The Divine Soil

How few persons can be convinced of the truth of that which is repugnant to their feelings! When Darwin published his conclusion that man was descended from an apelike ancestor who was again descended from a still lower type, most people were shocked by the thought; it was intensely repugnant to their feelings. Carlyle, for instance, treated the proposition with contempt. He called it the "gospel of dirt." "A good sort of man," he said, "is this Darwin, and well meaning, but with very little intellect." Huxley tells of seeing the old man one day upon the street, and of crossing over to greet him. Carlyle looked up and said, "You 're Huxley, aren't you, the man who says we are all descended from monkeys?" and went on his way.

It would be interesting to know just what Carlyle thought we were descended from. Could he, or did he, doubt at all that, if he were to go back a few thousand years over his own line of descent, he would come upon rude savage men, who used stone implements, and lived in caves or rude huts, who had neither letters nor arts, and with whom might did indeed make right, and that back of these he would find still more primitive races, and that these too had their still more savage and bestial forbears? When started on the back track of his own race, where could he stop? Could he stop anywhere? The neolithic man stands on the shoulders of the paleolithic, and he on a still lower human or semihuman form, till we come to a manlike ape or an apelike man, living in trees and subsisting on roots and nuts and wild fruits. Every child born to-day, by the grip of its hands, the strength of its arms, and the weakness of its legs, hints of those far-off arboreal ancestors. Carlyle must also have known that in his fetal or prenatal life there was a time when his embryo could not have been distinguished from that of a dog, much less of a monkey. Was this also intolerable to him?

It must be a bitter pill to persons of Carlyle's temperament to have to accept the account of their own human origin; that the stork legend of the baby is, after all, not good natural history. The humble beginning of each of us is not one that appeals to the imagination, or to the religious sentiment, or to our love of the mysterious and the remote, yet the evidence in favor of its truth is pretty strong.

In fact, the Darwinian theory of the origin of man differs from the popular one just as the natural history of babies, as we all know it, differs from the account in the nursery legends, and gives about the same shock to our sensibilities and our pride of origin.

One of the hardest lessons we have to learn in this life, and one that many persons never learn, is to see the divine, the celestial, the pure, in the common, the near at hand—to see that heaven lies about us here in this world. Carlyle's gospel of dirt, when examined closely, differs in no respect from a gospel of star-dust. Why, we have invented the whole machinery of the supernatural, with its unseen spirits and powers good and bad, to account for things, because we found the universal everyday nature too cheap, too common, too vulgar. We have had to cap the natural with the supernatural to satisfy our love for the marvelous and the inexplicable. As soon as a thing is brought within our ken, and the region of our experience, it seems to lose caste and be cheapened. I am at a loss how to account for this mytho-poetic tendency of ours, but what a part it has played in the history of mankind, and what a part it still plays—turning the light of day into a mysterious illusive and haunted twilight on every hand! It would seem that it must have served some good purpose in the development of the race; but what is not so easy to point out is the evil it has wrought, the mistakes and self-delusions to which it has given rise. One may say that in its healthy and legitimate action it has given rise to poetry and to art and to the many escapes which the imagination provides us from the hard and wearing realities of life. Its implacable foe is undoubtedly the scientific spirit—the spirit of the now and the here, that seeks proof and finds the marvelous and the divine in the ground underfoot; the spirit that animated Lyell and opened his eyes to the fact that the forces and agencies at work every day around us were adequate to account for the tremendous changes in the earth's surface in the past; that animated Darwin and led him to trace the footsteps of the creative energy in the natural life of plants and animals to-day; that animated Huxley and filled him with such righteous wrath at the credulity of his theological brethren; and that animates every one of us when we clinch a nail, or stop a leak, or turn a thing over and look on the otherside, and apply to practical affairs the touchstone of common sense.

That man is of divine origin in a sense that no other animal is, is a conviction dear to the common mind. It was dear to the mind of Carlyle, it chimed in well with his distrust of the present, his veneration of the past, and his Hebraic awe and reverential fear before the mysteries of the universe. While Darwin's attitude of mind toward outward things was one of inquiry and thirst for exact knowledge, Carlyle's was one of reverence and wonder. He was more inclined to worship where Darwin was moved to investigate. Darwin, too, felt the presence of the great unknown, but he sought solace in the knowable of the physical world about him, while Carlyle sought solace in the moral and intellectual world, where his great mytho-poetic faculty could have free swing.

We teach and we preach that God is in everything from the lowest to the highest, and that all things are possible with him, and yet practically we deny that he is in the brute and that it is possible man should have had his origin there.

I long ago convinced myself that whatever is on the earth and shares its life is of the earth, and, in some way not open to me, came out of the earth, the highest not less than the humblest creature at our feet. I like to think of the old weatherworn globe as the mother of us all. I like to think of the ground underfoot as plastic and responsive to the creative energy, vitally related to the great cosmic forces, a red corpuscle in the life-current of the Eternal, and that man, with all his highflying dreams and aspirations, his arts, his Bibles, his religions, his literatures, his philosophies—heroes, saints, martyrs, sages, poets, prophets—all lay folded there in the fiery mist out of which the planet came. I love to make Whitman's great lines my own:—

I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am
an encloser of things to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger
bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel'd, and still I mount and mount.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know
I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugged close—long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me;
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing
like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.
Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In