Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Robert Darwin, Born 12 February 1809


AUTHOR: Charles Darwin

SOURCE: Origin of Species

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill (following the excerpt)
"In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

"Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species of each genus, and all the species of many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct. We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
- Charles Darwin,
On the Origin of Species
[pages 488 to 490]

**********************************************************************************
COMMENTARY:

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln). Just a few comments about this anniversary and about the passage, above (from the end of the first edition of the Origin of Species).

• Here is how Darwin felt on the morning of 12 February 1859 (the year the Origin of Species was published), according to a letter he wrote to W. D. Fox:
"I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head…

Doesn't sound much like a man who was about to turn the whole world upside down, does it? Darwin was a chronic hypochondriac, and this account of a "bad morning" was pretty typical.


• Years ago I created, directed, produced, and starred in a one-man play called "An Evening with Charles Darwin," based on excerpts from Darwin's correspondence and autobiography. In it, I had the character of Darwin (in the last year of his life) talk about the coincidence of his birthday falling on the same day as that of Abraham Lincoln. This coincidence is significant from a biographical and historical standpoint because Darwin and his family were firm and outspoken abolitionists, and counted Abraham Lincoln among their moral and political heroes. Although I am not aware that Darwin ever mentioned this coincidence, I found it useful for his character to mention it in the play, as it illustrated a facet of Darwin's personality that is rarely mentioned in popular biographical treatments of his life and character.

• In predicting the future impact of his theory, Darwin mentioned specifically only psychology and human evolutionary history. As a partisan for evolutionary psychology, I find this both gratifying and curious. Gratifying, because we really are beginning (finally!) to base psychology on "a new foundation" (i.e. comparative human ethology) and are starting to investigate how (and even, in some cases, when) "each mental power and capacity" was acquired. It's an exciting and very productive time to be working on these subjects!

• Sharp-eyed readers will note the lack of reference to "the Creator" in the final paragraph. This passage is taken from the first edition of the Origin, published in 1859. In that original edition, Darwin wrote
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one..."
Poetic, but more to the point, clearly not theological, as asserted by some creationists, who are motivated to show that even Darwin refers to creation in the Origin.

• However, Darwin does refer to the Creator, even in this first edition:
"To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual."

From this passage, it is clear that the full extent of the intervention in nature by the Creator was to establish the natural laws that govern what happens in nature. Throughout the Origin, Darwin makes it clear that it isn't necessary to ascribe any other kind of intervention into by Creator, for any reason. Therefore, the Creator cited by Darwin in this concluding passage is clearly the kind of God venerated by Deists. And Deism, as Will Provine and others have repeatedly pointed out, is functionally equivalent to atheism. A Creator that is, by His own choice, constrained to function entirely through the laws of nature (which He Himself created) is unnecessary for the creation and implementation of "secondary causes" (i.e. everything that happens after the universe and its governing laws have been created).

• Think of the courage it must have taken for Darwin to publish the Origin:
"Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created." [emphasis added].

Despite his modest fame among the educated public as author of the
Journal of the Voyages of HMS Beagle
and his reputation among naturalists as the author of four monographs on barnacles, Darwin was essentially an amateur naturalist who dared to propose a theory that was in direct opposition to the publicly stated positions of the most admired professional naturalists and scientists of his time, not to mention two millennia of European history and politics.It is a measure of his confidence in the truth of his own ideas and observations that he went ahead and published the Origin. After that, writing and publishing The Descent of Man... would have been a relative cakewalk.

So, happy birthday, Charles Darwin (and all of his admirers out there in cyberspace) – Many happy returns!

--Allen

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3 Comments:

At 2/12/2009 01:58:00 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Great post, Allan.
From this passage, it is clear that the full extent of the intervention in nature by the Creator was to establish the natural laws that govern what happens in nature. Throughout the Origin, Darwin makes it clear that it isn't necessary to ascribe any other kind of intervention into by Creator, for any reason. Therefore, the Creator cited by Darwin in this concluding passage is clearly the kind of God venerated by Deists. And Deism, as Will Provine and others have repeatedly pointed out, is functionally equivalent to atheism.

Not sure if this follows, however. A classical Thomist, I think, would agree that no other intervention is necessary in nature, except for act of keeping nature in existence. As such, he is not the kind of god venerated by Deists.

 
At 2/12/2009 04:16:00 PM, Blogger Larry Moran said...

This coincidence is significant from a biographical and historical standpoint because Darwin and his family were firm and outspoken abolitionists, and counted Abraham Lincoln among their moral and political heroes. Although I am not aware that Darwin ever mentioned this coincidence, I found it useful for his character to mention it in the play, as it illustrated a facet of Darwin's personality that is rarely mentioned in popular biographical treatments of his life and character.

I think you're wrong about this.

As Janet Browne writes in her autobiography, Darwin and his family were disappointed that Lincoln chose to preserve the Union rather that take a moral stance against slavery.

Later on in the war Lincoln decided to make slavery more of an issue but most abolitionists didn't believe his heart was really in it.

For most of his life Lincoln was not in favor of treating blacks as equals.

I doubt very much that the Darwins and the Wedgewoods ever considered Lincoln to be a moral hero. His correspondence with Asa Gray clearly shows that Abraham Lincoln was not a political hero either.

 
At 2/22/2009 11:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the biggest impact of evolutionary theory on the human psyche? There's a generally unrecognized conflict between the "gift of the superior genes" and that evolution is all about changing genes -- radically changing genes. I tried to reconcile our feelings about this in a little song I wrote for a NY Times blog. I share it here.

YOUR GREAT, GREAT [ellipses] GRAND DAD

See that squirmy little thing in the muck?
With no brains or money but a lot of luck
He lived about a billion years ago
Here’s something you don’t know

Well,… he’s your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand dad
Aren’t you glad?
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy

And you thought you had special genes
And that you were descended from kings and queens
But when you go back far enough
You’ll find you came from icky stuff

Take a look at your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand dad
Aren’t you glad?
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy

No mouth, no lips, no whistles or bells
Just a blob of endoplasmic jell
So, take pride in your family line
It started with that piece of slime

Don’t forget he’s your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand dad
Aren’t you glad?
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy

You can see why you have a high IQ
And deserve what’s been left to you
It all depends on inheritance
It’s just no coincidence

You’re a lot like your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand dad
Aren’t you glad?
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy

What comes up must come down
What comes around goes around
Maybe that’s the special destiny
Reserved for your progeny

They’ll be just like your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand dad
Aren’t you glad?
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy

One more thing to end this song
He lived before sex came along
So he didn’t need to date
All he did was replicate

So he’s also your great, great, great, great…
etcetera, etcetera, great grand mother
Don’t you shudder!
There’s no chance of inferiority
When you come from such genealogy
— steve long

 

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