Survival of the Fittest
Formed part of preceding address.

PERHAPS the most weird picture in "Modern Painters" is the description of Tintoretto's "Last Judgment." Dante in poetry, Giotto, Orcagna, and Michael Angelo on canvas, have spent their imaginations on the unimaginable theme; but Tintoretto alone, says Mr. Ruskin, has grappled with this awful event in its verity: "Bat-like, out of the holes and caverns and shadows of the earth, the bones gather, and the clay-heaps heave, rattling and adhering into half-kneaded anatomies, that crawl and startle, and struggle up among the putrid weeds, with the clay clinging to their clotted hair, and their heavy eyes sealed with the earth darkness yet, like his of old who went his way unseeing to Siloam Pool; shaking off one by one the dreams of the prison-home, hardly hearing the clangour of the trumpets of the armies of God, blinded yet more, as they awake, by the white light of the new Heaven, until the great vortex of the four winds bears up their bodies to the judgment seat: the firmament is all full of them, a very dust of human souls, that drifts, and floats, and falls in the interminable, inevitable light; the bright clouds are darkened with them as with thick snow, currents of atom life in the arteries of heaven, now soaring up slowly, farther, and higher, and higher still, till the eye and the thought can follow no farther, borne up, wingless, by their inward faith and by the angel powers invisible, now hurled in countless drifts of horror before the breath of their condemnation." [4] Such is the picture, "not typically nor symbolically," Mr. Ruskin tells us, "but as they may see it who shall not sleep, but be changed."

That artist and critic have drunk in the spirit of their dreadful subject may be unquestioned. That pictures of the Last Judgment, whether with pen or pigment, serve a certain function, is also beyond dispute. To deny this would be to condemn the whole of sacred art. And to have the mute appeal of the great religious masterpieces silenced in the thronged galleries of Europe, where they have stood like beacons to the passing stream of life for centuries, would be a blow to Christianity. But it is no less true that to a class of minds the dramatic aspects of the Last Judgment appeal in vain. The material imagery, we are assured, the marshalling of the prisoners at the trumpet call, the Judge and the great White Throne, are presentations to an age which has passed away. The very tying-down of Judgment to a Day, the whole machinery of a human court "which meets, goes through its docket and adjourns," are out of harmony with the other ways of God; and whatever reality may underlie it, the conception, as it stands at present, is too gross and artificial to find acceptance with a scientific age.

Many will wonder what science means by this fastidiousness. Some will quite fail even to enter into the state of mind which feels it, or which presumes to question the congruity or incongruity of what has been revealed. Nevertheless, this is a real difficulty. And, whatever be its genesis, we are compelled to recognise an attitude of mind which somehow disqualifies its possessor from being greatly influenced by such spectacular representations as have been named. Our feelings are a great mystery; the least definable are often those which sway us most. But to meet this state of mind, rather than to defend its reasonableness or ban its presumption, is the question before us. For the difficulty, after giving up a truth in one form, of winning it back in another is very great. And it is certainly true that for want of a connecting link between the popular doctrines of eschatology, and the facts and ways of nature and of the moral life, many who in this instance have repudiated the form have come to abandon the substance. To restore the substance and meaning of the idea of judgment by seeking to renovate the form is our object now. We are far from claiming that the form to be presented is the best, still less that it contains the whole of the substance. Truth has many forms, and the whole substance of this truth is, perhaps, not given as yet to man to know. But upon this, the most solemn thought that has ever been presented to the conscience of mankind, it is impossible that reason should be silent, or nature withhold its contribution from such a theme.

We have hinted that the scientific difficulty in accepting the doctrine in its conventional form is one of standpoint. But the particular point of the objection is worth defining, and for a remarkable reason. What science really rebels at in the old doctrine is its externalness. It is outside nature, a foreign and unanticipated element, a breach of continuity. And what science would like to see is a universal principle, a principle, if possible, operating from within, bound up with nature itself, and involved in the general system of things. Now, such a claim coming from science is in every way astonishing and unexpected. For observe what it is. It is simply a demand upon religion for a further spirituality. It is really materialism that science objects to in the old doctrine -- it objects to a material throne, and bar, and trumpet, to an external law, to a judgment from without rather than from within. The protest, in fact, is a rebuke to religion for the grossness of its conceptions, for its tardy abandonment of the letter, for the permanence it has given to provisional forms -- in short, for its unspirituality.

Nor is this the first instance in which science has called the attention of religion to this crude externaless in its ideas. In several well-known instances it has already imposed upon religion the useful task of remodelling its doctrines; and in each case the gain has been in the direction of greater inwardness, greater naturalness, greater spirituality. And the still more interesting fact remains to be noted, that it is generally science itself which supplies the material for the remodelled doctrine. As it destroys, it fulfils -- the very discoveries which begat its doubt become, when rearranged and incorporated by religion, the materials for a firmer faith. For instance, the grossness and externalness of the old theory of a Six Days' Creation was once a serious stumbling-block to science. Students of nature were unaccustomed to find nature working in ways so abrupt; facts proving the slow development of the world had accumulated; the Divine-fiat hypothesis was challenged, and finally abandoned. And then out of these very facts grew the new and beautiful theory that Creation was not a stupendous and catastrophic operation performed from without, but a silent process acting from within. So, having destroyed the old conception, science itself contributed the new -- a conception which it could not only intelligently accept, but which for religion also left everything more worthy of worship than before.

Again, consider a case where the difficulty of believing an accepted theory is not physical but moral. Take the second commandment. The impression this law would leave on the early mind would certainly be that, in visiting the iniquities of fathers upon children, God weighed each case separately and administered special judgment upon cases of exceptional enormity. God administered punishment, that is to say, from without, by judicial enactments, augmenting or remitting sentence according to discretion. But instead of referring the enforcement of this commandment to an external court, we now see that execution of its sentences are transferred to the laws of nature. Instead of working from without, from above nature, it works, in ordinary circumstances at least, within it. It is, in fact, the ordinary law of heredity -- the law of transmission from sire to son of the dispositions, tendencies, temptations, and diseases of the parent. Now, while losing nothing here, much is gained. The idea of judgment for sin is as much in the law as ever, the personality of the Judge is as before; but the seat of judgment has changed, and the mechanism of justice is replaced by the working of inherent laws. The very laws of nature have become "the hands of the living God."

Now with these two examples before us of the change of emphasis from the external to the internal, may we not ask whether any parallel change is warranted in the case of the larger doctrine now in view? Should it not also have an inward ground, a discoverable law? Is it an operation from without, or a process from within? Is there no anticipation, in short, in nature of a final judgment? As it is not intended to deal here directly with the Scripture references, I will leave them with two remarks.

1. The Scriptures are not explicit -- are, in fact, very far from explicit. Let any one collate the various references to this subject -- and they are very numerous -- sift them with whatever care he likes, arrange them upon whatever principle he likes, or upon all known principles of interpretation up to the present time, and he will find them perplexing, and even contradictory. Here, if anywhere then, there is room for the New Testament to come in and seek out a basis of law. And I select the field as an illustration, simply because it is a remote one, and at the first blush most unpromising.

2. That while Christ lays down, and especially in the parables of Judgment, the great ethical principles of eschatology, nearly all beyond that, in His teaching and in Paul's, has a purely Jewish or Rabbinic basis. No theme is more prominent in Jewish literature. The older portions of the book of Enoch, for example, contain constant allusions to a "Great Judgment," "the Day of the Great Judgment," "the Great Day of Judgment," "the Great Day," "the Day of Judgment," "the Righteous Judgment," and "the Last Judgment for all Eternity." The Sibylline books and the Apocalypses generally teem with detailed descriptions of such an event variously conceived of, variously dated, and for the most part having a political origin and significance. "Even the idea of a day' (according to Stanton) does not seem to have been originally taken from a judge holding court, but from a terrible triumphal conqueror executing vengeance in a day of battle and slaughter." [5]

But to proceed. The position to be now taken up is not only the one which will be obvious on a little thought -- that Judgment is not an act to be accomplished, an act sudden, spectacular, explosive, but a quiet process now and ever going on -- but that that process is simply the operation of one of the widest and most familiar of the Laws of Nature.

This law let me first bring forward in its simplicity as mere natural law; later on, we shall reach its ethical relations; and I must be pardoned for speaking here my own native tongue of Science rather than attempting a translation into ethics. The name of this law is the Survival of the Fittest. Eternal life under the last analysis is a question of the survival of the fittest. And Judgment is a question of natural selection. In spite of the constantly reiterated protest of popular theology that science and religion part company for ever over this law, in spite of the apparent objection that while in nature the prize is to the strong, and the weak go to the wall, in the kingdom of grace the bruised reed is not broken and the weary and heavy laden win; it is the most certain of truths that in nature and grace alike the law of the survival of the fittest holds. A moment's reflection will show that in thus contrasting the genius of nature and the genius of Christianity by way of objection, the word fitness is used in two totally different senses. In the one case it is employed in a biological, in the other in an ethical sense. When it is said that a fish survives in water because it is "fit" for it, all that is meant is that the organization of the fish is, in certain respects, adapted for this element. And when it is said that eternal life is a question of the survival of the fittest, what is implied is that it is a question of the survival of the adapted -- of those who, by some means, have become specially fitted or equipped for living in this element. In this -- the only possible scientific sense -- it is literally and eternally true that the future state is a question of the survival of the fittest. The survival of the fittest means, then, only the survival of the adapted. It is not asserted, meantime, that the survival of the adapted means also the survival of the worthiest. Whether worthiness be, after all, the same thing as fitness will be referred to presently. But that no moral quality whatever is involved in the operation of this law is a point to be marked, for the basis of judgment for which we contend is one involved in the very constitution of the world.

The essential thing in any organism in relation to its surroundings, the characteristic quality on which life depends, is adaptation to environment. If an organism is to survive in water, it must be adapted to the aquatic condition by the development of a water breathing faculty, a gill. If it is to change its surroundings so as to live in air -- as actually happens during the life-history of the common frog -- it must become adapted to correspond with the atmosphere by the development of an air-breathing apparatus, or lung. So if the highest organism is to be in correspondence with the Divine Environment, he must be adapted to it. He, the Christian, must have undergone some process of adaptation to environment -- theologically called sanctification -- in virtue of which he is able to correspond, to commune, with God. Only those so adapted can possibly exist in this element, even as those only equipped with gill can breathe in water, or those with lung in air. But this is simply to repeat once more that the adapted survive; that the fit survive; that they are "selected" to live by the possession of the required faculty.

Suppose, now, to point the application, these varying degrees of adaptation to environment to be tested by actual experiment. A pool teeming with living organisms suddenly dries up. The vast majority of these organisms are adapted for an aquatic environment and for no other, and with the removal of this they perish. In terms of adaptation to environment they are judged. One or two, however, such as the water-newt, in addition to the special adaptation required for the liquid element possess the further power of corresponding with the earth and air in virtue of the possession of a lung. So long, therefore, as it can remain in correspondence with the earth and air, it lives. Suppose next some climatic change to occur, or some physical catastrophe such as the sudden eruption of a volcano, and that those who escaped from the water are no longer able to adapt themselves to this further change. In terms of environment they are judged. Suppose, however, that another organism, man, within the affected area was able to escape. His survival is due solely to the superior complexity of his organization. By his intelligence he foretold the calamity, and prepared for it, or with the aid of his inventions he swiftly withdrew to a safe distance. But suppose next, by a mightier catastrophe, the earth itself should collide with another star, and make his new environment again untenable. What is to become of him? It will depend on what correspondences remain, and on what environment still exists. But the old law holds He will go where he is fit for, and be in what is fit for him. If he has any correspondence with eternity, he will go on living in terms of these correspondences.

He will go on living in terms of his correspondences -- this is the point of it all. And this is natural selection; it is another way of saying that the fit to survive survive. And is there not here a principle of Judgment? The organisms in the drying pool, the water-newt upon the quaking land, the man at the world's collapse -- each is allocated to his place according to his correspondences. No external act of choice takes place; there is an inherent claim to live, or an inherent necessity to die, in the organism itself This claim is founded on the fulfilment or non-fulfilment of an essential and imperative condition; it is a necessary consequence of the law of the survival of the fittest; it is not an arbitrary appointment or reward, it is the natural evolution of an organism in terms of its correspondences.

Nature sits upon no far-off throne, like a capricious goddess, signalling which shall live and which shall die. But in the very inmost being of each she discloses a law of life or death. If an animal dies, its death is the natural culmination of its own past, of tendencies, proclivities, and processes already at work within; if it lives, its survival is the direct result of what it at the moment is. If death is, in such cases, in any sense a judgment, it is a judgment solely on unfitness. And if in dissolution the sentence of a judge is being carried out, it is not by an external operation, but by an inward process. And so with man. It is not necessary that he should be judged from without; he will be judged from within. He is his own judge.

No witnesses need be called to give their evidence; the witnesses are himself. No gaolers need be told off to watch him; he cannot run away from himself. No external court need formulate the case against him; his own past has done it, his own past is it. No Judge need pronounce sentence at a Last Day; as he stands there to-day, he has sentenced himself, -- as he stands there, he is prisoner, gaoler, court, witnesses, all in one, all the past collected and focussed in his present, all the present defining and determining the unknown, but not unanticipated, future. As in the past evolution of the earth the nebulous gases combined in the order of their affinities and arranged themselves in the order of their densities, so in the future evolution will each go to his own, living on in terms of his correspondences, in the order determined by his spiritual affinities.

This principle of judgment pervades with its invisible presence the whole of nature. Every plant, insect, animal, man -- man physical, mental, moral, spiritual -- is daily and hourly on trial. This court is never opened and never closed. It is a vast, mysterious, self-acting organization, ramifying through the whole of nature, and without resistance or appeal, each living thing obeys its verdict.

But, in the case of an organism, what is it that betrays the insufficiency of its correspondences? It is the presentation to it of the new environment. So long as the fish lives in the stream, it will neither feel nor exhibit any want of adaptation to other surroundings. But when the stream runs dry? So long as the swallow lives in the English climate, its joyful existence is complete. But when the English summer wanes and the chills of winter come? So long as man lives on in the environment of this present world, his correspondences, or some of them, are satisfied. But when this present world is done? Then is the great trial. Then is the sifting time. Then is the Judgment Day. Then his sufficiency or insufficiency is finally betrayed. In presence of the new environment -- not by any book opened, word spoken, past recalled -- in the mere presence of it, he is made manifest. This reflex influence of environment has been a commonplace with theology from the beginning. It is remarkable how full revelation is of this still future truth -- remarkable also that, being a thing to come, nature should so anticipate and confirm it. No thought is more frequent or more solemn in the Biblical accounts of the last things than that at the appearing of Christ a mighty change will sweep over the moral world -- a sudden revolution in men's opinions -- a swift reversal of all human judgments. And this is not an unlooked-for crisis. It is the natural effect of the new environment -- or of the sudden prominence of the new environment -- upon organisms well or ill prepared to live in it. Hence it is not only that in this Presence the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, nor that human lives projected against His will henceforth and evermore appear in colours black as hell. But it will be that vital relations will manifest themselves in the case of every man; his correspondences will continue, or come short. All that he is, the little that he is, all that he is fit for, all that he is not fit for, will be revealed. In terms of these, in himself, and at a glance, he will know whether he is to live or die. With his own eyes he will see the great gulf fixed; with his own reason he will see why it cannot be crossed

"The appearing of Christ," says Van Oosterzee, "brings about separation (krisi) between the one who has the Son and the one who has Him not; or rather, the difference, already present, unseen, is in consequence of His coming and His work, brought to light. Thus the Christ becomes necessarily Judge, even where He desires to be Saviour." [6] And to the same effect Paul, "For we must all be made manifest before the Judgment-seat of Christ." This is that being "weighed in the balance" in which some shall be "found wanting." This is what Paul foresaw when he said, "We must all be made manifest before the Judgment-seat of Christ."

This, again, is not peculiar to Christianity or to science, but universal law. The moment I go to a high-class concert, in the matter of musical taste I am judged. My musical soul, or soul-lessness, is instantly made manifest. The moment I enter a picture gallery I am judged. My correspondences are or are not. I am weighed in the balances. That day declares it.

What man is what God is -- these are the materials for the anticipation of judgment. They are in each man's hands, and in terms of them he can here and now decide. To no man, surely, is it ever given to draw aside the veil and forecast the future for another. Personal to the individual, the possession of the appropriate correspondences, -- the adaptation to the Divine is truly known to oneself alone. And we are therefore warned by the New Testament: "Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes,' who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart." But so far from precluding a judgment of our own upon ourselves, the very inability of our neighbour, the impotence to help of those who know and love us best, the isolation and solitude in which we must settle this question of life and death, create a warrant for self-examination such as no serious man will allow himself to evade. "Examine yourselves," says Paul, "whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves." And again, "Make your calling and election sure."

* * * *

Mr. Darwin tells us that the object of natural selection -- the object of the fittest surviving -- is "the improvement of organisms." It is the means by which nature shows her appreciation, not of fitness alone, but of fitness in the direction of advancement. It is her splendid effort to ennoble life, to exalt and purify creation, to bring all organisms to an ever-increasing perfectness and complexity, to carry on the evolution of the world to higher and higher beauty, usefulness, and efficacy. How keen her desire to compass this great end, how enormous the value she sets on the result, may be feebly inferred from the terrible price she is prepared to pay for it. If nature is in earnest about one thing, it is quality. To this end all her labour tends; she works, and waits; she destroys, and re-creates. And surely nothing is more significant for religion, nothing could more eloquently express its own deepest aim for the world, than this mighty gravitation of all in nature towards fitness, wholeness, perfectness. Even Lamarck finds himself so impressed by the silent witnesses around him to the great ascent of life as to believe in "an innate and inevitable tendency towards perfection in all organic beings."

But it is to the various eschatological theories of theology that its voice most distinctly speaks. Has Antinomianism no tacit following in the modern Church? Let those who have to meet this subtle and monstrous and unaccountable perversion explain the meaning and press home the necessity of adaptation to environment. Let it be shown that fitness to survive is tested, not by profession, but by experiment. How easily in the theological forms may faith be a correspondence, a communion, a living bond with a living Christ, or (it may be) a mere belief, a barren formula, a name to live. There is an ecclesiastical Christ and a living Christ; there is a historical Christ and a risen Christ; there is a theological Christ and a personal Christ. Is it not clear alike from reason from nature, and from revelation that only by contact -- immediate, personal, living -- with a living, present Christ the eternal life can be a root in the heart of man? We turn to yet another tendency of the time. More and more the doctrines of Universalism seem to spread.

Where then, it may be asked, is mercy? The answer is -- (1) It will be seen presently that the whole scheme is established only in mercy; but (2) even mercy has its laws. The object of mercy can never be to "save" the unfit, i.e. to save the unadapted, which is inconceivable and impossible. Mercy can make the unfit fit; it has a vast machinery for this one purpose. That is its work, its line, the only line it can take. To "fit" the unfit is a possibility, to "save" them being unfit, to sentence them unfit in either relation to a heaven or a hell is impossible. The only conceivable ways to save a fish tossed on the rocks by a billow are to suddenly supply it with a lung, which is impossible, or to turn it back into its own element. On similar principles the unfit in relation to God cannot be saved, the fit can by no possibility be lost.

As the evangelist said of Emerson, "Emerson was one of the most beautiful souls I ever knew. There is something wrong with his machinery somewhere, but I do not know what it is, for I never heard it jar. He cannot be lost, for if he went to hell, the devil would not know what to do with him."

* * * * *

But we must shape this many-sided inquiry to a close.

One other aspect of this Truth demands a passing notice before we close. Till now we have discussed the survival of the fittest only as it affects the individual. This is a small part of the truth. No law is of private interpretation. How calmly we, as individuals, appropriate the laws of God focussing all in our own little world -- as if they were only for ourselves; as if they were not the parallel of latitude of a larger universe, the revelation of the method of God's whole purposes and government. What is each man but one little thread in the loom of God? The great wheels revolve, the shuttle flies, not for the thread but for the web; not for the web alone, but for the pattern on the web; not for the pattern on the web, but for One, the Designer, who makes loom and web and pattern for Himself. To know why the loom is there, and why the shuttle moves, and why the threads are in this place or in that, or why they are there at all, we must look beyond ourselves, discover if we may the hidden Workman's purpose, and see in the half-finished design the prophecy of some final harmony.

Revelation is too prophetic of the End, and creation is too full of God and of His plans to leave man without a clue to the larger meanings of the natural laws. In the natural world the function of the law of the survival of the fittest is to produce fitness -- to make a select world (a cosmos, beautiful, harmonious) perfect. So is it in the spiritual world. There its function will surely be to secure and guarantee the quality of the Kingdom of God.

If it is necessary that there should be a heaven, it is necessary that it should be kept heavenly. This is that law which now and evermore keeps heaven pure. It has more than a personal application; it is a chief factor in the great evolution, one of the main instruments by which nature passes on to these nobler and nobler developments in which all changes, forces, and movements in nature appear to be culminating. So far as science can read the secret will and purpose of creation, it is this, that Nature is gravitating with infinite patience and sureness towards perfection.

The object of the Law of the Survival of the fittest is to produce fitness. And this is the object of Judgment -- to produce fitness here by the terror of its law hereafter, to separate the chaff from the wheat, yet not for the sake of punishing the chaff, only for the sake of preserving the wheat. This is the great law whose secret operations tend to make a select world. It is the guarantee of the quality of the Kingdom of God.

Even now, in some poor way, we seem to see how God proceeds to secure His end. Our little world has had its own life-history. In the life-history of this one world we can dimly make out, not only the direction, but the method of progress, for every feature in its marvellous evolution is a further vision of things to come. Look into this past for a moment, observe God's way of producing earth from chaos, and say whether no clue lies here to that further evolution of heaven from earth.


[4] "Modern Painters," vol. ii.[p. 183.

[5] Stanton, "Jewish and Christian Messiah." Clark, Edinburgh, p. 136.

[6] "Theology of the New Testament," Fourth ed., p. 348.

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