Thursday, October 03, 2013


I’m reading David Quammen’s biography of Charles Darwin, "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution". “Intimate” bio means it’s about the kind of guy Darwin was and not just how he thought but also how he felt.  He came from a large wealthy family and so did his wife, who was his cousin, so that between the two of them there were no money worries.  He and his wife did not have a wild madcap courtship as teens, but rather made a sober choice in their thirties.  His wife was willing to take care of him and to have a dozen pregnancies, some of which resulted in the deaths of the babies.  Darwin had lousy health and the “cure” he was given was just as bad: hard scrubbing and soaking in cold water.  His study contained a little sink so he could throw up now and then and it was behind a nice screen, because those were Victorian times.

Darwin sailed for five years with a sea captain who was arrogant and bossy, spent eight years dissecting barnacles (which turned out against all expectations to be tiny lobsters), and knew a lot about barnacle sex.  This probably didn’t affect his ability to have a faithful, joyful, grateful relationship with his wife since some of the barnacles were not two genders, or had both, and some didn’t seem to have sex at all.  They were exquisitely adapted for the lives they led and evidently -- except for the vomiting -- so was Darwin.

Unfortunately, most people completely misunderstand Darwin, esp. sports addicts who believe that winning is everything, that being number one guarantees success in every aspect and that success consists of doing whatever a person wants to do, shoving everyone else out of the way, and a kind of entitlement to status and respect.  NOT.  These are the people who die young of alcoholism, car crashes and fist fights.  Darwin was not talking about gymnasium Charles Atlas “fitness.”  He was talking about fitting the circumstances under which you must live your life.  This is true of EVERY form of life, even those less sophisticated than barnacles and lobsters, like one-celled forms.

If you fit your circumstances -- enough food, shelter, and partners -- you will reproduce and succeed.  If enough people in your group/tribe/family live in survivable circumstances, then your group/tribe/family will persist over the centuries.  The tougher the circumstances are -- and the conditions of high prairie east slope Montana and Alberta are pretty tough -- then the more the individual will need the group/tribe/family and other alliances to avoid extinction.

But conditions can change.  The climate, the economic scene, the skills necessary, the ways bodies handle food, and disease change.  If a majority of the people can’t resist addictions that destroy them or find a way to earn a living, then the group will be weaker.  Therefore, it is in the group’s best interest to keep even the weakest members of the group alive and functioning.

Sometimes the conditions change in a way that make the weakest members suddenly have the advantage.  The person who was a lousy hunter (near-sighted, not that coordinated, always thinking about something else) might turn out to be very well-suited for a new world in which scholarship was a key.  There are always a few people who are immune to smallpox or AIDS and they are the ones who go on into the future, even if the people they love are left behind.  There are always a few people who carry food to the ne’er-do-wells crouched in the weeds along the board fences that line the alleys.  That helps both the food-carrier and the ne’er-do-well survive.  Who knows which one will have a talent or even a gene mutation that contributes to everyone’s lives?  The only deadly factor is not believing that they have value.  Compassion is not just a virtue -- it is a practical way of keeping the group’s options open.

When humans began to domesticate animals, they tried to preserve the ones with characteristics they liked (fast horses, cows that gave lots of milk) and ate the others.  This meant that they shaped the animals to fit conditions that the humans provided instead of the conditions of the planet.  This is fine until the humans either don’t have the resources to provide for their animals or lose interest in doing it.  This applies to the human children as well, since most of us domesticate our children, or try to.  Those who fail may turn their children out of the home to survive however they can, which often has the same consequences as having them for supper.

Most people, with the help of school and church, manage to domesticate their children pretty well, but they tend to shape them in ways that fit the conditions when the parents grew up, not the conditions of the times when the children are growing up, even though what the parents knew doesn’t help a contemporary kid survive.  The hardest part of all is trying to understand how the conditions of the world are changing and what should be done to prepare children for something that doesn’t exist yet. 

To make the problem even more complex, people are capable of changing the conditions of survival: the way we organize institutions, the kinds of laws we enforce, the ways we provide jobs and food.  The temptation of those who can do so is to change the conditions of survival in ways that benefit their own group/tribe/family at the expense of others: to eliminate the competitors.  But part of what the truly great religious leaders try to tell us is that what we do to others, we also do to ourselves.  Eliminating, punishing or distorting other people for our own benefit, always damages us.  Being a murderer destroys the murderer as much as being the victim.  This might not be obvious at once.

Darwin didn’t discover “survival of the fittest” by himself.  He was simply the person who could put it into eloquent words and belonged to a social class and country where he had access to speaking and writing.  A whole “cloud” of people had been realizing what Darwin said -- that life unfolds from the life just before it, according to the opportunities that exist at the time of the unfolding -- and even though the existing conditions (a religious and governance system that assumed that authority came from entitlement and was hierarchically organized with an imaginary humanoid like a king at the top) opposed these new insights, the accumulation of evidence (including barnacles and island species) was simply too strong to support the idea.  Everything changed.  The British Empire collapsed.  Evolution didn’t do it -- evolution was powered by it.

People point out that the American Empire is also collapsing, even though that makes some people throw themselves down on the supermarket floor and demand all the Captain Crunch they want.  Why waste time on them, when we could be figuring out what the future will be like and how to make sure it has a niche for everyone?  The first priority, of course, needs to be that we all survive, even those naughty tantrum-throwing children.  They must be good for something.  Maybe we should scrub them hard with cold water.  

Here’s a takeaway quote from “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin” by David Quammen.  It’s a quote within a quote: these are Darwin’s words.  “One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges,” he wrote, and that it’s trying to “force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out the weaker ones.”  The final result of all this wedging, Darwin added, “must be to sort out proper structure & adapt it to change.” 

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