Wednesday, February 04, 2009

“The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather”

Sometime around the mid-1970's the term "Social Darwinism" came into vogue. It was an attempt by scientists to use the principles of evolution to describe human and social behavior. It didn't take long for critics to label Social Darwinists as racists -- arguing that a "survival of the fittest" argument by default assumes that the rich and powerful are evolutionarily superior.

Earlier this week, British newspaper reports that a recent poll of UK citizens revealed that: "More than half of the public believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a "designer" must have lent a hand, the findings suggest."

In this year of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, a bunch of new books offering revisionists perspectives on his life and work should be expected.
Indeed, the rush is already on. Christopher Benfey reviewed a couple of new ones in last week's New York Time Book Review. One in particular shed a whole new light on Darwin -- at least for me. (GW)

Charles Darwin, Abolitionist

Charles Darwin, a 22-year-old dropout from medical school who subsequently considered becoming a priest, boarded the Beagle in late 1831 and spent five years on the ship, traveling the world and collecting natural specimens. Despite its cuddly name, the Beagle was a naval brig outfitted with 10 guns. Darwin was a “gentleman dining companion” whose official responsibility was to provide civilized banter with the captain.

Darwin visited Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and Tasmania, along with other exotic locales, but he never set foot in the United States. Around 1850, charmed by popular tales of lush country­side and the exciting adventures of the Underground Railroad, and still withholding from public view his explosive theory of evolution, he flirted briefly with the idea of moving his large family, with seven children under the age of 11 and another on the way, to Ohio. The middle states, he wrote, are “what I fancy most.”

Two arresting new books, timed to co­incide with Darwin’s 200th birthday, make the case that his epochal achievement in Victorian England can best be under­stood in relation to events — involving neither tortoises nor finches — on the other side of the Atlantic. Both books confront the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on; both conclude that Darwin, despite the pernicious spread of “social Darwinism” (the notion, popularized by Herbert Spencer, that human society progresses through the “survival of the fittest”), was no racist.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a highly regarded biography of Darwin in 1991. The argument of their new book, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” is bluntly stated in its subtitle: “How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.” They set out to overturn the widespread view that Darwin was a “tough-minded scientist” who unflinchingly followed the trail of empirical research until it led to the stunning and unavoidable theory of evolution. This narrative, they claim, is precisely backward. “Darwin’s starting point,” they write, “was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’ ” of all human beings.

“The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather,” Darwin wrote, but his human grandfathers are more central to the circumstantial case that Desmond and Moore assemble. The poet-physician Erasmus Darwin and the industrial potter Josiah Wedgwood were close friends among a circle of mechanical-minded Dissenters from the Anglican Church. Darwin and Wedgwood shared a hatred of the slave trade, contributing money and propaganda — in the form of anti-slavery verse and ceramic curios — to the “sacred cause” of abolition. Wedgwood’s cameo medallion of a chained slave, with the caption “Am I not a Man and a Brother?,” was “a must-have solidarity accessory.”

Darwins and Wedgwoods mated for several generations, like an experiment in interbreeding, and the “sacred cause” was an inherited characteristic. Darwin’s mother, who died in 1817, was a Wedgwood; he himself married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. Concern for all things lowly was almost an article of faith for the Wedgwood cousins, who taught young Darwin to euthanize earthworms in brine before impaling them on a fishhook. Such compassion seems not to have been extended to the fish, nor to the 55 partridges that Darwin bagged in a single week of shooting. During his medical studies at Edinburgh University, he learned to stuff birds from a former slave whom he described as “a very pleasant and intelligent man.”

For Desmond and Moore, the voyage of the Beagle was less important for the accumulation of finches and barnacles than for giving Darwin an eyewitness experience of slavery, which “put shredded flesh on the Wedgwood cameo.” Particularly poignant was a scream overheard when he was canoeing through the “putrid exhalations” of mangrove swamps in the Brazilian interior. “To this day,” Darwin later wrote in his journal, “if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate.”

Darwin’s power, according to Desmond and Moore, lay in his marshaling an argument for the unitary origin and hence “brotherhood” of all human beings, and this, they argue, is precisely what Darwin achieved in “The Origin of Species” and later in “The Descent of Man.” The case they make is rich and intricate, involving Darwin’s encounter with race-based phrenology at Edinburgh and a religiously based opposition to slavery at Cambridge. Even Darwin’s courtship of Emma, whom he winningly called the “most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals,” is cleverly interwoven with his developing thoughts on “sexual selection,” the aesthetic preference for certain traits, like skin color in humans or plumage in peacocks, that over time leads to those super­ficial variations we mistakenly think of as “racial.”

But what if Darwin’s evidence had led to conclusions that did not support his belief in the unitary origins of mankind? Would he have fudged the data? Desmond and Moore don’t really address the question. One is left with the impression that Darwin was amazingly lucky that his benevolent preconceptions turned out to fit the facts.

In his lively and wide-ranging “Angels and Ages,” Adam Gopnik suggests that when facts and values clash we might live in accordance with our beliefs anyway. “It might be true — there is absolutely no such evidence, but it might be true — that different ethnic groups, or sexes, have on average different innate aptitudes for math or science,” he muses. “We might decide to even things out, give some people extra help toward that end, or we might decide just to live with the disparity.”

Gopnik’s short book takes its impetus from a striking historical coincidence: “On Feb. 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic.” Those babies, one rich and one poor, as in a plot of Mark Twain’s, were Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Though he makes some dubious claims about parallels — “lives lived in one time have similar shapes” — Gopnik’s real comparison is between two writers. “They matter most,” he claims, “because they wrote so well.” More specifically, Darwin and Lincoln, drawing on their seemingly unpoetic backgrounds in legal argument and natural history, invented “a new kind of eloquence” that we still use for “the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public.”

Both of Gopnik’s interwoven essays, originally published in different form as articles in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, involve mysteries to be solved. The first mystery is whether the secretary of war Edwin Stanton said by Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels” — whether, in other words, he invoked the consolations of historical memory or religion. Witnesses reported both. For Darwin, the mystery is why he delayed the publication of his theory of natural selection, with all essentials in place in 1838, for 20 years. Gopnik dutifully offers solutions to both mysteries, but his real interests lie elsewhere.

Gopnik is as convinced as Desmond and Moore that Darwin was no kind of racist. “The one thing that you could not read into Darwin’s writings was racism,” he writes. And yet, in another sense the books seem directly opposed. What Gopnik finds in Darwin’s early career is not some overarching moral principle but rather “pure plain looking.” What set Darwin apart was that “he liked to look at things the way an artist likes to draw, the way a composer likes to play the piano, the way a cook likes to chop onions.” Desmond and Moore think the key to Darwin was the lowly slave; Gopnik thinks the key to Darwin was the lowly earthworm, the subject of his last book. Darwin’s emphasis on “the homely, the overlooked, the undervalued” made him, in Gopnik’s view, both a great scientist and a great writer.

If Darwin’s eloquence rests on “the slow crawl of fact . . . building toward a big blade of point,” Gopnik finds a related eloquence in Lincoln’s preference for legal minutiae — “the close crawl across the facts of a case” — over grandiose oratory. In this regard, Lincoln and Darwin were “nearsighted visionaries.” Some of Gopnik’s best pages are extended analyses of passages in which Lincoln, in his great speeches, pursues “the drill of monosyllabic summation — the urge, natural to a lawyer, to say something hard one last time in short, flat words,” or in which Darwin finds evidence that the sexual passion of earthworms “is strong enough to overcome for a time their dread of light.”

For Gopnik, who has published popular books about the joys of parenting in Paris and New York, Lincoln and Darwin were down-to-earth because they were devoted “family men.” His attempt to find coziness in their family life sometimes verges on the sentimental, as he himself acknowledges. “We want the Darwins (like the Lincolns) to be loving and indulgent and attentive parents because then they will be like us.” Gopnik may be right that the early deaths of their children, Annie Darwin at age 10 and Willie Lincoln at 11, introduced a fatalistic note of tragedy — beyond what Lincoln called the “awful arithmetic” of the Civil War or Darwin called the relentless “struggle for life” — into their prose styles. But it is his astute analysis of those styles that shows us why these thinkers and writers, who maintained “a tragic consciousness without robbing it of a hopeful view,” have so robustly survived to our own time.

Christopher Benfey, the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author, most recently, of “A Summer of Hummingbirds” and “American Audacity.”


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