If you look at a conflict map of the world, like this one, you start to wonder about where exactly we’re heading as a culture (species, world, etc). I only started reading the news a year or so ago—has the outlook always been this grim?

Read about this person: “Lucy” of Blog del Narco. Not a bad way to start off your day: though riddled with pictures of the dead and incomprehensible statistics of the murdered, it’s a story of one person’s passion, and heroism in the face of death.

Note: This article makes a big deal out of her being a 25-year-old girl. The Blog del Narco wikipedia page, with no reason to assume this, originally called the blogger a “he” and I think still does. I have to admit, it does go against the grain of our expectations. How long will it take for that to change?

Mexican drug wars have don’t have much to do with George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. But the horrors of world news are a fair enough jumping-off point because Shaw lived through the world’s first two great, international, multi-continental tragedies, World Wars I and II, respectively.

“Everybody would like to have a million of money. Why haven’t they? Because the men who would like to be millionaires won’t save sixpence even with the chance of starvation staring them in the face. The men who want to live for ever won’t cut off a glass of beer or a pipe of tobacco, though they believe the teetotalers and non-smokers live longer.” (84)

I’ve spent some time puzzling over Shaw’s “creative evolution” and the reasoning behind it; I conclude that it is a scientific cul-de-sac, simply bad biology (if he’d known about the function of DNA he could never suggest that our offspring retain learned traits). But from a non-biological perspective he’s pointing out something which is, in effect, already happening. I’ll come back to that shortly.

The really weird thing going on in Back to Methuselah is the task which Shaw prescribes for creative evolution: the expansion of the human life cycle from 70 to 300 years.

“They will live three hundred years, not because they would like to, but because the soul deep down in them will know that they must, if the world is to be saved.” (84)

Perhaps, he reasons, if we have 300 years to live, we’ll gather some wisdom and eventually even exhibit some signs of foresight. In The Brothers Barnabas, the second part of Back to Methuselah, Franklyn Barnabas, an ex-rector, and his brother Conrad, a biologist, deduce that humans must life for at least three centuries.

Shaw splits himself into two men, representatives from the religious and scientific communities.

“It is going to be the religion of the twentieth century: a religion that has its intellectual roots in philosophy and science just as medieval Christianity had its intellectual roots in Aristotle.” (80)

To illustrate the age-old divide between the spiritual and physical sciences, in Franklyn’s first words to Conrad at the start of the book, Shaw describes him as “familiar and by no means cordial” (37). But there’s no other intimation of fraternal antipathy. On the contrary, they support and respect one another, even asking each other for favors.

This is the first example of evolution (biological or sociological?) which Shaw offers us. Unlike Cain and Abel, though they have opposed systems of understanding the world, they haven’t murdered one another; what’s more, they’ve united, despite their mutual dislike for one another, to work toward a common goal.

The brothers present their idea to a series of people including Franklyn’s ill-mannered daughter, a simple-minded local rector, a pair of politicians, and a parlourmaid, with reactions ranging from skeptical through cynical to fearful. The politicians, wooed by the promise of a philosophy that would unite the entire human race (under their flag) at first take up the brothers’ battle cry—”Back to Methuselah!”—but when they learn the secret to immortality is not a potion or a funny diet but a rhetoric of abstinence, pacifism, work, and striving for a longer life, these “practical politicians” lose steam.

“My idea is that whilst we should interest the electorate in this as a sort of religious aspiration and personal hope [. . .] it would be in the last degree upsetting and even dangerous to enable everyone to live longer than usual.” (83)

They take the marketable aspects of it to heart, though.

By placing this chapter in the late 1910‘s, the years he’s writing it, Shaw is in effect saying that he’s ahead of his time.

FRANKLYN: We had better hold our tongues about it, [Conrad]. We should only be laughed at [. . .]
CONRAD: I daresay. But Creative Evolution doesn’t stop while people are laughing [. . .]

Is that humility or arrogance? He’s certainly right that nobody is going to believe him and follow his lead. The concept is too radical. American prohibition, enacted, ironically, the year BTM was published, was a hideous failure that did little but pave the way for the emergence of organized crime in the United States. But it strikes me that to explain failure by saying that you’re ahead of your own time—in some way superior, or looking on from a superior vantage point, than most other humans—is arrogance in the extreme.

“It is my hope that a hundred apter and more elegant parables by younger hands will soon leave [my play] as far behind as the religious pictures of the fifteenth century left behind the first attempts of the early Christians at iconography.” (lxxxix-xc)

Is this just an excuse for failure? Shaw, a veteran radical, understands that radical ideas only succeed in one of two ways: through violent revolution or long, painful, societal development, sometimes over decades, sometimes over centuries.

I would like to believe, as Shaw does, that we are evolving, as a species—or even just society—toward a more peaceful way of being which no longer accepts violence as a way of dealing with our problems. But how much of this is superficial?

Look at Blog del Narco and the uncontrollable violence and destruction of these previously peaceful Mexican cities. Look at the conflict map. Look at the women in India who must resort to violence to protect themselves—and we cheer for their initiative, strength and success. Look at the rapidly compounding disaster of radical Islam and the terrorized people of Asia and Africa, a state of horror caused by violence and oppression and which seems to have no answer but more violence.

“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)

Returning again to Shaw.

“The village atheist and the first cornet in the local Salvation Army band meet on the village green and shake hands.” (79)

Shaw expects his unification of the religious and the scientific, his system of biology based on the Garden of Eden and his discovery of immortality within it, to galvanize humanity.

“I had always known that civilization needs a religion as a matter of life or death [. . .]” (lxxxvii)

Every known civilization has been bound, on a nominal level at least, by religion. Even the Soviet Union was created under the flag of the abolition of religion. Even Free America is so much a Christian/Protestant state, now as much as ever.

In the same way that Soviet Russia’s atheism was its “religion,” Shaw’s mythology is designed looking forward to an idealized future.

What can we say for creative evolution? Shaw’s concept of it is wrong on a basic biological level. But our technological and social developments, powered by creativity, do change the way that we behave, live, and interact with the world around us.

As a society, if we want, we can bend our creativity and efforts (and funding) toward extending the human life cycle. Many people are doing this already; medical doctors have long been on a quest to annihilate all that makes us die. Another pair of men, like Shaw’s Brothers B, will are revolutionizing the way we interact with our biosphere.

As a society. This is what we’re missing. Many powerfully intelligent people are doing exactly what Shaw suggests, but they do so with a diversity of motivations, and there is no binding element, no single vision to unify the efforts of the disparate organizations, corporations and individuals.

Part 4 of an exploration of Shaw’s interminable epic. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 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. The title of this article comes from page 69.