Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The amazing power of Darwinite

You remember Superman and how he suddenly lost all his powers in the presence of the element kryptonite? Well, I am beginning to wonder if there isn't an element called Darwinite out there that means people lose their critical faculties and say and write and believe any old rubbish when face to face with Darwin, his life and his theory of evolution. 

I have already pointed out some of the many myths surrounding this topic, but the more I read about the myth of Annie's-death-caused-Darwin's-loss-of-faith, the more I am driven to believe in this powerful but hidden element, Darwinite.

Before I start on the Annie myths, let me point out that Darwinite is clearly inherited, as proven by this piece written by CD's great-great-grand-daughter Emma Darwin, where the diluted Darwinite in her veins is still able to induce hyperventilation in a healthy human male:

Let me give just two examples from the Annie mythos:

1. In his Autobiography, Darwin admits that 
"later in life I wholly lost, to my great regret, all pleasure from poetry of any kind, including Shakespeare".
Well, lot's of people go off poetry in later life or get cheesed off with Shakespeare-it's part of becoming a grumpy old man. But exposure to Darwinite ensures that American English professor, George Levine, comes up with an explanation custom-built for Darwin in his book Darwin Loves You. It goes like this: 
  • Annie Darwin died on April 23rd 1851. 
  • Which happens to be Shakespeare's birthday
  • So the memory of her death meant that Darwin developed a life-long downer on Shakespeare! 
It has just got to be true (not)!

2. Without Darwinite poisoning, how else could anyone write the kind of twaddle that ends Jim Moore's publication (Of Love and Death: Why Darwin 'gave up Christianity'’ in Jim Moore ed., History, Humanity and Evolution. pp. 195-229, Cambridge, 1989) that kicked off the Annie myth? As opium was to Coleridge's poetry, so it seems Darwinite is to Moore's prose. Be warned this is strong stuff!
"He ends the chapter in search of a palliative: 'We may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.' But the words ring hollow. Why should consolation be sought unless some one has been bereaved? And can bereavement be so readily assuaged? Nature is the victim in Darwin's figure, but nature is also given a 'face', a face 'bright with gladness', to which death comes promptly without fear. Only one face in Darwin's experience ever did that. He could recall it 'with much distinctness' - 'her eyes sparkled brightly; she often smiled' - and he had the imaginative ability with bygone faces to make them 'do anything I like' Here, then, nature may be tortured that health and happiness should prevail, but the face is also sacrificed for the redemption of the world. The bereavement is finally his own; the real victim, tragically, a child already perfect. Annie, who died at Easter, became the paschal lamb of Darwin's post-Christian evolutionary soteriology."
And how many of you didn't have to look up that last word!!


Jonathan Badger said...

That bit about Shakespeare reminds me of how Mark Twain was proud that Darwin was on record as being a fan of his novels until a friendly rival pointed out to Twain that Darwin himself had admitted to losing his taste for quality literature, so maybe it wasn't such a great endorsement...

Jonathan Badger said...

Sorry to be repetitive, but here is the story in Twain's own words:

'Mr. Norton was very gentle in what he had to say, and almost delicate, and he said: "Mr. Clemens, I have been spending some time with Mr. Darwin in England, and I should like to tell you something connected with that visit. You were the object of it, and I myself would have been very proud of it, but you may not be proud of it. At any rate, I am going to tell you what it was, and to leave to you to regard it as you please. Mr. Darwin took me up to his bedroom and pointed out certain things there-pitcher-plants, and so on, that he was measuring and watching from day to day--and he said: 'The chambermaid is permitted to do what she pleases in this room, but she must never touch those plants and never touch those books on that table by that candle. With those books I read myself to sleep every night.' Those were your own books." I said: "There is no question to my mind as to whether I should regard that as a compliment or not. I do regard it as a very great compliment and a very high honor that that great mind, laboring for the whole human race, should rest itself on my books. I am proud that he should read himself to sleep with them."

Now, I could not keep that to myself--I was so proud of it. As soon as I got home to Hartford I called up my oldest friend--and dearest enemy on occasion--the Rev. Joseph Twichell, my pastor, and I told him about that, and, of course, he was full of interest and venom. [...] "Here, look at this letter from Mr. Darwin to Sir Joseph Hooker." What Mr. Darwin said--I give you the idea and not the very words--was this: I do not know whether I ought to have devoted my whole life to these drudgeries in natural history and the other sciences or not, for while I may have gained in one way I have lost in another. Once I had a fine perception and appreciation of high literature, but in me that quality is atrophied. "That was the reason," said Mr. Twichell, "he was reading your books."'

Mark Pallen said...

Thanks Jonathan for that excellent anecdote! I might well use it in the second edition of the Rough Guide to Evolution!