A week in the life of…..

I’m tempted to call it a bad week, because it included the severe illness of two members of my family, but better reflection urges me to all it simply strenuous as it gave me the opportunity to care, if I was prepared to make the effort. The interval of a week becomes more significant to people at times of pleasure like holidays or times of pain like illness. The seven days of the week seem to have no seasonal or cosmological significance beyond their derivation from the cycle of the moon, although the number 7 has gathered to itself a range of meanings in many cultures and religions, such as its use as a marker of perfection in The Judaeo – Christian tradition, as in the 7 days of the creation of the world. In my case this week, it simply serves to mark off one period of time in the hope that the next one will be happier.

Семья волков - The Family of Wolves (goo.gl/NAxhhJ)
Семья волков – The Family of Wolves (goo.gl/NAxhhJ)

The invention of the seven days of creation in Genesis is paralleled by the frequent use of the week by scientists to help lay people imagine the main events in the evolution of the earth, from its fiery birth 4,500 million years ago. If the earth was born on Monday, they say, then the first evidence of life, that of bacteria, comes late on Monday evening, and until now all the evidence pointed to Thursday as the earliest evidence of the eukaryotic cell which is the basis of all multicellular life. Plants and animals do not appear until Sunday and human beings late in the last hour of Sunday. This timetable is a little different from the one in Genesis, but the latter of course is for the universe and not just the earth.

Recently scientists have been puzzled by examination of a a fossil found in China which is 1,500 million years old and multicellular, whose existence is ruled out by the usual timetable. This is leading some investigators to revise the existing timetable and to tell a different story of the evolution of life. New facts have emerged which appear to challenge the existing story, which must therefore be re-examined and perhaps altered.

That’s different of course from the Genesis story which is part of a bigger narrative of the adventures of God and his human beings, written at a particular time, and valuable not only for its content, but for its example of using the best science available to imagine the relationship of humanity to the source of life. I don’t want to change the Genesis story but to use it as a model for the new story I want to tell, in the light of the new evidence that any week may bring.

In the instance of this last week of my life, I want to revise or at least tweak the story I tell about living to include a bigger place for the phenomenon of the human love which brings joy and makes us suffer. If I did not love my brother and my daughter, their illnesses would bring me no pain. I might still have goodwill towards them and hope for their full recovery, but I would not have this nagging unease that has been with me all the time, and this  terrible vertiginous feeling that the solid earth is dropping away from my feet.What is this love? Evolutionary biologists point out that the apes from which we are descended live in family groups and have developed a multitude of subtle behaviours which express their care of the family group as the primary means of their survival as a species. In the case of human children, who start out even more helpless than most animals; and of the human individual who is in himself not well-built to survive predation, scientists would argue that parental and sibling love are hard-wired into our genetic inheritance, for survival.image

I have a lot of respect for this evolutionary argument, but I can see its weak point: that if this love is hard-wired, that is, simply determined by our genes, why does it appear to fail so often, in parents who do not love and do not care for their children, and in siblings who are perpetually at odds with each other? Evolutionary psychologists tell us that genetic factors only make  behaviours likely, and that useful behaviours have to inculcated by upbringing and education. The capacity of children to love in their turn is determined by the love given by their parents and shared with their siblings. Again I want to agree with this argument. But of course it leaves the same gap as the previous one: if our genes make parental love likely to be given and passed on, how and why did any parents fail to give it? We seem to need some notion of original sin.

I am no expert, so I can only guess at answers.

Most scientists are agreed that whereas in animals species, successful adaptation to environment takes place at a genetic level, in human beings it takes place at a cultural level, because we are conscious of ourselves and our environment and can decide to adapt or to make our environment adapt to us. We are engaged in conscious learning and in making choices. Our capacity to adapt our environment is the source of our success and failure as a species, because we can make positive adaptations, like traditional farming, and negative adaptations like agribusinesses that destroy the resources on which they are dependent. This also true of our life as a species, where we can choose to cherish each other’s lives as the best way of securing our own flourishing, or we can choose to dominate or exterminate each other to secure that end. Our delight in our own capacities often leads us to destroy other lives.

In this perilous situation, love comes to our rescue. It is given to us as a gift from our generic inheritance, re-inforced by our nurture, if we are lucky. It does not compel us, because we can neglect its prompting; and it does prompt, not as a moral injunction but as a fundamental experience. We do not so much decide to love our children and siblings, as find that we do so, because we have already experienced the love of our own parents and siblings. Even those of us who have been deprived of that parental love, may find that a subsequent experience of love opens us to giving it in turn. It somehow feels right, it is the proper care of flesh and blood.

But it does not compel. We can choose to neglect it, by resolutely acting only for our separate selves, for what we regard as our own welfare; and we can refuse to receive it, except as a contribution to our own welfare. When we receive it however, we are prompted to something beyond familial love, for we recognise this flesh and blood caring as something we can extend to others who are not of our family. Friendship often teaches us this. Then we recognise that it can be extended even to people who are not our friends but who belong to the same residential or voluntary community. Ultimately we may realise that it can be extended to all members of our ecosystem, because it values each life for itself and for its contribution to the whole. These recognitions may occur naturally, but they are also the aim of the great religions of the world, which provide training in enlightenment to open believers to every other being and to the whole of being.

imageBecause love originates in the primary experience of family life we know that it will always be a source of joy and sorrow: sometimes we celebrate together, other times we weep by a bedside. Because love is so adapted to our needs we can say that in the imagined week of evolution, it originated on late on the Monday, with the first unicellular creatures and grew until it touched the strange life-forms that thought they could control their environment. But I would want to say that it was present before the Monday and after the Sunday, and continues to be the beyond in our midst.

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