Appleman’s: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life (Part 2)

Cosmic evolution gave birth to our sun and planet; chemical evolution brought forth atoms, molecules and cells; biological evolution led to us. The process ran itself, there was no intelligent designer. But consciousness emerged, we are here, and within limits we are free. And yet we will die.

Charles Darwin died the night of April 18th, 1882. A biographer says that his last words were: “I am not in the least afraid to die.” How do we account for his courage? Appleman gives two reasons.

First, he was a mature man no longer frightened by superstitions. He once studied for the clergy, but he had “gradually come … to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from it’s attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.” (42) He also believed religion was sadistic. “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (43)

Darwin knew that death is natural, we die like all the other animals. The non-religious don’t fear death, but they rage at being mortal. Religion responds differently.

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion. (45-46)

Confronted with death we should see that meaning is found in what we have done, and what we have created—meaning can’t be imposed on us from the outside. Darwin was thus content, for “Darwin on his deathbed could look back on forty-three years of devotion to a loving wife, forty-five years of devotion to a grand idea … He had made his commitments and he had kept them.” (46-47)

If the meaning of life is simply the fabric of our whole existence, then no wonder our brief careers seem so illogically precious to us, so worth clinging to. Self-preservation … it’s always there, the fundamental imperative of life: survival. Preachers may sneer at this, but notice: they continue to pass the collection plate. (47)

To understand morality we begin with self-preservation. However, we soon find that in order to survive we must extend the sphere of our moral concerns beyond self to family, tribe, nation, and to the planet itself. Fortunately, cooperation is in our DNA. Darwin knew that “our social behavior might be to some extent inherited.” (49) He knew that our social instincts contain tendencies to be both selfish and altruistic.

“Once our species evolved to social consciousness and communal morality, people naturally began to express their social approval with praise, and to enforce their disapproval with contempt, anger, and ostracism.” (50) Long before religion codified morality, secular communities enforced it. Then we invented God, “thousands of years after evolution had developed our social instincts, religion co-opted our socially evolved good impulses and encumbered them with myriad disparate, controversial, and contradictory gods, priesthoods, scriptures, myths, and dogmas.” (51)

Still many are motivated by their more base instincts. Religion tries to deal with this problem with eternal reward or punishment.

But neither of these sanctions has ever worked very well, which is why (among other things) totally immersed Southern Baptists always performed the lynchings for the Ku Klux Klan; why nice Catholic boys have always run the Mafia; why a devout Jew murdered his peace-loving prime minister; and why, in a notorious American election, pious white churchgoing Christians voted two to one for a declared Nazi. (52)

The problem isn’t that people don’t know about right and wrong, but that they don’t care about it. How can people be taught to care? By social and political leaders? We know that survival depends ultimately on cooperation, but powerful politicians, financiers, and business people are among the most selfish people in society. Appleman’s sarcasm is caustic. The ruling class is strong, they “… all have enough strength to bear the misfortune of others.” (54-55)

For morals we might look instead to science:

… science strictly speaking has no ethics … But our ethics … can hardly emerge from a vacuum … Scientific knowledge has at the bare minimum a selective ethical function, identifying false issues that we can reasonably ignore: imagined astrological influence on our moral decisions, for instance. Science offers us the opportunity of basing our ethical choices on factual data … rather than on misconceptions or superstitions … (55)

Of course we can misuse scientific knowledge, but generally the growth of science corresponds to the social progress. Moreover the scientific mind discovered that we are one species on one planet, connected to other living things on whom our own survival depends. We should replace the arrogant claim that humans have dominion over the earth with a recognition that we can’t survive without the ecosystem.

The idea of the connection between all living things is particularly aroused by evolutionary biology. From this connection can spring a new ethics. As Darwin put it:

The moral faculties are generally and justly esteemed as of higher value than the intellectual powers. But we should bear in mind that the activity of the mind … is one of the fundamental though secondary bases of conscience. This affords the strongest argument for educating and stimulating in all possible ways the intellectual faculties of every human being. (60)

Appleman contrasts this intellectual outlook with the religious one. Religions often look at the evil in the world as acts of the gods or signs of the end of the world. (Think of those today who claim their god will take care of climate change.) Darwin understood such people: “To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.” (61)

Today we live in a world where people are comforted by “sensational crime, sporting events, the sexual behavior of celebrities, and religious escapism. Nourished on such pap, many people find themselves lost in the labyrinth of neurosis and succumbing to easy answers and seductive promises: the priests need not soon fear for their jobs.” (61-62) Most people won’t be converted to rigorous thought, but Appleman believes there is value in speaking out.

Every small light in the pervading darkness, from Giordano Bruno and Galileo to Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin to Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is valuable and necessary. Like characters in a perpetual Chekhov drama, we can imagine a more enlightened future age looking back on our time with distaste and incredulity but nevertheless acknowledging those voices in our wilderness who kept the Enlightenment alive until humanity in general became worthy of it. (62)

Moreover the entire history of the law, Appleman says, records our transition from barbaric religious punishment and religious sanctioned slavery to a more humane secular law. The basis of morality is a social contract. However, if some don’t benefit from the contract, they will resent the current order. In the long run they will not be satisfied with the claim that all will be well in heaven. “What is required is a secular solution, which works the other way around: Improve the society and most people will behave better.” (Look at the Scandinavian countries.)

In the past slavery was defended by “conservatives, slave-owners, and most religions.” We look back with horror, as our future our descendents will at the way we treat blacks, women, and other minorities.

Humane and liberal societies gradually come to a more sensitized understanding of the plight of the less fortunate and devise sensible ways of assisting them; the underclass then feels less trapped, becomes less confrontational, and is less motivated to break the social contract. Good laws and good customs precede good behavior. (67)

In short, morality is in everyone’s self-interest. A more moral society would encourage people to reflect about their own lives, to learn about the world, to reject superstition and assess human problems with reason and compassion.

Free from the racking fear of deprivation and from the labyrinth of brutal religious animosities, free from holy nonsense and pious bigotry, living in a climate of openness, tolerance, and free inquiry, people would be able to create meaning and value in their lives: in the joy of learning, the joy of helping others, the joy of good health and physical activity and sensual pleasure, the joy of honest labor; in the richness of art and music and literature and the adventures of the free mind; and in the joys of nature and wildlife and landscape—in short, in the ephemeral but genuine joy of the human experience.

That joy does not depend upon mysticism or dogma or priestly admonition. It is the joy of human life, here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin’s example, both in his work and in his life, help us to understand that that is the only “heaven” we will ever know. And it is the only one we need. (68-69)

I thank Professor Appleman for his wonderfully written book. In tomorrow’s post I will reflect on all he has said.

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