War's something we've always been good at
Spartans doing what they do. Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

I’m sitting in an over-hot bath reading Shaw defend Creative Evolution, waggling his hairy forefinger at the nihilistic Neo-Darwinians (us). I’ve just read a flatulent comedy by Aristophanes, trashing Reason and the liberalism of Socratic Logic and urging the audience to attend to the conservatives morals of the gods, or else be trampled to death, and cause the downfall of Athenian glory.

I can barely tell which to write about first; I favor, in the end, Shaw’s diligent narrative, fractured as it is in places by false logic and argumentative gaps.

He had to compress untold centuries of development into nine months before he was human enough to break loose as an independent being. [xxvi]

Two points points to summarize Creative Evolution, or Neo-Lamarckism:

  • Creative Evolution, actually somewhat fashionable in the early 20th century, holds that evolution occurs because the organism wants to change. The giraffe’s neck is longer because the giraffe wanted it to be so, and stretched until it was.
  • Traits which are learned (like learning how to ride a bicycle, or having a longer neck) are passed on, in some infinitesimal amount, to the offspring. My children, for example, will learn how to ride a bike in the city with slightly less trouble than I did, and their children will have a slightly less trouble than they, so long as each generation keeps trying. Consequently, since I’ve never tried to ski, my children will have a harder time of learning how to do that than I would have.

This seems absurd to inconsiderate people at the first blush. [xxiii]

The above line, which comes right after Shaw claims that a giraffe can stretch its neck out and alter its own genetics (not that Shaw knew from genetics) is idiosyncratic of the entire discourse, passionate and combative from the start: Shaw has a grudge to settle.

Unfortunately, I don’t see what’s “inconsiderate” about disagreeing with your philosophy, Shaw: what’s more, the proofs you draw to back up your argument leave a lot to be desired.

He compares the passing on of “habits” like cycling and longer necks through generations to the individual’s learning process. The first time you get on a bike, you spend an hour learning, and get observably better. The second time you get on a bike, you don’t start from where you left off, but only seem to retain a fraction of what you learned the day before. In this same way, he says, generations receive abilities or “habits” from their progenitors.

Shaw’s boeuf is not with Darwin (who did not believe that Circumstantial Selection was strong enough a force to completely account for evolution) but with the Neo-Darwinians, and their simplification of Evolution’s causes to the singular, and to him hopeless, mechanism of natural selection. 

“Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it.” [xi]

These are only a few of 'em
16 Million left dead in 4 years

The Great War left 16 million dead, 20 million wounded, and its legacy was the unconscientious rape and demonization of the losers. Shaw blames this wholesale slaughter on the “survival of the fittest” philosophy which had been used to justify so much of it. He asks himself “whether the human animal, as he exists at present, is capable of solving the social problems raised by his own aggregation, or, as he calls it, his civilization.” In writing Back to Methuselah and its prefixes, Shaw is proposing a religion which looks forward, towards an evolved human, instead of backward to some anthropomorphic God. He sees hope for humankind, but never through the cold-blooded, intellectualized Neo-Darwinism, which held that people and races died out because they were weaker.

Immortality is natural, death only an artifice to make it bearable as a burden and get rid of its garments of flesh as they wear out.

So lying here in my hot bath, trying to get over the slight hangover I woke up with, I’ve listened to two overly-religious men rail against concepts which I personally espouse.

I have no use for The Clouds, Aristophanes’ cold-blooded slander against Socrates, which outrages me: the nauseatingly moralistic ending is like a hideous mutation plugged into what could have been a fantastic absurdist comedy.

What’s more, Aristophanes is predicting the downfall of a city; Shaw’s ethical drive is less selfish, less conservative and destructive, far more original, and is attractive because it is a solution to our civilization’s ethical bankruptcy.

The problem is that this solution seems absurd itself (how inconsiderate I am). Back to Methuselah is all about beating death, evolving, by our own will to do so, to a point where we can live for three hundred years or more, and thus be more wise, and more concerned about the future we are creating (since we’ll actually have to live in it). This might not be as ridiculous as it seems, though. Almost off-handedly, Shaw points out something intriguing: even now we have no idea why we grow old and die.

Senescence is the decaying and eventually dying with age and we have no idea why it’s such a universal trait. It isn’t something that our bodies have to do—Shaw says:

Take that habit of decaying and eliminating himself by death—equally an acquired habit, remember [. . .] [xxiv]

Learn to cheat death by becoming a stalk that shoots out eggs
Clever girl

The consensus now is that aging to death is an evolutionary trait like any other; what’s more, there are species which do not senesce: Hydra, a genus of aquatic, predatory creatures about 20mm long, seems immortal (barring being eaten or crushed or anything like that) according to the current data. The turritopsis nutricula (immortal jellyfish) can reverse its life cycle, turning back from the mature medusa into an immature polyp, to go through the cycle of life again (imagine if a butterfly could revert into a caterpillar, and do that indefinitely).

One current theory of death is that it was invented in order to avoid the onset of cancer. Whatever the reason for it is, Shaw is absolutely correct in one thing: we have for thousands of years proposed peace or war to end our problems, only to cyclically resort to slaughter to achieve our ends. As Aristophanes himself proves, war, death, and oppression are no less present today than they were in 400 or 4000 BC. The difference now is that there are more of us to kill more of us.

In my slowly cooling bath, I ruminate on the consequences of proof; is there hope for the wild beast in its current form? Can our aggregation, or civilization, ever impose a lasting peace on our species without sacrificing something even more valuable?

We're all a bit too young for this
If anything happens, just revert to your polyp stage.

Part 3 of an exploration of Shaw’s interminable epic. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.

All of the quotes in this essay come from my tattered Bernard Shaw: Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962. Volume II, Back to Methuselah, prefaces.