Bad Metaphors, Inexactitude

β€œIn turning the pages of one of the papers containing such a light and unsympathetic treatment of Tennyson, my eye catches the following sentence:

By the light of modern science and thought, we are in a position to see that each normal human being in some way repeats historically the life of the human race.

“This is a very typical modern assertion; that is, it is an assertion for which there is not and never has been a single spot or speck of proof. We know precious little about what the life of the human race has been; and none of our scientific conjectures about it bear the remotest resemblance to the actual growth of a child.

“According to this theory, a baby begins by chipping flints and rubbing sticks together to find fire. One so often sees babies doing this. About the age of five the child, before the delighted eyes of his parents, founds a village community. By the time he is eleven it has become a small city state, the replica of ancient Athens. Encouraged by this, the boy proceeds, and before he is fourteen has founded the Roman Empire. But now his parents have a serious set-back. Having watched him so far, not only with pleasure, but with a very natural surprise, they must strengthen themselves to endure the spectacle of decay. They have now to watch their child going through the decline of the Western Empire and the Dark Ages. They see the invasion of the Huns and that of the Norsemen chasing each other across his expressive face. He seems a little happier after he has ‘repeated’ the Battle of Chalons and the unsuccessful Siege of Paris ; and by the time he comes to the twelfth century, his boyish face is as bright as it was of old when he was ‘repeating’ Pericles or Camillus.

“I have no space to follow this remarkable demonstration of how history repeats itself in the youth; how he grows dismal at twenty-three to represent the end of Medievalism, brightens because the Renaissance is coming, darkens again with the disputes of the later Reformation, broadens placidly through the thirties as the rational eighteenth century, till at last, about forty-three, he gives a great yell and begins to burn the house down, as a symbol of the French Revolution. Such (we shall all agree) is the ordinary development of a boy.

“Now, seriously, does anyone believe a word of such bosh? Does anyone think that a child will repeat the periods of human history? Does anyone ever allow for a daughter in the Stone Age, or excuse a son because he is in the fourth century B.c. Yet the writer who lays down this splendid and staggering lie calmly says that ‘by the light of modern science and thought we are in a position to see that it is true.

“‘Seeing’ is a strong word to use of our conviction that icebergs are in the north, or that the earth goes round the sun. Yet anybody can use it of any casual or crazy biological fancy seen in some newspaper or suggested in some debating club. This is the rooted weakness of our time. Science, which means exactitude, has become the mother of all inexactitude.”

β€” Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

[note: paragraph breaks here are mine, since in the original text the whole thing was one giant paragraph that I found hard to read.]