Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin Is 200 Today

The only science I was any good at in high school was biology. My level of learning in physics and chemistry was strictly remedial. But for some mysterious reason, I excelled in biology. Physiology, taxonomy, even basic biochemistry, I did well. I collected lots of stuff when I was a boy; seashells (the only things I bought and didn't collect myself), insects (my best finds were 2 magnificent scarab beetles in a pile of cow shit), leaves, animal bones (these used to just lie around all over rural Texas for the taking), fossils, I kept an aquarium stocked with native fish and pond life. I loved bird watching, and (like a lot of boys who grew up in Texas) I was fascinated with snakes and reptiles, especially the dangerous ones. Like so many, I took a special pleasure in being able to identify and name, to recognize.
Another part of growing up where I did was the constant background noise of fights between fundamentalist Creationists and atheists. Verbal smackdowns between the late Reverend Criswell of the First Baptist Church, and evangelical atheist, the late Madelyn Murray O'Hare, were standard teevee and radio fare in Dallas from the early 60s all the way into the 80s. As I got older, I found the whole argument to be sterile; bad religion meets bad science at gets nowhere.

If there's anyone more inimical to our bad habits of reductivism, reducing the messy complexity of life to religious or ideological formulae, it's Charles Darwin. Outwardly he was the most conventional of 19th century men; a retiring patrician English gentleman. And perhaps more than anyone else, even more than Karl Marx, he would turn that 19th century world of ancient presuppositions on its head. He knew the radical nature of his own ideas, and was originally determined to publish them posthumously until his hand was forced by the independent discoveries of Alfred Russell Wallace. As many have noted, Darwin's scientific writings have a tentative quality about them. He was not writing dogma, but proposing an idea to be tested. That this idea was tested and expanded into genetics and biochemistry is tribute to his insight into the workings of life.

Some people now frown on the whole pleasure of being able to name and identify, saying that it is about claiming and ownership; but another habit of predatory Western culture (as though the West had a monopoly on predation; tell it to the Mongols who leveled Baghdad in the 13th century). Maybe, but it might also be just pleasure in the infinite and ever changing variety of life, an attempt to find our way in it by making a part of it familiar.

Darwin was himself as conflicted and paradoxical as the world he tried to understand. He was a patrician gentleman of leisure who (against his will) gave his name to a nasty school of social supremacism. At the same time, he was a very determined and bitter opponent of the slave trade. Like so many gentlemen of his class, he enjoyed hunting and was certainly not a vegetarian. And yet, during his term as local justice of the peace, he enforced laws prohibiting animal cruelty with zeal. He was very much a man of his time, and no one did more than him to bring that Victorian world to an end.

Happy Birthday, and thanks for everything.

1 comment:

IT said...

It's worth remembering that the great insights of Gregor Mendel into the transmission of genetic traits were unknown to darwin and in fact ignored, till their rediscovery around the turn of the 20th c. The two of them together created modern genetics and the fundamental understanding of inheritance. And Mendel, of course, was a monk.