Sunday, April 5, 2009

Quote of the Day (Hans Kung, on Charles Darwin)

“In (Charles) Darwin the two great scientific trends of the nineteenth century—natural science and the human sciences, which at first had developed on completely separate lines—came together. Nature and history were seen to be evolving in a single mighty natural-historical process which by the smallest steps over vast ages had produced all the wealth of the world and the abundance of its living beings.”—Hans Kung, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (1981)

On this date 150 years ago, Charles Darwin submitted the first three chapters of The Origin of Species to his publisher. That anniversary, along with the bicentennial of his birth celebrated two months ago, is a reminder of a peculiar cultural phenomenon of our time: no sooner do the apostles of rationalism tear off the haloes surrounding the old gods and saints than they promote their own heroes to secular canonization.

For nearly 70 years, Lenin’s Tomb became the Soviet Union’s counterpart to medieval shrines such as Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury. Since his assassination, John Lennon—who, in “Imagine,” sang of a world in which there was “nothing to kill or die for,/And no religion too”—has achieved a pop apotheosis as a visionary of the Age of Aquarius, a prophet of peace and light whose own darkness (sarcastic, cutting humor and substance abuse) ends up being glossed over.

There ought to be a way to talk about such figures without special pleading, in much the same way that we can now speak of the contradictions that led Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, to retain slaves throughout his lifetime.

At least Kung (and, before him, Teilhard de Chardin) sought to reconcile scientific inquiry by positing a God with a beautiful creation in mind. More secular advocates of Darwin, however, have not only ignored that approach, but have bleached out some of the darker stains on their hero’s legacy.

Case (very much!) in point: Adam Gopnik. Two and a half years ago, the New Yorker staff writer published an essay on the scientist. More recently, noticing the interesting coincidence that Darwin was born on the same date as Abraham Lincoln, he wrote another think piece on the President, then combined them into Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Like blogger Ross Douthat, I agree that for Gopnik, “where something more than cleverness is called for he's often at a loss, or else inappropriately facile.” Douthat was subjecting Gopnik’s “The Troubling Genius of G.K. Chesterton” to searching analysis.

“Troubling Genius” is a less appropriate title for the hyperprolific and largely happy Chesterton than for Darwin, a hypochondriac who spent years on his magnum opus—and only then rushed it into print when it became apparent that someone from out of the blue, Alfred Russel Wallace, was ready to proclaim the same theory of evolution after spending much less time testing and pondering it.

Moreover, though Gopnik made heavy weather out of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, he thoroughly airbrushed Darwin’s far more significant contribution to what may be two of the great horror stories of the first half of the 20th century: class exploitation and scientific racism.

I should state right here that I think the evidence of evolution is overwhelming. Moreover, despite the anti-science label slapped on groups indiscriminately lumped together as the “religious right,” many elements of the latter—including the Roman Catholic hierarchy—have no problem with the theory of evolution.

That is a far cry, however, from claiming, as so many of Darwin’s advocates seem intent on doing, that his thought is without fault. Early on, Herbert Spencer applied his phrase “survival of the fittest” to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America, Barry Werth is at great pains to reclaim the scientist from the American robber barons who quickly adopted “Social Darwinism” as their standard.

I’m afraid that this won’t fly, anymore than Gopnik’s notion that, despite sharing some of his age’s “gentry tastes and snobberies,” Darwin represented, like Lincoln, a new, more realistic form of liberalism. The most devastating assault on Gopnik’s fatuous arguments came two years ago from Peter Quinn, in his dissection of the “Gentle Darwinians.”

These apologists for the scientist have the equivalent of a ticking bomb in their hands: the utter readiness with which so many elements of the Victorian ruling class rushed to accept Darwinism, even pushing it into a realm pioneered by Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton: eugenics.

Naturally, following the Second World War, the idea that there could be superior and inferior classes of human beings acquired a distinctly unappetizing aroma. The Gentle Darwinians, however, attempted to sanitize their hero of any association with this discredited theory.

Unfortunately, try as they might, a large obstacle stands in their way: Darwin’s own words. By the time he wrote the second edition of The Descent of Man (1874), Darwin had not only taken to calling Spencer “our greatest philosopher” but had labeled Galton’s studies on intelligence and character “remarkable.”

Anybody who believes that Quinn is not giving Gopnik a fair shake ought to read the work of The New Yorker writer himself. You’ll see that Gopnik leaves himself so open for an intellectual takedown that he’s unintentionally engaging in self-parody.

Take the excerpt from his new book that appeared in The Smithsonian back in February. Let’s start with the way he mounts his major thematic hobbyhorse, that Darwin is some kind of prose master: “Darwin's work remains probably the only book that changed science that an amateur can still sit down now and read right through. It's so well written that we don't think of it as well written.”

Well, I had a somewhat different reaction when I was assigned to read The Origin of Species in my Contemporary Civilization class at Columbia University. It wasn’t only that I read another work—Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—that, for ease of reading (and love of intellectual combat), easily surpassed Darwin. No, it was the fact that, strictly on the merits of The Origins of Species, Darwin’s writing was not memorable or even particularly good.

When I read Gopnik’s observation, I blinked and asked myself, “Did I miss something?” But then, I came across a writer—far greater than myself, Darwin, or (can you imagine?) Gopnik—who felt the same way I did.

Irish playwright-novelist Samuel Beckett, I found out from a review of his recently published early diaries, purchased a copy of The Origin of Species, but came away with a pronounced case of buyer’s remorse, calling it “badly-written catlap.”

Elsewhere, Gopnik writes that for Darwin, “the habit of pontification was completely alien to him, unless it was reassuringly tied with a bow of inductive observation.” Put aside, faithful reader, how much you might want to wretch at that cute little “bow of inductive reasoning” and ask yourself if it’s really true.

After WWII, the cause of racial hygiene and its extreme uses—compulsory sterilization, immigration quotas—at home and in Nazi Germany inspired more than a little scientific skepticism. You won’t find any of that in Darwin, who quoted approvingly from studies remarking airily on the inferiority of the Irish and African-Americans to Anglo-Saxon stock.

Most damning of all, Gopnik would like to have it both ways: He claims repeatedly that Darwin freed the world from the shibboleths of churchmen in favor of “humanism, in flight,” yet he ignores the evidence that the eminent Victorian left the world in even greater thrall to the far more pernicious doctrine of racism.

If we’re going to think of Darwin in any kind of adult way, we’d do well to consider how we regard the work of another scientist: Thomas Jefferson. As the embodiment of the American Enlightenment, the latter produced, in Notes on the State of Virginia, an argument for the inferiority of African-Americans based on “observations” concerning their childishness, irrationality, even their “disagreeable odour.”

Two centuries later, though they give Jefferson full credit for his contribution to the cause of freedom worldwide, you won’t find many reputable historians excusing the astonishingly bad scientific thesis quoted above. Too bad that the same openness to spirited inquiry hasn’t yet been embraced by Gopnik and the other diehard advocates of Darwin.

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