|About the Book|
The Meaning of Infancy is a short book — an essay, really — by John Fiske, an American historian and writer on matters scientific and philosophic, a man perhaps best remembered as one of Herbert Spencer’s more devoted American followers during the Spencerian heyday. This short excursion into early evolutionary theory is a landmark work, and one still worth reading, if for two very distinct reasons:1. Fiske adds an important feature to Darwininian natural selection theory, advancing a point that Alfred Russell Wallace hazarded — the rather Spencerian notion that “natural selection, in working toward the genesis of man, began to follow a new path and make psychical changes instead of physical changes” — by tying it to the importance of infancy in the evolution of “higher” animals like man. Prolonging infancy and childhood allows members of an evolving species to concentrate on intelligence, thus ratcheting up evolutionary progress on a new level.2. Fiske brilliantly sketches his notion, and then basically abandons its natural history aspect for a defense of some sort of theology — thus making this book a fine artifact of religious humanism, another Icarian attempt by an intellectual to keep the old wine of religion within the confines of the new bottle of science.So my basic take on the essay is that it is at once brilliant and obtuse. Indeed, I recommend reading it for precisely that reason. It’s important to see where brilliant men fail — or, perhaps more pertinent to this case, how not-so-brilliant men fail when trying to develop a brilliant idea. In this case, Fiske takes a first-class observation and corrals it in thrall to keeping some mushy ideas about “God” alive.The evolutionary argument makes perfect sense, and has since been corroborated by over a century of biological research.The theological argument makes almost no sense, but is still echoed by well-meaning muddle-heads.Like I say, it’s an important milepost in Western civilization. And, being only a few dozen pages long, can hardly be ignored on the basis of time. This is not a lengthy treatise were talking about here — theres no tomes heft to weigh the reader down.