HALDANE, FINITY AND EVOLUTION
Bevan M. Gilpin
Bevan M. Gilpin, M.S.C., Assistant Editor, Laboratory Practice, 9 Gough Square, Fleet Street, London. E.C4. Reprinted by permission from the issue of March 1965.
One of the most brilliant eccentrics of our time died in December, 1964. J. B. S. Haldane will be remembered not only for his prolific work in genetics but also for his extreme thinking in many spheres; thinking that seldom stopped at the thought stage but was put into action. Shortly before he died Haldane recorded his thoughts on death and the finity of man.
His acute view of the individual as a defined unit in time appeared as an essay titled "On being finite" in the Rationalist Annual. Here Haldane remarked that man's belief in death as an inevitability is probably of quite recent advent. Primitive men probably never saw death from old age. The life of a hunter was a precarious one-a slight wound could be fatal; a man might be killed if his brother coveted his mate. Before he was very old a man began to lose his youthfulness and then there was no easy retirement. Natural selection would take over-the survival of the fittest. Since no man would have seen the natural expiration of life, Haldane maintained that he would thus be able to believe in the possibility of physical immortality. If life ended so abruptly and apparently always by some outside agency then there might always be the possibility that if those agencies could be avoided life would continue. -This is a simple thought that is not inconceivably outside the capabilities of a simple intellect such as we believe we can ascribe to the earlier men.
From this thought Haldane developed ideas on the finity of modem man and his own attitude to death. He advocated an Epicurian approach-if we acknowledge life to be finite we can act upon this knowledge to our advantage. These ideas are not unreasonable and indeed may seem obvious to an avowed rationalist.
To revert to the original idea that primitive man might have believed in a possible immortality, it is a characteristic of our age that many minds are busy trying to find out how other minds function. The West tries to understand the East. The modern science historian or philosopher tries to understand the processes that went on inside the mind of Einstein. How little these people have achieved! How slight then is the possibility that we can have any true appreciation of the level at which those cave dwelling hunters might have thought! We see them as animal forms with physical characters close to our own, but when it comes to the "spirit" of these beings we become so painfully aware of the shortcomings in our concepts of the mind.
Perhaps Haldane was aware of this when he went to live in India. Eastern civilizations knew much of the workings of the mind, had a great power over the mind, at a time when technology or even science meant nothing to the West. Perhaps Haldane hoped to fuse his own remarkable intellect with some of the more ephemeral thinking of the East.
That physical death is inevitable is accepted today and it would seem not unreasonable that prehistoric men had the same idea. If, as Haldane suggests, it was possible to accept that, but for the intervention of unnatural causes, life might continue, is it not possible and indeed more likely, that he was able to conceive of some cause for unnatural death-some inevitability about the unnatural death. After all, to him death by what we today call accident must have seemed to be inevitable; that is provided we recognize that this was the only form of death. Perhaps there was even some divinity to explain this inevitability. A divinity could explain the "accidents" that implemented the inevitability.
To Haldane evolution was a reality as it is to most thinking people today. That is, evolution in the biological sense. Outside of this there is perhaps a danger in searching for evolution. Haldane looked for an evolution of an attitude towards death. He thought of a progression from a belief in a possible immortality to knowledge of the finite nature of life. This evolution of attitudes-essentially an evolution of thought-is possibly something very different from evolution of the Darwinian type.
It is nowadays not uncommon to hear people speak of this evolution of thought-we must be wary of such terminology. It may not always be possible to effect a direct transference of scientific concepts to be applicable in other spheres.