MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 18


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Charles Darwin (Sixth Ed., 1872)

The Franklin Library, 1975; full leather binding, with gold embossing, ribbed spine, gold edges, and moiré end papers.

As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated.

This great book is a testament to the human mind.  Why it should not also be a testament to God is a matter for those who believe in God.  It is, if nothing else, a testament to the grandeur of creation in the world.

The author starts his concluding chapter: ‘As this whole volume is one long argument…’  So it is.  What does Darwin want to persuade the reader to believe?  The theory of evolution, or natural selection – ‘the more complex organs and instincts have been perfected, not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor.’  Underlying that theory are the propositions that there is a struggle for existence that results in the survival of the fittest.

People in the business of persuasion should study and savour this book.  Darwin writes clearly and simply – and without pretence.  He is candid, or at least he appears to be candid.  His patience does not tyre.  He is courteous throughout.  He states the objections to his theory at their best, and he then exposes to the reader his attempt to deal with the objection – leaving the resolution to the reader.  He shows no vanity, mockery, scorn, or contempt.  He shows his respect for and thanks to other professionals.  He is forever observing the world and wondering about it, but he never loses his sense of wonder at what the world might offer up for observation.  He is like a little boy in a lolly shop – but a very acute and courteous little boy.

Until almost the very end of the book, Darwin does not mention human evolution.  Instead, he begins with domestic animals.  Everyone knows that horses, pigeons, sheep and dogs are bred so that they improve as they change – or, evolve.  All Darwin is saying is that instead of people directing the change, nature does so – but over time-scales that we cannot get our heads around.  Then, with just a few pages to go, we get this: ‘The similar framework of bones in the hand of a man, wing of a bat, fin of the porpoise, and leg of the horse, the same number of vertebrae forming the neck of the giraffe and of the elephant, and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent with slow and successive modifications.’

Two elemental truths pervade this book.  The first is that we learn about the world by observing it, wondering about what we see, and then testing our thoughts by further observation and reflection.  This is called science (from the Latin word for ‘I know’).  Dogs and horses and other animals do much the same thing, although we may get coy about the label we stick on their second phase.  Our reliance on electronic collection of data is dulling our minds and our capacity or inclination to use this natural technique in learning how to design a building, play a sand iron, perform surgery, cast a dry fly, drive a Ferrari north of whatever, or make a wine to challenge the Grange.  (Is it possible that our minds may evolve in reverse through lack of use?)

The other point is equally basic.  In our efforts to put down intolerance, we put up with most outlandish statements about God and the world.  But there is a difference.  We are very slow to condemn any statement about God as untenable because it is silly since many people think that any statement about God is silly, and, indeed, if you take any one religion, the great majority of mankind will regard all of its main beliefs as silly.

But this is not so with nature.  There are laws of nature.  They are empirically verified and denied only by the mad or those whose faith leads them to believe that their Creator can countermand them.  Darwin showed that species evolved, or changed to get better; we need to remember that if we flirt with nature, we may not know or like what we end up with.  One example was the practice of the Spartans of taking children from their parents to toughen them up, a practice followed more softly by the English ruling class until recently.

The book reads a little like a mystery book or detective series.  For example, domestic animals tend to have drooping ears.  Why?  Is this due to misuse of the muscles of the ear because these animals are so seldom alarmed?  The tail of a giraffe serves as a ‘fly-flapper.’  So what?  We have learned that the distribution and existence of animals ‘absolutely depend on their power of resisting the attacks of insects.’  Elephants have been decimated by insects.  Why do some birds show off gorgeous plumage?  For the same reason they perform strange antics before the females – to allow them to ‘choose the most attractive partner.’

Because we are talking of living organisms adapting by experience, the book offers insights of general use.  Darwin stresses that we cannot get our heads around the times involved, and that the geological record will be fragmentary.  If you started off with a pair of elephants, they could have nineteen million descendants after 750 years; after twelve generations, the proportion of blood from only one ancestor is 1 in 2048.  ‘If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man, we can understand how it is that neither Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilized man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture.’  This is a useful reminder to those who think that they can just impose a way of life on people from a different world.

Here is some advice to someone starting in business: ‘The more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution and habits, by so much will they be better enabled on many and widely diversified places in th polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers.’  But respect for Nature and its laws need not deny us our sense of wonder.  ‘…Natural Selection…is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.’

Religion was of course a no-fly zone, but even here Darwin offers a blinding insight.  ‘It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye with a telescope.  We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process.  But may not this inference be presumptuous?  Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?

Darwin refers to the ‘common belief…that organization on the whole has progressed’ since the ‘inhabitants of the world at each successive period in its history has beaten their predecessors in the race for life.’  Similar hopes for mankind are constantly challenged.  Is mankind unique in its capacity to go backwards?

Darwin had not been able to sustain a belief in a personal God and was revolted by the idea of everlasting torture.  But when challenged by an atheist, his reply was: ‘But why should you be so aggressive?  Is anything to be gained by forcing new ideas on people?’

And his estrangement from religion and his embrace of science in no way lessened his moral position.  It is clear that his zeal to find a common origin of human species was his loathing of slavery.  A perverted science preached a plurality of species and ‘niggerology.’  Eight days after the publication of Origin of Species, the guerrilla abolitionist and Christian fundamentalist John Brown was hanged for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.