THE FINAL CAUSE OF VENOM.
TN a book full of original thoughts of more or less value, some 1 of them rather ingenious than true, and others both true and ingenious,—Dr. Bushnell's Moral Uses of Dark Things ,*_a book out of which a sterile-minded pastor might steal or borrow a whole crowd of moral lessons disputable and indisputable, there is a whole chapter devoted to discussing the moral use of what Dr. Bushnell somewhat harshly, if not affectedly, calls "animal infestations,"—to wit, gnats, mosquitoes, and the more detestable but more evitable vermin, which like gnats and mosquitoes, not only feed on man, but leave what seems a gratuitous poison behind them after taking what they want. Dr. Bushnell, who rather delights in the transcendental, after showing only too satisfac- torily that the explanations, or rather apologies, usually given in the popular treatises on " design " for this apparent malignity in nature,—such as that it is a mode of helping one kind of creature to prey upon another and of keeping down the too prolific numbers of that other,—are no apologies at all, that they are really nothing better than impeachments of Providence at best, implying that God could not have kept down the too great fecundity of some races without giving other races venom to poison and claws to tear each other with,—goes on to try his own hand on an explanation. He admits manfully enough that unless we are prepared to say "God created venom," we are not prepared to worship the actual Creator as our God. He does not discuss, nor do we see how any one can discuss, the rather wild theory that free spiritual beings of evil nature, and whose evil therefore is explicable as a consequence of freedom, have been permitted a certain limited power over nature, just as good angels are also supposed by the same theory a limited power over nature, which power the malignant set use by innocu- lating nature with malice, and the good by pouring into its system a renovating power of grace. The only answer to this theory is that it is a theory without a particle of evidence of any sort whatever, —a mere admission of our impotence to reconcile delibe- rate arrangements for the infliction of pain with any but evil purposes, and a gratuitous assumption of free subordinate beings with evil purposes, merely in order to account for that infliction. Dr. Bushnell accordingly does not waste a word on this rather reckless hypothesis, but asserts boldly that God did create "venom and claws," and did create them from pure love for those free moral beings in the universe, of whom man is for us the type. And Dr. Bushnell considers that they are of use to us chiefly as striking and instinctive external symbols of the evil within us,—(l) of its ferocity, —(2) of its venom,—(3) of the immense disturbing power in what * iloral Uses of Dark Things. By Horace Bushnell, Ph.D. London: Strshan. 1809. seems a very insignificant and minute form of evil, the more disturb- ing, indeed, because of its seeming insignificance, since insignifi- cant things like gnats and mosquitoes cannot be provided against, and made war upon like more tangible and visibly tremendous evils,— and finally (4) of the interior and secret efficacy of much of our evil, the invisible and hidden character of its influence, the diffi- culty of knowing whence it came, after it has once been infil- trated into human life. Dr. Bushnell thinks, we suppose, that when Lord Salisbury has been disturbed night after night by that terrible whizz of the gnat or the mosquito which proclaims the presence of an enemy against which there is no defence, he will be more likely to recognize and repent the mischief lurking in his own heart, and giving rise to those harsh compliments with which he first breaks the repose of the Duke of Argyll, by way of pre- lude to the inevitable sting ;—or that when a newspaper critic has gone through a particularly severe assault of mosquitos in Venice or on the Danube, and comes home with his hands and face smart- ing with intolerable irritation, he will see more profoundly the spiritual sin of immediately sending to the printer a venomous attack on some unfortunate novelist or essayist full of rash impu- tations of vanity, ignorance, and immoral motive. Or if Dr. Bush- nell does not exactly believe that the individual visitation brings home so potently the working of the moral analogue to these insect stings, he at least believes that the minute knowledge of this physical analogy,—the existence of this valuable vein of exact metaphor for moral venom in all literatures,—furnishes man with a powerful armoury of defensive warfare against his own malice. We are very far from being disposed to deny all weight to this reason of Dr. Bushnell's. It is unquestionably true that the command of a number of popular illustrations, the facts of which. are familiar to everybody wise or simple, and which present to us, in an imaginative and popular form, the symbolic meaning of our actions, does go a great way towards helping us to understand ourselves. Take all the vivid metaphors for slander and malicious torture and rankling sarcasm and festering scorn out of the language,—the words " rankling " and " festering " themselves contain popular metaphors derived from the working of poisons,— and we do not feel any doubt that men would understand their own evil actions of this kind less clearly, and be even lees disposed to condemn and resent than they are now (and that is not too much), the like actions of others. But still, is it really satisfactory to say that all this pain and venom is put into the material world. in order to furnish men with a picture alphabet, as it were„ of their own sins? that the rattlesnake poisons its prey for centuries in the untrodden forests of South America, far from the reach of any human eye, and the fierce African fly strikes down the ass in the lonely deserts of Africa, with none but a few fatalist Arab drivers for witness, only in order that when at last these matters come to be considered by reflective men, they may provide us with an instructive and impressive moral picture-book to illustrate our own acts? We confess that, giving the largest scope we can to the office of human symbolism in nature, we cannot think the enormous scale of these symbols of human evil,—and their far more enormous scale, remember, in places where man is not and has never been, than even where he has begun his work,—are to be reasonably attributed to the mere intention of the Creator to paint for man vivid illustrations of the working of his own worst passions. Were this the complete explanation,—or anything near the complete explanation,—we should rather expect Providence to make the career of these sort of creatures march parallel with the development of human society, than that it should make them retire rapidly,—as practically they do,—before the inroad of civilization. As the trees are thinned, and the marshes are drained, and the plough penetrates, the clouds of "military hornets," mosquitoes, &c., grow thinner, the adders vanish, and the number of 'symbols' of moral venom unquestion- ably grow rarer and less striking. We do not believe that any apology for these phenomena which depends solely on their reflex effect on the mind of man can in the end be satisfactory or final. Even as regards this small part of the effect, Dr. Bushnell seems to us, like many original men, to pass over with unfair neglect the rather obvious consideration that this kind of small torment is one of the most admirable disciplines in true patience which persons in full health ever get. If any occasions of self-control be really, as most men believe and we believe, of divine origin for our training in self-forgetfulness and self-command, surely these must rank as some of the most useful and trying of such occasions. We are very fond of telling the Roman Catholic ascetics that divine occasions for self-control and self-denial are quite numerous enough without our inventing them ; but when they come, we are very little inclined to give them credit for really being divine oppor- tunities at all. But to pass by so very obvious a suggestion, let us ask how far there is any sort of explanation of what looks at first sight like arrangements of nature for inflicting gratuitous pain, as regards the animal world itself, excluding all reflex effects on man,—since these last obviously cannot be the only cause of a series of phenomena far thicker in the jungle, where man has never been, than in that portion of the world which he has subdued.
Now, we do not believe that any real answer to the difficulty —if difficulty it be—why one living creature is made to prey upon another, has ever been found, but that is not the real stress of the difficulty here. It may very fairly be said that a great deal of that difficulty arises from the misleading effect of the very symbolism which Dr. Bushnell regards as its main benefit for us. We mean that the very thing which benefits us when we apply it to ourselves, misleads us when we are thinking of what it is which really goes on in the animal world, because we import our moral ideas of greediness, voracity, cruelty, &c., into natures which, since, in all probability, they are not moral natures and not free, are in no degree affected by such passions, but in their destructive impulses are simply following laws of impulse as natural and spontaneous and unmoral, as when one planetoid comes into collision with another in space and one of the two is fractured. When we put ourselves into the hornet's, or the gnat's, or the boa constrictor's, or the rattlesnake's consciousness, and imagine what a human soul would be like, if directing such aggres- sive natural processes as theirs, we of course import into the problem the very difficulty we want to explain. If the evil passions we imagine are not there, the responsibility of the Creator for the creation of such creatures is simply the same as it would be for inflicting directly, and by His own hand as it were, the same amount of death and pain which is, in fact, inflicted through them. Whatever difficulty we might have in understanding how He could inflict death or pain on any creature not capable of benefiting morally by either,—that, and that alone, belongs to the case of animals preying on each other. The evil human passions which it is useful and almost inevitable that we, with our symbolism, should read into what we see, are not really there ; they are only reflected lights which our own minds throw back upon them.
But it is not the mystery of death and pain for non-moral beings —the mystery that pain, at least, should be inflicted on such beings seems to us very real,—which Dr. Bushnell considers in this ingenious essay ;—it is the mystery of what he calls gratuitous pain, where the creature inflicting it might, he thinks, have derived all the benefit without leaving any poison behind. But is not this really contrary to the fact ? Is not the rattle in the rattlesnake, and the hum of the gnat and mosquito, and not only these, but even the poison itself which some of these and other dreadful little skirmishers leave behind when they suck their victims' blood, an arrangement clearly made for the benefit of their victims, and not for their own ? It is clear, we imagine, that if "natural selection" had had the making of these arrangements, a mosquito and a gnat which should neither make a warning noise nor annoy their victims with instilling a poisonous fluid into their blood, would have a far better life of it, far less "struggle for existence," than those which inflict this antecedent terror and subsequent pain. The creatures wor- ried by them would, if there was nothing but the prick and no annoyance, be very soon bled to death by them, without feeling any impulse to resist. Incisions so trifling, without poison, would not be regarded at all, and the mosquito or gnat which neither gave pain nor heralded its own assault, would soon have beaten its whole tribe in opportunities of food, and revolutionized the whole conditions of mosquito existence. How Mr. Darwin accounts for the trivial poisons of irritating insects on the theory of natural selection, any more than for the premonitory sounds we do not know, but we should think it almost impossible to account for them by that theory at all. It seems very clear that these are arrangements for stirring up resistance, and for warning to flight, i. e., arrange- ments made in the organism of one creature for the benefit solely of those on whom it preys, not for the benefit of itself. But for the instilled venom, the insects of prey would well nigh have the power to exterminate very much larger animals, to bleed them painlessly to death. The deadly poisons, such as those of the viper or rattlesnake, are doubtless useful to their owner as modes of killing,—but the trivial poisons are surely, like the hum of the assailants, modes of exciting the enemy, not of benefiting the owner. They are salutary not to the inflicter, but the sufferer. They invite resistance, and give all the victims a strong motive for flight. In a word, they are limitations on the power of
the stinging creature, not additions to it. So far, then, from being gratuitous poisons, they are warning poisons, poisons which make the suffering animals bestir themselves to shake off or fly from the enemy. Mr. Gilbert has shown not long ago in a remarkable little fairy tale, we think in Good Words, what infinitely greater dangers of death any race would run which had no sense of pain accom- panying vital injury or injury which, when accumulated, might prove vital. Supposing gnats instilled a sedative instead of an irritant,—say a mild infusion of chloroform,—even human beings might soon succumb to gnats, and the lower and less rational animals certainly would do so very soon. If "natural selection" were ever by any terrible accident to develop a form of vermin which feeds upon man without giving him pain,—or worse still, with the addition of a positive pleasure,—and it is at least quite conceivable that an insect's bite should pour into the blood a stream of enjoyment as keen as a sweet sound or scent pours into the sense of hearing or of smell,—man would be very likely to succumb to the multiplication of such an insect as that. Surely creatures compelled to give a warning pain to their victims at the moment they find their food, cannot have had the warning organ by which they sound this unwise challenge developed by the method of natural selection? The real and inexplicable mystery, which seems likely always to remain unsolved, is why creatures which cannot, and do not, profit morally by pain,—if, indeed, there be any such,—should be called upon to endure pain at all.