Darwin’s Example

Reprinted from the May/June 2006 issue of The Humanist.”

By Philip Appleman

Charles Darwin, after many years of hard work and illness, controversy and honor, lay on his deathbed. A biographer tells us: “During the night of April l8th [1882], about a quarter to twelve, he had a severe attack and passed into a faint, from which he was brought back to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the approach of death, and said, ‘I am not the least afraid to die.’ ” His last words.

Living among the relentless Victorian pieties, educated to be a clergyman, surrounded by threats of literal burning hellfire, why didn’t Darwin fear death? Part of the answer is that by the time he was a mature man, he simply knew too much about the real world to be frightened by superstitions. The once orthodox Cambridge undergraduate had, he wrote, “gradually come . . . to see that the Old Testament, from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindus or the beliefs of any barbarian.”

Another reason Darwin didn’t fear death and hellfire is that he could not take seriously religious threats that were openly 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 [those] 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.”

Throughout his adult life, Darwin took a deep human satisfaction in his important work, in the comradeship of his friends, and in the love of his family. That was enough, and he was not merely content with it; ill though he often was, he was a happy man.

And he was not afraid to die.

Death, Darwin knew, is simply a natural part of a natural process. Death is always out there, waiting: only its timing is in doubt. Eventually we will have played our small part in the great system of nature, and have passed on, leaving the system intact. We are a part of nature, just as tigers or termites are.

Priests and preachers in most religions refuse to accept this sensible view of things. “Eternal Life,” they cry–thus thwarting all hope of a mature personal philosophy. By promising glory in a glittering but unreal eternity, they sour our satisfactions in a brief but genuine present. They portray a God who supposedly plans all things reasonably and wisely. After all, if we are reasonable, surely God must be supremely reasonable. Our bodies, we are told, are temples, so we treat them with respect and look forward to our promised threescore and ten years. But God, it turns out, has something else in mind for us, and eventually we find out that God is not only unreasonable; he is also a vandal: after years of our taking good care of our tidy little temples, God suddenly and without explanation breaks down the door, smashes the windows, rips the paintings, and slashes the furniture. All of our lives we have been prudent about diet, about drinking and smoking, about doing everything in moderation–and all of a sudden, without any warning at all, God shrieks in our ear: Cancer!

But what if you are not religious when cancer slips up without warning, threatening death? You do not fear death, any more than Darwin did; but you hate it. You hate the loss, and the sorrow of leaving behind bereaved family and friends. So in your mind, and in the minds of those who love you, there is a sharp pain, a conscious rage at being mortal. Ants and alligators must also die, but they do not face that fact with rage or regret. Those thoughts and feelings are human.

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 testifies to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion. Every noble quality we possess takes on a more poignant value because of our natural brevity. Our final pain is mortal, and our own; we hate it, but we do not want it cheapened by the seductions of an alleged immortality.

Face to face with death, we realize: the meaning of life is inside our lives, not outside them. We cannot impose on our experience a meaningfulness that we have not ourselves built into it. Our true philosophy of life is whatever we choose to do from moment to moment. If we regularly behave honestly and decently to those around us, then our philosophy is clearly a healthy and adaptive one, accounting for our lives in terms of our whole social environment. The sum total of our actions at a given time constitutes our philosophy of life.

Darwin on his deathbed could look back at 43 years of devotion to a loving wife, 45 years of devotion to a grand idea. At the end, he had one characteristic regret: that he could not somehow have lived two lives, so that one could have been spent in full-time philanthropic work. The mind is tyrannically ambitious; the flesh cannot keep pace with it. Still, Darwin was content: he had made his commitments, and he had kept them. In an often hostile and bewildering world, he had lived honestly and decently: Darwin understood that that is the only “heaven” we will ever know. And it is the only one we need.

Philip Appleman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. His seven published volumes of poetry include New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996. His nonfiction work includes the widely used Norton Critical Edition Darwin, and the Norton Critical Edition of Malthus’ Essay on Population. His poetry and fiction have won many awards, including a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association and the Friend of Darwin Award from the National Council for Science Education. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, and The Yale Review.

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