Back to Methuselah eBook

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knows why:  all we know is that the thing actually takes place.  We relapse miserably from effort to effort until the old organ is modified or the new one created, when suddenly the impossible becomes possible and the habit is formed.  The moment we form it we want to get rid of the consciousness of it so as to economize our consciousness for fresh conquests of life; as all consciousness means preoccupation and obstruction.  If we had to think about breathing or digesting or circulating our blood we should have no attention to spare for anything else, as we find to our cost when anything goes wrong with these operations.  We want to be unconscious of them just as we wanted to acquire them; and we finally win what we want.  But we win unconsciousness of our habits at the cost of losing our control of them; and we also build one habit and its corresponding functional modification of our organs on another, and so become dependent on our old habits.  Consequently we have to persist in them even when they hurt us.  We cannot stop breathing to avoid an attack of asthma, or to escape drowning.  We can lose a habit and discard an organ when we no longer need them, just as we acquired them; but this process is slow and broken by relapses; and relics of the organ and the habit long survive its utility.  And if other and still indispensable habits and modifications have been built on the ones we wish to discard, we must provide a new foundation for them before we demolish the old one.  This is also a slow process and a very curious one.


The relapses between the efforts to acquire a habit are important because, as we have seen, they recur not only from effort to effort in the case of the individual, but from generation to generation in the case of the race.  This relapsing from generation to generation is an invariable characteristic of the evolutionary process.  For instance, Raphael, though descended from eight uninterrupted generations of painters, had to learn to paint apparently as if no Sanzio had ever handled a brush before.  But he had also to learn to breathe, and digest, and circulate his blood.  Although his father and mother were fully grown adults when he was conceived, he was not conceived or even born fully grown:  he had to go back and begin as a speck of protoplasm, and to struggle through an embryonic lifetime, during part of which he was indistinguishable from an embryonic dog, and had neither a skull nor a backbone.  When he at last acquired these articles, he was for some time doubtful whether he was a bird or a fish.  He had to compress untold centuries of development into nine months before he was human enough to break loose as an independent being.  And even then he was still so incomplete that his parents might well have exclaimed ’Good Heavens! have you learnt nothing from our experience that you come into the world in this ridiculously elementary state? 

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