My Cane

Two years ago, after foot surgery, I started walking with a cane. The ankle has healed, but I’ve kept the cane. I like it. It helps my balance, it’s funny, and it strengthens my faith.

In this allegedly Darwinian world, where life is a ruthless competition for survival, my cane is magic. It causes young people, fitter than I am for physical existence, to call me “sir” and hold doors and show me a respect I’ve never enjoyed before. Nobody ever told me a stick of wood could exert such spiritual power. I think I’ll keep it.

Admit it, you atheists: the sight of an old geezer with a cane brings out something sweet in you that, according to Darwin, can’t be there. The truth is that love for others is a profound instinct, a powerful atavism so to speak, harder to resist than hate.

Of course we all want to survive. But we want just as strongly for others to survive too. Darwinism can’t explain the environmentalist movement (though I think it’s misguided). Nor can it explain why we write wills giving all we can to those who outlive us. Nor the Bill Gates foundation. Nor the sacrifices of parents who give their lives for their children. Nor the willingness of some people to suffer so that other people won’t kill unborn children. Nor nuns and priests who consecrate themselves to God in lives of charity and chastity (the pay isn’t all that good). Nor a hundred other forms of altruism.

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Altruism sticks in the craws of the reductionists who think man is, and ought to be, selfish. Ayn Rand tried in vain to persuade us that Moses and Jesus were wrong, that altruism is bad, and that selfishness is a virtue. She failed to make much of a dent in the popularity of St. Francis of Assisi.

Frustrating, isn’t it? We’re all selfish by nature, but we’re so sheepish about it that we reserve our most fervent admiration for people like the man who, without even stopping to think, throws himself in front of an onrushing subway train to save the life of a total stranger. If, rationally speaking, he’s a fool, nobody says so; or even thinks so.

Animals may do that sort of thing for their own young, but not for other animals they’ve never met. The altruism of cows, for example, is pretty narrowly circumscribed, and bulls leave even more to be desired. Samuel Johnson once observed that if a bull could talk, it might say, “Here I am with this cow and this grass; what being could enjoy better felicity?” Touché.

Man is separated from the beasts by the faculty of reason, of course — the point the old philosophers used to harp on; but I prefer to stress his capacity for praise and appreciation, disinterested joy in things outside himself. A boy in love doesn’t just desire the girl; he may not even desire her at all. He simply marvels that so lovely a creature can exist, as he may marvel at Mozart’s music or Shakespeare’s poetry, things that offer nothing beyond themselves to desire.

As I write these words, I’m listening to a stunning recording: Laurence Olivier reading the Psalms in the King James translation. They tempt me to superlatives, of course, but the real point is that I can’t think of, or even imagine, anything comparable in the animal kingdom. There are no analogies. Bulls don’t praise cows, let alone their Creator.

Explaining the phenomenon of praise is a real challenge for the Darwinian; it doesn’t appear to confer any particular advantage in that ruthless struggle for survival we’re always hearing about.

I can understand why atheists think religion does a lot of evil, because sometimes it surely does. But they never explain why man wastes so much time and energy in activities they insist are pointless and have no biological utility. If we found all the cattle in the pasture dancing and mooing in unison, wouldn’t we be curious about why they were behaving in this extraordinary fashion?

I suppose killing your own children makes some sort of sense from an atheistic and Darwinian point of view. If survival is a ruthless competition, your kids are your competitors, right? No wonder Darwin’s legions are in favor of this “choice.” It accords perfectly, methinks, with Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness.”


“My Cane” by Joe Sobran was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on May 15, 2007.