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.