Thursday, May 24, 2012

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 1

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
- Galileo Galilei
I have decided to cut my reactions to The Origin of Species into four sections as I am reading it.  In hindsight, I ought to have done this with Wealth of Nations as well.  I feel like 1/4th of this book will provide ample material to fill a blog post.

When I came to read this book, I half expected the central theme and thesis to be something along the lines of this:
"Peoples is monkeys and there ain't no God."
That is because, since early in the history of this book, that is how a good portion of Western organized religion has characterized Mr. Darwin's work.  I am given to understand that this included the former captain of HMS Beagle.  Darwin, along with Copernicus and Freud, deals one of the Three Major Blows to the Human Ego.  Its reception by certain types within religious circles has become a self-parody of the ostrich-like effects of insecure faith.  And, there I go, tipping my hand as to what I think.

I have been more than a little astonished to find, in recent years, certain members of the scientainment community arguing Darwin as if the Christian mischaracterization were accurate.  So, let me preface by saying that I am about to say some things that I know will make some group of people out there angry and/or feel the need to correct me.

I don't "believe" in Darwinian Evolution any more than I "believe" in plate tectonics.  It simply is.  I object to being called a "guided" evolutionist on the grounds that we don't feel the need to apply "guided" before "physics" or "gravitation."  I am a Protestant Christian with deep and heavy roots in Quakerism.  Therefore, I hold that there is a God, and that we humans, in our natural state, have a sin nature which separates us from Him.  He, in His infinite goodness, became human, was willingly sacrificed to atone for our sins, rose from the dead, and will return, and that all who believe in Him will have eternal life with Him.  This, to me, has nothing to do with what Mr. Darwin is writing about, save that we are able to better understand the workings and processes of the universe around us through the scientific method.  What Mr. Darwin had to say seems to be an entirely reasonable presentation of the observable facts available at the time, and the information available after him seems to only further back up the concepts.  I feel that people within my religion who fight so hard against this reveal some pretty hefty latent doubts.  I feel that a hoard of charlatans and carpetbaggers have exploited this false dichotomy.  There is an industry and people profit from it.  I can't say whether or not profit is their primary motivation.  Be that as it may, you can go into stores and spend money on things exploiting this false dichotomy.  This occurs on both sides of the argument.

I have no desire to discuss why people think I am wrong about what I've just written.  I am a little sad that I had to write all of that just to be able to talk about the ideas in the book that I'm reading.  I should have liked to have interacted with the ideas presented here without the loads of baggage.  But, don't let's set up camp there.

So far, this is largely a book about animal husbandry and gardening techniques.  It mainly reads more like this:
The emminent naturalist, to whom I am indebted for having shown me countless sketches of various beak types, Dr. Geisel states that a certain variety of Sneetches in generally clement and fair littoral climate have manifested a pattern surrounding their navel in a distinct pentagram while others in the same locale have no such marking.
(not an actual quote)

He will then explain why diet, climate, or some advantage has caused this change.  He will also talk about similarities or differences in producing these effects in domestic varieties.  This will go on for a page or two and then he will move on to some other bit of flora or fauna.

I wrote in the margins around the third chapter that, were this just slightly more pastoral, it would be exactly what I wished Thoreau was like when I was reading Walden.  It's like talking to someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of varieties of plants and animals.  He lists why certain birds have certain kinds of beaks, certain plants have certain flowers, certain shells in certain places are brighter than others in other places.  Let me put a fine point on this: This sort of thing is the bulk of what I've read in this book so far.

Of course, there are parts of this which argue against special creation, which is to say the idea that God created every variety of every plant and animal.  At this point in history, it would take a very special kind of person to actually make that argument.  We know that we made mules.  We are so far beyond this concept now that we are actually creating new forms of life.

Some of the language is a bit archaic, although I feel that anyone with a successful high school level education would find the book within the grasp of their comprehension.  There are portions where he talks about what he refers to as "monstrosities."  Yes, he is talking about cleft palets and microcephaly and those sort of things.  To my modern eyes, I found his liberal designation of disabilities as "monstrous" as, well, a bit monstrous.  Like a good scientist, he defines his terms:
 "By a monstrosity I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious to or not useful to the species, and generally not propagated."
I know that this is where some make the link to some of the more unfortunate ideologies of the early 20th century.  I would hasten to point out that Mr. Darwin is not putting a philosophy forward.  He is simply attempting to make objective observations about the available data.

Another area which pushes the envelope of my comfort zone is when he unabashedly admits to vivisection.  In fact, so far, for me that's been the most morally problematic section of Darwin.

The main point so far seems to be inherited traits, peculiarities appearing in similar times and circumstances, our known, observable, and re-creatable capacity as humans to employ selection in agriculture (think dogs and splicing produce plants.  Now think of dozens of pages of examples), observable instances of selection in nature without the guiding hand of man, examples from history (our hero Pliny once again makes an appearance to show that pears of antiquity were an inferior fruit, but have since been cultivated to one of the finer fruits), how diversity equals success (a concept which I am tempted to conflate into philosophy, but shall restrain myself in deference to our esteemed host), how the record of animals seems to focus almost exclusively on those animals which humans find useful in some way, how the struggle for life births variations which will tend towards survival (careful to note that this is not to be confused with willful selection, but rather an emergent outcome from conditions), and entropy as an essential.  At the end of one chapter, he gets as close to optimism as we're going to get in this work when he writes:
"When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply."
From what I know of Mr. Darwin's life, he was not a man I would describe as vigorous, healthy, or particularly noted for his happiness.

I wonder if Dr. Eliot might have placed this work at this point in our series, just after Adam Smith, to further explore the concept of an "Invisible Hand" which guides certain observable processes.  Our time is brief and nature's work is staggeringly long.  However, the minutiae counts in ways we couldn't have imagined.

We are that minutiae.

More soon.

1 comment:

  1. Voyage of the Beagle a more interesting read. Seems compulsory to have to state ones theological stance when discussing Darwin, he was not a happy man indeed, as a devout believer perhaps he realised the can of worms he was opening would taint and overshadow his name and reputation for a very long time.