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February 11, 2009


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We love Darwin in our household and enjoyed the exhibit a couple of years ago in the wicked city. So cool to see things he used, displays of the Beagle, etc. But one of the puppies and I had to zip up our lips as our fellow Sunday School teachers were trashing him and the theory of natural selection a week later (they were good hearted, evangelical, but a bit clueless about anything scientific). Both of us feeling that all theories are approximations, but that good science serves and does not threaten faith. But one really cannot argue with those who consider him close to Satan. We were struck reading that he delayed the publication of Origin of Species for twenty years out of deference to his wife's religious views. What a kind husband! I'm not sure that I would have been so considerate had I seen and theorized all that he did!

Sissy, have you seen Michael Knox Beran's new post on "Lincoln and the Moral Imagination" over at City Journal? Beran takes note of the fact that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the exact same day and proceeds to analyze the differences between the two types of evolution they represent. He even uses cats and humans to illustrate his point:

"Nature has rarely shown a greater sense of humor than when she arranged for the assembly of the genetic material that became Abraham Lincoln at roughly the same time the fertilized egg that was Charles Darwin first leaped into the womb. Both men were born on February 12, 1809. But attempts to find correspondences between the very different, in some ways antithetical, types of evolution in which each man specialized—biological evolution in Darwin’s case, historical evolution in Lincoln’s—are problematic.

"The difficulty lies in comparing the actions of organisms that have developed a conscience and a moral imagination to the actions of organisms that lack such conscientious power. It is one thing if your cat playfully torments a wounded animal, another if you do. Conscience enables its possessor to sit in judgment on the characteristics that have won him a spot in the race for genetic victory: it enables its possessor, at times, to reject naturally selected traits that have helped pay for the winning ticket he holds in the lottery of life. History is the record of the moral acts of morally conscientious organisms; biology is the record of the biological acts of morally unconscious organisms. The confusion of the two realms is a symptom of our time."

A good, thoughtful essay worth pondering at this critical point in our nation's history.

Moral imagination is an interesting concept. My moral imagination makes me act and feel differently than my cat feels about tormenting a mouse before killing it. Where was that moral imagination when Christians were brought into the arena in Rome only 20 centuries ago? Perhaps watching or making others suffer has not yet died in human nature. It has just been sublimated.

My sister's cat Tim - a very high-toned (on paper anyway) bluepoint Siamese - has taken to displaying his rather plentiful hunting skills and has been catching and killing the occasional unwary field mouse that dares wander into her basement. When we were both taking a few days off during the Inauguration shutdown of Washington, D.C., she had occasion to watch as Tim brought his latest "find" upstairs and then proceeded to play with it! To Tim, she suspects, the tiny little critter was merely a very cool interactive TOY. To my sister, he was a critter to be rescued - and she did! Tim was most put off by the removal of his new plaything!

I cannot bear to watch any living thing suffer, most particularly any domesticated companion animal - when you take responsibility for another living creature, you must fully live up to that commitment. And yet, I know beyond doubt that, should anyone human that I loved (or Sam the Wonder Cat - or Linda's animals) be in mortal peril, those societal restraints would probably be no more and I would defend my loved one - human, dog or cat - with whatever deadly force I could muster.

I think that this is actually a good thing. Our fight or flight reactions have, of course, been dimmed over centuries. That they are still there is for our protection more than anything else. And make no mistake, those instincts are far closer to the surface in women than they are in men, probably because (my theory) women are genetically programmed to protect their young. Of course, I could be wrong, but somehow I don't think so. It's one reason I had no guns in my house for over 35 years.

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