Man in Evolution by G. de Purucker

Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter 6

The Evolutionary Stairway of Life

The psychology of the times following the publication of Darwin's works was so strong that most thinking men could not then be brought to admit that there were any alternative explanations of the phenomena of progressive development in life — human, beast, or plant life — to the scheme of transformism which he set forth. This psychological phenomenon was brought about mainly by the efforts of two men, men of large culture, but vociferously enthusiastic and more or less dogmatic in the presentation of their views; and they ended by convincing the world that the evolutionism, in reality the transformism, that they taught was the actual procedure of manifested life in producing development in all creatures.

These two men were Thomas Henry Huxley and Ernst Heinrich Haeckel. Both were fervent Darwinists, with modifications, both ardent transformists. Their influence, on the whole, has not been good upon the mentality of the human race.

We do not question the bona fides of either of them, but we do question their influence for good upon thinking and unthinking minds. They taught things that in many important essentials were not true, and taught them in such fashion that their hearers were led to believe that they were true. This influence was brought to bear upon the minds of the people of those days by means of the great literary and scientific standing which these two men in particular had. We do not accuse them of deliberation in misstatement and in divergence from the facts of nature in order to support their theories; we merely state what we believe to be a fact from an impartial consideration of results.

These two men were exceedingly able; but they spoke with the voice of authority on subjects which they themselves, in many particulars, were merely guessing at. These conclusions are not mine alone. They are also the conclusions of many scientific researchers and thinkers of today — greater scientists of their own class, later men with wider knowledge and deeper insights into nature's workings.

Take, as an instance, Haeckel. In our sense he was the more dangerous of the two, for the reason that he had a vein of mysticism running through him; and when a peculiar type of mysticism is combined with blind, crass materialism, it inevitably produces certain doctrines which actually degrade psychologically those who hear and follow them.

A man who will say that there is nothing but intrinsically lifeless matter in the universe, striving chance-like towards better things; and who in the same breath will talk of "plastidular souls" — the "souls" of cells — these "souls" being explained apparently as the fortuitous offspring of lifeless matter; and who will, in order to complete his schemes of genealogical trees as regards man's developmental past, invent, suggest, and print imaginary stages of development in his books without also calling attention to the fact that they were his own inventions, is not, we submit, truly scientific.

One of these inventions is to be found in Haeckel's book, The Last Link, published in 1898. In it he divides the evolutionary history of mankind into twenty-six stages. His twentieth stage he gives as that of the "Lemuravida" (who were placental mammals), which might be translated from its hybrid Latin form as "the grandfathers of the lemurs" — the lemurs being a very primitive type of mammal, supposed to antedate the monkeys in evolutionary time, and often called Prosimiae. Now, no one ever heard of these particular "Lemuravida" before, and they have never been found since; and, as Professor Frederic Wood Jones, the eminent British anatomist said, they were simply "invented by Haeckel for the purpose of filling in a gap." (The Problem of Man's Ancestry, pp. 19-20.)

Huxley was a man of very similar scientific type of mind, but with another psychological bent to his genius. He was psychologized with the idea that there was an end-on or continuous or uniserial evolution in the developmental history of animate beings, as known to him; that is, that one type led to another type — the highest of the lower order or family or group passed by degrees into the lowest of the next following or higher group. His whole lifework was based on this theory; and all his teachings — backed by much biological research and anatomical knowledge, and other factors that make a man's words carry weight — had immense vogue for these reasons.

With this viewpoint in mind, he was continually trying to find connecting links by considering likenesses between man, for instance, and the various stocks inferior to him; and it must be admitted that in his attempt a great many unlikenesses and dissimilarities and fundamental differences, all of extreme importance, were either ignored entirely, or — may I say it? — willfully slurred over.

It was the old, old story, both in Huxley's case and in Haeckel's: what was good for their theories was accepted and pressed home to the limit; and what was contrary to their theories was either ignored or suppressed. We submit that, great as these men were each in his own field, such a procedure is not a truly scientific one. We can excuse their enthusiasm; but an excuse is not by any means an extension of sympathy to the mistake.

The idea which governed and directed the entire lifework of Huxley was not the offspring of his own mind. There is little doubt that he took this idea from the Frenchman, de Buffon, who says, for instance, in speaking of the body of the orangutan, that "he differs less from man than he does from other animals which are still called apes" (Histoire naturelle, vol. xiv, p. 30, 1766; quoted by F. Wood Jones, op. cit., p. 21), that is to say from the monkeys. And Huxley, writing in 1863, has the following in Man's Place in Nature:

The structural differences which separate man from the gorilla and the chimpanzee are not so great as those which separate the gorilla from the lower apes. — p. 103

Please note that I refer to end-on or continuous or uniserial evolution only insofar as Huxley thought it existed in the subhuman beings and their geological progenitors that he knew, or thought must exist in order to conform with his theory. As a matter of fact, end-on, continuous, or uniserial evolution per se, is also fully taught by theosophy, but not that particular line or course which Huxley took for granted. He took this for granted without adequate proof that the beings now below man, or in geological times of the past then below the human stock, formed or provided the road of the evolutionary course of the prehuman stock eventuating in modern man.

This the theosophist emphatically denies, for the reason that the ancestors of the simian, and of other mammalian entities now existing, were themselves stocks following their own line of development, even as the human stock now does and then did. In other words, instead of there being one single line representing the ascending scale of evolutionary development passing through the geological progenitors of present-day mammals, towards and into man, there are several, and indeed perhaps many, such genealogical trees.

The theosophical teaching in brief is this: the human stock represents one genealogical tree, the Simiidae another stock, each following its own line of evolution. Yet the latter, the simian stock, originally sprang from the human strain in far past geologic times, and also, indeed, the other genealogical trees of the still lower mammalia; while the classes of the Aves or Birds, the Reptilia or Reptiles, the Amphibia or Amphibians, and the Pisces or Fishes, may likewise truly be said to have been in geologic times still more remote, very primitive offsprings from the same prehuman (or man) stock.

Huxley thus assumed, because there are undisputed and indisputable likenesses between man and the anthropoid or manlike ape and the monkeys still lower than the ape, that therefore man sprang at some remote period in the geologic past from some remote (but totally unknown) ancestor of monkey and ape. He had never seen such a missing progenitor; no such missing progenitor has ever yet been discovered.

But be deemed that there must be one because it was necessary for his theory; and he so taught it, and taught it with emphasis and with enthusiasm. His voice rang out over the entire English-speaking world, and his ideas were accepted as established facts in organized knowledge — science.

Unfortunate enthusiasm! — culminating in the teaching to modern man that his ancestry was bestial, beasts whose ancestry again was that of some still lower creature, perhaps a quadruped, whose remote ancestor in its turn still farther back was perhaps a fish, whose still remoter ancestor was a protozoon — some one-celled entity. Huxley's scheme has never been proved true; some of the most brilliant minds in biological research have sought to substantiate it; yet the result of their researches has been entirely contradictory of it.

We must not imagine for a moment that the natural truth of progressive development, modernly called evolution, is something new in our age or in the age of our immediate fathers, nor that it originated in the mind of Charles Darwin, whose great work, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859.

The idea of there being a ladder of life, a rising scale of entities, some much more advanced than others, some more retarded in development than others, is a very old one. There have existed in the world among the different races of men, in ages preceding our own, various systems of accounting for what the inquisitive intelligence of man plainly saw exists among the animate entities of earth — a rising scale of beings. Here you have the picture: first man, supposed to be the crowning glory of the evolutionary scale on earth; and underneath him the anthropoid apes, and underneath them the monkeys, the simian stock; and under these latter the lemurs, sometimes called the prosimiae; and underneath these have been frequently placed the quadrupedal mammals; and underneath these various classes, orders, genera, and species of vertebrate animals; and underneath these again a very wide range of invertebrates or animals without a backbone; and so forth down the scale.

This idea of a progressive development of all animate entities on earth in present and past geological periods is, indeed, a very old one. Leaving aside for the time being allusions to teachings as to evolutionary development in the archaic writings, such as in the Puranas of India, or in the so-called speculations of Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers, let us come down to periods more near our own.

For instance, here is a thought taken from Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici — quite a remarkable book of its kind and published in 1643. He says:

. . . there is in this Universe a Stair, or manifest Scale, of creatures, rising not disorderly, or in confusion, but with a comely method and proportion.

Just so. There is a stair of life; it is what the Swiss philosopher and biologist, Charles Bonnet, and the French thinkers and biologists, Lamarck, de Buffon, and especially Jean Baptiste Rene Robinet, called rechelle des etres — "the ladder of beings." It was the very recognition of this scale of animate life, swaying the minds of these earlier investigators, that led to the culmination in our time of the theory of so-called evolution; and it was Charles Darwin himself who is responsible for having formed a more or less coherent structure of argument, building up a logical outline, as far as he could understand it, of the facts of nature, his theory, or rather his method, attaining almost immediate acceptance.

While we see this ladder of being and must take it into a full and proper consideration in any attempt to ascertain the rising pathway of evolutionary development, is that a sufficient reason for imagining — and teaching our imaginings as facts of nature — that there has been a progressive development running through these particular and especial discontinuous phyla or stocks, and eventuating in man?

This is one side of our quarrel with modern transformism. The series is obviously discontinuous; none of the steps of this ladder melts into the next higher one, or inversely into the next lower, by imperceptible gradations, as should be the case if the transformist theory were true.

Biologists themselves soon found that this so-called stair or ladder of life was a discontinuous one. They saw, as their knowledge of nature increased, that each of these great groups below man — the backboneless animals or invertebrates, and the vertebrates or backboned animals such as the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and the mammals — did not graduate into each other.

Between these various groups there were vast hiatuses without known connecting links; and researchers hunted long and vainly for "missing links," and found them not. They found them neither in any living entities, nor in those forming the formerly animate record of the geological strata; and those missing links have not yet been discovered. These gaps, therefore, made the biologic series of living entities discontinuous instead of continuous, as Darwin's method required.

Darwin and his followers imagined that they had perceived, by investigating various stages in this presently existing ladder of life, the route, the way, by and through which the human stock had climbed from lower beings to higher — to present-day man. But every attempt to find missing links — that is to say, links binding the highest of one particular phylum or stock to the lowest of the next superior phylum or stock — has always broken down. No such missing links have ever been found. There are wide hiatuses where, according to this transformist theory, these missing links should be.

Now, obviously, any stock supposed to have been evolving through these various groups, could not have made such jumps from one great group to another great group. One of Darwin's maxims was Natura non facit saltum, "Nature makes no leaps." Evolution is a steady progression forwards, he said, from the less to the more perfect, from the simpler to the more complex. There is here no ground for dispute between our two otherwise extremely diverse views as to the nature and course of evolution.

What then is the explanation of this discontinuity — of this lack of connections or links between the phyla or stocks? For we find this discontinuity in every instance where we pass from one great stock or phylum to the next. It is not the case of a single instance; it is not a unique situation, explainable perhaps by certain causes, of which we are ignorant; but this discontinuity is repeated between every one of the great stocks.

The fact is that there is not, as regards the beings existent today, or rather as regards their progenitors in geological eras of the past, an end-on evolution or uniserial evolution up to and including man, the supposed crown of that biologic series, in the manner that we have been taught; but instead, a number of stocks, each passing through various stages as marked out by their different orders and families and genera and species.

The truth is that instead of there being one genealogical tree, there are many. Whence came these different genealogical trees? The human stock is one; the anthropoid apes are another, closely allied with the monkeys; then the quadrupedal mammals again are another stock; the birds are still another; and so forth. These are all different stocks, though undoubtedly connected together in various ways by vital bonds of contemporaneous development both now and in the past. Otherwise they would not be collected together on our earth, nor would they show those particular affinities which these various stocks undoubtedly do show today as well as in past time. We may contemplate all this and admit these various facts, and yet say with perfect security that they do not furnish or form that ascending ladder of life, through which we as humans passed in order to reach our present stage, in the degree and in the continuity of continuous gradations from lower to higher, that the true evolutionist must demand.

There has been, I repeat, no end-on evolution of this kind or in the manner outlined; that is to say, man did not evolve through and in the creatures of all degrees and of all classes and orders and families and genera existent on the earth today, or rather as regards their more remote and most distant ancestors. The specific characters in the various stocks are all too far evolved along their respective lines, and have existed too far back in geologic time, for the human strain to have passed through them on its upward journey.

Research has shown that instead of its being the highest of any subphylum passing into the lowest of any higher subphylum, it is almost invariably the lowest representative in each phylum which are most alike in primitive features — a most significant fact. It was so with all the groups, particularly so in the case of the vertebrates or animals with backbones, that is to say the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

The simple reason is that the farther we go back in time the nearer we approach to the junction point or starting point of the various mammalian and premammalian genealogical strains. This is because, springing from one common source, they naturally approximate both in type and character the farther back we can trace them.

Simply stated, the farther we go back towards the origin of any such great group, the nearer we approach to the general and common point of departure — and the nearer those earliest progenitors of each such great group will resemble each other in basal mammalian simplicity; while, on the other hand, the farther we recede from that general and common point of departure, in other words, the nearer we approach our present age, the more widely separate must the representatives of these various great stocks be from each other, on account of the differing natures and the inherent forces evolving through them.

What is this common point of departure? It is the human stock. The human race considered as a whole is the most primitive of all the mammalian stocks on earth today, and always has been so in past time. I mean by this, that it is the primordial stock; it is the originator of the entire mammalian line, in a manner and according to laws of nature which we shall reserve for a future study.

The human stock was the first mammalian line; obviously it is at present the most advanced, and the logical deduction would be that it is likewise the oldest in development. Having started the first, it has gone the farthest along the path. But we will not press that point for the present.

Man is, in fact, the most primitive of all stocks on earth. Remember, however, that in the present great evolutionary period on earth, or what in theosophy is called the present "globe-round," it is the mammals only that trace their origin from the primitive human line. The other vertebrates, as well as the great groups of the invertebrates, likewise were derived from the human stocks, but in the previous globe-round — comprising a vastly long cycle of evolutionary development, which was ended aeons upon aeons ago, and which itself, i.e., the former globe-round or great tidal wave of life, required scores of millions of years for its completion. Evolution as taught by theosophy calls for a time of vastly long duration; indeed, many hundreds of millions of years.

The Darwinists have never been able adequately to prove the thesis of Charles Darwin, considered as a method, because they could not prove an end-on, continuous, or serial developmental growth from any one of the lower great groups into the next higher great group; or, more generally speaking, from the lowest life up to man. There is along that scale, let me repeat, no end-on evolution, and none knows this better than modern biologists themselves.

Yet theosophy teaches that evolution, if it exists at all, must be an end-on, continuous, or uninterrupted serial evolution. An evolution of form which consists mainly of jumps from great group to great group is no evolution at all, and presents anew the very riddle which the Darwinian theory was expected to explain. The problem is cleared up when we remember that evolution is continuous for each stock along its own particular pathway. Instead of there being one ladder of life, leading up to man who is the crown of that ladder, as it were, there are many such ladders of life, each such being composed of one of the great groups of animate entities. Instead of there being one procession of living entities pursuing an uninterrupted course from the protozoa or one-celled animals up to man, there are various ladders of life along each of which a procession of its own kind climbs. It is essential to understand this idea, because it expresses some of our main points of divergence from the Darwinian theories.

Chapter 7

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