G.K. Chesterton and the Atmosphere of Evolution

Evolution is a theory. Evolution is a philosophy. Evolution is also an atmosphere. What evolution is not at all, however, is a fact.

As a theory it claims that man once was a mere animal. This, to be sure, has been thoroughly disproven. As a philosophy it holds that man is a mere animal, and certainly this too is easily refuted. But even after evolution has been disproven as a scientific theory and refuted as a philosophic outlook, it leaves behind a lingering atmosphere whose choking density can almost be touched.

A man who has tried to clear the air of evolution is Gilbert Keith Chesterton, one of the greatest minds of the present century.

Now a small man can dig for a proof or a disproof, and any sort of man can syllogize for a confirmation or a refutation. But only a big man can deal with an atmosphere, and Chesterton was big enough for the job. He discovered that, by some obscure perversity, a certain kind of people want evolution to be true. And when they fail at getting a man out of a monkey, they try to make a monkey out of man — beginning always with their own selves.

For a long time to come, the aftermaths of evolution will be very much in the air — especially the academic air. Take the notion of the “caveman” who haunts our classrooms from the picture books of kindergarten to the pretentious dissertations of the graduate schools. Let us hear how Mr. Chesterton wittily yet poignantly commented on the subject of “prehistoric” man from the pages of his book, The Everlasting Man (Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1926).

“To-day,” writes Chesterton

all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with numberless allusions to a popular character called Cave-Man. He seems to be quite familiar to us, not only as a public character but as a private character. His psychology is seriously taken into account in psychological fiction and psychological medicine. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff’. I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce — reports it is founded. Nor . . . have I been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off. But on every animal analogy, it would seem almost morbid modesty and reluctance, on the part of the lady, always to insist on being knocked down before consenting to be carried off.

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. . . The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words ‘They wore no clothes.’ Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet.

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. . . Another distinguished writer, again, in commenting on cave-drawings attributed to the neolithic men of the reindeer period, said that none of their pictures appeared to have any religious purpose; and he seemed almost to infer that they had no religion. I can hardly imagine a thinner thread of argument than this which reconstructs the very inmost moods of the prehistoric mind from the fact that somebody who has scrawled a few sketches on rock, from what motive we do not know, for what purpose we do not know, acting under what customs or conventions we do not know, may possibly have found it easier to draw reindeers than to draw religion. . . .

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Such speculators rather tend to forget . . . That men in the modern world also sometimes make marks in caves. When a crowd of trippers is conducted through the labyrinth of the Marvelous Grotto or the Magic Stalactite Cavern, it has been observed that hieroglyphics spring into sight where they have passed; initials and inscriptions which the learned refuse to refer to any remote date. And if the professors of the future are anything like the professors of the present, they will be able to deduce a vast number of very vivid and interesting things from these cave writings of the twentieth century. If I know anything about the breed, and if they have not fallen away from the full-blooded confidence of their fathers, they will be able to discover the most fascinating facts about us from the initials left in the Magic Grotto by ‘Arry and ‘Arriet, possibly in the form of two intertwined A’s. From this alone they will know:

  1. That as the letters are rudely chipped with a blunt pocket knife, the twentieth century possessed no delicate graving-tools and was unacquainted with the art of sculpture.
  2. That as the letters are capital letters, our civilization never evolved any small letters or anything like a running hand.
  3. That because initial consonants stand together in an unpronounceable fashion, our language was possibly akin to Welsh or more probably of the early Semitic type that ignored vowels.
  4. That as the initials of ‘Arry and ‘Arriet do not in any special fashion profess to be religious symbols, our civilization possessed no religion. Perhaps the last is about the nearest to the truth; for a civilization that had religion would have had a little more reason.