JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter XIII.
Evolutionism and Literature.

HERBERT SPENCER is the philosopher of Evolutionism. Now, Evolutionism holds many tenets in common with Positivism. But it has also its lines of divergence. Comte, in making humanity self-sufficient, instead of raising it up and deifying it, as was his intention, would have been the death of humanity. Exaggeration invariably induces reaction. Therefore, Herbert Spencer conceived humanity as only one element of the Cosmos, evolved in the slow process of time from the primary forms of life, but entirely subject to the same laws which all matter, organic and inorganic, obeys. He is more logical than Comte. For while, with the latter, he believes that there is no absolute truth, he does not assert as an absolute truth that there is no God; but holding to the relativity of all knowledge, he says that God may or may not be. He relegates Him to the unknowable.

Comte denies that man has a soul; so does Herbert Spencer. With Darwin, he considers "that the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree;"{1} and concludes "that man is the co-descendant with other mammals, of a common progenitor,"{2} and that he "like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence;"{3} or as Herbert Spencer himself expresses it, through "the survival of the fittest." From this position he fearlessly draws his consequences. He infers that man is not responsible to anything higher than society for his acts; that belief in God is acquired by education, and did not exist in the primeval man; that our sense of right and wrong comes from experience; that "forms of thought (and by implication all intuitions) are products of organized and inherited experiences"{4} -- " the absolute internal uniformities generated by infinite repetitions of absolute external uniformities"{5} -- that mind is "a product of evolution," and thought, of cerebral action. This is Evolutionism in a nutshell. It changes our whole view of thought, the soul, society, and God. At the outset we felt compelled to diverge from it explicitly. Humanity without a supernatural order, without a revelation, without a personal God, is to us an enigma, an unsolved and unsolvable problem. Admit these elements and their consequences, and the universe has a meaning, society in all its aberrations can be accounted for, and literature, its laws and history, becomes a profitable study, comprehensible in their light. Granting that humanity and the material universe are solely of the natural order evolved from primary forms of life, what is their aim? Why are we here restless, malcontent, with an infinity of desires unsatisfied, living and dying in struggle, appearing for a moment, and then disappearing forever, going on, on, now merging into barbarism, now rising into civilization, our thoughts scarcely our own, we ourselves the creatures of fiction and fancy, the victims of a life-long delusion -- and all for what? Mr. Spencer does not tell us.

"Absolute morality," he says, "means conformity to the laws of complete life."{6} A law implies order; an order, a purpose; a purpose, one purposing, a cause; and the cause purposing is the imposer of the law, the Creator to whom alone belongs the right of determining the laws of complete life. And what is complete life in Herbert Spencer's philosophy? He reduces it to a thing of time. The aim of life is with him as with Comte and his master, Saint Simon, industry; and complete life is a life blessed with temporary advantages. But how few of the world's millions enjoy this beatitude, temporary though it be! How few are content with their worldly lot! To the great majority, then, life is aimless and a burden. It is no day-dream; it is the agony of a nightmare. Literature is a raving maniac's utterances. What do I seek in speculating? The aim of life? But life will be past before I apply my results. The benefit. of the many? The many will not understand my views; they will live and die struggling for the unattainable, each in his own way.

The moral sense by which this absolute morality is known, Herbert Spencer states to be "the experiences of utility organized and consolidated through all past generations of the human race" -- "certain emotions responding to right and wrong;"{7} and Mr. Darwin undertakes to explain its acquired origin as being due to the fact that "the more enduring social instincts conquer the less persistent instincts."{8} "At the moment of action," he says, "man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will far more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men. But after this gratification, when past and weaker impressions are contrasted with the ever-enduring social instincts, retribution will surely come. Man will then feel dissatisfied with himself, and will resolve, with more or less force, to act differently for the future. This is conscience; for conscience looks backward and judges past actions, inducing that kind of dissatisfaction which, if weak, we call regret, and if severe, remorse."{9} Whence, then, arises this remorse experienced in the gratification of desires that are at the expense of no society, and that are a source of pleasure to the individual -- thoughts, for instance, that he knows to be wrong? He is not amenable to society for them; for he has injured no man. And yet he feels that he is guilty -- that there is a court to which he is amenable.{10} This can be explained only by the consciousness, more or less distinct, of the Supreme Judge who implanted in man's breast the moral sense. Furthermore, does not the fact of feeling that an injury is done to others, imply a sense of injury -- that is, of what is just and unjust -- in a word, of right and wrong? In other words, the dissatisfaction, or remorse, is based on a sense of right and wrong. But Mr. Darwin argues that conscience -- that is, the sense of right and wrong -- proceeds from the dissatisfaction. Here is a vicious circle.

In good truth, there is an absolute morality beyond all cavil, as well as beyond all considerations of utility. It is universal. It exists in the rude, savage tribes, though distorted and misapplied; the brilliancy of civilization cannot dim its light; its fire is undying; it glows in the breast of the most warped nature. Men may differ concerning the standard of right; but that there is such a thing few deny; and even these few, by their words and actions, prove its existence in them. Therefore, were man alone, the inward voice of his conscience would still speak to him; it would point out to him the good to be done and the evil to be avoided; its dictates should command his respect. Man would still find himself a responsible being. But what a weak barrier Mr. Spencer, in his opposite doctrine, places before evildoing! "If," the holder of such doctrine would argue, "I know that I can safely better myself at the expense of my neighbor; that the feeling to be overcome in doing so, the remorse to be smothered, is only a trait hereditary in me -- as my features, my eyes, my hair -- and that I am responsible to no one but him I injure, I am not going to stay my course it is a struggle for life, for enjoyment, for predominancy; it is his lookout; and I must enjoy life, since there is no hereafter for me." Objections are as straws before the torrent in the presence of such an argument, when the temptation is strong and the way clear. And yet, Mr. Spencer imagines that he is benefiting society in paving the way for such arguments and their practical results. He fancies that he has the secret that will harmonize the elements of society. It is told in two words -- scientific training. That is the panacea for all the ills to which flesh is heir. The Cosmist would abolish all ideas of a God, of the supernatural, of religious creeds, as superstitions, by cultivating the mental soil scientifically, and thus inducing habits of thought free from such beliefs. Human society does not become better by such a process. Suppress religion, and morality soon vanishes; or tamper with morality, and little difficulty will be found in eradicating religion. And with one or other of these results achieved, let him who dares attempt to control the masses. Mr. Fiske of Harvard, the American exponent of Evolutionism, knows this, for he says: "The cosmic philosopher is averse to proselytism, and has no sympathy with radicalism or infidelity. For he knows that theological habits of thought are relatively useful, while scepticism, if permanent, is intellectually and morally pernicious; witness the curious fact that radicals are prone to adopt retrograde social theories."{11} That which Evolutionism would avoid is precisely what it brings about. It is Inconsistent. It destroys theological habits of thought while acknowledging them to be relatively useful; it fosters scepticism, knowing that it is morally and intellectually pernicious; it encourages the radicalism that is prone to adopt retrograde social theories. We said that Evolutionism is more logical than Positivism. It walks correctly one step farther, then totters and falls.

With all its shortcomings, Evolutionism has attractions for the human mind, and is therefore to be regarded as more than a passing phase of thought. For the scientific mind, whose science is fragmentary, the simple explanation of the evolution of life possesses a fascination that it knows not how to overcome. The vagueness with which the theory is surrounded, the necessity under which the mind is of not examining the details too closely, and the host of fresh objections which it gives rise to against faith and revelation, have all tended to make it popular with a certain class of scientific men. The mysterious Unknowable to which Herbert Spencer relegates the inexplicables of science, and which is in the background of the energies of nature, possesses a charm for the dreamy sentimentality that has supplanted religion, to a great extent, among all classes outside the Catholic Church. The partial revival of Natureworship will find in this mysterious energy a new bond to strengthen and rivet its claims on man's thoughts and affections, and will carry him far beyond the Nature over which Rousseau brooded, and of which Shelley sang.

In rejecting radical views of Evolutionism, we do not lose sight of the lessons it teaches. Darwin is the Newton of natural history. He has revolutionized the whole study of nature. He has united in intimate bonds the present with the remotest past. Read in the light of the doctrine of Natural Selection, this world's story, with the story of all things upon it, reads like a fairy-tale. Darwin has explained the laws governing the variation of the species; he has shown how potent a factor environment is in modifying transmitted organs and transmitted traits; he has thus accounted for the existence of rudimentary parts in earth's flora and fauna, now useless but at one time or other having had their special use and function; he has brought out clearly the great law in the animal and vegetable kingdoms of the power of rapid multiplication in a geometrical progression, the consequent struggle for existence, and the survival of the fittest. These are elementary truths underlying all our studies in nature. They determine the lines upon which science is at present constructed. We cannot ignore them if we would.

But there are limitations to this theory. To begin with, it is by a misnomer that Darwinism is called Evolutionism. Darwinism finds in Nature the law of retrogression and of the degeneracy of species and races as universally active as the law of progression. The surviving type is not by any means the most perfect type. It is simply the type most capable of struggling against difficulties of climate, soil and all other obstacles in the way of existence, and best adapted to environment; in a word, the surviving type is the fittest for time, place and circumstance. Again, naturalists are compelled to admit a principle of heterogeneous generation running all along the various grades of plant and animal life, in opposition to Darwin's theory of transformation by slight variations continued through ages beyond the grasp of human conception. Wigand, examining the subject from the point of view of a botanist, holds strongly by this principle, as the predominating principle in the doctrine of Descent.{12} Von Hartmann, looking at it from the metaphysical point of view, finds room for both principles. He says "Heterogeneous generation and transformism are placed side by side in the series of processes of organic evolution, and it would be equally inadmissible to want with Darwin to exclude the first completely to the advantage of the second, or with Wigand, the second to the advantage of the first."{13} Finally, in both the animal and the vegetable kingdoms, we everywhere meet with variations of species and races; but these variations act within well-defined lines. The laws of physiology, as now understood, are opposed to the theory that all forms of life are evolved from one or a few primary forms. Nature does not blunder. The germs of every species of plant and animal will develop along the lines of the species, in accordance with a law as fixed as that which traces the heavenly bodies in space. Theorize how we will, there is no getting over this fact The human germ from its primary cell develops towards the formation of the human being, and in every stage of its growth it is always the human being and none other. At no moment is the human principle aught else than the human soul. The formation of a human body is the evolution of a human animating principle along a clearly defined line, to a clearly defined result, subject to clearly defined laws.

Remembering these truths, we are in position to say that according to all that is known of the laws governing physiological phenomena, and according to facts as now observed and recorded by science, there is nothing to warrant any explanation of the specific origin of man as the product of evolution from lower forms of animal life. It is merely an inference drawn from another set of inferences and conjectures more or less plausible. We everywhere witness diversity of races among men and beasts, but we possess not a single instance of one distinct species originating another distinct species. M. Quatrefages gave the subject his most impartial thought in the spirit of a true scientist fully equipped to meet the problem face to face, and he has recorded his deliberate conclusion in these remarkable words: "Without prejudging the future, we have been obliged to acknowledge that the problem of the specific origin of man cannot be solved, or even attempted, with the scientific data which we at present possess."{14} Man's body may have been evolved from other animal forms in the distant past, or he may have been instantaneously created; one inference has as much scientific support as the other; in either case he is still a creature of God. To science in its present state man's origin is an enigma, and, Dr. Mivart truly remarks, "speculation as to this enigma is useless."{15} It is useless, because man's nature, come it to him ready-made, or be it the product of laws working through all time, is equally God's gift, and is none the less peculiarly and specifically man's own nature, as far removed in every attribute that makes him man from all other forms of the animal creation as the heavens are removed from the earth.

Be man's origin what it may, no theory of Evolution is adequate to explain the rational and spiritual side of his nature. We must look beyond the purely natural and phenomenal. Herbert Spencer acknowledges a power back of the Cosmos, guiding and directing: "A power of which the nature remains forever inconceivable and to which no limits in time or space can be imagined, works in us certain effects."{16} Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of the Theory of Natural Selection, in his latest word on the subject, goes to show that neither the mathematical faculty in man, nor the musical faculty, nor the metaphysical faculty, nor the faculty for art, nor that of wit and humor, could by any possible arrangement have been the outcome of Natural Selection; but that all man's higher faculties point clearly to an unseen world guiding and directing the visible world.{17} And we have seen how inadequate is Darwin's explanation of man's sense of right and wrong. It is throughout a begging of the question.

Equally so is Herbert Spencer's genesis of the idea of immortality and the prayers and practices of religion. "The awe of the ghost," he says, "makes sacred the sheltering place of the tomb, and this grows into the temple; while the tomb itself becomes the altar. . . . And so, every religious rite is derived from a funeral rite."{18} Funeral rites have meaning only as religious ceremonies based upon belief in an hereafter, in a state of reward and punishment, in a Supreme Being who searches hearts, and in a moral sense knowing right and wrong and rendering man responsible for his every thought, word and deed. Degenerate races of men may have drifted away from belief in the primary spiritual sense of religious rites and ceremonies; individuals may have in their own consciousness reduced that belief to such a state of inactivity that it ceases to influence, and becomes for them as useless as the rudimentary organ that had ceased to operate in the species: but this no more militates against the existence and meaning and right use of that belief, than does the present uselessness of an organ bespeak inefficiency in all former stages of its existence. Come man's body how it may, every man has a distinct, separate, individual soul, that survives the growth and decay of his body, and lives through all eternity in bliss or misery according to the manner in which it followed its sense of right and wrong while animating the body. The new-born infant and the full-grown man, the illiterate peasant and the learned philosopher, the man-eating savage and the cultured denizen of civilized life -- each has his own immortal soul. "No one outside of him can really touch him, can touch his soul, his immortality; he must live with himself forever. He has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence; and the scene in which he bears part for the moment is but like a gleam of sunshine upon its surface."{19}

It is to obliterate this great truth as well as the whole structure of Christianity that extreme Evolutionists carry their theorizings beyond the domain of scientific principles into the regions of imagination and personal feeling. They find in the doctrine of Descent a substitute for the teachings of Christianity. Their enmity towards the Church is pointed; but they have never been stronger, more rabid, more numerous or more plausible than the Averroïsts of the fifteenth century, and where are the Averroïsts to-day? Even so will the anti-Christian Evolutionist live out his little day, and science will continue to advance in spite of his misreadings, and God's Church will continue the work of teaching man the same elevating truths she now teaches.

The sought-for reconciliation is not here. With a morality the basis of immorality, a philosophy the destruction of thought, an industry the death of the higher species of literature and a religion that is atheistic, Evolutionism in the sense of Herbert Spencer has little in it that is ennobling to humanity.

{1} Descent of Man, i., p. 179.

{2} Ibid., ii., p. 369.

{3} Descent of Man, ii., p. 385.

{4} Principles of Psych ology, p. 571.

{5} Essays, Mill vs. Hamilton, The Test of Truth, p. 409,

{6} Essays, Prison Ethics, p. 224.

{7} Letter to Mr. Mill in Bains' "Mental and Moral Science," p. 722, ed. 1868.

{8} Descent of Man, i., p.83.

{9} Descent of Man, i., p. 87.

{10} A. R. Wallace has pointed the same objection by the horror for lying -- even where a lie would benefit them -- of certain hilltribes in Central India. -- Natural Selection, pp. 353 -- 355.

{11} Lecture quoted in Brownson's Review for October, 1873, Art. "Refutation of Atheism."

{12} For a masterly summing up of the various schools of Darwinism, see Wigand, Der Darwinismus und die Naturforschung Newtons und Cuviers, 1877, bd. iii, S. 290-315.

{13} Le Darwinisme, p. 297.

{14} The Human Species, p. 129.

{15} On Truth, p. 528.

{16} First Principles, p. 557; London Ed.

{17} Darwinism, an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with some of its Applications, 1889, Chap, xvii., "Darwinism applied to man."

{18} Principles of Sociology, vol. i., p. 446.

{19} Cardinal Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons: Sermon on "The Individuality of the Soul." Copeland's Selections, pp. 133, 134.

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