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Mostly Fools

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Man claims many divine prerogatives but few are more distinctly enjoyable than the privilege of passing judgment on his fellows. I fancy that Carlyle’s dyspepsia was momentarily alleviated when he gave vent to that swift summary of the human race from which I have taken my title. The denunciatory mood, however, is too much in the ancient tradition; it hardly accords with that temper of scientific detachment which is the fashion today. It is all right to feel intellectually superior to one’s fellows, but moral superiority is Victorian. What we want is to be told how it strikes the visitor from another planet. The British have so accustomed us to this kind of treatment that it no longer hurts anybody’s feelings. Consider, then, the natural history of fools.

Our studies begin naturally with anatomy and physiology. It would seem that even a captious Martian could find little to criticize with the way, Nature has done this part of her work. The human machine has been designed by a very capable inventor who has provided automatic adjustments for a host of emergencies. Much of the progress of modern medicine has consisted in discovering the truth of the axiom, “Nature is the best physician,” and the doctor’s energies are devoted to removing extraneous impediments so as to allow her to concentrate on the main task. Wlien we turn our gaze on other living creatures we find the same perfection of workmanship. The owl is a good example: ears to catch the slightest sound, wings to fly silently, eyes to see in the dark, talons to seize and beak to tear. Everything goes to the making of a creature who is what he does—structure fitted to function like a glove. The unravelling of these interrelationships has been the work of naturalists of the older generation. The economic interpretation of human history may be inadequate; the economic interpretation of natural history is a master-key. Not that Nature is mechanically perfect in the sense that a watch is perfect. Helmholtz once said that if any optician sent him an instrument imperfect as the human eye, he would lose no time in returning it. To this Nature might reply to Helmholtz that if anyone sent her an instrument so easily damaged as a microscope, she would return it with equal promptness, but would smash it first. Her standard of excellence is the ability to function somehow in spite of hard knocks, to repair injuries without stopping work.

Our difficulties begin, however, when we pass from the problem of comprehending the world as it is to the attempt to understand how it became what it is. The word “evolution” explains nothing—it simply acknowledges the fact of change. Darwin’s theory isolates a single factor; it asserts that the change must be useful, that the organism must somehow come to terms with its world. We can often reconstruct from fossils some of the stages through which an “improvement” has passed; better still, we can find the various stages simultaneously existing in different species. But the actual process of change nearly always eludes us. Nature is nearly always resting after triumph. Each species is today what it was yesterday, a static thing. Obviously it has progressed at some time; presumably it will progress again; but in the ordinary course of things we have learned not to expect figs from thistles.

To this general presumption of permanence there is one outstanding exception—man. Not as a physical individual; the laws of human heredity are essentially the same as those for rabbits or oak trees. Not mentally; it is at least doubtful whether the quality of the modern mind is superior to that of the ancient Greeks. But socially—in all the activities,-that is, which man displays as a member of a group— the change goes on so swiftly as to defy any attempt at classification. Imagine, if you can, some Brobdignagian naturalist studying through his lens the inhabitants of New York and trying to describe their life in the way we describe the polity of a bee-hive or an ant-hill. Or, if you prefer Lilliput, imagine a swarm of bees that in a single generation showed even a fraction of our instability. It would be enough to break the heart of a systematist trying to put things in pigeon holes, each with a neat and not too short Latin label. Nathaniel Shaler tells in his autobiography of a friend of this sort who was classifying molluscs and was puzzled by a “transitional” type. After studying it a long time he threw it on the floor and ground it under his heel, remarking, “That’s the proper way to serve a damned transitional form.” The human race would fare badly at the hands of such a man. It is true that even in man these transitional periods are relatively rare. It is hard to emphasize sufficiently the historical uniqueness of an age like the present in which change seems the one permanent fact. Instead of a creator working six days out of seven, the story is one of short spurts of industry and long periods of idleness. Just now we have a chance to watch the process. The story of human “progress” is not merely a parallel and analogy to the story of organic evolution—it is a particular instance. It is risky, of course, to draw conclusions about the general process from a particular instance; equally risky, however, is the cocksureness with which some biologists apply to man conclusions drawn from their study of static species. The uniformity of Nature which is the foundation of the natural sciences is here a meaningless phrase. We cannot derive dynamics from statics; we must study motion where things are moving. In human affairs this movement takes the form of invention, new tools, new foods, new modes of co-operative effort. Each of these started in the mind of one man, but there is a wide gap between a mere idea and a successful invention. How does the eccentricity of one creative individual draw the rest of mankind into its orbit?

About a generation ago the first automobiles appeared in the world. Let us grant that they were not such sudden and absolute novelties, that they too had their ancestry stretching a long way back, that they required a host of subsidiary inventions like wheels and roads and gasoline and a science of thermodynamics. Still this particular synthesis of all these elements was new. The older of us can recall, the younger can see in museums those uncouth paleozoic creatures which first appeared to desecrate the peaceful highways, scaring horses and children, noisy, malodorous and temperamental, twenty horse-power going out and one mule coming back. The other day I saw an advertisement picturing a handsomely dressed woman on the upholstered front seat of a big car with one languid gloved hand upon the steering wheel and bearing the legend, “Effortless.” And all this in about thirty years. Whence comes the difference? To the original invention of the gasoline engine much had to be added to make the modern motor-car, so that it is not one invention but a thousand. These other inventions, however, all cluster around a purpose and tend toward an ideal which was embodied in the first car built. They represent stages in a process through which all inventions must pass before they become common property.

This process is still better exemplified by the evolution of the railroad signal. First we have a crude semaphore, operated by hand, to tell the train crew that the track ahead is open or obstructed. This is a labor-saving and time-saving device which makes it possible to convey this information quickly and simply, but which requires the presence somewhere of the omniscient dispatcher and of a corps of disciplined and intelligent assistants in the signal towers. If one of these should blunder by leaving an open switch while displaying the signal for a clear track, there is a wreck. This leads to the invention of “interlocking”; signals and switch are connected together so that the wrong combination is impossible. Still the dispatcher may go wrong; he may forget that Number Four is still in the block and may issue orders for Number Seventeen to proceed. Thus we are led to the automatic signal which makes each train announce its occupancy the minute it enters the block. There remains, however, the engineer, who may be blind or drunk or inattentive; today we are witnessing the introduction of devices to make it physically impossible for the train to proceed into danger, automatically putting on the breaks when it is attempted. It will be noted that while the original object of the invention was the saving of labor, the purpose of all the later improvements has been the saving of thought. Wre say that the invention has been made “foolproof,” a term with a strongly Carlylean flavor, expressing a conviction on the part of the inventor that, while in rare instances the cerebrum may do something useful, it is generally definable as the organ with which we make mistakes. I read recently an article on the automatic telephone exchange which called it an invention with a brain, a poor epithet for an exchange that cannot give you a wrong number. We will allow it the possession of a medulla oblongata, or at most a cerebellum, but nothing so fallible as thought is permitted it.

The importance of labor saving in modern civilization is generally conceded. The equally important economy of thought is more often overlooked. It is not enough to harness Nature; she must be so broken to harness that a child can drive her. This is the acme toward which we strive; this too the pattern and the plan by which creation has worked to make the human eye which Helmholtz wanted to send back to its maker. The camera has incomparably the finer lens, but what camera will wink when threatened with a blow, or wash away the mote which settles on it?

In Kipling’s story, “Captains Courageous,” there is described a fisherman whose phenomenal success was explained on the theory that he could think like a codfish. Some such feat is required of the inventor. He must play the reckless idiot with the children of his brain, testing them with the roughest kind of treatment, trying every kind of abuse he can think of. And the manufacturer must provide all kinds of “service” so that “when the thing that couldn’t has occurred,” there will be spare parts, expert attention and the like, ready at a moment’s notice. The average man has come to look upon this service as a matter of course; he does not resent its imputation of feeble-mindedness. No one works unless he has to, and no one thinks unless he has to; this is the divine decree, this the spirit of true democracy. “Why should we toil, the roof and crown of things?” Is it not written on the sky in letters of gold, “You push the button; we do the rest?” This is the formula of the simple life as understood today.

But who is the “we”? The average man has a very hazy picture of them. There comes to my mind a conversation in Dickens—between, I think, Tony Weller and his son:

“They say,” began Mr. Weller. “Who say?” said Sam. “Them as says everything,” replied his father.

Thus we hear some one cheerfully remark over the morning paper, “I see they’ve invented a way to send pictures by radio”; or, “They’ve discovered a new kind of ray.” Who “they” may be is a question beyond his purview. They are simply “them as does everything,” a species of Olympians inhabiting some neighboring heaven, a part of the mysterious ordering of Nature beneficent, unexplainable. He does not visualize those sons of Martha who carry the burden of the world’s forethought, and whose sleepless distrust in Providence makes smooth the path of the sons of Mary; those hardy pioneers who fought their way through jungle and thicket where now the high road goes. They are not numbered among the great ones of the earth. The heathen in his blindness still bows down to wood and stone; he elects to high office some utterly commonplace man and then bows in adoration to this graven image of the great god Demos. To one man, Michael Faraday, the world owes more of that comfort and “service” which it prizes than to all the princes and presidents of our time, but who was Faraday? Only one of “them as does everything.”

But this demand for service grows by what it feeds on, and it is not surprising therefore to find the public exacting a foolproof article in spheres far removed from the world of material invention. For instance, religion. There was a time when the life of the spirit was fraught with real peril, like a sea voyage. Heaven was a port hard to make and hell an ever-present menace. Today the voyage may be made in liners so luxurious that few of the travellers realize they are afloat. Some prophets there are indeed in the churches who have not lost the mystic’s vision of union with God. But the standard which the up-to-date congregation exacts of its minister is the standard of the first class passenger— ease, safety, service.

It is the same with government. Once eternal vigilance was the price of liberty, but the application of modern methods of quantity production has reduced this price considerably. It is absurd to expect the average man to be eternally vigilant about anything. The fraraers of our constitution noted this defect in the liberty of their time and proceeded to design a foolproof article. A glance at the make-up of Congress will show how marvellously they succeeded. There have been improvements in the service since those early days—prohibition, censorships and a host of experts on morals and manners. Our rude forefathers took a foolish pride in being able to do things for themselves; our day is the day of paid experts.

But it is in the field of education that the modern demand for service has met with the greatest response. There are over twenty-two million motor vehicles in the United States; the time is not far distant when there will be as many college graduates, so rapid is the progress we have made toward the foolproofing of knowledge. Time was when the possessor of a degree was a marked man in his community, like the owner of a car in the ‘nineties. The attainment of an education was an arduous and perilous journey along a wreck-strewn road. This condition was obviously so intolerable and so unprofitable to the zealous servants of mankind that the best inventive thought of the age was concentrated on its betterment. These fishers of men set themselves to think like a codfish, eliminating the thought from thinking until we can now proudly display a picture of a languid youth or maiden in cap and gown, holding an unrolled diploma on which appears the legend, “Effortless.” Latin and Greek belong to the days of the horse and tallow candle; mathematics has been known to wreck a promising career. But here is a nice course about mathematics, with all those horrid x’s and things left out, telling you how to teach it. The courses in sociology have some beautiful long words in them, but if you find spelling difficult, how about cheer-leading? Courses on the appreciation of moving-pictures are soon to be put on the market. Tell us what you want to do and we’ll make up a course in it. Moreover, the student is not required to know too many things at once; he may start a sort of savings account with his credits; he does not necessarily know about cheer-leading when he graduates —he has had cheer-leading. But, after all, a college course involves four years’ residence; this is a defect which should be remedied. So we have extension courses, correspondence courses, summer courses. The college with such a valuable article to sell cannot afford to overlook any possible market —I mean any field of service. Eveiy, now and then there is an eruption of articles in our magazines over what is wrong with our colleges, cavillings of disgruntled folk who are Und to the meaning of progress. If this is not progress, v *n neither is it progress to be able to stay at home of a Si iday and listen to a sermon over a seven tube superheterodyne receiving set.

This work of the colleges is supplemented by other agencies. Lecturers, writers, publishers, all combine to remove from the common man the stigma of ignorance. Those of us who were born too soon must look with envy on the young people of today who are offered the opportunity of learning chiropractic, magazine illustration, French in six easy lessons, short-story writing—all in their spare time; who can buy seedless science and boneless philosophy from the nearest book-seller. We ourselves cannot profit by these advantages; we are too lately emerged from savagery. There is no excuse today for the darkness of the past generation. Service and Salesmanship, united in holy wedlock, have begotten a progeny whose mission is to make ignorance impossible. There are literary guilds to tell people what the well-dressed mind should wear, loose-leaf encyclopaedias, science services to protect us from the horror of going to a dinner without the latest news from Betelguese. History, which had a way of conducting itself in dark corners, is dragged into the light and made to perform before the camera and broadcaster.

Where does it all lead? One page of the book of nature lies open before us. As we look at it she seems well satisfied with her work, but when we turn back to previous pages we are even more impressed with the schemes she has abandoned. How much of the present world will be worth her keeping? One thing seems clear: she does not usually suffer fools so gladly as she does today. The state, of New York is spending millions on the elimination of its grade crossings; it does not occur to anyone to make their slaughter more efficient. Yet that was “the good old rule, the simple plan” by which the level of the species was raised and maintained in the past. The impulse toward human co-operation, the interests of society as a whole, seem somehow bound up with those levelling processes which make civi zation the enemy of culture, the good enough the enemy, -f the better. Wrill man finally attain that bee-hive stafi. of organization in which individual desire is merged in a common purpose, that polity of perfect fools without even a single Carlyle to proclaim the fact? Certainly it is a long way off. Meanwhile there is food, and the Saturday Evening Post, and Charlie Chaplin, and jazz over the radio. Why should we sons of Mary worry? “They” will find the way.


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