1 Mar

Throughout his life Edward Wilson had an overwhelming conviction of the importance of faith. He believed in an all-powerful God at a time when the entrenched precepts of the church were being challenged. Debates raged about whether everything, mouse to man, plants to stars, were created at the same time (as taught by the church), or whether man was not created separately by God’s authority, but had evolved from lower forms of life over millions of years. Darwin, in the Origin of Species (1859), suggested that man (and other species), had not been created separately, but had evolved by random variation and by adaptation to their natural environments. Darwin called this process ‘natural selection’, a suggestion that confronted the supporters of Creationism and a suggestion that could shake the foundations of society in Victorian England.

But there is no suggestion that an appreciation that species could modify and adapt over time ever shook Wilson’s belief in an all-powerful God. He adapted Darwin’s belief into his personal creed, writing that God had originated life in a simple form and that this form altered and developed into its designated role. He believed that God is in everything: stones, trees, humans, animals, He was certainly helped, in a minor way, in his understanding of adaptation by his observations of his mother’s experiments with hens. Mrs Wilson (unexpectedly for a Victorian housewife), had published a book The ABC Poultry Book, in which she noted that hens could be adapted to develop new and desirable characteristics in a few generations, by being bred with those animals that already showed those characteristics. Conversely unwanted traits could be bred out.

Wilson believed that the ‘essence’, or soul, of an individual would survive after death, although invisible. But what is a soul? Does a physical body possess an immaterial soul? I find it virtually impossible to decide what a soul is, or indeed when its presence was first considered? Could it be a mutation that emerged at some stage during natural selection? Arguments for and against an immortal ‘essence’ go back thousands of years. Greek thinkers held conflicting beliefs; for example Plato, the precursor of religious philosophers such as Descartes, Pascal during the enlightenment, and John Hick and Keith Ward today, suggested that the soul is immaterial and eternal, imprisoned temporarily in the body and living after death. But philosophers throughout the centuries have disagreed. Aristotle considered that the soul and the body were interlinked – one goes with the other- (he unexpectedly illustrated his idea by describing an axe; the axe being the body (wood/metal etc) and the soul its function, As I understand it, the argument was that if a soul is engaged in pure though, it cannot exist without a brain, since without a brain there can be no rational thought.. In the last century Bertrand Russell wrote that it is unlikely that a human being could survive after death because the brain dissolves at death and with death the mind /brain association dissolves also. Aristotle is the precursor of physicalists such as da Vinci and in this century the evolutionary biologist and atheist, Richard Dawkins
So Wilson’s belief in the essence of a human being surviving (possibly as an astral body living in a parallel dimension) after death, has been challenged regularly, though he might have agreed with Genesis (2.7), that God did not make a body and put a soul into it like a letter into an envelope of dust, but rather he formed man’s body from dust, then, by breathing divine breath into it, he made the body of dust live i.e. the dust did not embody a soul but became a soul, a whole creature.
One of the questions that fascinate me is whether animals have souls. I imagine Wilson thought they do from his comments about God being in everything, but here again opinion is divided. The ancient Greeks were for and against. Pythagoras urged respect for animals because he believed humans and non-humans had the same kind of soul, one spirit pervades the universe and makes humans at one with animals, Conversely Aristotle argued that non- human animals had no interests of their own and ranked far below humans in the Great Chain of Being, because of their alleged irrationality and moral inequality, plants are created for the sake of animals and animals for the sake of man, He argued that humans were the masters in the hierarchical structure because of their rational powers.
Traditional Christianity seems to have agreed with Aristotle about souls. Saint Augustine argued that only humans were made in the image of God, but that humans had a responsibility for animal welfare. Saint Francis had a love of animals as did Martin Luther but Luther was not clear whether animals have souls. Traditional Christian teaching suggests that humankind is made in God’s image and has domain over fish, birds, cattle and animals -no mention of souls. Thomas Aquinas argued that humans should be charitable to animals (but only in so far as to make sure that animals cruel habits don’t carry over to human treatment of other humans or cause financial loss to the animal’s owner!) Modern Christianity teaches that only humans are made in the image of God, animals do not have souls; Humans have been given control over animals. The Church of England preaches that the world is a precious gift from God.
Basically, since the presence of a soul cannot be proved, neither can its absence. This goes for animals as well as humans. It seems therefore, that the age-old question remains unanswered – just WHY are we here? Wilson, like all people of faith was fortunate, in at the end of his life, he believed he was leaving this life for a better one, His final note to his wife, as he lay dying in the icy Antarctic, finished, ‘All is well’.



  1. notabilia March 5, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    “Basically, since the presence of a soul cannot be proved, neither can its absence.”
    Who came up with that nonsense? If something cannot be proved to have a presence, best lay off the drugs and consider it not there,a delusion, not worthy of being given much further thought.

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