The Corner

Mr. Darwin

Anyone following the Derb/Wes debate should take the time to read this wonderful New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik on Charles Darwin. It’s so good that an extract or two won’t do it justice, but consider these for starters:

Like most Englishmen of his class and time, Darwin was a prisoner of respectabilities and of encircling embarrassments. Safe within his own garden, though, he was far from diffident or unsure. The tone of his notebooks, as of his private letters, was ironic, impatient, quick-tempered, and he rushed to confident speculations on the basis of small evidence. Few documents are more fun to read than his notebooks of the eighteen-thirties, where his ideas about evolution are already alive, and you see his mind at work, unafraid. Plato, he writes, says in Phaedo “that our ‘necessary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derivable from experience.—read monkeys for preexistence.” Read monkeys for preexistence. Metaphysics is instantly collapsed into biology…Turning the pages, we realize that Darwin, the greatest Victorian sage, does not write like a Victorian sage. He writes like a Victorian novelist. Absent from his work is the pseudo-Biblical rhetoric, the misty imprecations favored by geniuses of a more or less reactionary temper, like Ruskin and Carlyle, or the parliamentary ponderousness of the writers of a more or less progressive sensibility, like Macaulay and Arnold. Darwin’s prose is calm and exact and, in its way, witty—not aphoristic, but ready to seize on a small point to make a large one…Having studiously avoided comparisons for hundreds of pages packed with ornithological detail, the entire book springs to, so to speak, wild life. Beauty and melody and gallantry, elegance and display, female choice—all are asserted to be as much a part of nature as egg laying. And so, at last, is a firm insistence: we are on a mental continuum with pheasants and peacocks. Analogy is avoided, and then the most unsettling analogy of all is grandly asserted, and without apology. They’re us; we’re them. This is Darwin’s method: an apparently modest allegiance to mere fact gathering abruptly crystallizes into a whole world view…After [his daughter] Annie’s death, Darwin abandoned the remaining vestiges of Christian faith, the last preference for even Unitarian theology, and became, essentially, a stoic. He believed that the contemplation of the immensity of time, and the repertory of feelings, was all that was left to us. There was no inherent meaning in Annie’s dying at ten, except the recognition that mortality was the rule of existence; serenity could be found only in the contemplation of the vast indifference of the universe.

It’s an important, lovely and oddly moving piece — and, in our age of gathering irrationality, it’s a must-read.

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