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The Phantoms Behind Us
by [?]


I take the title of this paper from those great lines in Whitman beginning–

“Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me”–

in which he launches in vivid imaginative form the whole doctrine of evolution some years before Darwin had published his epoch-making work on the “Origin of Species.”

“I see afar down the huge first Nothing, and I know I was even there.”

I do not know that Whitman had any concrete belief in the truth of the animal origin of man. He read as picture and parable that which the man of science reads as demonstrable fact. He saw and felt the great truth of evolution, but he saw it as written in his own heart and not in the great stone book of the earth, and he saw it written large. He felt its cosmic truth, its truth in relation to the whole scheme of things; he felt his own kinship with all that lives, and had a vivid personal sense of his debt to the past, not only of human history, but also to the past of the earth and the spheres. And he felt this as a poet and not as a man of science.

The theory of evolution as applied to the whole universe and its inevitable corollary, the animal origin of man, is now well established in most of the leading minds of the world, but it is still rejected by many timid and sensitive souls, and it will be a long time before it becomes universally accepted.

Doubtless one source of the trouble we have in accepting the theory comes from the fact that our minds have not been used to such thoughts; in the mind of the race they are a new thing: they are not in the literature nor in the philosophy nor in the sacred books in which our minds have been nurtured; they are of yesterday; they came to us raw and unhallowed by the usage of ages; more than that, they savor of the materialism of all modern science, which is so distasteful to our finer ideals and religious sensibilities. In fact, these ideas are strangers of an alien race in our intellectual household, and we look upon them coldly and distrustfully. But probably to our children, or to our children’s children, they will wear quite a different countenance; they will have become an accepted part of the great family of ideas of the race.

Another hindrance is the dullness and opacity of our own minds. We are slow to wake up to a sense of the divinity that hedges us about. The great office of science has been to show us this universe as much more wonderful and divine than we have been wont to believe; shot through and through with celestial laws and forces; matter, indeed, but matter informed with spirit and intelligence; the creative energy inherent and active in the ground underfoot not less than in the stars and nebulae overhead.

We look for the divine afar off. We gaze upon the beauty and purity of the heavenly bodies without thinking that we are also in the heavens. We must open our minds to the stupendous fact that God is immanent in his universe and that it is literally and exactly true, as we were taught long ago, that, during every moment of our lives, in Him we live and move and have our being.

Moreover, we are staggered by the element of vast time that is implied in the history of development. Were it not for the records in the rocks, we could not believe it at all. All the grand movements and processes of nature are quite beyond our ken. In the heavens only the astronomer with his prisms and telescopes traces them; only the geologist and palaeontologist read their history in the earth’s crust. The soil we cultivate was once solid rock, but not in one lifetime, not in many lifetimes, do we see the transformation of the rocks into soil. Nations may rise and fall, and the rocks they looked upon and the soil they tilled remain practically unchanged. Geologists talk about the ancient continents that have passed away. What an abyss of time such things open! They talk about the birth of a mountain or the decay of a mountain as we talk of the birth and death of a man, but in doing so they reckon with periods of time for which we have no standards of measurement. They walk and talk with the Eternal. To us the mountains seem as fixed as the stars. But the stars, too, are flitting. Look at Orion some millions of years hence, and he will have been torn limb from limb. The combination of stars that forms that striking constellation and all other constellations is temporary as the grouping of the clouds. The rise of man from the lower orders implies a scale of time almost as great. It is unintelligible to us because it belongs to a category of facts that transcends our experience and the experience of the race as the interstellar spaces transcend our earthly measurements.