AMECHANICALLY-MINDED person, careless of nature, might easily believe that all plants have round stems— until he is shown a plant with a perfectly square one.

Or he might insist that any living thing that walks on the ground must have bones inside it — a skeleton — to hold it up. He might go so far as to say that it was a law of nature — because he’d never seen anything else, or thought he hadn’t. But then he is shown an animal whose body and members are a series of shells joined together — any beetle or crab will do.

The point is that in these matters, and in many others, nature is strictly impartial. It makes no rules. Only man makes rules. It is all the same to nature whether plants have round stems or square ones or flat ones; whether animals hold themselves up with the aid of bones inside their bodies or shells outside.

But this peculiar need that man has for making rules as he goes along — often based on practically no evidence at all — leads him into all kinds of trouble. Every bit of his progress seems to be made at the expense of broken rules—his own rules, let it be said, and therefore of not much consequence.

In the evolution of the automobile, man began with the horse and buggy — without the horse. One by one he broke all the rules he had established for the carriage-building trade. He had to, painful though it was. Even that master builder, Henry Ford, was slow and reluctant in giving up his buggy springs and high seats.

Another typical rule-breaking contest had to do with four-wheel brakes. Do you remember how hotly but briefly it raged? Some of the largest automobile makers ran full page ads telling why they would never use four-wheel brakes. Rules, again, which had somehow got themselves established, had to be broken and were broken.

Even today the modern automobile still has the engine in front, though engineers know it doesn’t belong there. Man had become so accustomed to sitting behind a horse while driving that he had to sit behind an engine. He had been “pulled” by his horse and so he had to be “pulled” by the engine in his car, even though the power had to be transmitted underneath the car from front to back through a highly unsatisfactory set of shafts, gears, and universal joints.

In regard to the airplane it might be said that man had to try all the wrong ways first. In the beginning there were two classifications of flying machines: “lighter-than-air” and “heavier-thanair.” It was thoroughly believed that an airplane simply must be as light as it was possible to make it; so bamboo sticks and silk were used.

Nobody bothered to consider that birds were a whole lot heavier than air and that their weight had nothing to do with their flying abilities. The qualities that made birds fly so well were their aerodynamic perfection and their ability to create and apply plenty of power. Heavy birds with short wings fly just as well as light birds with long wings — and they fly faster.

But man had to try the wrong ways before he got rid of the rules he had laid down for himself in the beginning. The process is almost over. His “heavierthan-air” aircraft have become heavier and heavier, while his “lighter-than-air” aircraft have been abandoned by the wayside for the monstrosities that they were.

For a long time it was thought that a pilot couldn’t fly a plane unless he was in an open cockpit with the wind howling in his face—unless, in other words, he was practically outside the plane. Early passenger planes had the passengers snugly tucked away inside while the poor pilot had to sit outside in an open cockpit, half blinded and frozen by wind and weather. And then it was discovered that a man could fly a plane just as well while sitting in the still air of the interior of the plane.

In regard to all mechanical things, nature is full of the most wonderfully radical lessons. She tries everything. There are fish that fly and birds that swim rapidly under water. Man, if he wanted to take the pains to solve the problems, could probably make a submarine that would fly or a plane that could swim under water. There are really no rules against it.

But in regard to the submarine, why hasn’t it gills like a fish? Why should it need air from the surface? If a fish can purify its bloodstream by washing its blood in salt water instead of aerating it in the air, man ought to be able to design a “gill” that will do that for the “bloodstream” of a submarine. Or perhaps he has done so, and we shall hear about it after the war. At any rate, there is no law against it.

Perhaps the most easily overlooked of man’s inferiorities to nature is his ability to get over the ground. We think we are very clever with our automobiles that ride on rubber and air, and our fast trains that roll on steel rails. But we forget the one great and dominating handicap of these means of travel.

Both the automobile and the train demand that the ground must be prepared in advance. An automobile off the road is not much good. It can hardly crawl along. A train off its tracks is a wreck. Both the automobile and the train are the abject slaves of those narrow strips of stone or steel that have been carefully prepared for them in advance. Their freedom of action is rigidly limited, as the disruption of war always shows.

Now look at nature. An antelope, a dog, a jack rabbit can hit speeds of from thirty to sixty miles an hour. This may not seem fast to a motorist on a smooth highway. But consider this: those speeds are made without any prepared track, and they are made over rough country, often full of obstacles. Neither man himself nor any of his machines (with the possible exception of some war machines, such as the tank) can ever begin to approach this natural ground-covering ability.

We think the wheel, one of our greatest inventions, is wonderful. But anyone who has seen a greyhound racing cross-country, lightly leaping ditches, fences, bogs, and streams, realizes that no wheel ever made can equal such a performance.

Man is still tied to the wheel. Somehow he got started with it and he has been tied to it ever since. One can only wonder what might have happened if he had concentrated his energies upon jumping instead of rolling. Surely he wouldn’t have had to spend quite so much time in dragging the stones from his lumbering path. The wheel, however, is his law, and with the single exception of the pogo stick, it is the only means of ground travel that he has.

But if the whole theory of rolling over the ground instead of stepping or leaping over it is wrong, man now has flying. It is quite possible that he may be able to do better with his wings than with his wheels. At least he won’t be hindered by the need for an infinitely extended network of smooth little ribbons of concrete and steel from one end of the earth to the other.

Of one thing he can be sure. Nature never says “No.” As far as nature is concerned, man can have wings, he can fly, swim, or walk on the land. He can swim with his wings or walk on his flippers. In fact, there are simply no rules at all. Nothing is impossible. Only man says “No,” and then in a moment or two he is reversing himself.

  1. A native of Michigan, HOWARD HAYES has worked on newspapers in Detroit and Paris and now lives in New York.