Monday, January 18, 2010

Viva La Revolución

Comparative physiology, assisted by the biogenetic law and paleontology, gradually traced the evolution of man from the common ancestor of man and primates down through some primitive species of lemurs (night monkeys), thence on through marsupials, duckbills, saurians, fishes, to ascidians. Then Haeckel advanced his gastrula theory and divided the lowest organisms into unicellular protozoa and protophyta, and multicellular metazoan and metaphyta, bringing the descent of man down to some primordial common protist ancestor of animals and plants….

--Ernest Untermann

One day last semester, I was kicking along the sidewalk with some time to kill between classes. I noticed a benefit bake sale on the steps of the library and was unable to resist. I exchanged 50 cents for a cookie, dispatched the latter quickly, and proceeded into the library to fool around in the computer lab. The remaining two quarters were clicking together most irksomely in my pocket, however, and wouldn’t you know but the first thing I saw when I entered the building was a sign saying “Books for sale - $0.50 each” propped up on a few shelves of tired old volumes. How serendipitous.

So I shuffled through the stacks of books trying to find something worthwhile. A crappy 90’s play. A book of nature photography with poor-quality grainy images. Numerous biographies of people I’d never heard of. Histories of some literary movement or other, hundreds of pages long and unbelievably dry. I had almost resigned myself to an ugly book about American Realism when I spied a tiny hardcover with the provocative title Science and Revolution. I pried it from the row and looked it over. It was dirty, a pale blue in color that was rapidly fading to gray. The pages were yellow and brittle. The cover was embossed with the insignia of the Library of Science for the Workers. The original owner had penciled his(?) name on the first page: Illegible Scribble Ph.D. 1905.

Dr. Scribble annotated several other pages of the book, living up to his name each time. On the back he listed the taxonomy of kingdoms, including amoeba, gastrula, amphibians, and other things that I think might say peninsula, symphony, carbonform, ice aye. Or maybe not. Perhaps he was a medical doctor as well.

But to hold this book in my hands I feel the history there; I feel some inexplicable connection with the late professor. When he read these words they were undoubtedly new and controversial. They were written in an age before “socialism” was a swear word, or an insult, or a synonym for communism and fascism. Untermann, in fact, proudly declares his Marxist ties. The very purpose of the work, as near as I can tell, is to show that the march of time and human history is leading up to the ultimate inevitable triumph of evolution—a socialist society. This is pre-WWII, pre-atom bomb, pre-Holocaust and pre-environmental crisis and pre-War on Terror. How naïve. How quaint.

Today, the words are stuffy, outdated, archaic. Old news. Boring. So boring, in fact, that after trudging through the first 40-odd pages on a long bus ride during a worthless music trip (and reading the words “proletarian” and “bourgeois” so many times I began to hate the Romans and the French), I grew so tired of Untermann’s history of philosophical thought that I nearly discarded the whole thing. Recently, however, I picked it back up, turned to a random page, and found the excerpts quoted here.

And there’s some good stuff:

Once that the unity of all organisms in the world had been established, two questions immediately required an answer. One of them concerned the unity of psychological phenomena, the other that of life.

If the physiological development of mankind, animals, and plants knows no line of demarcation, but only degrees of organization, and if psychology is in reality a branch of physiology, why should there be a line of demarcation between the psychological development of man, animals, and plants? And if all organisms are descended from some common primordial protoplasmatic form, then the discovery of the origin of the vital processes of that form, or of any form, would solve the question of all organic life in the universe….

(Here Dr. Scribble writes a tentative question mark in the margins. I, too, had trouble understanding the author’s meaning. But then, skipping a few paragraphs ahead, comes a technical essay that suddenly flowers into intricate prose.)

The quest after the origin of life compelled science to penetrate far beyond so-called living organisms. It led on into the inorganic, and wiped out the line of demarcation between organic and inorganic, living and dead matter. It showed that organic life arose through the mechanical evolution of inorganic life. It revealed that life and death are but two poles of the same universe, that the distinction can no longer be between life and death, but only between different degrees of organization and intensity of life, between positive and negative life.

Personal immortality now resolves itself into personal evolution. Life and consciousness are now revealed as attributes of all matter, going through as many different stages of evolution as the various material forms in the universe. The personal immortality of any definite form would involve the control of all evolutionary processes which endanger the persistence of that form. So long as such control is not established, there is a ‘transmigration of the soul,’ but not in the way that the mystics use this term. The physiological processes of a certain positive consciousness, or ‘soul,’ are converted by the process of ‘death,’ into negative consciousness, which in turn becomes the positive consciousness of some other form.

One hundred and five years later—after the discovery of DNA and inheritance and penicillin and nuclear energy and radiation—we’re still at this same spiritual threshold. We’ve got a lot to learn and, it seems, a lot of lifetimes to do it.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m going back to school tomorrow.

1 comment:

secret agent woman said...

Seems to me humans are almost constantly at a spiritual threshhold.