Darwin’s Paradise Lost

“Man is descended,” said Charles Darwin, whose anniversary of death is today, “from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits,” thereby overturning untold millennia of belief that humankind had descended from the gods. Darwin of course arrived at this conclusion through the science he practiced, a science that requires for its pursuit of knowledge a particular sort of person. “A scientific man,” he explained, “ought to have no wishes, no affections, – a mere heart of stone.” Milton’s Paradise Lost, once his nightly bedtime reading, had long been laid aside when he made that remark. “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare,” he commented on one occasion, “and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”

It seems fairly evident that these statements of his are not unrelated. Darwin’s theory of evolution is certainly no respecter of persons, as the category persons is to be found totally lacking from the picture of evolution he painstakingly developed. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s own handiwork, from Romeo and Juliet, through Othello and Desdemona, to Miranda and Prospero, with countless other characters cramming the stage along the way – the various plays in which they appear each being written, as has been said, in a white heat – is essentially and entirely a universe of persons, with Hamlet answering his own life-and-death questions, almost ingeniously, by the very mess he manages to make of things:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

What? Quintessence of dust? To be or not to be! But then, what on earth ever asks any question but a person? Even if Hamlet in speaking these words seems emphatically to deny the human being as spirit, he nevertheless affirms the person as spirit most emphatically in the very suffering of his own questions, in the very tragedy of his own answers. The universe does not ask questions out of itself, but the human person does, anomaly enough you would think for even the most unobservant of theoretical Darwinists. Besides, only a spirit can know if something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and only a spirit can decide what to do about it. A happy outcome or a sad outcome is equally a spiritual matter, especially when to be or not to be is the leading question. So, from what else will any answer, whether scientific, religious, or philosophical, come from but persons? The human animal thinks, and therein is he a person, whether his thinking is from a cold heart or a warm heart, which is the same as to say whether the thinking is bound by the brain or not. Even revelations from on high need angelic persons to hand them down, just as they need prophetic persons to accept them. To excise the person from the picture – whether the picture happens to be one of eons of evolution or happens to be a single Shakespeare play – is to deny the spiritual entity – the person – one is and to deny the person the other is, i.e., the personhood of the other who contemplates the picture. There is simply no such thing, nor has there ever been, nor can there ever be, as a person-less universe. We can of course try to imagine such an impossibility if we want – we can go all the way back to the Big Bang if we want – but all the time we are forgetting our own self, the very person trying to imagine it.

“It is a cursed evil to any man to become as absorbed in any subject as I am in mine,” Darwin lamented, and of course, that being the case, what room then for persons as objects of any scientific awareness?  “I am turned into a sort of machine,” said he, “for observing facts and grinding out conclusions.” Yet personality – personhood – is the fundamental fact of the universe: a fact not to be denied without sooner or later the acute danger of either despair or sociopathy befalling the person who denies this same unassailable fact, whether that denier be scientist, philosopher or, for that matter, investment banker or politician.

After all, there is no science to be practiced without persons practicing it, just as there is no science to be explained and no science to be understood without persons explaining or understanding it. Even Darwin on his deathbed said to his wife Emma, “I am not in the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been to me – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me”, and then while she rested, he repeatedly said to Henrietta and Francis, his children, “It’s almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you”, thus affirming as he neared death the incontrovertible, the irreducible fact of personhood in the framework of real existence. And what is the “good” that Darwin speaks of but the loving attention of the family members – i.e., the persons – who lingered attentively by his side, he the unquantifiable and immeasurable, the scientifically unverifiable, yet invaluable person they cared for and loved?

“The fundament upon which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable,” writes Arthur Schopenhauer, and he is absolutely right of course, for the inexplicable happens to be the personality – which is, to a greater or lesser degree, the revelation of personhood on earth – since the person, whether human or divine, cannot be explained by anything else in existence, it being the only fact in existence that is impossible to explain by anything else. Accordingly, the person is, was, and ever shall be the “fundament”, as Schopenhauer has it, from whence all questions about – and therefore all explanations of – everything else in existence proceed, including the intellect itself, the instrument by which person asks, and finds answers for, all questions.  “I am the I Am,” said the voice from the burning bush on Mount Horeb, the only explanation given to Moses and the only explanation necessary for him as, sandals off his feet in this holy place, he himself most certainly knew.

The anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot, contemplating the tenth Arcanum, the Wheel of Fortune, has this to say on pages 235-6 – among much else on other pages –regarding the scientific postulate of evolution:

The Card of the tenth Arcanum . . . teaches, through its actual context, an organism of ideas relating to the problem of the Fall and the Reintegration, according to Hermetic and Biblical tradition. It portrays the whole circle, including ascent as well as descent, whilst the “transformism” of modern science is occupied with only half of the circle, namely the half of ascent or evolution. The fact is that certain eminent scientists (such as Edgar Daque in Germany and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in France) advance the postulate of the pre-existence – be it only potentially – of a prototype for all beings, which is the ultimate as well as the effective cause of the whole process of evolution, and this postulate alone renders evolution intelligible. However, it in no way changes the fact that science works on the basis of the fundamental supposition that the minimum is the ancestor of the maximum, the simple is the ancestor of the complicated, and that it is the primitive which produces the more developed organism and consciousness, although for thought (i.e. reason) this is absolutely unintelligible. This basic scientific presupposition renders evolution unintelligible because it disregards half of the circle, namely that which precedes – be it only in ordine cognoscendi – the state of primitivity from which science takes its point of departure. Because one has to renounce thought and reduce it to lethargy in order to be able to sincerely believe that man evolved from the primitive and unconscious particles of a primordial mist which was once our planet, without this mist bearing within itself the seed of all possibilities for future evolution, which is the process of  “eclosion”, i.e. the process of transition from a potential state to an actual state. Thus Arnold Lunn, editor of the book Is Evolution Proved?, writes that he would certainly like to believe in evolution and accept it as proved, if he could surmount four difficulties, including the following:

. . . for the fact (is) that no evolutionist had produced a plausible guess, much less a theory supported by evidence, to suggest how a purely natural process could have evolved, from the mud, sand, mists, and seas of the primeval planet, the brain that conceived Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and reactions to the beauty of music, of art, and of Nature. (Is Evolution Proved? A debate between D. Dewar and H. S. Sheldon, ed. Arnold Lunn, London, 1947, p. 333)   

“I cannot persuade myself,” writes Charles Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”, thus forgetting Paradise Lost, forgetting the primal state from which Adam – that primordial person, father of us all – fell, bringing down a good part of Nature with him. “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write,” he commented, “on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!” As closely observant of nature as Darwin was, he needed another eye to see that other part of Nature, the part that did not fall, an eye that could see in every dawn the innocent promise of a new day for hand and heart, in the sea the fathomless depths of the longing soul, in the wheeling stars the destiny of human godhood – an eye in other words that could see life also as Shakespeare saw it – essentially as a “tragedy and drama of supreme dangers and risks” – with comic interludes interspersed to be sure – wherein the human person faces choices “that the traditional terms ‘perdition’ and ‘salvation’ imply” (cf. Meditations, page 236) – not a natural process merely.

But what meaning for Darwin the Fall, perdition, redemption, salvation?  For one who writes, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change” – what meaning? The eye that sees humankind as a species of mammal only, even if it sees humankind as the most highly adapted life-form on earth or for that matter in the whole universe – can find no meaning in the Fall, in perdition, in redemption, and accordingly in salvation. Human beings, however, seen each as a person capable of transcending the species homo sapiens, i.e., each considered as a separate species in him- or herself, unquantifiable and immeasurable, scientifically unverifiable, yet invaluable, each one potentially capable of moving beyond mere adaptation to a growing responsibility for the self and the world in which it lives, the matter is altogether different. Then each is potentially a unique moral agent with a divine destiny toward the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, first and the last. Then each is potentially an inward movement toward the I Am of all existence – a destiny which each person can fulfill or not, either working for the salvation of humanity and the Earth, or becoming the recalcitrant object of that work,

Today is the Feast of Saint Alphege (c. 954 – April 19, 1012).  A Benedictine monk in Gloucestershire when a young man, he later left the monastery to become a hermit in Bath, eventually becoming the abbot at the monastery there. He enforced a strict rule. He was appointed bishop of Winchester in 984. Continuing to live a life of great austerity, he virtually eliminated poverty in his diocese through dedicated aid to the poor. Appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1006, he refused to leave the city when the Danes and Earl Edric besieged it. He was imprisoned when the city fell for exhorting the Danes to desist from their murdering and looting, but was freed when an epidemic broke out to minister to the sick. When he refused however to allow a ransom of three thousand gold crowns to be paid for his permanent release, he was taken to Greenwich and put to death. Thus he refused the wide way of survival through adaptation, clearly choosing instead the straight and narrow path of salvation through sacrifice, a path he took not for himself only but, in the long view of evolution we can be sure, for all humanity and the Earth.    

“A moral being,” writes Darwin, “is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives – of approving of some and disapproving of others.” True enough, as far as the thought goes, but Darwin forgets in propounding this dictum that there can be such things as intuitions for the future, intuitions arising from the conscience of the human person, a conscience which, once awakened, continues to evolve through travail and suffering, creatively making sacrifice in all ages to come for the salvation of all.

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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