William Jamison's notes on Darwin for Fireside Chat at Barnes and Noble's Bookstore on Darwin Day 2005 (February 12)

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On reading Darwin

Darwin’s Dangerous Book

Why would a book be dangerous? Whatever we call them, Rorty’s Final Narratives, French Postmodernist’s Meta or Grand Narratives, Emerson’s Circles, World View, we each have our story of our place in the world. This story tells us who we are, what our place is in the universe and how we should maintain that place – that is, what we are to do. The Meta narrative that predominated through out the Medieval World was a narrative that centered on man. God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son… finish the quote. The earth was the center of the universe. Love was, perhaps, the Logos – or the arche of the universe. We were all here because of Love. This narrative was powerful and comforting especially in light of the horrors that accompanied even a life accompanied by the Grace and Love of God. We die, our loved ones die, and we suffer, sometimes cruelly, but always there is suffering. Pleasure does not exist without pain. A person suffering pain, or suffering the death of a loved one – or facing the prospect of death themselves, may well want to tell death that death only means that death will die, thou can’st not kill me!

Death Be Not Proud

by John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

(John Donne).

Imagine what it would mean to have the comfort of this knowledge be destroyed by an opposing story? A story that tells us we are random events, our lives are merely biochemical interactions, complex systems competing with other complex systems at various levels, whether they are chemical, biological, psychological, or social. Chemical interactions following physical laws and computer programs can mimic them…….


James Kennedy – Swarm Intelligence. And A New Science -- Stephen Wolfram


We may ask, what has been the advantage of the book? With all its danger, what could explain the evolution, in evolutionary terms, of Darwin’s work to the kind of significance it has? If survival of the fittest habits – as Dennett says in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” or in this case, the survival of the fittest narrative requires us to understand the nature of “narrative fitness” so that we can understand how Darwin’s meta narrative has met and successfully competed with other narratives despite what we see as its weakness – the lack of human centeredness in it.


We are epistemologically naive to think it is because Darwin was right and the old narratives were wrong. An evolutionary explanation does away with truth. what is true on one side of the Pyrenees is false on the other – cultural relativism – and what is true today will no longer be true tomorrow – space-time relativity – so we have to view the narrative as competing well because it accomplishes something that represents adaptation to the environment.


This is where we have to see Darwin in the context of his time – this is also a requirement in the evolutionary narrative – context is integral to a complex system’s competitive success. To understand the complex systems success means to understand its relationship to the competing complex systems around it. Why did the Eagles beat the Patriots? We can’t explain that by just describing the Eagles, we have to describe them in comparison to the Patriots. Who had gained the most yardage, passing, running and so forth.


Darwin was, as he himself describes in the preface to his Origin of the Species, one person among many who were arguing for this narrative. He points out with obvious pride that his Grandfather Erasmus Darwin was an Evolutionist. There are many others and some Charles mentions with gratitude to others for telling him about them. 1859 was a significant year as Stephen Jay Gould points out in his book “I Have Landed”. Not only do we see the publication of “The Origin of the Species” but John Stewart Mill’s “On Liberty”, Wagner’s production of …….

Hegel – evolution of spirit (culture).

C. S. Peirce – evolving -- truth

Freud - -evolving individual maturity

Einstein – evolving universe --- the expanding universe.

Wittgenstein – evolving meaning, meaning as use

But all of these were abstract and only influenced the educated elite. Hegel was notoriously difficult – a virtual Einstein of culture.

- Professor Eddington, you must be one of three persons in the world who understands general relativity...  Don't be modest.
- On the contrary, I am trying to think who the third person is.

Science and Humor

Only 3 people understand relativity and some are now dead … quote Feynman?

No one understands quantum mechanics.

But Darwin said some things that could easily be translated into idiot speak so everyone could follow the implications of it – “monkey men.”

Does God love monkeys? Would Jesus have sacrificed Himself on the cross to save them?

Buddhism has not really spread to very many people except for the popularity of some of the words among those who like rebelling against the status quo.

Richard Dawkins’ concept of a “meme” blossoming as Susan Blackmore’s “Meme Machine” – “whatever” part of a narrative?

Christianity is still winning. The free market capitalist system works for churches too. Each person can move to their preferred niche in the market that sells narratives. Find the one that is right for you. It seems clear that most people seek out some version of the Christian narrative instead of evolution. We might even map the various sects according to their narratives by proximity to the evolutionary narrative. Those we might call fundamentalists are more strictly one with the meta narrative – at least in the sense of the narrative that evolved in America following William Miller – such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Shakers, 7th Day Adventists and Church of Latter Day Saints, all of whom were convinced those days were the Latter Days.

A possible solution – seems to require reintroducing the importance of man into the narrative. How can we view evolution in terms that mean man is the center of the universe? Specifically, the subject who believes the narrative – how can s/he view themselves as the most central player in the story?

Hegel’s solution was the evolution of spirit (culture).

Plato versus Aristotle is another way of viewing the dichotomy between these two main narratives.

We promote celibacy, traditionally. Think of the Catholic Church where at least in certain orders a person takes vows of poverty and chastity, and all of these are to make more possible our association with knowledge, especially knowledge of God. From Plato we have the view that matter is base while knowledge is virtue, which becomes in the Christian world view the association of sex with matter and so with sin. Even Aristotle considers the age of 50 to be the Golden Mean when you still have your faculties but are no longer distracted by things like sex, so you can concentrate on what is really valuable better – to reach Eudemonia. But in Darwinian Evolution, the person who wins – at least seemingly - -is the person who succeeds in procreating, and the more procreating the better. So we see Lionel Tiger commenting in his book “The Decline of Males” that the so called icon of the Welfare Queen who keeps having children sired by several different males but supported by the bureaucracy – hence he coins the term “Bureauogamy” since she is really married to the welfare bureaucracy – she if viewed as a terrible failure. While actually she is the winner who has adapted to the environment to take best advantage of it in order to procreate as much as is feasible. The young woman who goes on from college to become a PhD and then does Post Doc work and finally thinks about a relationship and having children around her early 40s ends up for various reasons deciding not to have children, or is unable to have children. She is, instead of the apparent success – she might have some wonderful books published and lots of interested students, but she fails to pass on her selfish genes. She has been so socialized that she succeeds in frustrating her genes goal to pass themselves on to a next generation. Our thoughts of her success are Platonic. The view that the welfare queen is really the success – since it will be her children that will enjoy the wisdom taught by the end of the road genes in our PhD, is Darwinian.


Books on the web





(Most authors have multiple works and these are just a sample of titles of interest.)

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
by Daniel C. Dennett (Paperback - June 12, 1996)

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist
by Adrian Desmond, et al

by Stuart A. Kauffman (Paperback - July 1, 2002)
I Have Landed by Stephen Jay Gould
A Devil's Chaplain : Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins


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