CHAPTER 24

THE LAW OF HUMAN PROGRESS

Even this, O Rome, must one day be thy fate...

However man may have originated, all we know of him is as man - just as he is now to be found.

There is no record or trace of him in any lower condition than that in which savages are still to be met. By whatever bridge he may have crossed the wide chasm that now separates him from the brutes, there remains of it no vestige. Between the lowest savages of whom we know and the highest animals, there is an irreconcilable difference - a difference not merely of degree but of kind.

Many of the characteristics, actions and emotions of man are exhibited by the lower animals; but man, no matter how low in the scale of humanity, has never yet been found destitute of one thing of which no animal shows the slightest trace, a clearly recognizable but almost undefinable something which gives him the power of improvement.

The beaver builds a dam, and the bird a nest, and the bee a cell; but while beavers' dams and birds' nests and bees' cells are always constructed on the same model, the house of the man passes from the rude hut of leaves and branches to the magnificent mansion replete with modern conveniences. The dog can to a certain extent connect cause and effect and may be taught some tricks; but his capacity in these respects has not been a whit increased during all the ages he has been the associate of improving man, and the dog of civilization is not a whit more accomplished or intelligent than the dog of the wandering savage. We know of no animal that uses clothes, or cooks its food, or makes itself tools or weapons, or has an articulate language. But men who do not do such things have never yet been found, or heard of, except in fable. That is to say, man, wherever we know him, exhibits this power - the capacity to supplement what nature has done for him by what he does for himself. And, in fact, so inferior is the physical endowment of man, that there is no part of the world where without this faculty he could maintain an existence.

Man everywhere and at all times exhibits this faculty. But the degree in which he makes use of it greatly varies. Between the rude canoe and the steamship, between the roughly carved wooden idol and the breathing marble of Grecian art, between savage knowledge and modern science, there is an enormous difference.

Conditions of Social Advancement

The varying degrees in which this faculty is used cannot be ascribed to differences in original capacity. The most highly improved peoples of the present day were savages within historic times, and we meet with the widest differences between peoples of the same stock. Nor can they be wholly ascribed to differences in physical environment; the cradles of learning and the arts are now in many cases tenanted by barbarians. All these differences are evidently connected with social development. Beyond perhaps the veriest rudiments, it becomes possible for man to improve only as he lives with his fellows. All these improvements, therefore, in man's powers and condition we summarize in the term civilization. Men improve as they become civilized, or learn to cooperate in society.

What is the law of this improvement? By what common principle can we explain the different stages of civilization at which different communities have arrived? In what does the progress of civilization essentially consist, that we may say of varying social adjustments that this favours it, and that does not; or explain why an institution or condition that may at one time advance it may at another time retard it?

The Evolutionary Theory

The prevailing belief is that the progress of civilization is a development or evolution, in the course of which man's powers are increased and his qualities improved by the operation of causes similar to those that are relied upon as explaining the genesis of species, namely, the survival of the fittest and the hereditary transmission of acquired qualities. In other words, the belief is that civilization is the result of forces that slowly change the character and improve and elevate the powers of man; and that this improvement tends to go on increasingly to a higher and higher civilization.

But the moment that those who hold this theory of progression, which seems so natural to us amid an advancing civilization, look around the world, they come against an enormous fact - the fixed, petrified civilizations. How, upon the theory that human progress is the result of general and continuous causes, shall we account for the civilizations that have progressed so far and then stopped? It cannot be said of the Hindoo and of the Chinese that our superiority is the result of a longer education; that we are, as it were, the grown men of nature, while they are the children. The Hindoos and the Chinese were civilized when we were savages. They had great cities, highly organized and powerful governments, literatures, philosophies, polished manners, considerable division of labour, large commerce and elaborate arts, when our ancestors were wandering barbarians, living in huts and skin tents. While we have progressed from this savage state, they have stood still.

The most fixed and petrified of all civilizations of which we know anything was that of Egypt, where even art finally assumed a conventional and inflexible form. But we know that behind this must have been a time of life and vigour - a freshly developing and expanding civilization, such as ours is now - or the arts and sciences could never have been carried to such a pitch. And recent excavations have brought to light from beneath what we before knew of Egypt an earlier Egypt still - in statues and carvings, which instead of a hard and formal type beam with life and expression, and show art struggling, ardent, natural and free, the sure indication of an active and expanding life.

Arrested Civilizations

If progress be the result of fixed laws, inevitable and eternal, which impel men forward, how shall we account for those arrested civilizations? It is not merely that men have gone so far on the path of progress and then stopped; it is that men have gone far on the path of progress and then gone back. It is not merely an isolated case that thus confronts the theory - it is the universal rule. Every civilization that the world has yet seen has had its period of vigorous growth, of arrest and stagnation; its decline and fall. Of all the civilizations that have arisen and flourished, there remain only those that have been arrested, and our own, which is not yet as old as were the pyramids when Abraham looked upon them - while behind the pyramids were twenty centuries of recorded history.

That our own civilization has a broader base, is of a more advanced type, moves quicker and soars higher than any preceding civilization is undoubtedly true; but in these respects it is hardly more in advance of the Greco-Roman civilization than that was in advance of Asiatic civilization; and if it were, that would prove nothing as to its permanence and future advance, unless it be shown that it is superior in those things which caused the ultimate failure of its predecessors.

In truth, nothing could be further from explaining the facts of universal history than the theory that civilization is the result of a course of natural selection which operates to improve and elevate the powers of man. Civilization has arisen at different times, in different places, and has progressed at different rates, which is not inconsistent with the theory, for it might result from the unequal balancing of impelling and resisting forces. But absolutely inconsistent with this theory is the fact that progress has nowhere been continuous, but has everywhere been brought to a standstill or has retrogressed. For if progress operated to fix an improvement in man's nature and thus to produce further progress, though there might be occasional interruption, yet the general rule would be that progress would be continuous - that advance would lead to advance, and civilization develop into higher civilization.

Dead Empires

Not merely the general rule, but the universal rule, is the reverse of this. The earth is the tomb of dead empires, no less than of dead men. Instead of progress fitting men for greater progress, every civilization that was as vigorous and advancing in its time, as ours is now, has of itself come to a stop. Over and over again art has declined, learning sunk, power waned and population become sparse - until the remnants of people who had built great temples and mighty cities, turned rivers and pierced mountains, cultivated the earth like a garden and introduced the utmost refinement into the minute affairs of life, were squalid barbarians who had lost even the memory of what their ancestors had done and regarded the surviving fragments of former grandeur as the work of genii or the mighty race before the Flood.