Saturday, February 14, 2009

the soul of the white ant

I remember a dog-eared paperback on the shelves of my first bohemian inner-city residence, shared with a book-collecting bowerbird of an art student. It was called The Soul of the White Ant, by one Eugene Marais. I never read it, or even looked into it, though its title somehow encapsulated for me something of the new life I was entering, mad and unexpected, surrealistic and romantic. It would probably have been better for me to have read the book.
For its South African author was a strange and tortured genius, a bewitching story-teller who loved and was beloved of children, a drug addict and a suicide. Above all though, he had transformed himself, for a time, into a painstaking, patient and insightful observer and recorder of the lives of termites and baboons. Mr Darwin, I feel sure, would've been proud to make his acquaintance.
All of this I've only recently discovered, and it's not the subject of this piece, more's the pity. The book's title has long symbolized for me the weirdness of the religious, and particularly Christian, notion of the soul. I've heard that some Buddhists claim that every living thing, prokaryotic or eukaryotic, has a soul, which transmigrates in the process of reincarnation. If you've led an exemplary life as a bug or a germ, you will migrate to a higher form next time, maybe a booby or a red panda. It sounds pleasant, as anything does if you put it the right way. I've probably got this Buddhist teaching quite wrong, but in any case it seems problematic to me to impose morality on the life of a bacterium. Then again, how much more problematic must it be to impose morality on the life of a human being.
Be that as it may, Christians are supposed to believe in the soul as a specifically human apparatus. As such, it has taken something of a battering since the theory of evolution by natural selection has gained wide acceptance [among the intelligentsia]. Those Buddhists and others who believe in a soul for every organism have at least the advantage of consistency.
The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has generally been quite woolly in its response to evolution, while all the time insisting that its god, formally known as Yahweh, now called God, created everything. If you don't accept this, you're anathema. Now of course this doesn't necessarily pit the HRCAC against evolution, even though it's highly unlikely, and possibly impossible, that the Darwin-Wallace theory would ever have been developed by a Christian. The HRCAC can simply say that God created evolution, and let's see you prove otherwise.
Unfortunately for Christians, though, they have to have to believe what they believe through a set of sacred texts called the Bible, written by God apparently through various scribes.* We find there no hint of evolution or natural selection, not to mention fossils, dinosaurs, plate tectonics, other galaxies, black holes or anti-matter. What it does say is that God created humans in his image.

*Why god chose this method, rather than just writing the stuff himself, is one of those mysteries that form the backbone of religion. After all, he wrote the ten commandments in his own hand, on two stone tablets, now lost to posterity, and I can't help but feel that to lose one such tablet was unfortunate, but to lose two was downright carelessness. To think how much the divine handwriting might've fetched at Sotheby's is surely to bring the spiritual and material world together in the most delightful way.

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