The Office of Environment in Evolution
“Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me.” Psalm cxxxix. 5.
Heredity and environment play a most important part in all the theories of evolution. They are, indeed, regarded as the chief factors whose product is life. A creative power is attributed to them a power inhering in them and even if not self-originating, has its source in Nature which stands in many theories of the creation in place of God. The creation taken collectively is called Nature, and then the particular operations and objects in the world are called the works of Nature. According to this notion, creation is the author of the parts which cornpose it, and consequently must have existed prior to itself. It involves the same absurdity that it would to say that a tree created its roots, trunk, limbs, and leaves. In every scientific treatise, and in many theological works, we are constantly told about Nature’s works, Nature’s laws, as though Nature was an intelligent being. But Nature has no purpose or power of its own; Nature enacts no laws. It is merely a passive instrument in the hands of an intelligent power wielded to accomplish the purposes of infinite love. To attribute the works of Nature or the influences of Nature to itself, is as absurd as brush and colors and canvas on which they were laid, it would be to attribute the Dresden Madonna to the brush and colors or the Cologne cathedral to the stones of which it is constructed. We do speak in common language of what the pen and the chisel and the engine perform, but the language is always understood figuratively. We attribute to the instrument the skill and power that wields it. But when we mistake figure for fact, we fall into the most fatal errors.
That heredity and environment are most important instrumentalities in the creation and in the development of human beings needs no proof. The fact is evident to the most casual observer. But they are not causes in themselves; they are merely instruments in the hands of an intelligent power to secure a special end. The theory of evolution as it is commonly understood is that they are original, but not intelligent causes; that they are the drift of blind and purposeless forces, and that the products of these forces and substances are the creation of the wonderful organisms and conscious activities we find in the three kingdoms of Nature. But how do the scientists know that Nature has this power? They do not know it. It is an Assumption, and one that is constantly contradicted by man himself in all his operations. The assumption or hypothesis is not adequate to the effects claimed for it. If we must frame a hypothesis or make a demand, why not make one large enough to cover the whole ground and honor all the drafts we can make on it?
The philosophy of the New Church does this. It sets out from the hypothesis, if any one desires to regard it as an hypothesis rather than a matter of revelation, that the whole creation is evolved from an infinite Being, who is substance, love, wisdom, and power in Himself. This postulate covers the whole ground. It even embraces Revelation; it accounts for all the facts. All the facts which the scientists have accumulated with so much industry and sagacity confirm it. It accounts for heredity. Heredity is a necessary consequence of the I would prefer to call it axiom rather than hypothesis from which we set out. It accounts for the variety and similarity and difference of the various objects in the three kingdoms of Nature. It discriminates and unifies, but does not confound. It defines Nature, and assigns to it its true origin, qualities, and use.
Let us, in the first place, get as distinct an idea as possible of what we mean by environment. It means everything which surrounds us. Physically it means the material objects which we can see, the sounds which we can hear, the forces which constantly act upon us. It comprises the air we breathe, the food we eat, the houses we dwell in, the occupations we pursue, and all external things that in any way touch us. Socially and civilly it means the society in which we move, the direct and indirect influence we receive from friends, acquaintances, and all the men and women with whom we associate and come in contact in the employments, the duties, and the pleasures of life. Our civil environment is the government, the general and special laws, customs, and institutions of our country, and of the community in which we live. Our intellectual environment consists of all the means within our reach of gaining knowledge and the development of our intellectual faculties. Our moral and spiritual environment is composed of all the moral and spiritual influences in the midst of which we live and move. In its largest sense our environment comprises everything without and around us which can in any way affect our physical, moral, intellectual, or religious nature. In modern science it is wholly limited, so far as I know, to the influences of those things and forces which lie around and without us. The subject for , our consideration is the office of environment in the evolution of man as an individual and a race. In more common phrase the subject is the influence of circumstances upon our physical, intellectual, and spiritual nature. It is a most important one from whatever point of view we regard it, and it will richly repay us for any amount of thought we may give to it.
The position of science, as I understand it, is that our environment has some inherent power in itself from which it acts and helps to fashion body and mind. It is not merely an instrument, but an independent agent which, co-operating with heredity, is the efficient cause of life and all the products of life. If there is any power behind Nature, it is an unknown power; it is the somewhat outside of Nature. It is not the action of an intelligent personal Being who has a distinct end to accomplish, and who is providing the means and using them to accomplish it. The effects of our environment are described effects are wonders, curiosities, which are produced by the wild play of unconscious elements. They with precision, but they have no meaning. The are like the colors of a kaleidoscope turned by an unconscious hand, without even the purpose of seeing the constant succession of beautiful colors, forms, and useful products. Evolution is the grand result. The largest and most important part of man’s environment is entirely ignored. All that gives definiteness, purpose, and significance to it is denied a hearing. It is a toss of dice, it is the play of wild forces acting and reacting upon each other that is directly the reverse of this. All the objects, the social, intellectual, and moral forces which compose man’s environment, are the provisions of infinite
The doctrine I am endeavoring to state and illustrate is directly the reverse of this. All the objects, the social, intellectual, and moral forces which compose man’s environment, are the provisions of infinite love and wisdom for the development of human beings. They are the instrumental means which the Lord employs to effect the purposes of His love. They have a meaning, a distinct and definite purpose. The winds which seem to human ignorance so wild and lawless are running on His errands; the waves that ebb and flow with ceaseless and apparently idle motion are doing His work; the more interior and subtile forces which elude man’s senses and seem to be subject to no law are His servants, doing His bidding and promoting His ends. Every object in the three kingdoms of Nature is an instrument in His hand, created and guided with infinite skill and the most delicate power to create intelligent human beings who can receive and reciprocate His love in ever-increasing fullness and excellence for fortuitous events; there is nothing without a meaning and a purpose. The universe itself in its largest ever. There are no lawless forces; there are no and smallest forms, collectively and individually, is penetrated and environed with a beneficent and intelligent mind directing all things to the accomplishment of a specific purpose. The Lord says to everything in the universe, in language which can be understood, “Let us make man.” With this light to guide us, and with the consciousness and assurance that we are not walking in the midst of forces which have no supreme intelligence to direct them, let us notice some of the agencies in man’s environment and see how they operate in the evolution of his physical and spiritual faculties.
We have no difficulty in discovering that the outward world into which man is born, is adjusted with infinite precision to sustain and develop his physical organism. The most common things are the best examples of this adaptation, and of the agency of environment in effecting the Lord’s purpose concerning us. Take the atmosphere as an example. We live in an ocean of air as fishes in an ocean of water. It presses upon us on all sides; we breathe it every moment. It contains the substances we need to purify and vitalize the blood and give us natural sensation and consciousness. It is the universal symbol of life, because it is the material medium by which physical life is given to us. Notice its adjustment to our physical organism and to all our needs.. It would require but a slight change in its composition to destroy instead of sustaining life. The most potent cause of disease comes through the atmosphere. Consider its weight. It presses upon us with the power of many tons, but we do not feel it; we move freely in it. It is so elastic that we can pass easily, through it. It parts for us as we advance, and closes behind us, leaving no vacant space. A little more pressure would make it an intolerable burden; a little less, and the delicate organism of the body would be destroyed by distention. When men ascend high mountains breathing becomes difficult, the blood will often start from the ears and nostrils, and if they were carried high enough the body would be blown to pieces. These are common facts, which are generally known. How delicate must be the adjustment, how perfect the equilibrium to enable us to move freely in this great ocean, or to remain at rest in it!
But it not only sustains life directly as we inhale and exhale it. It is the proximate cause of sensation. It is to the material body what steam is to machinery : it sets it in motion. It is a well-known fact that there is no sensation in the material body until the atmosphere enters the lungs and sets the whole machinery of the body in action. When respiration is suspended, as in swooning and suffocation, consciousness is lost. There can be no sensation without motion. The office of the atmosphere, then, is not limited to supplying certain substances which are necessary to vitalizing the body. It is the universal motor adapted in the most exquisite manner to every form and state of the lungs, which communicate their general motion to every part of the body, and set every wheel in its infinitely complex organ-. ism revolving upon its axis, and give to every muscle and nerve the power to expand and contract and vibrate in the performance of its use, and in this way to fill every organ in the whole universe of the body with the power of sensation. It is one of the factors of physical life, though not the only one. Is it not a wonderful power, exhaustless in extent, always ready for use, and adapted to every possible form of lung, giving a just measure of supply to the microscopic insect and to beasts of mammoth size.
We are environed with atmospheres or ethers of finer substances which are the media of light, magnetism, and attraction. I need not speak of the exquisite adaptations of light to the eyes, and the uses it performs in giving color to the various objects of nature, revealing their forms and photographing them upon the sensitive retina of the eye, where they become ideas and food for the sustenance and development of the natural mind and the materials of knowledge. I only need to mention how attraction is adapted to our strength. If it grasped us with stronger arms locomotion would be impossible; if its hold were relaxed, we should be thrown from the surface of the earth and sent flying through space to destruction. It is perfectly adjusted to the least and largest bodies, holds all things in connection and gives stability and permanence and motion to all. Surely we are girded about and penetrated and moved by omnipotent forces, which are yet so exquisitely adjusted to our organism and so perfectly balanced that we move in freedom in the midst of them. They give us power; they sustain our life; they run on our errands and are obedient to our will.
But we are not only environed by these invisible and formless forces, we are set in the midst of an infinite variety of objects which constitute the three kingdoms of the material universe. They, too, stand ready to offer us their service. They supply us with an abundance and variety of food. They are corn, posed of the same elements as our material bodies and can be woven into their organic forms. They gratify our taste, they satisfy our hunger, quench our thirst, and supply the constant wastes of life. They furnish us with materials to clothe our bodies, to build our houses. In one form or another they meet every material want. But this is not their only service. They minister to our pleasure and contribute to our human needs in manifold ways. They delight us with their beauty; they charm us with their variety; they awaken emotions of awe by their grandeur; they pique our curiosity and rouse us to action; they win our affections, and charm our fancy, and supply us with images which become. the bases of knowledge and the materials of intelligence. With such an endless variety of objects differing in form, color, nature, and use, each one of which offers us a special service, are we environed.
This universe of forms and forces which environ us, is itself environed within and without by spiritual forces guided by an infinite intelligence. The kingdoms of Nature are forms of the Divine love; they are the implements which a Divine and personal intelligence provides and uses, moment by moment, for the creation of man and the development of those faculties which constitute a human being.
Nature is the garment with which the Lord clothes Himself; it is the veil which partly conceals and partly reveals His face. He stands behind it, imbues it with power, moulds its forms, guides its movements, directs and adjusts with infinite precision all its forces, to embody His own life, own love, wisdom, and power, in human beings who can bear His image and become the heirs of His power and blessedness. This conception gives meaning and an intelligent purpose to our environment. It insures the stability and perfectibility of the universe and of the human race. Everything becomes transparent, and we can see shining through all the objects in the three kingdoms of Nature, colored by its own light and modified by its own form, the image of our Heavenly Father, who is seeking to reveal Himself to us and bless us by all these instrumentalities.
But man is not created and set in a solid and unchangeable environment. Adjusted as all the objects and forces which compose it are with infinite precision, they are elastic and capable of constant change. Man inherits from the Lord the power to modify his own environment. He cannot create it; but he can change it and adapt it to his changing states. There is a reciprocal action constantly going on between man and his environment. The Lord touches him on all sides and in every conceivable form by his environment, rouses him to action, calls his faculties into play, enlarges and enriches his intellect with mental images, and awakens his affections to, conscious life. By these means the infant man soon outgrows his environment. He is not content to lie in the cradle or in the mother’s arms. He creeps, he walks, he sees a larger world than the nursery, and he longs to explore it. He begins to have ideas, tastes, and purposes of his own. He is not content with the food which Nature provides, and he prepares it to suit his taste and wants. He finds that his body needs protection from cold and storm, and he provides clothing for it. He seeks a cave for shelter, but in time discovers that he can build one better suited to his purpose, and we have the wigwam, the log-cabin, and finally the modern dwelling. He is not content to live on acorns and roots and the fruits which grow spontaneously around him. He finds that he has an agency in multiplying varieties and improving the qualities of grains and fruits, and the forests vanish away, the wild beasts disappear, and are replaced by vineyards, orchards, gardens, and fields waving with wheat and rich with golden corn. He changes his whole environment to adapt it to his new condition.
There is no better illustration of the power of man to change his environment than the place where we now are. It is but a few years since the site of our city and the region around us, from the lakes to the ocean, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was an unbroken forest inhabited only by savage men and wild beasts. What has caused this miraculous change? Why have the forests and the wild beasts and the more savage men disappeared? Why are the bills covered with orchards? Why are the fields rich with herds and flocks, with corn and various products to gratify the taste and sustain the life of man? Why the paved streets, the stores filled with the products of all climes, the comfortable dwellings and elegant mansions, the factories resonant with the hum of revolving wheels, the market, the banks, the courts of justice, the school-houses and colleges, and the churches whose spires point to heaven and whose walls resound with praises to the living God? The answer is easy. A people of greater intelligence, of finer tastes, of wider culture, a people who had some knowledge of God and of their own natures as spiritual beings, settled here. The environment of the savage was not suited to them; it did not meet their physical, much less their intellectual, moral, and spiritual wants. It did not correspond to their tastes and ideas; it did not give sufficient scope to their energies, and they gradually have wrought the miraculous change in their environment which is familiar to us all.
But this transformation was not wrought at once, or even conceived in the beginning. The civilized people who first planted their feet on the banks of the Delaware had no conception of a multitude of things which now environ us; which enter into our daily lives, and have become common necessities. The people have changed with their environment, and the environment with the people. Action and reaction have been in constant play, each modified and modifying the other. This is a most important law of human progress, and demonstrates that man possesses faculties entirely distinct from and superior law of human progress, and demonstrates that man to the plant and animal. The animal can hear sounds even more accurately than men; he hungers and thirsts, and the objects in his environment form the same images upon his eye. But he cannot make the same use of them. They do not enlarge and change his nature, and, consequently, he is content with his environment.
But it is not so with man. By the ideas he gains from Nature his intellectual faculties are called into play, and acquire strength and enlargement. By working for others-and by association with them his affections are awakened. He is drawn into closer union with them. He discovers that they have a common nature and common wants, and can render environment is created entirely distinct from the one another a larger and higher service; and a new material one. He lives in the same place, he breathes the same atmosphere, the same sun shines upon him. But he has risen into a new world. He becomes a factor in social life; he is quickened into action by new affections; he is touched by ideas instead of things; he sees principles as well as rocks and trees. He is environed by institutions which he has formed, and which constantly react upon him and raise him to a higher level of thought and life. He breathes an atmosphere of art, of music, of intellectual and moral culture. His horizon not only enlarges and the objects become more numerous and varied, but he is brought into more intimate and vital relations with them. By the aid of the printing-press he can sit in his home and commune with the wisest men of the past and the present age. By other means and by mutual service all men come to his door and offer him their gifts.
There is another remarkable process constantly going on in our environment. It is being transferred from without to within us. The objects of the outward world become ideas in the inward world. The memory becomes our environment. Such is its amazing capacity that every object we have seen with its colors, form, relations to other objects, its size and qualities, and all the associations and circumstances connected with them, are gathered into the memory, and form the environment of thought and feeling. They gird us round and bound our existence, and constitute the field of all our activities. This horizon can be indefinitely extended and filled with new ideas; but we can never pass beyond it. There is no limit to the combinations which can be made of the images. that have been photographed upon its delicate surface. But only those can enter into the combinations which exist in the mind. We think little of it, and yet it is a fact that we are daily and hourly forming the environment in which we must live forever. Every truth or error we learn, every deed we do, every object we look upon, every person we meet, enters into that environment and becomes a part of it which can never be eliminated. The material ideas may fade, but they enter into new combinations and. become the elements of a life.
Are we, then, the creatures of circumstance? Are we passive instruments to be played upon by all forces? Empty vessels to be filled with whatever happens to be poured into them? By no means.
The Lord has placed man in an environment designed with infinite wisdom to call all his faculties into orderly play. The essential principle of a human being is love, and love, as I have said in former lectures, is a vital substance, the embodiment of power. It is of its nature to act; to give itself to others, and to draw all others into union with itself. It gains power and delight by action. Man is, therefore, born into the world in perfect helplessness, naked and destitute, with only the possibilities of becoming a man, that his physical, natural, and spiritual faculties may be evolved by his own effort; and to this end that every possible motive and means of physical, intellectual, and spiritual action should be supplied .
Man is endowed with faculties which enable him to co-operate with the Lord in supplying his wants and in forming his spiritual environment. The Lord creates the material types in their general forms without man’s agency. He supplies the materials for food, clothing, and habitation, and equips man with all the means necessary to sustain his existence; endows him with faculties capable of endless enlargement and perfection, and shares with him the work and the delight of adapting himself to his material environment, and of shaping that environment to himself as his wants multiply.
The problems of human life can never be solved while we leave out their most important factor, and that is, that man is a spiritual being. In the creation of man the ford’s purpose was an immortal and an intelligent personal being who could partake of His nature and share His love and wisdom; and not a more excellent animal. Consequently everything in man’s environment is adapted to secure that end. His voluntary co-operation is necessary to the attainment of it, and consequently there is something left for him to do. His affections and intellectual faculties are to he developed by exercise, and every conceivable inducement is placed before him to think, to know, and to love. He is impelled by necessity; he is aroused by curiosity; he is won by beauty; he is attracted by novelty; and sustained in the most laborious exercise of all his intellectual faculties by the delight of seeing the order and complicated harmonies which open to his advancing footsteps. He has difficulties to overcome that he may gain strength by overcoming them; his wants multiply that he may be them; the most precious things are hidden that his intellectual sight may be sharpened and his rational faculties strengthened in finding them. There is always an element of uncertainty and incompleteness in the attainment of every apparent good that he may have constant occasion to use his judgment; his natural appetites and desires are strong and clamorous for gratification that his spiritual faculties may gain power by controlling them; he is placed in the midst of many attractions and repulsions and conflicting interests that he may freely choose the right; he is led to feel his own weakness, and brought into despair that he may distrust his own wisdom and seek strength and light from their fountain in the Lord. Thus everything in man’s environment from the least to the greatest, through all his changing states, is ordered by infinite wisdom to repress and keep in subordination his animal nature, develop his spiritual and distinctly human faculties; to create the purest, the largest, the most lovely spiritual environment, and, at the same time, preserve untouched his spiritual freedom, and make him a man, and not a machine or an animal.
In the evolution of human life in its physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual qualities, whether they relate to man as an individual or a race, we bring into the account a third factor of vastly more importance and active power than heredity or environment, a factor which the evolutionists for the most part practically ignore – that factor is God, the Supreme Intelligence, the omnipotent and constantly operating power. Grant that, and we gladly admit the methods and natural agencies which the scientists describe with much accuracy and power. But they are His agencies and His methods of accomplishing the ends of His love according to the forms of His wisdom.
This as it seems to us is a most important point. It bridges the gulf between science and religion. It gives to science everything that it claims for itself as science. It does more; it illuminates it with a light higher than its own. It puts a soul into the lifeless mechanism of the universe. The scientist describes the changes which take place in the form, color, and character of animals by domestication. That .is the Creator’s method of adjusting them to human use, and an instance of His constant care to provide, in the least as well as in the largest things, the means of human happiness. We are told how the exercise of every physical organ increases its power. This is a well-known and most significant fact. But whence comes the increase of power? Does it originate in the muscle or mental organism? Certainly not. It comes from a source outside of them. A large muscle is stronger than a small one, ‘because it can receive the influx of more power, on the same principle that a large vessel will hold more than a small one. The use of the power we possess is the Divine method of increasing it. It is an instance of the essential nature of perfect love which desires “to give its own to become another’s own.” The Lord seeks to give to every living thing the power to co-operate with Him in its own development. He bestows upon animals and men a semblance of creative power, leads them by their delights to exercise it, and rewards them by its increase.
This truth gives purpose and meaning to the creation. It is not a mechanical universe given up to the control of unconscious laws, the embodiment of awful forces which have no purpose, but act and react upon each other, and which at any moment may come in conflict and reduce everything to chaos. It is not a desolate and dead universe. It is the product of a personal Intelligence. It is warm with a Divine love; it is bright with a Divine wisdom; it is moved by a Divine hand; it is animated with a Divine life. In whatever direction we turn we can see in every movement God working; we can hear His voice in every sound; we can see His face, veiled and its glory obscured to adapt it to our feeble vision, in every object that is useful to man. We can look up to Him, and with reverent joy say, in the words of the Psalmist, “Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me.” It is a Father’s hand, omnipotent in power, guided by infinite wisdom, but tenderer than a woman’s, and it is laid upon our heads in loving benediction.