Monday, April 13, 2009

Charles Darwin's Place in History

Surveying what often seems to be the purposeless waste of history from ancient empires to modern times many have sought refuge in the thought that the one thing worth struggling for amidst wars, famine, and utter disaster is a greater understanding of the universe: who we are, where we came from, and what in the blazes it all means. Often, however, the protagonists in historical writing are those chieftains and knights, generals and politicians, who fight to preserve the liberty of others so they may pursue those questions in whatever way they see fit, by way of whatever religion, science, or philosophy they may choose. No statesman or general has a precise knowledge of the universe and never has all the answers, but part of their noble struggle is to provide for their peoples the opportunity to live, breath, and think, in the hope that one day someone might discover the answers they themselves are unable to seek. By devoting their lives to serving and protecting others they enable people of all backgrounds to discover the laws of the universe and find meaning in their lives in various and diverse fashions. One of the most sublime shining lights in the senseless struggle and slaughter of human history is to keep alive a glimmer of hope that one day our understanding of the universe may be furthered.

Only a minority of historical tracts actually spend much time focusing on the result of those endeavours. Historians focus on human movements and in their narratives too easily take the progress of science and discovery for granted as a gradual process which forms 'the background' of dramatic tales of battles, corruption, and human frailty. But those people in 'the background' are often some of the most decisive and dynamic of all those who forge human destiny, without whom our story would be completely and irrevocably altered. Darwin was one of those people.

On the Origin of Species drives home, to my mind, how the progress of civilisation, its science and ideas, is entirely dependent on solitary human action. Darwin devoted much of his life to amassing facts and developing his theories. It was a labour of love. He anticipated to a staggering degree modern conceptions of evolutionary thought. What is still more impressive is how many of those ideas remained dormant and largely unappreciated while the debate raged all around him during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even now, people across the globe are still coming to grips with the full force and significance of his findings.

In reading the Origin I found one of the most impressive aspects of Darwin's theory was his insistence of a common ancestry and his definition of species. For Darwin, a species was defined by its degree of variation from other forms of life. In addition if one goes far enough back, one finds common ancestors for those species. Even while life on earth is constantly changing into wondrous new forms and is locked in a complex struggle for survival, all life itself sprung from a single source. Species may war against one another but their differences are subjective and not eternal, their rivalries and enmity natural, not mortal. The unity of descent is even more profound when narrowed to the human realm, undermining much of the theories of so-called Social Darwinists. In the great clashes of the twentieth century men were too quick to lay emphasis on the significance of being a 'separate race' of man. Little did many of them realise the man whose theory of 'survival of the fittest' they so eagerly espoused had one hundred years earlier concluded a common unity that connects intimately all life found on earth. How meaningless do the small differences between man and man, nation and nation, how trivial does the brief story of our tumultuous history seem next to millions upon millions of years of evolution!

Like all great discoveries, Darwin's theory of evolution raised as many questions as it answered. Perhaps infinitely more. The world after 1859 became a much less familiar place. The indisputable pillars of creation in religious faith were shaken. The nature of the universe became less clear. We have yet, with our ideas, to illuminate more than one bright spark of understanding in a vast darkness of endless space. And while science holds open the possibility of widening our understanding, most, if not all of us, will pass on from our short lives without much extending our sight. The souls of men and nations just as the fires of stars, however brightly they may burn, are destined to one day flicker out. As such skeletons, the ruins of temples and ancient cities, and the wastelands of dead stars and planets are remarkably similar. They are monuments of what was once alive and great but is no more. But what genius can those fires forge while they burn! Darwin's legacy is indicating to us how each passing life is part of a greater more magnificent process, sublime and of vast incomprehensible grandeur:

"There is grandeur in this view of life," he said, "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."

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