A Darwinian Ramble


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.

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Had I an ear for foreign tongues, French would fizz through my synapses in an embrace of lilac and elegance. The wine would be good too. Anglo-Saxon would flood my veins with tribal bonds and hard sinews, and roast meat, when you could get it. Icelandic and Old Swedish would carry me home to lands of ice and sea and foam and goddenknowing — the home of my ancestors. The gods know I hate mead. It’s a good thing I’m stuck in English, the earthy, quirky, surprising language mashed together from an Anglo-Celtic-Danish-Norman-Latin-and-less-Greek parentage. Stir in an industrial revolution, an electronic revolution, not to mention a few wars and the threat of the BIG bomb, pop some guys to the moon and back, joystick a rover on Mars, and whaddaya get? English. Hey, kiddo. Ya still with me? English is the best ride in the linguistic universe. Death-defying, roller-coaster spelling. Split into pools of speakers around the world who all think it’s the others who have an accent. And from the fifth grade when the first time you tried to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and got it right and can still do it but damned if you can remember how to spell covfefe without looking it up — I mean it’s an adventure, this English. One lifetime devoted to it is scarcely enough. To thee, or not to thee, English is the Hamlet of languages.

— Gene Wilburn, 6 Jun 2017

Life on the Trumpoline

Life on the Trumpoline

By Gene Wilburn

“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” ~ Monty Python

What irritates me the most about Donald Trump is that I have to think about him at all. I’m not a political person by nature and when it comes to governments I’m kind of a you-do-your-thing and I’ll-do-mine type. Try not to do anything too stupid, and I’ll do likewise. If too much negative stuff comes to my attention, I won’t vote for you next time. Up to now this has always been a more-or-less fair trade-off because the governments of the US, Canada, and the UK have been more-or-less sensible. They seemed able to get on with their business in fairly predictable, if muddling, fashion without needing my constant worry or scrutiny.

Lately, though, my concentration has been constantly interrupted by the strangest event in US history: the election of a reality-TV host who makes daily Twitter postings to vent his spleen, who tells Americans the mainstream press is the enemy of the people, who threatens, and when he can, fires all who don’t agree with him. He’s the Man Who Would Be King. Like most naive watchers, I assumed the office of the presidency would reshape him into something more restrained and, with luck, something a little more dignified.

What I hadn’t realized was that he would bring to office with him a group of Neo-Antebellum types who, given their druthers, would strip the US of all the progress it’s made made over the past several decades in the way of civil rights for all citizens. Or to strip away affordable medical care from everyone.

These are not normal day-to-day Republicans. They are people who ran Breibert News to spread false news stories, whacky conspiracy theories, hatred for Islam, anti-science propaganda, and a worldview whose only real message is White Supremacy and unrestricted corporate license. People who seem itching to get into a big war against some foreign government or other. People who espouse a fiery brand of righteous fundamentalist Christianity that is mostly about hatred and intolerance, all under the rubric of “making America great again.” Actually, America was doing pretty well before these people popped up like toadstools after a rain.

The mainstream news analysts can describe all of this better than I can. What I think about are the many others like me (millions?) who find this all a bit much, and whose psyches are being disrupted by a daily assault on reason and sensibility.

If you’re old enough, you may remember as a teenager listening to AM radio at night when you could dial in a good rock station from far-away Oklahoma or California that would fade out for awhile and some other staticy station on the same frequency would drift in and it might be a preacher or a newscast or a country music station, then the rock station would fade back in and for awhile they’d both be at the same volume and your brain would kind of bifurcate and try to process both stations at once, trying to separate the wheat (rock music) from the chaff (everything else). We weren’t meant to live that way, but that’s what’s happening to us now.

This New World is especially hard on those of us who suffer from depression. People aren’t mean to live on edge all the time. We need buffer zones — places or practices to give our minds soft landing points during the day, be it meditation, cozy mysteries, food preparation, yoga, a walk in the park, extra naps, Tai Chi, or music and art. Thoreau described himself as a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms.” I practice relaxation exercises and watch our backyard squirrels and birds from the kitchen window. Things that slow me down and soothe my psyche.

One of my problem areas is Facebook. I love Facebook for sharing art, kibitzing with my many talented, bright friends, sharing interesting developments in science and technology, and just generally keeping in touch with the people and seeing what they’re up to. But since the US election campaign started, the political news stories have started to dominate the feeds and an element of darkness has come over Facebook, filled with fear and loathing and little of it in Las Vegas. With Trump in the White House, it’s become the Big Shop of Horrors.

One of the solutions, of course, is simply to unplug from Facebook, and, in fact, I have friends who take Facebook breaks. Some have never come back, more’s the pity. Without the politics, Facebook can maintain a warm community of caring folk. But that’s just it. They’re caring folk, and they care about what’s happening south of the border. We all do. The US is a great country, seemingly on the verge of institutional, or perhaps constitutional, collapse.

In dealing with Facebook, I’ve discovered an interesting technological phenomenon. Facebook has more impact on a tablet using the Facebook app than it does when accessed via a browser on a computer. Because you hold an iPad or equivalent up close to your face, Facebook is literally “in your face.” Images and memes have greater power when viewed this way. When it’s positive, it’s lovely. When it’s negative, it triggers anxiety faster than it does in a browser.

The only tip I can pass on is this: when Facebook gets too much, delete the app from your iPad and switch to a browser. It makes the ugly stuff a little easier to take somehow. In a twist on Marshall McLuhan, it’s a case of “the medium is the messenger.” Removing the tablet app is the satisfying equivalent of shooting the messenger. At times one has to take pleasure in small acts of defiance.