Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Slaves to preconceived ideas

I’ve always had a soft spot for Charles Darwin, not just for coming up with "the single best idea anyone has ever had". Now a new book suggests that Darwin’s theory of evolution was motivated by his outrage against slavery.

It seems a long call come up with a such a complex attack on slavery, and despite the debates at the time I suspect had only a marginal effect. Darwin’s family, along with their kin, the Wedgewoods of pottery fame, were staunch abolitionists so the hypothesis presented in Darwin’s Sacred Cause remains credible.

In 1831 Darwin visited Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and Tasmania on the Beagle. It was a naval brig and Darwin was on board essentially as a gentleman companion to the captain, someone to provide intelligent conversation on the voyage.

I confess a personal penchant for reflected glory, even exulted glory like Darwin’s. Over my years in Tasmania there were many reasons and opportunities to research the numerous colonial newspapers held in the state libraries. Despite the focus of any specific research there were numerous side tracks, including Darwin’s visit to the island.

What never occurred to me at the time was the thought of Darwin being a mere gentleman’s companion, in fact the excitement was unequivocally directed at the man himself, the ship as his vehicle, but no other aspect of the ship’s complement.

Duck-Billed Platypus

Doubtless the excitement had been stirred up by the scientific discoveries on the earlier part of the voyage, with colonial papers reporting London news at great length. The great theory was yet to be expounded, but the gentleman scientist was highly respected in the outer reaches of the Empire.

One thing I looked for in contemporary reports was a Darwin approached to the strange creature known as the Duck-Billed Platypus. When local naturalists sent specimens of this animal to London it was dismissed as an elaborate hoax, a prank by those ‘dimwitted colonials’.

I never found reference to the platypus, but maybe for the best as it would have been a difficult precursor to his later revelations. Even without the theory Darwin would have been recognised as a major figure, perhaps only revealing our slavery to preconceived ideas. Perhaps the great logical leap was indeed a political argument. Either way he remains one of my heroes.


lindsaylobe said...

An interesting post.
I have an interest in Darwin who made such a tremendous impact on society. By all accounts Darwin was a great conversationalist but took decades before finally gathering sufficient courage to publish his amazing works.

Today I think his idea on natural selection is questionable; maybe it’s more a matter of natural reproduction.

Hence I think it is possibly not a matter of survival of the fittest but the struggle for power to reproduce which ensures the evolutionary chain.

Adaption can be very swift where required (within 3 generations) as consequence of the will to power to reproduce, or it can remain the same for hundreds of millions of years.

Modern day biology informs us we can reach a high degree of complexity effortlessly as a consequence of following certain simple growth rules in reproduction. Even in the most highly complex species independent forms of parallel growth of early cell development originate in simple growth rules effortlessly creation our complex biology. I believe this way of thinking complements Darwinism and allow us to understand his early meritorious pioneering work but hopefully now in a new light where we understand we are at the centre of life rather than the pinnacle of an evolutionary chain, to dominate all other life.

The latter view was instrumental in shaping our lack of reverence for all life and will be also be the catalyst for our demise should it continue. Best wishes

Cart said...

Lindsay, you know “survival of the fittest” is a term derived from economics? I’m not sure it’s relevant thee either but I agree, and expect Darwin would also, that his work is flawed. The fact is it makes a valuable starting point.
I’m increasingly concerned about the way we are reducing diversity in nearly everything we touch. Without diversity adaptation becomes moot. By reducing diversity we are reducing our own ability to survive.

abi said...

Very interesting post and comments. But I'm not sure I agree that the idea of reaching the pinnacle of an evolutionary chain has much to do with our lack of reverence for other forms of life. Too many people who lack that reverence have no use for Darwin's ideas.

That lack of reverence is both real and sad, but its cause is I think due to something else about humans' way of thinking - something that isn't very flattering.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Abi & Cart
The idea humans represent the pinnacle of creation or the pinnacle of the evolutionary chain is not in itself necessarily tied to Darwinism but nevertheless that world view (that we represent the pinnacle of creation) was reinforced by a continued misinterpretation of Darwin.

Ideas shape our philosophy and are inherent in our life approach even though they at times can remain barely acknowledged as such.

How we view ourselves in the overall scheme of things to all life will determine our philosophy and how we engage in the world - whether or not we engage in feelings of compassion and empathy for all life.

Peter Singer provides some good examples of this.

Best wishes

Cart said...

I still come back to the shrinking diversity being the real problem. Let’s face it, the standardising of economies across the globe has shown us the dangers in that field. We are also wiping out diversity in nature, including the beast we call human.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Cart

I would not be surprised if once we finally emerge from the current economic crisis another will be evident; namely a food crisis which will only be averted if we move globally to greater reliance on a more bio diversified approach to farming reliant on nature for its sustainability. Organic farming also exceeds all other forms of carbon absorption.
So far the scientific community is right up there but the general community and politicians lag behind the curve. But nevertheless I have some mild optimism that there is a growing realization we cannot rely on farming requiring the widespread use of fertilizers and large scale technologically based farming exclusively. Once that shift in thinking takes root politicians will quickly follow suit.
But all of this comes back to the land and to nature to acknowledge the land it is not here for us to do with it whatever we please.

The old landscapes can never reappear fully, but we can, with a different mindset farm the land in a manner that will last for ever; one that respects our partner, Mother Nature.

Best wishes

Cart said...

Can’t help but agree Lindsay. Seems to me, from quantum mechanics to the planets roughly the same universe rules of behaviour prevail. I guess you could even say a tendency for self destruction is part of the deal – entropy perhaps?