Conventional Fables

IT seems to be characteristic of the thought of any “modern” period — that is to say, one that is keenly conscious of having broken sharply, in important respects, with its past — to look upon its newly evolved theories as somehow partaking of the nature of final truth. It is as though the general consciousness of such a “modern” age were convinced that, after so many millennia of wandering, humanity had at last found the right road. Is not some such expansively triumphant feeling to be noted as central in the “modern mood” wherever or whenever it has developed?

Several weeks ago this column contained some random remarks on “Swapping Illusions,” and it was suggested in the form of questions, as a mark of appropriate humility, that our more advanced scientific theories might possibly be no more than expressions of a world-mood that conditions the thinking and the attitudes of all of us — the learned and intellectual as well as the undistinguished generality of us. Certain suspicious illnesses between outstanding stories and the general mood of the time were noted briefly, and many more of the sort could have been mentioned.

It is interesting to note what Oswald Spengler has to say on this question in “Perspectives of World History,” which is volume two of his famous work, “The Decline of the West.” “All these ‘pictures’ (world views or theoretical patterns) developed in the same man have the same structure. Even the history of plants and animals, even that of the earth’s crust or that of the stars, is a fable convenue and mirrors in outward actuality the inward tendency of the go’s being. The student of the animal world or of stratification is a man, living in a period and having a nationality and a social status, and it is no more possible to eliminate his subjective standpoint from his treatment of these things than it would be to obtain a perfectly abstract account of the French Revolution or the World War. The celebrated theories of Kant, Lapalce, Cuvier, Darwin, have also a politico-economic tinting, and their very power and impressiveness for the lay public show that the mode of outlook upon all these historical planes proceeds from a single source.

“The picture that we possess of the history of the Earth’s crust and of life is at present still dominated by the ideas which civilized English thought has developed, since the Age of Enlightenment out of the English habit of life.

“This English type of causality is not only shallow, but also far too narrow. It limits possible causal connections, in the first place, to those which work out their entire course on the earth’s surface; but this immediately excludes all great cosmic relations between earthly life phenomena and the events of the solar system and the stellar universe, and assumes that the exterior face of the earth-ball is a completely insulated region of natural phenomena. And secondly, it assumes that connections which are not comprehendsible by the means at present available to the human consciousness — namely, sensation refined by instruments and thought précised by theory — do not even exist. It will be the characteristic task of the twentieth century, as compared with the nineteenth, to get rid of this system of superficial causality.”

What Spengler has to say about Darwinism may, when read out of its context, delight the fundamentalist; but it is to be fear that such delight will be short-lived, once such a reader has come to understand the special meaning of Spengler’s statement: “I deal only in the forms of actuality.”

“There is no more conclusive refutation of Darwinism,” writes Spengler, “than that furnished by paleontology. Simple probability indicates that fossil hoards can only be test samples. Each sample then, should represent a different stage of evolution, and there ought to be merely ‘transitional’ types, no definition and no species. Instead of this we find perfectly stable and unaltered forms persevering through long ages, forms that have not developed themselves on the fitness principle, but appear suddenly and at once in their definitive shape; that do not there-after evolve towards better adaptation, but become rarer and finally disappear, while quite different forms crop up again. What unfolds itself, in ever-increasing richness of form, is the great classes and kinds of living beings which exist aboriginally and exist still without transition types, in the grouping of today.

All we see about us impels us to the conviction that again and again profound and very sudden changes take place in the being of plants and animals, changes which are of cosmic kind and nowise restricted to the earth’s surface, which are beyond the ken of human sense and understanding in respect of cause, if not indeed in all respects. So, too, we observe that swift and deep changes assert themselves in the history of the great Cultures, without assignable causes, influences, or purposes of any kind.

It is exactly the same with the events in the individual life of every person who counts at all, and he who is ignorant of this knows little of men and still less of children. Every being, active or contemplative, strides on to its fulfillment by epochs (that is, sudden turning points) and we have to assume just such epochs in the history of solar systems and the world of the fixed stars. The origins of the earth, of life, of the free-moving animal ARE such epochs, and therefore, mysteries that we can do no more than accept.”