A Line from “The Exorcist”

Midnight hour.

Another question I pondered was whether humankind is vain or simply noble and dignified. Newton’s rule applies the same physics to the earth and human beings as to other bodies in space. Ultimately, this paved the way for Darwin to link people with animals in The Descent of Man. But to this day, many Americans reject evolution or make people exempt from it: they may reject science wholesale and embrace religion instead. In Europe, Creationism is not even taught in schools. They’ve gone with evolution totally and it’s an accepted fact in their culture. Why do Americans resist Darwin’s discoveries? What is at stake if we give up old prejudices? Is it just the ethic of altruism that we fear will be lost? We seem to believe that moral behavior hinges on God and the diviner part of ourselves. We take spiritual things literally. We don’t trust the evidence right in front of us. That’s why I ask if people are vain or just noble when we keep humankind separate from the natural world. Is there a reason for keeping our self image divine— sort of like what Edith Hamilton said of Greek culture? Should we despair if we see ourselves as animal and ugly? 

Advertisement

Essences

Seven o’clock at night.

My energy level is pretty low right now. I just had a nap in the sunshine from the window. I remembered having delusions of people looking like apes, as with Darwin, when I had my initial episode of the illness. A strange experience. It makes you consider what about humanity gives it its particular distinction. This question goes back as far as human history. Aristotle: man is a rational animal, also a political animal. But by the time you get to Rousseau in the eighteenth century, it is rather the feelings of the heart that define humankind apart from other animals. Somewhere I have a copy of his novel La Nouvelle Heloise. It wasn’t so much raw emotion that Rousseau praised as very fine sentimentality, as I recall from the introduction… But then I consider my dog Aesop, who obviously has intellect as well as feeling. It seems to me that humans are only different from animals in quantities of the same attributes, and not by virtue of some magical essence like logic or sentiment— or a moral thing like altruism or generosity. Yet it seems Loren Eiseley says the opposite of this. To be sure, I should read the whole book and then give my thoughts on it.

Wild Goose Chase

Quarter of two.

It’s a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect for a little walk to the store. For the past couple of mornings I’ve read essays by Loren Eiseley from a book of his stuff. In all of his meditations on natural history he sees humanity as unique and self contained, and every species for him is likewise idiographic, more or less. Human beings are alone in being thinking creatures, he says; never before and never again will there be anything like us. I guess my (amateur) view is nominalistic. It’s not like nature had an essential cookie cutter for the species of humankind. Nothing mystical is involved in our emergence on the world stage, though many people will disagree with that. There are different kinds of biologists. A simply sequential evolution makes more sense to me than something with a design or purpose, maybe a great plan for human beings. I think it’s strange to believe in a nature with essences or immaterial forms. This idea goes back to the Greeks, but apparently it survives to more recent thinking about evolution. A turtle is not the same thing as a chicken, or a chicken as a fish, etc etc. Yet embryos across species appear much the same. How much did people know about genetics in the Fifties? Probably I’m reading the wrong book…

A Mini Lesson

The summer of 2020 was not just a fluke. We can expect summers to get a lot worse from year to year. I say this because I believe what scientists tell us about climate change. When we reject this information, it’s because people are too vain and selfish to accept the truth of modern science. We don’t want to believe that we belong to the animal kingdom and that Darwin was absolutely right. It may take forever for people to be disabused of their religious ideas and the fluff built into their languages. This stubbornness partly explains why some people still support the president in denial and delusion. Our policy on the ecology has always been that of the ostrich.

During Victorian times, Tennyson wrote a poem that grapples with the problem of being “descended from the brutes.” He had a hard time countenancing the implications of Darwin’s ideas. Unfortunately, we in the 21st Century are not much closer to acceptance than he was. We’ll never feel the full force of the ecology and our participation in it until we acknowledge what Darwin had to say a century and a half ago. And since his time, there’s been the whole field of biological anthropology and paleo anthropology, which deals with our hominid ancestors and the lines of the hominids that became extinct. But first we have to accept evolution for a fact in this country, and not just an idle theory. And yes, human beings are subject to evolution as well as every other species on earth. It’s time to stop exempting ourselves from nature and the biosphere on the pretext of flattering old traditions.