Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!   posted by JP @ 10/22/2006 11:25:00 AM

Adam Gopnik has an excellent essay in the most recent New Yorker arguing that Charles Darwin, while cultivating an image of an unassuming naturalist forced, by the facts, to reluctantly revolutionize modern thought, was really, well, a Darwinian fundamentalist. The article isn't available online, but it's worth a little effort to find. A couple excerpts below the fold.
Darwin's strategy was one of the greatest successes in the history of rhetoric, so much that we are scarcely aware that it was a strategy. His pose of open-mindedness and ostentatiously asserted country virtue made him, in his way, as unassailable as George Washington. The notion persists to this day that Darwin was a circumspect observer of animals, not a confident theorist of life.
Darwin was humble and modest in exactly the way that Inspector Columbo is. He knows from the beginning who thew guilty party is, and what the truth is, and would rather let the bad guys hang themselves out of arrogance and overconfidence, while he walks around in his raincoat, scratching his head and saying, "Oh, yeah--just one more thing about that six-thousand year old Earth, Reverend Snodgrass..." Darwin was a civil and courteous man, but he was also what is now polemically called a Darwinian fundamentalist. He knew that he was right, and that his being right meant that much else people wanted to believe was wrong. Design was just chance plus time, greed not a sin from the Devil but an inheritance from monkeys. "Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions!!" he wrote in his notebooks. "The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!"
You don't achieve a triumph of this kind without knowning what you're doing, and Darwin was a cagey man when it came to carrying his day. He was pleased to let other men, particularly his great friend and champion T. H. Huxley, do the dirty work of polemics. Throughout thirty years of friendship, he and Huxley played, knowingly, a kind of good-cop, bad-cop game in public. Their correspondance shows that each knew his given role--when Darwin at last was put forward for an honorary degree at Oxford by the reactionary Lord Salisbury, it was with the severe corrollary that Huxley could not get the same. Huxley and Darwin, sharing the same basic views, enjoyed the joke. When Huxley had his famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce, Darwin kept silent, safe in the country, but wrote to his defender, "How durst you attack a live Bishop in that fashion? I am quite ashamed of you! Have you no reverence for fine lawn sleeves?"