Saturday, February 7, 2009

Chapter VI

Since last Wednesday, I have thought often of Chapter VI. I must express my amazement at Mr. Darwin's boldness of inserting a chapter which highlights the difficulties of his theory. The move is endearing for its honesty. If the reader had not already thought of these objections himself, the reader's attention was drawn to them nevertheless. It is quite clear Darwin himself had long wrestled with these questions he had yet to fully answer. However, last Wednesday I raised the prospect of another motive for the chapter: Did he insert the chapter as a clever device to pre-empt his critics? Did he intend to shoot down contradictory arguments, to reduce them to flames and wreckage, before they had even been lifted off the ground and put into the air?

I doubt it. I cannot help but notice in the chapter Darwin gives a fair-minded deference only to the scientific objections which the reader could level at his theory, for instance, the absence of transitional organisms in the fossil record. Nowhere in the chapter does he address the question concerning man's origins, religion, and so forth. Those issues were omitted. Yet those issues were potentially of greater interest to a wide range of readership, in view of the response to the book, the vast mass of people not being interested or trained in biology (their loss). Those issues were the largest obstacles to widespread acceptance of his theory. Further, the people who entertained these questions infused their criticisms of Darwin with considerably more fire than is common in polite academic debate. Even geologist Adam Sedgwick, by no means a religious fanatic but nevertheless a proponent of natural theology, wrote he read the Origin with "more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. " He then compared Darwin's theory to a contemporary idea to use a steam train to fly to the moon, saying the two possessed about the same amount of logic and inductive reasoning. Ouch! That sounded like it was meant to sting! Now, if Darwin were to head off all his critics at the pass, he would almost definitely have addressed the religious question or even have defended the merit of his logic. Yet the chapter is silent on this.

I can only conclude Darwin was interested in factual, scientific, and more clinical objections to his theory and not a wider realm of unresolvable debate. What would be the point of addressing those questions? A fanatic, after all, is one who won't change his mind and won't change the subject. Darwin would have made better use of his time employing his head in an aggressive fashion toward a brick wall. No chapter would have softened the impact of his work. No chapter would have quelled debate and made the Origin less controversial at that time and at that place. In laying forth in an honest and humble fashion the gaps in his theory, Darwin had in mind those who would approach the topic along the lines of his own logic, deeply embedded in evidence, the scientific method, and the facts. In light of the violent response to his work Darwin must no doubt have anticipated at the time of writing, it is not surprising he should isolate himself to a certain degree from those who had no interest in discussing the topic scientifically. I read in Browne's literary biography that Darwin generally left polemical debate on 'larger' questions to others like Huxley. Furthermore, his disdain for his "theological and metaphysical" critics I thought was plainly apparent in a quote from last week's readings in response to Sir Wyville Thomson, (who has my every sympathy for his first name, Victorian parents were cruel, I once read of a man named L.G. Trotter, or Lemuel Gungulfus): "This is a standard of criticism not uncommonly reached by theologians and metaphysicians when they write on scientific subjects, but is something new as coming from a naturalist." This gently implies, of course, that one, Sir Wyville's criticisms were unworthy of his standing at a naturalist, and two, the standard of criticism of theologians and metaphysicians were smitten by some form of infantile paralysis of the intellect.

Darwin, it seems, was concerned with the realm of factual debate. He had little time or patience for controversy, notwithstanding how much of it his book produced. In writing Chapter VI he was concerned with the mechanics of his own theory, not with how others might perceive it. It is often a scholarly device to pre-empt objections by including such a section in this work, or at any rate having it exhibited meekly in a footnote. However, it takes a great deal of confidence to place it at great length in a full chapter, smack dab in the middle of his book. Had Darwin been less knowledgable about his theory, and less capable in its presentation, such a bold display in Chapter VI would have resulted in his theory sputtering out rather than gaining credibility. It would have confirmed doubts rather than encouraged discussion about their resolution. I have actually witnessed the former process in other works written by those a bit too confident in their ability to refute criticism. Those people should stick to their footnotes and endnotes. Darwin on the other hand, knew his subject, and was willing to receive criticism along technical lines. But it is apparent he was not very concerned with other kinds of reproach. The fact that non-technical objections would dominant the reception of his book by the public but had no place in his modest reappraisal shows that Chapter VI was by no means inserted to manipulate the reader. Above all, it demonstrates a devotion to the pursuit of the facts, which in my opinion is admirable.

(It was interesting to note that this "valiant seeking after truth" is often considered naive by many people today. But I suppose that is because we are in a profoundly advanced postmodern age, or so they tell me, where we cannot express the facts, but can only express arguments and theories convincingly disguised as the facts. What cynicism! That is probably why some including my-poor-jaded-self might suspect Chapter VI was designed as rhetoric to manipulate the reader. Admittedly we see it far too often nowadays - especially in history, take it from me. The problem today, it seems, is although people are usually far too smart to believe in rhetoric, they are not nearly stupid enough to believe in facts. And so they settle for rhetoric anyway.)


Dr. Fox said...

Hi David,

I'm intrigued to see a historian such as yourself impressed by Darwin's approach, and bothered by the rarity with which scholars in your own field take a comparable approach. Many scientists take it for granted that scholars in the social sciences and humanities are relativists, and so aren't even looking for 'the truth' (because they would deny that such a thing even exists).

Of course, as noted in class, scientists today certainly do all kinds of things that would make Darwin uncomfortable--cite the evidence selectively, pretend that their work has much broader implications than it does, etc.

This isn't to say that the notion of "facts" isn't problematic, or that simply knowing enough "facts" is a straightforward way to decide whether or not a theory is true. For instance, even if Darwin had encountered a few facts he didn't think he could explain, he surely had enough facts that he could explain that it was worth publishing his theory as deserving of serious consideration. But deciding when a theory is successful enough to be worth pursuing further is always a judgment call.

And maybe there are sometimes good reasons for putting a "spin" on the facts. For instance, as a reader, I find history much more palatable if it's given narrative shape. I'm probably not alone in this, as the continuing popularity of historical fiction attests (although I'm not into historical fiction myself--why layer a fictional narrative on top of the "real" narrative?). Narrative history is always contrary to the facts in some sense, since there's no reason why history should build to a climax, or have heroes and villains, or etc. But non-narrative history is just too dull for me (sorry!).

David Baker said...

I am a big fan of historical narrative. Aesthetics in history are important, and an art to learn. It makes sense, when inundating the reader with facts we should give them added significance, and unfurl before the eyes of the reader the majestic unfurling scroll of human destiny.

However, most scholars these days leave out a narrative, but still manipulate the facts, as odd as that sounds, claiming the truth does not exist. They spend their careers not seeking to recreate what really happened but arguing some obscure philosophical point as a pure intellectual exercise or advancing a convoluted political agenda.

Consider me one of the naive idealists who still believe that history, starved of the truth, must inevitably wither on the vine, if not die.