Sunday, 19 June 2011

Post-Darwin dialectics

One of the best books I've read so far (am still reading) on Darwin is by Benjamin Farrington called, What Darwin Really Said: an introduction to his life and theory of evolution. Farrington just said something that I've always believed in though I've wandered the wilderness of despair at times for my lack of articulation and intellectual skill.

In talking about Darwin's lack of distinction between the biological and (what Farrington calls) psycho-social aspects of humanity Farrington, in my mind, provides an answer to the mindless, thoughtless application of Darwin's theory:

"The art of making stone tools did not happen to man, like the biological development of a new organ; it was something that he did. (the author's italics) So with speech, so with writing; so with the domestication of plants and animals; so with the arts and crafts; so with the creation of institutions like family and clan, like tribe and city, like nation and state. So with religion, codes of law, literature, music, architecture and painting. These are all achievements of man, monuments of his invention, solutions of his problems, tributes to his creativity...

...The process by which something new comes into existence is somewhat of a mystery. There is an element of the incalculable and the unforeseeable about it, and older generations of scientists were apt for that reason to ignore it...  ...and the science of astronomy became the superstition of astrology. A similar tendency accompanied the progress of geography. A knowledge of the climates and characters of the different regions of the world gave birth to the idea of explaining the histories of those regions as effects of geographical causes. Hot climates produce lazy men, cold ones stupid men, temperate ones active men... ...Blanket generalizations of this kind were applied to the neglect of the facts. Geographical determinism threatened the study of history, and it became necessary to protest that a great nation was a human masterpiece, not a natural product; that it was the fruit of innumerable human decisions, of well-weighed actions, of a steeled will, of creative intelligence...

...So it was that in Darwin's day both Darwin himself and other thinkers, impressed by the biological theory of natural selection and the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, thought it could be extended to cover also the sphere of human history...

...he distinguishes intellect, morality, and corporeal structure. But when he passes on to explain their transmission and development from generation to generation, all alike are regarded as part of man's biological inheritance. 'Tribes, including many members who were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element of their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase'.

This is sad stuff. Patriots do not necessarily beget patriots. There is no gene for this virtue. Moral progress is not achieved in this mindless way. Nor did Darwin really think so. But he had no philosophy which could provide him with any other reasonable account of the true nature of the mental world... ...The brain is certainly biologically inherited. The propositions that 'It is sweet and noble to die for one's country' and 'Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for a friend' are certainly thoughts. Why then should not the brain that had secreted these thoughts in one generation secrete them also in the next? But this, of course, is non-sense. Such thoughts are part of the cultural history of mankind, which is superimposed on the biological and not to be identified with it. Darwin had failed to make a clear distinction between the brain and the mind, and the failure had a disasterous effect on his mental life and happiness." (Farrington, 1966, pp. 80-82).

What fine example of the dialectic in at first finding oneself in dark places in following (flawed or incomplete) logical, sometimes dispairing and wanting to succumb to the dark thoughts, then, seeing the light of transcendence from a place of ignorance to enlightenment. This is why I love philosophy and believe in humanism. Thank you, Benjamin Farrington.


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