To be credible at all today any theology – not that most Darwinians would think any theology credible – must be Darwinian and able to reconcile itself with Darwinian thought. The Darwinian theory of evolution is so overwhelmingly confirmed by evidence and its manner of thinking has so penetrated into every nook and cranny of contemporary consciousness, to ignore it is a willful act of self-blinding. Yet Darwinian thought is dangerously and impoverishingly one-sided. Its driving force is the logic of competition and extermination, and it is indeed true that there is abundant cruelty and indifference in nature. But new forms that survive to do their competing and exterminating in accordance with the logic of natural selection, were themselves once helpless infants. They only survived to adulthood because of the devoted care of parents for offspring that we find throughout nature. Parental care is at least as important an agent of evolutionary change as competition and extermination, but Darwin overlooked it. So wonderfully full of stories, in its early chapters, of the love of animals not only for their own species but even for individuals in others, The Descent of Man in its later chapters, when Darwin turns to humanity, tells us only of the extermination of the weak by the strong. Important as it is, the Darwinian view of life is in the end tragically constricted and wretched, for it finds no love in the evolutionary origins of humanity. But generosity and self-giving do occur in nature, as Darwin himself tells us, as well as brutality and selfishness.
Dawkins’ explanation for human altruism is, as so often, only credible within a Darwinian framework of thought. His thinking is always along the lines of ‘since the only questions we can ask are Darwinian ones, are the only answers we can give Darwinian, however illogical? Answer yes’. He thinks that human altruism develops from the reciprocal and kin altruism that we find in animals. But these behaviours are not altruistic at all. They are merely extended forms of genetic selfishness, in the technical biological sense. Far from explaining how it comes about that we sometimes feel impulses to give money to starving people in Africa who have no means of paying us back and are complete strangers to our own kin group, reciprocal and kin altruism should both push us in the opposite direction. Oh well, says Dawkins lamely, the genes sometimes misfire, they mistake far away people in Africa for near neighbours we once knew in Pleistocene encampments. Evidence? Dawkins’ endowment of genes with an intelligence and willful intention they could not possible have is unfailing. The myths of atheism make those of Christianity look like physics.
In the human case the parental love that we find in the animal kingdoms has expanded in its significance enormously. Far more helpful to me, anyway, is the British psycho-analyst D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott’s central insight is that, for evolutionary reasons, the human infant is born prematurely. By comparison with other creatures our size, we should be born after twenty-one months, but nature’s need to reconcile the narrow birth canal that results from upright walking with the large cranium necessary to house a big brain, dictates that we are born prematurely after only nine. Physically even at this early age the infant can survive outside its mother’s womb, just, but the brain necessary for human psychological processes has not yet fully developed. Psychologically, Winnicott says, the infant’s consciousness is still identical with that of its mother. ‘The child’, according to Susie Orbach, ‘experiences itself and its mother as being within the same physical and psychological world within a common boundary’. The mother, as it were, lives the infant’s internal life for it. This initial and total identification of consciousnesses is called by these psychologists symbiosis. But as the infant develops this total identification with the mother that had been so crucial to its survival as a conscious being becomes a threat to its growing need for independence.
It is now that the father comes into his own. Because the father had been part of the original symbiotic experience (why it is so important for fathers to have a part in the care of new born infants from the very beginning), the infant can identify with him. But because his love is not so engulfing as that of the mother, the father can act as a bridge to the world. Through him the infant is able to take what by now is his or her symbiotic love into the world. An important part of Winnicott’s teaching is what he calls the transitional object. As the infant grows it becomes increasingly capable of tolerating the mother’s absence by forming a remembered mental representation of her, which in turn becomes projected into an object the infant can grasp for re-assurance. Infants develop fixations with cuddly toys or old smelly blankets which are saturated as it were in the mother’s presence and form a defence against anxiety. The transitional object becomes soaked in the subjective reality of the infant’s internal world. This process continues into adulthood and it is through transitional objects that people not only share resources usefully but enter each others’ internal worlds. Christopher Bollas has written illuminatingly on the importance of such subjectively saturated symbols in Being A Character. Such things, often quite mundane objects, and pets especially, are important in setting up a shared home, as opposed to sharing the bills in a common house.
This is why humans have a doubled form of consciousness. The ability to feel sympathy is not bounded by family obligations and the economics of useful bargains. We do not feel impulses to give money to starving Africans because our genes mistake them for Pleistocene neighbours who might reciprocate our help in the future , but because we feel sympathy for them, a capacity rooted in the symbiotic relationships of earliest infancy. On the one hand, because of the important part natural selection played in our evolutionary origins, we often relate to things and people as no more than useful objects whose only function is to minister to our survival. But on the other we are also capable of relating to things and people symbiotically; to admit them into our hearts and to invite them within the boundaries of our internal worlds; to feel compassion for all sentient beings; to become imprinted by them and in exchange to change them by donating the inner secret of our personal being to them; to become ourselves by becoming others.
The one thing that both Darwin and Freud have taught us, above all else ,is their discovery that the conscious intellectual life we recognize as being peculiarly human is still rooted in the unconscious life of the animals that we still so very nearly are. But the unconscious has no comprehension of formal logic and abstract thought. It speaks the language of images and symbols. If we are to draw life from the psychic energy that wells up from the unconscious and yet at the same time not be overwhelmed by its irrational desires and impulses, symbols are of vital importance in the transactions between our conscious and unconscious minds. That is why the nativity is so sophisticated a Darwinian and Winnicottian image, why it so important for humanity and why artists have celebrated it so often. Darwin tells us of our familial brotherhood with the animals. The ox and the ass are there. Winnicott tells us of the importance of symbiosis. The infant is helpless in his mother’s arms. But the father too is an important part of this primal scene. St Joseph is hovering around being helpful. Because we are all born of parents this is an important image for all humanity, rich and poor, kin and non-kin. Nearby shepherds and exotically foreign kings respond to the message alike.
This image of the nativity is important because, even in these secular days, it is recognized by all of us for we all began life at our mother’ breast, and through so much art it has entered into the iconography of mankind. The nativity scene is the primary symbol of Christian civilization. It offers the possibility, so rarely realised in practice, that the symbiotic love that spurts up so easily in the heart of the individual can be integrated into social structures. Except that it doesn’t. We have robbed it of its power. We have infantilized it and sentimentalized it almost out of existence. Artists reach deep into that hinterland between the unconscious and conscious realms. Are they still telling us of the symbiotic love of mother and child that is at the source of all our well-being? They are not. What do we see instead? Damien Hirst’s brilliant and devastating image of mother and child not united together in love but each separately cloven in half. We should be full of foreboding.