Theosophical University Press Online Edition
The Antiquity of Mankind
Heredity and Evolution
Is Mankind the Summit of Evolution?
Involution and Evolution
Return to Section 1
Theosophy has to hold the balance between religious dogmatism and scientific dogmatism, and between materialism in both camps. The scientific teachings as to evolution (or insofar at least as they have not corrected themselves in recent years) may lie open to the charge of promoting a derogatory view of human nature, as tending to concentrate our attention on the animal side of our nature, to the neglect of our spiritual endowments. But this charge has also been laid at the door of religion. In many of its forms it has encouraged the belief that mankind is by nature corrupt and born in sin; that we do not possess the power of saving ourselves, but need a propitiatory sacrifice and the help of a church. Both these views are destructive to human interests, and the religious opponents of evolution would have better success against the materialism of their opponents if they stood on surer ground themselves. But there is nothing in evolution, rightly understood, to disparage human nature; on the contrary the faith in our own essential divinity and perfectibility is greatly increased. Neither science nor religion can be wrong in themselves, but materialism may creep into either of them.
Something needs to be said about the antiquity of mankind on earth. Science seems unconsciously to have inherited a prejudice from religion to the effect that mankind is a recent product; and there can be little doubt that the scientific interpretation of the available evidence has been largely colored by this prejudice. The notion has been furthered by the crude idea of the evolutionary scale, which is represented as a single-track ascent from primitive forms up to the most complex, which requires that we shall regard the most complex as the most recent arrivals upon earth. The theory also requires that we shall find an evolution in civilization, that the man of today shall be the most civilized, and the most progressed intellectually and morally, while preceding peoples shall be less and less cultivated as we get back farther.
Unfortunately for this view, it has not been confirmed by facts; and with every day the evidence against it is accumulating. It is a feather in the cap of science that it hunts industriously for the facts in archaeology, thereby discovering things that confute its own theories; but it is not a feather in the cap when anyone tries to hide or distort the evidence to fit the theory; and both things happen. It has become a commonplace nowadays to say that we find ancient cultures, like that of the Egyptian, already attained to a degree which presupposes an extremely long past behind them; or to point to the evident fact that civilizations decay as well as develop. In short, a candid study of the archaeological record gives no support to the idea that there has been any such upward development of civilization in recent times. As we go farther back we do not seem to get any nearer to a beginning. Civilizations seem to have arisen in the far past, gone through their phases, and passed away, to be succeeded by others, which have in turn gone through the stages of birth, growth, and dissolution.
The human stem is the main trunk from which other organic forms have at one time or another sprung. Such is the thesis of theosophy, and this need not be accepted as a dogma, for the facts which come to light will tend ever more and more to confirm it. But though we may not swallow a doctrine on blind faith, but must always seek confirmation by our own judgment, still it helps very much and saves infinite time spent in wayward wandering, if we can have the key in our mind from the start. All teachers lay down their propositions in advance of the demonstration, thus making reasonable demands on the confidence of their pupils, who are willing to accept statements provisionally until such time as they can be justified. Theosophists therefore feel no compunction in stating boldly their fundamental propositions.
The results of archaeology therefore tend rather in favor of the theosophical doctrine of human origin than in favor of the current theories. The evolution is cyclical rather than progressive in a straight line. The traces of peoples of a primitive type and culture which are unearthed, differ not from the type and culture of peoples that exist on earth today; and side by side with these primitive types, in the past as in the present, dwelt mighty civilizations. Humanity is divided into races, and subdivided indefinitely into lesser divisions, and each one of these divisions is in some particular phase of its own racial evolution. Some are on the upgrade, some on the down; and so we find on earth today races that are rising, others that have passed their zenith, and some that are dying out. So it has been in the past; but the remnants of cultured peoples are more perishable than those of the uncultured. Even so, the attempt to find confirmation of the theories has not met with success. Nor is there satisfactory evidence that the type of the human organism has changed, except in minor details, and these fluctuating, since the earliest periods we can contact.
The whole story of cosmic evolution is too complex to be delineated here, and would only serve to confuse the reader even if we attempted it; so we will repeat what was said above — namely that in this manvantara there are seven great periods known as globe-rounds, of which we are at present in the fourth; and that in each globe-round there are seven root-races of humanity, of which we are now in the fifth. It is millions of years ago since this fifth root-race began, and the first root-race was coeval with the Paleozoic Age in geology. It is 18,000,000 years since mankind first appeared on earth in physical form; but before that he existed on earth in finer forms of matter, sometimes called astral or ethereal. The time scale with which we have to deal is therefore large; but this should raise no objection when we consider the vast ages demanded by paleontologists, geologists, and astronomers.
Many people must have been struck by the disparity between these vast periods and the shortness of history as usually visioned. A similar remark applies to the vastness of the spatial scale contemplated in astronomy. In view of this it would seem that theosophy is merely introducing proportion where before there was disproportion. These root-races are subdivided into smaller divisions, and these again into yet smaller, so that the racial cultures at present on earth represent very small offshoots. Further, as every racial division splits up and gives rise to branches, each pursuing its own separate history, it can be seen that what we find now on earth is a very miscellaneous assortment, some of them being remote descendants of the fourth root-race, and a few even of the third. The mixture of racial remnants in Africa is very remarkable.
In view of this, what can we think of the timid attempts of historians and ethnologists to trace the origin of one little division of humanity from another, and to piece together a consistent picture out of such a scrap heap? The decaying remnants of some mighty race that flourished millions of years ago are represented as a primitive stock from which our present civilized humanity has evolved; and attempts are made to find still more lowly types leading back by gradations into the animal kingdom. The result is that theory after theory has to be given up as new facts come to light. Another important point is that much is lost by studying things piece-meal and in departmentalizing science too much. One result of this is that one branch of science may devise theories which do not suit other branches. But today expansion is taking place in all directions and the spirit of devotion to truth is bound to prevail over parochialism and obscurantism and to bring the facts to light.
The scientific study of evolution is interwoven with the study of genetics and with that of cytology. The former deals with the observed facts concerning heredity, as ascertained by statistical investigations into human heredity and experimental breeding with plants and animals; the latter means the study of cells and their development, as seen under the microscope. To go into details on these subjects would require volumes, but the leading points, in their bearing on our present topic, may be summarized. The story, historically considered, is one of theory succeeding theory; a drama which is itself an example of evolution, since it represents the growth of ideas under the modifying influence of facts. Earlier theories, based on imperfect knowledge, have been successively changed, as new facts came to light; and it is a well-known circumstance in most investigations, that the new facts, instead of confirming the old theories and thus simplifying the inquiry, open out new vistas, so that the problem becomes more and more complex.
The main problems to be solved are:
(1) How do these investigations affect the theories of evolution? Do they support it or conflict with it? The general answer can be surmised: the investigations call for modifications of the theory, but it is still held to, so far as the facts will permit.
(2) To what extent does heredity tend towards permanence of type, and to what extent does it tend to produce variation? The general answer to this is that both phenomena coexist, and that there are certain factors within the cell which tend to pass on hereditaments from generation to generation, and certain other factors which tend to produce variations.
(3) To what extent are characters acquired by an individual transmissible to offspring? This question is closely involved with —
(4) Is variation due to the hereditary transmission of acquired characters, or is it produced within the germinal cell by some other means?
Let us consider the earlier views on evolution and ask what effect has been produced on them by later studies. The idea was that new varieties were produced from old by the slow accumulation of small variations, which were transmitted by heredity; and that this slow process, continued through ages, has resulted in a gradual progressive evolution from the simplest forms up to the most complex. This has been found to be too simple and crude a theory; and in this respect the work of Bateson may be regarded as of historical importance. He was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at its annual meeting for 1914, which was held at Toronto; and gave on that occasion a remarkable address from which we may quote. He makes a distinction between a connecting link and a mere mongrel. He instances the case of two allied species of plants, called Lychnis diurna and Lychnis vespertina, which are found in the same area, accompanied by many plants which show a number of variations between the two. These used to be regarded as transitional steps, but they are merely mongrels between the two species. He says:
Knowledge of heredity has so reacted on our conceptions of variation that very competent men are even denying that variation in the old sense is a genuine occurrence at all. Variation is postulated as the basis of all evolutionary change. Do we then as a matter of fact find in the world about us variations occurring of such a kind as to warrant faith in a contemporary progressive evolution? Till lately, most of us would have answered "Yes" without misgiving.
Variation is found wherever a number of varieties of the same species are crossing freely. But these variations are "factorial" — that is, the various individuals possess in various relative proportions certain constituents of the original breed from which they have all diverged. This is the same result as is produced by experimental breeding. The important point is that the varieties are not brought about by the addition of new factors but by the loss of certain factors, the totality of which factors were present in the original parent. He also considers the case of the numerous breeds of domestic fowls, all derived from an original "jungle fowl." These domestic fowls are not transition forms leading from one species to another, as the original theory would require; but they are factorial products of the original wild hen, each containing some of the factors present in that bird, and all containing the factors in varying proportions. In other words, the domestic breeds are divergent offshoots from the original type. To quote again:
We have no longer the smallest doubt that in all these examples [domestic animals and various wild animals and plants] the varieties stand in a regular descending order, and that they are simple terms in a series of combinations of factors separately transmitted, of which each may be present or absent.
The name of De Vries is associated with the Mutation Theory; he was led by his experiments in plant heredity to the conclusion that changes might take place much more suddenly than had been supposed. The earlier evolutionists had supposed that variations were slight and cumulative; but he found that from seedlings of the same plant may come individual plants differing from each other not only slightly but sometimes very radically; and in exceptional cases the deviation may be so marked that one of the plants may fairly be regarded as constituting a new elementary species. Such a sudden variation De Vries called a mutation.
Weismann and his germ-plasm theory next calls for mention. His main idea still holds ground, though subsequent studies in cytology have modified the views of biologists as to details. He held that, in many-celled organisms, certain of the cells die as individual cells, and build up the structure and substance of the body, being concerned with nutrition and other vital functions; but that certain other cells do not thus die but perpetuate themselves by the method of fission, as occurs in single-cell organisms; and that these latter cells are handed on from generation to generation. This would account for the perpetuation of ancestral features throughout all generations, and explain why breeding takes place true to type. It leaves open the question whether these perpetual cells are or are not influenced by environmental influence, or whether any changes they may undergo originate from some cause within the cell itself. The deeper study of the cell under powerful microscopes has now resolved it into a number of genetic elements, the description of which belongs to the study of biology; and it is sufficient for present purposes to say that it is recognized that some of these elements are concerned with the building and nutrition of the body, and others are concerned with reproduction.
Professor Bateson in more recent utterances has said that to watch the marvelous actions of the cell and its constituents is like watching an act of creation at work; and others have said that there is nothing in the appearance of these elements which can give us the least idea of what they will do. And the polar structure observable at some stages, and the radiating lines like those proceeding from a magnet, suggest the presence of electric forces, and point to the strong evidences of purposive action. It is thus that scientists are finding themselves forced by the facts ever nearer and nearer to the inevitable truth — that mere mechanism can explain nothing, but that life and living beings prevail throughout. (See Note 2.)
These studies in heredity and cytology, then, show us that changes of type are produced with comparative rareness and suddenness, and that as a general rule each type reproduces its own kind, subject to temporary variations produced by crossing and environment. This agrees with what was said above about the various types of organic beings having been produced originally from seeds thrown off by the human stock at a primitive stage in the evolution of the latter. Each of these seeds, thus thrown off, then proceeds to follow its own independent evolution, true to its own particular type. But within everyone of these evolving organisms there dwells the monad, or animal or vegetable soul, so to speak. It is all the while developing and garnering experience from its contact with the outer world. By this means it gradually gains new capacities; but these lie latent and unexpressed, until such time as outer circumstances may permit them to find expression. And then there takes place one of these "mutations" or sudden variations. This is the invisible cause which brings them about. Thus too it is easily seen why, at certain periods when the conditions of the earth permitted, some species developed into monstrous and gigantic forms, which are no longer found. Lizards are still produced, and vary in form and size according to conditions; but we no longer find the gigantic saurians of the Jurassic Period.
It is a familiar criticism that there is nothing in the evolution theory to show that man is its ultimate product: he might be its latest, but not necessarily its last. If we assume that mankind has been developed from lowlier types by a certain process or by some unspecified cause, we may justly infer that the same agency can produce beings more highly evolved than mankind. And if we assume that human intelligence has been evolved from very rudimentary beginnings, what limits can be set to the possibilities for the future? What sublime heights may not the human intellect attain? What marvelous powers may not some future being, evolved from ourselves, not be able to wield? If speculations of this kind should strike some minds as nonsense, and very capital nonsense, we decline to take the blame. We are merely trying to provide a logical sequence to the argument with which we are furnished; and if the whole existing animate creation has come forth from a jelly speck in a primeval sea, we see no particular reason why a great deal more should not come forth by the same method as the ages roll.
And it is indeed true that higher stages of evolution await the spiritual being who is now manifesting itself through the vehicle which we know as the ordinary person of today. To such higher stages we can only apply such names as adepts, masters of wisdom, initiates, gods, planetary spirits; our language was not constructed with this in view, so the words may sound vague.
When we study our own consciousness, we realize that there is much more in us than has yet been unfolded; there is no reason for assigning limits to the possibilities of our attainment along these lines. As there comes to the very young child a moment when self-consciousness, the feeling of being a separate being, the power of contemplation of his own existence, dawns for the first time; so there may be in store for us another awakening to a still fuller self-realization. We shall then have passed the portals of initiation, and be no longer as other men. We shall have entered the "kingdom of heaven." Those forces in our own nature to which we are now subject will no longer have sway; and having thus become master in our own house, we shall become able to dispose of the forces of outside nature in a way in which the ordinary individual of today cannot. We shall have what are called occult powers. Here is one step in higher evolution. Our conscious perception will not be limited to the bounds set by the physical sense; our thoughts will not be centered on self, for the delusion of separateness will have been overcome. We may no longer need a physical body, but may use as our vehicle bodies of higher grades of matter.
But it is important to observe that this higher evolution is not confined to the future, except in the case of those beings who have not yet attained to it. For the evolution of past cycles has already carried beings to these higher stages, and these may be called our elder brothers. Nor is it true that there has been a time when only lowly animals existed, followed by a time when higher animals appeared, and still later by mankind in its first appearance. There always have been all these grades, existing synchronously, each at its own particular stage of evolution. Such a statement may arouse questions as to whether there ever was a beginning or will ever be an end, and so forth; but such questions beset every inquiry, no matter what our theory may be, and should not be regarded as invalidating the position. Problems of infinity are beyond the scope of the intellect, at least in its present state, and it is not fair for a critic to oppose a theory on grounds of objection to which his own theory is at least equally liable.
Students of heredity have observed the phenomenon known as atavism, which means the sudden reappearance in one generation of traits belonging to a remote generation and which have not shown themselves in the intermediate generations. Sometimes this is called reversion, and advocates of the evolutionary theories are fond of pointing to what they regard as traits of our savage ancestors, or even of our arboreal ape ancestors, which crop out in civilized specimens of humanity. The facts are undeniable, but it does not follow that the explanation is right. Biology, with its materialistic interpretation, points to the existence, in the germinal cells, of elements which are passed on from generation to generation; and here we have at all events a physical interpretation of the phenomenon. But how much more significant does the matter become when viewed from the standpoint of theosophy. That which is now mankind has existed in every lower form of organism, whether animal, vegetable, or what not; and consequently preserves rudiments of every one of those types. The mechanical explanation is ludicrously inadequate, for all this vast potentiality has to be loaded onto one microscopic physical speck. That speck is microscopic on the physical plane only — on the physical plane it is reduced to vanishing point — but on other planes of matter, not less real because imperceptible to the physical senses, it is no microscopic speck. Let science explain on mechanical and physical principles how it is that memories of sixty years ago are still so fresh and vivid in my mind as to be at times almost real.
It is evident that the physical mechanism does not suffice for an explanation; we must accept the idea that there are other grades of matter of finer structure than physical matter, and with properties unknown to physical science, which can serve as the storehouses for these latent impressions, and bring them forth into manifestation at particular times.
man's outward shell passed through every vegetable and animal body before it assumed the human shape. — The Secret Doctrine 1:282
So atavism can be described as a form of memory; and somewhere in our organism we carry all past experiences in the form of stored memory which under suitable conditions can be reproduced. Is it more wonderful than the fact that the voice of a speaker can be preserved on a waxed disk for an indefinite period, and be reproduced in exact detail for the benefit of auditors yet unborn?
What is known as "recapitulation" means that the human fetus in the womb passes through a number of stages which more or less resemble the different types of animals. The evolutionists say that the fetus recapitulates the history of evolutionary stages preceding the human. There is such a recapitulation, but not in the sense which the evolutionists suppose. The developing human monad passes quickly through all the stages which that human monad has passed through in other cycles of evolution. For this monad, in far past ages, was accomplishing its evolution in the various kingdoms of nature, as plant and animal; and by a universal law it has to pass through these stages again from the beginning rapidly.
Every monad, whether in plant, animal, or even in the mineral atom, has originated in the human type and tends to revert to it.
the human type is the repertory of all potential organic forms, and the central point from which these latter radiate. — The Secret Doctrine 2:683
"Every form on earth, and every speck (atom) in Space, strives in its efforts towards self-formation to follow the model placed for it in the 'HEAVENLY MAN.' Its (the atom's) involution and evolution, its external and internal growth and development, have all one and the same object — man." — Ibid., 1:183
Everything that is, was, and will be, eternally IS, even the countless forms, which are finite and perishable only in their objective, not in their ideal Form. They existed as Ideas, in the Eternity, and, when they pass away, will exist as reflections. Neither the form of man, nor that of any animal, plant or stone has ever been created, and it is only on this plane of ours that it commenced "becoming," i. e., objectivising into its present materiality, or expanding from within outwards, from the most sublimated and supersensuous essence into its grossest appearance. Therefore our human forms have existed in the Eternity as astral or ethereal prototypes; according to which models, the Spiritual Beings (or Gods) whose duty it was to bring them into objective being and terrestrial Life, evolved the protoplasmic forms of the future Egos from their own essence. After which, when this human Upadhi, or basic mould was ready, the natural terrestrial Forces began to work on those supersensuous moulds which contained, besides their own, the elements of all the past vegetable and future animal forms of this globe in them. — Ibid., 1:282
As has been shown, evolution is necessarily a double process, for it means that a spirit or life-force is entering into something and causing that something to grow. The growing of the something is called evolution, and the passing of the spirit or life-force into it is called involution. The involution of spirit into matter causes the evolution of matter. The involution of mind into body causes the growth of body. The involution of life into an organism causes the evolution of the organism.
It will be observed that the word evolution is unfortunately used in two different senses: (1) to denote the entire process; (2) to denote one phase of the process, involution being the other phase. As this ambiguous use of the word evolution has become fixed, it is necessary to be on our guard against it.
It is evident that, if spirit involves into matter, so as to cause matter to evolve more and more, so that the matter expresses more and more of the qualities of the spirit, the process will eventually result in bringing things back to much the same state as they were in at first. Thus we can imagine steam being passed into water until at last all the water becomes steam. Thus the evolution is a continuous process, but cyclic, returning to a similar point. It is clear too that there must be a midway point at which spirit and matter are equally balanced.
The process can thus be represented in the diagram of a circle, in which we consider the highest point as the beginning and the end. The lowest point, which is the midway point and is at the bottom, opposite to the beginning and end, represents a stage of evolution when the involution of spirit into matter has proceeded until the qualities of each are in equal proportions. In this diagram the course of evolution is supposed to proceed down the left side and up the right side. The left side of the circle is known as the downward arc, the right side as the upward arc. During the progress of evolution along the downward arc, there is passage from spirituality to materiality, until the limit of materiality is reached at the lowest point; after which the ascending arc begins and there is progress from materiality towards spirituality. But it is to be noted that the whole process is a continual progress, and that the same power which causes spirit to descend into matter causes matter also to ascend into spirit; the one stage is a continuation of the other.
In the history of evolution it is taught that one great period of manifestation is called a manvantara, and that this is divided into seven rounds, and each of these is subdivided into seven root-races. The above diagram can be applied to the seven rounds or to the seven root-races. We are at present in the fifth root-race of the fourth round. As 4 is the midway point of 7 stages, it is seen that we stand a little beyond the lowest point of materiality, and are on the ascending arc of evolution. We are aspiring away from materiality towards spirituality. While mankind was following the downward arc in the earlier root-races, it was descending into matter; — its path of self-realization lay in expressing itself more and more in matter — but our path is different, as we have passed the midway point. So it is seen that what was right for humanity at one time may be wrong at another; if we were to strive towards greater materiality, we should be turning backward against the course of evolution.
Thus far we have spoken of the involution of spirit into matter, and of the consequent evolution of matter into more spiritual forms. But this statement was only provisional, and was made for the sake of clarity. It needs modification; for it suggests that spirit and matter are two different and independent things, which is not the case. There is one universal life, which manifests itself under the two aspects which we call spirit and matter, but these two aspects exist only by contrast with each other. A familiar illustration from physical science will make this point clear: suppose we were to compare the qualities of a liquid and a solid; we might call the liquid "spirit," and the solid "matter"; but then, if we took a gas and a liquid, the gas would be spirit by contrast with the liquid, which would be matter. So what is spirit on one plane may be matter on the next higher plane; and spirit and matter, instead of being two distinct things, are merely different grades of one thing. And so, in speaking of evolution, instead of saying that spirit descends into matter, it is more accurate to say that the one essence becomes gradually more material, and then again becomes more and more spiritual, until the cycle of evolution is accomplished.
Thus we have given some account of the leading features in our vast subject, and what we have tried to show is the laws that regulate change and growth throughout the universe — not merely the material universe, but also all those invisible realms that concern mind and spirit. Evolution is a conscious, purposive purpose, and it is the work of living beings. The universe, in the last analysis, consists exclusively of living beings, and each and all of these are growing and evolving. Such a view necessarily makes the entire process exceedingly complex, and a complete understanding of it is not to be contemplated; but there is no limit to the advances which we can make in our knowledge of it by study and experience of life. The wise student will be willing to recognize the limitations of human faculty and the necessary degrees in its unfoldment, so that he will not suffer himself to be discouraged by impatience because he cannot grasp the whole subject at once.
For further information on this subject of evolution consult:
2. Quotations from Professor Bateson's address at the Toronto meeting of the British Association, 1914.
"We have done with the notion that Darwin came latterly to favor, that large differences can arise from the accumulation of small differences. Such small differences are often mere ephemeral effects of conditions of life, and as such are not transmissible; but small differences, even when truly genetic, are factorial like the larger ones, and there is not the smallest reason for supposing that they are capable of summation."
"Examine any two thoroughly distinct species which meet each other in their distribution, as for instance Lychnis diurna and vespertina do. In areas of overlap are many intermediate forms. These used to be taken to be transitional steps, and the specific distinctness of vespertina and diurna was on that account questioned. Once it is known that these supposed intergrades are merely mongrels between the two species, the transition from one to the other is practically beyond our powers of imagination to conceive."
"Knowledge of heredity has so reacted on our conception of variation that very competent men are even denying that variation in the old sense is a genuine occurrence at all. Variation is postulated as the basis of all evolutionary change. Do we then as a matter of fact find in the world about us variations occurring of such a kind as to warrant faith in a contemporary progressive evolution? Till lately, most of us would have said 'Yes' without misgiving."
"Distinct types once arisen, no doubt a profusion of the forms called species have been derived from them by simple crossing and subsequent recombination. New species may now be in process of creation by this means, but the limits of the process are obviously narrow. On the other hand we see no changes in progress around us in the contemporary world which we can imagine likely to culminate in the evolution of forms distinct in the larger sense. By intercrossing dogs, jackals, and wolves new forms of these types can be made, some of which may be species, but I see no reason to think that from such material a fox could be bred in indefinite time, or that dogs could be bred from foxes."
"As we have got to recognise that there has been an evolution, that somehow or other the forms of life have arisen from fewer forms, we may as well see whether we are limited to the old view that evolutionary progress is from the simple to the complex, and whether after all it is conceivable that the process was the other way about." (return to text)
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