Our lives are mainly occupied with the material world, with production and distribution of food and clothing, and the construction of dwellings which shall adequately protect us from the cold, the wind, and the rain. All higher human activities rest upon the successful establishment of these as a foundation. Hence progress, as the word is commonly understood, is most often a step in the control of the environment to the end of better production, construction, and distribution of some commodity. Such progress is not perhaps what the heart of man most ardently desires, but it is, at all events, the one kind about which there can be no doubt.

Many of the most wonderful advances in mastery of the environment are prehistoric, the results of good fortune and gradually widening experience utilized by primitive men of native intelligence. Thus clay is used as the filling for a basket, its baking is accidentally observed, and pottery results; again a log, through a long series of gradual changes and small inventions, becomes transformed into a good boat or canoe.

Sophocles, in a famous chorus of the “Antigone,” has celebrated such achievements:


Many the forms of life,

Wondrous and strange to see,

But nought than man appears

More wondrous and more strange.

He, with the wintry gales,

O’er the white foaming sea,

Mid wild waves surging round,

Windeth his way across:

Earth of all Gods, from ancient days, the first,

Unworn and undecayed,

He, with his ploughs that travel o’er and o’er,

Furrowing with horse and mule,

Wears ever year by year.


The thoughtless tribe of birds,

The beasts that roam the fields,

The brood in sea-depths born,

He takes them all in nets

Knotted in snaring mesh,

Man wonderful in skill,

And by his subtle arts

He holds in sway the beasts

That roam the fields, or tread the mountain’s height;

And brings the binding yoke

Upon the neck of horse with shaggy mane,

Or bull on mountain crest,

Untameable in strength.


And speech, and thought as swift as wind,

And tempered mood for higher life of states,

These he has learnt, and how to flee

Or the clear cold of frost unkind,

Or darts of storm and shower,

Man all-providing.〖See Harvard Classics, viii, 265–266, for another translation of this chorus.〗

Many will always regard this as the final expression of man’s wonder and admiration at that which man has done in winning his civilization. But while we admire and marvel at the feats of primitive man, we must not forget to distinguish a very important difference between such and many achievements of civilized man—in fact, between prehistoric works and deeds and all the greatest scientific achievements. Very wonderful as the early progress was,—think of civilized man’s failure to domesticate animals, and, incomparably important, think of the winning of fire,—it lacked a certain germ of growth, which is familiar to us in our own times. Each thing came by itself, it came by accident, and it did not directly lead to other things. Beyond living one’s life and waiting for something to turn up so that one’s ingenuity might be exercised, there was no method of discovery or invention; the knowledge that existed was not systematized; there was no generalization from experience; and each invention, aside from its particular utility, led to nothing else. How different have been the effects of Pasteur’s discovery of the place of micro-organisms in nature!〖H. C., xxxviii, 364-382, and Lecture IV in this course.〗 Almost at once the causes of many of the gravest diseases of man and other animals became known. There followed the discovery of means of avoiding disease, of curing disease, and we are now well on the way to blot out some of the oldest scourges of humanity. Such are a few of the results in medicine. When the chemical and agricultural results are added, Pasteur appears already to have influenced the life of almost every civilized man.

Clearly the early advances of practical knowledge are not to be confounded with natural science. They belong to the period of human development which is the concern of the anthropologist, and they only concern us as they help to an understanding of what science really is.

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