Mankind: The Artist, the Revolution

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton argues that man, as a species, is different in kind,  not just degree, from all other living creatures. Man’s origin, he says, is one of the grand mysteries of the cosmos, along with the birth of the universe itself and the emergence of the first life. Mankind, endowed with rationality and free will, exploded onto the scene and “a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable…not merely an evolution, but rather a revolution.”

Chesterton rejects the “gray gradations of twilight” suggested by materialist accounts of evolutionary gradualism in favor of a human nature that was mature at first appearance. It is important to be clear on what he was and was not claiming here. He is unconcerned with the question of whether or not any sort of evolutionary process produced the biology of Homo sapiens; he is defining human nature as the entire package, which includes our rationality and awareness of transcendentals, such as objective morality and the inherent value of human beings. 

cave art 1Chesterton points to the character of famous ancient cave art in order to support his assertion. Instead of the crude, simplistic scratchings of the so-called “caveman,” the paintings and sketches were “drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.” Contrary to the materialist narrative that conceives of human beings as a product of gradualism in every respect (physical bodies and mental capacities) this artwork tells the story of a mind very much like contemporary man’s. “So far as any human character can be hinted at by such traces of the past,” says Chesterton, “that human character is quite human and even humane. It is certainly not the ideal of an inhuman character, like the abstraction invoked in popular science.” He concludes that the common caricature of ancient man, the brutish, uncivilized caveman, is unsubstantiated legend, and that the earliest available evidence of artwork points to a distinctively human nature. 

Chesterton’s point goes beyond the fact that artistic activity can only be carried out by creatures with rationally-informed will; the inherent desire to create art for its own sake—the “impulse of art” as he calls it—further highlights the distinctiveness of man. Unlike any other creature of the animal kingdom, man is a creator, not only for utilitarian purposes, but for the simple joy of celebrating the wider creation through artistry. Chesterton is convinced that, as part of a wide gulf of separation, “art is the signature of man.” With his trademark wit-laced wisdom he argues that:

The very fact that a bird can get as far as building a nest, and cannot get any farther, proves that he has not a mind as man has a mind…But when he builds as he does build and is satisfied and sings aloud with satisfaction, then we know there is really an invisible veil like a pane of glass between him and us, like the window on which a bird will beat in vain. But suppose our abstract onlooker saw one of the birds begin to build as men build. Suppose in an incredibly short space of time there were seven styles of architecture for one style of nest….Suppose the bird made little clay statues of birds celebrated in letters or politics and stuck them up in front of the nest…we can be quite certain that the onlooker would not regard such a bird as a mere evolutionary variety of the other birds…

As with the appearance of human nature, such a bird would be a true revolution, not just a slightly more advanced bird. Chesterton is not merely arguing that the lower animals don’t do what humans do, so humans must be special. He’s also suggesting that if the bird scenario occurred, we would think something dramatic had happened that had suddenly produced a very different kind of creature. This is the situation with man and any of his alleged precursors. 

The anthropological evidence that has arisen since Chesterton’s time further supports his argument about human distinctiveness and the sudden appearance of human nature. Prominent evolutionary anthropologist Ian Tattersall is convinced that no human ancestor “produced anything, anywhere, that we can be sure was a symbolic object” and “even allowing for the poor record we have of our close extinct kin, Homo sapiens appears as distinctive and unprecedented…there is certainly no evidence that we gradually became who we inherently are over an extended period, in either the physical or the intellectual sense.” The materialist explanation involves a sudden, dramatic genetic event that produced what some evolutionists have termed “the dawn of human culture,” an event which included the rapid emergence of language and symbolic activities such as art. Tattersall admits that how this “almost unimaginable transition” from hominid to human beings with symbolic capacities is a matter of pure speculation. Darwin claimed that man gained such cognitive aptitudes through a process of sexual selection followed by social and cultural evolution; but Tattersall points out that this “explains neither why the highly social apes haven’t developed a more complex theory of mind over the time during which they have been evolving in parallel with us,  nor why the archaeological record seems to indicate a very late and essentially unheralded arrival of symbolic consciousness in just one lineage of large-brained hominid.” (See Tattersall’s book, Masters of the Planet, pp. 142, 207, 213, 214.)

It seems that the materialist has only speculation to prop up a presupposition–that man is nothing more than a highly evolved animal. However, the Christian humanist can more fully account for the remarkable revolution that is mankind by way of the doctrine of the imago Dei, and this is precisely Chesterton’s point. Man alone, as the crown of creation, bears the image of the good Creator and thus has within himself unique capacities, including the ability to create beautiful, meaningful things for their own sake.