A Darwinian Ramble
By Gene Wilburn
I was always aware of evolution, in the vague sense that high school biology bestows, along with cell membranes, nuclei, zygotes, and stinky starfish dissection. It made a rough kind of sense and I was never a disbeliever, but I must admit my intellectual life received its biggest boost when I met Charles Darwin. Not literally, of course, but when you’ve read something someone has written, you do in fact meet them, in a virtual sense, and in that way my reading of Origin of Species granted me temporary access to one of the great minds of the Nineteenth Century.
Darwin’s prose style was honest and plain and his clear arguments persuasive. “Descent with modification”, or evolution, shaped life in all its enormity, complexity, and wonder, over time spans so long, with a past so distant, that the human mind can’t properly grasp the scale. Even today when the evidence pins the probable age of life on earth itself to over three billion years ago, that’s a meaningless number to us. After all, there are still extant cultures of hominid descendants who can’t count the number of pebbles in a bag because their native-language counting system goes “one, two, many.” Most of us are slightly more numerate than this, but beyond a small number set, we reach for a calculator. And so it is that we fail to fully appreciate the enormity of time.
Time. Deep time. In the same period as Darwin, Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes, and Lyell opened Darwin’s mind to the concept of deep time. Given enough time, the speciation Darwin observed, both natural and domestic, had long enough to split and join and migrate and split and join and migrate and split ad infinitum into the diversity of life that has become the hallmark of our planet. When you recall that this was the time period in which geological findings were contradicting the account of the world in Genesis, the concept of deep time was beginning to rock religious beliefs and hold them up for critical questioning. If the world was indeed as old as the evidence was indicating, it’s an astonishing change in world view from the 6000-year estimate provided by Bishop Ussher in the Sixteenth Century, based primarily on a literal reading of the genealogy of ancient Hebrew patriarchs.
Context is important. While I introduced myself to Charles Darwin’s chief opus and subsequently read the account of his travels which we popularly call Voyage of the Beagle, I was serving as head librarian in the research library of the Royal Ontario Museum where I was surrounded by volumes of archaeological field reports, geological works, palaeontological studies, books on natural history, and shelves of scientific journals. Better yet, I had become friendly with several of the life science and earth science curators who were happy to field my questions about the earth and the life upon it. As a bonus, some of the research staff held an annual Charles Darwin Birthday Lunch every February 12th at which one of the researchers would deliver a lecture on their own research and how it related to evolution. In this context, I picked up much additional knowledge of evolutionary theory and how it has evolved, expanded, and become more nuanced since Darwin’s day.
So what has this to do with my intellectual life? It changed everything. I read Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and started reading Stephen Jay Gould’s columns in Nature. Gould was one of my main influences and his works, collected occasionally into volumes of essays such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb stretched my appreciation for the complexity of dealing with such a broad topic as evolution. What these scientist-writers showed me again and again is how hypotheses must be modified when new, conclusive evidence comes along to change the original assumptions. I liked the idea of “evidence-based” knowledge — knowledge that is honest and, as far as possible, untinged by bias. Nobody can exist as a totally bias-free being, but most scientists try to limit their biases when dealing with evidence. Philosophically, this appealed to me. From Darwin I learned objectivity. From Gould, deep time. And from Dawkins, the concept that our entire world view can be inverted if we think of humans as the human genome’s way of reproducing itself.
But to a philosophical person, science is as limited by its materialistic outlook as it is strengthened by it. Before my “history of the planet and all its denizens over time” reading, I had already amassed a motley background of humanities studies with courses in literature, art, philosophy, history, and linguistics. My M.A. in English reflected more my interest in the English language itself, than in literature, though the literature was a great perk, showing the brilliant and beautiful ways the English language can be expressed in the hands of its best writers. From the humanities I derived a deep respect for what I’ll call the human psyche. I don’t like to use the word soul because of its religious and supernatural connotations. And if anyone asks, no, I’m not an “old soul.” I doubt such a thing exists.
But I do think there is a spirit in the psyche of humans that can, in the right circumstances, lead to a flowering of art, literature, and philosophy, as well as science. Ours has become an intensely philosophical age in the sense of ethics. What are the ethics of how we treat other people, especially minorities or factions that are different from our own norms and traditions? What is the morality of abortion? What obligation, if any, do the rich have toward the poor? Who should be entitled to low-cost or free medical care? Is “assisted suicide” more humane than aging into a shell of what one was? Is it okay to modify human genes? Or more generally, what is the good life, and how can we help more people on the planet achieve it? There are issues everywhere, to the point of psychological exhaustion that is sometimes reflected in political voting trends.
I remind myself that no age I’ve ever studied has had it easy. Even as many aristocrats enjoyed bounty, they relied on the work of terribly poor, overworked and often undernourished peasants to keep things running. And wars and uprisings could lay low even the aristocracy. The Twentieth Century, after the terrible world wars, seemed to offer the promise of bounty for all, via capitalist economies. In the Twenty-First Century we see a reversing trend, where wealthy plutocrats enjoy great bounty, and the working middle class is shrinking in North American and European countries. Authoritarian governments are becoming more numerous, and even in Britain, Europe, Canada, and the United States, there are populist stirrings among folk who are fatigued with issues and a sinking lifestyle and want to “punish” those in power by voting for autocratic candidates.
It is possible we might be headed for a more authoritarian age and will elect our way into a less democratic society. It is becoming an age of fear and anger among a large portion of the population. The main fear is change, along with a nostalgic longing for the 1950s when increasing prosperity was the norm, at least for large members of the white middle class. How we treated our minorities in the 50s is another matter.
The problem with this problem of resentment and fear is that you cannot go back in time, or as they say in Lit classes, “you can’t go home again.”
In one of the subsequent editions of Origin of Species Darwin introduced the Malthusian phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the thrust of evolution. In his later private writings he said he regretted using the phrase because it conveyed the wrong connotations. He wished instead he had said something like “survival of the most adaptable.” So much of modern life is about adapting to change. Those who adapt to the changes will be more likely to survive and, with luck, prosper. While nothing is guaranteed in life, staying nimble is a positive survival trait.
And so, I turn to Darwin for encouragement, even though it is stripped of religious and the supernatural:
There is grandeur in this view of life [natural history and evolution], 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.
We were not the first species on the planet, and we won’t be the last, but among those who truly embrace life in all its originality and variety, this is the time of humanity. Religion may offer people comfort, but philosophy asks the hard questions, such as what is our obligation to planet Earth itself? We have already driven many life forms to extinction, many just recently. Do we take a more caring role in our impact on the planet, or should we simply take, take, take until we, too, go extinct?
I have come to believe we need both science and the humanities to keep us on a rational course. We are from the earth and will each of us return to the earth. To a good evolutionist, such as I’ve become, that is it. So the intellectual question remains, if this is really it, how should one comport oneself, both socially and intellectually? The intellectual life is needed for perspective on questions like this and I think we must continue to learn and to educate, and, of course, adapt to the age in which we live. There is both power and positiveness in the human psyche. We have a brain unlike any other creature. Our obligation, it seems to me, is to use it.