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The Reactionary Utopian
June 9, 2009

The Absent-Minded Squirrel
by Joseph Sobran

[Thoughts on animals]

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA —C.S. Lewis liked to quote an atheistic scientist who reflected that if our thoughts are merely material events, the irrational motion of atoms in our brains, we can’t really be said to know anything — not even that our brains are composed of atoms.

Seizing on this insight, Lewis used it to refute the materialist philosophy — and by implication, the popular idea that man could have “evolved” from the beasts. Animals have brains and nervous systems, but not minds as we do: capable of reason, logic, analysis, calculation, playing blindfold chess, and all the other abstract mental operations that separate us from them, not to mention humor and the worship of the divine.

Animals’ brains are geared to the immediate present. They have to be. Try to imagine an absent-minded squirrel; it wouldn’t last long in a world of fleet-footed predators. In order for there to be absent-mindedness, there must first be a mind. And that mind must be capable of being, as we say, “elsewhere.” A rhinoceros can’t do a syllogism, any more than he can fire off a witty epigram. He has nothing in his makeup that could develop into a rational mind in a billion years.

Nor are animals creative. As Chesterton puts it, “A thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.” A robin never has an original idea for a nest, nor a beaver for a dam. They merely repeat the habits of their species, as their ancestors did eons ago.

As my public knows by now, I am not one to shrink from weighty philosophic issues. Let vulgar journalists traffic in gossip about the first family and its pet pooches; I scorn such small talk and prefer to discuss challenging questions of metaphysics, such as the contention of St. Thomas Aquinas that in God (and only in God) being and essence are identical. (For the record, I am inclined to agree with him.)

And, to avoid dry pedantry, I can’t resist quoting the waggish philosopher who quipped, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny.” I like that one, which I first read, as I recall, in graduate school.

The relation of the body to the human mind remains a profound mystery. Let me give you an example from my own experience. Before my stroke several years ago, I could do cube roots in my head -- using only Roman numerals! Alas, those days are behind me now. I am so intellectually rusty that I can barely figure out the cube root of CCCXLIII, unless I count on my fingers. (It happens to be VII, dummy.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like self-pity. I’ve had a full life, and I’m not disposed to whine if I don’t always get my own way. Oh, I could have done without the Protestant Reformation and the Northern victory in the U.S. Civil War, but it’s time to move on.

Man is the only creature who can believe in the theory of evolution, or who has a motive to believe in it. If we are made of mere matter, we are relieved of all responsibility and obligation to our Creator — supposing we have one. There is no such thing as original sin, or for that matter any sort of sin at all. We are free to obey all our impulses, there being nothing else to obey

Darwinians, poor things, imagine that if we wait long enough, an amoeba could change into a Jesus. That’s change I can’t believe in. I’d sooner believe that a giraffe could turn into a Fred Astaire. What simple faith, masquerading as science and hard-headed realism!

Genuine realism might reflect that both Communism and Nazism found Darwinism useful. Maybe that’s not Darwin’s fault, but it’s a rather odd recommendation of his theory, which is said to have liberated modern man from archaic ways of thinking.

I’ve never understood, by the way, why Darwinians are so militant about spreading their faith — wanting it taught to children in public schools, for example, with competing theories banned. Isn’t this the one idea, of all ideas, that ought to be able to take care of itself, without official support and coercion?

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