Darwin, Huxley, Ethics, Atheism, Buddhism and the Dreams Stuff Is Made Of



Charles Darwin’s Office

After I graduated from medical school Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley became my intellectual heroes and my mentors. I admired both of them in part for their scientific achievements, but even more for their honesty and integrity.

Charles Darwin was not a revolutionary or a proto-hippie. Quite the opposite, he was an English countryside gentleman, a member of the bourgeoisie. But Darwin was an intelligent and sensitive man, one who cared deeply about justice. That was part of his family heritage. Both the Darwin side of the family and Charles’s maternal grandparents, the wealthy Wedgwoods of ceramic fame, were staunchly anti-slavery at a time when some of our country’s founding fathers owned slaves and some self-righteous clergy were justifying slavery using the Bible. Charles Darwin carried on his family tradition, writing eloquently about the suffering of slaves. Charles Darwin wrote in a letter in 1833:

“Hurrah for the honest Whigs! I trust they will soon attack that monstrous stain on our boasted liberty, Colonial Slavery. I have seen enough of slavery and the dispositions of the negroes, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies and nonsense one hears on the subject…. Thank God, the cold hearted Tories”  “who.. have no enthusiasm, except against enthusiasm.”

There are still politicians around the world who fit that description. In the US we call them Republicans.

And in another letter of that period:

”What a proud thing for England if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it [slavery]. …It is utterly impossible to see a negro and not feel kindly towards him..”

After his death, Darwin’s ideas were twisted and distorted to justify such perversions as eugenics. Such an application of his ideas would have shocked and dismayed Darwin. People can use anything as a weapon and misuse any idea for their own nefarious purposes.

In Charles Darwin’s 1844 book “Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World” he wrote:

“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God. I shall never again visit a slave country. To this day, [about two decades later] if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew I was as powerless as a child.. ”

He goes on to tell additional stories of horrors he witnessed perpetrated by slaveholders and “atrocities” that he heard of and thought believable. He wrote of an otherwise “kind hearted man” who nonetheless was about to split up a family of slaves, selling them separately. Darwin goes on to debunk the argument that self-interest would cause slaveholders to treat their “property” with care. And he understood the nature of compassion and the golden rule, which slaveholders and many members of the clergy and theologians who found justification for slavery in the bible evidently did not:

“Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter.”

Charles Darwin called himself a “plodder.” He spent many years after his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle studying barnacles in his home library and study. He understood that being wealthy meant that he had responsibilities, and he was active in his community and church. The last thing he wanted to do was start an intellectual revolution, but he did.

Darwin worm stone

Darwin as ecologist: This stone is in Darwin’s garden.  He placed it there with one of his sons  over 120 years ago. The stone sinks due to the action of earthworms on the soil below it, the topic of his last book. This is one long ecology project, and it is still going.

Darwin wrote on many topics in biology, though in fact his first scientific work was in geology. There was “The Origin of Species” and “Descent of Man,” but also books on the actions of earthworms on soil and vegetation, carnivorous plants, orchids, and animal cognition. I bought what is supposed to be Timothy Leary’s copy of “Expression of Emotions in Man And Animal.” Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but it is a great looking edition from the 1950’s with a forward by Margaret Mead. Yes, Charles Darwin invented the study of animal cognition. I have heard well-meaning people spit out “Darwinism” as a pejorative implying an uncaring scientific attitude towards animals. Maybe it has devolved into that for some later scientists, but it hurts my heart when I hear that. Quite the contrary, Darwin wrote an entire book on how animals express emotion, how much like us they are in that way, quite eloquently describing the anguish of animals and decrying their mistreatment.

In the “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” he wrote: “When animals suffer, from an agony of pain, they generally writhe about with frightful contortions; and those which habitually use their voices utter piercing cries or groans. Almost every muscle of the body is brought into strong action… There is said to be “gnashing of teeth” in hell; and I have plainly heard the grinding of molar teeth of a cow which was suffering acutely from inflammation of the bowels…”


Darwin was also thoughtful on other matters I was wrestling with. I found myself wanting to maintain a spiritual outlook, but it was becoming more difficult as my studies, my family, and daily life took up more and more of my time and attention. Many of Darwin’s scientific heirs are militant atheists, so people often assume Darwin was an atheist. That is not true. His son wrote: “He felt strongly that a man’s religion is an essentially private matter,” and quoted a letter from 1879, 20 years after the publication of “Origin of Species,” his revolutionary book on evolution:

“What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one but myself. But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates.. in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. “

From a letter in 1873:

“I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, without conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me to be the chief argument for God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense suffering throughout the world… The safest conclusion it seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.”

In another letter Darwin wrote:

“ When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.  This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time ….I wrote  [“Origin of Species”] and is since.. gradually.. with many fluctuations.. become weaker….. the mystery of the  beginning of things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

He was expressing my thoughts at the time exactly. How can you not be awed by this “grand and wondrous universe,” and by the fact of our consciousness? Buddha’s teachings were very much concerned with “suffering throughout the world,” immense or otherwise. Suffering was the first truth of Buddhism. Compassion is at the heart of Buddhism.

In addition, Buddhism teaches that a First Cause is literally inconceivable, a fool’s errand. You won’t find a beginning, there is no first cause, there is rather an infinite regress of beginningless beginnings. Yet mind as cause, not first cause per se, resonates with some very deep teachings in Zen. This “mind as cause” is not mind as something that has a property of being a first cause as an attribute, as something separate or contained inside a larger thing or outside a smaller thing. It is inseparable from what is caused; it is a false notion to think in terms of a first cause in a dualistic sense. It is neither caused nor uncaused, we are told by the Zen masters of old.

Perhaps we can speak of delusion as cause?

Like Darwin, Zen asserts that there is no concept, no mental or intellectual construct that can embrace this. Intellect won’t provide the answer. It is indeed inconceivable. Zen teachings remind us that the intellect is a tool, not the whole shebang.

But yes, as Darwin wrote, you can still do your duty. Right effort. Right livelihood. Karma yoga.

And what about a personal creator God? Whether theist or agnostic, certainly Darwin did not believe in an all compassionate loving creator outside of creation, and he and I were also on the same page. He was not afraid to cut to the heart of a matter:

“A man innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I should really like to hear) that God designedly [Darwin’s italics] killed this man?”

On the commune we had a good man killed by lightning. But even without knowing someone struck down by a high-energy electrical charge, all of us understand this. I have often heard the religious argument for theodicy, that is, the reason a loving and omnipotent God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to good people, and in fact can be seen as the cause of those bad things and the suffering that results from them, is because God grants us free will. We choose evil.

That simply doesn’t work for “acts of God” or genetic illnesses.

Actually that wasn’t good enough for my father even when it came to the brutality of war. As a teenager I asked him why he never talked about religion.

Stepping over the bodies when he hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, he lost any interest in arguments of free will and the mysterious ways of a God who loved us, he explained simply. Those rationalizations just didn’t cut it anymore for him.

Even if you can lay wars and pestilence and starvation at the feet of human free will (without getting into debates about free will), our greed, anger, ignorance, fear and arrogance, as Darwin wrote about the man killed by lightning, what about “acts of God?” That has nothing to do with free will, with human evil. It just sucks. It just hurts, for him, for his family, for generations.

What about genetic diseases?

I remember sitting in a medical lecture with an orthodox Jewish medical student who was very nice.  A few days earlier I had asked his opinion about why there was evil and suffering for the innocent and the righteous. He offered the God-given free will argument. The lecture was about children with a familial genetic disorder that without treatment, and sometimes even with treatment, results in crippling arthritis and blindness at a very early age. Even death. For that matter, Ashkenazi Jews have several horrible genetic diseases that are fatal in children and are propagated mostly by in breeding. Of course now we can test for these genes, thanks to Darwin’s successors! Some chosen people we are. No free will issue, no human evil there, other than perhaps the arrogance of not marrying out of the gene pool. It’s just fucked up. I can go on and on, but you can supply your own examples I am sure.

I wondered what this nice young orthodox Jewish man thought during the lecture, but I didn’t challenge him.

The point is only that you don’t get off easily if you want to believe in a caring deity who loves us, but tortures and kills mothers and children, where free will and human foibles play no role. We’ll forget about the God who decides parking spaces and football games as beyond consideration. Or a God that judges our sexuality but gives us gonads and raging hormones.

Is all of this suffering divine punishment or natural phenomena? Is it really more comforting to seek for answers in a personal loving God who makes these horrible deaths happen through no personal failing of the victim than to look to nature for answers? Are you comforted and in love with the God of the Torah who tests a man by commanding him sacrifice his child (last minute reprieve notwithstanding), or, as in the Book of Job, tortures a devoted follower and kills his family to win a bet with Satan?

Considering natural explanations for suffering, for everything really, goes back at least 2600 years to the Atomists and Epicureans in Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as to philosophers with similar materialistic views in Ancient India at about the same time, a period called the Axial Age. But for me, it was Darwin who brought it home. I suppose that’s why some people excoriate him!

I have since come to understand that God works for some people, some wonderful, smart and caring people. I have brilliant and accomplished friends who believe in a loving God. I know and work with Jewish physicians and scientists who keep kosher, pray and go to synagogue. A physician-scientist and surgeon I know has a PhD in engineering and has acted as his own self-taught lawyer, arguing a case successfully in the California Supreme Court. He is brilliant and can deal with facts incredibly well. Both he and his wife, a nurse with a PhD, are practicing Catholics. The current head of the National Institutes of Health is a practicing Catholic. Stephen Colbert, certainly a genius, will call the Church on its hypocrisy but then burst forth in theological splendor on his show, is also a practicing Catholic. They are not following their beliefs out of ignorance or lack of intellect. They know the arguments.

I can understand, I think. They believe there is more than just a collection of arguments and facts involved. In their guts, in their hearts, there is more.

Certainly some Jews I know hold on for cultural reasons, for family. Or just to spite the anti-Semites. That is why I acknowledge my Jewish heritage. Others clearly get something out of their religious beliefs that I do not. Maybe it is the God of grace they believe in, maybe that is what reached out and touched me through my chemically induced vision. These religions just have too much unnecessary baggage for me to consider for myself. For me it is simply too much of a stretch.

There is a famous story where the scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace gave a book on cosmology he wrote to Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte leafs through the book and asks where the Creator is in this text.

Laplace answers: I had no need for that hypothesis.

I didn’t, and still don’t, need that hypothesis either.

Yet does that end the discussion?

Darwin wrote: “[This consideration of being a theist or agnostic] follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man…as the result of blind chance or necessity.”

“..you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly than I could have done, that the universe is not the result of chance.”

I also admired Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley as soon as I met him through his writings. My brother, knowing of my interest in Darwin, bought a two-volume copy of Huxley’s letters for me. Huxley was outgoing, with caustic wit, while Darwin was retiring and eschewed the limelight. Huxley was known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” defending evolution in the public sphere that Darwin loathed. When challenged in a debate by the Anglican Bishop Wilberforce (the name somehow fits; very pretentious) as to on which side of his family he (Huxley) was descended from apes, Huxley famously responded: better apes than a disingenuous bishop who ought to know better.

Unlike Darwin, Huxley was a self-made man who came from humble beginnings. Like Darwin, Huxley traveled the world on a British Navy ship early in his career. Darwin traveled as a young gentleman, the ship’s naturalist and the Captain’s dinner partner. Huxley was a working ship’s surgeon, a bloody and difficult job at best. But he also acted as a naturalist, and on his return Huxley basically invented the career of professional life scientist in England at the end of the 19th century so he’d have a job. He recognized the importance of technology for England,  a small island nation, to survive and thrive as other countries were catching on to the industrial revolution, so he instituted a program for the training of science teachers. Including women, which was very controversial in Victorian England.

Huxley was aware of Eastern thought. He writes in “Evolution and Ethics” of “the Brahmanical and Buddhist speculation… If this world is full of pain and sorrow; if grief and evil fall, like the rain, upon the just and unjust; it is because, like the rain they are links in the endless chain of natural causation by which past, present and future are indissolubly connected.. Every sentient being is reaping as it has sown..”

Huxley understood the historical significance and some of the core teachings of Buddhism, noting that “It is a remarkable indication of Indian speculation that Gautama [Buddha] should have seen deeper than the greatest modern idealists… “ In his note to this he wrote that “The distinguishing characteristic of Buddhism that it started a new line, that it looked upon the deepest questions men have to solve from an entirely different viewpoint… For the first time in the history of the world, it proclaimed a salvation which each man could obtain for himself, in this world during life, without any the least reference to God…”

He even had some grasp of very subtle Buddhist teachings. “As on the surface of a steam of water, we see ripples and whirlpools, which last for a while and then vanish with the causes that gave rise to them, so what seem individual existences are mere temporary associations of phenomena circling round a centre… in the whole of the universe there is nothing permanent, no eternal substance either of mind or matter. Personality is a metaphysical fantasy; and in very truth, not only we but all things, on the worlds without end of the cosmic phantasmorgoria are such stuff as dreams are made of.” As I write this, revisiting Huxley, I am once again floored, as I was the first time I read these words two decades ago. I couldn’t have said it better myself then, and probably still can’t! Here was Huxley reporting eloquently and really quite deeply on Buddhist philosophy almost a hundred years earlier.

Huxley was aware of how it was described in Buddhist texts:

“As the peculiar form of energy we call magnetism may be transmitted from a loadstone to a piece of steel,.. so it seems that karma might be transmitted from one phenomenal association [to another].“

“According to Buddhism the relation of one life to the next is merely that borne by the flame of one lamp to the flame of another lamp which is set alight by it.”

Huxley was reporting what he had heard in lectures on Buddhism by the scholar Rhys Davids, but he clearly gave thought to these issues. For me, unexpectedly running into Buddhism in Huxley’s writings was liberating. What a surprise! To know that this man whose towering intellect and integrity I admired, while not advocating these beliefs, had studied and taken the time to understand them to such a degree, kept the flame of Buddhism alive for me.

Yes, I loved these guys, Darwin and Huxley. They weren’t Buddhists or hippies, but their deepest most personal “speculations,” as they put it, were much like mine as my life and thought were unfolding, evolving. I felt a kindred spirit in Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, they had an intellectual honesty, and a sensitivity, that I could only admire and strive to emulate.  We were treading the same path.  As Darwin wrote at the end of “The Origin of Species”: “there is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or onto one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

I saw not only that of all life is one life, but that the cosmos is life, life is the cosmos. This vision didn’t clash with my fledgling, post-hippie Buddhism or even my incipient scientific materialism. I understood that only our existential psychosomatic illness, our conditioning and parochial view of things, stopped us from seeing how clearly true this is. Even from the point of view of science, ultimately there can’t be two things, a dualistic universe of life versus non-life. It was obvious to me then, and it still is. We are the universe itself. What could be more compassionate and loving than that, even in the midst of immense suffering?

Yet isn’t there something more than questions of life and non-life? Shakespeare has Prospero, magus and deposed Duke, say that we are the dreams stuff are made of.  Huxley quoted it and the physicist Stephen Hawking used it for the title of a collection of seminal papers on quantum mechanics.  The quote comes from a beautiful passage in Act IV scene 1 of the Tempest:

Our revels are now ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air;

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.


Goanna Dreaming by Mundejah (Yirrganydji  group, Australia)

                                                                                Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

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