Monday, July 13, 2015

Ex-Apes or Artists?

G.K. Chesterton
Would Chesterton have been amused, outraged, or wearied by the sign I recently passed on a college campus? It promoted a lecture about human beings under the title of "ex-apes," alleging to address new insights about our understanding of evolutionary processes.

In a brilliant chapter of The Everlasting Man entitled "Man in the Cave", Chesterton lays out a withering critique of theories which want to reduce the human person to not much more than a mere beast.  This "Apostle of Common Sense" roots his reasoning not on mere hypotheses, however, but firmly in the facts. 

Just as the fact that there is something rather than nothing should compel us to look for answers outside of the closed-system of our physical world, so the fact that the first human beings painted pictures on the walls of caves should point us toward the deeper mystery which it reveals.  After all, a merely materialistic view of evolutionary processes cannot account for this quantum leap forward among all living beings.  Here's G.K.'s brilliant commentary for your enjoyment and reflection:

"...That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the colored pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.

"That is the sort of simple truth with which a story of the beginnings ought really to begin. The evolutionist stands staring in the painted cavern at the things that are too large to be seen and too simple to be understood. He tries to deduce all sorts of other indirect and doubtful things from the details of the pictures, because he cannot see the primary significance of the whole; thin and theoretical deductions about the absence of religion or the presence of superstition; about tribal government and hunting and human sacrifice and heaven knows what. In the next chapter I shall try to trace in a little more detail the much disputed question about these prehistoric origins of human ideas and especially of the religious idea. Here I am only taking this one case of the cave as a sort of symbol of the simpler sort of truth with which the story ought to start. When all is said, the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. If the reindeer man was as much an animal as the reindeer, it was all the more extraordinary that he could do what all other animals could not. If he was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.

But I have begun this story in the cave, like the cave of the speculations of Plato, because it is a sort of model of the mistake of merely evolutionary introductions and prefaces. It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionists. All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone. How he came there, or indeed how anything came there, is a things for theologians and philosophers and scientists and not for historians. But an excellent test case of this isolation and mystery is the matter of the impulse of art. This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature...."

G.K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man
(Image Books, 1955; originally published in 1925),
pp. 32-34; emphasis added.