Prometheus and Darwin

By John P. Van Mater

Out of the deeps of space galaxies emerge, ablaze with the lights of countless worlds. One such world is our sun with its family of planets. And this tiny earth, our home, has seen the birth of man and his brothers of all the kingdoms.

Scientists have been pondering this genesis, starting with the premise that life, so called, sprang from nonlife through a series of complex chemical combinations, organizations of matter (and organizations of organizations), until the whole panorama of the kingdoms was unfolded, climaxed by the appearance of thinking, self-conscious man. We have on the one hand organic matter, the "living" kingdoms vegetables, beasts, and men. All else, by scientific definition, is inorganic, lifeless, that is to say, the great solar orb is a majestic astrophysical phenomenon, nothing more, which by a kind provision of "nature" pulses forth energies titanic enough to cross vast space and nourish earth's tender "life." But the sun itself is not living, nor is this rocky lump we call earth; or the billions of fellow suns that look down upon us from the night sky -- or the great disc of the universe itself, wheeling its way across seemingly infinite space, along with countless other universes.

Perhaps because of the overwhelming prevalence of this scientific philosophy, little genuine attention is given the fact that the greatest minds of the past have also considered how worlds are born and how our life here has reached the point where man's intelligence can probe the ultimate cause of his own being. These "other" explanations have somehow been made to appear alien to our modern outlook, as though only in our time have we attained a clear insight into realities. Yet surely there is more to universal nature than the outer shell that science explores.

How time erases the past! The surge and resurge of empires brings now this race, now that to cyclic prominence, often obliterating the achievements of conquered folk, so that with the next flow of conquest even their names become legendary -- consult the list of allies of Troy and Greece in the Iliad. But races have a lore that survives the evanescent life of states. In the area of philosophy and religion there often remain lofty epics, myths of creation, stories of wars. These are usually woven into accounts that have historical value for they are, after all, the memory of the race. And mixed with these landmarks, whether of Troy, Babylon, or the Plain of the Kurus, are symbolic accounts of genesis, the birth of worlds, the origin of man. These scriptures and epics are first handed on by oral tradition, bridging eras of turbulence when any sort of writing had perished; but are finally set down, usually grandly, in later times -- the Mahabharata, Kalevala, Iliad, and Eddas, the Puranas of ancient Aryavarta, the Gilgamesh epic of Sumeria, the Babylonian Genesis, and hosts more. Whereas the names employed by the various ancients may differ, the settings also, they all ask the same searching questions: How was our world born? Whence came the kingdoms of life? How did man achieve his self-consciousness? It is this last topic we seek to explore: man's self-conscious mind, that instrument which allows him to speculate upon his own nature and that of his world.

The main thrust of the old mythological tales is that early humanity did not "evolve" civilization by trial and error, but was taught it by godlike forerunners. To make this thought more understandable, we have to go behind the veil of secrecy and the panoply of ritual and seek the true intellectual framework prevalent among the ancients. For one thing, they believed in reimbodiment or reincarnation, in the concept that evolution is an individual concern, not national or racial except incidentally. In any life a person is what he has made of himself in former lives. He is drawn to incarnate now here, now there, to work out old causes, to reap the harvest of past sowings together with those with whom he had previously sowed. The central concept was that man has within godlike potentials, and in the course of many incarnations he is afforded innumerable opportunities to bring these forth -- as have the wisest and most compassionate figures of human history.

Once admit the possible existence of this enduring element in man, however, and we must allow the same spiritual individuality to all creatures and even things unless we assume that man is unique, all other lives being but temporary sparks of awareness that cease when the body dies and exist no more. But, if so, we would then have to explain where the enduring part of man came from. It is logically more consistent to hold that all units are alive, even the worlds in which we live and move. This was the reasoning behind the ancient panorama of gods and goddesses immanent in the cosmos, hierarchies of them "above" ourselves. And we cannot stop there; we must consider those kingdoms or universal activities "below" the so-called living kingdoms, the forces and energies which are the fuel-stuff of life itself. These too have been looked upon as lesser lives from most ancient times by peoples the world over. This, then, was the archaic picture of the universe, infilled with living suns and planets, within which coursed an infinite variety of sentient life on many levels or degrees of unfoldment; all parts of a process of cosmic evolution through repeated reimbodiments.

Generally speaking, however, our mental outlook is not conditioned to understand how or why the ancients set forth their history as they did, or to accept these fragments as legitimate interpretations of the same story that scientists describe in other terms. As with former eras where the thought life was dominated by a prevailing view, religious or scientific, we have the notion that it is only in our time that we have put aside our superstitious origins -- peopled as it was with hosts of gods and demons -- and emerged into the bright sunlight of a true perspective. We forget that even recent history urges us to rise above the egotism of current dogmas. Among our forebears of olden times were men and women as intelligent as we are. In their often secret schools they undoubtedly discussed the very topics that engage modern researchers -- Plato in his Academy, Plotinus in the Alexandrian School, and other enlightened figures in numerous centers in the Near East, India, and the Orient.

The mystery of man's self-conscious mind is a good subject to illustrate how science and the ancient traditions can be combined to give more profound interpretations. Little special emphasis is placed by science upon how man attained self-awareness, yet it was a truly spectacular achievement. It is presumed (without going into details) that man's supply of inner endowments accumulated step by step with his outer development. The modern view assumes that man, like all creatures, gradually acquired abilities and that these through long evolution became the refined inner qualities that distinguish the human species. But if man had sought only those features that would equip him to survive in a given environment, how account for the extraordinary development of his brain and his aesthetic and religious attributes and longings which are and, as far as can be determined, have always been present? This difficulty is currently sidestepped by the concept that genetic mutations explain how descendants may become endowed with capacities that do not necessarily spring from their contact with environment. And so, with an airy wave of the hand, we are led to believe that we can disregard any metaphysical explanations about man.

Almost at the outset, however, Darwinism had its critics among the scientists themselves, as the late poet-scientist Dr. Loren Eiseley points out in several of his books. He discusses the views of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory bearing Darwin's name. As early as 1864, Wallace claimed that man's evolution took place in two stages. Phase one had to do with the evolution of his body, which has remained fairly stable. The second phase was the arrival (or awakening) of the human mind, which introduced a wholly new factor into evolution. With thinking man, bodily specialization, he claimed, became outmoded, for environment no longer gripped him. But his brain, meanwhile, underwent astonishing changes. While the surrounding animals were producing extensive physical modifications, man's "skeleton has remained nearly stationary . . ." The human race "has been evolving mostly in the head." -- My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, vol. I, p. 419.

Wallace's study of so-called primitive peoples led him to observe that they are in fact not primitive at all insofar as what would today be termed their genetic endowment. In the modern world we see countless examples of individuals who leap from their "savage" background of a generation or two ago and take their place intellectually, culturally, and aesthetically in our universities and in "civilized" society. But this is only an outward fact hiding an inner truth that has not been squarely faced: if these peoples have existed for untold ages in often primitive or barbaric environments, how explain their genetic potential? This is not something acquired overnight but needs countless millennia to implant under the step-by-step Darwinian process. And in this area they are not primitive in the least, having the same endowment we all have and needing only the proper environment to prove the fact. It is obvious that due to the cyclic rise and fall of races, nations, and tribes, there are times of power and ascendancy, and intervals (that may endure for centuries) when peoples seem to lie fallow until the call of circumstance awakens them to another more active destiny.

The explanations given by peoples of former times parallel in many respects the two-phase theory put forward by Wallace. They held that the human race spent countless ages developing an appropriate vehicle for its inner powers. At this point man was but an unthinking shell living a Garden-of-Eden existence. The time arrived, however, when this vehicle was ready, and higher beings, man's higher self in fact, incarnated in him, quickening, waking to self-consciousness his slumbering mind. These Manasaputras ("sons of mind," Hindu), Elohim (Hebrew), Prometheus (Greek), Loki (Norse), Ahriman (Persian), or whatever name or names peoples may have given them, were the rebellious Angels (Lucifer) who brought the fire of the gods to man. Tradition also has it that gods incarnated to teach the arts and sciences to Adam (mankind), so recently "cast out of Eden." These great ones, it is said, remained as the Divine Kings of universal legend, finally withdrawing as material cycles advanced, not however without founding the Mystery Schools where the archaic lore could be preserved and expounded -- thus forming for the intuitive mind the esoteric background that pecks out beneath the symbols and parables of the exoteric or popular mythologies coming down to us.

The myth of Prometheus is remarkably suggestive of these forgotten incidents in our past -- incidents which philosophers, poets, and dramatists of former eras elaborated in their descriptions of the birth of worlds and men. The story has taken several forms. In one version Prometheus created man out of the earth, in which there still resided "heavenly seeds" and, further, invoked the winds to breathe life into him. But man was still without fire, which many believe referred more to the fire of mind than to earthly fire. So Prometheus stole the fire of the gods and brought it to man hidden in a hollow reed. He also remained to teach mankind the arts and sciences. For these acts he was banished by Zeus, chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus, where an eagle preyed upon his liver; but he was eventually freed by Hercules, who can be taken to represent god-man or man perfected. One interpretation is that man's spiritual nature (Prometheus) is chained by its incarnation in man until man himself becomes consciously godlike (Hercules) and can set it free. The Christian story, although couched differently contains the same basic elements: Lucifer (literally, "lightbringer") is thrown out of heaven, but appears in Eden to tempt man with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Corresponding myths may be found in nearly every part of the world.

Now if indeed the human race received such a spiritual-intellectual stimulus, surely we should find physiological evidence of this fact. One clue, presently downgraded but commented upon favorably by Dr. Eiseley, is that the human individual in his growth from conception to birth to adulthood reveals in the small what the human species has undergone in the large. In his Immense Journey, he notes the interesting fact that the human brain at birth is only slightly larger than that of a baby gorilla (330 cc); but in the first year of life the child's brain trebles in size. There is no parallel to this phenomenon anywhere in the animal world. Eiseley wonders "at what point in time or under what evolutionary conditions" did our human ancestors begin their remarkable transformation. Certainly the ancient tradition of the incarnation in man of higher intellectual qualities and the subsequent nurturing of infant mankind by more advanced souls, would have produced extraordinary changes. The rapid growth of his brain is evidence that something of this nature must have taken place. He refers to the "old biological law" that the development of the individual reflects the history of the race, which would confirm this "sudden or explosive increase" somewhere back in the prehistory of mankind.

Wallace supports this by pointing out that after man's brain had been prepared "there occurred the spiritual influx which alone enabled him to begin a course of intellectual and moral development (Social Environment and Moral Progress, p. 30)." He also asserted (to Darwin's disappointment) that the artistic, musical, and mathematical abilities of man could never have been evolved by natural selection and the mere struggle for existence.

If we assume that nature, the cosmos, is as real spiritually as it is tangible physically, the ideal philosophy describing it would have to illuminate both worlds. And since we cannot in ourselves discover where body ends and spirit begins, we should not try to divide and separate the realm of science from that of religion, but allow the insights of each to penetrate the other. What we seek, after all, is not material truth or spiritual truth, but the actual truth -- as far as we humans can perceive it. And there is no other subject, perhaps, that lends itself so aptly to a universal outlook as the mystery of man's self-conscious mind. For mind partakes of both worlds: it is housed in a brain, but wings its way unfettered by physical chains, touching the stars with its immediate glance, but in the next moment pausing hesitantly over the immensity of a flower.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)

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