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The Human Adventure


The Human Adventure

Alone among all the living things this globe has borne, man reckons with
destiny. All other living things obey the forces that created them; and
when the mood of the power changes, submit themselves passively to
extinction Man only looks upon those forces in the face, anticipates the
exhaustion of Nature's kindliness, seeks weapons to defend himself. Last
of the children of Saturn, he escapes their general doom. He
dispossesses his begetter of all possibility of replacement, and grasps
the sceptre of the world. Before man the great and prevalent creatures
followed one another processionally to extinction; the early monsters of
the ancient seas, the clumsy amphibians struggling breathless to the
land, the reptiles, the theriomorpha and the dinosaurs, the bat-winged
reptiles of the Mesozoic forests, the colossal grotesque first mammals,
the giant sloths, the mastodons and mammoths; it is as if some idle
dreamer moulded them and broke them and cast them aside, until at last
comes man and seizes the creative wrist that would wipe him out of being

There is nothing else in all the world that so turns against the powers
that have made it, unless it be man's follower fire. But fire is
witless; a little stream, a changing breeze can stop it. Man
circumvents. If fire were human it would build boats across the rivers
and outmanoeuvre the wind. It would lie in wait in sheltered places,
smouldering, husbanding its fuel until the grass was yellow and the
forests sere. But fire is a mere creature of man's; our world before his
coming knew nothing of it in any of its habitable places, never saw it
except in the lightning flash or remotely on some volcanic coronet. Man
brought it into the commerce of life, a shining, resentful slave, to
hound off the startled beasts from his sleeping-place and serve him like
a dog.

Suppose that some enduring intelligence watched through the ages the
successions of life upon this planet, marked the spreading first of this
species and then that, the conflicts, the adaptations, the
predominances, the dyings away, and conceive how it would have witnessed
this strange dramatic emergence of a rare great ape to manhood. To such
a mind the creature would have seemed at first no more than one of
several varieties of clambering frugivorous mammals, a little
distinguished by a disposition to help his clumsy walking with a stake
and reinforce his fist with a stone. The foreground of the picture would
have been filled by the rhinoceros and mammoth, the great herds of
ruminants, the sabre-toothed lion and the big bears. Then presently the
observer would have noted a peculiar increasing handiness about the
obscurer type, an unwonted intelligence growing behind its eyes. He
would have perceived a disposition in this creature no beast had shown
before, a disposition to make itself independent of the conditions of
climate and the chances of the seasons. Did shelter fail among the trees
and rocks, this curious new thing-began to make itself harbours of its
own; was food irregular, it multiplied food. It began to spread out from
its original circumstances, fitting itself to novel needs, leaving the
forests, invading the plains, following the watercourses upward and
downward, presently carrying the smoke of its fires like a banner of
conquest into wintry desolations and the high places of the earth.

The first onset of man must have been comparatively slow, the first
advances needed long ages. By small degrees it gathered pace. The stride
from the scattered savagery of the earlier stone period to the first
cities, historically a vast interval, would have seemed to that still
watcher, measuring by the standards of astronomy and the rise and
decline of races and genera and orders, a, step almost abrupt. It took,
perhaps, a thousand generations or so to make it. In that interval man
passed from an animal-like obedience to the climate and the weather and
his own instincts, from living in small family parties of a score or so
over restricted areas of indulgent country, to permanent settlements, to
the life of tribal and national communities and the beginnings of
cities. He had spread in that fragment of time over great areas of the
earth's surface, and now he was adapting himself to the Arctic circle on
the one hand and to the life of the tropics on the other; he had
invented the plough and the ship, and subjugated most of the domestic
animals; he was beginning to think of the origin of the world and the
mysteries of being. Writing had added its enduring records to oral
tradition, and he was already making roads. Another five or six hundred
generations at most bring him to ourselves. We sweep into the field of
that looker-on, the momentary incarnations of this sempiternal being,
Man. And after us there comes--

A curtain falls.

The time in which we, whose minds meet here in this writing, were born
and live and die, would be to that imagined observer a mere instant's
phase in the swarming liberation of our kind from ancient imperatives.
It would seem to him a phase of unprecedented swift change and expansion
and achievement. In this last handful of years, electricity has ceased
to be a curious toy, and now carries half mankind upon their daily
journeys, it lights our cities till they outshine the moon and stars,
and reduces to our service a score of hitherto unsuspected metals; we
clamber to the pole of our globe, scale every mountain, soar into the
air, learn how to overcome the malaria that barred our white races from
the tropics, and how to draw the sting from a hundred such agents of
death. Our old cities are being rebuilt in towering marble; great new
cities rise to vie with them. Never, it would seem, has man been so
various and busy and persistent, and there is no intimation of any check
to the expansion of his energies.

And all this continually accelerated advance has come through the
quickening and increase of man's intelligence and its reinforcement
through speech and writing. All this has come in spite of fierce
instincts that make him the most combatant and destructive of animals,
and in spite of the revenge Nature has attempted time after time for his
rebellion against her routines, in the form of strange diseases and
nearly universal pestilences. All this has come as a necessary
consequence of the first obscure gleaming of deliberate thought and
reason through the veil of his animal being. To begin with, he did not
know what he was doing. He sought his more immediate satisfaction and
safety and security. He still apprehends imperfectly the change that
comes upon him. The illusion of separation that makes animal life, that
is to say, passionate competing and breeding and dying, possible, the
blinkers Nature has put upon us that we may clash against and sharpen
one another, still darken our eyes. We live not life as yet, but in
millions of separated lives, still unaware except in rare moods of
illumination that we are more than those fellow beasts of ours who drop
off from the tree of life and perish alone. It is only in the last three
or four thousand years, and through weak and tentative methods of
expression, through clumsy cosmogonies and theologies, and with
incalculable confusion and discoloration, that the human mind has felt
its way towards its undying being in the race. Man still goes to war
against himself, prepares fleets and armies and fortresses, like a
sleep-walker who wounds himself, like some infatuated barbarian who
hacks his own limbs with a knife.

But he awakens. The nightmares of empire and racial conflict and war,
the grotesques of trade jealousy and tariffs, the primordial dream-stuff
of lewdness and jealousy and cruelty, pale before the daylight which
filters between his eyelids. In a little while we individuals will know
ourselves surely for corpuscles in his being, for thoughts that come
together out of strange wanderings into the coherence of a waking mind.
A few score generations ago all living things were in our ancestry. A
few score generations ahead, and all mankind will be in sober fact
descendants from our blood. In physical as in mental fact we separate
persons, with all our difference and individuality, are but fragments,
set apart for a little while in order that we may return to the general
life again with fresh experiences and fresh acquirements, as bees
return with pollen and nourishment to the fellowship of the hive.

And this Man, this wonderful child of old earth, who is ourselves in the
measure of our hearts and minds, does but begin his adventure now.
Through all time henceforth he does but begin his adventure. This planet
and its subjugation is but the dawn of his existence. In a little while
he will reach out to the other planets, and take that greater fire, the
sun, into his service. He will bring his solvent intelligence to bear
upon the riddles of his individual interaction, transmute jealousy and
every passion, control his own increase, select and breed for his
embodiment a continually finer and stronger and wiser race. What none of
us can think or will, save in a disconnected partiality, he will think
and will collectively. Already some of us feel our merger with that
greater life. There come moments when the thing shines out upon our
thoughts. Sometimes in the dark sleepless solitudes of night, one ceases
to be so-and-so, one ceases to bear a proper name, forgets one's
quarrels and vanities, forgives and understands one's enemies and
oneself, as one forgives and understands the quarrels of little
children, knowing oneself indeed to be a being greater than one's
personal accidents, knowing oneself for Man on his planet, flying
swiftly to unmeasured destinies through the starry stillnesses of space.