Sunday, November 21, 2010

Six Degrees of Charles Darwin

"... extended to all sentient beings."

In an article in the current (November 2010) issue of the Shambhala Sun magazine ("Survival of the Kindest"), neuroscientist Paul Ekman draws our attention to the fascinating chapter on "Moral Sense" in Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, first published in 1871. (The full title of that chapter is a little ungainly: "Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals, Continued".)

Here is the key paragraph cited by Ekman, along with the two paragraphs that immediately follow it:
1.
a. As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shewn by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions. The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas. This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

b. The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and "not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us." [this is from Tennyson's Idylls of the King] Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, "Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts." [this quote is from Meditations, Bk. V, Sect. 16]

c. Our great philosopher, Herbert Spencer, has recently explained his views on the moral sense. He says, "I believe that the experiences of utility organised and consolidated through all past generations of the human race, have been producing corresponding modifications, which, by continued transmission and accumulation, have become in us certain faculties of moral intuition- certain emotions responding to right and wrong conduct, which have no apparent basis in the individual experiences of utility."[this quote is from a letter from Darwin to John Stuart Mill]
Unfortunately, having drawn our attention here, Ekman proceeds to make rather a mess of trying to comprehend how Charles Darwin arrived at this view of things. Ekman is far too eager to see parallels with Buddhist teaching. While these parallels are certainly and plainly there, Ekman completely overlooks far more important and immediate influences that are at work.

In fact, whatever value there is in noting the real similarities between Buddhism and Darwin's views is ruined if this is done, as Ekman does, while simultaneously promoting the incorrect and baseless notion that what Darwin is saying about the virtue of broadening our "sympathies ... until they are extended to all sentient beings," was intellectually and spiritually isolated and anomalous, indeed foreign to western culture and the western mind.

Darwin himself explicitly cites, by name, two influences in the passage quoted above, both of which are very much part of the broad sweep of western intellectual history: Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Ekman completely ignores both of these, either because he read no further, or, worse, because they are inconvenient to the point he wants to make. But there is an even more intimate influence, within Charles Darwin's own family: in his expansive views on "sympathy" there are clear echoes of sentiments articulated by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Another important influence is well known to those familiar with Charles Darwin's autobiography, in which he stated that upon reading David Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (at the age of 29 in the year 1838, 21 years before he would finally publish On the Origin of Species, and fully 33 years before Descent of Man), "I had at last got a theory by which to work." Hume was such a central figure in discourse on "sympathy" during the Enlightenment that Michael L. Frazer devotes two full chapters to the Scottish philosopher in his The Enlightenment of Sympathy.

Moreover, Darwin's ideas on "sympathy" were solidly and broadly grounded in over a century of Enlightenment thought on the subject of "Justice and the Moral Sentiments", a phrase from the subtitle of Frazer's book (just mentioned above). Finally, it is essential to realize the central role of classical studies in the educational system of that time. For example, the prestigious Shrewsbury "grammar" school attended by the young Darwin and his older brother (Erasmus, named for their illustrious grandfather) was legally prohibited from spending its income on anything other than the teaching of classical languages!

Although other influences could certainly be found in the three paragraphs from Descent of Man quoted above, I think that the six just named are the most important ones:
  1. Erasmus Darwin
  2. The Enlightenment
  3. Marcus Aurelius
  4. Herbert Spencer
  5. David Hume
  6. Classical Education
These six influences overlap and are entangled with each other to a very great extent. In what follows, I will focus on the first three, discussing them in the order given above, while subsuming consideration of the other factors into the investigation Erasmus Darwin, the Enlightenment, and Marcus Aurelius and their influence on Charles Darwin.

"His brother emmets, and his sister worms."

Erasmus Darwin died in 1802, seven years before the birth of his famous grandson, Charles, so there can be no question of a direct personal influence. But he had been a celebrated intellectual of his day who created a broad and lasting impact, not the least of which was felt among those who carried on the Darwin name. Something of this impact is communicated in the title of the recent biography by British physicist Desmond King-Hele: Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequaled Achievement.

In addition to the above mentioned biography of Erasmus Darwin, Desmond King-Hele is also the editor of the newly re-issued biography that Charles Darwin himself wrote about his grandfather (The Life of Erasmus Darwin). The following is an excerpt from King-Hele's own Introduction to that book:
Dr. Erasmus Darwin has grown in stature during the twentieth century and is now seen as having achieved far more in a wider variety of fields than anyone since. He was a famous physician in the English Midlands for thirty years, and after his massive treatise on animal life, Zoonomia, was published in 1794, he was recognized as the leading medical author of the decade. And this happened when he was already securely in place as the leading English poet of the 1790's, or perhaps, as Coleridge said in 1797, 'the first literary character of Europe'. Erasmus Darwin's fame as a poet did not outlast the century; but he greatly influenced Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley. Earlier in his life Erasmus Darwin had been a keen and capable mechanical inventor: he devised the method of steering used in modern cars, for example. He was socially skilfull, too, and created several Societies, including the Lunar Society of Birmingham. His greatest talent, however, was an amazing insight in many branches of physical and biological science. For example, he was the first to explain how clouds form [by adiabatic cooling] and ... he adopted what we now call biological evolution as a theory of life, in 1770. Many years later he risked publishing his evolutionary views, only to be rebuffed. Most people did not wish to see God deprived of his role in creating species; and everyone condemned the demeaning idea that human had animals as distant ancestors and were no more than humaninals . . . .

Erasmus and Charles each published a scheme of evolution, 65 years apart: it was an unbreakable bond between them . . . . Erasmus got nowhere with his presentation of evolution: he was a century ahead of his time, as we now smugly say. It was Charles, proceeding cautiously over many years, who persuaded his contemporaries to take seriously the idea of evolution by natural selection, a world-view that has been amply vindicated in recent years.

For Charles, his strong bond with Erasmus was full of problems. If Charles praised Erasmus' evolutionary writings, people would say that Erasmus had all the ideas first, and Charles merely filled in the detail. Indeed Bishop Wilberforce, in his famous review of the Origin of Species, accused Charles of reviving the speculation of his 'ingenious grandsire'. So, when Charles started the book [The Life of Erasmus Darwin], he felt that Erasmus would have to be 'put down' rather than praised, and he took the line that Erasmus was not very important as a free-standing person. The book was written as an item of family history, not because Erasmus's life story needed to be told.

But to Charles's great credit, he gradually changed his mind: 'the more I read of Dr. D. the higher he rises in my estimation', he wrote. This is reflected on pages 59-60, where Charles says Erasmus had 'vividness of imagination', great originality of thought', ' the true spirit of a philosopher' and 'uncommon powers of observation', all applied in a 'surprising' diversity of subjects.
[pp. ix-xi]
Later on in the Introduction, King-Hele describes Erasmus Darwin's "views on evolution" in greater detail:
Erasmus eventually published his mature views on evolution, as we now call it, in 1794, tucked away near the end (pages 482-537) in Volume I of his Zoonomia. Here, and more explicitly in his last poem The Temple of Nature [which was not published until after his death], he confidently expresses his view that life has developed over 'millions of ages' from microscopic specks arising spontaneously in primeval seas, through fishes and amphibians to land animals and 'humankind' . . . .

In Zoonomia he notes how changes in the forms of animals during their lives (tadpole to frog, etc.) show that change is rife in nature. He discusses the effects of artificial selection in modifying species, noting that monstrosities (mutations) are often inherited. He proposes a theory of heredity in terms of 'fibrils or molecules' from male or female, which combine to produce the new embryon.
[p. xiv]
According to King-Hele, Robert Darwin, Erasmus' son and Charles' father, "adopted his father's idea of evolution and seems to have done so quite enthusiastically." However, when Robert was 32, his father's ideas about evolution attracted the attention of George Canning, an ambitious reactionary politician who would later be Prime Minister.

The Darwins, you see, were supporters of the Whig party, the liberal opponents of the conservative Tories. These political camps were in many ways similar to the American Democrats and Republicans, although that analogy is far from perfect. Nevertheless, the Tory rhetoric of the late 1790's cannot help but sound remarkably familiar to 21st century American ears: "by a policy of collective abuse and ridicule the Whigs were associated in the public mind with a want of patriotism and a superabundance of extravagant notions." [The Rise of George Canning, by Dorothy Marshall, p. 185] The Whigs were also accused of moral relativism and of being, in a general way, insufficiently Christian. George Canning's Tory magazine, The Anti-Jacobin, snarkily declared in their defining Prospectus: "It is not our creed that ATHEISM is as good a faith as CHRISTIANITY, provided it to be professed with equal sincerity." [quoted in Marshall, p. 178] Worst of all, and in another parallel with modern American political discourse, the Whigs were accused of being treacherously sympathetic to the godless ideals of Revolutionary France.

To make a long story short, Erasmus Darwin's blasphemous views on the literal kinship of all living things became collateral damage in the wider culture wars raging in Britain as the 18th century drew to a close. The crucial event was the publication of "The Loves of the Triangles", a parody of Darwin's didactic poem on the subject of botany "The Loves of the Plants". According to King-Hele, the purpose in the publication of the parody was nothing less than "to destroy Erasmus' reputation," and the result was that he was "pushed off his pedestal; his stature as the leading poet gradually crumbled, and his evolutionary theory was little heeded."

One might be tempted to wonder whether or not King-Hele has over-emphasized the importance of his own chosen subject in general and his influence on Charles Darwin in particular. On the latter more specific question we can look to the 1993 W.W. Norton edition of Charles Darwin's own autobiography, in which Nora Barlow, the editor, felt justified in including a separate lengthy appendix "On Charles Darwin and his Grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin".

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin insisted that despite the fact that both his grandfather and father were ardent supporters of the idea of the evolution of species, he nevertheless arrived at his own conclusions on the subject as a result of his own scientific investigations, even going so far as to claim that when he first read his grandfather's writings on evolution as a youth, this did not produce "any effect on me." But in the same breath he also allows that: "Nevertheless, it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species. At this time [that is, when he wrote Origins] I admired greatly the Zoonomia." [p. 49]

I'll end, for now (we'll get to the Enlightenment, Marcus Aurelius, etc, later -- and there is also more to come on Erasmus Darwin), with two excerpts that I believe are the key to unraveling the full range of influences behind the passage from Descent of Man under consideration. The first is from Erasmus Darwin's didactic poem The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society. The second is from the speech of Pythagoras in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Indeed, it is to this speech by "the Sage" that Erasmus Darwin alludes.
2.
"So erst the Sage with scientific truth
In Grecian temples taught the attentive youth;
With ceaseless change how restless atoms pass
From life to life, a transmigrating mass;
How the same organs, which to day compose
The poisonous henbane, or the fragrant rose,
May with to morrow's sun new forms compile,
Frown in the Hero, in the Beauty smile.
Whence drew the enlighten'd Sage the moral plan,
That man should ever be the friend of man;
Should eye with tenderness all living forms,
His brother-emmets, and his sister-worms."

[Temple of Nature, or, The Origin of Society, Canto IV, lines 417 - 428]

3.
"But lest I gallop far beyond my reach
and, so, forget what I had meant to teach,
know this: the heavens and all things beneath
the heavens change their forms -- the earth and all
that is upon the earth; and since we are
parts of the world, we, too, are changeable.
For we're not only bodies but winged souls;
and we can dwell in bodies of wild beasts
and hide within the shapes of cows and sheep.
And so, let us respect -- leave whole, intact --
all bodies where our parents' souls or those
of brothers or of others dear to us
may well have found a home; let us not stuff
our bellies banqueting, as Thyestes.
Whoever cuts a calf's throat with a knife
and listens, without pity, to its cries;
whoever kills a kid that, like a child,
wails loud; whoever feeds upon a bird
that he himself has fed -- profanely sheds
the blood of humans: such a man abets
a habit that is evil -- little less
than murder."

[Metamorphoses, Book XV [450-475], translation by Allen Mandelbaum]


Metempsychosis, by the artist Masako Yui, from the Goldsmiths (London) MFA blog.