Last and First Men

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3. the vital art

It was after an unusually long period of eclipse that the spirit of the third human species attained its greatest brilliance. We need not watch the stages by which this enlightenment was reached. Suffice it that the upshot was a very remarkable civilization, if such a word can be applied to an order in which agglomerations of architecture were unknown, clothing was used only when needed for warmth, and such industrial development as occurred was wholly subordinated to other activities.

Early in the history of this culture the requirements of hunting and agriculture, and the spontaneous impulse to manipulate live things, gave rise to a primitive but serviceable system of biological knowledge. Not until the culture had unified the whole planet, did biology itself give rise to chemistry and physics. At the same time a well-controlled industrialism, based first on wind and water, and later on subterranean heat, afforded the race all the material luxuries it desired, and much leisure from the business of keeping itself in existence. Had there not already existed a more powerful and all-dominating interest, industrialism itself would probably have hypnotized the race, as it had so many others. But in this race the interest in live things, which characterized the whole species, was dominant before industrialism began. Egotism among the Third Men could not be satisfied by the exercise of economic power, nor by the mere ostentation of wealth. Not that the race was immune from egotism. On the contrary, it had lost almost all that spontaneous altruism which had distinguished the Second Men. But in most periods the only kind of personal ostentation which appealed to the Third Men was directly connected with the primitive interest in "pecunia." To own many and noble beasts, whether they were economically productive or not, was ever the mark of respectability. The vulgar, indeed, were content with mere numbers, or at most with the conventional virtues of the recognized breeds. But the more refined pursued, and flaunted, certain very exact principles of aesthetic excellence in their control of living forms.

In fact, as the race gained biological insight, it developed a very remarkable new art, which we may call "plastic vital art." This was to become the chief vehicle of expression of the new culture. It was practised universally, and with religious fervour; for it was very closely connected With the belief in a life-god. The canons of this art, and the precepts of this religion, fluctuated from age to age, but in general certain basic principles Were accepted. Or rather, though there was almost always universal agreement that the practice of vital art was the supreme goal, and should not be treated in a utilitarian spirit, there were two conflicting sets of principles which were favoured by opposed sets. One mode of vital art sought to evoke the full potentiality of each natural type as a harmonious and perfected nature, or to produce new types equally harmonious. The other prided itself on producing monsters. Sometimes a single capacity was developed at the expense of the harmony and welfare of the organism as a whole. Thus a bird was produced which could fly faster than any other bird; but it could neither reproduce nor even feed, and therefore had to be maintained artificially. Sometimes, on the other hand, certain characters incompatible in nature were forced upon a single organism, and maintained in precarious and torturing equilibrium. To give examples, one much-talked-of feat was the production of a carnivorous mammal in which the fore limbs had assumed the structure of a bird's wings, complete with feathers. This creature could not fly, since its body was wrongly proportioned. Its only mode of locomotion was a staggering run with outstretched wings. Other examples of monstrosity were an eagle with twin heads, and a deer in which, with incredible ingenuity, the artists had induced the tail to develop as a head, with brain, sense organs, and jaws. In this monstrous art, interest in living things was infected with sadism through the preoccupation with fate, especially internal fate, as the divinity that shapes our ends. In its more vulgar forms, of course, it was a crude expression of egotistical lust in power.

This motif of the monstrous and the self-discrepant was less prominent than the other, the motif of harmonious perfection; but at all times it was apt to exercise at least a subconscious influence. The supreme aim of the dominant, perfection-seeking movement was to embellish the planet with a very diverse fauna and flora, with the human race as at once the crown and the instrument of terrestrial life. Each species, and each variety, was to have its place and fulfil its part in the great cycle of living types. Each was to be internally perfected to its function. It must have no harmful relics of a past manner of life; and its capacities must be in true accord with one another. But, to repeat, the supreme aim was not concerned merely with individual types, but with the whole vital economy of the planet. Thus, though there were to be types of every order from the most humble bacterium up to man, it was contrary to the canon of orthodox sacred art that any type should thrive by the destruction of a type higher than itself. In the sadistic mode of the art, however, a peculiarly exquisite tragic beauty was said to inhere in situations in which a lowly type exterminated a higher. There were occasions in the history of the race when the two sects indulged in bloody conflict because the sadists kept devising parasites to undermine the noble products of the orthodox.

Of those who practised vital art, and all did so to some extent, a few, though they deliberately rejected the orthodox principles, gained notoriety and even fame by their grotesques; while others, less fortunate, were ready to accept ostracism and even martyrdom, declaring that what they had produced was a significant symbol of the universal tragedy of vital nature. The great majority, however, accepted the sacred canon. They had therefore to choose one or other of certain recognized modes of expression. For instance, they might seek to enhance some extant type of organism, both by perfecting its capacities and by eliminating from it all that was harmful or useless. Or else, a more original and precarious work, they might set about creating a new type to fill a niche in the world, which had not yet been occupied. For this end they would select a suitable organism, and seek to remake it upon a new plan, striving to produce a creature of perfectly harmonious nature precisely adapted to the new way of life. In this kind of work sundry strict aesthetic principles must be observed. Thus it was considered bad art to reduce a higher type to a lower, or in any manner to waste the capacities of a type. And further, since the true end of art was not the production of individual types, but the production of a world-wide and perfectly systematic fauna and flora, it was inadmissible to harm even accidentally any type higher than that which it was intended to produce. For the practice of orthodox vital art was regarded as a co-operative enterprise. The ultimate artist, under God, was mankind as a whole; the ultimate work of art must be an ever more subtle garment of living forms for the adornment of the planet, and the delight of the supreme Artist, in relation to whom man was both creature and instrument.

Little was achieved, of course, until the applied biological sciences had advanced far beyond the high-water mark attained long ago during the career of the Second Men. Much more was needed than the rule-of-thumb principles of earlier breeders. It took this brightest of all the races of the third species many thousands of years of research to discover the more delicate principles of heredity, and to devise a technique by which the actual hereditary factors in the germ could be manipulated. It was this increasing penetration of biology itself that opened up the deeper regions of chemistry and physics. And owing to this historical sequence the latter sciences were conceived in a biological manner, with the electron as the basic organism, and the cosmos as an organic whole.

Imagine, then, a planet organized almost as a vast system of botanical and zoological gardens, or wild parks, interspersed with agriculture and industry. In every great centre of communications occurred annual and monthly shows. The latest creations were put through their paces, judged by the high priests of vital art, awarded distinctions, and consecrated with religious ceremony. At these shows some of the exhibits would be utilitarian, others purely aesthetic. There might be improved grains, vegetables, cattle, some exceptionally intelligent or sturdy variety of herdsman's dog, or a new micro-organism with some special function in agriculture or in human digestion. But also there would be the latest achievements in pure vital art. Great sleek-limbed, hornless, racing deer, birds or mammals adapted to some hitherto unfulfilled role, bears intended to outclass all existing varieties in the struggle for existence, ants with specialized organs and instincts, improvements in the relations of parasite and host, so as to make a true symbiosis in which the host profited by the parasite. And so on. And everywhere there would be the little unclad ruddy faun-like beings who had created these marvels. Shy forest-dwelling folk of Gurkha physique would stand beside their antelopes, vultures, or new great cat-like prowlers. A grave young woman might cause a stir by entering the grounds followed by several gigantic bears. Crowds would perhaps press round to examine the creatures' teeth or limbs, and she might scold the meddlers away from her patient flock. For the normal relation between man and beast at this time was one of perfect amity, rising, sometimes, in the case of domesticated animals, to an exquisite, almost painful, mutual adoration. Even the wild beasts never troubled to avoid man, still less to attack him, save in the special circumstances of the hunt and the sacred gladiatorial show.

These last need special notice. The powers of combat in beasts were admired no less than other powers. Men and women alike experienced a savage joy, almost an ecstasy, in the spectacle of mortal combat. Consequently there were formal occasions when different kinds of beasts were enraged against one another and allowed to fight to the death. Not only so, but also there were sacred contests between beast and man, between man and man, between woman and woman, and, most surprising to the readers of this book, between woman and man. For in this species, woman in her prime was not physically weaker than her partner.

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