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Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories And Death Stories

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2000

    On living with unredeemable transience

    'Man is certainly stark made. He cannot make a worm, and ye he will be making gods by the dozen.'--Montaigne If one assumes, as did Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, the perspective of secular humanism and scientific naturalism, then he or she must face questions raised by the inevitability, conclusiveness, and finality of death, and by problems posed by the need for adaptability to a world of radical contigency. 'In their writings,' says Adam Phillips, 'we see religious traditions and sensibilities struggling to transform themselves into secular, scientifically informed ways of life . . . In Darwin's lifelong interest in earthworms [his attempt to justify the ways of worms to Man], and in Freud's lifelong antipathy to biography, we can find what they found to praise. And it was bound up with the place they gave to death, and therefore to transience, in our lives.' Inevitable is our death; the miracle is our conception: this haiku sums up the central concern of DARWIN'S WORMS: How should we navigate the period between the cradle and the grave, the womb and the tomb? How do we deal with transience? How do we adapt to and survive in the face of chance and change, impermanence and instability, contingency and catastrophe? In a world bereft of metaphysical 'being'--a world of secular 'becoming'--how do we mourn our losses? How should we live if we take unredeemable transience seriously? Darwin's answer was to spend years working with earthworms. His solution to the question posed by existence is a tweak of the metaphysicians' noses: only by the patient and painstaking accumulation of scientific data does one arrive at knowledge and truth. DARWIN'S WORMS is an excellent example of the maxim: 'Good things come in small packages.' The author's accomplished style is a joy to read and the text provides surprising insights into the first stirrings of Darwin's theory of evolution and Freud's formulation of the death instinct. Phillips points out that Darwin and Freud are both 'interested in how destruction conserves life, and in the kind of life destruction makes possible.' This slim volume (148 pages) is a polished gem. If you are looking for a work of literary quality and scientific insight, search no further. Bravo!

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