Three things happened to yours truly over the last ten days. First, I, along with the rest of humanity, survived past the end of the Mayan calendar. Second, I had the flu. Third, as a result of happenstance 2, I was finally able to finish reading a delightful book: Charles Darwin, Portaint of a Genius by Paul Johnson. It’s a book I’ve been anticipating for a while now: a succinct, learned and extremely polite critical biography of Darwin, written by a heavyweight historian. I’d been expecting such a book because, well, it’s about due.
Not that I have anything against Darwin, mind you. But like a lot of people I’ve become, shall we say, a little tired of the man. Or perhaps to put the point a bit more finely, I’ve gotten tired of the mindless obeisance that’s paid to Darwin in everything from natural history specials to psychology books to business and political essays. The way we throw around terms like “evolution”, “adaptation” and “survival of the fittest” as if a.) we really knew what they meant, b.) they were thoroughly proven, unassailable scientific concepts and C.) Darwin actually invented all of them to begin with.
We don’t, they aren’t and he didn’t. But very few authoritative history writers have dared say so, presumably for fear of being relegated to a literary category heavily populated by frothing hyper-religious wackadoodles. Can one even take up a position that’s critical of Darwin yet still be an evolutionist? Certainly one can, and it’s why I’m very thankful to Mr. Johnson and appreciative of the risks he’s taken. That he’s touched a nerve with his book is evident. Darwin dogmatists have gone absolutely, er, ape over the thing, even though Johnson’s criticisms are really quite mild. So much so that Darwin himself would have agreed with most of them.
Like what? Well, that Darwin didn’t invent the idea of evolution for one. It was a widely-held if rarely spoken belief in Darwin’s day. Most of Darwin’s intellectual peers, to say nothing of his father and even his grandfather, were “free thinkers” as they were called in those days. In fact one could fairly make the argument that the ideas of evolution and adaptation weren’t unique even to the Enlightenment, but date back as far as the ancient Greeks.
What On the Origin of Species did, more than anything else, was to make evolutionary ideas legitimate subjects of discussion. It popped the cap on a dialogue that many adventurous thinkers had longed to have, but feared to initiate for being labeled anti-religious. The reaction to it wasn’t so much Wow! This is completely new and groundbreaking! so much as Whew! I’m sure glad somebody with some credibility finally said something!
For Darwin didn’t research his evolutionary theories all that terribly much. Origin and its very, very long sequel were based on a mere two years of field work Darwin did in his twenties traveling aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. The only concrete, long-term research Darwin did in his life was on the subject of worms and mollusks, ultra-primitive creatures he studied in his house near London. A great deal of what he wrote, especially the bits pertaining to higher mammals, was speculative and largely unsupported by observation.
Certainly the fossil record doesn’t support evolution as most of us conceive of it. The “middle steps” are all missing, the points where nature is supposed to have tested out various biological designs: the newts without spleens, say, or the squirrels with just two bones in their fingers, before mother nature figured out they needed three.
There’s none of that, which is odd. Assuming nature is constantly riffing on all its myriad biological themes — something most of us have been taught to believe from a young age — fossil beds should be bursting with evolution’s go-nowhere melodies. That they aren’t was a source of great puzzlement to Darwin. And if he could puzzle, can’t Paul Johnson? He can and he should if he likes, without being labeled a “creationist”, since his critiques are by and large quite reasonable.
Joe, why are you bringing all this up? Isn’t this a baking blog? Indeed it is, friends. Indeed it is. My goal here is not to engage in a debate on the subject of evolution, but rather to begin the calendar year by exploring some thoughts on beginnings and endings.
Does anyone remember the CERN “OPERA” experiment from fifteen months or so ago? The one which — at least for a while — seemed to undermine Einsteins’s theories on the speed of light and time travel? Well it got me thinking. Specifically that the authority of the big thinkers that have dominated our discourse — scientific and otherwise — for the last 150 years is being eroded. Who are those thinkers? You know them, everybody does. Who comes immediately to mind when someone mentions the words “political philosophy”? What about psychoanalysis? Physics? Natural history?
Marx, Freud, Einstein and Darwin. Together they established the intellectual frame inside which most of us, whether we know it or not, think. Their assumptions and mental models have become so widely adopted that we’re not even aware we’re using them when we process ideas. But we all do it, pretty much every day. Even if you hate Marx, for instance, you still think at least some of his thoughts, I guarantee it. His ideas are part of our modern mental software, even though Marxism lost what little vitality it had left when the Soviet Union collapsed (university humanities and econ departments are among its final redoubts). As for Freud, when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about penis envy or anal fixations with a straight face? So when Einstein appeared to fall, I thought: that’s three down! And I started waiting for a Darwin book, which seemed like the logical thing to do under the circumstances.
When the OPERA results turned out to be a bust I was disappointed. I was really hoping that those neutrinos had traveled faster than the speed of light. I was hoping — as the initial results indicated — that they had arrived at Gran Sasso before they were ever fired from CERN. What a mind freak that would have been! But tell me true, you were hoping for the very same thing, weren’t you? Sure you were. We all were, which indicates (at least to me) that the world is hungering for something new.
So I don’t think I’m alone in wanting something more that mere Darwin right now. I don’t want his ideas debunked and scrapped. I believe them for the most part. Einstein? His vision of the world can remain intact as well, just as Newton’s did even after Albert showed up. Karl? Sigmund? They’ll both have something to contribute in the new future. But they’ll all take a back seat to that someone — or that group of someones — that slaps down the next bigger, broader frame.
It seems like it’s coming soon. Everywhere old edifices are on the verge of collapse. Witness our politics and economies. The 20th century industrial model that replaced the 19th century agricultural model has run its course, at least here in the States. The big industries that built the big factories that supplied the millions of jobs that powered American life in the 20th century are going, going…gone. Gone to Mexico or Asia, never to return. Meanwhile in Washington politicians of the parties of yesterday are bickering over how long they can keep last century’s America chugging (and get the Chinese to pay for it).
Can it last? Not a chance. Which means the next thing, whatever it is, is coming for us. Not just we Americans but Europeans, Asians, the lot. I don’t think it’ll be a bad thing at all, but a very different thing, and we’ll need the economies, politics and Big Ideas to fit it.
The logical question here is: fit what? If I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here alone in my garage blogging. But if I were to hazard a guess I’d say that the build-big, make lots, consume-even-more model that our economics and politics (both right and left) have relied on for 100 years is history. I don’t think that means we’ll be poorer, in fact I think emerging technologies will make us all wealthier than ever. Our houses might be smaller and we’ll own fewer cars, but we’ll be rich in what we’ll be able to access and experience. The new digital age will be sleek, fast, liberating and all about customization and personalization. There’ll be a lot less mass-produced, one-size-fits-all and a lot more small-run, made for me.
As that happens it might just be that the crass, self-obsessive materialism that’s been a hallmark of the Marx-Freud-Einstein-Darwin era might give way to something that’s a little more fulfilling, humane and outward-looking. Maybe something, dare I say, transcendent.
It’d be a darn good world to bake in if it came to pass, that much is for sure. So thanks, Mayans, for bringing a ceremonial end to the world as we know it. I appreciate it. Thanks also to you, Paul Johnson, for wobbling another of the big statues. It needed it. And thanks above all to you, my dear reader, for following this big silly post this far. I promise I won’t do this again, at least until next New Year’s! – Joe