Monday, March 9, 2009

Further thoughts on Chapters XIII-XIV

A few--okay, many--further thoughts on the last two chapters. May try to post with further thoughts on the Origin as a whole at some point, but I'll probably wait until around the time of the last class (but don't let that stop you from posting your own lookback on the whole "long argument").

1. The idea that classification was based on evolutionary principles without actually realizing it has intriguing implications. For instance, does that comprise evidence for those evolutionary principles? I'm reminded of the argument (discussed in one of Gould's essays, I believe) that biological species, as classified by taxonomists, are "real" entities because hunter-gatherer tribes classify organisms in the same way (i.e. they recognize each biological species as a distinct kind of organism and give it its own name). Or maybe that thought doesn't stand up to the scrutiny you all will surely apply to it next week as part of your discussion of Darwin's species concept. ;-)

2. I love the final passages of the Origin (from the bottom of p. 480 on) more than I can say. It's so satisfying to see Darwin rising to the occasion and finishing with a flourish. All the caveats and doubts drop away as he drives home the argument and its enormous implications. And it's beautifully written, it just sweeps you along. My highlights (warning: long list!):

(a) p. 481: "But the chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps." Yup (although I don't know that this is true of today's evangelical creationists; their unwillingness has other sources).

(b) p. 481: "Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume...I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the 'plan of creation,' 'unity of design,' &c., and to think that we give explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory...but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the questions with impartiality." Oh no he didn't! This is stunningly direct. He might as well have written "The close-minded old farts who dominate the field are so blind they can't even see that their so-called 'explanations' are empty. I can't hope to change their minds because science advances one death at a time. But history will show that I'm right and they're wrong." I'm sure this would read as arrogant--except that history did indeed prove Darwin right. As Reggie Jackson once said in a different context, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it."

(c) p. 483, the rhetorical attack on the emptiness of special creationist 'explanations': "These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced?...and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother's womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence." Wow. One gets the sense here that deep down Darwin is quite frustrated and even angry with special creationism. I imagine that, if one is an open-minded fact hound like Darwin, if one is absolutely determined to get things right, then one is likely to be very impatient with those who aren't equally open-minded and determined. And one is likely to be especially impatient with those who aren't even sufficiently open-minded to recognize and engage with questions so big as to demand an answer. Clearly Darwin took seriously the mottoes from Whewell and Bacon with which he chose to preface his book.

(d) p. 484: "[P]robably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed." Talk about following the evidence wherever it leads. At the time, it would've seemed like a very good question to ask just how far Darwin's argument goes. One might well have wondered, why couldn't there have been several or even quite numerous events of special creation (say, one per family), with evolution by natural selection merely driving subsequent within-family diversification? But there's no evidence for this, and so Darwin calls it like he sees it: the Tree of Life has one root. When I started reading the Origin, I was most impressed with Darwin's insight regarding the mechanism of adaptive evolution. But this passage really convinces me that his insight regarding the fact of evolution was equally impressive. Not only is there an evolutionary Tree of Life--it has one root! No pun intended here but--my God! I wish I could forget what I know about evolution and read that as it would've read to a Victorian. Because in all likelihood I'll never have the chance to be told something that astonishing about the world--something that runs so counter to my whole picture of how the world works. I'll never get to have my world turned upside down. Then again, if I was told something that would turn my world upside down, I'd probably dismiss it as wrong, if not crazy. I'd have to hope I had the insight of Thomas Henry Huxley, who wrote upon reading the Origin, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that."

(e) p. 485: "When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!" Great analogy. And a great summary of the modern scientific mind. To a scientist, things become more wonderful, not less, the more we learn about them.

(f) p. 488: "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Perhaps the most famous understatement of all time.

(g) p. 489. God love him, Darwin saves the best for last. Maybe for some people, the beauty of some famous passages of literature is dulled by familiarity. But for me, the final paragraph of the Origin, with which I was familiar before the term started, will never get old. Indeed, I used to regard it as merely a nice passage. But having read the book I now see it as it was intended, as a summary of everything that came before. And so now this passage impresses and thrills me more than I can say. I am not a religious person, and like many such people if you asked me, "So what do you believe in?" I would struggle to articulate a satisfying answer, by which I mean a spiritually (rather than intellectually) satisfying answer. But although I would struggle to speak for myself, I'm happy to let this passage speak for me. This is the best thing I've ever read:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the direct and indirect action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved.

Today's Supplementary

The line of demarcation between natural and artificial selection seems to become blurred if one views intelligence as a product of the mind which in turn was developed by natural selection. This point in itself is highly debatable and no doubt some of you will disagree entirely. Nevertheless, let us venture down Dennett's rabbit hole. Cutting to the chase, it does open the door for everything cultural, political, and economic to be explained in the framework of the "Darwinian Algorithm". The 19th century politician did it for national competition in the West and imperialism in the Third World, the 19th century historian did it for cultural transmission, and Margaret Thatcher did it for economics. The algorithm can be applied anywhere because of its unique and ingenious construction allows it to explain anything, (although this does not necessarily mean the explanation is correct, and Dennett even allows for an imaginary super-algorithm being produced someday that does the task even more efficiently.) The point is, it can potentially be applied anywhere. But the question is where it is most usefully applied.

Now I do hope I was not misunderstood in this "ought question". I was not raising an ethical question. That would have been very dull of me. More useful is the question of where the framework is of most use. If every nook and cranny of the living world can be explained along the lines of natural selection, that is all and well. However, an all encompassing theory has a tendency to get a little stale. If the theory potentially explains everything social scientists can all retire, unless they'd like to devote their careers to filling in the details. If so, I eagerly anticipate the doctoral thesis on how does Darwinian theory guides the ability of Midwestern American housewives to make chocolate chip cookies. However, one suspects it is rather inefficient to spend our lives explaining everything. Rather, it is worthwhile to focus on things that need to be explained. In the face of an all-encompassing theory, the fact seems self evident. Therefore, a more pragmatic question seems to be, how does it aid us in pursuing our respective topics? Is, for instance, the transmission of language and culture any better understood by cramming what we now into a Darwinian framework? To a significant degree that would justify a dissertation on the subject? (which, sadly, has already been written more than once) How is any particular topic more greatly elucidated by viewing it through such a lens? That is the question we must ask ourselves. We must selfishly ask whether thinking about it that way profits us and enhances our perspective, in the same way historians today consider the usages of a 'Gender lens' or a 'Marxist lens' when writing their histories. All these algorithms or frameworks belong to what is commonly called the 'methodological toolbox' from which they draw a perspective when it is found useful to the purpose.

Where is the 'Darwinian tool' most useful and best suited? The immediate answer seems to be the obvious one - the study of the evolution of species. Alternately, in the study of human activity from Capitalism and Freedom to Mein Kampf, social and economic theory has been written taking from quasi 'Darwinist' perspectives. Yet these writings deal with topics vastly different from those with which Darwin was concerned. Nor would Darwin have necessarily agreed with how his theory was applied. Not to dismiss the many ideas in the social sciences that could not have been generated without Darwin, many of these explanations of culture seem to be an intellectual exercise at best, and at the worst, a blatant subversion of Darwin's principles. There are many ways Darwin has influenced the social sciences, but his algorithm seems to have made tangible progress seems to have been made in the realm of biology. I cannot even begin to imagine how long that list may be. A lot of quasi-social darwinist prattlings, on the other hand, have turned out to be a highly decorative waste of time. I say this as delicately as I can, with many notable exceptions in mind, as well as bearing in mind the army of scholars who would take offence to such a sweeping remark and seek hang me from a lampost. Nevertheless, if a line of demarcation cannot be clearly made because Darwin's algorithm can be deployed everywhere, to explain even the products of the human mind, perhaps a line of demarcation can at least be drawn pragmatically and opportunistically, like a tool drawn from a toolbox, it is best suited to tackling certain kinds of jobs.