Archive for the ‘Darwin’ category

Because No One Knows The Essence Of Blackness…

October 8, 2015

….like an  old, filthy-rich white guy.


Here’s noted sociologist of race and authenticity, Rupert “Bug-Eyed Monster” Murdoch

“Ben and Candy Carson terrific. What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?…” [via TPM]




Take it from a  fellow person of the Caucasian persuasion:

You don’t get a vote.

Or, consider the shorter:

Bugger off, mate.  May all your chooks become emus and kick your dunny door down.

(PS — anyone besides me think it … let’s just say “odd” … that the new owner of National Geographic should fall in love with a stone-cold evolution denialist? Just askin’.)

Image:  Brady & Co, Cabinet card portrait of Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens with a servant, formerly a slave c. 1875.

Albert Einstein was a Friend of Mine, and I Can Tell You, Representative: You Are No Albert Einstein*

April 15, 2011

From Think Progress (h/t Daily Kos) we learn that in the midst of yet another creationist eructation, a Tennessee state representative invokes the ghost of the good Dr. Einstein to defend the teaching of woo to the unwary:

Rep. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Fields): I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Enstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.

I don’t have much truck with the argument from authority, but just this once, let me let it rip.

Dude:  I wrote the book here.**  Well, not the book, but one more in the seemingly limitless pile of Einsteiniana that has chased the poor man through the years.

So, a couple of things.  First:  Einstein himself was high school and college science teacher.  He taught secondary school briefly during the years between his graduation from Zurich’s ETH (1900) and the start of his job at the Swiss Patent Office (1902), tutoring a private student or two as well.  He became a university professor in 1908, and taught at that level until his move to Berlin in 1914.  He’s part of the set that the Representative — perhaps stunned by a too-prolonged exposure to tangerine skies — would seek to diss.

But the real howler, the grotesque lie, comes with the claim that Albert Einstein, famously Jewish and equally so an atheist by most senses of the word, would suggest that deep learning and understanding would make a person a Christian.

This is, of course, nonsense, and worse that that — a willful deception and one more example of the urge to invent a comforting falsehood when reality bites too hard.  Which sums up the whole modern GOP world view, sadly. (Cue the Rogers (kfMonkey) post in 3…2…1)

But for the record:  Albert Einstein disdained the notion of a personal god.  He was dismissive of god-talk in public affairs.  He saw nothing in the acquisition of knowledge that would tend one towards organized faith; quite the reverse.  He located the source of knowledge to be material experience, whose signals were to be processed by the 1200cc or so of very intricately organized meat we (most of us) keep in a round-ish vessel above our necks.

And just so we all get our fill of Einsteiniana, here are some supporting quotations:

In an autobiographical essay published in 1949, Einstein told of his loss of faith as a child:

“…through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” (in Paul Schilpp, ed. Albert Einstein,  Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, 1949, p. 5)

Of the demand for a personal god, Einstein wrote in a letter to a banker in Colorado that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals….” [taken from Alice Calaprice’s collection The Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 1996 p. 146]

Of the presence of a god intervening in history, he wrote, famously and bluntly to a correspondent calling down divine wrath on the British during World War I:

“I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible…only His nonexistence can excuse him.” [AE to E. Mayer 2 January 1915 Collected Papers of AE vol VIII doc. 44]

Of the independence from divine fetters of human knowledge, he wrote,

“No idea is conceived in our mind independent of our five senses.” [From Quotable Einstein p. 154]

And on the claims to authority of religion in general and his own Jewish heritage in particular, the year before his death  he wrote this:

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Enough.  As you all know, no doubt, I’m of the John Foster Dulles school of blogging, but I think the point is clear. Rep. Niceley (R-Delusional) is an ignorant and/or deceitful man defending the indefensible by stealing the mantle of someone way too dead to respond for his own part.  Niceley does so to support exactly what Einstein would have both loathed and ridiculed.  The desire to live in the world one wishes for is human enough — pretty childish, I’d say, following my man Al here.  But the indulgence we give children does not extend to granting them power over anything that matters…

…which is why the current Republican Party must be not merely defeated, but destroyed and replaced.

Factio Grandaeva delenda est.

*Here I butcher what is still my favorite political debate moment of all time:

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**I kinda made the movie too — writing and jointly producing  this two hour NOVA biography.  Just sayin:  I bin around the Einstein block once or twice, you know.


Professor Einstein’s Visit to the United States“, The Scientific Monthly 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on p. 483.

For a Good Time In Cambridge: E. O. Wilson edition

April 7, 2010

The man himself will be giving the third of the John M. Prather Lectures in Biology this afternoon.  The title:  “Consilience.”  The description:

The boundary between science on one side and the humanities and humanistic social sciences on the other is not an intrinsic epistemological divide but a broad borderland of previously poorly understood causal relationships. The borderland is now being explored, and offers increasing opportunities for collaboration across three great branches of learning. A definition of human nature will be offered and examples from the borderland will be used to illustrate it.

No one ever said Professor Wilson lacked ambition.

Time and place:  4 p.m., in the Harvard Science Center.  Map here, and more details on the lecture series here.

And a confession:  I’ll miss this one, as I missed the prior two, Monday and yesterday.  My teaching blocked Monday’s and today’s, while student work ate up yesterday, to my deep annoyance (having to, you know, actually do the job they pay you for can really suck sometimes).  But I can say that Edward O. Wilson is both one of the most important biological thinkers of the last half century and is a damn good speaker.  So if you have the chance, go and listen.

Image:  “Foraging ants (Eciton erratica) constructing a covered road—Soldiers sallying out on being disturbed.” from The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates, 1863.

Andrew Sullivan Fouls (Another) One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part two

October 14, 2009

Way, way back in blog years (aka, about two weeks ago), I posted the first of a three parter on Andrew Sullivan’s follies as he attempted to waffle his way around the theodicy problem.  That’s how to harmonize belief in an omnipotent and omniscient loving God with the existence of evil in the world, preferably with a sophistication (if not the blunt practicality) exceeding that of the old aphorism, “Malt does more than Milton can/To reconcile God’s ways to man.”

In that first post, I did not engage the argument head on, though, just to be open about my own dog in this hunt, I think that at this point in human history it is abundantly clear that if you wish to retain a God with personality and direct agency in the world, that deity would have to take the responsibility for deeds so grotesque that Einstein’s line — “only his nonexistence excuses him” — seems to me the only plausible response.*

For me, better to reign in hell — or rather, better, to act with firmness in the right as we may see the right** on this perhaps-not-fallen earth — than bow to any doctrine that pays homage to the author of so much misery.

But dogma, or leaps of faith, may lead others to a different conclusion.  I spent much of the prior post describing what I understood to be Sullivan’s position to argue that his error wasn’t that he thinks suffering is a tool for harrowing faith to the point of redemption– for him. Rather, he ran into trouble when he asserted that his personal experience of his God’s love in response to his pain offered anything more than an individual, subjective kind of knowing.

Such solopsism is a venial sin.***  It’s hardly unprecedented in human affairs that one Andrew Sullivan might mistake deeply felt personal experience for a truth universally to be acknowledged.

But  where he truly stumbled was when he tried to demonstrate that his theodicy possesses a naturalistic justification:  that the difference between human beings and animals lies in our  awareness of suffering.  He claimed that our conscious emotions in the anticipation of our own deaths and other losses enables God to turn our suffering for a spiritual purpose.

This is, I argued, just another God-of-the-gaps wheeze, and betrays deep ignorance of what people who actually study animal behavior and culture have been talking about for a quarter of a century or more.

That’s no surprise.  I’ve noted elsewhere that Sullivan is an innumerate thinker with a purely instrumental — and quite disdainful — view of what science actually does.

Here, as a warm up to my final, science-free rant on Sullivan’s biggest failure in this round of theodicy cage matches, I just want to add one thought.  Sullivan’s fear of science — not of any particular fact to be uncovered, but the terror that the enterprise as a whole really does have something to say at odds with his most deeply held beliefs — can be seen in the tricks he plays with language, as much as in any explicit argument.

To put it another way:  you can see how much this stuff matters to him by the way he commits the very sin he condemns so swiftly when performed by those attempting to justify more obvious wrongs.  When someone calls torture “enhanced interrogation” — Sullivan knows what is being done, and contemns it.

But when he says “Darwinist” in the title of this post, “What is Evil to a Darwinist?”  he attempts the same sleight of hand.  By mislabeling the object of scrutiny he attempts to weight the scales towards a false conclusion.  (And yes, I know that the title is taken from the text of the email he quotes below; I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Sullivan’s readers know precisely what the construction “Darwinist” implies; it parallels his term “Christianist” — which denotes an ostensibly religious person committed to a particularist and overly literal interpretation of Christianity that blinds him or  her to the variety of messages and meanings one might find in more modest faith.

A Darwinist in this context is an evolutionary literalalist and a fanatical materialist, blind to the reality of spiritual experience.  Worse, he or she is a member of a cult, slavisly serving the author of a revealed text, presented to humanity by none other than the devil’s chaplain himself.

Of course, the proper term, in reference to Jerry Coyne, Sullivan’s principal antagonist in this latest round of the theodicy chronicles, and to the relevant group as a whole,  is “evolutionary biologist.”

But if you then used that term, then the offending headline asks this question:  “What is evil to an evolutionary biologist?”  — and the fraud becomes obvious.

What is evil to a physicist?  To a diesel mechanic?  To a cook?  To me, to you, to Andrew Sullivan, to my nine year old?****

There are evils specific to, say, an evolutionary researcher.  Lying is evil — and not lying in general, but specifically committing fraud or deliberately obscuring what is known or not in a given field.  The Creation Museum is thus evil — but it is so within the specific confines of its claim of scientific authority.  If it were simply a religious exhibit, conceived and presented as such, it might be silly, but it would not be sinful, at least not within the context of the professional concerns of an evolutionary biologist.

Evil to a cook? According to Ruth Reichl, contempt for the cuisine you present.

Evil to a kid:  breaking small “f” faith, arriving earlier than discussed to end a play-date or failing to launch into as promised the next goddamn iteration of the Lego game you’ve only repeated 73 times that day (not that I mind, mind you)…

That is:  If you are a scientist, or a banker, or any person working in the world, then (while I agree with Hilary Putnam and many others who dispute the fact-value dichotomy) the evil to be understood in the theodicy issue is not one of a bounded professional ethics, but moral reasoning.  And pace apologists, one does not need a single divinity, a single text…and/or one does not need all of a text as an indispensible aid to such judgment.  (To see what I mean, look no further than the contrast between the moral worlds of Samuel, chapter 15, and that of Micah, chapter 6.)

But if you are a Darwinist, then, like the Christian, or the Christianist, you are on the spot.  You aren’t a human being with expertise in a certain area and intellectual method.  You are a believer, a member of a cult, a person of the (a) book.  Your failure to advance a theory of evil to contest with that of the revealed-religious believer is dispostive; the laurels must go to those who enter the lists.

Hence the usefulness of the such rhetorical posturing, and the deceit.

And what is most galling about this is that Sullivan truly does know better.  He has no time, none at all, for the enablers of torture.  He has justified contempt for every attempt to weasel some language of essential difference to justify distinctions in law between gay and straight.  He has no patience for coded racism.  He knows langauge, and he knows how it can be used for harm…or dare I say it, for evil ends.

No excuses then, for this.

One last note:  he may defend his headline as merely a quote from a post that is in its entirety a reader’s email.  That doesn’t wash, at least not for me.  First — he chose to run the email himself, and he bears responsibility for its rhetorical sins as well as whatever else it may contain.  Second, he wrote the headline.  He had alternatives.  He chose this one; he owns the word, and its sins.

*from a letter written in response to learning that his friend Nernst’s two sons had been killed in action in World War I.

**and yes, I am aware of the crucial edit there.

***though it certainly can lead pretty directly to literally mortal ones.

****I’m deliberately not delving into the folly of the post itself here — but as this headline was in fact taken from the linchpin passage in this reader’s email, you may get a sense of the poverty of the argument there.

Images:  “The Ruins of Lisbon,” after the Nov. 1, 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed that city. German copperplate engraving.

Darwin cartoon from the London Sketchbook, 1874

Heads Up! — Pigeons on the Loose at So Simple A Beginning

March 23, 2009

It’s not just this blog that has suffered a bad case of the slows lately; so has So Simple A Beginning a group-ish effort to blog against The Origin of Species in anticipation of that books 150th anniversary coming up this November.

But now I’m pleased to report that we’re finally getting on to Chapter one, starting off with a wonderful post by science writer Courtney Humphries.  Humphries, a graduate of America’s Finest™ Graduate Program in Science Writing — that at mine own institution,  MIT — is the author the acclaimed book on pigeons in all their glory, Superdove, published last year.  Check out what she has to say about Darwin’s use of the descendents of the humble and ubiquitous rock pigeon, Columba livia.

Image:  Anonymous, “Young Woman in Oriental Dress with Pigeon Post.” 19th century.

Mental Floss: Darwin/Evolution funnies division

March 4, 2009

So PZ posts this video, featuring the latest German Superheroine Susie Smartypants….

….which leads me via the magic of the intertubes to this true rarity: the only rock and roll appearance by the man of the bicentennial himself, Mr. Charles Darwin:

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Monday/Newton+Darwin Edition

February 23, 2009

Cross posted at So Simple A Beginning.

Up to now, we’ve been talking around the edges of what Darwin said to ease his readership into his ideas. Now it’s time to dig into the meat of the introduction to The Origin. (Past time, given the week or more that has passed since the epochal birthday – the celebration of which has already given at least one learned observer a bit of a hangover.  What would Chris Norris think of a whole year, give or take, immersed in Mr. Darwin’s Abstract?)

So to begin:  It’s going to take me a moment or two to get there, but what I want to point out here how much debt, and how much use Darwin makes of an approach to scientific argument originated by someone who is often seen as something of the anti-Darwin in subject, personality, and style.  That would be the one man with a clear claim to the title of greatest English scientist ahead of the master of Down House:  Isaac Newton.

It seems an unlikely comparison.  Opinions divide on the quality of Darwin’s prose, but there is no doubt that The Origin is at least a reasonably painless read.  Not so the Principia, even in its best translations.  (Here is my choice for an English version, which comes complete with Newton’s text and an invaluable guide to the work by the great Newton scholar I. B. Cohen.)

Where Darwin coaxes, Newton commands. Only once as I read the text does Newton break character and seem to give in – just a little — to the urge to persuade.  In Book III, as he describes how his new mathematical physics allows him to predict the paths of comets, he writes, “The theory that corresponds exactly to so nonuniform a motion through the greatest part of the heavens, and that observes the same laws as the theory of the planets and that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.” (Book III, prop. 41, problem 21.)

Even here, of course Newton buttresses his claim with a three – step chain of logical inference. The big stick of a formal proof seems to lurk in the shadows.  Still, that “cannot fail …” has a hint of rhetorical pressure, there to give its push to the reader.

Against such a modest expression of a hope for the reader’s assent, Darwin is ever-ingratiating, almost deferential.

After explaining the sequence of events that led him to write The Origin, for example, he begs that “I hope I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”

On the significance of the observation of domesticated animals, he almost craves pardon, writing that “I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.”

Even when he states the central theme of the Introduction and the work as a whole, Darwin remains unfailingly polite, and conscious of the sensibilities of his reader.  In the paragraph on page 3 in which Darwin finally stops clearing his throat, he writes:

“In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species.”

But for all the quites and the mights here, there is no disguising the muscle beneath the softness, as tough as Newton’s declaration that herein lies truth.  What follows actually bears more connection to Newton’s approach to the presentation of radical argument than may be obvious under the warming blanket of Darwin’s verbiage.

Remember:  Newton, for all the seeming artlessness of Principia – its apparent “just the facts ma’am” sequence of one demonstration after another –produced a book with a clearly articulated structure that enhanced the power of the content itself.* Crucially, in his introductory material, he laid down his famous three laws of motion as axioms, principles known (or to be seen) as true from which all else could be derived.

Newton’s use of this device was not new, (he said himself that he modeled his book on the works of the ancients) but it hadn’t been used in this way in the context of the new science of the seventeenth century, and he deployed it in the Principia to devastating effect.  By developing a seemingly exhaustive analysis of matter in motion based on the derivation of theorems from that handful of basic principles, Newton laid claim to more just the truth he proclaimed near the end of Book III. His book, like Euclid’s before it, promised a method to discover new truths — in Newton’s case, by subjecting motion to number, and thus to the rigorous scrutiny of mathematical analysis.**

Did this triumph have an influence on Darwin?  Not directly.  Those susceptible to its charms had to possess more stomach for mathematics (or, like John Locke, be willing to take the proofs on faith) than Darwin ever did.

But (at last, having travelled the long road home!) the introduction to the Origin shows the debt Darwin owed to the Newtonian style.  For all the cushioning of the blow, the essence of what Darwin said as he summarized the chapters to come turn on the axiomatic presentation Newton had deployed to such effect 150 years before.  Instead of Newton’s three laws, Darwin offers just two principles – but they are sufficient, he promises, to the matter at hand.

That is:  the concept of the descent of one species from another – the proposition to be demonstrated — he wrote, cannot be affirmed “until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

And now, writes Darwin, it can be told: this modification takes place through the operation of just two facts of nature:  variation and selection.  On variation, Darwin says that  “we shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible, and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations.”

As for natural, as opposed to human or artificial selection – that too will gain the status of a truth universally acknowledged, in Darwin’s promised treatment of “the Struggle for Existence: amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase”:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”***

There is no deference here.  No hesitation designed to obscure a possible discomforting moment for the reader.  At the point of the issue Darwin does not obscure the hard truth:  living things vary.  That variance has consequences, and if we must reproduce,**** then those consequences will include the differential selection of those better able to survive (and reproduce again).

All this could be, of course, just rather long-winded glimpse of the obvious:  that in The Origin of Species Darwin made use of the two concepts we all know he did, variation and selection, to organize all the observations and interpretations of nature to come.

I’m actually trying to say something a bit different (kind of you – ed.). Darwin’s ideas emerged for him from his close introspection on the mass of facts he collected on the Beagle and afterwards.  But his presentation of theory of evolution to the public proceeds the other way round:  within a brief, seemingly (and deceptively) simple logical structure, the facts follow theory.  As Newton had before him, Darwin presented his work in a way that framed individual facts – the track of a comet, the existence of nipples on male chests – into a weave of logic and prediction such that both theories cannot fail to be true.

Darwin was not Newton.  He would never put the matter quite that baldly.  But even if Charles was more polite than Isaac, he was no less aware of the real claim he was making.

And this speaks to an issue that runs through a modern reading of any 19th century text on biology.  It is a commonplace to say that Darwin got lots wrong, and that there is a lot that is missing in The Origin. In later posts, I’ll wrangle with what it means to say that Darwin made errors.  But leaving aside much of what I think is anachronistic in the “trip the genius” game (both as it applies to Darwin and to Newton, inter alia), the point is that Darwin, like Newton, was concerned in his book with the issue of creating a world view, a way of understanding all the specific phenomena each man sought to analyze.

Here, the axiom-and-application model is key.  It is the structural device through which Darwin asserted that he had a theory of evolution, in the full, robust Newtonian sense of the term.  Darwin was not merely arguing for that the current state of knowledge suggested the modification of species:  he was demonstrating the explanatory power of a view that showed how modification could account for both what was known, and what was to be discovered.  Q.E.D., for the last 150 years.

*I write more about the way Newton put together the Principia here, to be available in June.

**The phrase “to subject motion to number” originates with Alexander Koyré, who applied it to Galileo.  It works here too.

***To be sure, by the end of the book the catalogue of biological laws expands to five:  growth with reproduction; inheritance; variability; the struggle for life induced by high rates of increase; which induces natural selection, leading to divergence (of species) and extinction.  The core ideas remain the same, however, or clearly logically connected to the starting two principles.

****In conversation about matters evolutionary with Olivia Judson this week, she pointed out that, of course, reproduction requires death; immortality would preclude sex (for those species that so indulge).  I asked how many 18 year olds would choose deathlessness over sex; she answered, correctly in my view, none.

Images: A.Starilov, designer, USSR postage stamp, Scientists series, “Portrait of Isaac Newton (mathematician and physicist),” date of issue: 8th October 1987.  (The image is a copy of this Sir Godfrey Kneller portrait of Newton completed in 1689.)

Newton’s first and second laws of motion, from the 1687 (first) edition of Principia.

Anton Braith, “Kühe auf dem Heimweg mit Hirtin” [Cows on the way home with their Shepherdess] 1860.

What Darwin Said/Wrote on His 50th Birthday.

February 15, 2009

[cross posted at So Simple A Beginning, where a group of us are reading The Origin together.]

Happy Birthday, Charles!  A day or two —  or four late.

With that out of the way, what happened on the great day?  Not quite now, nor then, not 200 years ago, but rather, on Feb. 12, 1859, the day Darwin turned fifty?

That birthday, of course, came nine months before he published the book that is the reason for the odd bit of hullabaloo you may have noticed around the web (and bricks-and-mortar “reality”) as well.

The answer, from Charles’ perspective?

Not much good …

…and the reason for Darwin’s discomfort?

That same, dominating, seemingly terrifying book.

Here’s what Charles Darwin wrote to his cousin, William Darwin Fox, from Moor Park, the water-cure establishment to which he had retreated to secure relief from his persistent stomach troubles:

I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head.

Now, as Darwin points out, this is an old complaint, a re-eruption of the distressing symptoms that he had first experienced in Chile during the voyage of the Beagle. As such, this is mere incident, part of the fabric of a life often lived in great discomfort.

But with Darwin, it never does to ignore the  mind-body connection.  Consider the sequence:  on 18 June, 1858, Darwin received the famous parcel from Alfred Russel Wallace, naturalizing in the Malay archipelago (now Indonesia), which included the younger man’s sketch of a theory that described the mutability of species through a selection mechanism very close to Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection.

Darwin had some hints of Wallace’s interests before, both through Wallace’s published work and in correspondence between the two, but this, coming in the midst of his own attempt to distill a the work of a decade and more into a write up on the species problem, came as a terrible blow.

His friends famously rallied him:  presenting both Wallace’s paper and some of Darwin’s unpublished work to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858 — thus establishing Darwin’s joint priority with Wallace, and laying the ground for Darwin to claim pride of place if he could only present the first fully developed argument for the ideas that he and Wallace had broached…

…which is why, from the summer of 1858 through the autumn 1859  publication of what became On the Origin of Species, Darwin was hard at work, extracting from his proposed much longer work what he called “an abstract” of the larger argument.  It was that effort, much more than any birthday, even so canonically fraught a milestone as the two-score-and-tenth, that consumed Darwin.  Certainly, he had no doubt as to the source of his physical distress:

My abstract is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir…

At first reading, this line  plays to those who retail the conventional account of Darwin as deeply fearful of the dreadful secrets he was about to reveal in The Origin. It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that the man who wrote of confessing to a murder early on in his consideration of the species problem might break under the stress of going public with his conclusions.  And it is true that Darwin did play his cards close to his vest for years, and that he was determined, at the least, not to go widely public with his thinking until he felt his arguments were ironclad.

What then of the long-running argument that Darwin’s illness was not psychological, not a trick played on his unfortunate body by his  conflicted mind?  The most common diagnosis of an infectious cause of  Darwin’s gastric symptoms is that of Chagas disease, which is supported by the fact that Darwin wrote in his journal of the voyage of the Beagle that, one night while naturalizing in Chile,

“I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca (Vinchuca), a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood.”

The Benchuca bug is the insect carrier of  Chagas disease, and the fact that this illness produces many of the symptoms that Darwin endured, plus this gold-standard report of encountering its vector persuaded a number of high profile Darwinists to entertain the suggestion after it was proposed in 1959 by Dr. Saul Adler, a tropical medicine specialist.  Among them — Ernst Mayr, writing in the introduction to the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition of The Origin of Species I’m using for this project.

There are, though, serious problems with the diagnosis, not least that Darwin lived a long life characterized by a lessening of the symptoms that seemed to strike at moments of greatest stress with remarkable regularity.  Writing more recently than Mayr, many Darwin experts have come to see the search for a specific point-source of Darwin’s illness to be a mug’s game.  Here is Janet Browne on the subject in Charles Darwin:  Voyaging.

...he only recorded being bitten by benchucas some months after this illness [his collapse on the way from Santiago to Valparaiso in 1834]…and that incident was not followed by any of the fever typical of sleeping sickness [Chagas] infectionsChagas disease was endemic in Chile and the characteristic symptoms of infection…would not have gone unremarked…Yet there was no serious sugggestion that a South American disease could be to blame [for Darwin’s post-Beagle illnesses], although once or twice in extreme old age Darwin attributed his breakdown in health to this Valparaiso attack.  (Voyaging, pp. 279-280).

Browne goes on to suggest that “sour new-made wine seems as good areason as any for disorders in Chile,” while noting that the purgatives he was prescribed for his symptoms “would have incapacitated the hardiest.”

In the end, without exhuming Darwin and being fortunate enough to retrieve enough biological material to run retrospective diagnostics, it is likely that the question of exactly what laid Darwin low on his fiftieth birthday (and all the other times) will remain unsolvable in any absolute sense.  There doesn’t even have to be a single cause, nor an exclusively physical or psychological account.

Still, it is important to pay attention to what Darwin himself tells us.  No man or woman may be a perfect witness to their own state of being, but at least Charles was first on the scene.  He knew, or thought he did, what ailed him: his abstract was making him sick.

But for all the evidence — and there is plenty — of  Darwin’s doubts and even genuine fear of public ridicule or worse in the 1840s, it does not follow that Darwin in the late 1850s, already working on his much longer version of the story he compressed within The Origin of Species, was vomiting up terror at his presumption.

It is always a risky game to psychoanalyze from a distance.  But we do have direct testimony here:  when pressed, not by disapproving public opinion but by the threat of professional eclipse, Darwin turned out to be eager, even swift to write up  his ideas for as wide an audience as he could reach.

It seems to me that Darwin himself gives us a simpler explanation for his manuscript’s role in his illness.  In essence, he had been working too hard.

And in that context, his letter to Fox betrays a hint of relief, and the prospect of better days to come, given that “I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man.” Even better, Darwin told his cousin, his peers were falling into line.  “I have had the great satisfaction of converting Hooker & I believe Huxley & I think Lyell is much staggered.”

This does not sound to me like a man cowering before the enormity of what he was about to do.  This is someone who, when not retching into the bucket by his bed, is getting used to the scale of his achievement.

You go, Charles.  Happy 200th, yet again.

Images:  Charles Darwin at 51.  According to the son of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, this portait is by Messrs. Maull and Fox, ; he writes that “the date of the photograph is probably 1854; it is, however, impossible to be certain on this point, the books of Messrs. Maull and Fox having been destroyed by fire.”  Other sources date the photograph from 1859 or 1860.

Map of Alfred Russell Wallace’s travels from his book The Malay Archipelago, 1869.


February 13, 2009

This is just to announce that the promised Darwin project So Simple A Beginning has in fact gone live.

This is an ongoing farrago for which I hope everyone here will find some time to join in:  we’re going to be reading Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (first edition) from stem to stern, reacting on the way.

When I say we, I mean first a group of authors that have agreed to chime in on more or less regular schedules; I’ll be the utility infielder, but I’ve got around me a team of all-stars:  Darwin biographer Janet Browne, Evo-Devo guy Sean B. Carroll, my own colleague John Durant, science writer and bon vivant Carl Zimmer, rising star Alex Wellerstein, and others to be named later.  We’re going to be going through Darwin’s seminal text at the rate of about a chapter a month — maybe a touch more quickly — and we will, if all goes well, end up with a range of commentary to help place The Origin in its own time and in ours.

And that “we” again:  it includes everyone who decides to take part, to read, react, and to post their thoughts as the collective we makes our way through the most important written work of the last two centuries (and yes — I don’t think that’s hyperbole).

The site had its soft opening yesterday, with no fanfare, but there are now two posts up about the introduction, along with one with a bit of background on what edition of the Origin we are reading and why.with some more to come over the weekend and early next week, so if you’re interested — stop on by.  Much more to come.

Image:   Plan of the HMS Beagle: Middle section fore and aft, upper deck, 1832. From A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., By Charles Darwin, M.A., F.R.S., with illustrations by R. T. Pritchett of places visited and objects described.

The Day Before Darwin Day: Charles, At Home

February 11, 2009

I wrote the post below for last year’s Darwin Day, but given (a) that Inverse Square was in its infancy, with an audience to match, and (b) the fact that a lot more people pay attention to a 200th anniversary than the 199th,  I thought I’d repost it now, with a few edits to smooth at least some of the infelicities of the earlier post.  (Also:  remember to check in at for tomorrow for the launch of So Simple A Beginning,  a group effort to create an accompaniment  to The Origin of Species. I’ll be leading that effort, joined by an all star cast of Darwininans and biologists.  Tomorrow, mind you.  We’re still fixing the bits and pieces and it ain’t live yet.)

As most probably know, much of Darwin’s writing is available online. My favorite way to pass (waste?) a little time is to look through the enormous correspondence now up at the site — 5000 letters, up to about 1868. In honor of the great man’s birthday, (199 — next up is the big year), I looked for what something that might give us a clue as to what he was thinking about 150 151 years ago today.

There’s no letter from February 12th 1858,* but on February 11, 1858, Charles did write to his son, William. It’s a nice little note, ordinary family news — mixed in with just a hint of what made Darwin, Darwin.

We learn that William has been at least acceptably conscientious about writing home from a visit to Norfolk. We find that Darwin doesn’t think much of that county, though he admits he’s never been there. (That’s a reminder, for those of you keeping score, of the peculiar Darwin fact that after the extraordinary adventure of the voyage of the Beagle, Charles remained quite stationary — the more so after he, Emma and the children moved from London to Down House in Kent in 1842.)

The older Darwin tells his son of some minor matters of family business: their gray mare has turned out to be too skittish — nearly overturning the cart a few days earlier — so off she must go for 25 quid to the local horse dealer. Darwin grumbles a bit — “indeed it is very inconvenient for us being with only one horse,” but tells William that he will not replace the ill-favored mare until the summer holidays.

And then, with no change in tone, Charles sets William to work:

“As Norfolk is near Suffolk, look out for me, whether there are near you any Suffolk Punches or large Cart-Horses of a Chesnut colour; if so please observe whether they have a dark stripe or band down the spine to root of tail; also for mere chance, whether any trace of a cross stripe on the shoulder, where the Donkey has, & any cross-stripes on the legs.”

Darwin, of course, had already written up the significance of stripes and other markings on horses in a brief essay on the significance of the striped markings of horses and their relatives  as part of what would become the “Laws of Variation” chapter of The Origin of Species.  The Origin would not be published until the end of the following  year, though, and Darwin never let an opportunity go by to extract yet one more fact to serve within the natural historical foundation of his theory.

In other words: if you read The Origin, and even more if you dive into the long slog that is The Descent of Man you quickly come under the spell of Darwin’s gentle but relentless assault-by-data, organized around one never-wavering thread of argument.

Darwin did not triumph by direct, exuberant attack — that was Huxley’s job, (among others) ably taken up these days by all the usual suspects. Instead, he lulled friend and foe alike with observation after observation, striped horse after barred donkey. You come out the other side enmeshed, not necessarily in the grandeur of this view of the world,  but in its meticulous accumulation, the coherence in which Darwin has organized all his disparate knowledge into a single convincing whole.

And in this one letter, written the day before his birthday 150 years ago, you can see Darwin in his gentle way storing up yet more ammunition in an arsenal he never ceased to replenish.  Do be a good boy, William, and just take a look at a couple of Suffolk horses for me…
And then it’s back to the family — a trip to London in the offing, a vase to be sold to pay for some new watercolors that will, Charles promises William, “make the new Drawing Room look stunning”– after, that is, Darwin pays the surveyor for the work done on the house. Charles, in full parental mode, asks for reports on school work, and then says good bye:

–“My dear old fellow | Yours affect | C. Darwin”

How did Darwin do his great work?  This is how:  through his own observations; through years of thought; and through the community of affection and interest he created around him — the family, friends and strangers who supplied him with the knowledge he could not discover himself.  At the heart of the whole enterprise:  the fact that Darwin always, in any circumstance, even in a casual note to his son, found his way to one more chunk of hard fact.

Images:  Charles Darwin with his son William, 1842.  Daguerrotype
Gong Kai, “Emaciated Horse” after 1279.  Location:  Osaka Municipal Museum.  Source for both images:  Wikimedia Commons.