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Summer 2014

Table Talk

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Bert Keizer

My daughter studies biology, and she often treats me to the most amazing facts she comes across. This time it’s an episode in the life of the acacia (if I remember the tree correctly). These trees typically stand in rows next to each other, and giraffes like their leaves. Now, when a giraffe starts nibbling at a tree, the damaged leaves emit a substance which warns the trees downwind, and they react by making their leaves more bitter to the taste. So when the giraffe moves to the next tree, it finds unsavory leaves and trots off. Nice work. Nature is full of the neat tricks living beings play on each other. Giraffes, however, are not new to this game, and they are pretty clever in their own way. Some of them, having eaten their fill at one tree, then pass by number two and three (with a knowing smile on their faces, I reckon) and carry on eating at tree number four. Isn’t that incredible?

What I find even more incredible is the fact that among all those giraffes, acacias, ants, nettles, fungi, and bees, there is one being who is capable of analyzing these mechanisms and finding a source of deep wonder in them. My daughter is entirely immune to philosophy, and she routinely shoves aside my effort at finding a different level of wonderment. “No, we’re not wandering off into your type of question: ‘But what is consciousness, really?’ ‘Is your blue the same as my blue?’” As you can see, I’ve tried it before.

Meanwhile, I remain stuck with the fact that Darwin cannot explain the origin of The Origin of Species. The story of evolution would be very different if the narrator weren’t one of the beings described. The telling of the tale is something above or beyond or next to, but in any case not part of, the world described.

Imagine that the concept of evolution had never seen the light of day, because the process stopped with the chimpanzee. This would mean there was never any flickering light in a Neanderthaler, nor that first bright spark in Australo-pithicus. This is more or less the stage of development one would expect life on other planets to have reached, if we ever came across any. If this light had never been switched on, then the entire incredible process would not be incredible, nor would it be miraculous or monstrous or accidental or beautiful or cruel; it wouldn’t even be nothing. There just wouldn’t be any opinion about it. No one would admire it or try to understand it.

And if, after billions of years, the whole thing had gone up in flames without any human ever having had the chance to say anything about it, then the entire idea of “life on earth” would never have existed. Life would never have begun, and it would never have ended either, because “beginning” and “end” are human concepts we impress on our surroundings in order to lend some coherence to an otherwise random universe. But even “random universe” is a human qualification. It’s enough to make you crazy, this impossibility of saying something that will stand up against our absence, something that would make sense even if we had never arrived on the scene. Are we up against a wall here, or dangling above an abyss? You might almost become religious. Nietzsche fully realized this when he warned us: “The death of God is much more terrifying than you people think.”

Who could have foreseen that the colossal relief we all felt at His interment would gradually turn into a panic when it became clear that He really was no longer around? Because now we think: wasn’t it nice to know that someone had an opinion about us? But we made it up ourselves, that opinion. I know, I know, but still, wasn’t it consoling that we would be thought of, even in our absence? God would remember us. During all the aeons to come He would never forget what it was like for us to be alive. He would make the difference between being swatted to death like a fly and “passed away, but forever in our heart.”

What’s my problem, exactly? I want us to be intended, and I want somebody to remember that intention for ever and ever, with a smile, a grin, or a tear. Yes, a tear would do.

Bert Keizer is a doctor and writer who lives and works in Amsterdam. Trained in philosophy as well as medicine, he has published books on such topics as neurosurgery, death and dying, palliative medicine, dementia, and the philosophy of mind; he has also translated Emily Dickinson's letters into Dutch.

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