Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Descent of Darwin

I give up. Early this year, in my continuing effort to expand and broaden my mind, I began reading The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin. The less famous cousin to The Origin of Species, I began it in an understanding that it was on a list of books compiled by the BYU Honors' Department.

When I was in eighth grade my brother Soren began college as a freshman at BYU. He received a copy of their recommended reading list, and passed it along to me. I've always liked reading from "approved" lists - my innate sense of ego is stroked by knowing that I'm reading something that has officially been marked as high-faluting. So I began working my way through the list, which began near the dawn of writing and continued through to the second half of the (then) present century. Thirteen years later - twice as old as I was when I began, I'm still slowly, in spurts, working my way through this list. I even have the original copy, plus an updated and expanded one that dates back to the beginning of my marriage (now Avram can keep track, too.)

Anything that lets me cross books off in variegated colors of highlighters that gives me a huge sense of satisfaction has longer staying power in my life than most anything else. I once calculated that at the rate I was reading the books, it would take me until I was 63 to finish the list. Now, an older and more discerning self realizes that I'll never finish the list - I wouldn't even want to. For one thing, I have come to accept that I'll never finish my reading of The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, and no color of highlighter could induce me to change my mind. Nor will I ever complete the non-fiction books, among which largely figure scientific works.

Several months ago, when I picked up The Descent Of Man, I figured this would be a good way to break into the vast regions of white spots remaining, which are filled with all sorts of scientific observations from millenia, with everyone from Aristotle to Steven Hawking putting in their sheepskin's worth of highly scientific opinions. Plus we already owned it. So I began.

And I read and I read and I read and I schlogged and I schlogged and I schlogged. I read through times where Darwin gives, as a scientific example of animals having remnants of older, lost functions a kitten with unusual characteristics that a women wrote to him about, and assured him that was true. Who can refute with scientific methods such as this? I found myself quite unable to. Not only were old women prone to assuring him of scientific facts - friend after noble friend was cited as an honourable gentleman who assured Darwin of such and such a fact of the behavior of animals or savages, which in Darwin's mind were almost the same thing. I have never so appreciated the modern academic method of writing papers with bulky citations included.

Apart from his scholarly methods, prevalent I am sure in his time, I also could not stomach Darwin's actual theory, or rather, his method of proving it. I am not against evolution. I am a creationist, but I prefer to think of myself as an organizationalist. I know that God organized the world out of existing elements. He further organized the world to the state we know it to be in today. As the LDS Sunday School manual for the Old Testament is quick to point out, the word for day in Hebrew, Yom, can also mean a period of time. Who's to say that every day didn't compose of millions of years under our reckoning? Who knows if dinosaurs roamed the earth while Adam and Eve spent untold time in the Garden of Eden? Our conception of time only began after the fall, and so anything prior to that I feel could very well include some form of evolution.

Having stated this, I still remain unconvinced by Darwin's arguments for the descent of Man. His main point, he works up to time and again is listed as such (Chapter Six, page 162): "The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution." (Ch 7, p. 188, emphasis added); "Those naturalists, on the other hand, who admit the principle of evolution, and this is now admitted by the majority of rising men, will feel no doubt that all the races of man are descended from a single primitive stock." (Ch.8, p.219); "From our ignorance on several points, the precise manner in which sexual selection acts is somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless if those naturalists who already believe in the mutability of species, will read the following chapters, they will, I think, agree with me, that sexual selection has played an important part in the history of the organic world."

Early in his book, in Chapter Six, Darwin opens with this grand statement, "Even if it be granted that the difference between man and his nearest allies is as great in corporeal structure as some naturalists maintain, and although we must grant that the difference between them is immense in mental power, yet the facts given in the earlier chapters appear to declare, in the plainest manner, that man is descended from some lower form, notwithstanding that connecting -links have not hitherto been discovered."(p. 151, emphasis added).

As his grand facts usually boiled down to appeals to the "rising man's" already assumed belief in the origin of Man, I found myself quite umoved by Darwin's repeated circular reasoning.

Secondly, I was at times amused, and at times appalled by Darwin's blatant prejudices. I felt that Darwin and Kipling, author of the "White Man's Burden" would have gotten along well. Darwin assumes that the white, European nations are the apex of humanity. He grants some small part to America, though. "There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and have there succeeded best." A few pages previous, Darwin had this to say about the "courageous men," "The restless who will not follow a steady occupation - and this relic of barbarism is a great check to civilization - emigrate to newly-settled countries, where they prove useful pioneers."

A mere slam against pioneers is nothing, compared to some other of his ideas, which were prevalent at the time. "We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment...Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man...We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected."(Ch. 5, p.138-9).

Darwin goes on to discuss how the races of man ought to be classed as separate species. He gives as the first example how the lice of different races are different, "and the fact of the races of man being infested by parasites, which appear to be specifically distinct, might fairly be urged as an argument that the races themselves ought to be classed as distinct species." (Ch. 7, p. 177). Darwin dismisses that mulattoes are sterile, but does agree that they have less vitality. Darwin does not feel that fertility between the races crosses out them being separate species. Darwin repeatedly points to the "savage" as an example of the evolution of man - civilized man having moved forward. He often refers to the assured fact another distinguished gentlemen has shown, about how some savages are not able to count past four, and thus have a very limited intellectual capacity. The way Darwin makes out, he almost is convinced that the savages are the missing link with the apes. Of course, it must be pointed out that Darwin was explicitly not in favor of slavery. I did find my self, time and again, gaping at the page in disbelief as he yet again made another swipe against the "savage."

As the book progresses, Darwin falls off into an interminably long discourse, set up to last through four hundred pages, of the intricate relationships and various minutiae of sundry animals, from dogs to birds. After over a hundred pages of beetles and butterflies and such, and with such exciting treatises on Sexually Limited Inheritance of Birds yet to come, I set the book down one day in February, almost 260 pages in, and could never bring myself to pick it back up. I never reached the point where Darwin tied this back into the Descent of Man, but I can only figure it was an example of how amazing and intricate the species were, and so could not have been created - thus pointing to evolution.

The true death knell came recently, when I found my old BYU honors' list tucked away in one of our many bookshelves. Right after Darwin's as of yet unmarked name came only one title, and The Descent of Man was not it. I could not even highlight Darwin's obfuscating name, had I finished the book! Now, all motivation was lost, and I have only retained the book from venturing forth into the Goodwills of Ohio in order to more explicitly state my case of ennui and unconvinced evolutionary theory in this blog post.

As I see the various articles set up to celebrate Darwin's life and influence, I cannot help but wonder how many of those extolling Darwin's influence have ever attempted to read his actual work. The introduction to this new publishing begins, "What is the origin of our species? What is human nature? What is the destiny of our species? To answer these three basic questions, we must look to the pivotal writings of the great naturalist Charles Darwin...[who] was able to overthrow the traditional religious and philosophical interpretations of life and humankind...And while the religious objections to evolutionism will be lost in the flow of history, the scientific value of Darwin's works will last for all human time." (H. James Birx, Phd at Harvard University.)

This introduction proves a point Avram often makes. Ultimately, evolution has become a stand for atheists versus religion. No one can talk of the subject without appealing to one side or the other, and evolution has become the pillar that many scentists have built their foundation of proving religion wrong on. Hence Avram and I believe that Evolution, being such a charged theory, will never be considered with the same emotional dispassionacy given to other theories, because it is not, ultimately, about how animals change through time. Evolution, to the Charles Darwins and H. James Birxes of the world, is about how religion is wrong (he even refutes Pope John Paul the II by name).

As an organizationalist, I do not feel any need to set evolution against religion. Science and religion are not polar opposites, contrary to what many scientists (and it should be noted, many religionists) assume. I am, unconvinced by Darwin's argumentation, but that has precious little to with my religion, and much more to do with his scholarship, circular reasoning, and so forth. Centuries later, it still comes down to the fact that if you believe in evolution like a good little "rising man" you do not need to be convinced, because evolution is self-evident, and religion is evidently wrong. Doctor Birxes is certainly one of these "rising men." For myself, however, I will remain as a sinking woman, although I will never be able to highlight Darwin's name.


  1. Wow, thanks so much for warning me not to waste time on a book that, okay, I'll admit it, I probably never would have read anyway. So it was fascinating to get a taste of it.

    I get VERY weary of evolution being invoked as an indisputable overarching explanation of everything (even the social sciences) rather than as a theory with its strengths and weaknesses.

  2. I think it takes a lot more faith or suspension of disbelief or whatever you want to call it to be believe in evolution as the origin of man and the complexities of our world than it takes to believe in creation or organization.

  3. Wow. Talk about an enlightening post!

    I could so see myself making a similar attempt in the name of strips of coloured highlighter. Too funny.

  4. Gorgeous post. Really perfect. Thought I don't think I'm smart enough to even attempt it (I barely felt smart enough to get through your post) it was fun to get a glimpse.

  5. I would argue reading Darwin would be of merit to creationist to understand his arguments and be able to accurately find where you disagree with him and express it in a sound and logical way.

    In the end does it mater though that men may be "where the fallen angel meets the rising ape"? Is the validity of the bible nixed by evolution? What is the message of Christianity really?

    It is that man may return to live with God again and that plan has been made that they might perfect their imperfections.

    The Flood
    The Garden of Eden
    The Plagues of Egypt
    Parting the Red Sea
    Are all very nice but in the end they have little to do with the salvation of man save they provide a narrative of biblical events. I'm not saying throw out these parts of the bible but how about worrying more about the becoming a Christlike being. Loving your neighbor being a peace maker.

    The Evolutionist vs. Creationist argument has become one of Satans best tools for turning the hearts of men against each other and dividing what could be unified. Instead of seeking dialogue we seek instead to debate and tear down. If ye are not one ye are not mine. While we waste or energy on pointless debate the children starve, people lose hope, and darkness creeps into the world. It may be nice to know something about evolution or creation but how will that help you love your neighbor or our God?

    Sorry little bit of a tyrade

    Thanks for the post

  6. Very nice post. Also, very impressive that you've read so many great works! You may have already seen it, but I really liked the documentary "Expelled," by Ben Stein, that addresses the silencing of creationists in the scientific community. It's fascinating.

  7. Good for you for actually reading Darwin firsthand, instead of doing what many of us do and rely on the text book generalizations we learned in high school and college. Personally, I haven't felt the need to try reading Darwin, as yet. I've heard so many obnoxious arguments from both creationists and evolutionists over the years that I've become intensely weary of the whole subject. Why the subject can't be discussed rationally and without malice is beyond me, but I can't bear some of the snide debate that goes on among both sides. I don't know T.S., but he pretty much nailed my sentiments on the subject. We have so many better things we should be doing.

    Again, good on ya for making the effort, Thora. I'd offer to join you, but I have to get through Plato first...

  8. Thora! I'm so mad at myself. I read this MOST EXCELLENT post the other day but didn't know where to start in my comment. . . so I didn't comment. For now I will just say that this post is so well thought through and presented that it was such a pleasure to read and I think my IQ might have gone up a few points. :)

    Also, Interesting what people are saying about not getting involved in the debate, or at least not getting nasty about it(which I agree with, of course). I really like this quote from Elder Christofferson's most recent conference talk, " We need strong Christians who can make important things happen by their faith and who can defend the truth of Jesus Christ against moral relativism and militant atheism." (my emphasis) I think it's important that people take a stand. There's no need to be obnoxious about it, like the guy on a BBC documentary we watched just the day before I read this post (which is why I didn't comment, as I knew I would write 4,000 paragraphs). He was some big science guy and he goes schools to berate high school science teachers for not being more forceful in getting students to understand that evolution is not an idea or a theory to be accepted or rejected! It is a fact, and one that refutes the false religious illusions they've been taught.

    He talked to some priest about evolution and the priest was intelligent and kind, but then he started going off on immaculate conception and I just thought ACK! This scientist is laughing you to scorn in his head right now! STOP!!

    At the end the guy meets with a fellow scientist friend (I think these guys are probably famous, but I'm not really in the know about that crowd) and they are discussing about how there is no need to have some consolation about the tragedy of death etc. We should all recognize the wonder of the whole process and be so glad that we were a part of it. They started talking about how it is absolutely amazing that we are able to grasp these concepts and work through the processes and even understand enough to recognize the beauty and wonder of it. It ended with them saying something about how the most amazing thing of all is that this very intelligence and curiosity is a result of the very process that they are contemplating.

    I just thought, how sad. All that we are, our potential, intelligence everything is due to evolution.

    Greg is right, that is a religion. Just like Environmentalism (in its extreme form) is a religion. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but I just wish they would recognize it. One of the speakers at this Intelligence Squared debate entitled "We'd Be Better Off Without Religion" made the case for Environmentalism being a religion. Most of the speakers are pretty great on there, but I got a little annoyed with the scholar that mentioned the poor Mormons wasting away their lives without dancing because of their religious deceptions. HELLO!?! Did I not spend 3/4 of my teenagerhood dancing? :)

  9. (I'm pretty sure that's a record for longest comment, and I didn't even say half of what I wanted to!)

  10. It cracks me up when people get things completely wrong about our religion - like dancing.(Maybe they think the deacon shuffle doesn't count as a real dance). I had someone in High School tell me that he would still be my friend, even though I was Mormon, although he didn't like our arranged marriages. I like long comments - you should write the rest of your thoughts down too!

    I definitely agree that many things can become a religion to people - Like evolution, or evironmentalism.