“There is grandeur in this view of life…”

In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin recapped all the evidence he so carefully and meticulously presenting for his theory of common descent. And then took a step back to ponder where it was all going, and what it all meant.

In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin recapped all the evidence he had so meticulously presented for his theory of common descent. And then took a step back to ponder where it was all going, and what it all meant.

When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

He predicted that the theory would open up rich new fields of scientific research in biology, geology, paleontology, psychology and anthropology. Armed with the understanding that all individuals of all species are related, however distantly, that species have been shaped by their environments over the eons, scientists would look backwards, and outwards, free of counterproductive labels and dogmas, answering many current questions and discovering even more interesting questions to ask. This prediction would prove to be correct. As Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

And then he went one step further:

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

What ennobles them? Simply having such a long and complex history. They—and all their ancestors—were lucky or tough enough to survive everything Nature could throw at them. Every being now living, worm or eagle, peasant or aristocrat, is descended from a long line of survivors. That’s a pedigree anyone should be proud of.

Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species of each genus, and all the species of many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct.

Is it all doom and gloom, though? Not at all.

As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

I don’t know about that “perfection,” but hey, that’s Victorians for you.

It’s interesting to note how Darwin’s attitude contrasts with that of creationists, then or now. To them, the idea of being related to apes is just as abhorrent as the idea the Bible isn’t literally true. Animals aren’t ennobled by their connection with us; it’s we who are demeaned by our connection with them. The only way Humankind can be seen as special is through our creation, not our history or achievements. And they certainly don’t look forward to a far distant future where our descendants—however different they’ll be from us—will continue to thrive.

The book concludes with a final appeal, not to the truth, but the beauty of his theory.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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.

Darwin’s no poet, I grant you, but this passage works. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the theory of evolution—with its notions of deep time and the fundamental interconnectedness of all living beings—tells a far more satisfying story than any creation myth our various cultures have cooked up. Our long journey from the trees—and before that, from the swamps and the seas—has made us what we are, flaws and all. We dishonour our ancestors by ignoring their struggles, their achievements, and yes, their failures. We honour them by remembering their lives, and continuing the journey they made possible for us.

Happy 200th, Mr. Darwin.

Some Darwin Quotes

I’m still partway through The Descent of Man (specifically, the 1882 edition, available online.) It’s slow reading because I want to be sure to absorb the science… and the occasional bon mots.

I’m still partway through The Descent of Man (specifically, the 1882 edition, available online.) It’s slow reading because I want to be sure to absorb the science… and the occasional bon mot.

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Consequently we ought frankly to admit their community of descent: to take any other view, is to admit that our own structure, and that of all the animals around us, is a mere snare laid to entrap our judgment. […] It is only our natural prejudice, and that arrogance which made our forefathers declare that they were descended from demi-gods, which leads us to demur to this conclusion. But the time will before long come, when it will be thought wonderful that naturalists, who were well acquainted with the comparative structure and development of man, and other mammals, should have believed that each was the work of a separate act of creation.

He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines, and their occasional great development in other men, are due to our early forefathers having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of his descent. For though he no longer intends, nor has the power, to use these teeth as weapons, he will unconsciously retract his “snarling muscles” (thus named by Sir C. Bell),46 so as to expose them ready for action, like a dog prepared to fight.

The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel. But we can trace the formation of many words further back than that of species, for we can perceive how they actually arose from the imitation of various sounds. We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation. The manner in which certain letters or sounds change when others change is very like correlated growth. We have in both cases the reduplication of parts, the effects of long-continued use, and so forth. The frequent presence of rudiments, both in languages and in species, is still more remarkable. The letter m in the word am, means I; so that in the expression I am, a superfluous and useless rudiment has been retained. In the spelling also of words, letters often remain as the rudiments of ancient forms of pronunciation. Languages, like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups; and they can be classed either naturally according to descent, or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never, as Sir C. Lyell remarks, reappears. The same language never has two birth-places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together.

Happy Darwin Day!

To celebrate Darwin Day, I’ve decided to start reading The Descent of Man. I’ve already got The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle under my belt, and I’ve been meaning to read Descent for a long time.

Which reminds me. At that creation/evolution debate I went to a while ago a creationist audience member brought up Darwin’s alleged racism, quoting from Descent of Man:

To celebrate Darwin Day, I’ve decided to start reading The Descent of Man. I’ve already got The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle under my belt, and I’ve been meaning to read Descent for a long time.

Which reminds me. At that creation/evolution debate I went to a while ago a creationist audience member brought up Darwin’s alleged racism, quoting from Descent of Man:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.

Seen in context, it’s clear Darwin is really making a point about the lack of intermediate forms between humans and apes. As for the exterminating savage races bit? Most white people thought in terms of a hierarchy of races, with Western Europeans at the top, and either Blacks or Australian Aborigines at the bottom. And a lot of people believed then that Blacks and Native Americans were headed for extinction. Their cultures were being ravaged, their lands were taken, the people themselves were sold into slavery or rounded up into reservations… many Whites believed it was only a matter of time. They weren’t necessarily happy about it, mind you, but they honestly thought it was inevitable.

From his writings in Voyage of the Beagle I found Darwin very open-minded and respectful for a Victorian gentleman who’d never left England before. I have a hard time imagining a racist writing something like this:

(November 15, 1835)

The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields.

Creationists (and others) may be interested to know that Darwin was passionately anti-slavery—still a hot issue at the time. Great Britain had only abolished slavery in 1832, the first Western nation to do so (okay, France abolished it in 1794, but reinstated it again in 1802. It was abolished for the last time in 1848).

April 14, 1832. Near Rio de Janeiro.

While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.

So, yes. Somewhat prejudiced and chauvinistic, but also empathetic. And honest with himself and able to learn from his mistakes—as a good scientist should.

After Mauritius and South Africa, the Beagle swung by Brazil one last time before finally sailing home. Darwin shares his thoughts on the country:

On the 19th of August [1836] we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

Happy 199th birthday, Charles.