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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/231

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WHY PROGRESS IS BY LEAPS.

gains which follow in the train of conquered electricity, but also with regard to every other signal victory which has brought man to his present pinnacle of power and insight. If in former advances this permutative principle has been undetected, it stands forth in clearest relief in that latest and therefore utmost stride of skill and interpretation ushered in by Franklin, Volta, and Faraday. And we shall presently note that this permutative tendency offers a key to some puzzling chapters in the biography of the creatures which man has far outstripped in the race of life, and may also shed a needed ray on the story of the planet where they and he have together struggled and vanquished or succumbed. If all this may be maintained, a permutative tendency can perhaps be suggested with respect to evolution in general as colorably as with regard to development in particular realms. Is this a large claim? To the evidence, then:

By way of preface, let us for a moment consider the achievement most worthy to be compared with the conquest of electricity, and, indeed, its necessary precursor.

When man first kindled fire, he rose to a new primacy among created beings. Long before that fateful day he must have noticed how the blaze of a tree riven by lightning could bring roots and herbs to refreshing palatability, or, as a far volcano welled forth its lava, how welcome the radiance in wintry air. What, he may have thought, if I can summon fire at my bidding instead of waiting upon heaven to let it fall or earth to belch it forth? How the wish came to fulfillment has been the subject of many an ingenious guess. The likeliest of them imagines that in striking a bit of quartz against a flint to point an arrow, a spark fell on dry tinder, and that what at first was accident was soon repeated by design. No piecemeal acquisition this, like learning to hit a mark with stone or bolt. The man barely able to light a fire was enormously advantaged as compared with his fellow, however dexterous, who just fell short of this skill. At once the fire-maker took a bound forward that decisively withdrew him from his next of kin. It was as if the globe had expanded itself beneath his tread; for now, no longer chained by the sunbeam, all the frozen north was added to his hunting ground. The burning brand cleared his path through the forest or shaped from a tree trunk his rude canoe. It lifted the dreary pall of night. His hearth, heaped with boughs, cheered with light as well as warmth, and became the family rallying place and altar. Baneful roots buried in its embers lost their poison and furnished a toothsome meal, while food of many kinds when roasted or seethed was improved in flavor and could be longer stored to abridge the seesaw between plenty and want. As the cook daubed clay on her roasting tray of twigs that it might the better withstand flame, she