Darwin and the Star Thrower

DarwinHumanity was suddenly entranced by light and fancied it reflected light. Progress was its watchword, and for a time the shadows seemed to recede. Only a few guessed that the retreat of darkness presaged the emergence of an entirely new and less tangible terror. Things, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, were to grow incalculable by being calculated. Man’s powers were finite; the forces he had released in nature recognized no such limitations. They were the irrevocable monsters conjured up by a completely amateur sorcerer.

What was the nature of the first discoveries that now threaten to induce disaster? Pre-eminent among them was…the discovery of the interlinked and evolving web of life. The great Victorian biologists saw, and yet refused to see, the war between form and formlessness, chaos and antichaos, which the poet Goethe had sensed contesting beneath the smiling surface of nature.

By contrast, Darwin, the prime student of the struggle for existence, sought to visualize in a tangled bank of leaves the silent and insatiable war of nature. Still, he could imply with a veiled complacency that man might “with some confidence” look forward to a secure future “of appreciable length.” This he could do upon the same page in the Origin of Species where he observes that “of the species now living, very few will transmit progeny to a far distant futurity.” The contradiction escaped him; he did not wish to see it. Darwin, in addition, saw life as a purely selfish struggle, in which nothing is modified for the good of another species without being directly advantageous to its associated form.

“But I do love the world,” I whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. “I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again. I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” It was like renunciation of my scientific heritage. It was a joining, the expression of love projected beyond the species boundary by a creature born of Darwinian struggle, in the silent war under the tangle bank. “There is no boon in nature,” one of the new philosophers had written harshly in the first years of the industrial cities. Nevertheless, through war and famine and death, a sparse mercy had persisted, like a mutation whose time had not yet come. I had seen the star thrower cross that rift and, in so doing, he had reasserted the human right to define his own frontier. He had moved to the utmost edge of natural being, if not across its boundaries. It was as though at some point the supernatural had touched hesitantly, for an instant, upon the natural.

Here, at last, was the rift that lay beyond Darwin’s tangled bank. For a creature, arisen from that bank and born of its contentions, had stretched out its hand in pity. Some ancient, inexhaustible and patient intelligence, lying dispersed in the planetary fields of force or amidst the inconceivable cold of interstellar space, had chosen to endow its desolation with an apparition as mysterious as itself.

I picked up a star whose tube feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness and death had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. It was the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered. We had reached the last shore of an invisible island – yet strangely, also a shore that the primitives had always known. They had sensed intuitively that man cannot exist spiritually without life, his brother. Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, always in desolation, but not in defeat.

Excerpted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley.

The complete works of Charles Darwin.

Darwin: Metaphors and Myths

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