Sunday, June 15, 2014

800 Words: The Gospel According to Darwin - Parts II and III


After his return from the HMS Beagle in 1836, it took Darwin two years to hit upon the theory of Natural Selection. He did not begin the book until 1842, and within two years he completed his first draft. He did not publish it until 1859, because he wanted to ensure he had the maximum possible evidence to back up his theory. All told, it took twenty-three years after his return for Darwin to accept the conclusions of his trip. Twenty-three years of careful observation, recording, deduction, reading research publications, and tracking down rare books. Twenty-three years during which he was a celebrity for the enormous collection of rare specimens he brought back and associated at parties with the intellectual creme-de-la-creme of Victorian society - known not primarily as a scientist or even a writer but as a type of imperial adventurer. Twenty-three years of terrible health and terrible anxiety over the coming firestorm which he knew such a publication would reap. And most importantly, twenty-three years during which Darwin and his beloved wife Emma had to endure the death of three children. By any standard, Emma and Charles had a wonderful marriage, but Charles worried that Emma’s Christian faith was all that could sustain her in the face of such losses. If Charles proved to her that his theory was correct, Emma could be destroyed.

In every way, the capacity and fortitude for concentrated work which he exhibited so purposefully on The Beagle was still more important after his return. Particularly because in Darwin’s own mind, his results were in no small part a failure. Like Marx, Darwin’s 500 page On the Origin of Species was a mere abstract of the great 2000 page work he meant to write which would refute every possible objection from the theory’s acceptance and shield him from the criticism which he knew such a controversial theory could accord him. Famously, he told friends that “A better man would have written a better book.” And for all Darwin’s skill with writing, On the Origin of Species is still a tremendously difficult book to read. Darwin’s greatest champion in the British press, T. H. Huxley (grandfather of Aldous), nevertheless said that the book was “one of the hardest books to understand thoroughly that I know of. For exposition was not Darwin’s forte and his English is sometimes wonderful.” By wonderful, Huxley meant not ‘excellent’ but full of confusion.  The anxiety of it all resulted in a near-complete nervous breakdown during its year of publication, during which he finally had to take a rest to recharge himself from this herculean effort expended over nearly three decades.  

Darwin knew precisely how controversial and sensational the book might be. One of his grandfather’s closest friends was the great chemist, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen. Priestley was a free thinker, and in part because of his daring scientific theories (some of which, admittedly, were laughably wrong), he was suspected of sedition. During the Birmingham riots of 1791, he had to flee his house, which was burned to the ground by anti-French militants. Due to the suspicion he engendered, he had to spend his remaining decade in America.

True to the sensation Darwin knew his book would cause, the publication sold out on its first day of release. Contrary to today’s common misnomer, what was controversial about the book was not its theory of evolution, a theory that long predated Darwin and was accepted by many scientists as verifiable.


It is important at this moment to understand how the theory of evolution came to be. And in order to understand, we have to go back roughly 130 years to the city of Naples and a figure named Giambattista Vico. Vico is a thinker not much thought of today, nor was he in his own day. But it is through Vico that the modern conception of history was invented through his most famous book, The New Science. Vico’s contribution to human thought was due to Newton’s. Thanks to Isaac Newton, the idea of historical progress was formed. We were finally, definitively, out of the Dark Ages, and the post-Newton world was clearly so superior to the World of Yesteryear, that people began to be interested in how such progress was made. Thus was the study of history born, and with it, the idea that time and progress must be viewed through long, long spans. When Homer wrote about Odysseus or the Yahwist about Moses, they might as well have been describing events which occurred when the reader’s (or listener’s) grandparents were children. And to the vast majority of his audience, Shakespeare’s plays might as well have been the same. Except perhaps to the Ancient Egyptians and early Hindi, the conception of the past as something to be measured precisely is an extremely recent phenomenon in human thought.

But Vico’s primary idea is, in many ways, the beginning of historical thought as we think of it today. His idea, known as the "verum factum", is that the truth is not something observed, as Descartes believed, but something that must be created. As he wrote: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.”

This idea that the truth can only be created, not observed, may seem preposterous at first glance. But think a bit deeper about it: a truth is not simply discovered, it must be made before it's discovered. There must be something to form it. Even if there is an eternal creator to form it, every event, even the creation of an eternal creator, needs something that caused it to happen. Thanks to Vico, the world was no longer a place of eternal truths. The world is now a dynamic place of constantly shifting paradigms, perceptions, and progress.

History is the study of tracing back all those causes as far as it can go, and evolution is impossible to understand without seeing its roots in the historical thought of its day. Once Vico demonstrated as beneficial the idea that we ought to determine the origins of things as best we can, thinkers were then free to explore the past as far back as it went. Montesquieu tried to determine why civilizations rise and fall and how climate formed the particular laws and customs of various civilizations. Condorcet could trace mankind’s intellectual evolution. In the seventeenth century, Newton and Descartes posited their truths as static and eternal, but in the eighteenth century, Lamarck and Buffon could present the world as a place in a state of eternal change. All of which of course made Hegel’s later Theory of History possible. As did it Saint-Simon’s theory of the progress of humanity, and - most importantly for evolution - Auguste Comte’s Positivism, in which all human endeavor evolves forward from theology - a god or demon causing an event, to metaphysics - an hidden, unseen power is behind all events, to science - which will eventually explain all forces through unconvering the laws of nature.

It was the Comte de Buffon, director of King’s Garden’s in Paris, compiler of Buffon’s Natural History, General and Particular, and the least known thinker on this brief list, who first presented a theory of biological evolution. Within his famous book, he speculated that when one saw the physiological similarities between a pig and an ass, one might suspect them of having a common ancestor. His book, as popular as any Malcolm Gladwell book in its day, contains many such ironic speculations about the common origins of species which, sadly due to the power of the Church, he could not speculate sincerely.

Sincere and systematic speculation had to wait until the early Nineteenth Century for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. As with all truly new ideas, his was met with scorn and derision - but Lamarck received the ultimate derision - he was ignored, and died in penury. He was ignored partially because, until fairly recently, Lamarck’s conception was plainly ridiculous. According to Lamarck’s most famous example, a giraffe’s neck was not always long, it grew long over time because of successive generations of giraffe’s efforts to reach upward towards the leaves of trees. In light of the fact that genetic research now shows that our genes can morph over time with special regard to the experiences of our lives, this conception is not quite as absurd now as it was for the majority of the last two hundred years. But it is, nevertheless, fundamentally untrue.

And yet, it seems absurd because it is only one degree removed from the truth. Environment does determine a species’s evolution, but it does not do so on an individual-by-individual basis. No individual is a blank slate which can simply mould itself to its environment like putty. And even so, Lamarck’s theory is not completely untrue. A giraffe, like nearly every animal, must grow to its full height, and in order to do so, it must exhibit an elemental will to live. It was simply Montesquieu’s study of climate forming history applied to the history of biology, and like Montesquieu, a significant step closer to the truth. Or put differently, Lamarck’s theory is simply Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will to Life, applied to organic biology.

In time, his theory was not completely ignored. During his publication in the first decade of the 19th Century, Lamarck’s only significant review was from the famous anatomist, Cuvier, who believed Lamarck to be completely insane. But a few others began to notice, including Goethe - the pre-eminent name among all German writers and intellectuals for all time - who used Lamarck’s theory as a departure point for a botanical theory he called ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants.’

Across the Channel, another thinker was positing the theory of evolution a few years earlier: Dr. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to Charles. As we said before, Dr. Darwin was a great polymath - he even anticipated the use of steam cars and flying machines. Unfortunately, Dr. Darwin had a habit of putting his scientific ideas forward in poetry, which made them seem rather more ridiculous than they were:

“The hand, first gift of Heaven! to man belongs;
Untipt with claws the circling fingers close,
With rival points the bending thumbs oppose
. . . .
Whence the fine organs of the touch impart
Ideal figure, source of every art.

But the chief trigger for the widespread discussion of evolution pre-Darwin was a book published in 1844 - the year Darwin substantially completed On the Origin of Species. It was called The Vestiges of Creation, and its writer, Robert Chambers, insisted on publishing it anonymously for fear of controversy. The book surveyed the entire history of evolutionary thought until that point. Unfortunately, while Chambers had no truck with Lyell’s explanation for how evolution works, he failed to make a hypothesis of his own. His book was derided, particularly by a novelist and back-bench politician named Benjamin Disraeli, for its assumption that some invisible hand inevitably guides existence to a more perfect state. Thanks to Chambers, Victorian England’s knowledge of evolutionary theory was so widespread that even Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Victorian Poet Laureate, puts forward a concept of evolution in his extraordinary long 1850 poem “In Memoriam”, in which concepts are put forward of man’s kinship with the ape, and a vast chain of beings.

"I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones.
That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
So then were nothing lost to man;
So that still garden of the souls
In many a figured leaf enrolls
The total world since life began.

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

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