The Two Trees: Darwin’s and that Mesopotamian One

Visually echoing Charles Darwin’s famous description of life as a great interconnected tree, below is the image of a trunk and branches in which an artist has carved animals. And beside it is a more traditional depiction of the Tree of Life, from Mesopotamia, early in the first millennium BCE, in which two divine beings guard and tend it:

In thinking about these two images, it occurs to me that science attempts to explain to us why we are an inextractable part of one tree, and religion attempts to explain why we have been excluded from the other.

The prologue to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic  says this of Gilgamesh: “Two-thirds they made him god and one-third man.” Like its sister texts—the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish, in which the gods also fashion human beings after their image, and the Hebrew Book of Genesis, in which the head of the Elohim (council of the gods) says, “Let us make man in our image, and in our likeness”—so the Gilgamesh Epic has the gods make Gilgamesh with attributes that are at once immortal and mortal.

Thus while Gilgamesh may be better than the average man—two thirds god; a kind of Mesopotamian superman—he must still die. Utnapishtim, the mythic Noah-figure in the Gilgamesh Epic  who survived the Great Flood, tells Gilgamesh, in language that sounds like the pre-socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, the following:

There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep for ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?

One could stop there (and many have). But it seems that from the Epic of Gilgamesh  forward, most human beings have not been satisfied with Utnapishtim-like resignation before the dying of the light. Instead, the great human existential quest has been to resist one’s amphibious condition (absurdly caught between animal and god) and somehow try to move from the Tree of Mortal Life (that is, the purposeless Darwinian realm of contingency and change) to the Tree of Eternal Life (that is, some form of immortality and higher meaning).

Good luck in figuring out how (or whether) to make this move.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to The Two Trees: Darwin’s and that Mesopotamian One

  1. Cody Deitz says:

    Mankind has long sought to be Apollo but the cthonian muck and mire of our evolutionary past never fails to suck us back down and ultimately destroy us. Very interesting post prof. I enjoy your associations.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Hi Cody,

    The two images jumped out at me a couple of days ago: it really seems like all of life is a tension between these two trees, doesn’t it? “What a piece of work is man . . .”

    The short stories of T.C. Boyle also seem strong with this animal-god tension. I’m thinking, for example, of his story, “Carnal Knowledge.”


    • Cody Deitz says:

      A piece of work indeed. I agree with you about T.C. Boyle. I often think about literary themes and authors within a Judeo-Christian or Existentialist context but Boyle strikes me as a pagan. He doesn’t fit into the Western Religious tradition nor does he reject it. He seems to be totally seperate from it.

      • santitafarella says:

        That’s an interesting way to think about Boyle (and, I think, right). I wonder if Boyle would also describe himself as a devotee of Darwin.


  3. Cody Deitz says:

    I haven’t run across anything that really discusses his personal beliefs. It seems like the most effective way to get a feel for him would be through his writing. It would certainly be interesting to research. I recently read Boyle’s “The Inner Circle” and it was fantastic. Have you run across that novel?

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