Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why is The Origin of Species such a great book?

Dear Dr. Oliver,

I want to echo the sentiments of the other students who expressed their appreciation to you for introducing us to the James brothers, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. I have always intended to read The Origin of Species, but never got around to it. As I read it, I was directed to other books and then I discovered that the James brothers and Mill would also have read it. There is something special about reading a book and imagining what it must have been like for them to read it, but my greatest delight came in discovering the Henry David Thoreau had also read it and it had a profound effect on him. I only wished he had lived longer so he could have shared more of how he felt.

And I want to thank the other students for their post they have enlighten me and I am most grateful and wish those who are moving on to a new life the very best and I hope our paths will cross.


The four individuals we studied this semester were all born in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, 1806, Charles Darwin, 1809, Williams James, 1842, and Henry James, 1843. They were influenced by or influenced events and writings in the nineteenth century and beyond which deal with human beings’s relationship with each other and with nature. While their influence was predominantly in the Anglo-American sphere, Darwin’s influence extended globally. While Europeans led the way in advancing science and philosophy, William James was an early contributor in the new discipline of psychology and in pragmatism. “Many historians consider the 19th century, especially the latter half, to be the start of the modern era of science, because many of our current ideas and theories of the natural world were initiated during this time.”[1] Many of these pioneers challenged accepted theories and dogma that had been disseminated from those in power.
                Once human beings evolved to the degree that some members in each society could reflect on where they came from, they created stories to explain the origin of their society. The few who were literate created religious systems. These systems share several things in common: each attempt to address their origin and “each system provides directions for appropriate and expected behaviors and serves as a form of social control for individuals within that society. Religious sanctions that encourage conformity are strong.”[2]  However, even the most learned members were ignorant of the natural and physical laws that governed the universe. Ancient Egyptians observed the sun appearing and disappearing each day and associated its movement with a god Ra who blessed them with his appearance bringing light for them to see and for their plants to grow. Elaborate rituals were created by the priestly caste and performed daily to welcome the god’s arrival. They had no way of knowing that the sun was a mass of hot gases and that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. They were not alone, almost every primitive society worshipped the sun in some form and it is understandable when you consider how important it was in their lives.
Today, most of us know better, not because we are smarter, but because we have acquired the knowledge and created the tools to be able to observe our sun in our solar system in relation to other suns in other solar systems and other galaxies. That knowledge and those tools inundated the world in the nineteenth century. In the western world, Greek philosophers make small chinks in the foundation that claimed that the Earth and everything in it had been created six thousand years ago, and that there was nothing new under the sun. Those chinks were widened by a Polish monk, Copernicus, and an Italian astronomer, Galileo, who demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe, let alone the center of its own solar system. This was the first blow to the biblical account of creation because up to that moment almost everyone believed in a geocentric Earth.  Proponents of the heliocentric model of our solar system were branded as heretics and the church fought back with ferocity against them, realizing that not only the church’s spiritual well-being, but its financial well-being was at risk. The controlling powers demanded conformity and the individuality encouraged later by John Stuart Mill was crushed or burned at the stake – the fate of Giordano Bruno for defending the Copernican system. Ironically, it wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic church acknowledged that Galileo was right.
The nineteenth century ushered in a new age of scientific breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, geology, and biology that would serve as wrecking balls to the foundation of biblical creation. When these discoveries were coupled with the technological advances related to communication and transportation, they created a global network for exchanging ideas and cultures and caused internal conflicts for individuals in the Western world who had been trained from childhood to believe that everything written in the Hebrew bible was to be taken literally as divinely inspired. Thus, began the conflict between science and religion that exists to this day, “Four in 10 Americans believe God created the Earth and anatomically modern humans, less than 10,000 years ago, according to a new Gallup poll.”[3] Also, a National Science Foundation study found that one of four Americans thought that the sun revolved around the Earth.[4] Some of us may remember that Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin thought the Earth was less than seven thousand years old and contended that she had seen images of human footprints in dinosaur fossils. This ignorance of scientific facts is not confined to the United States, other countries have similarly high percentages.
Geology was the second of three blows to the biblical creation story. No one had an effective and accurate way to measure the age of the Earth. Bishop Ussher from Ireland estimated the date as 4004 B.C. based on biblical chronologies and this became set in church stone and appears on the first page to this day in most bibles. When Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology, he was very careful to manage how it was released and to focus on divorcing science from religion so it would not appear that he was attacking the biblical narrative about creation. This would give time for it to receive a fair hearing. What it achieved was to share evidence of what Lyell and others had accumulated and then allow the reader to draw his own conclusions, Any reasonable person could only conclude that the Earth had existed for much longer than proposed by the Bible and that the processes that were occurring in the present had occurred in the past in the same fashion.
Lyell’s observations about a long-time line for Earth’s formation while controversial were accepted because of his position on another issue that endeared him to religious leaders. He was a fervent opponent of evolution. “If evolution was true, Lyell believed, no divinely implanted reason, spirit or soul would set human beings apart; they would be nothing but an improved form of the apes…with humans no more than better beasts and religion exposed as a fable, the foundations of civil society would crumble.”[5] Toward the end of his life after learning of the latest discoveries and reading the latest literature, he expressed his inner conflict, “‘it cost me a struggle to renounce my old creed.’ He could follow Darwin’s reasoning, but his ‘sentiments and imagination’ revolted against removing man from the exalted position in which the seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal had placed him as ‘the archangel ruined.’”[6] He was not alone, there were many learned individuals who had to come to terms with the apparent contradictions in the biblical creation story that they had been taught and what they were learning and observing.
                 Most of the early origin writers justified their stories as being divinely inspired and they were reluctant to accept or hostile to any suggestion that a god who created the universe would have known their assertions to be false. One example is the story of Joshua in the Hebrew bible commanding the sun to stand still when it is the earth that is rotating around the sun. If the writer possessed the knowledge we have today or the knowledge of a god, they might have described the event as a solar eclipse, but once it was clear that it was in error, they had several options: 1. Acknowledge that the writer was wrong and ignorant of astronomy and laws of gravity and therefore that the passage was not divinely inspired. 2. Insist that with god all things are possible and continue to teach that the sun stood still because to cast doubt on divine inspiration on any issue would raise a question of credibility on other assertions. 3. Create an alternative explanation which would justify the assertion to be understood in a figurative rather than a literal way. These same options were considered and used when fossils were discovered including one theory that god or the devil had planted them throughout the world for geologists and paleontologists to find and report on (Consider just some of the fossil finds in this year alone - https://www.livescience.com/topics/fossils and then search back over the last ten years and imagine if this information had been available and understandable to the early origin writers).
Most of the early scientific pioneers were conflicted with the guilt of wanting to conform their findings to their religious teachings and to not express anything which would question their beliefs even as they realized that what they observed challenged those deeply held beliefs. Some like Dr. Louis Agassiz, clung to their beliefs and defended certain assertions even when the evidence was overwhelmingly against them, some tried to integrate the new findings and create an updated religion -  creationism or intelligent design, some chose to question their faith in the writings of early writers but kept certain tenets of their religion, and some abandoned their religion.
Charles Darwin was one of those individuals who had internal struggles with his beliefs. He had the good fortune like American author Henry James to be born into privilege and had the time and resources to explore the world unencumbered with the need to earn a living and to focus on what interested him. Both had much in common. They both were detail driven and very observant. Both recorded their observations meticulously which enabled them to be master writers. Both excelled in travelogues. They had similar views on religion in the latter part of their lives. Christopher Stewart cites Kaplan as stating that James’s reply to the question “Is There Life After Death?”, thought that it was not likely, and Edel stated about the same question, that James, “believed there was none. Death was absolute.”[7] Darwin likewise, “Like many other educated men of his generation, had been slowly, almost imperceptibly, but surely, losing religious faith…Darwin was concerned with the physical realities of life on earth and probing their mysteries. He was temperamentally disinclined to probe the possibilities of life after death or to speculate on ‘salvation’.”[8] Darwin communicated some of his thoughts to Asa Gray an American botanists. “With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. — I am bewildered. — I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars…”[9]
Before he reached this stage in his life, Darwin had devoted five years of his life traveling on the HMS Beagle collecting specimens from South America and Asian and shipping them home and then organizing his findings and notes when he returned in 1836. Over the next twenty years he continued to study, experiment, and observe nature. It is difficult to imagine the personal knowledge that he gained during this time, but one small example may give some insight into his efforts to gather as much information as possible before expressing any conclusions about what he believed. “I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds; I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three tablespoonsful of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond: this mud when dried weighed only 6 ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!”[10] 
It was this attention to detail along with his earliest travelogue of his voyage on the Beagle that so captivated the readers even if they did not agree with his implicit conclusions. It is difficult to measure the impact of Charles Darwin’s book, the Origin of Species, published in 1859, on the psyche of people then who were just trying to grasp the more personal and relevant things like vaccinations, pasteurization, anesthesia, along with electricity, telegraph, telephone, and photography let alone the more esoteric concepts like absolute zero, gas and thermodynamic laws, and organic chemistry.   When you add in discoveries in astronomy, geology, and biology, it is easy to see how Darwin’s theory of descent with modification or natural selection flowed as part of a continuum of scientific revolution. There were several reasons for his delay in publishing it until 1859. First, he had seen the response to Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published anonymously in 1844 because the author feared the repercussions of his controversial stand that contended that the origins, growth, and development of the earth and living organisms on Earth were the result of a process later to be call evolution rather that the unique creation by god. Second, Darwin’s wife was deeply religious and he did not want to publish something even if he believed it that would be detrimental to her. Third, he wanted more time to gather more evidence to make his presentation as irrefutable as possible. The last reason was unexpected overthrown when he received a package in the mail in 1858 from Alfred Russel Wallace who outlined a theory of natural selection that was almost identical to Darwin’s.
After he consulted with some close friends, he submitted a summary of his work along with Wallace’s to the Linnaean Society and then proceeded relentlessly to write his book. It became an immediate success; the first edition was sold out within a day. It was popular in Europe and in America, where pirated copies were printed. On the cold wintry night of January 1, 1860 in Concord Massachusetts at the home of Franklin Sanborn, he, Asa Gray, renowned botanist, Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa Mae Alcott, Charles Loring Brace, cousin of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry David Thoreau met to discuss slavery and the recent execution of John Brown whom they had supported. Brace brought Darwin’s book with him and it would change the lives of those in attendance and it would change America.[11] Asa Gray became an early supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and wrote a couple of powerful book reviews that propelled The Origin of Species to national attention at a time of impending conflict over slavery and made an argument for the position that if we were all related to an early progenitor that slavery was not justified. Gray later experienced internal conflict with the damage the theory might have on religion and wrote two more reviews that retreated from his original strong support.
The other individual at that meeting who was probably the most deeply affected was Thoreau. He was only forty-two but had acquired a reputation for his support of transcendentalism and for his literary credentials-- essays and  Walden. As he read, absorbed, and reflected on the Origin, he wrote, ‘“The development theory implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation.’ Constant new creation. The phrase represents an epoch in American thought. For one thing, it no longer relies upon divinity to explain the natural world… ‘The development theory’ suggested a natural world sufficient unto itself—without the façade of heaven. There was no force or intelligence behind Nature, directing its course in a determined and purposeful manner. Nature just was.[12]
According to Mark Brake, “The case outlined in The Origin of Species can be distilled down into three component concepts: Variation (each and every individual of any particular species is different), multiplicity (living creatures…tend to make more offspring and have bigger broods than the environment can necessary maintain), and natural selection (The individual differences between members of a species, coupled with the environmental forces highlighted by those like Malthus, shape the likelihood that a particular individual will last long enough to pass its characteristics on to posterity”[13] The Metaphysical Club at Harvard consisting of Chauncey Wright, Charles Peirce, William James, John Fiske, Nicholas Green, and Oliver Wendell Holmes discussed The Origin of Species with Pierce writing this, “Natural selection, as conceived by Darwin, is a mode of evolution in which the only positive agent of change in the whole passage from moner to man is fortuitous variation. To secure advance in a definite direction chance has to be seconded by some action that shall hinder the propagation of some varieties or stimulate that of others.”[14] With respect to William James, Wiener notes that “As Professor Ralph B. Perry remarks in his definitive work on James, ‘the influence of Darwin was both early and profound, and its effects crop up in diverse and unexpected quarters…With Professor Perry we must discriminate an early positivistic phase of James’s idea of evolution. In this phase, James pitted himself against his anti-Darwinian teacher of zoology, the famous Louis Agassiz”[15] While James was clearly knowledgeable about The Origin of Species, he may have concentrated on other works that gave him insight into the development of the human brain and nervous system and led to his pioneering work in psychology.
The Origin of Species was published at a pivotal point of the nineteenth century because it provided the impetus to the scientific revolution. Sir Julian Huxley writing in the Introduction to the centennial reprinting of it expressed the sentiments of those who understood its importance. “Why is The Origin of Species such a great book? First of all, because it convincingly demonstrates the fact of evolution: it provides a vast and well-chosen body of evidence showing that existing animals and plants cannot have been separately created in their present forms, but must have evolved from earlier forms by slow transformation. And secondly, because the theory of natural selection, which the Origin so fully and lucidly expounds, provides a mechanism by which such transformation could and would automatically be produced. Natural selection rendered evolution scientifically intelligible.”[16] But the last words about all of his collections, observations, research, work, writings, and reflections can best be expressed by Darwin himself. “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, 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 to 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 an explanation when we only restate a fact. Anyone whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties that to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, -- to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”[17]
Long ago, I read The Revised Standard Version (1946) of the Bible from cover to cover and finally after all of these years I have finally read Darwin’s Origin of Species. I still had questions as I read the text, but I know that many of them have been answered since Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. However, even as a young boy, I doubted the literal version of Adam and Eve. I grew up on a farm and saw plenty of snakes and I did not know any women in my neighborhood that talked to a snake unless it was with a hoe chopping off their head, and I found it hard to believe that one snake in the Garden of Eden condemned all the snakes in North America who were supposedly walking around upright to suddenly crawl on their stomachs and lose their appendages; it did not make any sense. Sadly, for a long time, women have had to pay for that story through discrimination, abuse, and injustice.

[1] Michael Windelspecht, Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), xvii)
[2] Jeanne Ballantine, Kathleen Korgen, and Keith Roberts, Our Social World: Introduction to Sociology (Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016) 378.
[3] Tia Ghose. 2014. 4 in 10 Americans Believe God Created Earth 10,000 Years Ago. https://www.livescience.com/46123-many-americans-creationists.html
[4] Ibid.
[5] James A. Secord, ed., Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology (London, Penguin Group, 1997) xxxiii-xxxiv)
[6] Ibid., xxxviii
[7] Christopher Stewart, Colby Quarterly, Volume 35, no.2, June 1999, p.90-101
[8] Paul Johnson, Darwin: portrait of a genius (New York, Penguin Group, 2012) 51-52.
[9] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2814,” accessed on 9 August 2017, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-2814
[10] Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species: With an Introduction by Sir Julian Huxley (New York, Signet Classics Penguin Group, 2003), 410.
[11] Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (New York, Viking, 2017) ix – 28.
[12] Ibid., 246-7.
[13] Mark L. Brake, Revolution in Science (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 139-140.
[14] Philip P. Wiener, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism (New York, Harper & Row, 1949) 3.
[15] Ibid., 99.
[16] Darwin, xi.
[17] Darwin, 500.

1 comment:

  1. Home Run, Don!

    You've written an engrossing, succinct account of a humble, physically-afflicted, self-effacing, but brilliant student of nature who himself had an inconvenient story to tell, a story that would fundamentally redirect the ideas of modern thinkers in philosophy, literature, the arts, the sciences... the ideas of people like the Jameses and J.S. Mill, and H.D. Thoreau, and (to bring our course-full circle) William Wordsworth...

    I spoke this afternoon at my mother-in-law's funeral. Georgia Roth (1931-2017) lived a rich, impactful life. She loved (and had memorized in grade school) the death-poem "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant. If you've not read and reflected upon its message, I urge you to do so. Bryant was a fan of our man Wordsworth, who wrote:
    "Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
    We will grieve not, rather find
    Strength in what remains behind…"

    What remains behind? This is really a question about evolution and Wm James's "really vital question" about the future of life. I said this afternoon:

    Life remains behind, here and now on this Earth and, let us hope, for many tomorrows and many generations to come, newly invigorated by her memory. Bryant’s “consideration of death” lends strength to that hope.

    And I think that's probably a good coda for our little summer course. We may or may not be optimistic, but we owe it to our children and grandchildren to be hopeful for their life-prospects. In one way or another, that's something the Jameses, J.S. Mill, and Charles Darwin all agreed on. I hope we all do too.

    Good luck to you all. I do hope we'll meet again, in computer space and real space. To those of you about to graduate: congrats! A my favorite author/entertainer Garrison Keillor always says: be well, do good work, and keep in touch.