George Bernard Shaw.

Back to Methuselah online

. (page 3 of 26)
Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawBack to Methuselah → online text (page 3 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Oken, published in 1809. Oken defined natural science as 'the science
of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world.' His
religion had started him on the right track, and not only led him to
think out a whole scheme of Evolution in abstract terms, but guided his
aim in a significantly good scientific shot which brought him within the
scope of Weismann. He not only defined the original substance from which
all forms of life have developed as protoplasm, or, as he called it,
primitive slime (_Urschleim_), but actually declared that this slime
took the form of vesicles out of which the universe was built. Here was
the modern cell morphology guessed by a religious thinker long before
the microscope and the scalpel forced it on the vision of mere
laboratory workers who could not think and had no religion. They worked
hard to discover the vital secrets of the glands by opening up dogs
and cutting out the glands, or tying up their ducts, or severing their
nerves, thereby learning, negatively, that the governors of our vital
forces do not hold their incessant conversations through the nerves,
and, positively, how miserably a horribly injured dog can die, leaving
us to infer that we shall probably perish likewise if we grudge our
guineas to Harley Street. Lorenz Oken _thought_ very hard to find out
what was happening to the Holy Ghost, and thereby made a contribution of
extraordinary importance to our understanding of uninjured creatures.
The man who was scientific enough to see that the Holy Ghost is a
scientific fact got easily in front of the blockheads who could only
sin against it. Hence my uncle was turning his back on very respectable
company when he derided Evolution, and would probably have recanted and
apologized at once had anybody pointed out to him what a solecism he was

The metaphysical side of Evolution was thus no novelty when Darwin
arrived. Had Oken never lived, there would still have been millions of
persons trained from their childhood to believe that we are continually
urged upwards by a force called the Will of God. In 1819 Schopenhauer
published his treatise on The World as Will, which is the metaphysical
complement to Lamarck's natural history, as it demonstrates that the
driving force behind Evolution is a will-to-live, and to live, as Christ
said long before, more abundantly. And the earlier philosophers, from
Plato to Leibniz, had kept the human mind open for the thought of
the universe as one idea behind all its physically apprehensible


All this, remember, is the state of things in the pre-Darwin period,
which so many of us still think of as a pre-evolutionary period.
Evolutionism was the rage before Queen Victoria came to the throne. To
fix this chronology, let me repeat the story told by Weismann of the
July revolution in Paris in 1830, when the French got rid of Charles the
Tenth. Goethe was then still living; and a French friend of his called
on him and found him wildly excited. 'What do you think of the great
event?' said Goethe. 'The volcano is in eruption; and all is in flames.
There can no longer be discussion with closed doors.' The Frenchman
replied that no doubt it was a terrible business; but what could they
expect with such a ministry and such a king? 'Stuff!' said Goethe: 'I
am not thinking of these people at all, but of the open rupture in
the French Academy between Cuvier and St Hilaire. It is of the utmost
importance to science,' The rupture Goethe meant was about Evolution,
Cuvier contending that there were four species, and St Hilaire that
there was only one.

From 1830, when Darwin was an apparently unpromising lad of twenty-one,
until 1859, when he turned the world upside down by his Origin of
Species, there was a slump in Evolutionism. The first generation of its
enthusiasts was ageing and dying out; and their successors were being
taught from the Book of Genesis, just as Edward VI was (and Edward VII
too, for that matter). Nobody who knew the theory was adding anything to
it. This slump not only heightened the impression of entire novelty when
Darwin brought the subject to the front again: it probably prevented
him from realizing how much had been done before, even by his own
grandfather, to whom he was accused of being unjust. Besides, he was
not really carrying on the family business. He was an entirely original
worker; and he was on a new tack, as we shall see presently. And he
would not in any case have thought much, as a practical naturalist, of
the more or less mystical intellectual speculations of the Deists of
1790-1830. Scientific workers were very tired of Deism just then. They
had given up the riddle of the Great First Cause as insoluble, and were
calling themselves, accordingly, Agnostics. They had turned from the
inscrutable question of Why things existed, to the spade work of
discovering What was really occurring in the world and How it really

With all his attention bent in this new direction, Darwin soon noticed
that a good deal was occurring in an entirely unmystical and even
unmeaning way of which the older speculative Deist-Evolutionists had
taken little or no account. Nowadays, when we are turning in weary
disgust and disillusion from Neo-Darwinism and Mechanism to Vitalism and
Creative Evolution, it is difficult to imagine how this new departure of
Darwin's could possibly have appealed to his contemporaries as exciting,
agreeable, above all as hopeful. Let me therefore try to bring back
something of the atmosphere of that time by describing a scene, very
characteristic of its superstitions, in which I took what was then
considered an unspeakably shocking part.


One evening in 1878 or thereabouts, I, being then in my earliest
twenties, was at a bachelor party of young men of the professional class
in the house of a doctor in the Kensingtonian quarter of London. They
fell to talking about religious revivals; and an anecdote was related of
a man who, having incautiously scoffed at the mission of Messrs Moody
and Sankey, a then famous firm of American evangelists, was subsequently
carried home on a shutter, slain by divine vengeance as a blasphemer.
A timid minority, without quite venturing to question the truth of the
incident - for they naturally did not care to run the risk of going home
on shutters themselves - nevertheless shewed a certain disposition to
cavil at those who exulted in it; and something approaching to an
argument began. At last it was alleged by the most evangelical of the
disputants that Charles Bradlaugh, the most formidable atheist on the
Secularist platform, had taken out his watch publicly and challenged the
Almighty to strike him dead in five minutes if he really existed and
disapproved of atheism. The leader of the cavillers, with great heat,
repudiated this as a gross calumny, declaring that Bradlaugh had
repeatedly and indignantly contradicted it, and implying that the
atheist champion was far too pious a man to commit such a blasphemy.
This exquisite confusion of ideas roused my sense of comedy. It was
clear to me that the challenge attributed to Charles Bradlaugh was a
scientific experiment of a quite simple, straightforward, and proper
kind to ascertain whether the expression of atheistic opinions really
did involve any personal risk. It was certainly the method taught in the
Bible, Elijah having confuted the prophets of Baal in precisely that
way, with every circumstance of bitter mockery of their god when he
failed to send down fire from heaven. Accordingly I said that if the
question at issue were whether the penalty of questioning the theology
of Messrs Moody and Sankey was to be struck dead on the spot by an
incensed deity, nothing could effect a more convincing settlement of it
than the very obvious experiment attributed to Mr Bradlaugh, and that
consequently if he had not tried it, he ought to have tried it. The
omission, I added, was one which could easily be remedied there and
then, as I happened to share Mr Bradlaugh's views as to the absurdity of
the belief in these violent interferences with the order of nature by a
short-tempered and thin-skinned supernatural deity. Therefore - and at
that point I took out my watch.

The effect was electrical. Neither sceptics nor devotees were prepared
to abide the result of the experiment. In vain did I urge the pious to
trust in the accuracy of their deity's aim with a thunderbolt, and the
justice of his discrimination between the innocent and the guilty. In
vain did I appeal to the sceptics to accept the logical outcome of their
scepticism: it soon appeared that when thunderbolts were in question
there were no sceptics. Our host, seeing that his guests would vanish
precipitately if the impious challenge were uttered, leaving him alone
with a solitary infidel under sentence of extermination in five minutes,
interposed and forbade the experiment, pleading at the same time for
a change of subject. I of course complied, but could not refrain from
remarking that though the dreadful words had not been uttered, yet, as
the thought had been formulated in my mind, it was very doubtful whether
the consequences could be averted by sealing my lips. However, the rest
appeared to feel that the game would be played according to the rules,
and that it mattered very little what I thought so long as I said
nothing. Only the leader of the evangelical party, I thought, was a
little preoccupied until five minutes had elapsed and the weather was
still calm.


Another reminiscence. In those days we thought in terms of time and
space, of cause and effect, as we still do; but we do not now demand
from a religion that it shall explain the universe completely in terms
of cause and effect, and present the world to us as a manufactured
article and as the private property of its Manufacturer. We did then. We
were invited to pity the delusion of certain heathens who held that
the world is supported by an elephant who is supported by a tortoise.
Mahomet decided that the mountains are great weights to keep the world
from being blown away into space. But we refuted these orientals by
asking triumphantly what the tortoise stands on? Freethinkers asked
which came first: the owl or the egg. Nobody thought of saying that
the ultimate problem of existence, being clearly insoluble and even
unthinkable on causation lines, could not be a causation problem. To
pious people this would have been flat atheism, because they assumed
that God must be a Cause, and sometimes called him The Great First
Cause, or, in still choicer language, The Primal Cause. To the
Rationalists it would have been a renunciation of reason. Here and there
a man would confess that he stood as with a dim lantern in a dense fog,
and could see but a little way in any direction into infinity. But he
did not really believe that infinity was infinite or that the eternal
was also sempiternal: he assumed that all things, known and unknown,
were caused.

Hence it was that I found myself one day towards the end of the
eighteen-seventies in a cell in the old Brompton Oratory arguing with
Father Addis, who had been called by one of his flock to attempt my
conversion to Roman Catholicism. The universe exists, said the father:
somebody must have made it. If that somebody exists, said I, somebody
must have made him. I grant that for the sake of argument, said the
Oratorian. I grant you a maker of God. I grant you a maker of the maker
of God. I grant you as long a line of makers as you please; but an
infinity of makers is unthinkable and extravagant: it is no harder to
believe in number one than in number fifty thousand or fifty million; so
why not accept number one and stop there, since no attempt to get behind
him will remove your logical difficulty? By your leave, said I, it is as
easy for me to believe that the universe made itself as that a maker of
the universe made himself: in fact much easier; for the universe visibly
exists and makes itself as it goes along, whereas a maker for it is a
hypothesis. Of course we could get no further on these lines. He rose
and said that we were like two men working a saw, he pushing it forward
and I pushing it back, and cutting nothing; but when we had dropped the
subject and were walking through the refectory, he returned to it for a
moment to say that he should go mad if he lost his belief. I, glorying
in the robust callousness of youth and the comedic spirit, felt quite
comfortable and said so; though I was touched, too, by his evident

These two anecdotes are superficially trivial and even comic; but there
is an abyss of horror beneath them. They reveal a condition so utterly
irreligious that religion means nothing but belief in a nursery bogey,
and its inadequacy is demonstrated by a toy logical dilemma, neither
the bogey nor the dilemma having anything to do with religion, or being
serious enough to impose on or confuse any properly educated child
over the age of six. One hardly knows which is the more appalling: the
abjectness of the credulity or the flippancy of the scepticism. The
result was inevitable. All who were strong-minded enough not to be
terrified by the bogey were left stranded in empty contemptuous
negation, and argued, when they argued at all, as I argued with Father
Addis. But their position was not intellectually comfortable. A member
of parliament expressed their discomfort when, objecting to the
admission of Charles Bradlaugh into parliament, he said 'Hang it all, a
man should believe in something or somebody.' It was easy to throw the
bogey into the dustbin; but none the less the world, our corner of the
universe, did not look like a pure accident: it presented evidences of
design in every direction. There was mind and purpose behind it. As the
anti-Bradlaugh member would have put it, there must be somebody behind
the something: no atheist could get over that.


Paley had put the argument in an apparently unanswerable form. If you
found a watch, full of mechanism exquisitely adapted to produce a series
of operations all leading to the fulfilment of one central purpose of
measuring for mankind the march of the day and night, could you believe
that it was not the work of a cunning artificer who had designed and
contrived it all to that end? And here was a far more wonderful thing
than a watch, a man with all his organs ingeniously contrived, cords and
levers, girders and kingposts, circulating systems of pipes and valves,
dialysing membranes, chemical retorts, carburettors, ventilators, inlets
and outlets, telephone transmitters in his ears, light recorders and
lenses in his eye: was it conceivable that this was the work of chance?
that no artificer had wrought here? that there was no purpose in this,
no design, no guiding intelligence? The thing was incredible. In vain
did Helmholtz declare that 'the eye has every possible defect that can
be found in an optical instrument, and even some peculiar to itself,'
and that 'if an optician tried to sell me an instrument which had all
these defects I should think myself quite justified in blaming
his carelessness in the strongest terms, and sending him back his
instrument.' To discredit the optician's skill was not to get rid of the
optician. The eye might not be so cleverly made as Paley thought, but it
was made somehow, by somebody.

And then my argument with Father Addis began all over again. It was
easy enough to say that every man makes his own eyes: indeed the
embryologists had actually caught him doing it. But what about the very
evident purpose that prompted him to do it? Why did he want to see, if
not to extend his consciousness and his knowledge and his power? That
purpose was at work everywhere, and must be something bigger than the
individual eye-making man. Only the stupidest muckrakers could fail to
see this, and even to know it as part of their own consciousness. Yet to
admit it seemed to involve letting the bogey come back, so inextricably
had we managed to mix up belief in the bogey's existence with belief in
the existence of design in the universe.


Our scornful young scientific and philosophic lions of today must not
blame the Church of England for this confusion of thought. In 1562 the
Church, in convocation in London 'for the avoiding of diversities of
opinions and for the establishment of consent touching true religion,'
proclaimed in their first utterance, and as an Article of Religion,
that God is 'without body, parts, or passions,' or, as we say, an _Elan
Vital_ or Life Force. Unfortunately neither parents, parsons, nor
pedagogues could be induced to adopt that article. St John might say
that 'God is spirit' as pointedly as he pleased; our Sovereign Lady
Elizabeth might ratify the Article again and again; serious divines
might feel as deeply as they could that a God with body, parts, and
passions could be nothing but an anthropomorphic idol: no matter: people
at large could not conceive a God who was not anthropomorphic: they
stood by the Old Testament legends of a God whose parts had been seen by
one of the patriarchs, and finally set up as against the Church a God
who, far from being without body, parts, or passions, was composed of
nothing else, and of very evil passions too. They imposed this idol
in practice on the Church itself, in spite of the First Article, and
thereby homeopathically produced the atheist, whose denial of God was
simply a denial of the idol and a demonstration against an unbearable
and most unchristian idolatry. The idol was, as Shelley had been
expelled from Oxford for pointing out, an almighty fiend, with a petty
character and unlimited power, spiteful, cruel, jealous, vindictive,
and physically violent. The most villainous schoolmasters, the most
tyrannical parents, fell far short in their attempts to imitate it.
But it was not its social vices that brought it low. What made it
scientifically intolerable was that it was ready at a moment's notice to
upset the whole order of the universe on the most trumpery provocation,
whether by stopping the sun in the valley of Ajalon or sending an
atheist home dead on a shutter (the shutter was indispensable because
it marked the utter unpreparedness of the atheist, who, unable to save
himself by a deathbed repentance, was subsequently roasted through all
eternity in blazing brimstone). It was this disorderliness, this refusal
to obey its own laws of nature, that created a scientific need for its
destruction. Science could stand a cruel and unjust god; for nature was
full of suffering and injustice. But a disorderly god was impossible. In
the Middle Ages a compromise had been made by which two different orders
of truth, religious and scientific, had been recognized, in order that a
schoolman might say that two and two make four without being burnt for
heresy. But the nineteenth century, steeped in a meddling, presumptuous,
reading-and-writing, socially and politically powerful ignorance
inconceivable by Thomas Aquinas or even Roger Bacon, was incapable of
so convenient an arrangement; and science was strangled by bigoted
ignoramuses claiming infallibility for their interpretation of the
Bible, which was regarded, not as a literature nor even as a book, but
partly as an oracle which answered and settled all questions, and partly
as a talisman to be carried by soldiers in their breast pockets or
placed under the pillows of persons who were afraid of ghosts. The tract
shops exhibited in their windows bullet-dinted testaments, mothers'
gifts to their soldier sons whose lives had been saved by it; for the
muzzle-loaders of those days could not drive a projectile through so
many pages.


This superstition of a continual capricious disorder in nature, of a
lawgiver who was also a lawbreaker, made atheists in all directions
among clever and lightminded people. But atheism did not account for
Paley's watch. Atheism accounted for nothing; and it was the business of
science to account for everything that was plainly accountable. Science
had no use for mere negation: what was desired by it above all things
just then was a demonstration that the evidences of design could be
explained without resort to the hypothesis of a personal designer. If
only some genius, whilst admitting Paley's facts, could knock the brains
out of Paley by the discovery of a method whereby watches could happen
without watchmakers, that genius was assured of such a welcome from the
thought of his day as no natural philosopher had ever enjoyed before.

The time being thus ripe, the genius appeared; and his name was Charles
Darwin. And now, what did Darwin really discover?

Here, I am afraid, I shall require once more the assistance of the
giraffe, or, as he was called in the days of the celebrated Buffoon,
the camelopard (by children, cammyleopard). I do not remember how this
animal imposed himself illustratively on the Evolution controversy; but
there was no getting away from him then; and I am old-fashioned enough
to be unable to get away from him now. How did he come by his long neck?
Lamarck would have said, by wanting to get at the tender leaves high
up on the tree, and trying until he succeeded in wishing the necessary
length of neck into existence. Another answer was also possible: namely,
that some prehistoric stockbreeder, wishing to produce a natural
curiosity, selected the longest-necked animals he could find, and bred
from them until at last an animal with an abnormally long neck was
evolved by intentional selection, just as the race-horse or the fantail
pigeon has been evolved. Both these explanations, you will observe,
involve consciousness, will, design, purpose, either on the part of the
animal itself or on the part of a superior intelligence controlling its
destiny. Darwin pointed out - and this and no more was Darwin's famous
discovery - that a third explanation, involving neither will nor purpose
nor design either in the animal or anyone else, was on the cards. If
your neck is too short to reach your food, you die. That may be the
simple explanation of the fact that all the surviving animals that feed
on foliage have necks or trunks long enough to reach it. So bang goes
your belief that the necks must have been designed to reach the food.
But Lamarck did not believe that the necks were so designed in the
beginning: he believed that the long necks were evolved by wanting
and trying. Not necessarily, said Darwin. Consider the effect on the
giraffes of the natural multiplication of their numbers, as insisted on
by Malthus. Suppose the average height of the foliage-eating animals is
four feet, and that they increase in numbers until a time comes when all
the trees are eaten away to within four feet of the ground. Then the
animals who happen to be an inch or two short of the average will die
of starvation. All the animals who happen to be an inch or so above
the average will be better fed and stronger than the others. They will
secure the strongest and tallest mates; and their progeny will survive
whilst the average ones and the sub-average ones will die out. This
process, by which the species gains, say, an inch in reach, will repeat
itself until the giraffe's neck is so long that he can always find
food enough within his reach, at which point, of course, the selective
process stops and the length of the giraffe's neck stops with it.
Otherwise, he would grow until he could browse off the trees in the
moon. And this, mark you, without the intervention of any stockbreeder,
human or divine, and without will, purpose, design, or even
consciousness beyond the blind will to satisfy hunger. It is true that
this blind will, being in effect a will to live, gives away the whole
case; but still, as compared to the open-eyed intelligent wanting and
trying of Lamarck, the Darwinian process may be described as a chapter
of accidents. As such, it seems simple, because you do not at first
realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on
you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous
fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and
intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such
casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain
landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure. To call this Natural
Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing

Online LibraryGeorge Bernard ShawBack to Methuselah → online text (page 3 of 26)