February 12th is the 208th birthday of Charles Darwin. In celebration, I want to look at a couple of extracts from his writing. The first is from The Descent of Man, published in 1871:
As man (sic) advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.
From tribe to nation. But Darwin looks further down the evolutionary road:
This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. (The Descent of Man, Chapter IV)
This is the place we haven’t gone yet, as a species, though some of our species have reached toward that goal.
The theory of natural selection, far from exposing the barbarism of homo sapiens, points us away from the human mythologies that claimed every tribe was the center of the universe and the special friend of one god or several.
Humanity’s true origin story does not divide us into the children of Cain or of Ishmael or any “other.” Our true origin is as mammals, primates, and one species.
In this case, truth is more hopeful than fiction. Humanity is truly one. We need only get over “differences in appearance or habits.” A tall order, but if we can imagine it, we can achieve it.
But Darwin had already thought even further. In 1837—the year after arriving back from his fateful journey on HMS Beagle—Darwin wrote in his notebook:
If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake our origin in one common ancestor—we may be all netted together.
Humanists “choose to let conjecture run wild.” We know that “we are all netted together” in the interdependent web of all existence.
This is our true origin story, and one of great wonder and awe: we are “all netted together.”