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CHARLES DARWIN: MAN AND METAPHOR

by Robert M. Young

One of the ways we make our heroes heroic is to see them as outside history - so great, so original that their genius can't be accounted for - pure genius. This is especially true of the scientific hero. The greater the scientist the more she or he (almost always he) shows unprecedented intelligence and insight beyond the ability of colleagues - a timeless vision of immutable truth - the eternal truths - the laws of nature. An Einstein, we say - the purest.

I find it hard to think of Darwin in these terms. What a prosaic man he was. No eureka moment a la Archimedes in his tub. No apple fell on his head a la Newton. No abstracted way of life. He was neither absent-minded nor effete nor dandy. He was a quiet, sober family man who rarely left home and in the last forty years of life rarely left this village and spent most of his time an invalid on this couch.

And yet, if we were looking for a scientific theory that is important to humankind, I can't think of a more significant one or one with wider and deeper implications. Moreover, if I was to think through all the intellectuals in British history, no matter how disinclined I am to the heroic mode, I would have to acknowledge that Darwin was the most profound.

More profound than Hobbes or Harvey. More profound than Newton or Locke or Faraday or Dalton or Rutherford or Crick.

It is said that there were three or four great blows to our self-esteem in the modern era. The first was that the earth is not the centre of the known

heavens but that it revolves around the sun, displacing us to an eccentric setting. The second that we descended from the apes, displacing us from a unique relationship with the earth and God. The third that our behaviour and motives are ultimately rooted in social and economic causes; and, finally, that we don't even have access to the most important sources of our own thought and actions since these are unconscious. Of these four blows to human pride at the hands of Copernicus, Darwin, Marx and Freud, it was Darwin who rooted our humanity to the history of the animal kingdom and to the history of the earth so that, as they put it in the nineteenth century, 'man's place in nature' was a purely historical one, not above or outside history. Not specially created. Not apart from the other creatures but one of them. At the same time, in the 1860s when it was being argued that slaves were our brothers, an even heavier blow to Victorian self-esteem was felt - that apes were our ancestors and remain our cousins or perhaps - as some caricaturists thought - our brothers, after all, like the slaves.

All of this added up to a considerable humiliation - rocking many of the ideological, moral and spiritual foundations of human civility - even human civilization. But at a deeper level I want to argue that Darwinism was very much part of the establishment and constituted a subtle accommodation with the status quo, one which was suitable for a rapidly changing social and empirical order. I am suggesting that we should think of Darwinism in three ways: first, its popular reception; second, its deeper cultural resonances; and third - to which I will now turn - its philosophical and scientific significance.

Newton's laws and the concepts of physics and chemistry don't include real historical time. They are eternal and timeless. But geology and the history of life - biology - have real time at the heart of their explanations.

It was Darwin who brought history - or historiness - to the heart of science. His theory of evolution by natural selection is the linchpin of the human and the biological and the earth sciences. It is the single most general idea for understanding how we came to be. It makes us natural and unites humanity and nature.

What it says is that over millions and millions of years the process that eventually led to the species we call 'man' or homo sapiens evolved by purely natural processes by tiny stages, each conferring a small advantage so that an animal had more surviving offspring - selected in the struggle for life. Bit by bit by an infinity of slow processes our kind came to be - descended in the last instance from the apes.

This seemed extraordinary to a popular opinion in the mid-nineteenth century and seems utterly commonplace to us now. What is striking about Darwin as we look back on him is how much he was a man of his own time - inside history, inside the ideas and society of his era. Evolution by natural selection was a quintessentially Victorian theory. When one looks closely at his theory, his originality, it is actually an amalgam of a number of ideas which come from traditions which seem on the surface to be opposed to science. What I am saying is first that he was not as original as is often supposed and second that he got his ideas from some very unlikely places. Even so - and I'll come back to this - his theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the two or three most important and fundamental in science. We think of science as pure, clear, objective, unambiguous - the opposite of arts or literature. Yet Darwin's key idea - 'natural selection' was a metaphor, a vague ambiguous phrase, and this ambiguity and metaphoricalness lay at the heart of its power. This feature of his theory greatly helped Darwin's concept of natural selection to prevail over its rivals.

What I am out to show is that science and scientists are inside culture - they are expressions of contending values and social forces rather than above them. Moreover, that scientific concepts - and the more fundamental a concept the truer this is - are packed with values - are even expressions of them and are deeply metaphorical.

The usual way of representing Darwinian evolution is as a challenge to theology. Indeed, a common phrase in the nineteenth century as in recent controversies in America is that the battle over Darwinism was the decisive one in 'the warfare between science and theology'. Darwin is said to have been godless to have destroyed the link between God and man and with it to have undermined the concept of free will and responsibility and the hope for an afterlife. If we are animals, descended from the apes, how can we have God-given choice and an immortal soul? Do fish have souls? Do insects? Indeed, at a melodramatic setpiece debate at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce challenged T. H. Huxley and asked if he was descended from an ape on his grandmother's side or his grandfather's side. Huxley replied with great dignity that he would rather be descended from an ape than to use his intelligence in such a base way.

But if we look closely there is no evidence that Darwin was attacking theism. The one feature that all of Darwin's intellectual mentors have in common is their belief in God. Indeed, it was not at all unusual for naturalists to be clerics in this period. On the contrary, he tells us that the works of the Reverend William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle and author of works on Natural Theology and The Evidences of Christianity, were the only books in the academical course at Cambridge which were any use to him in the education of his mind. They gave him great delight.

It was Paley's way of reasoning about nature's harmony which provided much of Darwin's framework of ideas. He drew attention to the mutual adaptedness of living things in relation to each other and to the environment. Paley said there was beautiful God-given harmony. Darwin agreed but set out to explain how it came to be by means of natural causes. Another parson who saw nature and humanity in religious terms was the Reverend Thomas R. Malthus, who provided much else - the key to Darwin's mechanism of natural selection. This became clear to Darwin as he was ruminating the fruits of his 55-month-37,000 mile voyage round the world, starting in 1831. The experience of such a journey led Darwin to see the relationship between present and extinct plants and animals on a grand scale. Indeed, the time scale was greatly enhanced by the Principles of Geology by Darwin's mentor Charles Lyell of whom he said 'I always think my books came half out of Lyell's brain'. Volume One of Lyell's Principles went with him when he sailed from England and Volume Two was waiting for him when he arrived in Montevideo. Lyell argued that only causes now in operation and in their present intensity produced the changes in the earth and life which we observe to have come to pass. This process took many millions of years rather than the few thousand allowed for by a literal reading of the Bible. Lyell, too, was a theist and wished to exempt man's origins from his framework of naturalistic ideas.

If we put together Paley's harmony with Lyell's time scale and the ideas of Malthus, which pointed to a competition produced by the pressure of ever-increasing populations, it is not difficult to arrive at Darwin's theory of the development of species through the struggle for existence or natural selection. He is quite explicit about this in his autobiography and his notebooks and the early sketches of his theory. He said,

'In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work;'

There is a breathless quality about the sense of discovery in his notes.

 

[show ms]

'It is the doctrine of Malthus applied in most cases with ten-fold force . . . the pressure is always ready . . . a thousand wedges are being forced into the economy of nature. In the course of a thousand generations infinitesimally small differences must inevitably tell.' In his notebook for October 1838, he says, 'One may say that there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying to force every kind of adopted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones'.

You might think that Darwin thoroughly secularized theistic ideas and banished religion. But if that was so, why did he put three theological quotations at the beginning of his great work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life? [show]

These said respectively that God acted through general laws, that he acted once and that there is no conflict between the book of God's word - the Bible - and the book of God's works - science - they are complementary. Once again, if Darwin was an enemy of theism, why did he conclude On the Origin of Species with this flourish:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animal, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

The phrase 'by the Creator' was not in the first edition. Darwin added it to the second edition and kept it in all later ones. All of this seems pretty theological to me. But I'd say it was a secular natural theology. It was not the personal god of the Christian life. It was a rather abstruse deistic god acting through natural laws. Indeed, there has been a huge controversy about whether or not Darwin was a believer, and current theologians battle over the fate of his soul. There is even talk of a deathbed conversion. The passage in his writings which I find most convincing was a remark he made to the Duke of Argyll in the last year of his life: that a sense of design in nature often came over him with overwhelming force but at other times - and he shook his head vaguely - 'it seems to go away'.

The popular controversies surrounding Darwin's theory were colossal. Indeed, even the listing of the periodicals containing substantial articles about it covers 15 pages, and then there were all the pamphlets and books. But let's look more deeply and focus on what was happening among the elite.

Public debate happens at several levels. There is what we would now call the media hype, and there's the - sometimes very different - reaction of the intellectuals. One of Darwin's supporters was Frederick Temple, who was prosecuted in the theological courts in 1860, but went on to write a book downplaying the notion of conflict between religion and science (and after that he became Archbishop of Canterbury). Indeed, Darwin was a serious supporter of the church in the village of Down where he lived out the last four decades of his life and where he died. He was a pillar of the parish, something of a squire/parson, and when he died his respectability was so great that Sir John Lubbock along with 20 Members of Parliament and a future Prime Minister argued that it was appropriate that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey. The editorial in The Times said this:

'By every title which can claim a corner in that sacred earth, the body of Charles Darwin should be there. . . Charles Darwin has, perhaps, borne the fiat of science farther, certainly he has planted its standard more deeply, than any Englishman since Newton. . . The Abbey has its orators and Ministers who have convinced reluctant senates and swayed nations. Not one of them all has wielded a power over men and their intelligences more complete than that which for the last twenty three years has emanated from a simple country house in Kent.'

So much for Darwin the anti-theistic iconoclast. His theory was a synthesis of prevailing views which were themselves primarily theistic, and he was not anti-theistic at all in the intentions of his own work. Nor were the Establishment scandalized: they buried him next to Newton in the nation's shrine. Moreover, his originality was of a kind which I find often in the history of great ideas. As soon as one sees the elements which went into it, the puzzle is why no one else thought of it. His friend and champion, T. H. Huxley, actually said when he first heard it, 'How stupid of me not to have thought of that'. Of course, people had thought of all of the elements of it and there were other evolutionists aplenty for him to ponder. Indeed, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had put forward a theory of evolution in the 1790s, and other evolutionary ideas were current in the 1840s and 50s, but he gave it scientific credibility and - the mark of genius - synthesized the ideas of his time.

Now I want to go back to Darwin the pure scientist. Here I am after very big game and want to argue that the usual distinction that puts science and objectivity on one side and arts and subjectivity on the other - with facts clearly separated from values - is balderdash and part of a conspiracy to hide the values and politics and ideological positions deeply embedded in science.

If we think of Darwin's concept of natural selection and follow closely its history in his own thinking and in the controversy surrounding his work, we find it deeply value-laden, deeply anthropomorphic - that is, partaking of human attributes and treating the idea of nature as if it was a person - just the way scientific concepts aren't supposed to be. Darwin wrote that nature was always 'scrutinizing', that she picked out with unerring skill, 'that she favoured ' this and rejected that.

Indeed, his colleagues were at pains to point this out to him and his reply is very interesting indeed. He says that 'natural selection' is no worse than chemists speaking of 'elective affinities' of elements or physicists speaking of 'gravity as ruling the movements of the plants'. 'Everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions.'

I am arguing that at the heart of science lies metaphor - a concept usually associated with literature, especially poetry. We think of science as literal but at its heart lie figures of speech, in this case the idea that nature selects rather like a breeder or a deity.

Darwin is not alone in this kind of thinking. On the contrary, he points out that 'affinity' and other scientific concepts are no more or less scientific than his. The same thing applies to all basic concepts in science. The other candidate for Britain's greatest scientist, Isaac Newton, derived the concept of gravity from gravitas: affinity, natural selection, gravity - all these are metaphors drawn from ideas of human nature and projected on to nature as a way of seeing things and providing a framework for a philosophy of science. Not all such projections turn out to be so fruitful, but that doesn't set facts apart from values or literal statements apart from metaphors. The history of scientific ideas, like the history of other ideas, is a moving army of metaphors - some more general than others, but literalness is the enemy of scientific progress.

This point connects to my last one. The values in science are not only 'connected' to those in the wider society. Rather, the values in the wider society throw up the issues in science which come to be revered. This is particularly true of the extension of the concept of natural selection into what has come to be known as 'Social Darwinism'. The social survival of the fittest had a great vogue in the period of the 1870s to the 1890s and has regained new respectability in Reagan America and Thatcher Britain. People often write about Darwin as if one could separate his scientific views from Social Darwinism. However, this simply won't wash for two reasons. The first is that as we have seen, Darwin was deeply indebted to the writings of Thomas Malthus about social competition as the motor of progress. Beyond this debt, however, we find his own writings shot full of so-called social Darwinist ideas. They are found in the Origin of Species and again in the book in which he spelled out the human implications of his thinking, The Descent of Man.

In The Origin of Species he sees nature quite as 'red in tooth and claw' as Tennyson ever did. The chapter on instinct speaks of slave ants and other apparent cruelties as 'small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings - namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die'.

In the Descent of Man he extols the inheritance of property and the replacement of the lower races by the higher.

'Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent upon his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding the best and rearing the largest number of offspring.'

So - we find Darwin's scientific theory derived from prevailing theological and social ideas, feeding back into the competitive and imperialist social philosophy of his age, and we find the man honoured and entombed by the nation in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin is certainly Britain's greatest intellectual. Moreover, genius - especially intellectual genius - is not outside history or above it. It is the distillation of the times, its quintessence. In the same way we see that science is not separate from values or above them, it is their embodiment. This is true of theories, therapies and things just as it is of industrial processes and commercial products. And if science is inside history and is the embodiment of values, then science and politics - which is values linked to power - are ultimately one topic. Science, values and politics are part of a single set of issues about how we see ourselves and live together on the earth - which Darwin showed us is one world.

This is the text of a television documentary in the series ‘Late Great Victorians’, BBC1, 1988. It was published in Science as Culture 5:71-86, 1989.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

The Author


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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