On Change

A PROFESSOR, filled with the spirit, has delivered an oracle on the subject of The Future. I do not know what he was a professor of, but I suppose he was a Professor of Prophecy. Anyhow, he belonged to that band of enthusiasts for evolution who seem to know much more about the future than they do about the past or even the present. For he was quite as scornful of the present as of the past. We are still, he said, only half-baked savages. Anyhow, some of us are still rather half-baked philosophers; and no philosopher of this school has ever yet answered the question that must have been put again and again, and which I, for one, have often put. If everything changes, including the mind of man, how can we tell whether any change is an improvement or no?

To take a simple and even crude example. One evolutionist, like Mr. Bernard Shaw, will say he has evolved a higher morality by refusing to eat the flesh of animals; but he does so because he has retained the old ideal of pity. Another evolutionist might just as well say that he had evolved a larger morality in being free to eat the flesh of human beings; though even in talking of being free he would still appeal to the old ideal of liberty. But he could easily talk, in quite a modern manner, about the ancient horror of cannibalism being a mere prejudice, a tribal taboo, an irrational limitation of human experience. The professor’s own phrase will be found charmingly apt. He complains that we are still half-baked savages. He may well look forward to the happy day when we shall be completely baked savages.

Now, nobody can possibly say which of these two evolutionary changes is the better, unless he keeps some standard that cannot be changed. He cannot tell whether he ought to evolve into the higher morality or into the larger morality, unless he has some principle of pity or of liberty that does not evolve at all. The professor gave, among his rather random examples, the suggestion that we must be changing for the better because women were burned three hundred years ago. Suppose I tell him that women will be vivisected three hundred years hence. I have as much right to tell him that as he has to tell me anything else; I also can roll myself in the prophet’s mantle; I also can mount the tripod and deliver the oracle. In other words, I know as much about the future as he does, or as anybody else does; which is nothing at all. But suppose it were true, as it is most certainly tenable, that some of the vivisectionists do eventually propose to extend vivisection from beasts to men; just as I have pictured the intellectuals of the New Cannibalism extending their diet from beasts to men. It will be just as easy to use a scientific jargon in defence of that vivisection as of any other vivisection. It will be just as easy to argue, as men in all ages have argued, that a minority must suffer for the sake of a community, or that such sacrifice is a sort of martyrdom for mankind. What I want to know is, how is the evolutionist to tell whether this is a forward step or a retrograde step, if his ethics are always changing with his evolution? The Vivisectionists will say then, as they say now, that true progress demands a painful but necessary investigation. The Anti-Vivisectionists will say then, as they say now, that true progress is found in increased sensibility to suffering and renunciation of force. But how is the unhappy doubter to decide which of these two versions of true progress is really true? He can only do it if he has the test of some truth that remains true. But it is the very essence of this extreme evolutionary notion of thought that no truth can really remain true. The mind is fluid and changing, as the body is fluid and changing. On this principle we may be able to say of the future that it will be a change. But we cannot say it will be an improvement; for that implies that there will always be something in common between us and our descendants; something that we are all trying to improve. Why should that something not change like everything? Is that outside the laws of evolution? Is that a special creation? Is that a miracle? Is that common standard of conscience a thing of divine origin? Dreadful thought!

I need not say much here of the actual prophecies of the professor. They sound very like a skit or burlesque on the romances of Jules Verne or the earlier romances of H. G. Wells. Only they contain absurdities that nobody would put into a romance, or even into a burlesque. The professor was, of course, bursting with hope and progressive optimism. He thinks that everything is going very well indeed, and the world improving with wonderful rapidity. As an example of this, he says that men are losing their eyes, teeth, hair, and sense of hearing with a rapidity that raises the happiest anticipations in a humane lover of his kind. He explained that when we have got rid of all these rude and extinct organs, we should have mechanical scientific substitutes. In the simple language of our fathers, we shall have false hair, false teeth, false eyes, false ears, and everything else suitable to our false philosophy. He did not explain how soon it will be possible to manufacture that minor part of the machinery which has hitherto escaped so many inquiring mechanics; I mean the little thing that actually sees, hears, smells, speaks, and thinks. For, strange and exasperating as it seems, without that one little thing (which nobody can find anywhere) it will generally be found that telescopes cannot see by themselves, telephones can not hear by themselves, books cannot write themselves or read themselves; and a man cannot even talk entirely without thinking. Though he sometimes comes pretty near it.

~G.K. Chesterton