Thursday, February 11, 2016

How Death Began, by Allen Walton Gould 1893

How Death Began, by Allen Walton Gould 1893

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Thou shalt surely die. Genesis, 2:17.

There is no Death! What seems so is transition.
Longfellow, Resignation.

Death is the greatest mystery of this earth, and because it is so mysterious it has seemed terrible to men. They have imagined it to be no part of nature originally but to have been introduced into the world by an angry God to punish men for some fault of theirs. It is indeed true that untimely deaths do come as the penalty for broken law; yet death itself has been found by the wonderful discoveries of recent years to be not a punishment for sin but a process of growth, and the stories of its origin have been found to be only the rude guesses of early men.

1. The Bible Story.
When man was driven out of Eden a part of the curse pronounced upon him was that he should return to the dust from which he had been taken. He was condemned to undergo death because he had eaten of the forbidden tree of knowledge. If he had not eaten of that fruit, he might have lived for ever by partaking of the tree of life which was in the garden. Death, then, was not at first the natural fate of man. He was originally made "to be immortal," as the bible says.

2. Other Legends.
The Persians also tell us that there was no death among men originally. The earth grew in size as fast as mankind increased in numbers, so that there was room enough for all. But when the first man sinned, the earth stopped growing and men began to die. The Chinese, too, were deathless till they brought on death by desiring to eat to be wise. The Africans say that men were created immortal, while the animals were mortal. But when men conducted themselves ill, the animals complained to the Creator of his injustice in making good animals mortal while bad men were immortal. So he took away man's immortality. Another African tribe says it was bathing in forbidden water that brought the doom of death upon all men; while in Madagascar it was eating forbidden fruit that brought death into the world.

Woman's curiosity is the cause of death in many other accounts beside that of the bible. In Greece it was Pandora's curiosity in opening the forbidden box; and the opening of a similar box brought the same fate upon the Cherokee Indians. In Australia it was an Australian woman's curiosity in going to a forbidden tree. As soon as she reached the tree a great bat flew out of it and people began to die. In the Solomon Islands death came because a woman would insist upon putting on her old skin; for up to that time they had cast off their skin each year, like the serpents, and lived forever.

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3. Their Origin.
Such stories as these are found all over the world, and they originate in the attempt of the savage to explain why it is that all men die. He thinks he can see why some men die, men who are eaten by wild animals or cut to pieces by foes or destroyed by any other visible cause. Even when occasionally strong and vigorous men die of some internal disease, like fever, he has a reason for their death. They are murdered by the magic rites of witch or wizard, and in many savage tribes such a death is followed by the execution of some person who is accused of committing the murder by sorcery.

But when it is seen that all men and women, even though escaping these accidental or malicious deaths, still finally die, the human mind tries to hit upon some general cause of death.

In lower stages of culture it is some failure or mistake of the powers that made men which dooms them to death. It was the miscalculation of the Creator which brought death, according to the American Indians. He intended men to live forever, but when the sun measured the earth it was found too small to contain their growing number, and so they were compelled to die to make room for others. In New Zealand death was brought on by the failure of the great God, Maui, to go safely through his grandmother, Great Woman Night, who lies on the western horizon with her gigantic teeth gleaming like glass in the sunset light. His father told him that if he could go through the "Great Night" and come out alive, men would never die. But when he was half through her, she was awakened by an unlucky accident and crushed him. And so all men have had to die.

But as men become more conscious of moral right and wrong they begin to explain death as a punishment for some disobedience or misdeed of their own, as in the many cases given above. They have eaten fruit, or bathed in forbidden water, or learned some forbidden knowledge. And the angry and jealous God punishes them all with death.

4. The Truer Story.
The story of science is far more wonderful than any of these savage myths. There was indeed a time when nature required neither death nor birth as the conditions of growth. The world was peopled then with nothing higher than single-celled beings, and when one of these beings finished its period of life it did not die, it simply divided itself into two cells. Nothing of its old material was cast aside. There were merely two new beings where there had been but one, and each of the new beings had its own life and then divided in its turn. And so on, till a single cell increased to a million or a billion of independent individuals. Life thus went on indefinitely without any death.

But life could apparently not rise any higher than this without death. For as soon as a higher form, even of the single cell, came, death came. The single cell that had any outer covering, any organs for locomotion, or for seizing or devouring its food, did not simply subdivide itself when the end of its lifetime came. Its outer covering burst asunder, its shell of organized form was brushed aside, and out of its inner material came the new beings that were to carry its career onward. It died, but its death was only to free its life from the hardened crust that prevented its further growth. It died as the egg dies that the chicken may start on a larger growth.

Among these lower forms, then, death came into the world that there might be more and higher life, that life might go on rising from cell to reptile and to man; and there is no reason for thinking that death in man is not for the same purpose. Every death in the brute creation is an open door for higher and larger life; and every death among men may be, as far as we can see, only an open door to higher life for the individual, if he chooses to go up and not down.

But for the community death is the indispensable condition of all progress. The great law of natural selection simply means that nature selects the fittest individuals to survive and dooms the unfit to death. If there was no death for the unfit, they too would survive, and so each community would have as many unfit as fit, as many bad individuals as good; and therefore it could not rise to any higher level. So science tells us that death is as natural as birth, that it is indeed a second birth; and that it was not introduced six thousand years ago by an angry God to punish the sin of man but that it was introduced millions of years ago by Infinite wisdom as the means of leading life upward.

5. Origin of this Story.
How do we know that this wonderful tale is any more trustworthy than the myths and legends which our ancestors believed? Of course no man was present at that far off time when only single cells existed. But men with their microscopes can see life existing now on the earth in just that low, deathless and changeless form; and they can see the higher forms of cell-life lose their covering and organs when they take a new start by passing through death. And men can also see from the fossils that death has been in the world for hundreds of thousands of years, and that the fittest have been enabled to survive and become more and more fit by the death of the unfit.

6. The Meaning of this Story.
Thus we see that death itself is not the result of divine miscalculation or anger, that it is not a curse but a blessing; that it is not the end of growth but the beginning of new and nobler growth, by breaking away from the hardened forms of this present life. For one who is full of years and wisdom, who has grown as far as this life will allow. Death comes as a kindly friend to lead him "with gentle hand into the silent Land, into the boundless regions of all perfection." As never before, the world can now say with Paul: O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?

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