The Divine Soil

That somewhere in my line of descent was an ancestor that lived in trees and had powerful arms and weaker legs, that his line began in a creature that lived on the ground, and his in one that lived in the mud, or in the sea, and his, or its, sprang from a germ at the bottom of the sea, but deepens the mystery of the being that is now here and can look back and speculate over the course he has probably come; it only directs attention to ugly facts, to material things, to the everyday process of evolution, instead of to the far away, the unknown, or the supernatural.

How the organic came to bud and grow from the inorganic, who knows? Yet it must have done so. We seem compelled to think of an ascending series from nebular matter up to the spirituality of man, each stage in the series resting upon or growing out of the one beneath it. Creation or development must be continuous. There are and can be no breaks. The inorganic is already endowed with chemical and molecular life. The whole universe is alive and vibrates with impulses too fine for our dull senses; but in chemical affinity, in crystallization, in the persistence of force, in electricity, we catch glimpses of a kind of vitality that is preliminary to all other. I never see fire burn, or water flow, or the frost-mark on the pane, that I am not reminded of something as mysterious as life. How alive the flame seems, how alive the water, how marvelous the arborescent etchings of the frost! Is there a principle of fire? Is there a principle of crystallization? Just as much as there is a principle of life. The mind, in each case, seems to require something to lay hold of as a cause. Why these wonderful star forms of the snowflake? Why these exact geometric forms of quartz crystals? The gulf between disorganized matter and the crystal seems to me as great as that between the organic and the inorganic. If we did not every day witness the passage, we could not believe it. The gulf between the crystal and the cell we have not seen cleared, and man has not yet been able to bridge it, and may never be, but it has been bridged, and I dare say without any more miracle than hourly goes on around us.

The production of water from two invisible gases is a miracle to me. When water appeared (what made it appear?) and the first cloud floated across the blue sky, life was not far off, if it was not already there. Some morning in spring, when the sun shone across the old Azoic hills, at some point where the land and sea met, life began—the first speck of protoplasm appeared. Call it the result of the throb or push of the creative energy that pervades all things, and whose action is continuous and not intermittent, since we are compelled to presuppose such energy to account for anything, even our own efforts to account for things. An ever active vital force pervades the universe, and is felt and seen in all things, from atomic attraction and repulsion up to wheeling suns and systems. The very processes of thought seem to require such premises to go upon. There is a reason for the universe as we find it, else man's reason is a delusion, and delusion itself is a meaningless term. The uncaused is unthinkable; thought can find neither beginning nor ending to the universe, because it cannot find the primal cause. Can we think of a stick with only one end? We have to if we compass time in thought, or in space, either.


Given atomic motion, chemical affinity—this hunger or love of the elements for one another—crystallization, electricity, radium, the raining upon us of solar and sidereal influences, the youth of the earth, and the whole universe vibrating with the cosmic creative energy, the beginning of life, the step from the inorganic to the organic, is not so hard to conceive. In a dead universe this would be hard, but we have a universe throbbing with cosmic life and passion to begin with. It is impossible for me to think of anything as uncaused, and in trying to figure to myself this beginning of life I have to postulate this universal creative energy that pervades the worlds as animating the atoms and causing them to combine so as to produce the primordial protoplasm. Then when the first cell divides and becomes two, I have to think of an inherent something that prompts the act, and so on all the way up.

I cannot conceive of crystallization, this precise and invariable arrangement of certain elements, nor of the invariable chemical compounds, without postulating some inner force or will or tendency that determines them. I cannot conceive of an atom of carbon, or oxygen, or hydrogen as doing anything of itself. It must be alive, and this life and purpose pervades the universe. This inability on my part may be only the limitation of thought. I know there are things I cannot conceive of that are yet true. I cannot conceive how the sky is still overhead at the South Pole as at the North, because one position to my senses is the reverse of the other and I am compelled to think of up and down as the same. I cannot think how anything can begin, because time, like matter, is infinitely divisible, and there always remains a mathematical fragment of time between the not beginning and the beginning. The conditions of thought are such that I do not see how one can think of one's self, that is, be object and subject at the same instant of time—jump down one's own throat, so to speak—and yet we seem to manage to do it.

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


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.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In