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Prehistoric “Man” as a Case of Epistemological Regress: Some Historical Lessons From Lukacs and Koestler

Michael Flannery

Consider this from John Lukacs At the End of An Age (2002):

In Chapter 1 of this book I suggested another fundamental limitation of Darwinism, which is the application of Evolution ever further and further backward, claiming that humans may have existed as early as one million years ago. That is a prime example of how unreason lies buried at the bottom of any and every materialist interpretation of mankind, because of its thesis of matter preceding human mind, with mind gradually appearing: when? perhaps in dribs and drabs, much later. (I happen to believe that there is no such thing as ‘pre-historic’ man, historicity being the fourth dimension of human existence from the beginning.) But perhaps the essential fault of Darwinism is its implicit denial that there is any fundamental difference, no matter how physically slight, between human beings and all other living beings. One need not be a religious believer to struggle against this notion: for if there is really no essential difference between human beings and all other living creatures, then there is no reason to have laws and institutions and mores prohibiting certain human acts and protecting human dignity, indeed, human lives. (pp. 120-121)

Lukacs, of course, is saying that Darwinists completely misconstrue humanness, both in the context of what it means to be human in time (historicity) and in the unique qualities of what humanness is (the mind). Because Darwinists are infatuated with morphological affinities, ape-like “ancestors” become “prehistoric man.” But (whatever else we may say of primordial hominid forms millions of years ago), is this “man”? Without the unique attributes of empathy, love, reasoning, a sense of the numinous, etc., can there be a “man” before there is a history of mankind? It seems doubtful. In short, is “prehistoric man” an oxymoron? Lukacs is correct in suggesting that it is. At best, the alternative is to see the grunts and groans of ape-like creatures as a largely seamless continuum to Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and onward. Darwin tried to make his case for it and it has been problematic ever since, sometimes with tragic consequences.

But there is in Lukacs’ skepticism — by the way, a refreshingly genuine skepticism rather than that of the Michael Shermer variety, which seems willing to swallow just about anything in service to scientistic materialism — the idea that science itself, under whatever proposition, cannot suffice as the final word on epistemic certainty. “The notion that the subjects of Science are ‘reality’ itself, outside of us, to be discovered by present and future scientists,” Lukacs points out, “driving out every working morning with their ever more advanced instruments, returning every night after having hacked at the Mountain Range of Science, bringing back tiny or large but in any case promising bits of it, is, alas still widespread–but it is also silly” (p. 95); silly because science and human knowledge (much less wisdom) do not march together in an inexorable lockstep of progress. Arthur Koestler saw this well before Kuhn:

In fact, we have seen that this progress was neither “continuous” nor “organic”. The philosophy of nature evolved by occasional leaps and bounds alternating with delusional pursuits, culs-de-sac, regressions, periods of blindness, and amnesia. The great discoveries which determined its course were sometimes the unexpected by-products of a chase after quite different hares. At other times, the process of discovery consisted merely in the cleaning away of the rubbish that blocked the path, or in rearranging of existing items of knowledge in a different pattern. The mad clockwork of epicycles was kept going for two thousand years; and Europe knew less geometry in the fifteenth century than in Archimedes’ time. (The Sleepwalkers, 1959, p. 523).

In like manner, Darwinism’s dismantling of the scala naturae leaves us less informed of mankind than in Aquinas’ day, and regaining it will require the clearing away of considerable accumulated rubbish.