RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN EUROPEAN THOUGHT ON THE EVOLUTION OF RELIGION
The living beings that exist or have existed upon the earth are of kinds innumerable; and, in the opinion of man, the chief of them all is mankind. Man, for the simple reason that he is man, is anthropomorphic in all his judgements and not merely in his religious conceptions; he holds himself to be the standard and measure in all things. If his right so to regard himself were challenged, if he were called upon to justify himself for having taken his foot as a unit of measurement, or his fingers as the basis of his system of numbers, he might reply that anything will serve as a standard for weights and measures, provided that it never varies, but is always the same whenever referred to. But the reply, valid though it is, does not do full justice to man: it leaves room for the suspicion that a standard is something chosen by man in a purely arbitrary manner and without reference to the facts of nature. If that were really the case, then man’s conception of himself as superior to the other animals on earth might be but a prejudice of an arbitrary kind. When, however, we consider, from the point of view of evolution, the place of man among the other animals that occupy or have occupied the earth, it is indubitable that the human organism is in point of time the latest evolved and the human brain is in point of complexity and efficiency the most highly developed. Further, the evidence of embryology goes to show that the organism which has eventually become human became so only by passing through successive stages, each of which has its analogue in some of the existing forms of animal life. Those forms of animal life exist side by side; and if we conceive them to be represented diagrammatically by vertical lines, differing in height according to their degree of evolution, the line representing the human organism will be the tallest, and may be considered to have become the tallest by successive increments or stages corresponding to the height of the various other parallel vertical lines.
When the conception of evolution, which had been employed to explain the origin of species and the descent of man, and which had been gained by a consideration of material organisms, came to be applied to the world of man’s thoughts, to the non-material and spiritual domain, and to be used for the purpose of explaining the growth and the development of religion, it was natural that the conception which had proved so valuable in the one case should be applied without modification to the other—as natural as that the first railway coach should be built on the model of the stagecoach. The possibility that the theory of evolution might itself evolve, and in evolving change, was one that was not, and at that time could hardly be, present to the minds of those who were extending the theory and in the process of extending it were developing it. Yet the possibility was there, implicit in the very conception of evolution, which involves continuous change—change in continuity and continuity in change.