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The Lowell Lectures On The Ascent Of Man by Henry Drummond


One seldom-raised yet not merely curious question of Evolution is, why the process should be an evolution at all? If Evolution is simply a method of Creation, why was this very extraordinary method chosen? Creation tout d'un coup might have produced the same result; an instantaneous act or an age-long process would both have given us the world as it is? The answer of modern natural theology has been that the evolutionary method is the infinitely nobler scheme. A spectacular act, it is said, savours of the magician. As a mere exhibition of power it appeals to the lower nature; but a process of growth suggests to the reason the work of an intelligent Mind. No doubt this intellectual gain is real. While a catastrophe puts the universe to confusion at the start, a gradual rise makes the beginning of Nature harmonious with its end. How the surpassing grandeur of the new conception has filled the imagination and kindled to enthusiasm the soberest scientific minds, from Darwin downwards, is known to everyone. As the memorable words which close the Origin of Species recall: |There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on, according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.|

But can an intellectual answer satisfy us any more than the mechanical answer which it replaced? As there was clearly a moral purpose in the end to be achieved by Evolution, should we not expect to find some similar purpose in the means? Can we perceive no high design in selecting this particular design, no worthy ethical result which should justify the conception as well as the execution of Evolution?

We go too far, perhaps, in expecting answers to questions so transcendent. But one at least suggests itself, whose practical value is apology enough for venturing to advance it. Whenever the scheme was planned, it must have been foreseen that the time would come when the directing of part of the course of Evolution would pass into the hands of Man. A spectator of the drama for ages, too ignorant to see that it was a drama, and too impotent to do more than play his little part, the discovery must sooner or later break upon him that Nature meant him to become a partner in her task, and share the responsibility of the closing acts. It is not given to him as yet to bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or to unloose the bands of Orion. In part only can he make the winds and waves obey him, or control the falling rain. But in larger part he holds the dominion of the world of lower life. He exterminates what he pleases; he creates and he destroys; he changes; he evolves; his selection replaces natural selection; he replenishes the earth with plants and animals according to his will. But in a far grander sphere, and in an infinitely profounder sense, has the sovereignty passed to him, For, by the same decree, he finds himself the guardian and the arbiter of his personal destiny, and that of his fellow-men. The moulding of his life and of his children's children in measure lie with him. Through institutions of his creation, through Parliaments, Churches, Societies, Schools, he shapes the path of progress for his country and his time. The evils of the world are combated by his remedies; its passions are stayed, its wrongs redressed, its energies for good or evil directed by his hand. For unnumbered millions he opens or shuts the gates of happiness, and paves the way for misery or social health. Never before was it known and felt with the same solemn certainty that Man, within bounds which none can pass, must be his own maker and the maker of the world. For the first time in history not individuals only but multitudes of the wisest and the noblest in every land take home to themselves, and unceasingly concern themselves with, the problem of the Evolution of Mankind. Multitudes more, philanthropists, statesmen, missionaries, humble men and patient women, devote themselves daily to its practical solution, and everywhere some, in a God-like culmination of Altruism, give their very lives for their fellow-men. Who is to help these Practical Evolutionists -- for those who read the book of Nature can call them by no other name, and those who know its spirit can call them by no higher -- who is to help them in their tremendous task? There is the will -- where is the wisdom?

Where but in Nature herself. Nature may have entrusted the further building to Mankind, but the plan has never left her hands. The lines of the future are to be learned from her past, and her fellow-helpers can most easily, most loyally, and most perfectly do their part by studying closely the architecture of the earlier world, and continuing the half-finished structure symmetrically to the top. The information necessary to complete the work with architectural consistency lies in Nature. We might expect that it should be there. When a business is transferred, or a partner assumed, the books are shown, the methods of the business explained, its future developments pointed out. All this is now done for the Evolution of Mankind. In Evolution Creation has shown her hand. To have kept the secret from Man would have imperilled the further evolution. To have revealed it sooner had been premature. Love must come before knowledge, for knowledge is the instrument of Love, and useless till it arrives. But now that there is Altruism enough in the world to begin the new era, there must be wisdom enough to direct it. To make Nature spell out her own career, to embody the key to the development in the very development itself, so that the key might be handed over along with the work, was to make the transference of responsibility possible and rational. In the seventeenth century, Descartes, who with Leibnitz already foresaw the adumbration of the evolutionary process, almost pointed this out; for speaking, in another connection, of the intellectual value of a slow development of things he observes, |their nature is much more easy to conceive when they are seen originating by degrees in this way, than when they are considered as entirely made.|

The past of Nature is a working-model of how worlds can be made. The probabilities are there is no better way of making them. If Man does as well it will be enough. In any case he can only begin where Nature left off, and work with such tools as are put into his hands. If the new partner had been intended merely to experiment with world-making, no such legacy of useful law had been ever given him. And if he had been meant to begin de novo on a totally different plan, it is unlikely either that that should not have been hinted at, or that in his touching and beautiful endeavour he should be embarrassed and thrown off the track by the old plan. As a child set to complete some fine embroidery is shown the stitches, the colours, and the outline traced upon the canvas, so the great Mother in setting their difficult task to her later children provides them with one superb part finished to show the pattern.

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