Russell and Duenes

Chesterton: The History of Prehistoric Man

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g-k-chesterton1Chesterton called this notion “the sort of unreason in which only rationalists are allowed to indulge.” See The Everlasting Man, ch. 2, “Professors and Prehistoric Men.” The difficult thing – difficult for me, at least – in writing about Chesterton is that he says so many brilliant things with great humor and wit, that all I want to do is quote him, which would amount simply to copying down each page. Merely summarizing his work won’t do, for the way he writes about things is perhaps more important than what he writes about. Nevertheless, I’ll try to pass along a few highlights from this chapter.

Chesterton continues his discussion of how anthropologist talk about “prehistoric man,” as though they had some actual historical evidence to go on. It gets rather hilarious when he skewers scientists for going on and on about the life of some prehistoric creatures, of whom we only have “one scrap of bone.” This “bone” is the scientist’s “weapon and his only weapon. He often wields it with a fanaticism far in excess of anything shown by men of science when they can collect more facts from experience and even add new facts by experiment. Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs – or that it came from them.” Here Chesterton is putting his finger on the arrogance of “scientific” claims that are based on little to no evidence. Imagine what he would say today, when the scientistic worldview is in full hubris. It does no good to say that the scientific enterprise should stick to the modest claims of which it is truly capable, for scientism’s religious fervor cannot abide such modesty, nor was it meant to. Man totalizes his religions claims. It’s the image of God within us.

Chesterton wants to know what we can deduce from the fact that prehistoric men drew reindeer. Perhaps we should deduce that they “may possibly have found it easier to draw reindeers than to draw religion.” But to conclude that such men had no religion because they drew reindeer is preposterous. Science wants to have it both ways. If the ancients drew reindeer, say the anthropologists, it proves that man was unconcerned with religion back then because he didn’t draw something more profound. Yet if the prehistoric men drew nothing, the scientist concludes that man was unconcerned with religion because he didn’t draw at all. To which Chesterton says, “The truth is that all this guesswork has nothing to do with anything. It is not half such a good parlour game as shooting arrows at a carved reindeer, for it is shooting them into the air.” Belly laugh follows.

Where is Chesterton going with all this? I think he is trying to build the case that mankind has always been unique because he has always been a spiritual being in God’s image. That is, we cannot explain the rise of religion by arguing that mankind was responding to “religious forms.” For religion to come about in man, man “needed a certain sort of mind to see that there was anything mystical about the dreams or the dead, as it needed a particular sort of mind to see that there was anything poetical about the skylark or the spring. That mind was presumably what we call the human mind, very much as it exists today.” It’s logically possible that cows and dogs could get religion someday, says Chesterton, “but all that instinct for the probable, which we call common sense, must long ago have told us that the animals are not to all appearance evolving in that sense; and that, to say the least, we are not likely to have any personal evidence of their passing from the animal experience to the human experiments.” Thus, Chesterton concludes that “a transition had occurred to which bones and stones cannot in their nature bear witness; and man became a living soul.”

Two realities confirm this for Chesterton: 1) Original sin, and 2) human families. He only begins his discussion of these in this chapter, but the uniqueness of the human family unit holds great evidentiary weight for Chesterton in seeing humankind as special and different in kind from the animals.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm

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