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An essay by John Burroughs

"The Worm Striving To Be Man"

Title:     "The Worm Striving To Be Man"
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

When our minds have expanded sufficiently to take in and accept the theory of evolution, with what different feelings we look upon the visible universe from those with which our fathers looked upon it! Evolution makes the universe alive. In its light we see that mysterious potency of matter itself, that something in the clod under foot that justifies Emerson's audacious line of the "worm striving to be man." We are no longer the adopted children of the earth, but her own real offspring. Evolution puts astronomy and geology in our blood and authenticates us and gives us the backing of the whole solar system. This is the redemption of the earth: it is the spiritualization of matter.

In imagination stand off in vacant space and see the earth rolling by you, a huge bubble with all its continents and seas and changing seasons and countless forms of life upon it, and remember that you are looking upon a great cosmic organism, pulsing with the vital currents of the universe, and that what it holds of living forms were not arbitrarily imposed upon it from without, but vitally evolved from within and that man himself is one of its products as literally as are the trees that stand rooted to the soil. Revert to the time when life was not, when the globe was a half-incandescent ball, or when it was a seething, weltering waste of heated water, before the land had yet emerged from the waves, and yet you and I were there in the latent potencies of the chemically and dynamically warring elements. We were there, the same as the heat and flame are in the coal and wood and as the explosive force of powder is in the grains. The creative cosmic chemistry in due time brought us forth, and started us on the long road that led from the amoeba up to man. There have been no days of creation. Creation has been a continuous process, and the creator has been this principle of evolution inherent in all matter.

Man himself was born of this principle. His genealogy finally runs back to the clod under his feet. One has no trouble in accepting the old Biblical account of his origin from the dust of the earth when one views that dust in the light of modern science.

Man is undoubtedly of animal origin. He is embraced in the same zoological scheme as are all other creatures, and did not start as man any more than you and I started with our present stature, or than the earth sprang from chaos as we now behold it.

His complete physical evolution must have been achieved thousands of centuries ago, but his full mental and spiritual evolution is not yet.

I think of his physical evolution as completed when he assumed the upright attitude or passed from a quadruped to a biped, which must of itself have been a long, slow process. Probably our whole historic period would form but a fraction of this cycle of unrecorded time. Man's complete emergence from the lower orders, so that he stood off in sharp contrast to them in his physical form probably occurred in later Tertiary times, and what the meaning of this stretch of time is in human years we can only conjecture. During this cycle of numberless millenniums till the dawn of history, man's development was mainly mental. He left the brute creature behind because his mind continued to develop after his physical form was complete, while the brute stood still. Whence the impulse that sent man forward? Why was one animal form endowed with the capacity for endless growth and development, and all the others denied it? Ah! that is the question of questions. Compared with the development of his bodily powers, man's mental and spiritual growth has been very rapid. He seems to have been millions of years in getting his body, while he has been only millenniums in getting his reason and intelligence. What progress since the dawn of history! Compare the Germans of the time of Tacitus, or the Gauls of the time of Caesar, or the Britons of the time of Hadrian with the people of those countries to-day.

We are prone to speak of man's emergence from the lower orders as if it were a simple thing, almost like the going from one country into another. But try to think what it means; try to think of the slow transformation, of the long, toilsome road even from the halfway house of our simian ancestors. If we do not give him the benefit of the sudden mutation theory of the origin of species, then think of the slow process, hair by hair, as it were, by which a tailed, apelike arboreal animal was transformed into a hairless, tailless, erect, tool-using, fire-using, speech-forming animal. We see in our own day in the case of the African negro, that centuries of our Northern climate have hardly any appreciable effect toward making a white man of him; nor, on the other hand, has exposure to the tropical sun had much more effect in making a negro of the white man. Probably it would take ten thousand years or more of these conditions to bleach the pigments out of the one skin and put them in the other. There is convincing proof from painting and figures found in Egypt that neither the African negro nor the Egyptian has changed in features in five thousand years.

The most marvelous thing about man's evolution is the inborn upward impulse in some one low organism that rested not till it reached its goal in him. The mollusk remains, but some impulse went out from the mollusk that begat the fish. The fish remains, but some impulse went out from the fish that begat the amphibian. The amphibian remains, but some impulse went out from the amphibian that begat the reptile. The reptile remains, but some impulse went out from the reptile that begat the mammal; and so on up to man. Man must have had a specific line of descent. One golden thread must connect him with the lowest forms of life. And the wonder is that this golden thread was never snapped or lost through all the terrible vicissitudes of the geologic ages. But I suppose it is just as great a wonder that the line of descent of the horse, or the sheep, or the dog, or the bird, was not snapped or lost. Some impulse or tendency was latent or potential in the first unicellular life that rested not till it eventuated in each of these higher forms. Did any terrestrial or celestial calamity endanger the line of descent of any of the higher creatures? Was any form cut off in the world-wide crustal disturbances of the earth at the end of palaeozoic and mesozoic time, when so many forms of animal life appear to have been wiped out, that might in time have given birth to a kind unlike or superior to any now upon the earth? Species after species have become extinct, whole orders and families have gone out, often rather suddenly. Why we know not. Why the line of man's descent was not cut off, who knows? It is a vain speculation. There can be little doubt that in early Tertiary times our ancestor was a small, feeble mammal, maybe of the lemur, maybe of the marsupial kind, powerless before the great carnivorous mammals of that time, and probably escaping them by his greater agility, perhaps by his arboreal habits. The ancestor of the horse was also a small creature at that time, not larger than a fox. It was not cut off; the line of descent seems complete to the horse of our day. Small beginnings seem to be the rule in all provinces of life. There is little doubt that the great animals of our day--the elephant, the whale, the lion,--all had their start in small forms. Many of these small forms have been found. But a complete series of any of the animal forms that eventuated in any of the dominant species is yet wanting. It is quite certain that the huge, the gigantic, the monstrous in animal, as in vegetable life, lies far behind us. Is it not quite certain that evolution in the life of the globe has run its course, and that it will not again bring forth reptiles or mammals of the terrible proportions of those of past geologic ages? nor ferns, nor mosses, nor as gigantic trees as those of Carboniferous times? Probably the redwoods of the Far West, the gigantic sequoias, are the last race of gigantic trees. The tide of life of the globe is undoubtedly at the full. The flood has no doubt been checked many times. The glacial periods, of which there seem to have been several in different parts of the earth, and in different geological periods, no doubt checked it when it occurred. But the tide as a whole must have steadily risen, because the progression from lower to higher forms has gone steadily forward. The lower forms have come along; Nature has left nothing behind. The radiates, the articulates, the mollusca, are still with us, but in the midst of these the higher and higher forms have been constantly appearing. The great biological tree has got its growth. Many branches and twigs have died and dropped off, and many more will do so, are doing so before our eyes, but I cannot help doubting that any new branches of importance are yet to appear--any new families or orders of birds, or fishes, or reptiles, or mammals. The horse, the stag, the sheep, the dog, the cat, as we know them, are doubtless the end of the series. One arrives at this conclusion upon general principles. Life as a whole must run its course or reach its high-water mark, the same as life in its particular phases. Man has arrived and has universal dominion; all things are put under his feet. The destiny of life upon the globe is henceforth largely in his hands. Not even he can avert the final cosmic catastrophe which physicists foresee, and which, according to Professor Lowell, the beings upon Mars are now struggling to ward off.

Man has taken his chances in the clash of forces of the physical universe. No favor has been shown him, or is shown him to-day, and yet he has come to his estate. He has never been coddled; fire, water, frost, gravity, hunger, death, have made and still make no exceptions in his favor. He is on a level with all other animals in this respect. He has his life and well-being on the same terms as do the fowls of the air and the beasts of the fields.

Archbishop Whately thought that primitive man could never have raised himself to a higher condition without external aid--some "elementary instruction to enable his faculties to begin their work." He must have had a boost. Well, the boost was forthcoming, but it was not from without, but from within, through this principle of development, this upward striving that was innate from the first in certain forms of life and of which Whately had no conception. It was the conception of his time that creation was like a watch made and wound up by some power external to itself.

The physical evolution of man, as I have said, is no doubt complete. He will never have wings, or more legs, or longer arms, or a bigger brain. The wings and the extra legs and the keener sense he has left behind him. His development henceforth must be in the mental and spiritual. He is bound to have more and more dominion over Nature, and see more and more clearly his own relation to her. He will in time completely subdue and possess the earth. Yes, and probably exhaust her? But he will see in time that he is squandering his inheritance and will mend his ways. He will conserve in the future as he has wasted in the past. He will learn to conserve his own health. He will banish disease; he will stamp out all the plagues and scourges, through his scientific knowledge; he will double or treble the length of life. Man has undoubtedly passed through and finished certain phases of his emotional and mental development. He will never again be the religious enthusiast and fanatic he has been in the past; he has not worshiped his last, but he has worshiped his best. He will build no more cathedrals; he will burn no more martyrs at the stake. His religion as such is on the wane. But his humanitarianism is a rising tide. He is becoming less and less a savage, revolts more and more at the sight of blood and suffering. The highly religious ages were ages of blood and persecution. Man's tenderness for man has vastly increased. The sense of the sacredness of human life has increased as his faith in his gods has declined. He has grown more human as he has grown less superstitious. Science has atrophied his faith, but it has softened his heart. His fear of Nature has given place to love. Man never loved as he does now. He has withdrawn his gaze from heaven and fixed it upon the earth. As his interest in other worlds has diminished, his interest in this has increased. As the angels have departed, the children have come in.

When the nations, too, cease to be savage and selfish, and become altruistic, then the new birth of humanity will actually have occurred. As an artist and a creator of beautiful forms, man has also had his day; he loved the beautiful, the artistic, or the ornamental long before he loved the true and the just. He was proud before he was kind; he was chivalrous before he was decent; he was tattooed before he was washed; he was painted before he was clothed; he built temples before he built a home; he sacrificed to his gods before he helped his neighbor; he was heroic before he was self-denying; he was devout before he was charitable. We are losing the savage virtues and vanities and growing in the grace of all the humanities, and this process will doubtless go on, with many interruptions and setbacks of course, till the kingdom of love is at last fairly established upon the earth.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: "The Worm Striving To Be Man"