Use of the term evolution has gone through many interesting stages. Following the advent of Darwin, this word served as a rallying cry for all those of anti-theological bent who believed that man could be explained without reference to God. The early Darwinists, moreover, saw the evolution of the human species through natural selection as a sort of glorious saga, affording man a nobler role in the drama of earth experience than that assigned to him by theologians. Darwinian man was a man who, so to speak, had pulled himself up by his own boot-straps, and could look with both pride and awe upon the dynamics of his creative capacity.

This was the first stage of modern usage for evolution, a reaction against the estimate of man’s estate provided by western religion. Nature was no longer rent asunder, but seen as one, and “the pantheistic attitude” to some extent at least, encouraged. So anxious, however, were the “evolutionists” to advance the faith that man was a noble animal, rather than a tarnished creation of God, that the idea of an indwelling soul found no sanctuary among men of the new persuasion. The evolutionists, in other words, were so anxious to get rid of both God and Theology that every metaphysical question was tossed aside and, actually, with a poor show of logic. This was, however, simply the unfortunate result of a factional approach to evolution and did not signify that scientists really felt a spontaneous preference for uncompromising materialism. Thus, in The Secret Doctrine (II, 653), H. P. Blavatsky dealt with questions which she knew would soon be asked again, as soon as factionalism on the part of evolutionists had subsided:

It would be interesting to obtain a glimpse of the mental representation of evolution in the Scientific brain. … What is EVOLUTION? If asked to define the full and complete meaning of the term, neither Huxley nor Hæckel will be able to do it any better than Webster does: “the act of unfolding; the process of growth, development; as the evolution of a flower from a bud, or an animal from the egg.” Yet the bud must be traced through its parent-plant to the seed, and the egg to the animal or bird that laid it; or at any rate to the speck of protoplasm from which it expanded and grew. And both the seed and the speck must have the latent potentialities in them for the reproduction and gradual development, the unfolding of the thousand and one forms or phases of evolution, through which they must pass before the flower or the animal are fully developed? Hence, the future plan, if not a DESIGN, must be there. Moreover, that seed has to be traced, and its nature ascertained. Have the Darwinists been successful in this?

Here Science is once more silent. But since there is no self-consciousness as yet in either speck, seed, or germ, according to both Materialists and Psychologists of the modern school — Occultists agreeing in this for once with their natural enemies — what is it that guides the force or forces so unerringly in this process of evolution? Blind force?

But the evolutionists were honest men, according to their lights. Following the logic of physicalism to its bitter end, they soon perceived that they would have to forego the pleasure of regarding evolution as a purposeful enterprise. The word evolution implied progress and, as scientists, the biologists and anthropologists admitted that they had no right to speak in teleological terms — by suggesting that the process of natural selection implied progress. So the second and third generations of “evolutionists” decided to abandon the word. They could, they decided, speak objectively only of “mutations,” not of the progressive development of species and organisms. They were willing, in other words, to follow a “truth” wherever it led them — even if by so doing they were forced to give up any lingering personal preferences for a glimpse of transcendent meaning and purpose. Thus we find that the recent birth of a concept of psychological evolution, under scientific auspices, also carries the impact of integrity.

Enthusiasts of social improvement and political reformers earlier passed through a similar cycle, at least insofar as disillusionment with a purely environmental approach is concerned. The great faith in social revolution began to grow as soon as theological faith lost dominance, and the eighteenth century became a time for skyrocketing optimism; man was to build his “heavenly city” here, on earth, and his clear duty to “progress” lay in working for drastic change. Here, as with Darwinism, new doctrines were supported by the intuitions of the masses, for it is natural for man to believe in a forward march of events, a progression towards improved conditions. But again, as happened a hundred years later in the realm of biological science, political theory too eagerly sought Environment as the cause of human alteration. Progress was conceived almost entirely in those material terms politics could manage, and, since the doctrine that environment determines the man is a false one, few eighteenth-century dreams of happiness came true. (Cf. Marx’s “scientific” dialectic, and the tortured history of “Communism.”) Between the influence of Darwin and that of Marx, the greater portion of the intellectual world gravitated towards belief that true progress must of necessity be collective, from which it was but a short step to believing also that technological advance automatically meant the advance of man’s stature. Dwight Macdonald, in his analysis of Marxism in The Root is Man, aptly describes this psychology, while he also points out how much of “materialism” has been accepted by the average non-Marxist under the guise of “progressivism”:

By “Progressive” is understood those who see the Present as an episode on the road to a better Future; those who think more in terms of historical process than of moral values; those who believe that the main trouble with the world is partly lack of scientific knowledge and partly the failure to apply to human affairs such knowledge as we do have.

The Progressive makes History the center of his ideology. The Radical puts Man there. The Radical is more sensitive to the dual nature of man; he sees evil as well as good at the base of human nature; he is sceptical about the ability of science to explain things beyond a certain point; he is aware of the tragic element in man’s fate not only today but in any conceivable kind of society. The Progressive thinks in collective terms (the interests of Society or the Working-class); the Radical stresses the individual conscience and sensibility. The Progressive starts off from what actually is happening; the Radical starts off from what he wants to happen. The former must have the feeling that History is “on his side.” The latter goes along the road pointed out by his own individual conscience; if History is going his way, too, he is pleased; but he is quite stubborn about following “what ought to be” rather than “what is.”

These concepts, after many disillusioning years, are now being questioned both by astute critics like Macdonald and by a number of psychiatrists. Faith in “progress” and “evolution” must, it is clear, find new births, and at a level reflecting greater knowledge of the nature of man. Hence the “new” concept of “psychological maturity.” A good example of the permeation of this viewpoint is furnished by psychologist-philosopher Harry Overstreet, particularly in his volume, The Mature Mind. There Overstreet writes that “there is no time and place in which the adult is exempt from the obligation to practice maturity nor without the power to enjoy maturity. If he responds to a situation with a mind open to learn what needs to be learned, he practices — and enjoys — maturity. If he is ready to act responsibly where responsibility is called for; if he sinks his ego out of sight; if he seeks self-understanding and a wise understanding of others; if he tries to see in whole instead of in part, he practices — and enjoys — maturity. Maturity, we now know, need be no dull routine of a defeated and resigned adulthood. It can rather be the triumphant use of powers that all through our childhood and youth have been in preparation. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish. Where there is no maturity there is no vision. We now begin to know this. We realize that the evils of our life come not from deep evil within us but from ungrown-up responses to life. Our obligation, then, is to grow up. This is what our time requires of us. This is what may yet be the saving of us.”

In this passage, we see an emergence of the theosophic view — that true evolution is a series of inner awakenings, with biological changes in species and environmental alterations of behavior serving simply as stage-setting. Overstreet is one of many who now believe that the concept of psychological evolution “provides a new approach to our human selves.” Developing this point of view, he says further:

The essential thing about an individual, we are being brought to realize, is not so much the number of years he has lived as the psychological competence that those years have netted him. Thus we are given a new way to estimate ourselves and others. Not all adults are adult. Many who look grown-up on the outside may be childish on the inside. Others who look childish on the outside may be surprisingly mature on the inside. Psychological age, moreover, as distinct from chronological, is not merely an academic curiosity. Whether a person is average, advanced, or retarded in his mental, emotional, and social growth may be the concealed reason — and the chief reason — why his adult relationships with his world are as they are.

That we have by no means fully learned the significance of this insight is indicated by the fact that, except in the case of imbeciles and morons, we still admit people to all the major prerogatives of life on a purely chronological basis.

The concept of psychological age has only begun to enter our common consciousness. We are generally familiar with its application to children, but we are only beginning to be alert to behavior symptoms in grown men and women that should warn us of their psychological immaturity. Also, we are only now beginning to ask how psychological immaturity can be overcome. We are only beginning, but this new psychological way of regarding ourselves and our human fellows is definitely on the books. When it is also definitely and clearly in our consciousness, we may be set for such a new appraisal of human behavior as will preface a new society.

Though vague in terminology, such statements can easily be regarded as “reincarnations” of theosophic ideas. This trend is presently to be noted, not only in the works of outstanding psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, but also in Dr. Gray Walter’s The Living Brain and in Julian Huxley’s latest writings. The search for the essence of man’s nature, long pursued through the arid deserts of materialism, is being redirected. What has been gained is the determination to proceed slowly and carefully in speaking of the soul of man, and the value that this honest caution reveals is especially evident, now that it is oftener admitted that there is a soul in need of understanding.

Evolution is, truly, a noble word. No other term in the English language so well symbolizes the “ladder of being” described in the Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine. That something of its esoteric meaning is presently dawning is a hopeful sign of “progress” for the Theosophical Movement.