(Merry Christmas. Yes, I'm blogging, because it's traditional for me to return to California this time of year, and my circadian rhythm makes me want to get up at 5 am. What better thing to do with these lonely, dark, out-of-sync hours than read and write?)
The popularity of creationism in the United States has been treated as a failure of education, loss of science literacy, or reluctance of religion to adapt to the modern worldview. I saw it that way too, until I started reading Loren Eiseley’s Darwin’s Century. Now I see this the country’s divisions as much more interesting, and more deeply rooted, and more connected with political views about the way human beings should organize our society.
I’ve read a number of books about evolution, but nothing has compared to this used, yellowed paperback. There’s no review of high school biology to slog through – instead there are revelations on every page, starting with the first.
The first chapters preface Darwin’s Century with the previous ones, the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, during which revolutions in human thought gave rise to the questions Darwin answered. Those revolutions we owe to the explorers who dared sail off with just the stars to guide them, and theologians who dared rethink man’s relationship to nature.
“It has been remarked by historians that the discovery of the world by the great voyagers, and particularly their passage across the western seas, had made a tremendous impact upon the thought of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries….as an indirect consequence of this adventure the theory of evolution, vast in its implications as a new continent, was really, in essence, glimpsed through the fog and sea wreck penetrated by the master mariners.”
Intellectuals struggled to fit the plants and animals of America and other distant lands into their Biblical creation story. Why, they asked, did God put so many “noxious” animals in the Americans and neglect the necessary beast, the horse? As Eiseley so succinctly put it:
“Old explanations no longer hold, old philosophies are fraying at the edges.”
Important Christian theological contributions, in Eiseley’s reading of history, came in part from the arrangement of all things in a hierarchy, from rocks to angels. This “great chain of being” was fixed, and the connections weren’t considered anything like biological blood ties, but the important point was there were connections seen between plants, animals and humans and this became entrenched in the thinking of the time. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) turned it into a tree of life, organized by scientific observations. He was the first to correctly classify bats and whales as mammals and placed mankind with the other primates.
Linnaeus at first decreed his tree of life a fixed product of creation, but his later writings show doubts. He wrote that he can’t decide, “whether all species are the children of time or whether the Creator from the very beginning of the world had restricted its course of development.”
Other revolutionary ideas Eiseley credits to theologian Sir John Browne. In the century before Darwin, Browne wrote that, “Nature is the Art of God,” which sounds very much like today’s “intelligent design” concept, but in the 1700s represented something fertile, wrote Eiseley, “softening the harsh orthodoxy of those who regarded the Earth and its products as vile.” By contemplating the uniqueness of his own palm print, Browne noted the variety in nature which was to become a key to Darwin’s unlocking of evolution. Darwin noticed this variety within species in pigeons, in dogs, and in plants and animals he observed on his voyages.
Look at the way Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived in Darwin’s century, reconciles variability of nature with the ancient desire for something perfect and unchangeable behind it all.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Darwin saw the dappled things as the fuel on which natural selection drives continual evolution – an idea that would break down fixed hierarchies, set the tree of life into motion, and, eventually lead scientists to see frightening new world in which nothing is past change. Eisley describes it this way: "Time, as Humanity had never dreamed lay across that world. It was a world where water wore away the shapes of mountains, and the great bones and carapaces of vanished beasts lay hoar and rime-frosted in deep crevices and canyons."