Grave Doubts

March 10, 2010

How should an atheist go to his grave? Since I don’t believe in any afterlife, it really doesn’t matter to me one way or another, but I would like to make some sort of statement that would make an impression on those left behind.

Seeing as I don’t believe in any sort of immortal soul, I figured survival of the body (though dead) was my best chance of making a lasting posthumous statement. To further this end, I wrote thus to the South African Museum:-

from Mark Widdicombe Sent at 09:42 (GMT+02:00). ✆
date 8 March 2010 09:42
subject Specimen donation

Dear Dr Stynder,

Since I have entered my 6th decade on this planet, I have been thinking more and more about questions of mortality. One question that has been excercising me is what to do about the final disposition of my mortal remains. I am not a religious person, so there is no requirement to follow any specific ritual as regards burial; I am entirely free to have done with my remains whatever I wish.

After long thought I have decided that I would like to donate my corpse to the South African Museum. I reached this decision for two reasons: firstly, many informed persons have passed comment to the effect that I am a particularly fine specimen of humanity (I attach a photograph to prove that they were not exaggerating), and that it would be a shame were my inspiring physique to disappear upon my death; and secondly, because of my age, there is little value to be had from harvesting my organs for medical purposes.

So what better solution than to have my body stuffed and placed on display in your museum where it may inspire the constant stream of slack-jawed, tik-addled juvenile delinquents who pass daily through your doors? It would probably be best if I were placed in a macho yet tasteful pose (with a spear, perhaps?) somewhere near the main entrance where I would be most visible and thus most inspirational. But I leave such details to you.

I do need to know, however, whether you would like my body delivered fresh or packed in dry ice, and should it come to the museum or be delivered direct to your taxidermists. Please let me know as soon as possible so that I may instruct my executors accordingly and incorporate your instructions in my will.

Kind regards,
Mark Widdicombe

I honestly didn’t expect wholehearted agreement to my proposal, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the sensitive response I received:-

from Hamish Robertson
sender time Sent at 18:02 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:37. ✆
to markwiddicombe
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 8 March 2010 18:02
subject RE: Specimen donation

Dear Mark

My colleague passed your e-mail on to me and I tried passing it on to someone else to answer but it got deflected back to me, so I guess the buck has stopped with me. It is unlikely that I am going to get this right because if I take you completely seriously my answer will sound a big joke if you were joking and if I take your letter as a joke and you were actually deadly serious, you would, quite rightly, be offended by my flippant answer.

Let’s put it this way. It is beyond dispute that you have a very impressive body and I have no doubt that it would be an immensely popular attraction if we were to mount it for display in the museum (holding the strategically placed piece of firewood would be more interesting than the spear and perhaps you could be holding a piece of boerewors in the other hand). HOWEVER,

1. I am pretty sure it is illegal for us to accept human bodies – we are not registered for this sort of thing.

2. You still strike me as being still young and strong and you could still be alive and well 40 years or so hence, by which time our circumstances could have changed substantially – we can’t take on a commitment of this importance so far in advance.

3. While the idea of getting stuffed after you have died might appeal to you, you need to be much more hairy for this type of mounting procedure to look good. Humans are generally portrayed in museums through casting of individuals from moulds that are taken while alive although this in itself is controversial and rarely done these days.

So, while I am grateful to you for considering the generous donation of your body to the museum, we cannot possibly accept and I am afraid you will probably need to consider some of the more conventional options for the disposal of your body that are not nearly so interesting.


Hamish G. Robertson
Director Natural History Collections
Iziko Museums of Cape Town
25 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town
P O Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 4813849
Facsimile: +27 (0) 21 4813993
Mobile: 083 4629561

So, with hopes dashed, I could only bravely hide my disappointment:-

sender time Sent at 13:08 (GMT+02:00). Current time there: 20:58. ✆
to Hamish Robertson
cc Lalou Meltzer ,
Deano Stynder
date 9 March 2010 13:08
subject Re: Specimen donation

hide details 9 Mar (1 day ago)

Dear Hamish,

Thank you for your response. I do understand your concerns regarding the legality of accepting bodies; I thought you might have special dispensation because of your research on bodies, albeit ones not recently deceased.

We shall have to fall back on plan B, which entails dropping the corpse from an aeroplane or helicopter into a region of the Kruger Park bountifully furnished with scavengers like hyenas and vultures. In this way I can make a posthumous contribution to the natural economy.

Kind regards,

Mark Widdicombe

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

On Intelligent Design

October 16, 2009
J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

I have been reading Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee.  It includes a short homily entitled On Intelligent Design, which contains this surprising, in view of its authorship, statement:

I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being.

Apart from his personal incredulity, Mr Coetzee offers no argument or evidence against mutation or natural selection.  He does not deny that evolution takes place, just that it does not make the grade as an “account of how complex organisms come into being”.  This is fortunate because the evidence for evolution actually occurring is overwhelming: to deny it is akin to denying gravity or believing that the Earth is flat.  He does, however, go on to state that he disbelieves in a personal god who answers prayers and punishes evildoers, but he does believe in some creative intelligence:

It does not seem to me to be philosophically retrograde to attribute intelligence to the universe as a whole, rather than just to a subset of mammals on the planet Earth.

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers.  As an ordinary person, I  regard the statement as nonsensical.  Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari?  All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

So far, so bad.  Mr Coetzee then challenges those who believe evolution is responsible for the biodiversity that we see to answer this question:

Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?  Why do we human beings typically experience awe—a recoil of the mind, as if before an abyss—when we try to comprehend, grasp, certain things, such as the origin of space and time, the being of nothingness, the nature of understanding itself?  I cannot see what evolutionary advantage this gives us—the combination of insufficiency of intellectual grasp together with conciousness that the grasp is insufficient.

OK, I’ll give it a try, and if it comes out the way I think it might, the answer to the question may very well go some way towards explaining Mr Coetzee’s incredulity.

Firstly, the question itself is a non-sequitur; evolution does not depend in any way on the capacity of the human brain to understand itself.

Secondly, not every attribute of humans confers an evolutionary advantage.  Take as an example the mess that is the human upper respiratory tract, which is still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours.  Bipedalism has conferred more of an advantage than the disadvantage of a flawed, dangerous respiratory system.  The flaws in human design are some of the strongest arguments against intelligent design.

The entire question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution actually is.  To ask “why” evolution produces this or that feature in a species is to assume that it is goal-oriented, that it is working toward some purpose.  It isn’t.  Over time, the changes that “work”, or cause the organism to have a higher chance of surviving and reproducing are passed on, those that impair the organism are not.  There is no goal or even direction to evolution.  The egotistical notion that humans are the topmost twig of the evolutionary tree is simply wrong; it is quite conceivable that we might die out and have our place taken by some currently ill-regarded species which better adapts to conditions than we do.

Humans evolved to survive on the Earth.  That they were successful in that endeavour is evidenced by the fact that we human beings are here to discuss it.  In order to survive we had to have a firm intuitive grasp of our environment on the scale of our prey and potential predators. There was not, and still isn’t, any evolutionary advantage to be had by an understanding of quantum mechanics or relativity, because the effects of those phenomena are only evident at scales very different to those required for human survival on Earth.  Our individual lifespans are measured in decades; we have no intuitive understanding of the billion year time spans over which evolution takes place.  The very small, the very large and the very long ago are beyond the capacity of our brains to grasp, because there is no evolutionary reason for us to grasp those concepts.

It is because these things are intrinsically so alien to our everyday lives that we experience the “recoil of the mind”.  We cannot imagine the distances to the galaxies (or even the stars in our own galaxy), the size of a subatomic particle or the age of the Earth; these things do not fit into our imaginations; they must be expressed in a way that allows us to perform calculations and make predictions, but we can only understand them in a dry, intellectual way not intuitively as we understand the parabola of a thrown rock or the acceleration of a falling coconut.

Perhaps this is why Mr Coetzee and others instinctively find the notion of evolution preposterous.  Because they cannot intuitively grasp the time scale involved, they imagine that all this happened in a time scale they can imagine, which would be preposterous.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.