Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Missing Think

I just discovered Mark Twain’s delightful takedown of anthropocentric teleological understandings of the “purpose” of the world, in his posthumously published “Was the World Made for Man?”. (Hopefully that link will take people to the actual work, rather than to some random place in the anthology…)

Voiced as the response of a “scientist and theologian” to “Alfred Russell Wallace’s revival of the theory that this earth is at the center of the stellar universe”, the piece begins by professing a qualified belief that the world was likely made for man, but argues that patience is required, for all the necessary evidence is not yet in. What evidence is still required? And why must we be “patient” to receive it? The answers come out gradually – and implicitly – as the piece tells the story of how the preparation of the world for man came about.

First the piece deals with the age of the world – evaluating different scientific positions on how long it took to prepare the world for man:

It takes a long time to prepare a world for man, such a thing is not done in a day.

Siding with an estimate on the conservative side, the piece suggests that man has been in the world for 32,000 years, while the world itself is 100 million years old. These figures mean that quite a long run-up was required to prepare for man – which is only to be expected, the author argues:

Very well. According to these figures it took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him. But a large enterprise like this has to be conducted warily, painstakingly, logically.

Then a quick absurdist jump. From logic to… the oyster:

It was foreseen that man would have to have the oyster. Therefore the first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster’s ancestor first. This is not done in a day. You must make a vast variety of invertebrates, to start with – belemnites, trilobites, jebusites, amalekites, and that sort of fry, and put them to soak in a primary sea, and wait and see what will happen. Some will be a disappointment – the belemnites and ammonites and such; they will be failures, they will die out and become extinct, in the course of the 19,000,000 years covered by the experiment, but all is not lost, for the amalekites will fetch the home-stake; they will develop gradually into encrinites, and stalactites, and blatherskites, and one thing and another as the mighty ages creep on and the Archaean and the Cambrian Periods pile their lofty crags in the primordial seas, and at last the first grand stage in the preparation of the world for man stands completed, the Oyster is done.

The oyster was created for man. Over a long period of time – and long before man was on the scene. From the standpoint of the oyster, the author concedes, this whole process might have been thought to have the oyster for its endpoint. But this view was sadly mistaken:

An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen-million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man. And anyway, this one could not know, at that early date, that he was only an incident in a scheme, and that there was some more to the scheme, yet.

And so on the article moves, through a whole absurdist evolutionary process. Many of the passages focus on the exuberantly wasteful nature of the whole process, if the purpose is to prepare a world for man:

The oyster being achieved, the next thing to be arranged for in the preparation of the world for man, was fish. Fish, and coal – to fry it with. So the Old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building Old Red Sandstone mountains 80,000 feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. This latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions – millions of them – and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than keep tally of them in a book.

So the millions of years drag on; and meantime the fish-culture is lazying along and frazzling out in a way to make a person tired. You have developed ten thousand kinds of fishes from the oyster; and come to look, you have raised nothing but fossils, nothing but extinctions. There is nothing left alive and progressive but a ganoid or two and perhaps half a dozen asteroids. Even the cat wouldn’t eat such.

Still, it is no great matter; there is plenty of time, yet, and they will develop into something tasty before man is ready for them. Even a ganoid can be depended on for that, when he is not going to be called on for sixty million years.

At several stages, some creature foolishly believes that it is the endpoint, purpose, and culmination of the whole:

Then the Pterodactyl burst upon the world in all his impressive solemnity and grandeur, and all Nature recognized that the Cainozoic threshold was crossed and a new Period open for business, a new stage begun in the preparation of the globe for man. It may be that the Pterodactyl thought the thirty million years had been intended as a preparation for himself, for there was nothing too foolish for a Pterodactyl to imagine, but he was in error, the preparation was for man.

From this time onward for nearly another thirty million years the preparation moved briskly. From the Pterodactyl was developed the bird; from the bird the kangaroo, from the kangaroo the other marsupials; from these the mastodon, the megatherium, the giant sloth, the Irish elk, and all that crowd that you make useful and instructive fossils out of – then came the first great Ice Sheet, and they all retreated before it and crossed over the bridge at Behring’s strait and wandered around over Europe and Asia and died. All except a few, to carry on the preparation with. Six Glacial Periods with two million years between Periods chased these poor orphans up and down and about the earth, from weather to weather – from tropic swelter at the poles to Arctic frost at the equator and back again and to and fro, they never knowing what kind of weather was going to turn up next; and if ever they settled down anywhere the whole continent suddenly sank under them without the least notice and they had to trade places with the fishes and scramble off to where the seas had been, and scarcely a dry rag on them; and when there was nothing else doing a volcano would let go and fire them out from wherever they had located. They led this unsettled and irritating life for twenty-five million years, half the time afloat, half the time aground, and always wondering what it was all for, they never suspecting, of course, that it was a preparation for man and had to be done just so or it wouldn’t be any proper and harmonious place for him when he arrived.

And then a final analogy for the perspective that argues that this extravagant process has, as its culminating goal, us:

Such is the history of it. Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

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