Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Exploring the Universe

I have long supposed that a difficult child of nine months or so was a mere infant, and infants, it has been my further supposition, lie contentedly in their cribs, smile benignly at parents and grandparents, and in general repose themselves before being launched upont their hard journey. An opportunity to observe somewhat closely a child of this age, brought across the sea to spend a summer month with us, has considerably revised by opinions. Far from being supine, he is a monster of energy. Far from waiting in the wings of the stagbe before playing his part, he steps out lustily into the very center of it. (I say "he," for I must admit this prodigy to be a grandson. I am told, however, that the toddling shes of this world must not be thought of as in any way different.)

It seems -- and I am quite ready to believe it -- that and experiment was recently conducted which placed a trained athlete in close proximity to a baby. Whatever the babe did -- the agitated gestures, the movements and strivings -- the athlete precisely copied, except that his environment was magnified to match his larger stature. Well before the baby was prepared for his scheduled nap, the athlete was exhausted. whereas the baby awoke prepared to continue with his energetic demonstrations, the athlete languised in an enfeebled state.

About these ads

What Is this activity all about? Awhile ago I would have been at a loss for the answer. Now I can assert confidently that the infant is engaged, wherever he is put and under whatever restrictions, in systematically exploring his particular universe. He will move directly to its outer limits, touch everthing that is within reach, shake it, taste it, if possible knock it over to see what happens next. Before he walks he will resolutely determine to put his crawl to the utmost use. When he is supposed to be bounded by a flight of steps, he will suddenly be found to have mounted to a dangerous height. This probing and questing will have a more extended range if he is put in a small vehicle called a walker, which allows him to perambulate at rapid speed before his legs are quite prepared to take over.

I find these activities instructive. How much light, for example, they cast upon the question of whether man should spend his substance in getting into the farther reaches of space. For better of worse, there seems to be no escape from it. Almost from the moment of birth the human being is an explorer, determined to let no obstacle stand in his way and let no risk divert him. What a clear light, too, these attitudes shed upon social progress. Wise old heads are forever saying that reforms must wait until the people affected are ready to act soberly and maturely. The infant shows a different process. He embarks upon every kind of adventure before he is able to foresee the consequences or cope with the results.

Of slavery, it was gravely argued that the slaves should not be freed until they were educated and well dressed. Of labor, it was similarly said that workers should not have the right to organize until they had proved themselves responsible. But the infant shows us that manking does not advance in this way. Men go by leaps and bounds, working out the solutions while struggling with the problems. Indeed, if one were to separate the liberals of this world from the conservatives, one might say that the conservatives were those who had never watched a small child in action.

What he learns, the small child has no later memory of, just as he may not recall the kindnesses that have surrounded him in a summer of warm love. Yet something that is not memory and is not instinct -- something between environmental and inherited traits -- will form his later disposition and determine much of his course in the world. In this, too, he teaches a lesson to the philosopher. For the human race is a logically constructed machine. It does not evolve by rational steps based solely upon past experience. However important education may be in preserving a communal memory, something residual and inarticulate guides mankind through its straits and passages. This "something" keeps alive in the mind of the race -- as the grown man keeps his earliest sensations -- a picture of the universe in all its unfathomable aspects and dimensions. Musing thus, the fond parent (or grandparent) beams the more indulgently as the infant brings crashing about him another pile of books.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.