THE DEATH OF ADAM
by Marilynne Robinson
Rec. Price: $29.95
Marilynne Robinson is an American writer, born in Idaho, who now teaches at the University of Iowa. In 2005, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead.
An earlier book, Housekeeping, has almost achieved the status of a classic in America.
In 1989, she published The Mother Country, an account of environmental degradation associated with the British nuclear reprocessing plant, Sellarfield. This was a highly controversial account which managed to upset both the British Government and Greenpeace at the same time.
Any author who can manage that is certainly worth investigating!
The Death of Adam is a series of essays, first published in 1998 but recently re-published by Picador (2005) in paperback. The essays can generally be described as religious and/or philosophical in nature, but they cover a vast territory – from Darwinism through to a commentary of Psalm Eight.
Without question, the best essay is on the social and economic consequences of Darwinism as a sort of political (or even religious) idea. Her writing here immediately reminded me of the late David Stove and his book Darwinian Fairytales.
In common with Stove, Robinson’s account is well argued and not in the least ‘anti-science’ or ‘fundamentalist’ in tone. She draws the connection between the ideas of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin and shows how ‘social Darwinism’, however much vehemently denied by the ‘religious’ Darwinists, has had an enormous and detrimental influence on economic theory, especially in Britain.
In all of Robinson’s writings, her great strength is to always read original sources first. Thus, she has carefully read Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man, something that many modern-day Darwinists have never bothered to do.
To give you something of the flavour of Robinson’s writings, let me quote a passage from her introductory essay:
“It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of a ruling elite, or something of the kind.
“I suspect this is a way of granting these things significance, since we are still in the habit of attending to them, though they are no longer to be conceded meaning in their own terms… Economics, the great model among us now, indulges and deprives, builds and abandons, threatens and promises.
“Its imperium is manifest, irrefragable – as in fact it has been since antiquity. Yet suddenly we act as if the reality of economics were reality itself, the one Truth to which everything must refer…
“We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic ontogeny by hiding our head in a ledger.”
She writes beautifully on the family, on religious belief, on our terror of illness and on a pathological society which stimulates fear, disgust, resentment, and then prescribes pills to counter their effects (“It is as if we took morphine to help us sleep on a bed of nails.”) Although a number of the essays are devoted to aspects of Calvinism and the Puritan tradition, they contain many insights which are broadly applicable to all religious belief.
Anyone with an interest in what might be called the self-destruction of modernity should read this book.