Significant Direction

Heredity and the Ascent of Man. By C.C. Hurst. (The Macmillan Co., New York City.)

HERE one of the most distinguished of British biologists tells in a way to interest laymen the story of progress in biology during the past 30 years of the discovery of gene, “which is to the study of life what the electron is to physics,” and of the development, as a result, of the new science of genetics.

He shows how, by virtue of the new science, natural variations in the breeding of species are induced by means of the X-ray and greatly increased in frequency of occurrence. The tremendous importance of the new knowledge is shown not only in its effect upon commercial breeding of plants and animals, but also in the possibility, as the author believes, that now at last mankind is in possession of the means to control its own destiny by choosing and directing the forces of heredity.

One might suppose, from so inadequate a statement of the author’s view, that he is merely one of those naïve materialists who flourished mightily on the other side of the great social breakdown — those ultra-“scientific” boys who were sure that the so-called “physical” world was all of the world and that “physical” mechanics were somehow at the bottom of all human phenomena.

Even in those halcyon days of the naïve materialist, however, the great leaders of the scientific profession had come to regard such mechanistic materialism as a Victorian hangover. They had arrived again at the ancient mystery, and some of the most highly respected of them were not at all ashamed to quote such words of pre-scientific seers as these: “In the beginning was the word...“; and some talked awesomely of a universe somehow “made of mind stuff.”

All this meant, at least, that the materialistic superstition was already breaking down, and that, unconsciously, the world was getting ready for an adventure in another direction. Such changes in the realm of higher thought seem to be prophetic in the most profound sense; for they do happen well before the analogous changes take place in the everyday world of men.

The author of the present volume is no belated Victorian materialist. He finds ample room in the gaps existing in his scientific knowledge for conceptions commonly called “spiritual.” It is the vital point of his whole discussion that the development, or attainment, of mental and “spiritual” heights is the only humanly conceivable justification for all the struggle and suffering of the long evolutionary process. His is not the brand of eugenics that we used to hear so much about over here and that Hitler seems to favor just now. Clearly, he sees that what the world needs is not so much better animal bodies, but better minds and spirits more humane.

The direction of his thought — and it is the direction of man’s thought that profoundly matters — is shown by the following passage:

“The super-kingdoms of matter, life and mind may be regarded as species writ large in time and value in the course of creative evolution. We have seen that mind is gradually increasing in influence at the expense of matter, and it is reasonable to infer that is course of time, when the next great step in creative evolution appears, the influence of matter will have been considerably reduced and displaced by mind and its immediate unknown successor.

“The further inference is that in the course of long ages, after perhaps millions of years have elapsed, and after several great creative steps, successors of man may be evolved in whom the influence of matter has been almost, if not entirely, obliterated. In these conditions, a less material or almost immaterial type of being might arise, utterly different from the present human species, scarcely human save in mind and intellect and on a higher intellectual plane.”

All of this is obviously quite up in the air and immeasurably beyond us now; but it is valuable in that it serves to express a growing new ideal, a striking change of direction in the subtler thought-stream of our world. It is a very hopeful change; and more and more, indications of it are to be noted in the books of the great scientific thinkers.

It may be long, as we feel time, before the high wind of subtler thinking determines a spell of sunnier weather for us groundlings; and apparently we have still to play in suffering for our futile striving in the old direction. But those high winds do seem to determine our social weather in the long run.