Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Man is a mystery, a mystery to the inquiring and investigating mind of the researcher into nature; but more so indeed is man a mystery to himself. And because this mystery exists, due to lack of proper research and investigation into his sevenfold constitution, therefore have we the various and the varying ways of looking at man himself, and of his looking at the cosmos, of which he is, on this earth, the most intelligent offspring.
Yet there is a solution of this mystery — a solution which is not new, which is older than the enduring hills, and which again in our age has been given forth through the medium of the theosophical philosophy.
Man, child of the universe, nursling of destiny, stands, so far as his conception of his place in the cosmos is concerned, between two vast spheres, two immense universes, between the cosmos and the atom of physical matter — the one sphere of cosmical, the other of infinitesimal magnitude. He stands thus only because he so sees himself. I mean that it is on account of his having attained his present stage in his long evolutionary journey that he so conceives of himself as holding this intermediate point, and of occupying it, and from these two universes drawing the life springs of the understanding which dignify him as man.
But the majestic philosophy-science-religion of the ages teaches us that there are beings so much greater and higher than man is, and beings so much smaller and less than he, that in reality he himself in turn stands, with his world and his cosmos, as the one or the other of these extremes to such greater or smaller entities.
It is a question of relativity. In order to understand it more clearly we must cleanse our minds of the old ideas instilled into us by false education, both religious and scientific, and philosophic too; also must we understand that man's is not the only mind which can conceive universal things, and that our status in the cosmos is not the only one of supreme importance, as we foolishly but perhaps naturally imagine it to be.
Universal life is infinite in its manifestation in endless forms, and manifested beings are incomputable in number; and no one may say that man, noble thinker as he truly is, is yet the only one in the boundless fields of space who can think clearly and imagine rightly and intuit truth. Such egoistic notions of our uniqueness in the scheme of life are really a form of insanity; but the mere fact that we can understand this egoism and struggle against it, and abandon it, shows that we ourselves are not insane.
Therefore, since both in the very small and in the very great, consciousnesses exist and fill all space, we are their children, their evolving offspring; and, moreover, insofar as the small universe is concerned, the microcosm, within certain frontiers we as individuals are likewise parents of offspring occupying to us the same relative position that we occupy to those greater consciousnesses.
Biologists today compute that in the body of man there are some fifty trillion cells, more or less — living things, physiological engines — out of which his body is built. These cells in their turn are composed of chemical molecules; and these in their turn are composed of still smaller entities called atoms; and these atoms in their turn are composed of things still smaller, today called protons and electrons; and for all we may know, these subatomic particles, supposed to be the ultimate particles of matter, are themselves divisible and composed of entities still more minute! Is this the end, the finish, the jumping-off place? Are there particles or corpuscles still smaller than these? If we are to judge by the past, we are driven to suppose that there is no end.
Where dare one say that consciousness ends or begins? Is it of such a nature that we must suppose that it has a beginning, or reaches an end? If so, what is there beyond it, above it, or below it? The idea seems to me to be fantastic. If consciousness of any kind, man's or any other, have a true limit in itself, then the power of our understanding would not be what it is even in our present relatively undeveloped stage of evolution. We could have no intellectual or spiritual reaches into these wider fields of thought; but we should reach frontiers of consciousness, and we should indeed know them as limits, jumping-off places. In fact, we then could not even conceive of a beyond, because our consciousness would end there.
We sense something of limitations along these lines in our ordinary brain-functioning, because our brain is in itself a limited portion of physical matter; but every thinking individual, if he examine himself carefully and study his own experiences, must realize that there resides in him something which is boundless, something which he has never fathomed, which tells him always, "Come up higher. Reach farther and farther into the beyond. Cast all that has a limit aside, for in such case it does not belong to your higher self."
This consciousness is the working in man of the spiritual self, the operation in his psychological nature of his spiritual monad, the ultimate for him in this our hierarchy of nature only, for that spiritual monad is the center of his being, and in itself knows no limits, no boundaries, no frontiers, for it is pure consciousness.
Evolution — the drive to betterment, the urge to superiority! If we look at it as the old materialists did, then it means superiority over our fellowman for our own advantage; but if we look at it according to the facts of nature, as we learn them and according to the instincts of our own being, it then means self-superiority in the sense of rising on the ladder of life ever higher, with expanding vision, with expanding faculties and sympathies — not merely in the physical apparatuses of thinking, but growing greater from the spiritual core of our being. In other words, it means opening up for that spiritual essence within us wider doors for it to pass its rays through, down into our personal minds, enlightening and leading us upwards and onwards, illimitably through the various cosmical periods and fields of evolution which the monad follows along the courses of destiny.
Man, as one of the spiritual-psychical-physical corpuscles of the general cosmos — as the microcosm of the macrocosm, the little-world offspring of the great world — merely follows the same operations of nature that the cosmos is impulsed, compelled, to follow: development, growth from within outwards, throwing outwards into manifestation as organic activity, as expression in organs, so far as his physical body is concerned, the functions, the impulses within, the drive, the urge to manifest what is within. That, in a few words, is the ancient teaching of evolution.
Now let us take up the question of the evolution of animate beings on this earth more definitely from the theosophical standpoint than we have hitherto done. We use the word strictly in its etymological sense, as an unwrapping, an unrolling, or a coming out of that which previously had been inwrapped or inrolled. Nor do we mean by evolution the mere adding of physiological or morphological detail to other similar details, or of variation to variation or, on the mental plane, of mere experience to other mere experiences; which would be, as it were, naught but a putting of bricks upon an inchoate and shapeless pile of other bricks previously so placed together.
No, evolution is the manifestation of the inherent powers and forces of evolving entities, be those entities what they may: gods, or the human race, or other races of animate entities below the human. It is a coming forth of that which formerly had been involved or inwrapped. It is the striving of the innate, of the invisible, to express itself in the manifested world commonly called the visible world. It is the drive of the inner entity to express itself outwardly. It is a breaking down of barriers in order to permit that self-expression; the opening of doors, as it were, into temples still more vast of knowledge and wisdom than those in which the entity previously had learned certain lessons. It is this rather than any mere adding of detail to detail, of variation to variation, be such morphological or physiological. Evolution is a cosmical, a universal, movement to betterment.
All entities that infill space are following a path to higher things, all are delivering themselves of that which is locked up within them. All are pouring forth the myriad-form lives which they contain — their inner selves and their thought-forms — their vehicles slavishly following the courses that these entities run.
Contrast with this conception the definition of evolution by Professor James Sully, as a "natural history of the cosmos including organic beings, expressed in physical terms as a mechanical process." (Cf. Encyclopaedia Britannica, XIth ed., vol. x, p. 22.)
The theosophist rejects that definition; first, because it leaves out the main characteristic of evolution, which is unfolding from the less to the greater. It is not a definition of evolution; it is simply a statement of things we knew before, and it says nothing of development towards higher things. Second, he rejects it on the ground that it is a merely mechanical and purely theoretical explanation of things that should be considered by the different sciences in their own various departments, and it expresses no unification of those sciences or does so only in terms of dead matter, formed of atoms — driven together by fortuitous action.
It matters little, unless we choose to be sticklers over words, whether we say that evolution is the becoming the simple from the complex; or complexity resulting from simplicity. It probably is both, depending upon the way you look at it. The main thought is that at the core or heart of every animate entity, there is a power, an energy, a principle of self-growth, which needs but the proper environment to bring forth all that is in it. You may plant a seed in the ground, and unless it has its due amount of water and sunshine, it will die. But give it what it needs, let it have the proper environment, and it brings forth its flower and its fruit, which produce others of its own kind. It brings out that which is within it. Yet environment alone cannot produce the flower. There must be an intelligent entity to act upon environment.
Thus man, the evolving monad, the inner, spiritual entity, acts upon nature, acts upon environment, upon surroundings and circumstances, which automatically react, strongly or weakly as the case may be. Environment in a sense is an evolutionary stimulus, allowing the expression, as far as its influences can reach, of the latent powers of the entity within the physical body. Herein we find the true secret of evolution.
Therefore theosophy does not teach the growth in progressive development of an evolving entity in the sense that that entity grows or learns through mental or physical accretions; that is, evolution does not consist merely in adding experience to experience, or detail to detail. That idea we completely reject, because it is not what our studies show us to be the facts of nature. Growth — whether physical or mental or spiritual — is not a continuously enlarged pile, either of experiences, or of variation following upon variation in physical structure.
True evolution on the contrary is, as explained, the unfolding and flowing forth of that which is sleeping or latent as seed or as faculty in the entity itself. This works along three lines which are coincident, contemporaneous, and fully connected in all ways: an evolution of the spiritual nature of the developing creature taking place on spiritual planes; an evolution of the intermediate nature of the creature (in man the psychomental part of his constitution); and a vital-astral-physical evolution, resulting in a body or vehicle increasingly fit for the expression of the powers appearing or unfolding in the intermediate and spiritual parts of the developing entity.
Hence, the theosophist of necessity considers the destiny and evolution of the inner parts of the being as by far the most important, because the evolution or perfecting of the physical body has no other purpose or end than to provide a vehicle, progressively more fit to express adequately the powers of the inner nature. Evolution is thus the drive or effort of the inner entity to express itself in vehicles growing gradually and continuously and steadily fitter and fitter for it.
Professor William Bateson, a well-known British scientist, has expressed the idea, somewhat crudely but graphically, by calling it the "unpacking of an original complex." Turn to a flower or to the seed of a tree. The flower unfolds from its bud and finally attains its bloom, charming both by its beauty and perfume; we see here the unwrapping of what was latent in the seed, later in the bud, later in the bloom. Or again, take the seed of a tree: an acorn, for instance, contains in itself all the potentialities of the oak which it will finally produce — the root-system, the trunk, branches and leaves, and the numerous fruits, other acorns, which it is its destiny finally to produce, and which in their turn will produce other oaks.
Evolution is one of the oldest doctrines that man has ever evolved from his spiritual-mental nature; because evolution properly described is merely a formulated expression of the operations of the cosmos. Every one of the six systems of Hindu philosophy is evolutionist in character, or constructed along that line. All the great Greek thinkers, and the Roman thinkers of large intellectual capacity, taught evolutionary doctrines along these lines.
But this ancient doctrine of evolution is not the evolution of modern science, either in its view of man or of the cosmos. What then is the so-called evolutionism so popular today? It is really "transformism" — an adopted French word; and the French very logically and very rightly so call it, because it is transformism. Now then, what is the difference between this and evolution?
Reduced to simple language, transformism is the doctrine that an unintelligent, dead, nonvitalized, unimpulsed cosmos, whose particles are driven hither and yon by haphazard chance, can collect itself into the forms of innumerable sub-bodies, not only on our earth, but everywhere else, these sub-bodies on our earth being called animate entities, all of which grow to nobler things, how no one knows, therefore no one can say. It is a theory, an hypothesis. It is, in short, the doctrine that things grow into other things unguided by either innate purpose or inner urge.
How can a haphazard, helter-skelter universe produce law and order, and follow direction, and suffer consequences, results strictly following causes? It is the nightmare of a lunatic. We reject the idea. We reject it because it is unphilosophical, unscientific, and likewise because it is irreligious in the theosophical sense.
Thus theosophists are evolutionists but emphatically are not transformists. We declare that there is development; the slow change through the ages of one being — not into another thing or being, but into an increasingly perfected form of itself. That is true evolution. But the idea that one thing can be transformed into another thing is like saying to someone: give me a pile of material — so much wire, so much wood, so much ivory, so much varnish, and a few other things — and just watch that pile evolve into a piano! It never will. That is transformism reduced to simple language.
There is an old Qabbalistic axiom which runs as follows: "The stone becomes a plant; the plant a beast; the beast a man; and the man a god." Verily so it is! But the literal form of these words should not be construed as expressing a perfect Darwinism; not at all.
First, the allusion is to the monad expressing itself through its lowest vehicle, not living in it, but overruling it, working through it, sending a ray down into the pit, as it were, of its lowest body, in this case the stone. The monad provides the invigorating life force, giving to the stone, which is composed of other hosts of infinitesimals, its vital ray. When it is said that the stone becomes a plant, it means that the infinitesimal entities forming and composing the stone have been evolved to express that invigorating ray on a higher plane as a plant; but the inner life and illumination of the monad directing the whole procedure as a unity never abandons its own high plane.
When the saying continues that the plant becomes a beast, this means that the vehicle expressing the invigorating ray from the monad has become fit for that still higher work. The infinitesimal entities forming the plant have become still more evolved or more expressive of the vital ray, and when this occurs they compose and form the beast body, having passed beyond the stage of expressing the plant or the stone.
When the beast becomes a man, it does not imply that man sprang from the beasts, whether from apes or monkeys, or beneath these from the lower mammals. No; it means two things: first, that the inner sun, the inspiriting and invigorating monad — abiding always in its own sphere, but sending its ray, its luminousness, down into matter — thereby gives matter kinetic life and the upward urge, and in this way builds for itself ever fitter vehicles through which to express itself. And second, that each such fitter vehicle was built up — how? By and through the infinitesimal lives which at one period of their existence had lived previously in the beast body which they composed; and before this in the plant which they composed; and before this in the stone which they composed; and lower than the stone these infinitesimal lives manifested the monad in the three worlds of the elementals.
The idea of this progressive development from within outwards is really easy to understand in its first principles. We do not teach that a stone literally metamorphoses itself into a plant and then into a beast at some specified time. Or again, from a beast to a man; or from a man into a god.
The physical body, a congeries of living infinitesimals as it is, itself never becomes a god — which such a literal construction would make it become. It is a transitory and temporal aggregate of these infinitesimals; in reality a form and a name and nothing more — the nama-rupa of Hindu philosophy. But these infinitesimals which compose the body, being growing and learning and advancing lives, grow ever more fit to express the nobler faculties of the genius overruling and illuminating them, and thus pass by what the ancients called metempsychosis (1) into the composition of the bodies of the respective higher stages. That genius, in the case of the infinitesimals composing man's body, is man's spiritual nature, for genius and monad are virtually equivalent in the meaning I am using here.
Compare this logical and comprehensive doctrine with the scientific hypothesis of transformism: i.e., that, following various supposed "laws of nature" operating in individuals, one thing is transformed into another thing. Thus stones will become trees through transforming themselves into trees; trees will become beasts by transforming themselves through change into beasts; beasts will become men by transforming themselves through change into men. Now, the biological scientists do not put it in that fashion. Of course not; it is too palpably grotesque. But it illustrates the precise meaning of the word transformism.
Charles Darwin, for instance, thought that man evolved from the beast kingdom by various natural biological factors operating in that kingdom and as expressed in the individual beast or animate entity, as the case may be, or perhaps more primitively in the vegetable kingdom. He specified as operative causes more particularly what he called natural selection, resulting in the survival of the fittest to survive in their particular environment and in the special circumstances which they had to meet.
His ideas were generally based on the speculations — some of them exceedingly fine — of the Frenchman, Lamarck, who taught what has since been called the theory of acquired or favorable characteristics; that is to say, that an animate entity, by acting upon nature and from the reaction of surrounding natural entities and laws upon it, acquired certain favorable characteristics, which were inherited and passed on to the offspring. And as these characteristics were always for the betterment of the individual acquiring them, therefore there was a gradual advance and progress of that particular racial strain.
Let me illustrate this idea of acquired or favorable characteristics by a bit of old doggerel that I once committed to memory:
A deer had a neck that was longer by half
Than the rest of his family's (try not to laugh),
And by stretching and stretching became a giraffe,
Which nobody can deny!
But the theosophist does deny it; finds it incomprehensible how any deer, by stretching its neck, even if it be somewhat longer than the average, in browsing upon the overhanging branches of trees, should be able to pass on an elongated neck to its offspring. If we inquire into the nature of elongate-necked deer, we shall most certainly find that their offspring are perfectly normal (barring monstrosities)! And a similar inquiry into the possibility of hereditary transmission of acquired characteristics by an individual would probably show that they are not transmitted.
Individuals of course are tremendously affected by environment and circumstance, by their action upon nature and by the reaction of nature upon them; and through long periods of geologic time it is probably true to say that the body of the acting individual, or succession of individuals, would slowly acquire specific modifications. But this would invariably be along the lines of functional tendencies or capacities inherent in the germ plasm, (2) and most certainly would hardly be classified under the general and rather vague expression "the inheritance of acquired or favorable characteristics."
Hence the theory of the transmission by heredity of acquired favorable characteristics is no longer either popular or widely accepted; although there are yet a few diehards who still hold to it as an explanation of the origination of species.
It is not to be supposed — for the common experience of mankind runs contrary to it — that a living body of vegetable, beast, or man, can pass on to its offspring modifications which it itself acquired or suffered during its lifetime, such as membral change, skill, or muscular development on the one hand, and accidents, such as the loss of a limb, on the other hand. This is obvious, and no one teaches it. But if this living being, or rather all the representatives of any particular phylum, live and die through long generations in some particular environment, do they or do they not acquire characteristics or modifications which become so much a part of their physical being that these modifications are transmitted by heredity? This is precisely the question so warmly disputed.
The general tendency of biological transformist thinkers is to say that this is the very process by which racial strains progress or evolve. But a large number of biological evolutionists, in common with the theosophists, say no; because although the idea, as stated, indicates the action or working out of an indwelling drive or urge to higher things, yet these biological evolutionists do not recognize any such inner urge, and therefore discard the theory.
Evolution is a fact. The only question is whether the fortuitous action, through periods of time, of the individuals of a race upon nature, and nature's fortuitous reactions upon those individuals, suffice adequately to explain the process. The idea is steadily growing more and more unfashionable, because the problems of the supposed origination and growth of self-consciousness, and of psychical and intellectual development, are inexplicable by it.
As a matter of fact the real question at issue is this: is there or is there not behind the evolving racial strain, as expressed in its individuals, a vital urge or drive to betterment, working from within outwards? If so, it is true evolution. If the materialistic transformist denies this fact, he has the tremendous onus probandi before him, the almost insurmountable difficulty of explaining whence and why and how these marvelous faculties arise and increase in power and expression with the passage of time. No transformist has yet succeeded in meeting this issue.
The Darwinist is fond of talking of the struggle for life, but we claim that this so-called struggle has been greatly overdrawn. It has now become quite popular to believe on proved facts that there is just as much mutual assistance and helpfulness in the animate portion of the cosmos as there is combat and struggle; indeed, more.
It is somewhat like the old theory of the commercial man, who thought the only way to succeed in business was by gaining advantage over his competitors — advantages of all kinds, honest or dishonest, it mattered very little indeed. But the better and the more modern theory is that commercial operations are truly successful when they are cooperative; that it is far wiser and better for men to help each other, to save each other from financial disaster even, than it is to drive one's competitor to the wall. The reason lies in the organic nature of all human activities in which no one can possibly stand alone. There could, in fact, be no such thing as commercial activities unless men worked together, buying and selling to and from each other; and the operation of the same principle of mutual activities and cooperating interests is to be found everywhere.
Now these reflections amount to a recognition of the forces behind the veil working in human nature; and because man is a child of nature, and has in him everything that nature has in herself, in germ or in development, these forces therefore copy or imbody in the small the same operations, the same forces, the same activities, that work in and through the cosmos.
But returning to the doctrines of transformism, as expressed by the hypotheses of natural selection, the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest: do we deny these as factors in evolution? Put in this way, without any collateral implications of theory or hypothesis, the simple answer is no; nobody denies a fact. For instance, it is obvious that of three men, the fittest is certainly the most likely to survive in a given set of adverse circumstances or indeed of favorable circumstances.
There is nothing new whatsoever about that idea. It is as old as the ages. The common sense of mankind has recognized that the man fit for a certain career will be more likely to succeed in that career than the man who is fit for another career. In each case it is the survival of the fittest to survive in a particular set of circumstances, but the survival of the fittest is not necessarily the survival of the best. And we likewise know, simply put, that nature itself — using nature in a generalizing sense, not as an entity, but as an expression of the operations of the manifold beings with which the cosmos is filled — certainly does "select" or "favor" certain entities because they are fittest for their environment.
The theosophist's whole philosophy-science-religion is based on nature; not alone on the material physical nature which we know with our physical senses, but on that greater nature, of which the physical nature is actually but the vehicle, the expression, of indwelling forces. By nature we mean the entire framework and course of the cosmos, from the ultraspiritual down to the ultraphysical — limitless in each direction.
But why do certain things survive and certain others fail? Why does nature "make selections"? Or, to put it more specifically and accurately, why does nature seem to favor certain races, certain racial strains, certain individuals, allowing them to survive, while others fail or fall?
We have simply to look at nature to find the answer. Why involve ourselves in imaginary hypotheses, when we have the great cosmos all around us, and within us, to draw upon for truth? Certain entities or races survive because they are growing; they are full of vital forces, of an inner urge, which pushes them steadily ahead. Other entities or things fail or go to the wall, because their time to pass away has come, to make place on the stage of life for others to succeed them. Everything in turn has its chance, lives its life and finally passes off the scene.
Is this a helter-skelter universe, in which entities and things are driven by chance hither and thither, in which no law, no consequences operate, in which the good, the bad, and the indifferent, are so just by chance, and not as the result of cause and effect? Who today believes such nonsense? Everything in its turn occupies its place from an anterior operating cause and as a present effect, or exists in a static effectual relation with other things, which temporarily are stronger, more concordant with circumstances and surroundings, and which are therefore fitter to survive than it.
Everything is alive, but not necessarily animately organized; but being living things they must either progress, retrogress, or temporarily stand still — all three of which processes may at some time take place, though the general movement is progressive and forward for all.
The ancients made this same distinction as regards this question of "animate" entities. Those entities, human or subhuman, which possess an "anima," a vital-astral soul, we call animate organisms. In the old Sanskrit they were called jangamas, that is, "goers" or "movers," as contrasted with those which did not possess an anima, or at least in whom the anima existed merely in germ. In Sanskrit these latter were referred to as "fixtures" and called sthavaras, meaning "unmoving." The "fixtures" therefore are the minerals and the plant world, while the "goers" or the "movers" are the beasts and men, and in much smaller degree even the entities of the vegetable kingdom.
By all the above picture we can see that to the theosophist evolution extends over far wider fields, and reaches to far greater heights, and we observe it operative in nature in a far more complex manner, than does the relatively simple teaching of modern scientific transformism.
Table of Contents
1. Cf. Chapter 14, "The Rationale of Reincarnation," for a fuller explanation of the term metempsychosis; see also the author's two-volume work, The Esoteric Tradition, where the subject of reimbodiment in its several forms is treated in depth. (return to text)
2. That is to say, in the protoplasm of the germ cells containing the units of heredity, the chromosomes and genes. (return to text)