Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish
What you read here is about Charles Darwin, the person. It is the Charles the person who holds my attention, ever since I had to brake violently to avoid rear-ending a car in my California town. As I recovered my wits and studied the bumper of the car I nearly smashed, I saw for the first time the Darwin fish – the “Jesus fish” with Darwin’s name instead and little feet underneath, like the familiar figure of a fish sprouting feet to become an amphibian. I laughed! And I continued to laugh as I saw more of these Darwin fish on the rear ends of cars around town. It is a university town, where you expect such irreverent humor. Over time, I saw the growing bumper battle between the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish, with ever more clever designs, culminating in the Darwin fish opening wide to eat the Jesus fish! I became concerned. Too many people are taking this battle seriously, seeing Darwin as displacing Jesus.
This was not the reaction of an offended Christian or shock at such public display of intolerance. I was reacting to the name Darwin coming to symbolize so much other than the man or even his work. The Darwin fish proposes an equivalence between Darwin and Jesus. Darwin the prophet of modernity, Darwin the symbol of Ultimate Truth, Darwin an object of “religious” reverence. This struck me as profound misrepresentation of who was Charles Darwin and what he himself stood for. This was not science versus religion or science versus Christianity but Science as a religion competing with Christianity as a religion. I knew Charles the person would have been appalled.
In Defense of Charles the Person
I am a friend of Charles the person and therefore feel obliged to defend his good name. Not that that I knew him in person! My great, great grandfather was born in England the same year as Charles – 1809. But I know Charles a great deal better than I know my own ancestor. His voyage on the Beagle inspired me to travel the world, too. His evolutionary theory structured my worldview in university and to this day. To me, however, Charles is more than a voyage and a theory. Charles is a life-long friend — not a mentor or a teacher or a hero or an icon – a personal friend – like the fantasy friend of a child, I suppose – with passions and aversions, strengths and weaknesses, to which I relate my own. He is a person with whom I can sympathize but also criticize. He puzzles yet inspires me. He makes me smile, and he is exasperating. We agree, and we disagree. We walk together in silence. He speaks, I listen. He is a personal friend, no less than my deceased father, who is gone, yet with me. It is a person-to-person connection. In short, I like Charles Darwin a great deal, but I know him too well to sit by while the modern world enthrones him as its demi-god. Nor can I idly allow him to be branded the Anti-Christ.
My “friendship” with Charles Darwin does not authorize me to tell you what motivated him or what he believed without my going back to the written record, his own books, journals and letters and the writings of his peers, family and biographers. What a daunting task that is! I am not a trained historian or biographer, and I still have a day job and a family to care for. For the most part, I have to depend on others who have done the tedious work of extracting and summarizing what Charles and others actually revealed about the man. It is a voluminous record, yet very sketchy regarding his religious and philosophical positions. It requires a good deal of interpolation and interpretation, always subject to personal bias.
A Child of His Time
Even what Charles wrote is not the complete key to his train of thought. He had his own biases welling up from assumptions, of which even he was mostly unaware. As we all are, Charles was a child of his time and all that led up to that time. Therefore, to properly interpret what Charles was thinking and feeling, we have to explore the history and philosophy and culture and society that influenced his thinking and feeling. A daunting task indeed!
Charles was born five years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Charles’s parents’ generation was traumatized by the French Revolution and the following surge of Napoleon’s armies across the Continent. The society in which he was an impressionable teenager, as all teenagers are, was the society of Jane Austen’s novels. English culture was absorbing and adjusting to Enlightenment philosophy, its countercurrents, and its conflicts with orthodox Christianity, which overlay the disruption of the traditional social order by the emerging Industrial Revolution and its new classes of beneficiaries and victims. Just think of the profound influence of the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate on the assumptions of my generation. Charles could not have made full sense of our writings on any philosophical issue without knowing these great influences on our worldviews. Likewise, we cannot interpret Charles without knowing the context of his life.
Charles the Family Man
And there was Charles’s family. His enormous physician father, Robert, and physician-philosopher-poet grandfather, Erasmus, who was an early and well-known proponent of evolutionary thought. And the Wedgwood family of his mother, founders of the famous Wedgwood line of fine china and old-style Unitarians (among the many Dissenter sects of Christianity, tolerated just barely by the Church of England and the Crown). And there was his brother, Erasmus (Ras to the family) who kept a bachelor’s salon for London intellectuals, including notably Thomas Carlyle and his wife, whom Charles knew fairly well. And his close friends, Charles Lyell the famous geologist, Joseph Hooker the famous botanist, and Thomas Huxley, the famous anatomist and firebrand advocate of Charles’s theory (up to a point). And, of course, there was his wife and first cousin and closest friend, Emma Wedgwood, who was well-educated and worldly, having done the Grand Tour of Europe’s cultural treasures while Charles visited Europe only once, a brief trip to Paris a few years before his voyage on the Beagle, after which he never again left England. To understand Charles, we have to understand Emma, too. She was religious in a way Charles was not, but she was hardly orthodox. In the Anglican church of Downe, the Darwin family’s home village for decades, Emma is reported to have regularly required their eight children to turn their backs with her to the altar as the Confession of the Faith was chanted, all the while glaring at the rest of the congregation! Perhaps this embarrassing scene explains why Charles preferred to stroll the village while the family attended Sunday service.
Understanding the Object of Rejection
I think understanding the context of a person’s life is particularly important, because as I have repeatedly discovered in my own career, it is often impossible to understand why a person so passionately promotes an idea without understanding what the person is thereby rejecting. Yet people seldom cite this object of rejection in building the rationale for the idea. Indeed, the person may not even be fully aware of what is being rejected or perhaps is reluctant to admit it. Guarding against the strong temptation to psychoanalyze, we can use the context of the person’s life to surmise what the person is likely reacting against and thereby come closer to understanding fully.
Learning from Analogy with Ourselves
Even if all these pieces of evidence and context can be assembled, there will have to be interpretation – educated guesses – of what was going on in Charles’s mind. Aside from assembling the pieces, I hope to contribute my own understanding from my “friendship” with Charles. We learn very often by analogy. When we cannot directly know the nature of what we are trying to understand, we find an analogy to something we know already and say “if it is truly like this, we can imagine how it would react to that.” Charles was a well-educated, well-traveled, perceptive and sensitive man, not unlike you and me, perhaps. If we can establish how he was similar and how he was different from us, we can use ourselves as a useful analogy to make good guesses about how he thought and felt about things about which you and I think and feel. This must be done very cautiously, guarding diligently against wishful thinking and unconscious bias. It cannot be fully successful. But it can move us much closer than we were before to understanding the man.
Why is this important?
Charles Darwin has become a touchstone for our modern world. The “bumper battle” of the fish symbols leaves no doubt of this. Commentators in the Science-Religion Debate, with all its political implications and consequences, often use Darwin as their point of reference, either to support or refute assertions about matters at hand. The Darwin name will be taken in vain regardless of how hard we try to set the record straight, but those of us who honor intellectual honesty and historical accuracy should have ready access to the real man and what were mostly likely his true views on the issues that are now so controversial. Surely this better understanding only improves the debate. We also owe this consideration to such a remarkable, decent and likeable man. Providing ready access to Charles, the real person, is the ultimate purpose of Darwin Watch.
I am reading a series of books and articles and compilations of letters and will provide you “book reviews” and short essays commenting on what I’ve read. You may expect to see something new from me at least once a month. In the process, you will see the “book” take shape. Your comments, advice, and corrections will help the process along. Post a comment with your thoughts. This daunting task cannot be done by one person alone.
Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford. May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)