A Scientific Dream

San Francisco News Letter/November 14, 1868

One day last week, while sitting in a little canvas booth on the sidewalk, having my Benkerts preternaturally polished, I picked up an old dog-eared volume, which someone had carelessly left upon the seat, and began to read. It proved to be Darwin’s great work on the Origin of Species. Mr. Darwin’s theory, as is tolerably well known, supposes a constant advance in man and animals toward perfection, or rather a constant adaptation of a race to the circumstances of its surroundings. The great naturalist holds that whatever peculiarity in our physical conformation enables us to resist the destroying forces of Nature will be inherited by our descendants, until the cumulative accession of such protective peculiarities shall confer upon our race immunity from the ills which now afflict us. The destroying agencies continue, but the race becomes better able to resist them. I wondered whether in the course of time Man might not become so changed that lightning, fire, flood and earthquakes would no longer be fatal, and cause no more annoyance than we now suffer from fleas, mothers-in-law and the Alta California newspaper. Overcome by these speculations and the pleasant titillation of my corns by the bootblack’s brush, I fell asleep. When I awoke I found myself in a strange city, and a singular-looking new building in front of me bore the astounding inscription “Erected 4868.” I had slept thirty centuries. A crowd of wonderful and astonishingly dressed people surrounded me, eying me with great curiosity, and from them I learned that I was still in San Francisco. I was about to make further inquiries, when there was a rumbling noise beneath my feet, and a swaying motion of the ground warned me that an earthquake was upon us. The buildings rocked violently to and fro, and in mortal terror I sprang screaming into the middle of the street. The throng of idlers stood chatting gaily and laughing at me. Just then a massive stone cornice fell from an adjoining twelve-story building amongst a bevy of school girls. I shrieked with horror, expecting to see them crushed to the consistency of Yarmouth bloater paste. Imagine my surprise when they stood unshaken, and burst into a loud laugh as the enormous stones glanced off their heads and were smashed into fragments on the pavement. A great hotel, covering five or six squares and sixteen stories high, next came to the ground, and when the dust had settled, I saw the thousands of inmates covering the unsightly ruins like ants upon a mole-hill, dragging the fragments of their baggage from the debris. I then saw it all. Man had become adapted to his conditions. The frequent earthquakes had killed off the tender and soft-headed, and those whose physical conformation had enabled them to resist falling walls had lived and left offspring inheriting their protective peculiarities. The shock and my nervousness having subsided, I turned to a man who stood near me, calmly smoking, and asked him why it was that man’s mind had not kept pace with his body—why, when he was able to resist falling walls, he had not progressed so far as to be able to build walls which could not fall?” “The fact is,” said he, “we should now have been able to do so but for one reason. Our remote ancestors in 1868 had a little quake one day, and their wise men, as soon as they got partially over the scare, all rushed into the public prints with plans for building earthquake-proof houses. With that reverence for antiquated notions so characteristic of our race, we have ever since been, to some extent, following their suggestions, and the city has in consequence been completely overturned by shocks nine hundred and sixty-three thousand times. We are now-just learning to discard their theories and use our own common sense. In the course of twenty or thirty centuries more we shall build homes capable of resisting any shock.” Fifty centuries to get rid of ancient stupidity and precedent! Yes, these fellows were certainly human.

As I passed down the street I met the most singular object my eyes ever beheld. It walked upright, on two legs, and had a human head, excepting that the ears had developed into gills. In place of arms, its sides were adorned with two pendant fins, and a long dragon like tail, similar to that of a mermaid, wriggled in the dust behind. “Surely,” thought I, “this must be an inhabitant of Sacramento on a visit to this city. The floods up there have made him what he is. He seems uneasy as a fish out of water.” I afterwards discovered he was a Front Street merchant. At every shock a tidal wave engulfed all the lower part of the city, and Nature had adapted the residents to their condition of life. This fellow had been thrown inland by the last shock, and was now going up on Russian Hill to take dinner with a cousin whom he saw soaring on airy pinions above the city. The constant winds prevailing in the latter’s elevated ward frequently carried folks off their feet, and so had tended to develop wings. Smitten with wonder to see my favorite theory so incontestably proved, I cried aloud, “Great is Darwin and his theory of . . .” –just then a brick, which had been thrown sky-high by the falling hotel, descended upon my head. Fire shot in sparkles from my eyes, and as I closed them for the last time the bootblack hit me another one aside the head with his brush, and bellowed in my ear, “Get out o’ this, old snorer, and give the other coves a show. Fifteen cents if yer please. Next!”


(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)

The works of Ambrose Bierce and other major journalists are freely available from The Archive of American Journalism: www.historicjournalism.com