The Dubious Future by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Literature

Without wishing to alarm the American people, or create a panic, I desire briefly and seriously to discuss the great question, “Whither are we drifting, and what is to be the condition of the coming man?” We can not shut our eyes to the fact that mankind is passing through a great era of change; even womankind is not built as she was a few brief years ago. And is it not time, fellow citizens, that we pause to consider what is to be the future of the American?

Food itself has been the subject of change both in the matter of material and preparation. This must affect the consumer in such a way as to some day bring about great differences. Take, for instance, the oyster, one of our comparatively modern food and game fishes, and watch the effects of science upon him. At one time the oyster browsed around and ate what he could find in Neptune’s back-yard, and we had to eat him as we found him. Now we take a herd of oysters off the trail, all run down, and feed them artificially till they swell up to a fancy size, and bring a fancy price. Where will this all lead at last, I ask as a careful scientist? Instead of eating apples, as Adam did, we work the fruit up into apple-jack and pie, while even the simple oyster is perverted, and instead of being allowed to fatten up in the fall on acorns and ancient mariners, spurious flesh is put on his bones by the artificial osmose and dialysis of our advanced civilization. How can you make an oyster stout or train him down by making him jerk a health lift so many hours every day, or cultivate his body at the expense of his mind, without ultimately not only impairing the future usefulness of the oyster himself, but at the same time affecting the future of the human race who feed upon him?

I only use the oyster as an illustration, and I do not wish to cause alarm, but I say that if we stimulate the oyster artificially and swell him up by scientific means, we not only do so at the expense of his better nature and keep him away from his family, but we are making our mark on the future race of men. Oyster-fattening is now, of course, in its infancy. Only a few years ago an effort was made at St. Louis to fatten cove oysters while in the can, but the system was not well understood, and those who had it in charge only succeeded in making the can itself more plump. But now oysters are kept on ground feed and given nothing to do for a few weeks, and even the older and overworked sway-backed and rickety oysters of the dim and murky past are made to fill out, and many of them have to put a gore in the waistband of their shells. I only speak of the oyster incidentally, as one of the objects toward which science has turned its attention, and I assert with the utmost confidence that the time will come, unless science should get a set-back, when the present hunting-case oyster will give place to the open-face oyster, grafted on the octopus and big enough to feed a hotel. Further than that, the oyster of the future will carry in a hip-pocket a flask of vinegar, half a dozen lemons and two little Japanese bottles, one of which will contain salt and the other pepper, and there will be some way provided by which you can tell which is which. But are we improving the oyster now? That is a question we may well ask ourselves. Is this a healthy fat which we are putting on him, or is it bloat? And what will be the result in the home-life of the oyster? We take him from all domestic influences whatever in order to make a swell of him by our modern methods, but do we improve his condition morally, and what is to be the great final result on man?

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The reader will see by the questions I ask that I am a true scientist. Give me an overcoat pocket full of lower-case interrogation marks and a medical report to run to, and I can speak on the matter of science and advancement till Reason totters on her throne.

But food and oysters do not alone affect the great, pregnant future. Our race is being tampered with not only by means of adulterations, political combinations and climatic changes, but even our methods of relaxation are productive of peculiar physical conditions, malformations and some more things of the same kind.

Cigarette smoking produces a flabby and endogenous condition of the optic nerve, and constant listening at a telephone, always with the same ear, decreases the power of the other ear till it finally just stands around drawing its salary, but actually refusing to hear anything. Carrying an eight-pound cane makes a man lopsided, and the muscular and nervous strain that is necessary to retain a single eyeglass in place and keep it out of the soup, year after year, draws the mental stimulus that should go to the thinker itself, until at last the mind wanders away and forgets to come back, or becomes atrophied, and the great mental strain incident to the work of pounding sand or coming in when it rains is more than it is equal to.

Playing billiards, accompanied by the vicious habit of pounding on the floor with the butt of the cue ever and anon, produces at last optical illusions, phantasmagoria and visions of pink spiders with navy-blue abdomens. Base-ball is not alone highly injurious to the umpire, but it also induces crooked fingers, bone spavin and hives among habitual players. Jumping the rope induces heart disease. Poker is unduly sedentary in its nature. Bicycling is highly injurious, especially to skittish horses. Boating induces malaria. Lawn tennis can not be played in the house. Archery is apt to be injurious to those who stand around and watch the game, and pugilism is a relaxation that jars heavily on some natures.

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Foot-ball produces what may be called the endogenous or ingrowing toenail, stringhalt and mania. Copenhagen induces a melancholy, and the game of bean bag is unduly exciting. Horse racing is too brief and transitory as an outdoor game, requiring weeks and months for preparation and lasting only long enough for a quick person to ejaculate “Scat!” The pitcher’s arm is a new disease, the outgrowth of base-ball; the lawn-tennis elbow is another result of a popular open-air amusement, and it begins to look as though the coming American would hear with one overgrown telephonic ear, while the other will be rudimentary only. He will have an abnormal base-ball arm with a lawn-tennis elbow, a powerful foot-ball-kicking leg with the superior toe driven back into the palm of his foot. He will have a highly trained biceps muscle over his eye to retain his glass, and that eye will be trained to shoot a curved glance over a high hat and witness anything on the stage.

Other features grow abnormal, or shrink up from the lack of use, as a result of our customs. For instance, the man whose business it is to get along a crowded street with the utmost speed will have, finally, a hard, sharp horn growing on each elbow, and a pair of spurs growing out of each ankle. These will enable him to climb over a crowd and get there early. Constant exposure to these weapons on the part of the pedestrian will harden the walls of the thorax and abdomen until the coming man will be an impervious man. The citizen who avails himself of all modern methods of conveyance will ride from his door on the horse car to the elevated station, where an elevator will elevate him to the train and a revolving platform will swing him on board, or possibly the street car will be lifted from the surface track to the elevated track, and the passenger will retain his seat all the time. Then a man will simply hang out a red card, like an express card, at his door, and a combination car will call for him, take him to the nearest elevated station, elevate him, car and all, to the track, take him where he wants to go, and call for him at any hour of the night to bring him home. He will do his exercising at home, chiefly taking artificial sea baths, jerking a rowing machine or playing on a health lift till his eyes hang out on his cheeks, and he need not do any walking whatever. In that way the coming man will be over-developed above the legs, and his lower limbs will look like the desolate stems of a frozen geranium. Eccentricities of limb will be handed over like baldness from father to son among the dwellers in the cities, where every advantage in the way of rapid transit is to be had, until a metropolitan will be instantly picked out by his able digestion and rudimentary legs, just as we now detect the gentleman from the interior by his wild endeavors to overtake an elevated train.

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In fact, Mr. Edison has now perfected, or announced that he is on the road to the perfection of, a machine which I may be pardoned for calling a storage think-tank. This will enable a brainy man to sit at home, and, with an electric motor and a perfected phonograph, he can think into a tin dipper or funnel, which will, by the aid of electricity and a new style of foil, record and preserve his ideas on a sheet of soft metal, so that when any one says to him, “A penny for your thoughts,” he can go to his valise and give him a piece of his mind. Thus the man who has such wild and beautiful thoughts in the night and never can hold on to them long enough to turn on the gas and get his writing materials, can set this thing by the head of his bed, and, when the poetic thought comes to him in the stilly night, he can think into a hopper, and the genius of Franklin and Edison together will enable him to fire it back at his friends in the morning while they eat their pancakes and glucose syrup from Vermont, or he can mail the sheet of tinfoil to absent friends, who may put it into their phonographs and utilize it. In this way the world may harness the gray matter of its best men, and it will be no uncommon thing to see a dozen brainy men tied up in a row in the back office of an intellectual syndicate, dropping pregnant thoughts into little electric coffee mills for a couple of hours a day, after which they can put on their coats, draw their pay, and go home.

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All this will reduce the quantity of exercise, both mental and physical. Two men with good brains could do the thinking for 60,000,000 of people and feel perfectly fresh and rested the next day. Take four men, we will say, two to do the day thinking and two more to go on deck at night, and see how much time the rest of the world would have to go fishing. See how politics would become simplified. Conventions, primaries, bargains and sales, campaign bitterness and vituperation–all might be wiped out. A pair of political thinkers could furnish 100,000,000 of people with logical conclusions enough to last them through the campaign and put an unbiased opinion into a man’s house each day for less than he now pays for gas. Just before election you could go into your private office, throw in a large dose of campaign whisky, light a campaign cigar, fasten your buttonhole to the wall by an elastic band, so that there would be a gentle pull on it, and turn the electricity on your mechanical thought supply. It would save time and money, and the result would be the same as it is now. This would only be the beginning, of course, and after a while every qualified voter who did not feel like exerting himself so much, need only give his name and proxy to the salaried thinker employed by the National Think Retort and Supply Works. We talk a great deal about the union of church and state, but that is not so dangerous, after all, as the mixture of politics and independent thought. Will the coming voter be an automatic, legless, hairless mollusk with an abnormal ear constantly glued to the tube of a big tank full of symmetrical ideas furnished by a national bureau of brains in the employ of the party in power?

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