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THE PLACE OF CONSCIENCE IN EVOLUTION.
By Rev. T. W. FOWLE.
F all the objections and difficulties that sprang into life the mo
acceptance, very few indeed (exclusive of the purely scientific ones) now give evidence of persistent vitality. Time, which, if age and experience can give wisdom, ought to be so much wiser than any of us, has consigned the greater part of them to oblivion, and evolution is taking its place, one might say, as part of the furniture of the human mind. Chief among these objections was the assertion that evolution could give no satisfactory account of the origin of morality and the genesis of conscience.
Many persons, religious thinkers especially, among whom Mr. Charles Kingsley may be cited as an instance, while willing to accept any reasonable conclusion of science as to the origin and constitution of man, appeared determined to reserve conscience as something inexplicable by any effort of human thinking, and therefore as a direct gift of God to his creatures ; others, again, have gone so far as to assert that the idea of duty as of divine obligation must perish, if the nature and growth of conscience could be explained, as part of the evolution of the race, by natural causation. This feeling, natural and indeed honorable, was strengthened by the fact that the explanation given of the place of conscience in erolution seemed to unprejudiced mindsseemed also to that communis sensus which is, after all, the ultimate court of arbitration in these matters-on the whole inadequate to account for the phenomenon for which explanation was desired. These persistently averred that they were conscious of something within them which no considerations derived from utility or from social life, or from the transference of external sanctions to the inward individual con
sciousness, at all explained or enforced. To a certain extent this feeling was itself a justification of resistance to the claims of evolution to be regarded as a sufficient history of the creation of man. The evolutionists had claimed to be able to make clear to its possessors the mystery of conscience; and if reasonable men asserted that, so far as they were concerned, the sense of mystery remained, it was clear that the last word on the subject was not yet spoken.
I am certainly very far from thinking that the last word will be spoken for some time to come, but I make bold to believe that it is possible to throw further light upon the subject without at all departing from the general principle of evolution to which I have for long given such intellectual adherence as was in my power. Let us, then, begin by endeavoring to understand what were the precise features in the power called conscience, which seemed to intuitional thinkers to baffle and defy the explanations of the evolutionists.
Their general point of view may be fairly expressed by the statement that the conscience must have had an existence prior to the conditions out of which it was supposed to have been evolved. Drawn out in detail, this statement contains the three following propositions :
1. Conscience is instantaneous—that is, innate-in its origin, and therefore not to be accounted for by the supposition that by degrees it was impressed upon the mind from without. It bears so strong a resemblance to the other faculties, the senses and emotions, that, like them, it must have formed part of the original constitution of man. When examined it seems to testify that it is in no sense a composition, not made up of iong and varied experiences, but the result of a single creative act, or at any rate the instantaneous product of certain conditions brought for the first time into relation with each other. In other words, the length of time postulated by evolutionists for the development of man is not granted them in the case of conscience. We shall see presently whether they really require it.
2. Conscience is instantaneous—that is, intuitional-in its operations, and therefore not to be accounted for by the action and reaction of social relationships. Had there been but one man, that one man would have been able to say, “I must do this ; ” and, again, there must have been a sense that it was right to combine for social purposes of mutual help and comfort before men could have conceived the idea of doing so. The notion that I ought to act in a certain way toward my neighbor is, if not a primary, at least a very easy one, whereas the notion that I ought to act in a certain way, because it is for his or our advantage, seems prima facie a much later one. There is, in short, a correlation between the conscience and an external rightness, which is just as natural, as rapid, as unaffected by later relationships, as is the correlation between the eye and light. In primeval man the conscience detects, however dimly and imperfectly, morality in actions just as the eye detects shape and color in objects. Social and civilized life may
THE PLACE OF CONSCIENCE IN EVOLUTION. 515
enable him to see more clearly and explain more completely, but it cannot give him either the eye or the conscience.
3. Conscience is also instantaneous-that is, imperative-in its commands. It never stops to argue when once the right is, or is thought to be, ascertained. But if mankind had reached the lofty heights of duty by the ladder of utility or the gradually-growing influence of external sanctions, it might have been expected that some fragments of the ladder, some traces of the process, some memory of the time when
ought” was a word of dubious meaning and uncertain cogency, would have been preserved. The evidence derivable from the histories of savage existence seems plainly to indicate that this imperativeness of conscience is inseparable from the most rudimentary stage of moral and social life. In short, to put the matter as briefly as possible, those who object to the theory of evolution maintain that it is impossible to conceive of any creature entitled to the name of a human being who was not as much furnished with a conscience as any of his successors. True, the primeval conscience had not begun to construct moral rules any more than the primeval eye had formed theories of light and form; but the existence of both was equally indisputable and essential to the idea of man,
Now, if it can be shown that there is a place in evolution for the formation of a conscience fulfilling all these conditions-if, that is, the theory of evolution can be proved to account precisely for those phenomena that seem prima facie to militate most strongly against it-if this feature, which I have called instantaneousness, and have exhibited in three of its leading characteristics, is exactly what one might expect to find in the evolution of the human race--then I submit we have obtained a confirmation of the truth of the said theory of that nature which appeals most forcibly to the common-sense and practical judgment of mankind. Let this, then, be the judge as to whether all that is instantaneous in conscience is not fully accounted for by the considerations I am about to urge.
In seeking to account for the origin of man by evolution we are frequently obliged to confess that the entire absence of contemporary evidence compels us, at any rate for the present, to say of many phenomena, that if we knew more we should be able to answer difficulties and clear up perplexities which seem at this present moment wellnigh insuperable. The gaps are such that they cannot be filled up even by the imagination. Science has done but little yet to enable the intellect to form an idea to itself of the way in which organic life and reasoning man began to exist upon the earth. Impenetrable darkness hangs over vast epochs, nor is it possible in the present absence of materials to fill in the picture of that critical time when man (slowly or suddenly, who can tell ?) rose up from among the beasts and said, or rather felt without being able to say, “I am.' But then by our hypothesis this is also the time when he also said, “I must.” We
feel assured that at this time,
by orderly development and natural process of causation, all that is most vital and precious to humanity, all the seeds of man's present and eternal future, came into existence ; but none tbe less is the darkness so great that even the imagination refuses to move from its place. The surrounding objects are there if the light would but dawn so as to enable us to see them. It is very necessary to remind ourselves of this, lest we seem to be expressing ourselves with too much certainty in doubtful matters. But however necessary this may be when we are dealing with many other questions respecting the origin of man, it is, I firmly believe, by no means so necessary in our present investigation. That phenomenon, called conscience, which seemed at first sight the most likely to resist analysis by way of evolution, proves upon experiment to yield most readily to it.
As usual in questions of this description, philosophy has been made the slave, the victim, and finally the accomplice of language. The word conscience has come to suggest a kind of special faculty, not exactly thought and not exactly feeling, which presides over a specific department of man's being, namely, his moral conduct. Whereas, reduced to its simplest elements, conscience is merely the power which the mind possesses of discerning rightness. Just as we discern something called beautiful which we must admire, or something called pleasurable which we must seek, so do we perceive something right which we must do. And so our specific question comes to this, “How did the idea or the fact of rightness enter into the world ?”
There can, I think, be no doubt that the general tendency of the teaching of evolution has been to reintroduce into philosophy the idea that such things as virtue, goodness, happiness, right, are absolute and fixed quantities, formed for man and not by him, existing independently of him, and therefore the same to all men in all circumstances. They are realized by the complete and harmonious adjustment of the self-conscious ego to the circumstances out of which it came and by which it is surrounded. Can, then, evolution help us to perceive how the idea of there being such a thing as absolute fixed rightness came into the world ?
Let us transfer ourselves in thought as far back as the time when the origin of man took place, and let us imagine a being slowly or suddenly arriving at the stage of self-conscious existence. For our present purpose it matters little whether we attribute this to a gradual progress, or (what is surely possible) to a sudden but natural leap in evolution, or to a special act of creation adapting itself to materials already at its disposal. (I mention this last alternative merely to show that this theory of the origin of conscience does not conflict with any reasonable hypothesis as to the origin of man.) Now this Being owed his origin to the law or process of natural selection. He had been cradled, so to speak, under conditions which prescribed a continual struggle for existence, and which permitted only the strongest and fittest to survive and multiply. His “conduct” up to the moment or epoch when it be