Book Review of Philip Appleman’s Darwin’s Ark

By Dan Barker

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable,” writes Richard Dawkins. “It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living . . . Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry, but I do not have the talent to cinch the argument by demonstration.”

Dawkins is indeed loaded with immense writing skill, but if we want to “cinch the argument” with pure poetry talent, we need look no further than Philip Appleman.

In celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, as well as the 25th anniversary of the first publication of Darwin’s Ark, Indiana University Press has issued a gorgeous paperback edition of Philip Appleman’s now-classic collection of poems based on science. The whimsical illustrations are drawn by Rudy Pozzatti.

Appleman is a natural; and in this case the compliment is double-barreled. No one writes more naturally about nature. Darwin’s Ark is a shipload of treasure. The specimens onboard include living, breathing poems about extinction, fragility, insignificance, survival, predation, scavenging, tools, weapons, religion (“the power / of shamans to wreck our lives / and kill forever . . . we will not flame to passion / in the firestorms of your frenzy”), faith healing, and enchantment with Darwin and evolution. The collection has poems about mud (prompted, no doubt, by Darwin’s “damp earth” in his fabled “tangled bank”), worms, rabbits, “The Booby and the Noddy,” dogs, spiders, human nature, natural phobias, and ship journeys.

Throughout the book, poem by poem–many of them containing the exact words of Darwin–the reader is filled with a sense of the connectedness of humans with nature, and of the past with the present.

The ten-page classic title poem, “Darwin’s Ark,” is a hilarious indictment of the homicidal, terracidal biblical God. (An excerpt of the “Noah” reading, by Philip and his wife, Margie, can be heard on the Foundation’s “Beware of Dogma” musical album.)

Appleman, raised in an anti-evolutionary region of Indiana, never having heard of Charles Darwin, fell in love with evolution after reading Origin of the Species while onboard a WWII ship at the same age as Darwin when he sailed on The Beagle. The final poem, “The Voyage Home,” contains this autobiographical reflection (bible readers will recognize the voice of “God” from the book of Job):

on the fantail
I hear the grind of rigging, and
Darwin is beside me, leaning on the rail,
watching the wake go phosphorescent.
We’ve been out five years, have seen
the coral islands, the dark skins
of Tahiti; I have questions.
“Darwin,” I whisper, “tell me now,
have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or have you walked in search of the depth?
Did you give the gorgeous wings to peacocks,
or feathers to the ostrich?
Have you given the horse his strength
and clothed his neck with thunder?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
and given understanding to the heart?
Answer me.”
The breeze is making eddies in the mist,
and out of those small whirlwinds come the words:
“I have walked along the bottom of the sea
wrenched into the clouds at Valparaiso;
I have seen the birth of islands and
the build of continents; I
know the rise and fall of mountain ranges,
I understand the wings of pigeons,
peacock feathers, finches; my mind creates
general laws out of large
collections of facts.”
The rigging sighs a little: God
is slipping away without
saying goodbye, goodbye to Jewish dreams.
“But the activities of the mind,”
Darwin murmurs, “are one of the bases of conscience.”
Astern the pious Spaniards go on praying
and crushing the fingers of slaves; somewhere
the Mylodon wanders away,
out of the animal kingdom and
into the empire of death.
For five billion years
we have seen the past, and
it works.

Yes, evolution works. And if anyone ever doubted that science could be integrated into art, Appleman teaches us that, indeed, it can work seamlessly, in the right hands.

Admonishing against laziness, the bible advises, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6), but Appleman reveals another side of nature in this excerpt from “Darwin’s Bestiary”:

1. The Ant
The ant, Darwin reminded us,
defies all simple-mindedness:
Take nothing (says the ant) on faith,
and never trust a simple truth.
The PR men of bestiaries
eulogized for centuries
this busy little paragon,
nature’s proletarian–
but look here, Darwin said: some ants
make slaves of smaller ants, and end
exploiting in their peonages
the sweating brows of their tiny drudges.
Thus the ant speaks out of both
sides of its mealy little mouth:
its example is extolled
to the workers of the world,
but its habits also preach
the virtues of the idle rich.

Freedom From Religion Foundation