This is a slightly edited and older post explaining why the blog is entitled ‘The Indelible Stamp’. My position still hasn’t changed since writing this, though I do think I wouldn’t be so “yellow”, as one commenter called me, when writing (flowery language, forcing metaphors, etc.)
The blog’s name, as some might know, comes from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871). Since I’ve had to start thinking about a thesis-topic, I’ve had to aggregate my views and, indeed, the views I oppose into neat headings. Thus, when contemplating what it is I stand against, what the special contentions are that manage to crawl beneath my skin, set fire to my blood and dance between the raised hair on my skin, I came to a conclusion: it is the persistent view that our existence, as a species, is something meaningful beyond the bounds of human ties.
From my opposition to religious bullying to my defence of antinatalism, all the views I oppose can be seen as emanating from this one idea: “we are not only part of the natural world around us, we emerged as something special, we will continue as something that should exist; therefore we must exist.”
My attempt in writing is always about making us realise we are animals. To say “simply” animals is an insult to both non-human animals and us and, furthermore, a meaningless statement. When people say we are not “simply” animals, they might as well say we are not “simply” two-legged. It is meaningless, uninteresting and unjustified.
We are animals.
When that organ in-between our ears is damaged, we are more than likely unconscious, forgetful, unable to speak, think, and so on. We know when it is removed, the body no longer functions. We do not “defy” gravity (when something floats in space, it’s not defying gravity); our relationships have no significant ties to the movement of heavenly bodies (unless we make it so, as in “Lonely Hearts” advertisements that limit suitors to Leos and Capricorns).
We are “natural”, emerging from the natural world – there is nothing cosmically special about us except what we wish to be significant. This is the limit of meaningfulness. The emanation of meaning comes from no other source than our quivering flesh.
But we want more. The idea that our bodily frames contain a portrait of nature in action is something too horrifying for us to realise. But written in our blood is a history of the universe that puts to shame anything Clarke or Asimov could conceive. It minimises and puts to shame the tawdry woo claiming Mars moves star-crossed lovers into each other’s arms. Peering into our veins and recognising our animal heritage uncovers a path of significance far more satisfying than any fairytales of deities or magic books. And it has the added quality of being true.
Rejecting this idea has bad consequences. When we imagine we are not animals, when we imagine we are “special”, we think “special” techniques can aid us: Parents think praying will cure their child; people reject potential partners because they have the “wrong” birthday based on a calendar out of date and out of sync; we think animals are not like us and can, therefore, be used for our benefit; ee imagine this planet as a temporary toilet for us to piss all over before we pass on into the white-carpets of paradise, but we wash our hands in holy water, cleanse our “souls” with prayer, before “passing on”.
Darwin’s dangerous ideas about us being part of, evolved from and forever remaining in the natural world – the so-called “animal kingdom” – are opposed because people don’t want to be considered “monkeys” (they’d be glad to know we’re not monkeys). Darwin recognised the strangeness of the opposition.
The famous quotation where he responds is here in full and displays Darwin’s wonderful writing ability (all emphasis mine).
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
This beautiful paragraph illustrates, more gently than I, my problem. It is when we, deliberately or unthinkingly, proclaim cosmic significance or the rejection of our “indelible stamp”. We are fallible, subject to breaking, easily leak and can’t withstand much moral or physical force. There is no “Return to Sender” stamp for us so we pretend or bow down to ideas which claim there is: We were made “for a reason”, our suffering and horror form part of “a plan” we have no access to.
I’ve realised in writing for a general public that for many it is easier to accept god doesn’t exist than to realise we at some point will not. Harder still to realise all the pain and anguish and horror we see around us (what some, including me, might call the Problem of Evil) occur for no cosmic reason.
There is no reason children in less affluent nations, such as my own, suffer and die in hospitals, days after being born, from diseases that we could cure in most of the Western world; there is no reason why good people end up murdered for a few dollars. This is just life.
Here we need a concept of “significance”, a rational one premised on human as opposed to cosmic engagement; one that looks at existence and faces it as reality rather than optimism and happy illusion. Here we don’t pray, we medicate with scientific medicine; we don’t presume we’re mere puppets of some supernatural force, but intentional agents acting (even if it is an illusion).
My point is neither to fill you with doom or “hope”. I am not interested in either. In general, I have a dislike for attempts to instil hope or optimism – even those who claim godlessness – in some metaphysical significant way. What scares me is not god but godlike solipsism, coupled with ignorance of reality. Our species, bearing our stamp ever-brightly in our denial of its lowly origin, must come to recognise our natural origin arising in a natural world. Our morals, our science – all exist here. Consider: how can we convince people to trust, say, medicine, if they believe they’re above or beyond natural laws, subject to protection from supernatural entities, part of a greater plan that will lead to success? Beliefs beget actions, after all, and we ought to be worried when beliefs aren’t even on speaking terms with reality.
As Christopher Hitchens often quipped, we are half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee.
And it shows.*
* This to me is an insult to chimpanzees rather than humans.