Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Things That Matter Most

Taking the long view
This poorly titled but really worthwhile story at NPR discusses how the religiosity of Darwin's wife and the death of his youngest child may each have affected his great work.

Death Of Child May Have Influenced Darwin's Work

EXCERPT: In November 1859, Darwin finally published his revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species. Biographer Lyanda Haupt says you can see the influence of Annie's death in his shaping of that book. "He knew so deeply and so personally and viscerally what death was now after Annie's loss," Haupt says. And, yet, in his writing "you see him affirming over and over this circle, the endless unfolding of life."

In the last pages of On the Origin of Species, some say Darwin confronts the meaning of Annie's demise. Darwin takes his readers to a beautiful forest, rich with trees and birds singing everywhere, and reminds us of the beauty we see every day, in things like butterflies and flowers. And he demonstrates, especially, that humans, who can contemplate and love these things, are all products of millions of years of competition, struggle, famine and death — and that this struggle will continue. So, life will keep evolving new forms and new shapes.

Darwin is stating what "we now call the existential dilemma," says Gopnik in his biography. He is saying there are two things that are true: One is that everything dies, and things die for no reason and to no apparent end. And their death is painful. And, that process of living and dying produces something amazing and beautiful and astonishing.

And, Darwin himself writes, "There is grandeur in this view of life … from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

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From Sterling M. McMurrin's book The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion: "Religion is a matter of faith and hope, or perhaps of mystical experience. It is, to again borrow the words of one of my teachers, Professor Montague, the faith that 'what is highest in spirit is also deepest in nature,' the faith that the things that matter most are not ultimately at the mercy of the things that matter least. And he has said, it may be that there is no God, that 'the existence of all that is beautiful and in any sense good is but the accidental and ineffective by-product of blindly swirling atoms,' that we are alone in a world that cares nothing for us or for the values that we create and sustain -- that we and they are here for a moment only, and are gone, and that eventually there will be no trace of us in the universe. 'A man may well believe that this dreadful thing is true. But only a fool will say in his heart that he is glad that it is true.'"

I, myself, choose to believe that there is meaning and purpose in all this grandeur, that there is an ultimate order behind a system that includes both the incredibly large and the unimaginably small. I choose to blow upon the spark that keeps "a perfect brightness of hope" burning in me. I choose to believe that 'the things that matter most' are forever.

(Thanks to my son Slick for posting the original review of Krulwich's thoughts on Haupt's book on his blog, KnownUnknowns.)


Jo said...

I went to teh launch of his great granddaughter's poetry book, Darwin, A Life in Poems. She's a pretty well-known British poet in her own right, Ruth Padel, and very good. She mentioned Annie's death too, said the family believed it had profoundly affected his theories.

Jo A. T.B. said...

An interesting post Joyce, I'm sure everyone has pondered upon Mcmurrin's insights at one time or other. It's a personal thing in all we believe, or wish to believe. I like your prospectives also, we can only hope that a part of us this is most important lives forever!