A short selection from the Introduction to Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.
In essence, the pivotal ‘two trees’ theme is this:
A celebration of Nature, and Man, as two sovereign and mutually revealing (phylogenic and techno-genic) ‘evolutions’.
. . . I don’t promise, of course, that the book is an easy read if you skip over the less congenial stuff and the supplemental essays. At least I hope it isn’t, because as you will soon be told, a mental ‘picture’ is actually more like a tree: it can shoot up quick enough when the conceptual ground is prepared and the attitudinal climate is right, but it still takes its characteristic time to spread a fully formed cognitive canopy.
Perhaps I should prepare the ‘ground’ and ‘climate’ this way: In the frame above, you will see writings by William Blake and Charles Darwin, but you will also see some empty space. The text and the empty space interpenetrate. When you read the words, you will encounter two seemingly opposed views of Mankind in the Natural world, for it’s harder to see how these interpenetrate: Blake is seeing the life-and-death reality of a living organism that can ask questions about its mortality, while Darwin is looking at the lawful unfolding of a reality beyond personal concerns. Each reality is independently valid when seen from its restricted vantage point. Now look at the largely empty spaces flowing into the text. The discordant word ‘meanings’ vanish like smoke. Even the figures AITIA and Păn, isolated in the spaces they seem to command, might not express clear meanings to you; perhaps they only elicit a vague sense of questioning, of wonderment: Are they different? Are they the same thing? Complementary? Can Darwin’s lawful natural selection be reconciled with Blake’s daring “immortal hand or eye”? The one is wholly impersonal. The other decidedly not!
That meaning itself is conflictive and ephemeral is surely the first thing we should know about what it means to be human in the Natural world. I will be arguing, with Dogen’s help, that the capacity to treat meaning like ‘bodymind smoke’ is the living root of our un-Natural inventiveness, for this lets the ‘tree of knowledge’ branch. But I will also be maintaining that human culture is not the first invention tree to take root on this planet: our own roots are entangled in a confusing way with the branches of a much older tree of life. In the writings we just looked at, Blake and Darwin both wonder about the creative process. Blake, utterly unacquainted with Darwin’s theory, confuses a biblical phylo-Genesis with the physiological (genetically directed) conception-to-death ontogeny of individual organisms. In asking the question, “Does a Creator feel the organic timidity of a mortal?” he conflates these two truths, one purely imaginary and the other deeply visceral, and it’s this ‘thought’ that scares him. Not Darwin, he discovered the ‘real’ phylogeny, but then again, judging from his complaint in later years that he was “formerly excited” by grand scenes , he seems to have suffered from a lack of faith in the moment to moment primal sufficiency of the more fully embodied presence that Blake aspired to—an embodiment that includes, but is not limited to, the culturally selected acts of thinking that can expand our world ‘view’ but not our emotional range. Curiously, Darwin did not seem to appreciate that the thinking mind and its cultural products might recapitulate in many ways the fluid process of evolution. Had his “grand view” become too finished? Is this why, curiously unlike natural selection, he fell back on a grasping at certainty in his uncharacteristically sloppy declaration that “the production of the higher animals directly follows”? On a conceptual level Darwin understood the undirectedness of natural selection better than anyone; so why did Blake’s plea for God to “keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep” not resonate with him?  But then again, where was this god when his beloved daughter Annie died, and when half the world hated him as the murderer of religion (literally body-world re-ligation) and the other half adulated him as the father of a brave new way of thinking? He was only human, and, even for the wisest among us, the thinking mind too easily enshrouds the empty wonder with its conceptual smoke.
If you take this journey with me I will be reminding you, from time to time, to step outside this name-and-compare work of framing arguments, and into the empty space you act-ually occupy: the breathing vastness into which these words, and your thoughts, vanish like smoke. But it’s not so easy to get beyond even the crudest verbal bars of a conceptual cage, because this entails—if we accept the Buddhist view—stepping outside any egoist box we might find ourselves in. Not just the “I know this stuff already” box, but the “we are masters of nature” or “we are stewards of nature” boxes; or even the “we are part of Mother Nature because the ecosphere is our natural environment” box. To see and think from true emptiness, both the natural and the spiritual philosopher must cultivate the emotional capacity to step back a little from naturalism, environmentalism, and all other –isms. Even the -ism-ness you can identify when you honestly examine the doubts or attachments you might feel regarding a traditionally open-minded Buddhism. But it’s you taking these steps. Your steps. All I can present in a book, all that even a Zen-master far beyond my common practitioner’s skill can author-ize to point the way out of endless argument, is just …Dogen’s smoke.
So, a note of caution here about my use of Buddhist teachings to score philosophical points. The buddhadharma is designed primarily to be used as ‘skillful means’ to bring about very personal changes in the singular lives of practitioners. It’s not that philosophy is discouraged, but that where it’s coming from is the most important ‘point’. I have tried to make this as clear as possible, but clearness itself is, for everyone, a matter of practice, not argument.
1. Darwin, Charles. 1958 . Francis Darwin, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, and Selected Letters. New York: Dover. p. 65.
2. Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House. pp. 266-267 (referring to a line from William Blake, “May God keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep”).