Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death

Peter Lawler's contribution to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question is entitled "All Larry Needs Is Love (and Death)."

As I indicate in my response, I don't understand Lawler's claim that "Arnhart denies that love and death are essential to our being," and that I cannot account for "the fact of our deep loneliness or of our deep longing to be known and loved by other persons." It is odd that he says this considering that I stress the natural desires for friendship, conjugal love, parental care, and familial bonding as manifestations of our evolved nature as social animals, and that I also speak about the natural human longings for religious understanding and intellectual understanding in the face of the mysteries of life and death.

I disagree with Lawler's assertion that Darwin advanced an "impersonal theory of evolution" denying the personal reality of love and death. Anyone who examines Darwin's life and writings can see how his scientific thinking was influenced by his personal life, and particularly by his experience with love and death in his family and with his friends.

One of the best studies of how Darwin's science arose from his personal struggles with love and death is Randal Keynes' Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (2001). Keynes is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a great-nephew of John Maynard Keynes. Some years ago, he came across a child's writing case that had belonged to Annie Darwin, the first daughter of Charles and Emma, who had died when she was ten. The writing case was filled with personal items that Emma had saved to remember her daughter. Charles had written a note recording how Annie felt every day during her last months, and then after her death, he wrote a memorial to record his memories of her character and life. As Keynes collected this and related material, he began writing his book as a study of how the death of Annie in 1851 had shaped her father's understanding of love and death in ways that guided his scientific thinking about the natural world.

A few days before his wedding, Charles told Emma that while during his five years travelling on the Beagle, "the whole of my pleasure was derived from what passed in my mind," he now looked to marriage to take him out of himself. "I think you will humanize me, and soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories and accumulating facts in silence and solitude." He spent the rest of his life doing his scientific work surrounded by his family in his home in Down. (As I have indicated in a previous post, I found that visiting Down House evokes the life of the Darwins in a poignant way.)

The family included ten children, of whom seven lived to adulthood. Mary died in 1842, within three weeks of her birth. Annie died in 1851. Charles Waring died in 1858, at age four. Annie's death, after six months of severe illness, was especially traumatic for Charles and his family.

Charles responded to his children with both the warm feelings of a father and the methodical observations of a scientist. He kept careful records of how his children developed in infancy to support his "natural history of babies," which would help him understand the earliest psychological development of human emotions and thoughts as compared with other animals. He also learned from his own paternal feelings and from Emma's maternal care the importance of parental love in nurturing the individual development of each child.

Charles's mother had died when he was eight. He regretted later in life that he could not recall many clear memories of her. When Annie died, he was careful to preserve a written summary of his memories of her written one week after her death. In about 1,500 words, he sketched her character, her appearance, and her behavior. He wrote:

"Our poor child, Annie, was born in Gower St on March 2nd 1841 and expired at Malvern at Midday on the 23rd of April 1851. I write these few pages as I think in after years, if we live, the impression now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics. From whatever point I look back at her, the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness, tempered by two other characteristics, namely her sensitiveness, which might easily have been overlooked by a stranger, and her strong affection. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigour. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her. Her dear face now rises before me, as she used sometimes to come running down stairs with a stolen pinch of snuff for me, her whole form radiant with the pleasure of giving pleasure. . . .

"Her figure and appearance were clearly influenced by her character: her eyes sparkled brightly; she often smiled; her step was elastic and firm; she held herself upright, and often threw her head a little backwards, as if she defied the world in her joyousness. . . .

"Her health failed in a slight degree for about nine months before her last illness; but it only occasionally gave her a day of discomfort: at such times, she was never in the least degree cross, peevish or impatient; and it was wonderful to see, as the discomfort passed, how quickly her elastic spirits brought back her joyousness and happiness. . . . When so exhausted that she could hardly speak, she praised everything that was given her, and said some tea 'was beautifully good.' When I gave her some water, she said 'I quite thank you'; and these, I believe were the last precious words ever addressed by her dear lips to me.

"But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, and her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling and all the other little acts of affection.

"We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her."

Annie's "joyousness" and the sadness in the household from the loss of this joyous child are the clear themes of this memorial statement.

At the time, no one really understood the cause of Annie's death except that she suffered from a "bilious fever." She probably died of tuberculosis, which was known at the time as "consumption," for which there was no cure. It was not until 1882 that the German bacteriologist Dr. Robert Koch identified the cause of the disease as a bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

So how should loving parents understand and deal with the death of a child? In Victorian England, there were a variety of beliefs about how to handle such a loss.

Orthodox Christians consoled themselves that their dead children would go to Heaven, and that parents would eventually be reunited with their children in Heaven. Christians could believe that such death was designed by God to teach the need for faith in undergoing suffering.

For many religious believers, death was God's punishment for the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and even innocent children had to pay the price for the sin of Adam. Or such believers might see the death as the punishment for some personal sin of the parents.

For some people, however, such beliefs were dubious. Despite the common view that the Bible teaches eternal life after death, the Biblical account of the afterlife is vague, and the character of Heaven and Hell is not clearly explained. Moreover, why should we be consoled by belief in eternal life if we can't be sure about whether we (or our children) will go to Heaven or Hell? And why should we rely on scriptural authority for an afterlife if this is not supported by evidence from natural human experience and reasoning?

In any case, it's not clear that even those who profess to believe in an afterlife really believe it strongly enough for this to overcome their natural feeling that death is the end.

Some people wondered why a God who is both all-powerful and all-good would allow the innocent to suffer and die. They also wondered about the fairness of God in condemning most people to eternal punishment in Hell.

Some Victorians thought that we should accept death as a consequence of natural causes that we cannot alter. This seemed to be Alfred Tennyson's response when his first child was stillborn (three days before Annie's death):

Little bosom not yet cold,
Noble forehead made for thought,
Little hands of mighty mould
Clenched as in the fight which they had fought.
He had done battle to be born,
But some brute force of Nature had prevailed
And the little warrior failed.

"Some brute force of Nature had prevailed." What more should be said about the death of a child--or of any human being?

How did Emma and Charles respond to the death of Annie? As a Unitarian who believed in the eternal afterlife, Emma tried to console herself with the thought that she would be reunited with her family after death in Heaven. She was troubled that Charles did not find the evidence for such beliefs convincing. Over her life, as she and Charles talked about this and read books on the debate over the evidence for personal immortality with eternal rewards and punishments, she became less confident about her beliefs, although she was always more openly pious than Charles.

In his early life, Charles was an orthodox Christian believer. By the middle of his life, he had concluded that there was insufficient evidence for the divine authority of the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines. By the end of his life, he identified himself as an agnostic. Some people assumed he was a complete atheist. But he always insisted that he was open to the possibility of God as First Cause of the natural laws governing the universe, although he worried that searching for the ultimate causes of all things was beyond the natural limits of the human mind. "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

He was clear, however, in rejecting the traditional doctrines of God as having separately created every form of life and as providentially intervening to control every event in natural and human history. He laid out the evidence and arguments for species as originating from ancestral species through natural laws of evolution, although he indicated that this was consistent with believing in God as the Creator of those natural laws. Persuaded by the evidence of experience and science that nature was governed by general laws, Charles could not believe in any miracles, except possibly the original miracle by which the laws of nature themselves were created.

Charles rejected the traditional teaching that God would condemn all unbelievers to everlasting punishment as a "damnable doctrine."

He also rejected the traditional belief in God's particular providence, because Charles could not see how a just God could be responsible for "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature." It would be a more sublime notion of God, Charles thought, to say that God was not responsible for the cruelty of nature as governed by the "universal struggle for life." He believed it was "more satisfactory to attribute pain and suffering to the natural sequence of events." So at the end of the Origin of Species, Charles leaves his reader with the image of how "endless forms most beautiful" evolved "from the war of nature, from famine and death."

Charles learned this from his personal experience of love and death. He could love Annie as his beautiful child. He could understand her death as coming from her losing struggle for life in the war of nature. He could cherish his memories of her joyous personality, as preserved in his memorial essay, but without any expectation of being reunited with her in an afterlife.

Charles could also engage in scientific research on the natural causes of suffering and death with the hope that such knowledge could provide some relief. Although he did not understand how Annie's disease was caused by microorganisms, Charles did develop an evolutionary theory of how parasites and hosts coevolve in the struggle for life.

In 1877, a scientific friend of his sent him an article by Dr. Robert Koch, who would later discover the bacillus that causes tuberculosis. The article contained the first photographs of bacteria, along with Koch's argument that such microorganisms could cause diseases. Charles replied: "I well remember saying to myself between twenty and thirty years ago [about the time of Annie's death], that if ever the origin of any infectious disease could be proved, it would be the greatest triumph to Science; and now I rejoice to have seen the triumph."

So now Charles's science can explain why his daughter died. She died because she lost her struggle for life in the war of nature with tubercular bacteria. She was defeated by a "brute force of Nature."

Without a scientific understanding of her disease, Charles could not save her life. But he could save his memories of her in all her beautiful exuberance. "She held herself upright, and often threw her head a little backwards, as if she defied the world in her joyousness."

Does Peter Lawler have any better alternative for understanding love and death?

Some of my thoughts here are elaborated in my post on Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning" and it's famous line that "death is the mother of beauty."


Anonymous said...

Some half-baked thoughts:

Years ago, I read Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life, which was an important milestone in my transition from Christian to agnostic. Unamuno showed how certain philosophical "proofs" for the existence of god (such as the cosmological argument of the uncaused first cause) were beside the point. Even if such arguments were sound, they would have the necessary effect of stripping God of all content; he would be an empty shell, an abstraction, lifeless, irrelevant. Nor could one draw a connection between such a god and the God of Abraham. You either believed in this God or you didn't. The god who might be the author of the laws of the physics is not the same God who is described in the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. That is why I consider myself a general agnostic and a particular atheist. Like Darwin, I cannot rule out the possibility of some higher intelligence ordering reality. At the same time, I do not believe in the God who sent his only son to be tortured and killed for our sakes, or who selected a 7th century Arab as his last and most perfect prophet, or who made a Levantine tribe his chosen people.

I think this may be what Lawler is getting at. I think he sees a necessary disconnect between the respect accorded religion in your philosophy and the immediate, emotional, felt experience of a "personal" God through the extant monotheisms. And I think this accusation of impersonality extends to attitudes about life and death and all the emotions in between; he sees them as simulacra of the "real" thing.

Anonymous said...

More half baked thoughts:

I note that mr. Arnhart has not responded to the previous post and I wonder why. My first assumption is that he did not understand the post As it is quite deep and asserts a position of strongest agnostic position. However, anyone who has read Darwin (especially as much as I know arnhart has) is forced to accept at least that such a position has merit. Also the god described by quantum theory is a very incorrect god a mere "simulacram" of the god that we attempt to believe in. So my question to arnhart is simple what is god to you... Can you reduce him to the simple notion of the probabilistic chaos that we know due to quantum theory exists or is that a simulacrum? Is the god asserted by the bible real if so does it not fly in the face of everything we know scientifically. These inconsistenies cannot make anyone feel necessarily certain but at the same time there is a pleasure that can be found in uncertainty and as such for me represents the truth about our existance.

Larry Arnhart said...


I agree with you that there is a natural human propensity to believe in a supernatural personal agent acting as an invisible cause behind the visible world.

This can be explained as an human propensity of our evolved "agency detection device," which is the subject of my post on Justin Barrett's research (January 12, 2010).

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the movie ("Creation") that is partially based on Randal Keynes's book? If so, I'd be interested to know your thoughts.