Part I. Darwin’s Ducks
Upon turning over the back cover of On The Origin of Species, I was left with the overwhelming urge to hug Charles Darwin to let him know that he was doing good and that everyone loves him. There is a cold British sorrow, like a gray winter rain, that pervades his book, a subtext of apology. He would rather have the romantic beauty of nature overwhelm the medieval morbidity that he identified at the heart of his theory, and indeed, in spasmodic moments of enthusiasm which were surely written on rare frisky sunny mornings to a cup of strong tea, when he wasn’t feeling so sickly, he reveals a fleeting glimpse of his incomparable wonder for the natural world:
“We see beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the woodpecker and the mistletoe; and only a little less plainly in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water [Darwin’s first love was beetles]; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze; in short, we see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.”
Not exactly Wordsworth (I don’t have much taste for the British romantics anyway), but beautiful in its simplicity, when he really didn’t need to give us any of his personal voice in what could have been a dry, technical abstract of his theory. Similarly to Galileo who wrote Two New Sciences in the common Italian instead of Latin, Darwin wrote his masterpiece in a language that was as intelligible as possible to whoever ended up reading it. Since it’s been more than 150 years since the publication of The Origin, and Darwin (astonishingly) didn’t have the benefit of knowing about the the nature of genes (though he did study inheritance and could perhaps have gotten to Mendelian genetics on his own if he hadn’t been so obsessed with pigeons and had chosen a simpler model system, like peas), much less DNA, I don’t think there’s so much to learn about evolution itself by reading the book that you haven’t learned in Biology 101 (if, unlike me, you took Biology 101)*.
The real value of reading The Origin is not to learn evolution but to marinate on the insatiable passion of Darwin for understanding the world through the lens of his central question. This may be the proper directionality: that while Darwin’s nominal goal was to describe the basis for the diversity of species, that this problem was a really just a useful vehicle for his unrestrained curiosity. Curiosity, at its core, must be algorithmic: an idea or a question can only follow from another, and therefore it is often easiest to foster curiosity through the structure of a specific question, even though that question may be arbitrary. Conversely, a good question is one that is both well-phrased and (but) broad enough to allow curiosity to flourish. Darwin identified “that question of questions” – it had actually been a nagging question in the European academy for 50 years or so – that required an enormous breadth of knowledge from various disciplines to solve, and therefore Darwin couldn’t simply have been a developmental biologist, an ecologist, an anatomist, a paleontologist, a chemist, or a geologist, he had to be all of these. In fact, he wasn’t any of these, professionally – he never actually had a job (a curiosity, if you will, that will be important in a moment).
One of the beautiful aspects of experimental science is the connection between “scales of inquiry.” The best scientists not only identify broad, unanswered questions, but relish in the minutiae associated with addressing these problems. At its best, the structure of scientific inquiry takes this trajectory: identify a broad question of general interest, whittle this question down into increasingly smaller unanswered subquestions (there is, in priniciple, no limit to how detailed these questions can be, however in practice they are dictated by both the tools available to interrogate the question as well as the state of progression through the broad problem’s trajectory. For example, there is no need to try to understand the molecular mechanism of mutations before you know that DNA bears genes, and there is no way to try to understand what physical structures bear genes until you’ve identified the existence of genes (and molecules)). As usual, Stephen Jay Gould says it best (and with much more license from the poetry gods then Darwin or I have):
“People, as curious primates, dote on concrete objects that can be seen and fondled. God dwells among the details, not in the realm of pure generality. We must tackle and grasp the larger, encompassing themes of our universe, but we make our best approach through small curiosities that rivet our attention – all those pretty pebbles on the shoreline of knowledge. For the ocean of truth washes over the pebbles with every wave, and they rattle and clink with the most wondrous din.”
Darwin was the embodiment of this principle, a scientist who like most of those whom history labels “genius,” merited this title not because of any inborn, computational power in his brain (ironically), but because he unleashed his unchecked, almost autistic curiosity to the most pressing biological problem of the 19th century. The Origin was, in many ways, a strange, idiosyncratic book. Vast in its scope and conversational in tone, it diverged strongly from the standard technical monographs and treatises of the scientific establishment, and reads more like a primordial pop-science book well before the genre existed. The first several chapters lay out the structure of his theory, drawing on a ridiculous wealth of evidence gathered during 25 years of research in various fields. Incidentally, nowhere in the book are finches mentioned. Conversely, Darwin had a major pigeon fetish so you read a lot about inherited traits within myriad varieties of domesticated pigeons: you got your fantails, your pouters, your homers, your rollers, the coolest of them all, the “ice pigeons,” and my own personal favorites, the short-faced tumblers! A student recently told me that Darwin’s editor told him to include more about pigeons because, quote, “people like pigeons” (which strikes me as a uniquely British sensibility). In fact, the discussion of the evolution of domesticated species occupies a major fraction of the opening of The Origin, since Darwin (very effectively) contextualizes his novel theory of “natural” selection with the selection of traits in domesticated species by humans. Essentially, the argument boils down to: if humans can select for traits, creating wildly different phenotypes from one original stock (compare the ancestral rock dove to, say, the laughably regal Jacobin pigeon!), then the environment should also be able to do so, providing that these traits provide a competitive advantage. So while when most people think of Darwin’s inspiration as having taken place during his early travels to South America aboard The Beagle (a lovable domesticated species itself), in reality, his country home in his home country, where, upon his return, he maintained an extensive pigeon coop and a large garden, was a more important laboratory for him.
On his well-groomed, gentried estate, while pigeons were certainly at the center of his mind’s eye, Darwin also had some ducks waddling around the yard, which he occasionally recruited as research subjects, which leads us to the most adorable scene in The Origin, lovingly illustrated by the great Jordan Klopf. As context for this cartoon: the middle bulk of Darwin’s book is dedicated to refuting objections to his theory, both his own reservations as well as the sometimes fierce objections of the scientific community, upon whom he had floated the theory over the years at society meetings. These chapters were essential because demonstrating the theory of evolution called upon the tools of history as much as it called upon the tools of science. There was no “proving” the basis for the morphological relationship between species, only proposing a qualitative theory that was consistent with the broadest range of empirical observations, and which encountered no critical facts that it could not explain. On this note, the structure of Darwin’s book, and his thinking about the “struggle for existence” was heavily influenced by Thomas Malthus’s 1798 booklet about the potential dangers of the exponential increase in human population. After one chapter simply describing how a catastrophe will occur if humans proliferate exponentially and the produce of agriculture doesn’t, Malthus spends the rest of the essay refuting teleological enlightenment-era dogma centered on the idea that human civilization was on a smooth and predictable yellow-brick road to utopia. For Darwin, one simple yet key objection to the theory of natural selection had to do with the observed geographical distribution of species. That different species of a given type (e.g. rodents or birds) on a given landmass were similar to each other was entirely consistent with his theory; for example, in his own words there was an American-ness to American birds, an African-ness to African birds, and so on. Superficially, the observation that island species were more likely to share characteristics with related species on the major landmass closest to that island was also consistent with Darwin’s theory; this would certainly be the case for birds (e.g. the eponymous finches), which could fly and float between landmasses. But what about terrestrial or freshwater species, why do they also share resemblances between neighboring landmasses, or on opposite sides of impenetrable mountain ranges? Darwin dwelled heavily on this problem, namely on the mechanisms by which species could spread across uninhabitable environments. Since he was meditating out his window at pigeons and ducks all day, it was natural for him to wonder whether these animals, which could use flight to traverse bodies of water or mountain ranges, could also facilitate the spread of other species. Of course, this does not seem like such a far-fetched hypothesis today, but remember that within the prevailing world-view, there was no reason to invoke wholesale migration of species across large length scales to explain their spatial distribution. Moreover, Darwin’s treatment of this idea in The Origin, and particularly the experiment he designed to test it, underscores his child-like curiosity and the sometimes comical (see illustration) ends that such curiosity can motivate. Darwin first hypothesized that birds could unwittingly transport seeds long distances (and with proper British manners, clearly trying not to offend the fastidious sensibilities of the birds!):
“Although the beaks and feet of birds are generally clean, earth sometimes adheres to them: in one case I removed sixty-one grains, and in another case twenty-two grains of dry argillaceous [“consisting of clay”] earth from the foot of a partridge, and in the earth there was a pebble as large as the seed of a vetch. Here is a better case: the leg of a woodcock was sent to me by a friend [that’s a good friend], with a little cake of dry earth attached to a seed of the toad-rush (Juncus bufonius) which germinated and flowered.”
But what about animals? This was a real sticking point for Darwin (no pun intended), but he got it:
“Some species of fresh-water shells [i.e., mollusks] have very wide ranges, and allied species which, on our theory, are descended from a common parent, and must have proceeded from a single source, prevail throughout the world. Their distribution at first perplexed me much, as their ova are not likely to be transported by birds; and the ova, as well as the adults, are immediately killed by sea-water. I could not even understand how some naturalized species have spread rapidly throughout the same country. But two facts, which I have observed – and many others no doubt will be discovered – throw some light on the this subject. When ducks suddenly emerge from a pond covered with duck-weed, I have twice [at least n>1] seen these little plants adhering to their backs; and it has happened to me, in removing a little duck-weed [Genus: Lemna, the original word coined by Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, to mean “aquatic plant,” in the first book about plants ever written, 300 B.C.!] from one aquarium to another, that I have unintentionally stocked the one with fresh-water shells from the other. But another agency is perhaps more effectual: I suspended the feet of a duck in an aquarium, where many ova of fresh-water shells were hatching; and I found that numbers of the extremely minute and just-hatched shells crawled on the feet, and clung to them so firmly that when taken out of the water they could not be jarred off, though at a somewhat more advanced age they would voluntarily drop off. These just-hatched molluscs, though aquatic in their nature, survived on the ducks’s feet, in damp air, from twelve to twenty hours; and in this length of time a duck or heron might fly at least six or seven hundred miles, and if blown across the sea to an oceanic island, or to any other distant point, would be sure to alight on a pool or rivulet.”
It was impossible not to laugh out loud upon reading that The Great Scientist, pondering one of the few greatest scientific questions that humans have broached, arrived at a point in his thinking where he felt compelled to hold his pet duck’s feet (freely interpreted as a rooster by Jordan) in a fish tank full of clams (we definitely could use a better methods section on this experiment). But after all, that’s what made him a great scientist.
*One way to read The Origin is to ask the very interesting question of: “Was Darwinism, as Darwin phrased it, essentially right (as we now understand evolution, given our current knowledge of genetics, molecular biology, ecology, etc.)? That is, can we directly map what we know of the genetic and ecological basis of evolution onto the conceptual theory that Darwin had in mind? Or was Darwin’s theoretical framework, and language, a useful foundation upon which to construct what we now know as the theory of evolution?” I’m taking this question from the Structure of Evolutionary Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould. This book is like 6 inches thick and one time I opened it but mostly I just put it on my coffee table and stare at it when I get bored.)
Part II. The Price of Curiosity
Inside the front cover of my copy of The Origin, on the first page of frontmatter, there are a few sentences about the gravity of “the theory that shook the world,” followed by a quote from the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson: “Darwin was one of history’s towering geniuses and ranks with the greatest heroes of man’s intellectual progress.” The question of “genius,” particularly in the case of Darwin or any other biologist, has a strange self-reflexive structure to it. The textbook definition of genius is “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability,” the operative word being “natural.” In other words, we associate genius with innate ability. In the ongoing post-Darwinian and post-Mendelian era of biology, “innate” is synonymous with “genetically determined.” But according to this working definition, is Darwin really among those who we should christen as a genius? Consider the theory of natural selection itself. The essential structure of the theory has remained unaltered from the Darwin’s initially phrasing of it, despite the fact that he knew essentially nothing about the genetics or molecular biology that underlies evolution*. Without going into too many details, moreover, the basics of this theory are intelligible to any reasonably attentive middle-schooler. That is, the nuts and bolts of the theory are certainly not so complex that they take a genius to comprehend. Compare the theory of natural selection to, say, the general theory of relativity. Your average doctorate in physics that doesn’t specialize in theoretical astrophysics, including me, comes away from graduate school with only a weak metaphor (that involves trampolines) to talk about Einstein’s last great theory. Then compare the dynamics of the development of Einstein’s theories with Darwin’s: Einstein published the theory of Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity within a single year, any one of which was deserving of a Nobel Prize, and then published the general theory of relativity a few years later. For Darwin, on the other hand, it took about 25 years for the theory of natural selection to precipitate from a dark murkiness of dogma and data, and he only decided to publish it because Alfred Russell Wallace, accordingly to legend, saw the same theory in a cosmic flash during a fever dream in the sweltering Indonesian jungle – if anything, doesn’t Wallace deserve be called a genius (albeit fever-assisted) according to our societal definition, rather than Darwin?
It dawns on me that this section may come across as slightly hostile to Darwin, but that’s not the point and I promise I’ll try make up for it in a moment. It’s true that until I read The Origin, I had wondered why Darwinism wasn’t called Darwin and Wallacism, given the fact that, technically, they co-published. By today’s depraved unwritten rules, co-publishing would give them equal priority to the discovery, regardless of who earned it more. But once you read Darwin’s book, you realize that it’s precisely because he took 25 years to allow the theory of evolution to develop, according to the intellectual laws of selection, and used this time also to collect a ridiculous amount of supportive data and to head off many of the key objections to the theory, that he deserved the fame and glory (history has been kind to Wallace, particularly because he graciously agreed with this perspective, and was a vocal advocate of Darwinism rather than Wallacism for the rest of his life). In other words, it wasn’t genius, that unknown one-in-a-million pattern of neuronal wiring, that was responsible for Darwinism, it was the unfettered freedom of Darwin to pursue his curiosity through the lens of a single, broad question, during the length scale of his entire life.
Perhaps we can agree that curiosity, rather than genius, is an innate cognitive trait of people (those curious primates). Curiosity, like gullibility, playfulness, and nudity, is so innate that we associate it primarily with children. It is in a group of wholesome behavioral traits that gradually wear off, become adulterated (from the latin adulterare, “to corrupt”) by adulthood. From the standpoint of intellectual history and Darwin’s unique attitude towards science, then, the question is then inverted: it’s not about what particular neuronal wiring diagram sparked his deep insight into evolution, but why society, The Great Eraser, didn’t rub out Darwin’s “original curiosity” as it does most of ours, leaving after our fall from grace only a smudgy imprint of what we once had.
From a historical perspective, the answer is both interesting and cynical. History, like physics and biology, can be a brutal discipline that places heroes and tyrants on equal footing amid the great chaotic waves that govern human social and political dynamics. These days, no one individual has agency in the eyes of history – if they do, the historian hasn’t done their job properly, or at least hasn’t done it thoroughly. The goal of modern history is, in some sense, fundamentally the same as for physics and biology: to reduce the world into a series of events that is interpretable in terms of cause and effect. The difference is the language, the tools, and the rules of the games.
Darwin was rich. People often bring up Darwin’s paternal grandfather, the portly (to put it lightly (literally), or porcine to weigh it more accurately) Erasmus Darwin, if Darwin’s bloodline ever comes up, because Erasmus was a physician and Enlightenment-oriented scholar whose murky, poetic notions about the biological world seem to constitute the primordial prototype of a Theory of Natural Selection, to be adapted by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and eventually by Charles, whose theory was ultimately selected as the fittest by the scientific institution. Consider these stanzas from Erasmus’ poem, The Temple of Nature:
Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nursed in Ocean’s pearly caves.
First, forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass.
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.
Thus, the tall oak, then giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;
The whale, unmeasured monster of the main;
The lordly lion, monarch of the plain;
The eagle soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare;
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflections proud,
With brow erect who scorns this early sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!
The British Romantics are not poetry’s proudest bunch, they were far too hoity-toity to get at matters of the soul, and anything written in iambic pentameter ends up sounding like a nursery rhyme. But nuance is not a strategy that is commonly employed to communicate scientific ideas, and so at least Erasmus’ lack of it makes it easier to understand his remarkable ideas about evolution, published six years before Charles was born (the “spheric glass” in the third line refers to the “microscopes” invented by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek through which he was the first to observe microbes, and which weren’t anything but tiny glass spheres that worked as high-magnification lenses).
But the relevant characters in Darwin’s pedigree for this narrative are Darwin’s maternal grandpa, Josiah Wedgwood, and Josiah’s daughter, Charles’ mother, Susannah Darwin nee Wedgwood, because their story in the context of the British capitalistic boom of the 19th century serves as a quintessential case study in the relationship between economics and the practice of science. Josiah Wedgwood (wedg is the old English for “wych elm,” Ulmus glabra. Wych comes from the latin for ‘flexible,’ referring to the ability to make, for example, wicker (same root (botanically and linguistically)) baskets, but also shares etymology with “witch,” to which (no pun intended) I don’t understand the connection. glabra is from the latin for hairless, or smooth, referring to the leaves of this species). Josiah was born (1730) into a family of English dissenters, meaning they had left the Church of England (which was already a strange synthesis of Catholicism and Protestantism. Among the various groups of English dissenters were the more familiar Puritans and Quakers, but many other denominations with even more evocative names including the Ranters, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Enthusiasts, and what I imagine to be a sect of Protestant muppets, The Muggletonians!). In Europe, from the 16th century onward there was a deep, intimate connection between the rise of capitalism and the rejection of the Catholic church, with the two institutions offering fundamentally contradictory roadmaps for one’s life, and Darwin’s grandpa was the embodiment of the capitalistic path. Josiah’s life spanned roughly the 18th century, and his work is emblematic of the transition of the British economy from what you might call the “simple capitalism” described by Adam Smith, to the industrial revolution. Before Josiah’s generation, the Wedgwoods were artisan potters who made cheap, relatively poor-quality pottery, one piece at a time. Josiah, however, did what you would do if you were a capitalist potter: using the sizable dowry he received when he married his distant cousin, Sarah Wedgwood nee Wedgwood, he founded a pottery company where he tinkered with glazes, and systematized the kilning process, to create cheap, light clay dishware (“earthenware”), that mimicked porcelain (which is essentially glass, the finest standard of the time), and displaced Delftware, the most popular existing non-porcelain alternative (he also allegedly invented the too-good-to-be-true ideas of “two-for-one” and “free delivery”). Anticipating the industrial revolution, he went on to found the first pottery factory, which today lives on in Staffordshire as “The World of Wedgwood” (!), which I imagine to be like the Disney World of England: their website invites you to come for “experiences, afternoon teas, factory tours, or simply a spot of luxury shopping…” After many successive mergers and acquisitions, those immense financial symbioses, the Wedgwood company itself also still exists, wedged into the heart of the corporate conglomerate “Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton,” which rolls off the tongue like a capitalist nursery rhyme that Josiah might have read to his grandson Charles before bed.
In short, Josiah became immensely wealthy, and both Darwin’s dad, Robert (an immense figure, like his father, who allegedly had to have floorboards tested for their mechanical integrity before he walked into a room so he didn’t fall through them), and Charles himself married directly into this money: Robert married Josiah’s daughter Susannah, and Charles married Josiah’s granddaughter, his own first cousin, Emma. That is, the Darwin-Wedgwood clan inherited the strategy of inbreeding from England’s monarchic roots, and thus in true aristocratic fashion, these fiscally opportunistic marriages kept both the Wedgwood money and the Wedgwood genes in the family.
The Dutch invented capitalism in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the British adopted it in the 18th century, codified it by 1800 (Adam Smith), and injected it with anabolic steroids in 19th century. Darwin was born only 20 years after Adam Smith died, but already into an increasingly industrialized England, centered on the factory, that would have horrified Smith’s already outdated, simple construction of capitalism whose foundation was artisans, farmers, and “country laborers.” Because 19th century England was a time of enormous economic expansion, of capitalistic fever, if, like Robert or Charles, you had some dough, it wasn’t difficult to make more of it. Basically (and this still the way it works), you buy yourself into the rich peoples’ clubs and parties, and then you gab with your rich investor, industrial, and aristocratic friends and figure out where to sprinkle your free quid, like so many pollinators of factories and railroads, to make it proliferate fastest. To be fair, no one has ever accused Darwin of being a socialite, and he probably got most of his early stock tips from his dad. Darwin invested conservatively, as you might imagine, in real estate, but had a particular penchant for investing in the railroad companies, an obvious choice at the time. For example he cashed in by helping to finance the “Great Northern Railway,” a line that transported coal from the mines in The Midlands of England to London.
The net result is that Darwin never had to work a day in his life. Out of college, tempted to join the clergy, Darwin’s first love was “the natural world” (specifically, beetles!), and his dad financed his gap-quinquennium aboard Her Majesty’s Ship The Beagle, which spiraled into a lifelong passion project that Darwin never relinquished. Today, it’s impossible to imagine conducting top-tier scientific research independent of an institution, whether it be a university, research institute, or company, but at the time, the question of evolution was not one that required highfalutin instruments (other than a pigeon coop, a duck, and a fishbowl), and Darwin had the time and resources to plug himself into the academic societies without the time-consuming obligations of teaching, lecturing, and administration that are often seen, unfortunately, as the necessary evils that come with being a professor. Darwin didn’t just buy his way out of teaching requirements and administration, as is common for high-rolling professors these days, be bought himself out of professing altogether! He bought himself 25 years of sabbatical, a long staycation, during which he stayed put and simply opened wide the aperture of his curiosity to a wealth of data, catalyzing the theory of natural selection to crystallize around him, rather than proffering a fleeting insight.
We can still worship Darwin, if not as a genius (in the conventionally implied sense of the word), then at least as a person of extraordinary intellectual ambition – I am tempted to call it monomaniacal ambition, but really it was anything but. The theory of natural selection was a synthesis of the physical, biological, and human worlds, ones that had been separated with respect to humans’ attitudes toward their experience of reality. Moreover, although Darwin was somewhat anti-social (certainly not the first or last scientist of the type), from his letters he emerges as a scientist of immense intellectual generosity who was progressive in his politics and overall a friendly bloke, still deserving of a hug.
On the other hand, the cynical side of history forces us to accept that Darwin afforded his curiosity at an enormous price during a period of extreme exploitation in England, when a new class of impoverished industrial laborers was in much more need of dough (literally and figuratively) than Darwin, hugs be damned. In this sense, the most we can congratulate Darwin for, superficially, is that at least he used his money as intellectual capital, instead of just hobnobbing, drinking, and smoking at the Jockey Club, or using it to make as much money as possible in any number of insidious enterprises in which the wealthy often find themselves. It’s certainly not like every person born into wealth holds on to their childhood curiosity and commits their life to science or art. In this light, we can probably thank, well, the Enlightenment, and more particularly Erasmus, for his grandson’s value system that was centered on intellectual rather than monetary pursuits (or perhaps not: Darwin never actually met his grandpa. Charles did write a glorifying biography of Erasmus, focused on his ideas, but this was many years after The Origin was published). So while I don’t want to get into the habit of congratulating the rich for their charity or lauding them for their virtue, I can try to rescue this cynical line of reasoning somewhat, by offering a deeper way to look at Darwin’s contribution to society in a somewhat more positive light.
Tolstoy, who was both a contemporary and a doppelgänger of Darwin, closes War and Peace by outlining his theory of history, which is essentially the idea that individuals, even giant figures like Darwin (much more of a giant intellectually but much less of one physically then his paternal line) and Napoleon (the smallest giant of them all), those supposedly “great men,” actually have no effect on the course of history; on the contrary, the waves of history, which are well beyond the control of any one person, dictate the behaviors, attitudes, and ideas of each individual, including Darwin. Sure, there are famous military generals, famous artists, and famous scientists alike, but all of them are just unwittingly occupying a role, pawns in the unknown game of the Great Spirit. The job of history and physics are simply to infer the rules of the game. Darwin dutifully accepted his mantle and described a major rule, Natural Selection. The rise of British industrialism, a combative, aggressive move in the Great Spirit’s game, bought Darwin the freedom to dwell at length on the transmutation of species and even zapped his brain with the intellectual tools he needed to solve the puzzle – after all, wasn’t the entire capitalistic world order, based on free-market competition, one big apple falling on Darwin’s head?
If capitalism is a great wave of history that led to Darwinism, then Darwinism (if not Darwin) is another great wave itself, and thus the inverse question becomes very interesting: what general effect has Darwinism had on our attitudes toward economics – is there any feedback? There are several possibilities: the realization of Darwinism could entrench capitalism (positive feedback), it could counteract capitalism (negative feedback), it could do neither (which seems very unlikely), or it could do both. The cynical view (I’m being very presumptuous about your politics), is that Darwinism confirmed that the ecological world works essentially like the economic world, and this somehow justifies the state of the latter, as if Natural Selection had been some hidden variable underlying economic and social structures and interactions. Indeed, explanations for existing social hierarchies, which resulted from millennia of the Great Spirit’s unforgiving game, were immediately shoehorned into Darwinism by leading biologists and capitalists alike, the most blatant example being the interpretation of the White Man’s power as resulting from his higher evolutionary status. In addition to institutional racism and sexism, Darwinism was immediately seized upon by those who held that the economy couldn’t succeed in any way other than free-market capitalism. Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s friend (and Julian Huxley’s grandpa) and one of the strongest advocates for the Theory of Natural Selection as applied to speciation, but a critic of its perversion as “social Darwinism,” described natural selection as “a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism” (within economics, liberalism essentially means free-market capitalism in the sense that the economy is then “liberated from the state,” and therefore, confusingly, is an ideology that is more associated with political conservatives than with political liberals. For example, today, neoliberalism, which is the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher-style incarnation of classic free-market capitalism, is anathema to political liberalism in the United States.)(the Whitworth, a English musket, was the standard for a marksman’s rifle in the late 19th century, and their major customer was the Confederate Army during the American Civil War who, I’m sure, were Social Darwinists). Even today, social Darwinism and its inherent, yet latent “survival of the fittest” justification, seems to be a pillar of the Republican party’s ideology, which is ironic (among myriad other reasons) in that both their leadership and their evangelical base have completely abandoned all reason, certainly don’t have much use for the science behind evolution to any other ends, and would seem to be trying to take us back to medieval, pre-scientific-revolution times culturally.
However, despite the fact that capitalism provided the intellectual primordial soup from which Darwinism sprang, it’s a very narrow reading of Darwinism that concludes that it justifies capitalism. In fact, from a historical perspective it does just the opposite: it is an intellectual dead-end for the ideal of capitalism. For all that Darwin admired the beauty of nature, the key moral theme in The Origin is struggle. For the 400 years leading to Darwin, the increasingly dominant attitude in Europe among the wealthy was the teleological conviction that humanity and society were glorious and getting ever more glorious, on a monotonic incline to utopia. This was, and still is, an attractive idea to the rich and powerful. First of all, most people who are born rich are completely incapable of comprehending the concept that the world is not as comfortable for everyone else as it is for them, despite the fact that they will do basically anything to avoid losing their wealth. Second, the idea of monotonic progress validates and justifies their circumstance. However, even though there are parallels in the structures of Darwinism and capitalism, Darwinism fundamentally and directly contradicts the central thesis of capitalism: whereas capitalism, as a philosophy, asserts that if we unleash human innovation through competition, on the whole, everyone will benefit, a central tenet of Darwinism is that competition not only favors certain parties, but completely eradicates most of them in a completely compassionate-less manner. In the end, Darwinism represented the final collapse of the great house of cards built during The Enlightenment, the most thrilling, arrogant and comically self-congratulatory period in human history.
Of course, it wasn’t just Darwin that broke the wave. It’s hard to look at 19th century Europe (or 20th or 21st century anywhere) and see utopia. Remember that The Origin was published within ten years of The Communist Manifesto: both ideas precipitated from capitalism and, read correctly, both were death knells to its ideal. Curiously, while Darwin and Marx never met, despite living within 20 miles of each other, Marx read Darwin and reacted much as Thomas Huxley had, by accepting the tenets of Darwinism while scoffing at the misapplication of them to political economy and interactions between social classes. In most respects, the Darwin and Marx could not have been more dissimilar: Marx was a poor, fuming, socialist revolutionary while Darwin was a mild-mannered, genteel capitalist. The two shared a spiritual connection, however, by carrying out their duty to confront The Rich White Man with his dark fallacy in a dramatic turning point in human history. Since then, Darwin’s theory has stood the test of time within the institution of science, but, through no fault of his own, has also been perverted and co-opted by the spirit of capitalism. Marx’s philosophy was also perverted, in his case by Lenin, and thus he has remained “a bogeyman, a spectre,” demonized by the West, despite his noble vision. Marx, by all accounts a spiteful and intellectually competitive man, must have sensed this spiritual bond when he mailed Darwin a copy of his magnum opus Das Kapital, with a humble inscription “To Charles Darwin, on the part of his sincere admirer, Karl Marx.” At the time, and for much the past decade, the gentle Darwin had been reclusively spending his days performing experiments on the beautiful but dangerous Drosera rotundifolia (dew drops + round leaves), demonstrating the principle of botanical carnivory for the first time. Adorably, he had recently written to his friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, that “…at the present moment I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.” And ever the correspondent, he put aside his experiments to respond to Marx with a note that is emblematic of his generosity and sheepish, honest, good will:
I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep & important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both Earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of Humankind.
I remain Dear Sir, Yours faithfully,
So we can certainly admire Darwin as a great scientist, insofar as we can admire any scientist for their discoveries, but more importantly we can admire him as a figurehead of humility in a time of rampant arrogance, a person who’s doctrine, at its heart, should have had the effect of cutting the legs out from under humankind’s unabashed greed and destruction, but didn’t.
Part III. Capitalism and Science, A Mendelian Epilogue
Is capitalism a bad word in your vocabulary? Does it sound to you like greed and disparity? I enjoy learning about the history of science, but it’s at the same time interesting and disillusioning to learn how much of the history of the process of scientific discovery since The Renaissance is inextricably linked to the rise of capitalism. For many of us who go into academia (I’m presumptuously projecting my own attitude, assuming that there is nothing particularly special about it, while also recognizing that many will not be so naive as me), we would rather believe that the process of discovery is driven by an innate, human instinct, beautiful precisely because we cannot identify exactly where it comes from, than that adult curiosity is dictated strictly by the invisible hand. On the other hand, for historians, the idea that market forces drive science and art is their daily fare – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I went to Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend – one way to look at the layout of the Met is that it’s basically a bunch of big fancy closets filled with the stuff owned by the richest echelons of each major society in modern human history. The Mayan “art” is a collection of the gold jewelry worn by the noble class, the Zen Buddhist “art” are the scrolls detailing the glorious history of the Japanese shoguns, the African “art” consists of a bunch of ceremonial statuettes used by kings and chiefs to pass judgement on their subjects. Don’t even get me started on the Egyptian “art” (housed, incidentally, in the Sackler Wing, brought to you by the Sackler Family who owns Perdue Pharma and made their fortune peddling oxycontin). And of course European Renaissance “art” is about one-half commissioned portraits of monarchs and aristocrats that they liked to hang up in their castles and stare at, and one-half propaganda pieces commissioned by them to proclaim the power of the church or state that they were extolling. I’m being simplistic, and what’s more, none of this apparent cynicism means that the “art” itself isn’t amazing to look at. On the contrary, knowing the historical context of the art makes it that much more interesting to experience. Nonetheless, we have to recognize that the Met was founded by industrialists, bankers, and businessmen, in other words the 1% of post-Civil War America, in order to showcase how extraordinarily awesome it is to be in the 1%, regardless of your time and place in history.
For those who believe strongly in the ideal of capitalism and cling to the promise of the Enlightenment and the belief that everything is still getting monotonically better, the realization that what we know as science and art is intimately dependent on the proverbial man might not be so troublesome. To me, as to many others, I imagine, this realization leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but at least it also leaves me something to chew on with respect to why it tastes like this. First, having grown up in a comfortable middle-class situation where the core message concerning my future was “you can do whatever you want,” it’s disconcerting to admit that in reality the landscape of possibilities is prescribed by the demands of the economy, and even more disconcerting to admit that what I find interesting as an academic scientist is a product of the market, secretly implanted in my brain through the ether. On the other hand, there is something empowering about confronting this realization (and I suppose those who are wiser and less sheltered, who are probably shaking their head by now, were much quicker to understand this than me) in the sense that it gives fundamental science and art a firm validation as to their place in society. “Science, because people must do it, is a socially embedded activity,” says Stephen Jay Gould, which I interpret to mean that science is neither good nor bad, necessarily, but is precisely as good or bad as society is.
But this brings us to the question of the goodness of society and the seemingly dominant status of capitalism as a political economic system. The second reason why it’s hard to stomach the idea that capitalism enables science is that the primary connotation of capitalism in my sphere is inequality. However, I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, a town that along with Portland, Oregon and the entire state of Vermont, Fox News has dubbed a “secular progressive stronghold” (students at my alma mater, Boulder High School, have been repeatedly been singled out and attacked by Fox News commentators for their activism!) – I really don’t have a good sense of what knee-jerk associations other people make with the word capitalism, perhaps inevitable is a more common connotation than inequality. What I do know is that “socialism” is often demonized and pitted against capitalism by people across the political spectrum, although particulary vehemently by the right, but this is a ridiculously false and harmful dichotomy. Case in point, the Republicans rail against the perils of socialism while happily taking advantage of public schools, national parks, social security, not to mention social welfare, medicare, and medicaid (if you can ever muster the nerve to watch Fox News, pay attention to its commercials, about 50% of which are telling their consumers how to take advantage of medicare or medicaid). All countries, including the United States, are inherently capitalist and socialist, with the only difference between countries being how and to what extent you implement socialism. Presently, the key fact is that fundamental science as an institution, and universities in general, including rich-kid private universities, are one big example of re-distribution of wealth since they are funded in large part via federal grants that come from a pot of tax dollars allocated by congress. That is, fundamental science is a specific program of socialism in a capitalist system, and therefore as an institution its values are dictated by capitalism. In the end, whether you think science is good or bad is, in part, a question of whether you think the extent to which we’re implementing socialism, and the mechanisms by which we do so, are working out, on the whole.
Is our system bad, is there any other way? Maybe not, I don’t know. By discussing Darwin, I can focus on what we call fundamental science and avoid talking about the connections between science, technology, and industry, which are so obvious and vast that they make this whole commentary seem childishly naive. But even fundamental science requires a lot of money, art does too, and we all need our patrons, who will some day, through some currency, demand a return on their investment. Despite the cynicism, viewing science through the lens of capitalism is, for me, fascinating. All the more fascinating, then, are examples of scientific progress that don’t fit neatly into this schema. It’s amusing to wonder what life would have been like for Darwin if he had joined the clergy – could he have still been a scientist? Presumably not, and he was lucky to be able to avoid this calling and have a path to his scientific freedom. Not everyone is so lucky – just as today, in Darwin’s time there were of course many people in the world who would have found it exhilarating to engage the natural world through science, who could have become “geniuses,” but for whom the path to a profession in science, much less scientific freedom, was completely inaccessible.
The story of Gregor Mendel, a contemporary of Darwin, superficially reads like a bizarro version of Darwin’s, and represents a particularly creative and “unorthodox” approach to chasing a life of science when the red carpet isn’t rolled out by capitalism. Mendel did, after all, join the clergy. Most scientists know this about Mendel, if they know anything about him – much less is known about his life than Darwin’s. What most people don’t know is that Mendel, who was the son of poor farmers, joined the clergy precisely because of his passion for science, in a place (Moravia, now encompassed by the Czech Republic) where one of the only viable paths to spend your time thinking about science was to become a monk. Mendel’s first love was physics (and he became perhaps the first (after Galileo) in a proud line of physicists that made major contributions to modern biology, including Marie Curie, Max Delbruck, Francis Crick, and many others), and he originally wanted to become a physics teacher, but didn’t have the money to put himself through school. Catholic monasteries did encourage their monks to dabble in science and art, but as a solitary means of engaging God and his creations rather than as a social or professional activity, embedded in the broader European scientific community. The Augustinian monastery in Brno where Mendel took his vows was created in a different image: not only did the abbot bankroll the young Mendel for several years while he finished his studies of physics at the University of Olomuoc (!), but he built him a greenhouse in the courtyard of the monastery when he finished so he could pursue experimental research. Thus, in direct contrast to Darwin, who bought himself out of the clergy to study science, Mendel bought himself science by entering the clergy! He spent the next 15 years in the courtyard at Brno studying his pea plants (Pisum sativum, “pea + cultivated”) and arrived at the principle of the gene and the basic rules of genetic inheritance, which provided an explanation the basis for variability that is at the core of Darwinism, before getting promoted to abbot and retiring from science.
It’s a pretty story, and I’d like to sign off on this note, with the vision of the artful Mendel hoodwinking the Catholic church to pursue his childhood curiosity that was so strong that it motivated him to pretend to dedicate his life to God just to dedicate it to science, cloistered in monastery on a hill, cut off from the runaway train of money and greed in Western Europe. But it’s never so clean cut, is it? It turns out Moravia was an agricultural center of Eastern Europe, and both the university where Mendel had studied and even the abbot that took him in were intensely interested in optimizing the breeding of animals and the hybridization of plants, which is why Mendel converted to biology from physics, and from his civilian-hood to the hood provided by the Augustinian order. O well, that’s a story for another time. It’s both scary and comforting that science is guided by the invisible hand – scary because we have no will, comforting because we have a place. Speaking of hands, and whether science is good or bad, I’ll leave you with a nice quote from Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, who, as it turns out, has a lifelong passion for science and, as far as I know, is not and never has been subject to the darker forces of capitalism (please keep me in the dark on this if I’m wrong):
“I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity.”
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