yet they, like all things, have their pulse, and are more numerous, Sir James Jeans tells us, at intervals of about eleven years, as they were in 1928, and will be again in 1939. You suppose them unimportant. Yet they hold the fates of men in the hollow of their mighty hands. Our terrestrial weather follows their swinging rhythm and—as has been proved by the ring growths of aged trees—changes from cold and wet to warm and dry, in response to their periodic activity. The more sun-spots the wetter the summer, and the thicker the ring of that year’s growth. The water levels in Victoria Nyanza repeat and corroborate the arboreal tale: the highest levels are reached after the sun-spots have been most numerous and brought the wettest years.
We can well believe that a certain type of climate favours and accompanies civilisation, and is, indeed, one of its necessary conditions. That civilisations belong to moderate, not torrid zones, history provides indisputable evidence. Man is not at his best in the tropics, where the heat undermines will power and makes sustained effort, intellectual and physical alike, difficult. The tropics, it is well known, induce inertia and enfeeble purpose. The spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak. In too stimulating climates, on the other hand, the struggle to keep alive is exhausting. They produce nervous disorders, and exhibit a high rate of suicides. Whether religions tend to conform to zones of climate is an interesting study, not yet undertaken. Yet why not, since we know some climes are more favourable to intelligence and industry, and some more friendly to moral qualities than others?
Whatever nature has in mind, manifestly it is not that we should exist as mere pensioners on her bounty. Perhaps she desired to harden us, body and soul, for some project in the distance, for whose attainment still firmer resolution and endurance are needed. Perhaps sterner battles than the world has ever known have yet to be fought.
And at last, when all is said that can be said, what do we discover? When we have enquired of all the sciences and gathered all obtainable human knowledge, gathered by telescope and microscope and all the rest of the apparatus, we discover that we are still confined to the sensible world, to the clear bright world of which our touch and sight and hearing tell us. And we suppose that when they have handed in their report the whole tale is told. Yet in truth we are their prisoners, and how innocently infantile to suppose that touch, sight and hearing can introduce us to all the aspects and all the secrets of the universe. Curtain after curtain might lift, and yet leave us far from the reality. The truth is we are so ‘cabin’d, cribbed, confined’ as never to see beyond our noses. Nor is that all. If we could enlarge our minds so far as to remember that a scene is not an act, nor an act the play, that even a national drama is no more than a ‘three hours’ traffic of the stage’ in unending time, then the long vista of things, the magnitude of the affair in which we are involved, might come home to us, then we might realise that, in De Quincey’s phrase, ‘some greater interest was at stake, some mightier cause than ever yet the sword had pleaded or trumpet had proclaimed’, in which all human history is a mere episode. The sum of things is too great for our imagination, and our present life seems a term of imprisonment. In a measure it is so. Here is man:
Man whom Fate, his victor, magnanimous, clement in triumph,
Holds as a captive king, mewed in a palace divine;
Wide its leagues of pleasance and ample of purview its windows;
Airily falls in its courts, laughter of fountains at play;
Nought when the harpers are harping, untimely reminds him of durance;
None, as he sits at the feast, whispers Captivity’s name;
But, would he parley with Silence, withdraw for a while unattended,
Forth to the beckoning world ‘scape for an hour and be free,
Lo, his adventurous fancy coercing at once and provoking,
Rise the unscalable walls, built with a word at the prime;
Lo, in unslumbering watch, with pitiless faces of iron,
Armed at each obstinate gate, stand the impassable guards.
Who are these mighty and angelic guards? Their names here, among mortals, are Time and Space, whose flaming swords turn every way, and keep the gates of reality and the talismans of God.