by Thomas Jackson
In fact, fewer and fewer scientists accepted natural selection as the century went on. Wallace begged him to drop the term as selecting implied an intelligent, conscious creator, which was the very idea Darwin was supposed to be attacking. Darwin replied somewhat weakly that it was only a metaphor. After all, chemists talk of elective affinities in elements and gravity attracting. But such metaphors do not imply the very opposite of what is meant. A body blow was dealt by Lord Kelvin, the leading British scientist of the time, who showed that the earth was not old enough for Darwin’s theory to work. Radiation, which proved Kelvin wrong, and Mendel’s laws of inheritance, which between them triumphantly vindicated Darwin’s theory in the twentieth century, were unknown in the nineteenth. By the time he died even Darwin had severe doubts about his own theory. But on the other hand, after some initial huffing and puffing in 1859 the churchmen accepted The Origin without demur. When the far more radical The Descent of Man came out, a work in which Darwin came down most decisively indeed on the side of the monkeys, there was hardly a murmur. How are we to explain this? How are we to explain the way Darwin hung on grimly, in the face of so much opposition from his fellow scientists, to his version of natural selection, when his idea of genius, descent with modification as he had first called it, did not require nature daily and hourly scrutinizing or waiting incessantly ready for action, and all the rest of Darwin’s highly anthropomorphized account, at all? Why was Darwin so confused in his use of metaphor?
I was even more amazed when I read Darwin’s Beagle Journal than I was when I re-read The Origin. Why is it so little known? Here was the most poetic of souls writing about nature in some of the greatest prose poetry in the language. The natural beauty he encountered in South America, under the influence of von Humboldt the greatest scientist of the age, transported him into a kind of ecstasy. He was entranced by the sublime. ‘The delight one experiences at such times bewilders the mind; I am at present fit only to read Humboldt, he like another sun illumines everything I behold’ ‘The state of mind that grand scenes formerly evoked in me, and which was intimately connected with a belief in God, did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity.’ But in the most extraordinary way the inner feeling life of this wonderful man died in his middle age. He could now feel nothing. Music and art which he had loved so much now fell leaden upon him. ‘Grand scenes’ were no longer grand. Even his friends, Huxley and Hooker, meant little. The nature that he had actually experienced on the Beagle voyage put in no appearance in The Origin. It is the greatest tragedy in the history of science. The title of Humboldt’s own account of his South American experiences, A Personal Narrative, said everything about his approach to science. That of the English scientists to whom Darwin returned after his voyage could not have been more different. To them science was all about objectivity and deliberately cutting out any subjective reaction to nature. Beauty was not part of science’s remit but a merely personal emotion. Darwin’s heart, which had so totally belonged to Humboldt, was torn from his head. In the clash between heart and head the head won decisively. The great influence now was not Humboldt but Malthus. It was from Malthus that he got the idea that nature progresses through ‘war, extermination, disease and death’.
The science Darwin had learnt at Cambridge had taught him that the nature we see is a kind of illusion, behind it there is the true nature known only to science, the verae causae of the way things are. Behind the appearance of the wantonly happy creatures Paley had seen as evidence for the love of God, there is a grim truth. Would Darwin have swung so decisively over to this view if he had not suffered so total a personal feeling death? We shall never know. The Origin was such a hit with the Victorian public not because of the science, true as Darwin’s fundamental insight was, but because he gave them a new creation myth. Their belief in Genesis had already been weakened by Lyell’s geology and they no longer wanted to hear the message of Genesis that nature is beautiful and good because God made it so. They wanted to be told that their own social ethic whereby the strong succeed and the weak deservedly perish was a truth of nature, a vera causa. They wanted to be told that the true cause of things is ‘war, extermination, disease and death’. But war, extermination, disease and death do not cause anything. Natural selection is not a cause, but a consequence of modifications deep within organisms happening to profit from chance environmental changes. What is the cause, the vera causa, of those deep internal transformations? Darwin does not tell us. He saw Natural Selection as a God in reverse. He confused the truth of descent with modification with a metaphor drawn from Victorian capitalism. The tragedy is ongoing.
Now I think exposure to the mind of Aquinas was one of the most precious things that have ever happened to me. I left the monastery partly because all the praying didn’t mean all that much to me either. Now, somewhat to my surprise, it does.
Contemplative prayer has become extremely important, as is the numinous presence of the divine in nature. This is why I have become so interested in Darwin’s Beagle Journal.
Thomas' Memorable Release: Loveliest of Men: Darwin and the Tragedy of the Original of the Species
War, extermination, disease and death do not cause anything. Natural selection is not a cause but a consequence. The young Darwin's experiences of nature during his Beagle voyage were ecstatically sublime, recorded in his journal by one of the greatest prose poets who has ever written in English.
But in middle age this wonderful man died emotionally in the most extraordinary way. It is surely one of the greatest tragedies that has ever happened in the history of science.
Little of the glory and wonder of nature that he had actually experienced in South America made it into The Origin of Species. He over-emphasized the role of death, war and extermination in a way that has misled and perhaps even damaged us all.
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