A Prospect

‘WATCHMAN, what of the night?’ That age-long cry of the human spirit will not be silenced. Men have patience and courage to wait for the dawn, if there is to be a dawn. But they demand to know whether there is a purpose, and whether it shall have fulfillment; whether patience and courage shall bear fruit; and whether the travail of the human heart shall not be futile. Heretofore, whenever that cry has been made, the answer generally has come in the voice of the theologian and of the metaphysician. On rare occasions, the clear message of a prophet has rung out, only to be confused in a babel of metaphysical or mystical interpretation, after the prophet has been disposed of by these others who claim a monopoly of the watchman’s function.

The years pass, and still the professional watchman goes his rounds. But things are not as before. His cracked and faltering voice, droning out conventional, inherited phrases, fails to carry conviction. His footstep falters. The pence that drop into his outstretched hands are growing few. His clothes, like his phrases, are of ancient pattern. And when men cry out in the stress of tragedy, ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ they ignore his voice, as if there had been no answer.

But now come new, strange voices, not wholly in harmony with each other, but ringing with youth, vigor, and courage. And the burden of what they cry is this: ‘There is to be a dawn; and toward it men are making slow but definite progress. Caprice does not rule the world. The spirit of man need not be baffled. The fulfillment of his deepest hopes is prevented by nothing but the faintness of his desire. There need be no limit to the range of intelligent imagination in picturing the ultimate accomplishment of men.’

These new voices are the voices of the scientist and of the technician. The old watchman stops in astonishment to listen. Then his personality expresses itself; sometimes in querulous scolding or indignant protest at those who usurp his field; sometimes, listening intently, a new hope and conviction come to him; thereafter his own message carries a newly lighted fire of hope and faith, and he begins to feel again the courage of youth.

The scientist has been so preoccupied with discovering the laws of energy and matter, and of biological phenomena, and the technician with the practical application of these laws to the mastery of the material world, that neither of them has taken enough time to consider the broad significance of his accomplishments upon the prospects of human destiny. The cheer and hope they have brought to men have been the result chiefly of the incidental inference of their work. It is time for a conscious appraisal of its significance to be made.

The destructive influence of scientific thought and discovery upon traditional incentives has been profound. The breaking-up of old faiths and hopes, the undermining of the basis of our assurances, has left in many men a feeling of hopelessness akin to despair. The ultimate reasons for superlatively fine effort seem to be taken away until, to men and women of a certain outlook, nothing seems left but a blind, biologic hope that there is a purpose we cannot fathom, and a pagan courage to play the game as men, according to t he rules, regardless of how completely tragic the end may be. In some cases the keepers of old faiths have carefully nurtured the impression that, outside their folds, men’s hopes can find no assurance.

The highest loyalty to which men can subject themselves is loyalty to truth. Real men will be loyal to truth, regardless of how discouraging the truth may prove to be. But if this loyalty turns out not to lead to despair and hopelessness; if it leads to the conviction that our highest aspirations are possible of fulfillment, and that our everyday behavior will have a determining effect upon such fulfillment, then it is right that men’s spirits should have the comfort of that assurance, and the stimulus to fine endeavor of that knowledge. If the discoveries of the scientist and the conquests of the technician (including under the term technician the engineer, the surgeon, the geneticist, the hygienist, the chemist, and such people) have furnished reason for faith and courage, and have indicated the manner in which the fulfillment of their hopes may come about, then an understanding of the inference of their work is to be desired.

The origin of the attitude of finding no hope in the present life is probably complex and remote. Primitive man, through long ages, found himself almost defenseless before tremendous material forces, over which he had but a slight suggestion of control. Storm, flood, drought, pestilence, wild beasts, and enemy men, — and, above all, his own imperfect and inharmonious nature,— all gave scant hope for ultimate conquest. What wonder that he saw in this physical environment no promise of victory? Moreover, the picture of this world as a temporary abode, to be endured and escaped from into a better existence, was a powerful influence, which perhaps may have been used in the past by ruling castes or classes to reduce social unrest. Men may acquiesce in lifelong disappointment if, to them, it is only an incident to the main end; where they might rebel against it, if they should believe this life to be an adequate opportunity for the fulfillment of their aspirations.

Whatever may have been the origin of the doctrine, it has been firmly impressed upon the minds of many men that the highest human hopes and aspirations cannot be fulfilled this side of the grave. Let us try to discover whether this assumption is well founded. Let us demand, for the time being, that the future life stand on its own merits; that it shall not require the support of any exaggerated or unfounded skepticism about the present life. Let us ask ourselves whether there is or is not, in this material world, assurance that the human spirit can find ultimale and complete fulfillment of its aspirations.

Much has been said in denial of such assurance. A number of fairly distinct circumstances are cited to support the conventional doctrine that human hopes arc impossible of fulfillment this side of death. First and foremost has been man’s helplessness in the physical world. Disease and parasites ravage his physical body; drought and flood, tornado, lightning, disease, and insect pests destroy his herds and crops. Almost as important as his physical environment is man’s own turbulent, warring, tragic nature. Even if all physical difficulties of environment should be removed, man still would have to deal with stupidity, selfishness, jealousy, war, and personal strife, the tragedy of love that is not returned, and the pain of friendships broken by death. The disunity of his own spirit still would tear him asunder with fears, disappointment, loneliness, the sense of defeat, impossible yearnings, and unfulfilled expectations.

It is common for persons who deprecate the possibility of ultimate victory for mankind in the physical world to go even further. They hold that, even should man finally make peace with himself and with the physical world about him, the final tragedy might only be magnified. A prisoner on a little floating island, with limitations of space and resources already looming up ahead, his career here finally must end when this earth is no longer habitable; and then, whether the intervening time be very, very long, or very short, all the travail, all the fine accomplishment of the human spirit, must pass away, as if it never had been. What encouragement, what inspiration, they say, to take up the age-long fight, which at best may require thousands of years, if, at the end, an inert, lifeless planet, speeding blindly across the spaces, shall be the only witness to the supreme struggle of man’s spirit.

This is the picture of mundane life commonly presented to men. Let us look at it critically, through the eyes of the scientist and of the technician, to see whether the present status of mankind gives promise of any ot her answer.

Trace human tragedy back to its sources, and we find it always to have one or more of three causes. The failure of man’s hopes is due either to failure to master environment; or to the inherited weakness and disharmony of human physique, personality, and character; or to imperfect education, which sets up false aims, false hopes, false knowledge, false habits, and false thinking and feeling, and which fails to put men into possession of their inheritance of knowledge, wisdom, and incentive. Viewed in the aggregate mass, this barrier to well-being seems insuperable. Can it be viewed in any other way?

When an engineer undertakes to span a continent with a railroad system, the total mass of obstacles seems insuperable. Great rivers which have beds of mud or sand must be bridged, deserts and quaking marshes crossed, and huge mountain ranges surmounted. What is a little group of spindling men against this incomprehensible mass of physical obstruction? But the engineer begins an analysis. The great project is made up of parts. Each part can be reduced to its elements: so many shovelfuls of dirt, so many days’ labor for so many of these spindling little men, the support of so many communities or legislators to be secured. Each element taken by itself can be achieved; and in the synthesis of all these elements, the whole project finds fulfillment.

Let us apply a similar method of analysis to this great aggregation of conditions which separate man from a condition of perfect well-being. Consider first the tyranny of his physical environment. Of the probable hundreds of millions of years during which life has been developing on the earth, almost complete inability to control environment has ruled during all but the merest fraction of time. It probably has not been more than fiftyor a hundred-thousand years since man first began to build houses, to cultivate crops, and to tame the wild beasts. Since then, his control over his environment has increased at a continually accelerated rate. The mastery he has gained in the past five-thousand years is perhaps greater than that of the fifty-thousand preceding, and the gain during the past century as great as that of the thousand years before. Considering the future by centuries or millenniums, there seems every reason to believe that man in time will so completely control his environment, that infections and contagious diseases will be eliminated, drought and flood conquered,and all the variable phenomena of nature shall do him service or be made harmless. So far as the control of physical environment is concerned, the hope of ultimate conquest is a reasonable one. To a person familiar with present-day developments, and with the prospective future of science and technology, the case does not need elaboration.

Far more serious is the problem of his making peace with himself and with his neighbors; but here also progress is visible. Unless there is to be some great retrogression of the human family, the abolition of war is certain. Since the day when every man’s hand was against his neighbor, through all the shifting history of family, tribe, clan, and nation, there has been a steady movement toward larger and larger units of peace, law, and order. The union of all peoples under one government may conceivably be delayed for a few generations, or centuries; but, with the picture in men’s minds, and the longing for peace in their hearts, that consummation cannot, long be postponed.

But the reign of civil law may not bring peace. Great as has been the tragedy of war, far greater in the aggregate have been the tragedies of the human spirit; of children lonely for the friendship of their parents; of masters unmindful of their servants; of husbands who make drudges of their wives; of friends who forget. Even peace between all human governments, unless accompanied by fundamental changes in the human spirit, may not bring blessedness.

What is the probability of such change? With all the refinement of life through the centuries, has there not been a refinement of the capacity for pain, a refinement of longing, and of the tragedy of vanished hopes?

True, in the harmonizing of the human spirit there has been no such obvious acceleration of development as in the case of the growing control of physical environment. Yet in this development toward harmony there has been progress, slowly, but surely, as through the growth of the spirit of the Jewish prophets and of Jesus; while during the past hundred years there has been such sudden increase of knowledge of mankind and of his evolution, seeming to give the key to so rapid a development of human qualities, that each hundred years in the future may mark as great progress as a thousand years in the recent past. With the statement of the doctrine of evolution, men found themselves to have originated through no sudden caprice of creative fiat, but by a continuing biological process — a process still under way and capable of conscious modification. While Darwin was still at work on the development of his thesis, Galton showed conclusively that the intellectual and moral qualities of men are profoundly affected by inheritance; and Mendel, the Galician monk, made his great contribution, to be hidden from the world for half a century, in discovering the laws of biological inheritance.

The tremendous increase in knowledge which these discoveries have stimulated makes it possible for us to have a picture of the steps which will lead to fundamental changes in the average of human character and personality. Except for a few crude, brief efforts, as during the zenith of Greek civilization, the manner in which the children of men tend to be like their parents has received but very inadequate recognition from human society. Some of the chief of human institutions have specifically tended to eliminate the fittest among men. War, which has claimed an enormous place in human history for perhaps ten thousand years, consistently demanded the finest men for its toll. If his Satanic Majesty had appointed a biological commission to devise ways and means for debasing the human breed, he would have found maximum effectiveness in the institution of war, to eliminate the strong, and in that of religious celibate orders, to do away the intelligent and the refined.

Knowledge of the significance and of the control of heredity, developed by Darwin, Mendel, and their successors, gradually will take possession of men’s consciousness, and, like the knowledge of cultivating wheat and of building fires, never will be displaced. Some of the specific steps by which this knowledge will be used to affect the characters and personalities of men, are now evident. It is now definitely known that intelligence, or mental calibre, is inherited. Men are born with greater or smaller capacity for mental comprehension, and the biological inheritance they transmit, though continually modified by mutations, is, to a limited extent , if at all, increased by education and other environment. In determining the inheritance of our future citizens, we have a means of unlimited scope and potency for determining the character and personality of men. This is a process which, even if undertaken very gradually and extended through thousands of years, would represent an unprecedented acceleration in human progress. The first steps are so simple and so obvious that we can lake them without any startling change in our social or governmental standards, and without in any way offending the sentiments of conservative men and women. These obvious and simple advances may take centuries to accomplish; so that we can leave to future generations, trained and enlightened by longer experience, the determination and application of a more radical programme, which to-day would shock our untrained sensibilities, and might be unsound public policy.

During the Great War mental tests were made of 1,700,000 enlisted American soldiers. Obvious imbeciles and the very feeble-minded were rejected before enlistment; but of those who were enlisted, ten per cent had mentality not higher than that of the average tenyear-old child.1 Such limited mentality is totally unfit to be entrusted with important civic or domestic responsibility. If persons of low mentality were a class by themselves, no great harm would be done; but existing as they do in all classes of society, they interbreed, setting up strains, discords, and limitations of character and personality of every kind and in every direction. The elimination of this type, whenever it appears, would go further than we dream in harmonizing human personality. And no rash first step need be taken. There are hundreds of thousands of feeble-minded now at large and breeding in the United States, whose guardians are anxious to have them cared for in institutions; but there is no place. As one of the first steps of a practical programme, it will strain our resources for generations to meet the existing demand for taking the feeble-minded out of society. With the removal of the most unfit , the changing public attitude toward feeble-mindedness will effect further elimination.

Suppose that, in two centuries, we should eliminate from free society all adult mentalities of less than ten years, and that during the same period an appreciation should be aroused among intelligent people of the significance of parenthood. Thereafter the minimum mental age to be allowed to reproduce might be raised half a year each century. In a thousand years, the minimum mental age of those allowed to reproduce would be raised to fourteen years, and we would have a breed of men superior to any that has existed on earth. (The average mental age of adult Americans, as disclosed by the army tests, is less than thirteen years.) In fiveor ten-thousand years of the continuance of such a policy, average human intelligence would reach levels now undreamed of.

It is objected that intelligence and character do not run parallel. I believe the coördination will be found to be far closer than now is generally supposed. Moreover, the same technique that now is making such strides in measuring intelligence, can develop methods of measuring character and personality. At first, only the obviously unfit, the ‘criminally insane,’would be isolated. Ability to make distinctions would increase through the centuries. The same general method of eliminating the physically unfit, with the same cautious first steps, exercised with tolerance and restraint, would result in giving the human spirit sound bodies in which to function. The elimination of morbidity, of unintelligence, and of inherited physical weakness, would go so far toward making harmony in human personality that we scarcely know what would remain to be done.

Much of human tragedy is psychological. We dread and fear what we have been taught to fear. With the increase of intelligence and normality, and with the extension and improvement of education, the mental world of men will be freed. We know how much of the tragedy of life for primitive peoples is due to devils and goblins and bewitchment. Our posterity will come to see many of our psychological states in the same light. The underlying exigencies of life will be met by different mental attitudes, and their sting will be taken away. We come to think of some of our hopes as so fundamental, that their fulfillment is essential to give meaning and value to life; whereas these particular hopes may be chiefly crude interpretations of some bigger and more fundamental principles, and their particular forms may have developed through philosophical speculation, propaganda, tradition, and other environmental circumstances. The savage may feel absolutely certain that his deepest hopes will be unfulfilled if he is denied the opportunity of going to the happy hunting-grounds and there getting sweet revenge by torturing his enemy. Our aspirations are profoundly affected by our experiences, our education, and our consequent interpretation of life. They are susceptible of change, and along with the refinement of life will come the refinement and enlightenment of men’s hopes and longings.

So it may be with the desire for personal immortality. Men have tended to consider themselves as new creations, only casually connected with the past and with the future. A failure to perpetuate such a creation meant a failure to perpetuate and to conserve the conquests of life. Our knowledge of biology is giving us a very different picture, and thereby is recasting men’s fundamental aspirations. Modern men no longer see themselves as new creations. They are the present containers of the stream of life; a stream which has had an unbroken flow on this earth down through the hundreds of millions of years, and which doubtless came to this earth as minute, living cells, driven across by the pressure of light from distant spheres; just as, doubtless, similar tiny organisms are being driven away from the earth by this same light pressure, perchance to find a tolerable environment somewhere else.

Men find themselves for a generation the guardians of this stream of life. To them it is left to preserve this highest accomplishment of creation, to keep it from degradation, and to pass it on, if possible, with better chance of the utmost fulfillment of its possibilities. Perhaps, in time to come, the opportunity of furthering this great fulfillment will make an appeal to the spirits of men as the supreme opportunity, an appeal far more powerful than that of personal immortality. Mendel and his followers have proved beyond doubt that it is not only those whom we call parents whose relationships continue. We know that the collateral relative may have as close biological relationship as do the parents themselves, and that any man who contributes to the advancement of a community of his own kind, in a true biological sense, to a degree is ensuring his own inheritance.

The Jewish prophets, from Amos to Jesus, were all inspired with a vision of the kingdom of heaven among men, but the world of their day did not possess a sufficient accumulation of moral purpose, or the knowledge, or the technique, to bring it to pass. Point by point and step by step, modern science and technology, with that vision as their greatest inheritance and chief incentive, are building up a programme of specific undertakings, whereby that vision of the prophets may find fulfillment .

With these processes at work for the advancement of the breed in physique, in intelligence, and in character, with extension and improvement in education, and with the consequent changes in the psychological life of men, there seems no reason why, beginning with methods men now know how to use, the character, intelligence, normality, and personality of men may not be so increased that the kingdom of heaven will have come on earth, and tragedy will be no more. The finest traits and elements of human character, sometimes referred to vaguely as spiritual qualities, are all important. Possibly they will long remain too elusive to be made the basis of biological selection; but this increase of intelligence, sound character, and normality will furnish the best soil for their growth, and will be found to have supplied many of their essential elements.

If it appears that it is in store for mankind to master his environment, and to make harmony of his personality, we still have to meet the objection that all this achievement is but transitory, an episode on this floating island, where men are hopeless prisoners. The human spirit rebels at the thought that all its work, and all the tragic biologic struggle of the hundreds of millions of years, must finally come to naught.

If it is valid to consider a contingency which doubtless is remote by many hundreds of thousands of years, it must be proper also to consider the possibility of human achievement in the physical world during long periods of time. We watch a little device in the jeweler’s window, whereby the pressure of sunlight spins round some curious metal plates in a vacuum. Do we see there the motive power which, in the dim future, is to drive the ships of a future Columbus, as they take off from this floating island to explore and colonize the distant spheres? Consider the development from the hairy savage, whose highest technique was to open clamshells on the shore, to the men of to-day, who weigh the atoms and the stars, who talk round the world, and fly in the heavens. Does it indicate a greater contrast to think of men, ennobled through the centuries in mind and character, as having learned, in the course of a few thousand years, the art of a new navigation?

Given ability to colonize those of the innumerable spheres which would furnish suitable environment, man would be no longer a prisoner on this round island, restricted in space and time. The last denial of his hopes would have been removed.

I have tried to picture man’s prospect, relying upon the material existence in which he finds himself, of achieving the complete fulfillment of his aspirations; and the conclusion reached is that such fulfillment does not demand the addition of any new and unknown forces or factors to his life, but only the fuller mastery of the materials, forces, and laws which arc now at his command. In every case the next step is an obvious and practicable one, which he can accomplish if he sufficiently desires. If, instead of the picture of acquiescence in a hostile and hopeless physical world, for the sake of a life after death, there should be in the minds of men this picture of building on this present material existence the foundation of the complete fulfillment of men’s best aspirations, the whole emphasis of human life would be changed.

It is objected that we speak in terms of too long periods of time; that the human spirit cannot be interested in so distant an accomplishment. That is true of some men. There is no more accurate measurement of a man’s civilization than the distance into the future to which he projects his satisfactions. Some primitive men must have their satisfactions within twenty-four hours, or there is no stimulus to effort; others in ten years, others during their lifetime, while some will live for posterity. Some men will see all the way. For others the chief incentive will be the great immediate benefit to be derived from the accomplishment of specific undertakings in a practical programme. Thus different types of men can be inspired by different phases of the same great project.

What then becomes of a belief in a life after death? Consider this: that, when we seek the truth, we seek it from the person of intelligence, normality, broad education, and sound character; for such are the qualities of men that open the way to knowledge of the truth. An inevitable result of raising the standard of human life will be to open the way to truth in all directions, and no real possession of profound value to the human race will thereby be lost.

I have not enlarged upon ‘moral’ qualities. These finest assets of men, having their origins and having maintained their existence under all conditions of primitive barbarism, have proved their vitality. The person who sees them as frail and liable to extinction must lack a long-range view of human progress. No temporary suspension or retrogression of human development will eliminate them permanently. If eliminated they would have new origins, for they are biologically inevitable. Just as every tree possesses as part of its essential life an impulse to develop according to a type which never yet has had perfect expression in any individual tree, so men have aspirations and intimations of perfection which perhaps do not originate in experience, which transcend experience, and which deny the validity of what has been, as conclusive evidence of what may be. In the new world these forces will find and will create environment more and more perfectly suited to their full expression, and types most worthy of expression will find conditions progressively more conducive to their survival.

To the person to whom faith in a future life has not come, there is no need for despair. Here, in our physical existence, and by the use of instrumentalities already in men’s hands, and without recourse to any metaphysical speculations, is promise of the complete fulfillment of men’s best aspirations.

  1. The term ‘mental age’ is inadequate to convey the idea intended, and while now in common use, doubtless soon will be superseded by expressions which convey more definite ideas.