Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

It is probably a mild hyperbole saying that almost any of the several pieces of Darwin’s writings that I came across were radiating with an overwhelming intellectual presence, of the kind that intrudes into the deepest and most private corners of your mind without permission, imposing awe and eliciting recognition of his far-reaching genius, in the highest sense of both words.

This impression stays at first inexplicable. But in taking few steps back from any of these texts, considering it in a wider context, reengaging it and disengaging again, then repeating as needed, the conundrum suddenly gives way. The answer put simply, but aptly conveying the most sobering of its implications, is that a distinguished flair for writing is only second nature to profound thinkers. In a letter to his father, Darwin seems to have been well aware of this talent when he wrote "Whenever I enjoy anything, I always either look forward to writing it down, either in my log-book, or in a letter". Yet he also showed diffidence and harshly practiced self criticism when in his correspondence with others he would occasional write things like "I find it unutterably difficult to write clearly", "I am disgusted with my bad writing", or "How I could have written so badly is quite inconceivable".

Darwin's opinion notwithstanding, two of his books, in particular, stand out together as a most vivid and exhilarating incarnation of the whole spectrum of the higher order mental processes, which are: The Voyage of the Beagle, and his magnus opus, On the Origins of Species.

The Voyage of the Beagle can be thought of as a stereoscopic visualization of Charles’ trenchant faculty for perception. This can be realized by superposing a context in which the book is a travels-journal only and another where it is viewed as a herald of the theory of natural selection. In the former, this faculty expresses itself in a unique ability to efficiently winnow down a drowning range of details that could have certainly stupefied the senses of any other naturalist (Alfred Wallace, the unsung hero of NS, excluded). But with the eventual emergence of natural selection added to the backdrop, the token of a frightening capacity to intuit becomes the salient feature of this work.

In producing The Origins, Darwin established himself as one of the finest virtuosi of the thought process to have ever existed. Throughout the text you would find him busy not only weaving line after another of cogent arguments, preempting much of the debate spurred by its publication, but you would also find him confidently pointing out where his reasoning might go awry, acknowledging his own wants of knowledge, or describing what might constitute a destructive counter-observation to his theory.

The most telling feature of this book though is its striking consistency. This might sound odd, since a consistent structure is a strict prerequisite that any explanatory effort should satisfy before it can be taken seriously. It is that the coherence in Darwin’s arguments can’t be a mere happenstance, but only the product of a mental construct of the original phenomenon that undergirded his thinking in its regards. And since the conceptual scaffold for Darwin’s original formulation of the theory had passed largely unscathed into the modern evolutionary synthesis, we can easily infer the veracity of this mental model. Therefore, given the crippling lack of knowledge about heredity’s real substance and mechanisms that was characteristic of his time, one is bound to be overwhelmed while she is reading the book!

Put in another way, The Origins, just like its predecessor, can’t be fully appreciated without the advantage of hindsight. Darwin might have known close to nothing about the DNA, but with an unusually keen mind, he captured many of its features, even if in crude terms, and embedded them into the core of his theory. This is clearly the reason why out of all the different accounts of natural selection that were advanced by others in its wake, Darwinism was the only one conducive to the modern synthesis; with the rediscovery of Mendel’s genetic laws, and the successive conciliatory efforts of several bright minds, most notably those of Fisher's, the birth of neo-Darwinism was only a matter of course.

Since this is in a sense a celebration of a person, an extraordinary person, perhaps something about his idiosyncrasies is due. A strong affinity with science and nature ran like a dominating gene in Darwin's family, which spawned 10 fellows of the Royal Society, him included, and beginning with his parental grandfather, Erasmus, who himself was a theorist of evolution. The first expressions of this gene in Charles took the form of reveling in beetles collecting, and a more extreme one of his founding a club at Cambridge University for the sole purpose of consuming birds and animals "unknown to human palate" before. According to Darwin’s autobiography, this was the reason behind his father's utterly failed prediction when he once reproached him saying: "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family".

But judging by this sample of his early life, it might be justifiable to claim that if it was not for the Beagle, this day would have passed unobserved. However, this celebrated expedition was not all bliss on Charles. Little after its return to England, he started suffering a mysterious debilitating illness that haunted him, with frequent respites, until his death. The nature of this affliction was never diagnosed during his life, a thing that later gave rise to much speculation about its origin.

To make things more complicated, there is enough evidence in literature to substantiate many different explanations for this illness. For instance, the proponents of a physical cause like to cite Darwin's descriptions of his potentially morbid encounters with disease vectors, such as the "Benchuca", or his granddaughter's memoir, Gwen Raverat, in which she notes that "it was a distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill [at Charles']", possibly indicating an underling genetic disorder. On the other side, advocates of a psychological root have at their disposal an adequate repertoire of accounts on Darwin's antisocial and phobic behavior to draw on. But since this is not a crucial point anymore, there seems to be an emerging general consensus converging on a multifactorial origin of the ailment, a blend of physical and psychiatric etiologies.

Anyways,this celebration should be consummated by reminding ourselves of our old man's philosophy of solid reasoning and intriguing inquiry. Many happy returns!

Source: (image adapted)