Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

By John Holmes | Go to book overview

4
Death

DARWINISM, DEATH AND IMMORTALITY

In the conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote ‘He who believes in the advancement of man from some low organised form, will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul’ ([1871] 2004: 682). Darwinism poses a problem for our belief in immortality because, where evolution is a gradual process, the distinction between being mortal and being immortal is a stark one. As John Dupré notes, ‘it is not that evolution cannot endow an organism with a radically new capacity. This happens throughout the history of life. But evolution does so by gradual steps and continuous change’ (2003: 65). It is hard to imagine a sliding scale of immortality. The belief that human beings and human beings alone have immortal souls is easy to maintain if all species of animals, people included, were separately created. But it is much harder to maintain if we evolved from other, non-human animals, as Darwinism shows that we did.

If we accept that our immortal souls cannot have evolved gradually, we have three options to choose from. The first is to suppose that all life is immortal: that immortality is, in effect, a property of life itself. This is superficially appealing. It has the spirit of generosity on its side. But it is not philosophically very satisfying, and it does not ultimately solve our problem. Traditionally, immortality is pegged to individuality. It is an individual soul that survives into an afterlife or migrates from one body to another. That is all very well if you are a person, or a cow, or a crab. But what if you are a fungus, where is it impossible to say where one individual stops and another begins? And what would it mean for a (presumably) unconscious fungus to be immortal anyway? This problem does not go away if we limit immortality to animal life, or even to conscious life, as there are no firm lines between animals and non-animals, nor between conscious organisms and unconscious ones. Unlike immortality, we can imagine consciousness existing with different degrees of definition or complexity, as the study of animal behaviour and our own experiences of being intoxicated or

-102-

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Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Preface x
  • 1- Poetry in the Age of Darwin 1
  • 2- Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’ 37
  • 3- God 75
  • 4- Death 102
  • 5- Humanity’s Place in Nature 130
  • 6- Humans and Other Animals 154
  • 7- Love and Sex 185
  • 8- On Balance 226
  • Conclusion 260
  • Bibliography 263
  • Index 283
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