- We're reading this because it introduces Darwin and natural selection in a fun and quirky way, and because its focus on his "sandwalk" thinking path makes literally graphic the peripatetic aspect of his thought. Anglo-American minds do tend to be peripatetic. Why do you think walking around in circles is so productive of creative thought, for some of us? Have you tried it yourself? Does that work for you?
- Do you read graphic novels (we used to call them comic books)? Do you find this format appealing, annoying, or a matter of indifference?
- Evolution is a subject of notorious misunderstanding and misinformation, particularly in regions of America where science generally is thought to be hostile to religion. Some schools still resist the subject, nearly a century since the Scopes Trial in Dayton TN (see below). Would something like Sandwalk Adventures, suitably presented in an age-appropriate style, be a good way of introducing evolution to children? How should schools address the topic? Should school boards be allowed to dictate curricula?
- Pick any page of Sandwalk Adventures and explicate some aspect of evolutionary theory mentioned or implied there.
- The notion that mites in his brow might mistake Darwin for a god is amusing, but serious scholars (Michael Ruse, for instance) have argued that various versions of Darwinism have indeed taken on the trappings of religion. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, like Ruse an evolutionist, wrote critically of "Darwinian fundamentalism." Considering that Darwin himself said "the whole subject [of God] is beyond the scope of man's intellect," what would he think of this "Darwinism as religion" phenomenon, and the polemics that have grown up around it?
- Do you think a deeper understanding of evolution would bring us closer to "the answers to life's big questions" (assuming the answer is probably not "42")? What are some of those questions?
- "How all of this has come to be" is a question Darwin thinks he can answer, but not why. Why not?
- What's the difference between saying "life shapes itself" and "natural forces shape life"?
- One of the mites says it's not enough to be told there's been time enough for epochal changes in life to occur gradually, he needs proof or evidence. Are committed believers in specific creation stories typically receptive to evidence that confounds their longstanding convictions? How can we become more receptive to objective truth, and less subject to prejudice and unproved prior conviction?
- "Why do [we] feel compelled to drape the elegant wonders of nature is a gaudy gown of mumbo-jumbo?"
- "Species come and go, but life is continuous...we are all connected, and the story of that connection was carved into the stones and strata of the earth... [Darwin's] a better storyteller than you thought.": isn't this a story to rival any religion, and isn't it (as Loyal Rue said) "everybody's story"? Why, then, doesn't everybody accept it?
- "But then Darwin had a novelist's problem when he sat down to write" (Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages, see below)-if Darwin had a novelist's problem in figuring out how to tell "everybody's story" most effectively and persuasively, what might he have learned from Henry James AND what might Henry have learned from him? Did they both do a good job of conveying important (if for some inconvenient) truths about the human condition?
- Gopnik says Darwin "re-enchanted the lovers of Earth," William James said "the Earth... must reassert its rights." Does the evolutionary hypothesis underscore the importance of natural events, and make supernatural explanations less appealing to you?
- Does Darwin's "first postulate for how life is shaped: individuals within species are variable" gain support from, or lend support to, J.S. Mill's and William James's philosophies? How does individual intra-species variation relate to philosophic pluralism and individualism? (Thinking particularly here of Mill's defense of eccentricity, which produces variation and something for nature to select.)
- Darwin protests that his mating choices were "limited by the strictly proscribed nature of my social class," hence his happy marriage to cousin Emma but also the loss of 10-year old Annie Darwin to illness. What would Henry James say about that? What say you?
- "Survival of the fittest" has often been misconstrued to mean survival of the "strongest," but Darwin was clear that "evolutionary fitness isn't a measure of physical prowess" but a reflection of reproductive success. This confusion motivated William Jennings Bryan's opposition to evolution, for instance. Would a better (though admittedly less catchy) phrase have been "Fitness of the survivors"? Or should the term "fitness" be replaced entirely, in this context? Could a bit of verbal tweaking have prevented much of the confusion and rancor surrounding the evolutionary idea?
- The idea of "theistic evolution" is alluded to on p.72-"If it looks like it happened naturally, then that's the way [God] wants it... he must have guided the process somehow." Is this a harmless concession evolutionists should make to theists, or does it promote continued misunderstanding of natural selection? What's the harm of such misunderstanding, if any?
- "Life is shaped by those that pass on their traits..." Is this true only of genetic influence and inheritance? Or can life also be shaped by those who pass on their traits by other means? Can life be shaped by books, songs, works of art, etc.? (This was the original meaning of "memes," by the way, before the internet hijacked and diluted the concept. "Passing ideas onto a new generation can be just as important as passing along some physical adaptation.")
- Why do some "defend the sanctity of stories about creation and wonder with acts of fear and intimidation?"
- Did the Crick-Watson-Franklin discovery of the double helix, and subsequent advance of genetic science in our time, illustrate Darwin's statements that mystery fuels science and don't know does not imply can't know?
- COMMENT: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
- "The really vital question for us all," said William James, is "What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?" Is that another way of putting Emma Darwin's question "What other legacy is there?"
- Is it unfortunate that Darwin called the process of natural winnowing in the struggle for survival "selection"? What might be a more descriptive (if not catchier) term? Natural consanguinity, perhaps?
- "Individuals don't evolve." Why is it so hard to convey this simple point, to those who continue to object that they've never observed evolution directly?
- "There is a grandeur in this view of life." Agree? Why or why not?
- Stay tuned
- Post yours
Alternate final post suggestion: convene an imaginary round-table discussion with the Jameses, Mill, Darwin, and yourself as moderator. Transcribe the proceedings, posing any discussion questions you like. You may use actual quotations and your imagination to fashion the dialogue you think they might have with you.
"Darwin evolving" (posted Jy 16)-Don't let me rush you, if you're still thinking about Henry James or, like me, are virtually abroad at the moment. (Today I'm on the Yorkshire Moors with Charlotte & Emily.)
But if you're ready to look ahead to Darwin (and beyond-it's time to think about your final projects)...
I always love to tell people about my first landlord, an old zoologist at the University of Missouri named Winterton Curtis who was one of the scientific experts not allowed to testify at the Scopes Trial in Dayton TN in 1925. My parents (and I) rented rooms from him in his home, while my Dad attended Veterinary school in the early '60s, and later maintained a cordial friendship with him. He used to visit when I was a kid and pull dollar bills from my ears. My Dad thought that must be why I was always so fascinated by the concept of evolution.
Dr. Curtis wrote, in 1921,
The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile. The otherworldliness of the Middle Ages does not satisfy the spiritual demands of modern times. Science and Human Affairs From the Viewpoint of BiologyOf the Scopes Trial itself, he wrote of the 1925 Dayton Tennessee spectacle:
The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico. “Boobs" perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A. They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith. They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago.... A Defense Expert's Impressions of the Scopes Trial
One guy who did an instructive and entertaining roadtrip to Dayton was Darwin's great-great... grandson Matthew Chapman, whose book Trials of the Monkey I heartily recommend.
Don't miss the chance for a virtual spin (or a few) around the Sandwalk-Charlie used to go round and round, as he puzzled out his Origin of Species.
Down House slideshow from Google Maps...
John Dewey's Influence of Darwin on Philosophy summarizes what a game-changer natural selection was and is. It begins,
THAT the publication of the "Origin of Species " marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert. The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions that had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the "Origin of Species " introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion...
William James, who was as good a friend of religion as philosophy ever had, said "I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought."
And, here's an exciting new book making the case for Darwin's huge impact in 19th century America. Thoreau and Emerson were among those most profoundly impacted.
- Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution
- Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
- Darwin: A Graphic Biography by Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr
- Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion
- "A Defense Expert's Impressions of the Scopes Trial" from D-Days at Dayton: Fundamentalism vs Evolution at Dayton, Tennessee (1956)
- "A damned-yankee professor in Little Dixie" (1957)
- Science and Human Affairs From the Viewpoint of Biology (1921)
- Michael Boulter, Darwin's Garden: Down House & the Origin of Species
- Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
- Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith
- Rebecca Stott, Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists
- Hanne Strager, A Modest Genius: The story of Darwin's life and how his ideas changed everything
- Emma Townshend, Darwin's Dogs: How Darwin's Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution
Darwin's "a better storyteller than you thought"... as Loyal Rue says, he's telling "Everybody's Story"...
What did Edwin Stanton actually say at Lincoln’s deathbed? ... Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Or was it "angels"? Is Lincoln's legacy secular and historic, or supernatural and transcendent? (Is that a false dichotomy?)
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
“The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”
“The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts.”
“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.”
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,
not the most intelligent that survives.
It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”