Back to Methuselah eBook

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Partridge, having seen a man once, will, without more strain than is involved in eating a sandwich, draw him to the life.  The keyboard of a piano is a device I have never been able to master; yet Mr Cyril Scott uses it exactly as I use my own fingers; and to Sir Edward Elgar an orchestral score is as instantaneously intelligible at sight as a page of Shakespear is to me.  One man cannot, after trying for years, finger the flute fluently.  Another will take up a flute with a newly invented arrangement of keys on it, and play it at once with hardly a mistake.  We find people to whom writing is so difficult that they prefer to sign their name with a mark, and beside them men who master systems of shorthand and improvise new systems of their own as easily as they learnt the alphabet.  These contrasts are to be seen on all hands, and have nothing to do with variations in general intelligence, nor even in the specialized intelligence proper to the faculty in question:  for example, no composer or dramatic poet has ever pretended to be able to perform all the parts he writes for the singers, actors, and players who are his executants.  One might as well expect Napoleon to be a fencer, or the Astronomer Royal to know how many beans make five any better than his bookkeeper.  Even exceptional command of language does not imply the possession of ideas to express; Mezzofanti, the master of fifty-eight languages, had less to say in them than Shakespear with his little Latin and less Greek; and public life is the paradise of voluble windbags.

All these examples, which might be multiplied by millions, are cases in which a long, laborious, conscious, detailed process of acquirement has been condensed into an instinctive and unconscious inborn one.  Factors which formerly had to be considered one by one in succession are integrated into what seems a single simple factor.  Chains of hardly soluble problems have coalesced in one problem which solves itself the moment it is raised.  What is more, they have been pushed back (or forward, if you like) from post-natal to pre-natal ones.  The child in the womb may take some time over them; but it is a miraculously shortened time.

The time phenomena involved are curious, and suggest that we are either wrong about our history or else that we enormously exaggerate the periods required for the pre-natal acquirement of habits.  In the nineteenth century we talked very glibly about geological periods, and flung millions of eons about in the most lordly manner in our reaction against Archbishop Ussher’s chronology.  We had a craze for big figures, and positively liked to believe that the progress made by the child in the womb in a month was represented in prehistoric time by ages and ages.  We insisted that Evolution advanced more slowly than any snail ever crawled, and that Nature does not proceed by leaps and bounds.  This was all very well as long as we were dealing with such acquired habits as breathing

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