G. K. Chesterton: Monkeys, Dogs, and Horses Don’t Draw Pictures

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the opening pages of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Everlasting Man , he explores the implications of prehistoric cave paintings discovered by modern-day humans.  What do these paintings tell us about primitive man?  Is he merely an advanced ape (as in the evolutionary account) or is there a real difference in kind between man and the rest of the animal kingdom?  Below is an excerpt:

But I have begun this story in the cave, like the cave of the speculations of Plato, because it is a sort of model of the mistake of merely evolutionary introductions and prefaces.  It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree.  For in the plain matter like the [cave paintings] there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree.

Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well.  The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race horse a Post-Impressionist.

All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature.  In other words every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone.

Chesterton published this book in 1925 in order to counter the influence of men like H. G. Wells who were increasingly characterizing man as merely different in degree from the rest of the animal kingdom.  This battle is still raging today, 85 years later.