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The Paragon of Animals

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

The origin of this essay is the article on Parasitism, by Chalmers Mitchell, in the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I read shortly after the war. It was there that I first had it brought to my attention that useful specialism might imperceptibly pass into ultra-specialism, which is something quite different. I was then, and still am, skeptical of the application of biological analogies to specifically human conditions. Nevertheless I have found in the exciting events of the past decade that the parallels between human and biological ultra-specialism are too arresting to be easily explained away. They prove nothing, but they do seem to suggest where we may search and test for truth.

From the data of that essay and subsequent studies I would describe parasitism as extreme and increasing specialism on a narrow and narrowing environment. Parasitic plants and animals are not special groups, but all have free-living relatives. They are descended from free-living ancestors which surrendered their freedom when they happened upon an environment rich in resources and with an equable, beguiling climate. Complete acceptance of so radical a change in circumstances brings such ease and apparent safety that the traditions and tools carried in from a harder and more adventurous life become, first superfluous, then positive hindrances. Hence progress becomes simplification. Animals, such as insects, shed wings, limbs, curiosity, adven-turousness, and at last even the organs of vision and sense. Social organization becomes progressively more impossible, though a kind of mob fury, as in the case of germs, sometimes furnishes a counterfeit imitation of it. In-breeding takes the place of out-breeding, with consequent intensification of hereditary specialism, until the climax of in-breeding is reached among advanced parasites—reproduction by a single parent. Green plants eventually abandon their chlorophyll, the cause of greenness and the badge of free and industrious plant life; for it is this substance which enables plants in the presence of sunlight to manufacture from carbon dioxide and water the carbohydrate foodstuffs upon which all plant and animal life depends. In short, the world of ultra-specialism is an upside-down world where the good of a free life becomes harmful, and the harmful good. Nothing illustrates this more signally than the fact that these biological ultra-specialists tend to avoid the sun, the prime source of all vital energy, the partner of plant industry, the healer of animal life, and the giver of vision. To them it is first useless, and then destructive.

Yet the ancestral spark of vitality is not quenched but concentrated. It is among these ultra-specialists that the most fantastic records of achievement along a single line are to be found. No free, green plant can compete in speed of building (or jerry-building) with the mushroom. The independent work of paper-making and mason insects is clumsy compared with the neatness with which the “white ants” strip the inside of a wooden beam, leaving the exterior as fair-appearing as the balance-sheet of a looted bank. Fleas are wingless, but for their special field they develop a strength of limb which enables them to leap hundreds of times their own length. Germs also have fantastic powers of locomotion through great variations of temperature, although their wandering is travel without adventure, because they are alive to but one kind of environment. As mechanization and standardization proceed, mass-production of a sort becomes no trick at all; one very advanced parasite produces forty million eggs annually. Parasitic flowering plants produce great quantities of seeds, and have flowers of flaunting conspicuousness; but one, Rafflesia arnoldi of Malaysia, is altogether exceptional in the variety of its ultra-efficiencies. It is parasitic on vine-roots, and while lacking both stem and leaf, it holds all records for the size of its flower, which lies on the ground and attains a width of three feet. It is the high-pressure advertiser par excellence of the plant world; 1 but its advertising is quite fraudulent. The industrious green flowering plants modestly and tastefully advertise their nectar and pollen to the bee by color and fragrance, and the bee in return for these honest wares provides them with the inestimable boon of cross-fertilization; but Rafflesia has ( changed all that. It suppresses the nectar factories which would benefit a foreign commonwealth, and gets its cross-fertilization done without any foreign payments by attracting carrion flies with the forged odor of decaying flesh.

But the future does not belong to these specialists. In their extreme adaptation to their immediate environment they become progressively insensitive to the larger environment upon which they vitally depend. They may destroy or weaken it by enormously efficient extractive devices which drain its resources, or by mechanically obstructing its processes, or by poisons. Or it may actively defend itself. In the human body, when a mob of vagabond germs forces an entrance through an open wound, the white corpuscles in the blood answer a rush call to the spot and envelop and digest the invaders; also the body manufactures counter-poisons, or antitoxins, and keeps these in stock afterwards. Always a feast-or-famine existence, parasitism in its last stages is a desperate gamble; hence the multitude of eggs, spores, and seeds. The ultimate parasite is a hardly sentient spark of life pulling the levers of fantastically exact and precarious automatic machinery. Creation can use these specialists as wreckers; for example, innumerable bacteria find employment in a horse’s stomach to digest, that is, wreck, plant food. But as wrecking is a simple task, requiring only a small quota of industry and intelligence for vast results, the field of opportunity for qualified wreckers is necessarily limited.


Two qualities repel us in the parasites, their softness and their hardness, both of which seem renegade to life. On the other hand the higher and freer forms of life usually delight us, even the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger. The sight of a salmon leaping over a weir fills us with inexpressible joy; here is no renegade softness or hardness, but a resilience which we feel is one quality, between and above softness and hardness, and not a mixture of them. It enables free animals to seek wider environments, and to use their tools as craftsmen, with adventure, anxiety, and delight.

Yet even among these free animals there are grades of specialism. Neglecting intermediate complications, there are the herbivora, wholly dependent on plant food, and the carnivora, wholly dependent on flesh. The herbivora get their food with toil and digest it with toil. The cow, for example, maintains four stomachs, and after grazing by the hour retires to the shade industriously to ruminate. It is hard work turning salads into bone and muscle, but ability to do so opens up an environment which extends to every horizon like a vast green ocean.

By contrast with these four-legged factories, the lion and eagle seem Creation’s favorites; and human imagination gives them royal titles and honors. We assume that the zebra exists for the benefit of the lion; yet a more democratic view is possible. When we consider the multitudinous herds of zebras and the few skulking lions who depend precariously, first on the zebras’ success, and secondly on their own success, it is possible to maintain that Creation must approve of the zebras, it makes so many of them; and that the lion exists for the benefit of the zebras, as physician, surgeon, trainer, and schoolmaster, keeping the herd in the perfection of mobility, curiosity, intelligence, health, and happiness.

In sheer quantity of living the herbivora certainly have the better of it. What is more difficult to grasp is that they also enjoy a higher quality of living. We read our own instinctive feelings analogically into the lives of the herbivora (and still more absurdly into insect life). We think how we should feel if, while walking naked, barefoot, and unarmed in the jungle, we suddenly met a tiger. But the brave and intelligent water-buffalo, with his tough hide and formidable horns, is a match for the tiger, and doubtless feels the joy of combat. And speed, another weapon of the herbivora, is similarly capable of arousing competitive joy. We ourselves are slow, top-heavy, stumbling runners; we find it hard to understand how greatly the swift animals delight in their swiftness. There is abundant evidence of this. Stewart Edward White tells of zebras pursuing and passing in front of his car while crossing the African plains; and also of seeing a noisy mob of ravens making game of a majestic, disgusted eagle by competitively approaching it as closely as possible, for although slower on the wing they are swifter on the turn. On general principles, joy in living is a condition of survival in wild life. And, as Darwin has pointed out, animals do not know the meaning of fighting for their lives, and death by capture is swift.


When from the higher specialists we turn to man, we find that the lord of creation holds his position, not by any specialism, but by many-sidedness. He can run, but a deer can pass him at forty-five miles per hour. He can swim, but a tarpon can pass him at seventy miles per hour. He can dive, but the cormorant can dive one hundred feet. He can dig, but the mole swims through the soil. He can climb, but not with the specialized agilities of the monkey or mountain goat, still less of the bird which climbs on air alone. He can bound, but while he is bounding, the kangaroo can bound around him in circles. He can creep, but not with the snake’s horrendous efficiency. He can strike blows, but not with the power of the lion’s paw. He can wrestle, but not with the bear. He is large, but not with the mass-production which limits the elephant’s environment. He is quick with his fingers, but the humming-bird with invisibly swift dexterity makes a nest of plant wool and cobwebs.

His senses are acute, but in each he is excelled by some higher specialist. He is serviceably equipped in the comparatively mechanical faculty of memory, but the horse maintains an enduring photographic record of every fence and hedge it passes. He can subsist without flesh in the ocean of green, but lacks the bovine patience to graze by the hour and ruminate by the hour. He can work, but does not overdo it, like the beaver. He is frugal, but not with the chipmunk’s scatterbrained, wasteful hoarding, still less the perversity which leads the glutton to appropriate and cache the trapper’s pots and kettles. He has a fighting spirit, but does not normally think to show his manhood by being a mere killer, as the weasel shows his weaselhood. He is social, but not normally to the extent of suppressing individual initiative, as in the completely stationary communism of the bee, or the stupefying leader-principle of sheep, or the Babbitt sociability which reduces the song of social birds to amiable, standardized chirps. He can sing, but not with the passion and perfection of the nightingale, which “fit audience finds, though few,” a song whose unnecessary loveliness is hard to explain, unless this accomplished specialist, having found what beauty is, has tapped new springs of vitality in exploiting that discovery.

What sharply distinguishes man from the higher specialists is that he is detached from his tools. He does not carry a pair of scimitars on his forehead; or a sword, trowel, or hose on his nose; or a chisel or a pair of pouches in his mouth; or stilts, hooks, gliders, oars, snowshoes, pillars, catapults, or battering-rams on his limbs; or a cradle or parachute on his stomach; or a suit of armor, a house, a sail, or a watertank on his back. And this detachment has made him master of many environments. Awkward, slow, and frail, he ranges from the equator to the poles, crosses seas and deserts, descends the ocean depths, digs through rock into the bowels of the earth, climbs the stratosphere, flies “from zone to zone . . . lone, wandering but not lost,” sees beyond the visible firmament, and communicates around the world with the speed of light. It was this many-sidedness which inspired the panegyric of Shakespeare, still living in the surge of wonder which followed when Columbus and his men disappeared into the Unknown, in three wooden shells with cloth wings, and found there a new environment, vast, strange, fruitful, and almost empty: “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”

In this connection it is interesting to consider the superman of Nietzsche’s upside-down and deeply destructive philosophy. He is lonely, cruel, Napoleonic, living dangerously, and actuated by the will to power, and to use others for his own ends. To him trading and compromising are slave virtues, emblems of decadence. Biological analogy would make this superman the counterpart of the lion; yet the lion is a secondary and precariously dependent specialist, and is on his way out. By analogy, then, the superman, when and if he comes, will not long be needed or endured.

For man is ushering out all the Nietzschean beasts and birds, and in so doing is not disturbing the balance of nature, but fulfilling it. He is making treaties with the herbivora whereby they trade their swiftness, strength, industry, beauty, intelligence, or social gifts for a happy and abundant life; and he himself acts as physician, surgeon, trainer, and schoolmaster. It is amusing to hear South Africans speak of lions as “vermin”; but they mean it. There is no future for the king of beasts except as a museum piece in zoological gardens. The eagle, too, is on his way to some Elba or St. Helena.

There are, however, certain carnivora which have a future. The carnivorous way of life by itself is brutal, quarrelsome, lazy, stupid, and unteachable; as the disposition of the cat illustrates, even though it does go through the motions of being domesticated. But sociability may more than counteract this tendency. A brilliant example is the dog, ready to guard sheep or small human beings which in his gangster days he would have killed on sight. He even consents to eat biscuits, though without much enthusiasm— which may not be equivalent to the lion eating hay like the ox, but is a move in that direction.

In plant life also, the survival of the fittest is far from meaning the survival of the fiercest. Grasses and cereals are wonderfully successful in nature, and have a brilliant future with man, because they are hardy and industrious, independent yet social in domestic relations, and in foreign relations ready to trade an abundance of excellent food to the herbivora in return for the dispersal of their seed. The clovers have similar qualities; they also have exceptionally fine trading relations with the bee, and by a freak partnership with nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots they leave the soil better fertilized than they found it. Onions, potatoes, beets, peas, and beans are secure because of their industry and frugality. Peaches, berries, apples, and oranges, which trade ambrosial food, pleasingly and honestly advertised, for the dispersal of their seed, are marked for great promotion; as are innumerable flowers, from the rose to the forget-me-not, for their exquisite and restrained handling of color, composition, and perfume. But the thistle (another unhappy choice for a national emblem) is on its way out. The thistle is certainly efficient. Its regimented city of dwarfed flowers on one head exacts a maximum service from the bee for a minimum outlay on pollen, nectar, and advertising. It disperses its seeds by a formidable aviation system which calls for no foreign payments in fruit or foliage. It surrounds its scant leaf-factories by a protective system which only the ass, with his low standard of living, can penetrate. Its roots are admirably equipped to muscle their way into the soil which the gardener of the world has tilled and fertilized. But this same gardener is tired of spending the precious sweat of his face muscling it back out of his fields. The classic beauty of its advertising pleases him not. He is stronger than it is, and he will not make peace with it until it is securely caged in botanical gardens.


The “resilience” of the salmon was described above as a single quality between and above softness and hardness. “Humanness” might similarly be described as the organic union of gentleness and firmness. This agrees with Anis-totle’s teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics that every human excellence is a mean between a defect and an excess. Civilization with its richness and necessary specializations puts a strain on natural humanness; let us use Aristotle’s formula to instance some modern examples of this.

The excellence of intelligence, which is an unbribed balancing of all available truths, complex and simple, stands between dullness and that type of science which concentrates on the mass-production of favored, simple, clear, standardized truths, and builds out of these an unbalanced, mechanistic conception of Truth. The excellence of statesmanship, which is creative compromise, stands between the policy of progressive surrender made famous by Ethelred the Unready, and that learned fanaticism which thinks it has a divine, natural, or scientific right to get its own way one hundred per cent, and immediately. The excellence of good citizenship stands between political inertia and the uninhibited efficiencies of war lords, bandits, and tyrants. The excellence of good taste stands between blatant vulgarity and polished, metallic sophistication. The excellence of craftsmanship stands between careless incompetence and the hardness of those “gluttons for work” who, as organizers and inventors, separate out for themselves all the creamy, exciting, steady, responsible work, and leave only roughage and drudgery to the many. The excellence of thrift, which is creative, sustained spending, stands between consumptive spending and hoarding. The excellence of rugged individualism, which looks after itself without hurting others, and has something over to help others, stands between mendicant individualism and predatory individualism.

Aristotle noted the sharp antagonism between extremes. Two clashing wrongs do not make a right, but rather compete in mischief-making. Thus soft luxuriousness is a standing invitation to banditry and militarism. Laxness provokes ultra-puritanism, which, in turn, makes laxness seem human and healthy. A decline in public taste creates a demand for weirdly successful specialists in journalism and entertainment who cynically give the public what it wants, and something thrown in for good measure. A. destructive wave of consumptive spending is followed by an equally destructive wave of hoarding. The predatory individualism of the few is answered by the mendicant individualism of the many in its most dangerous form—that contagious political mendicancy which makes it possible for naturally independent men to live on their neighbors, the taxpayers, without embarrassment or foreboding, as a right of citizenship.

In biological ultra-specialism the line of least resistance is to meet new difficulties by still further specialism. Human ultra-specialism shows a similar tenacious attachment to tools which are the last word in efficiency in their special fields, however destructive they may have proved in the totality of their effects. The will to power, which has found its most extreme modern expression in Germany, is now organizing in that country the most de-humanizing regimentation since Sparta of barren memory. The will to absolute security, no matter who else is left insecure, has reached its climax in its principal habitat, France, both in respect of gold and of other one hundred per cent guarantees. The will to fleece the industrious and inert, which has its headquarters in China, is now actuating Chinese war lords, politicians, and bandits to the smoothest and best equipped fleecing on record, purblind to the advancing shadows of a foreign nemesis. The will to luxurious ease, which has its most practical expression in Anglo-Saxon countries, is responsible for thousands of glowing and prophetic references in our press to “a high standard of living,” but scarcely a single reference to a secure and moderate standard, after all that has happened. And Communism, which skilfully combines the worst features of the will to power and the will to luxurious ease, is unimpressed and undeflected by the collapse of its dream of world domination, and that other dream of effortless plenty through the wrecking of private enterprise.


Let us examine the ultra-specialism which concerns us most. The will to luxurious ease concentrates on the secondary element in the rhythm of life, the sweetness of relaxation after struggle. It ignores the fact that without struggle relaxation loses its savor, unless progressively spiced or fortified. Its basis is purely emotional, for it contradicts all experience and all our knowledge of human nature.

We know the history of ancient civilizations which sought luxurious ease. We know that the “high standard of living” of 1929 bred gambling, greed, inertia, dissipation, bad debt, graft, and banditry; and for that bad bargain the taxpayers are now footing the bill in astronomical figures. We know the common story of rich men’s sons when allowed a high standard of living and short working hours. We know that luxuriousness, like avarice and tyranny, becomes more famished the more it is fed; and that ostentation is ferociously competitive. We know that luxury industries are more feast-or-famine to their dependents than staple industries. We know that the will to luxurious ease reduces the fertility of the fittest, just as war selects the fittest for elimination.

We know also that the technical wonders of 1914-1929 were completely reckless adaptations to an imaginary environment. They were adaptations to vast consumptive spending at home and abroad without any provisions for sustaining that flood of spending, or even for the payment of the bills. Indeed the very scheme of things prevented payment. Workers were prevented by technological unemployment, foreigners by tariffs, and gamblers on bank credit in stocks, land, and commodities by the vanishing of their imaginary winnings at the first touch of reality.

To confute the logic of what we know, ultra-experts put forward two propositions. The first is that you cannot turn back the hands of the clock; and they paint an amusing picture of a world returning to ox-carts and spinning-wheels, not deigning even to imagine that there may be a tenable moderate position between their extreme and the opposite extreme. It is like saying that man in his progress never makes a mistake, or that if he does, he cannot even moderately retrace his steps. The historical truth is that man is always making mistakes, always driving ahead too fast and too far on one sector, and then retreating to moderation. The Renaissance is a brilliant example of how man “retreats in order the better to go forward.” If a mechanical analogy must be found for the least mechanical entity in the world, man might most justly be compared to the pendulum of the clock, which, when it finds it can go no farther in one direction without smashing the works, very sensibly turns around and goes in the other direction.

The other proposition is that by “proper organization” a standard of living several times higher than that of 1929 can be attained with about half as much effort; that it will be universally enjoyed; that it will be unshakably secure; and that “education in the right use of leisure” will prevent us from getting out of training. We have only their word for it. If anyone suggests that such great and numerous advantages may carry with them this or that disadvantage, they reply with steel-trap readiness that “proper organization” will take care of the difficulty mentioned. And what is this “proper organization” which, by definition, solves all difficulties and stops the mouths of doubters in the middle of a sentence? Briefly, it means that a master class of brilliant technicians will assume responsibility for human destinies, and the rest of us will be “perfected,” that is to say, perfectly spineless. We will do what we are told to do, consume what we are given to consume, and think what we are educated to think. For it is as clear as daylight that if we keep continuously changing our minds about how we want to work, and what we want to consume, and what we think of the master class of technicians, the ponderous, costly, intricate enginery of production and the long, costly, precarious lines of distribution will continuously be getting out of adjustment, and plunging the whole system into chaos.

One is reminded of the summum bonum of Herbert Spencer’s materialism—an adaptation to environment so perfect that the sense of duty will become superfluous and disappear. We might similarly expect that under “proper organization” intellectual qualities will disappear; for why be curious, if it tempts you out of perfect adjustment, and gets you into arguments with the technicians? Spencer found his conclusions disappointing; and certainly a materialistic Nirvana is a far cry from the natural man—thoughtful, independent yet social, detached from his tools, finding here no continuing city, looking for a city which hath foundations. To recur to “Hamlet”:

What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unus’d.


With so many consummate experts at work in the world, each so irresistible in his own field (if it lasts his time), where is the organizing many-sidedness to be found which will distinguish the useful specialisms from the mechanistic? Certainly no single mind can do for our gigantic world-civilization what Aristotle did for the vivid little toy civilization of Greece, though his conclusions may be noted, that happiness requires no great array of tools, and that man should not specialize on being human or mortal. Where exact science fails, experience decides—in this case, the experience of the common people. When the ultra-experts apply the upside-down treatment to common honesty, common humanity, common decency, or common sense, they ignore the mas-siveness and variety of the fact-finding behind these common things as compared with their own sheltered and eccentric investigations. The common people can be strangely misled, but not all of them all of the time. They are nearer the central stream of life, which is Idealism; the will to power and the will to luxurious ease are but transient, back-flowing eddies on either side. When they learn the issues, they will prefer peace to a mad gamble on victory, power, and tribute; and security and moderation to a high, gambling, and cyclically collapsing standard of living. And it is the multitudinous private decisions of the common people which weave the fabric of society under any government; partly their private decisions as to how enthusiastically they will carry out the decisions of the powers-that-be, and more particularly those countless impromptu decisions which cannot be supervised.

The softness of the citizenry makes the hardness of the expert, but the reverse also holds. In our own case there are many ways in which the people can quietly usher out the supermen, and give more power to leaders whose competence is “human”: by rugged incredulity to high-pressure, get-rich-quick, something-for-nothing salesmanship; by bargaining for steady wages rather than high, precarious wages; by preferring, even at a monetary sacrifice, work which is interesting, and not a total loss of living time; by patronizing quality production when it gives better value than cheap quantity-production in the totality of its effects; by practising or patronizing diversified agriculture with short lines of distribution; by accumulating reserves for independence and sustained spending on necessities, in unemployment and retirement; by buying luxuries only on a scale which can be 1 maintained; by creating more of their own entertainment and hospitality; by not trying to keep up with the uncatchable Joneses in their special field; by steady participation in local politics instead of periodical, smashing “drives”; by demanding fewer laws and keeping them better; by turning back the clock slightly in the matter of home training; and by living, even at a monetary sacrifice, in neighborhoods where their children will not be cut off from the ocean of green, blue skies, and moving waters, and will form their ideas more on analogies of things growing and improving than analogies of things being constructed, wrecked, and reconstructed. All of which is more practical, progressive, and romantic than it sounds, just as war and luxuriousness are less practical, progressive, and romantic than they sound.

It may be added that the human heritage of many-sidedness is not entrusted to the discretion of one generation, but is passed on as an entailed estate. How avidly small children avail themselves of this “large discourse, looking before and after”! With what Elizabethan ardor they put action first in the rhythm of life, and the sweetness of relaxation second:

Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas.

How eagerly they try out every human activity! Plow sustained and searching is their questioning! How preposterously cheap are the tools they really need for health and happiness! How decisively they detach themselves from any activity the moment it ceases to yield a maximum of return in discovery! How independent yet social they are, how willing to trade! And how instantly and vividly they see the point of the traditional stories of the race, grave and gay; such as (recently) the error of the two little playboy pigs in supposing that the matter of the Big Bad Wolf could be disposed of by optimism and rhythm, and the rugged individualism of the Third Little Pig, looking after himself without hurting others, and having something over to help others; a musician and humorist too, but not in working hours. And in the serious drama when the Nietzschean menace, with perfected manners and technique, is frustrated at last by the hero, awkward and erring, but drawing resources from his many-sidedness, they do not think it funny, or improbable, or outmoded: they stand up and cheer. As was said of old time: “Behold these dreamers come . . . we shall see what will become of their dreams!”


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