by John C. Raines

JOHN C. RAINES is chair of the religion department at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa.

At 4:45 in the morning the monks of Mount Savior Monastery near Elmira, New York, have already been up half an hour. They gather in the chapel for the first worship of the day. Later they will tend sheep and work the orchard. In this late winter, dawn will not break for more than an hour. The monks speak and sing toward a day that is not yet evident. They wait. They expect. In darkness. They call their worship "vigils." It is a location worth contemplating.

We have entered a time of winter darkness in earth history. Those who know the ravages which we humans, especially we "developed" humans, have let loose upon our fundamental life systems -- the water, the air, the atmosphere, other species -- sit in darkness. Is there time? Is it already too late? How even conceive of such a fundamental change in orientation?

Martin Luther once said: "It is not only heaven that is pure with its stars where Christ reigns in his work, but earth too is clean with its trees and its grass where we are at home with all that is ours." Home on earth? So often we humans do not feel at home. So many of our religious beliefs and ceremonies speak of exile, of being cast forth from spirit into matter, from the home where we belong into a body whose destiny is death.

All other animals around us die. But we humans seem to ourselves so alone in our haunting knowledge that, out of all the mortal species on this planet, we alone, while still alive, know that someday we and all others we love and depend upon will cease to be. We feel isolated and grow angry. We curse death and cling greedily to life. We try to control. We deny. All around us in this late twentieth century our stricken planet waits for us to come home, waits for a less arrogant, more gracious allegiance and caring. How can we, in this time of darkness, turn and stand vigil for the earth?

We may begin with Charles Darwin. Darwin came to see death written everywhere across life's story. On the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1825-30), he found fossil remains on a mountain in Chile at 10,000 feet whose site of origin had once been the bottom of the sea. He studied coral reefs and discovered that the floor of the ocean had settled hundreds of feet. Vast geologic change over time -- that was his discovery. Could the same immense journey of change happen in the plant and animal kingdoms? And if so by what huge and continuous force, similar to gravity in the geologic realm, could it be powered? Darwin read Malthus and his thesis about how species, given relatively stable food supplies, routinely overpopulate their environment, and so bring on mass starvation.

Then Darwin saw it. The driving force of evolving life is death. Behind the relatively benign surface of present life is the immense and continuous overpopulation of all earlier and simpler species, and so the extinction of common ancestors in competition with randomly mutated descendants who find a modification that gives them a survival advantage. Such an individual is naturally selected to populate its life space with its own better adapted offspring, some of whom will in turn also randomly modify and, if the modification is beneficial to survival, will leave behind in the vast burial ground of life their own earlier, but now insufficiently modified progenitors.

The separation and divergence of species from earlier, less complex life forms -- this long story of life upon the planet earth as it expands slowly into its marvelous multiplicity -- is powered and fueled, Darwin saw, by death. What a melancholy discovery to thrust upon other humans who, in the midst of life, already knowingly walk with death -- their own and that of all those they love!*

Why did consciousness evolve as our species' survival wager when the price was precisely such devastating knowledge of mortality? Why did our species' behavior come, over millions of years, to be lodged less and less genetically encoded inside-the-skin and more and more in the fragile space called learning? Why does archeology show that our opposing thumb and higher brain emerged in tandem with the evolution of tools? And why did the species homo appear over two million years ago during a time when there was a sudden and dramatic cooling in the environment? In these puzzles are there signs of hope?

Darwin knew something the Social Darwinists who claimed to follow him didn't know: the story of life is more like a dance than a war. He knew that survival goes to the nimble, to those who, in the intimacy of mutually adapting species, are quick to pick up signals and integrate those signals into a modified and better adapted behavior. Mind emerged over millions of years as our species' specific mode of being in and with other species here upon this earth with growing awareness, with increasing suppleness. Consciousness evolved through vast time as our species' way of being part of life's story upon this earth, not -- as some theologies would have it -- as strangers to that story.

Did nature make a mistake? Did she bring forth a life form that would become the curse of her multitudinous experiment in livingness -- a species fatally self-contradictory, on earth but conscious of death and so not feeling at home? Would we humans make a holocaust out of our anguished knowledge of mortality, seeking to control, denying our belonging, and dreaming of flight to another, more permanent place? Would we worship not life but death?

Darwin knew, but the Social Darwinists didn't, that evolution awards social species with survival if and only if they modify in the direction of greater social collaboration. Among social species, it is their evolving of capacities to cooperate that displays their successful journey through life. However darkly we sometimes think about our own species, the fact is that we humans have displayed this evolution of cooperation over time. The division of labor, as Emil Durkheim saw, is the way our species differentiates its work and so is able to occupy a confined space more densely, accommodating the competition to which new members give rise by increasing our ways of being useful to one another. This ever more elaborate division of labor meant we did not have to diverge and differentiate from one another but could stabilize our species by way of a more complex belonging. It is not, as Adam Smith believed, individuals pursuing their isolated self-interests that expand the division of labor. Rather, it is our species' unique form of being social and cooperative that tells the story of our journey from stone axes to mega-computers.

But it is not simply belonging together in shared space more intensely. Tools and the evolution of tools symbolize our species' way of learning from nature; over time, there come to light possibilities which lay hidden from us when we used earlier, less refined tools. From magnifying stones, to eye glasses, to telescopes, our tools evolve, and as they do so, our knowledge of this earth space expands. Rather than mastery, the evolution of tools symbolizes a reciprocal and highly dynamic intimacy of our species within this now mind-filled earth. Nature grows our frontal lobes over millions of years, even as we humans evolve a more and more complex division of labor. In this picture, Nature rewards, and so continuously brings to birth and rebirth our species' specific way of being part of the larger experiment of life.

This mind-filled way of being in and with the earth, and also with each other, displays itself most graphically with the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens 40,000 years ago. . . . from an ice age. What a cold and unpromising beginning! We emerged depending upon animal skins to keep us warm. Other species, better defended, more massively powerful, more armored, more autonomous and independent did not escape that great winnowing. Why we?

It has to do with a creature who models its behavior not after patterns of instincts genetically passed down through biological generations but by way of learning in the interstices between one parenting generation and the next. Unlike instincts, learning can guide behavior toward change in one generation. It is, you can see, a nimble way of staying in the journey.

Such learned behavior signals a new kind of belonging, not just to the earth but also to others who behave as we behave. For example, the meaning of a baby's cry is deeply misunderstood if viewed as naked distress, as powerlessness howling out its need. Instead, as George Herbert Mead saw, the human infant learns to repeat the gesture called crying precisely because it has previously been successful at getting its intentions answered by way of crying. The meaning of the human cry, a learned meaning, is a confident sense of belonging, the demand for and expectation of comfort.

In the everyday world, whether that world be the social world we share with other humans or the larger economy of nature, we clearly belong. We are not strangers. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of ourselves, if we are conceiving at all accurately, as in any ontological sense estranged. We may betray; and in fact we will. We may become greedy and arrogant; and in fact we do. We may despair and see only a future of death -- our own, the species, the whole earth, even the cosmos itself collapsing upon itself in the Great Entropy. But as a species in general and as individual members of that species in particular, we do not live by lying or by greed or by arrogance. We do not live by fear of the future, by fear of mortality and its haunting anxiety. Instead, we live by an assumed confidence in the world around us. And normally we are borne gracefully, as we expect and must expect, in our encompassing social and natural dwelling.

But where, then, is domination? struggle? opposition? Darwin was persuaded that within a social species one would find mutual aid but never, he concluded, did evolution encourage such altruism between species. From the Origin of Species: "In social animals [natural selection] will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the whole community; if the community profits by the selected change. What natural selection cannot do, is to modify the structure of one species, without giving it any advantage, for the good of another species. . . ." (Norton, 1970, 49). Species might find mutual advantage, as in dependency relations between a host and its benign parasites. But the unrelenting struggle for survival everywhere presses the search for separate advantage and was, for Darwin, the evolutionary law of life.

What Darwin did not ponder was that with the evolution of consciousness a modification was introduced into this wider pattern of narrow mutualities within a wider competition. A minded species, growing ever more mind-filled by nature's disclosing herself more fully with the advance of tools, can in the course of that journey come to see the whole network of survival interconnections within which we are intimately enmeshed. A creature with a consciousness can become, first in its own eyes and then in its action, not an alien cast out of pure spirit into the everywhere-dying of material embodiment. Such an earth-minded creature could become -- following Darwin's own thesis -- a caretaker of this intricate, always changing dance of life where we have learned, accurately at last, to locate our own species' life journey.

Our species, whose behavioral program has, over vast time, been lodged less and less in instincts and more and more in the mutualities of learned behavior, can today -- even as in earlier times of huge destruction (only then not by human hands) -- modify its behavior in a few generations or even one, and become not a predator but a protector within our homeland earth.

All this is possible -- as deeply possible as our species' evolutionary nature. The knowledge of death, this human destiny that has seemed to many the lonely burden of our species, can midwife a new becoming, our becoming a blessing to the earth and not a curse. Such a becoming would continue the becoming which first emerged more than two million years ago with the appearance of a homo who would become sapiens.

* * *

In early March, when I visited the monastery nestled in those old, rounded off, broken down mountaintops above Elmira, New York, the daybreaks were filled with fog. No sun signaled spring. The sheep were still thick with wool. Weeks on end at 4:45 in the morning, in darkness, the Benedictine monks of Mount Savior gathered for "vigils," a witness to a timely hope.


*[Back to text] The assertion of our mortality does not prejudice the question of immortality. It only says that whatever we mean by immortality it must not mean that we do not die. Here on earth we are mortal, like all other species. It is part of our belonging.

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Cross Currents, Summer94, Vol. 44 Issue 2, p241, 6p