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Darwin’s Epiphany on the Meaning of Flowers

I confess I am approaching Oliver Sacks’ posthumously published book, The River of Consciousness, as a sacred text. The richness and depth of both his writing style and his content made his articles in the newspaper favorites of mine in the years preceding his death.

The first essay, “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers,” which I anonymously alluded to last week, has not disappointed. Darwin observed that flowers and insects co-evolved, and he once contrasted his (in Sacks’ words) “frontal assault…on creationism” in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to his subsequent work with flowers.

In Darwin’s words, “no one else has perceived that my chief interest in my orchid book has been that it was a ‘flank movement’ on the enemy,” the opponents of evolution. As Darwin’s botanist friend Asa Gray suggested, if his book on orchids “had appeared before the Origin, the author would have been canonized rather than anathematized by the natural theologians.”

In other words, we human beings would have felt less threatened understanding how flowers and insects evolved characteristics over eons that were mutually beneficial. The evolution of mammals like us threatened our sense of superiority, our presumption that we were made ex nihilo in the image of God, not descended from other animals.

The second but more ancient Genesis creation myth that describes Yahweh shaping the first human being from earth is closer to Darwin’s own observation in The Descent of Man, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Dust we art, to dust we shalt return.

Sacks writes,

The notion of such vast eons of time—and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds, worlds of enormous richness and variety—was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a divine plan never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life.
Reminds me of Paul’s metaphor of how “we see through a glass darkly.”

With Oliver Sacks,

I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me, allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning, whatever my role in the cultural, human world.

Sacks credits this insight to “Darwin’s epiphany on the meaning of flowers” and Sacks’ own childhood experience of the natural world.

I once worked with a pastor who gave as much attention to the arrangement of flowers, cuttings, and plants on the chancel as he did to the words of sermons, the sacraments, prayers, and liturgies. When he died, I entitled his eulogy, “The Importance of Flowers.” To this day, I remember less of his theology than of his aesthetics—or truer, his aesthetic washis theology.

The impertinence of youth caused me once to chide my father for spending so much time on his garden “rather than on something that lasts.” “What lasts?” was his wise response, making no apology.

Possibly the better way to proclaim the Gospel is to “say it with flowers.”

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