The Chain of Life

In the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers lovingly traces his son’s family tree, back through grandparents, to distant ancestors, to the origins of life. Its a nice, secular take on the beauty of creation.

Happy four billionth birthday, son.

The piece puts me in the mind of the opening to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘Virtue‘, which traces the origins of a good cigar, a plate of oysters, a cut of lamb.

For these are animals and there is something that inspires awe in the thought that since the surface of the earth became capable of supporting life from generation to generation for millions upon millions of years creatures have come into existence to end at last upon a plate of crushed ice or silver grill. It may be that a sluggish fancy cannot grasp the dreadful solemnity of eating an oyster and evolution has taught us that the bivalve has through the ages kept itself to itself in a manner that inevitably alienates sympathy. There is an aloofness in it that is offensive to the aspiring spirit of man and a self complacency that is obnoxious to its vanity. But I do not know how anyone can look upon a lamb cutlet without thoughts too deep for tears : here man himself has taken a hand and the history of the race is bound up with the tender morsel on your plate.


You can read the whole introduction on my Tumblr.

Another literary precedent to Chivers’ post is How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.

Courage came to me from the height of the mountain, and with it came the dignity of manhood, and knowledge of the Tree of Life, for now I was a branch, running with the vital blood, waiting in the darkness of the Garden ….to bring forth sons and daughters.

I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who were to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.

And their eyes were my eyes.

The passage continues. Read it here.

Then there’s W.N.P. Barbellion:

I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioux, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?

Personally, I don’t think that Chivers goes far enough in tracing the origins of his son. His game is extremely short sighted. Why pick on just the most recent configuration? Why be a chauvinist about organic chemistry? Why not go right back to the start?

The truth: We are made of stardust, you and I. The molecules in our bodies were forged inside giant, radio-active balls of flame, and that is where they will end up again, eventually.

Though our birthdays may be decades apart, the atoms and molecules inside you are as old as the atoms and molecules inside me.

Where have we been? Inside mountains, volcanos and dinosaurs. Where shall we be? Inside flowers, butterflies, and clouds.

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