The Most Exalted Object Which We Are Capable Of Conceiving

Is 'the production of the higher animals' really 'the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving'? Most exalted? Really? Are there not more exalted objects? Art? Spirituality? Romeo and Juliet? General Relativity? The Choral Symphony? The Sistine Chapel? Love?

You have to remember that, for all his personal modesty, Darwin nursed high ambitions. On his world-view, everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals. It is not just that without evolved brains spirituality and music would be impossible. More pointedly, brains were naturally selected to increase in capacity and power for utilitarian reasons, until those higher faculties of intellect and spirit emerged as a by-product, and blossomed in the cultural environment provided by group living and language. The Darwinian world-view does not denigrate the higher human faculties, does not 'reduce' them to a plane of indignity. It doesn't even claim to explain them at the sort of level that will seem particularly satisfying, in the way that, say, the Darwinian explanation of a snake-mimicking caterpillar is satisfying. It does, however, claim to have wiped out the impenetrable - not even worth trying to penetrate - mystery that must have dogged all pre-Darwinian efforts to understand life.

But Darwin doesn't need any defence from me, and I'll pass over the question of whether the production of the higher animals is the most exalted object we can conceive, or merely a very exalted object. What, however, of the predicate? Does the production of the higher animals 'directly follow' from the war of nature, from famine and death? Well, yes, it does. It directly follows if you understand Darwin's reasoning, but nobody understood it until the nineteenth century. And many still don't understand it, or perhaps are reluctant to do so. It is not hard to see why. When you think about it, our own existence, together with its post-Darwinian explicability, is a candidate for the most astonishing fact that any of us are called upon to contemplate, in our whole life, ever. I'll come to that shortly.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment