A Wander Through History with Chesterton

ChestertonG. K. Chesterton has often been hailed the ‘apostle of common sense’. He has the uncanny ability to draw out the wonderful from the mundane and the religiously significant from that which hides in plain sight. It’s no different with The Everlasting Man, Chesterton’s history of the world with an emphasis on answering the age old question: “What makes human beings uniquely human.”

Chesterton offers such rich and rewarding insights that I’m going to sum up each chapter of the book in the hope that I might be able to distill his thinking in a way which makes them more accessible to those who have never thought about the question, or those who might want to know a bit more about Chesterton.

The Everlasting Man begins with a rather excellent chapter on prehistoric man. Here Chesterton begins his history and immediately engages the social Darwinist movement so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. He notes that when we think of ‘the cave man’ we often imagine a rather ugly figure, perhaps named Og, who goes around beating people with a club and wondering why square wheels don’t work. But Chesterton makes the striking observation that this kind of caricature of stone age humanity finds itself ruined by one of the only enduring contributions of stone age human beings themselves, namely, cave paintings.

“When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.” (25)

“Yet we do know for a fact that the cave-man did these mild and innocent things; and we do not have the most minute speck of evidence that he did any of the violent and ferocious things.” (25)

What such paintings indicate about human beings, is that for all their commonality with the animal kingdom there is something strikingly different about them. So striking that it produces art, reflection, and self-conscious appreciation for the natural world. The kind of characteristics that are found nowhere else in the animal world.

Such a striking, yet often overlooked observation has a direct impact on the way we view evolution in relation to the human being. There is something miraculous and unnatural about human beings. The time it takes for such unnatural and startling abilities to occur does nothing to take away their total discontinuity with what came before.

“There may be a broken trail of stone and bone faintly suggesting the development of the human body. There is nothing even faintly suggesting such a development of this human mind. It was not and it was; we know not in what instant or in what infinity of years.” (32-33).

For example, when Jesus turned water into wine in Galilee in John 2:1-11, it would have remained utterly miraculous even if it had been transformed drip by drip and not jar by jar. The time it takes for a miracle to happen has no impact on its being miraculous. “But this notion of something smooth and slow, like the ascent of a slope, is a great part of the illusion. It is an illogicality as well as an illusion; for slowness has really nothing to do with the question. An event is not any more intrinsically intelligible or unintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one.” (19).

Chesterton also asks us to consider evolution itself. If evolution be considered as that biological theory that seeks to explain the natural diversity we see in living organisms, whether by adaption or mutation, it does nothing to explain the origin of that life in the first place, or even the origin of the conditions in which such life might arise. The conclusion of the first chapter, then, is that there is something totally unique about human beings that sets them apart from everything else and evolution acts more as a foil, instead of an explanation, as to why human beings are so distinct. Human beings remain remarkable whether evolution takes place or not.

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