Saturday, July 12, 2014

Class 2: Darwin's Tree of Life - Part 1

I’m going to begin this class as every science class should begin… with a passage from scripture:

(call on reader)

1. I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
- John 15:1-6

When Darwin confessed his theory to his devoutly Christian future wife, this was the section of the Bible which she asked him to read. John, last of the four gospels to be written, is known as the most extreme and militant - certainly by Jews anyway. But Emma Wedgewood, who was, in a sense, the perfect wife for Darwin, saw that in this passage lay the entirety of the opposition to Darwin’s argument for Evolution By Means of Natural Selection. Natural Selection, like Christ himself, fits quite comfortably in the very Jewish image of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, which is certainly where John got the concept. But Judaism no doubt lifted the concept from similar ones in Ancient Persia and Egypt, and you can find a similar concept as far afield as Chinese and Nordic civilizations, even among certain branches of Native Americans. It is clearly a religious concept that’s been with us since the beginning of human consciousness. The fruit from the trees was the sweetest taste which early humans could know, a kind of prehistoric dessert. And the image of the tree of life comes with us all the way through history.

Here's a question: can anyone name great works of literature with the images of the Tree of Life? (Gilgamesh, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Macbeth, Tristan und Isolde, Lord of the Rings, James Cameron’s Avatar, Malick's Tree of Life...)

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tree is the metaphor for the One True God, and we are the branches that grow out of him. We, the branches, owe our very existence to this tree, and if we eat the fruit, then Christians believe we gain salvation, Jews believe we gain knowledge. But eventually the branches die so that new branches can take its place. The branches are cut off and harvested, and John extends this metaphor perhaps past what it can hold by saying that the harvest is symbolic of damnation. 

Here's another question, a problematic one for Christianity. If all branches eventually wither and die, the best use humans have for branches is for man to gather them to cast them into fire. Does this mean that we're born to be damned? (if no response, bring up 'original sin' and Hitchens's syllogism that religion, particularly Christianity, tells us we are 'born sick and commanded to be well.' This is the paradox at the heart of Christianity, one which the religion acknowledges and gives it the reason that most of the world is damned. All except 144,000 according to the Book of Revelations)

I’m going to take it as a given that everybody in here understands the meaning of evolution through natural selection, and we’ll talk about it much, much more in later classes. Instead, we’re just going to focus on what Darwin had to say about trees:

(call on reader) 

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was young, budding twigs; and this connection of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few have left living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.
If you believe in the pure individualism of Christianity, then Darwin’s Tree of Life, one which evidence demonstrates is much closer to the truth, is a kind of eternal damnation on Earth; a war for survival of all against all that has not stopped for billions of years in which the vast majority of the soldiers are guaranteed to die violently and painfully. It allows none of the comfort of Christianity, or Islam, which assures us that we still have eternal life, however much we suffer in this one. In evolutionary biology, we are not divided between body and soul, we are only our bodies - composed of matter which we’ve borrowed from the universe for a short while. This is a very difficult concept for contemporary human beings to come to terms with, particularly Western ones. We in what’s traditionally called ‘The West’ have spent the last two-thousand years asserting greater and greater individuality. First we asserted the eternity of our individual souls, then we asserted the dignity of our individual selves and our rights to be free from oppression and to pursue happiness in our own ways. And yet, at the very moment before the West’s greatest triumph, only two years before the two largest nations on Earth freed their slaves and the majority of the Earth was nominally free, a scientific theory with overwhelming proof presented itself, demonstrating that the self is not all that important.

Two new questions: 
1. If evolution by means of natural selection is true, does this mean that the self not important? 
2. If the self is not important, how can we live our lives pretending it is?

In an era that seemed to eventually attain every individual right, the truth of evolution is the most crushing possible realization. We’ve been dealing with its ramifications for more than 150 years, and we’ll deal with them for many centuries yet. It may yet be as crushing a trauma for many as the realization as the realization was a millenium and a half before it that there is only one God to whom a person can entreat for favor, and not many Gods whose favors we can play off of each other. Either one is a realization as traumatic for those who believe it as those who doubt it, because it causes people who believe and doubt passionately that the only way to forward their cause is to murder those who think differently. Because no matter how what progress we’ve made, no matter how far we’ve separated ourselves from nature’s cycle, no matter how much we strive toward infinity, no matter how much our individual selves seem able to soar with the heavens, we all will die, our substances will return to Earth and eventually become indistinguishable from the dirt in which we’re buried. We were once the dirt of the earth and the dust of the air, but our matter will become is the soil from which other forms of life will grow. Perhaps a much more accurate rendering from John’s Gospel is 12:24:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.  

So let me ask a question: If there were indisputable evidence of God’s non-existence, what are the ramifications for mankind?

Marx, who lived in London for the majority of his life, read Darwin with great interest. Marx believed himself the Darwin of the Social Sciences who discovered immutable truths about human nature which made economics, history, and philosophy into hard sciences with no less empirical proof than biology or physics. Human beings, with all their vaguaries  When he died, his partner Friedrich Engels eulogized him as social science’s Darwin at his grave. But Marx was not a scientist, and in some ways he was not a social scientist either. He was, in some ways, a religious seer who had a vision of a human future, a vision that sees human beings not as individual to individual, but as a machine, shaped by other machines, in the process of history..

Marx does not believe that our sentience makes us an object above nature. We are a natural creature; an animal like any other animal. All natural things which apply to other animals apply to us - a belief which Darwin in many ways vindicated.

According to Marx, humans differ from animals in their ability to create tools - not use them, but create them. And because we can create tools to help us provide for our basic necessities, our relationship to nature has been altered and thrown off-kilter. With every new tool we change nature itself, and there comes a new necessity which this tool creates, which creates the necessity for another tool, which creates a vicious cycle of need. Therefore, for Marx, technology was human nature itself. Technology is responsible for creating human history, and responsible for however we’ve evolved since becoming human beings. People are not different from each other by any difference in their “human natures,” which according to Marx is an unverifiable metric, but because of what they have to do in order to meet their basic needs.

Two New Questions: 
1. Is human nature an unverifiable metric? 
2. And if it isn't, is human individuality also unverifiable?

There is a lot of jargon in Marxism that would take a class of its own to explain. So I hope everyone who knows anything about Marxism realizes that I know I’m simplifying absurdly, but nevertheless, we’ll use a bit of it. Marxists believe that tools and technology form the very questions which people ask, the answers they provide, and the ideas which people form. The questions materialists looked forward to answering were nothing more than ideological constructs made by the class who controls the technology to justify keeping it in their hands. One of his famous quotes is that “The windmill gives you society with the Feudal Lord: the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” No doubt had he lived long enough, he’d have said “The car assembly line gives you society with the multinational corporate board, the internet society with the national security state.” And just as he had then, he’d have a legitimate point.

So let me ask another question: Do we shape the technology, or does the technology shape us?

According to Marx, the answer is obvious. Technology shapes us, and since technology is always evolving, we are always evolving with it, and there is therefore no fixed human nature or human individuality. Obviously, the worldview of people who control technology is different than the people who are enslaved by it, so, once again, his point is legitimate. And in this sense, he is the very opposite of Hegel, whom we’ll talk about much more in later classes. To put it very simplistically: Hegel believed that we humans shape the material world through our false perception of eternal world, to which we are arriving at points ever closer to truly seeing by means of a process he calls the ‘dialectic.’ The dialectic is a very jargony word, but it’s an important one. It means that every subject, every truth, every thought and action, every assertion or ‘thesis’, has a shadow self, an opposite truth or thought or possibility, a doubting opposite which we called an ‘antithesis,’ when we combine the two, a process called ‘synthesis’ we arrive at a place closer to the true reality. The most famous example Hegel gives is that pure life or ‘being’, is almost indistinguishable from death, ‘nothing’. We are living and accumulating the experiences of our lives at every moment of it, and yet at the same time we are dying by the very fact that we are alive. And because every one of us is both life and death, pure being and pure nothingness, we are a synthesis of the two  - ‘becoming.’

So here’s another question: Can people name examples of the dialectic in Politics?
How about Science?
Or the Arts?
Or personal lives?

Marx also believes in the dialectic, but whereas Hegel sees the development of man as an internal process at which our perceptions always get closer to the truth, Marx sees the development of man as completely external - a material need brought on by technological innovation, and therefore we are always at war with one another so that our material needs are provided for. Marx refers to these various groups of people at war with one another as ‘classes.’ Each class is banded together by mutual interest - the acquisition of an object that will best provide them with greater satisfaction.But since greater satisfaction is often obtained at the expense of other people, there is always a class of people who are subjugated by those people who are in a position to seize control of the technology which shapes us (or what Marx calls the “Means of Production”), and whose material needs are therefore met far less often. When you view the world through that prism, the entire story of humanity can, and probably should, be seen as the story of one class to justify their power and labor extortion from lower classes so that this ‘ruling class’ can live lives of greater satisfaction. In order to do this, their subjects are required to subsist on just enough to keep them alive and productive - a process which Marx calls “surplus value.” And from this process is the need for “capital” formed, a term which in Marx’s case is mostly utilized as a less specific way of saying ‘money,' but can also include 'goods', and 'favors.'

New question: If 'surplus value' is a true concept, what are the surplus value items which we give to the working class in our country?

Now here’s where the dialectic comes in: Since the Ruling Class must employ ever-new technologies to keep their hold on the Means of Production, they must give their subjects ever-new technologies to master, and the subjects acquire ever greater abilities, which eventually give them the ability to overthrow their masters, and these rebels then become the masters themselves - thereby creating a new level of history which then creates its own culture and laws and philosophies and customs and social structures for its particular era - structures from which it is impossible to extricate one’s self to see past. Marx believes that it’s impossible to see past the social structures of our era to the truth. Nevertheless, people insist on seeing the truths of their era as universal. This is a process which Marx calls ‘alienation.’ According to Marx’s process of alienation, what we see as universal truth is nothing more than the justification given by a higher class to oppress a lower class. Everything - money, law, institutions, morality itself, even scientific and mathematical discovery (though not math and science themselves), everything believed in by everyone from the richest man to the poorest - is just the institutional means of keeping the ruling class in authority. The ruling class not only controls the means of production, the ruling class controls thought itself, and every life within this social structure becomes its own kind of prison, in which we completely lose sight of life’s natural, biological balance. Even the pattern of thought which each person holds (which Marx calls ‘ideology’) their values and beliefs, is determined by their place in the economic firmament (which Marx calls ‘superstructure’).

A different question: What are examples of allegedly universal truths that when you scrutinize them seem self-serving to us as privileged people attending a self-education class on a Sunday afternoon?

This is Marx’s vision of the dialectic. To Marx, our lives exist in history’s whirlpool, a spiral in which one class is constantly throwing over another. It’s a process which only ends when the lowest of all classes, the “Proletariat,” which possesses nothing and is treated as a commodity, rises up successfully against their oppressors that history will reach its logical end - both an end in the sense of time and an end in a sense of logical purpose. When the proletariat finally rises up, there will be no class left to oppress, and humankind will be free and equal, with no meaningful differences from person to person, and there will no longer be need for class war. Institutions which were once used by one class to oppress another will now be used purely for mankind’s benefit.

So here’s another question: What are the potential pratfalls of this particular worldview? (wait for someone to bring up dogmatic similarities to religion)

Here’s a quote from a great thinker from the second half of the twentieth century named George Steiner:

(call on reader)

“The political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts, more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent, to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology… The decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine… had left blank essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct. It is to these issues… that the great anti-theologies, the meta-religions, of the 19th and 20th centuries address themselves… The body of thought [possessed by these new mythologies] must make a claim of totality … It must affirm that the analysis which it puts forward of the human condition, of man’s history, of the meaning of your and my life, of our further expectations, is a total analysis. A mythology in this sense is a complete picture of Man in the World… It invites, if the mythology is an honest and serious one, disproof or falsification. A total system, a total explanation, falls down when and where a substantive exception, a really powerful counter-example, can be produced. It is no use trying to patch up a little corner here, or adding a bit of glue or string there. The construct collapses unless it is a whole… A mythology will have certain very easily recognizable forms of beginning and development. There will have been a moment of crucial revelation, or diagnostic insight, from which the entire system springs. This moment in the history of the founding prophetic vision will be preserved in a series of canonic texts… There will be an original group of disciples who are in immediate contact with the Master, with the Founder’s genius. Soon, some of these disciples will break away into heresy. They will produce rival mythologies,... the Orthodox in the great movement will hate such heretics, will pursue them, with an enmity far more violent than that which they bend on the unbeliever… A true mythology will develop its own language, its own characteristic idiom, its own set of emblematic images - flags, metaphors, dramatic scenarios - it will breed its own body of myth. It pictures the world in terms of cardinal gestures… The major mythologies constructed in the West since the early 19th century are not only attempts to fill the emptiness left by the decay of Christian theology and Christian dogma, they are themselves a kind of substitute theology. They are systems of belief and of argument, which may be savagely anti-religious, which may postulate a world without God, which may deny afterlife, but whose structure, whose aspirations, whose claims on the fidelity of the believer, are profoundly religious in strategy and effect.”

George Steiner - Nostalgia for the Absolute

So another question: If Steiner is correct, what are examples of these new mythologies?

Listen to the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto. The scholarly Marx wrote very dense, difficult prose, but Marx the agitator had a gift for rhetoric that sounds as though it comes from the Old Testament prophets. Listen to this passage from the beginning of the Communist manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a
word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an
uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary
reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.
The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.
Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Anyone who has tried to read Das Kapital will tell you, it’s an incredibly boring book. It is of interest to scholars, but it is not the Marx who inspired the masses, and if the masses were not inspired, Marx wouldn’t be of interest to most scholars either. The Marx that matters is in his public pamphlets, and obviously none moreso than The Communist Manifesto. Marx seeks to create a sense of two opposing forces, and he does so by hammering home every other word with its opposite. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guilt-master and journeyman, bourgeosie and proletariat, oppressor and slave.” Anyone who knows their Bible can’t read this passage and not think of Isaiah 5:20:

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

Or think of his famous line: “from each according to their ability to each according to his need.” Who that knows The Bible can hear that line and not think of Genesis 1:25: - “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”

Marx was the grandson of an eminent Rabbi, and there was simply no way he didn’t know those passages. Marxism inflamed the masses not because of its attempts at a scientific explanation, but because it was so anti-scientific. In a world in which the existence of God could finally be scientifically questioned, Marx provided one of religions first great substitutes. You could replace the perfect celestial kingdom with a perfect Kingdom on earth.

Another question: Do you believe that Marx’s vision is antithetical to human nature?

Marx’s vision is religious vision because empirical evidence is ultimately rather irrelevant to it. But let’s also be fair as we can. If Marx is ultimately a religious figure, then so are most pre-20th century philosophers, and no one moreso than Plato, the foundation on which Western Philosophy is built. Plato’s vision of the Republic is a vision of an ideal world supported by no evidence and requires the state to completely separate children from their parents, for its citizens to completely abstain from music, and have complete control over people’s education, their physical activity and their diet. According to Plato, a republican end involves a plethora of the most authoritarian means. But Plato’s belief in the Republic as the best government was in some senses proven by the last 250 years, in which a plurality of the world’s population lived longer and in much better conditions than ever before at a time when many governments gradually switched from autocracy to some form of republicanism. The Republic is not an ideal form of government, it’s might not even be a good one. But most people would agree that it’s proven to work better than anything yet tried. It took nearly twenty-five hundred years to for a type of republicanism to thrive that did not involve the most extreme forms of authoritarianism. Even if it seems unlikely from our vantage point, it is entirely possible that the far future will vindicate Marx just as we’ve vindicated Plato.

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