Article excerpt

Little Souls

In his review of Soul Made Flesh, by Carl Zimmer, and The Birth of the Mind, by Gary Marcus ("The Fate of the Soul," 6/04), William H. Calvin seems to have little appreciation of the complex history of religious institutions or of theological dialogues. For example, he mentions that "The tortures imposed on dissenters by the inquisitions of the Roman Catholic Church attested to the dangers of thinking differently." That may be true, but in the context of his discussion of seventeenth-century English thinkers it would have made more sense to have mentioned the equivalent dangers imposed by the Church of England, which since 1563 had been the official church in that land.

Similarly, quoting Zimmer, Mr. Calvin refers to the bishops who in 1666 blamed London's fire and plague on Thomas Hobbes's atheism. I would assume these were the bishops of the Anglican Communion, not the Roman Catholic Church.

These may seem small points, but the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward science from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries is often seen to be wholly negative and obstructionist, whereas the attitude actually varied wildly from avidly pro scientific research to rabidly against it.

Mary Fain

Gaylord, Michigan

William Calvin's review is a welcome voice of reason over what amounts to a superstition-a belief in the "little soul," a vestige of pre-seventeenth-century thinking. If the concept of soul could be released from its archaic limitations, it would no longer be pertinent for us to labor over such silly questions as whether other animals "have" what we call "souls." All creatures vary in their awareness, as individuals and as species. A sign of higher consciousness is the ability to appreciate the variations on all levels.

Jeffrey Aaron

Highland Park, New Jersey

I found the view of humanity expressed by William Calvin in the last sentence of his review frightening. Mr. Calvin states that in the continuum of life from fertilized egg to maturity, there is some point where "one cell slowly becomes a real person, gradually able to comprehend life's great journey." The inference is that unless you are able to comprehend, then somehow you are not a real person. Thus, a retarded adult and a small child do not qualify as real persons, the dream of every despot who would stifle humanity.

Unable to precisely define when one cell becomes a person, I simply observe facts. The fertilized egg cannot exhibit a personality, but it is life, and its genetic makeup shows it to be human life. These facts stand, even if "nature seems rather careless with early embryos" or some women choose to abort.

Philip J. Lehpamer

Brooklyn, New York

WILLIAM H. CALVIN REPLIES: I mostly agree with Mary Fains points, and indeed gave, as briefly as I could, a Catholic and an Anglican example. That I did not elaborate my discussion of them hardly means that I "have little appreciation of the complex history of religious institutions or of theological dialogues."

Jeffrey Aaron has it about right, but note that we humans have added a new kind of level via the emergence (quite late in the hominid lineage) of structured thought-syntax, contingent planning, polyphonic music, chains of logic, games with rules. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, and modify our possible actions accordingly. The result is a big step up from whatever altruism and empathy might have existed earlier. It certainly is one of the modern connotations of "soul."

Philip J. Lehpamer is trying to put words in my mouth. To say that "The inference is that unless you are able to comprehend, then somehow you are not a real person" is hardly a fair inference from the rhetorical flourish at the end of my essay.

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