Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Chesterton on the caveman

Whenever I hear people refer to Christ being born in a barn, I remember G.K. Chesterton's discussion that He was born in a cave. This curiosity contra to conventional wisdom provides the framework for his excellent book, The Everlasting Man.

Along with Dorothy Sayers, Chesterton is oft-quoted but rarely read. That's a shame. Their work is accessible, witty and profound-- Lewis-like in quality (if not better) but not nearly as popular.

In the first half of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton has a lot of (serious) fun with cavemen and roughs up evolution (as a comprehensive explanation for the development of life)-- before moving on to the evolution of "comparative religions". In the second half, he turns to the Caveman, Jesus Christ (the next blog entry).

Excerpts-- thanks to Gutenberg.net in Australia:

From Part 1...
Excerpts from chapter 1: The Man in the Cave
To his simplicity it must seem at least odd that he could not find any 
trace of the beginning of any arts among any animals.  That is the
simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; only it
is too simple to be learnt.  It is the simple truth that man does differ
 from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here;
 that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a
 picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most
 intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.
 It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth
 and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter
 like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development
 or degree.  Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them;
 Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens
 draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better
 portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his
 early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist
 and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist. All we can say of this notion
 of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it
 exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk
 about it without treating man as something separate from nature.  In
 other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man,
 a thing standing absolute and alone.
 Now, as a matter of fact, there is not a shadow of evidence that this
 thing was evolved at all.  There is not a particle of roof that this
 transition came slowly, or even that it came naturally.  In a strictly
 scientific sense, we simply know nothing whatever about how it
 grew, or whether it grew, or what it is.  There may be a broken trail
 of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human
 body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of
 this human mind.  It was not and it was; we know not in what instant
 or in what infinity of years.  Something happened; and it has all the
 appearance of a transaction outside of time. 
Excerpts from chapter 2: Professors and Prehistoric Men
Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has
 hardly been noticed.  The science whose modern marvels we all
 admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical
 inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase
 evidence by experiment.  But it cannot experiment in making men; or
 even in watching to see what the first men make. An inventor can
 advance step by step in the construction of an aeroplane, even if he is
 only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own 
 back-yard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his
 own back-yard…If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular
 way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if
 he finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull, in the hollow of a hill, he 
 cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones. In dealing 
 with a past that has almost entirely perished, he can only go by 
 evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough 
 evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a 
 sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this
 science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything.
 But the habit of forming conclusions, as they can really be formed in 
 more fruitful fields, is so fixed in the scientific mind that it cannot 
 resist talking like this….
He can only cling to a fragment of the past and has no way of
 increasing it for the future He can only clutch his  fragment of fact,
 almost as the primitive man clutched his fragment of flint.  And
 indeed he does deal with it in much the same way and for much the
 same reason. It is his tool and his only tool.  It is his weapon and his
 only weapon….Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes
 almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does
 not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the
 dogs--or that it came from them. 


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