Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Saturday, December 31, 2005


Four years from now, we'll celebrate the 150th anniversary of the original publication of The Origin of Species. That century and a half has wrought huge change in the world, but it's done little to quell the evolution controversy; the current shouting match all but drowns out the sounds of old Chuck Darwin popping wheelies in his grave. It's hard to believe that as a culture we've come no closer to coming to terms with our phylogeny than the Victorian ninnies who roared against him in Dickens' day.

As the new torchbearers of Medieval thought push their Trojan horse of Intelligent Design up the schoolhouse steps, I find myself dizzied by the hysteria. To me, Darwin's logic always seemed pretty hard to knock, something I've never been able to say for the arguments of most of his detractors.

When he published TOOS in 1859, though, Darwin did so with great apprehension. He knew he was up against a cherished icon--the same icon that Douglas Adams brilliantly lampooned with his “Total Perspective Vortex.” In Adams' 1978 BBC radio play, A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the most effective and horrific torture device ever created was situated on the the Frog Star. Once placed into the Total Perspective Vortex, a victim could actually see and appreciate the true vastness of the universe, and himself in relation to it. The shock would destroy his brain. As the narrator tells us, “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of perspective.”

Darwin's TOOS provided an unwelcome perspective—and, while it never totally annihilated any brains, it did induce fever in many, being probably the most forceful Perspective Vortex unleashed on this planet since Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), first printed in 1543, as the author lay dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. DROC was the great Polish astronomer's Magnum Opus, outlaying his radical (and mostly correct) view of the universe. In the Copernican model, of course, our Earth is not the center of the Universe, but a minor body revolving around the sun. While Copernicus' timely death saved him from a public/church backlash,* his ideas were picked up by others in following years, most notoriously by the Italian astronomers Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei. Bruno was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. His specific crime was actually claiming that Jesus had no physical body, but his heliocentric views didn't help his case. In 1633 Galileo's published work on a heliocentric system inspired Pope Urban VIII (a personal friend) to try him for heresy. Galileo lived his final nine years under house arrest.
With that little bit of perspective, today's Creationists look like cute and harmless little Cocker Spaniel pups, but our old friend Mr. Darwin still needs defenders. The neonatal movement of Intelligent Design is no argument against Natural Selection, and needs to be called on that charge. It is a philosophy born out of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank devoted to several conservative causes, chiefly the advancement of a Creationist world view. At its heart, ID is a lot like Sir James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. Neither of these ideas should be called hypotheses—they're nice philosophical models that can be helpful in looking at the universe, but they shouldn't be taken too seriously. The Earth behaves like a big organism in many ways, but it certainly is not an organism. At the same time, the universe exhibits many characteristics like intelligence, but drawing too many parallels between human brains and cosmic ones is a dodgy business, not likely to bring us closer to an honest understanding. These ideas are worth sipping from, but only when chased with a heavy shot of Spinoza (whose own little Perspective Vortex got him excommunicated from the Dutch Sephardic Synagogue in 1656).

Most of us have a view of Darwinian evolution muddied with misconceptions—some of which I intend to address soon, in an upcoming post. To really appreciate evolutionary biology, the best place to look is to the science of biogeography. The concept of Natural Selection occurred to Darwin while studying the biogeography of the Galápagos, among other places. Meanwhile, Alfred Russell Wallace came to the same conclusions while collecting specimens across the Indo-Pacific region. Island ecology is much simpler than that of large land masses, and the varying ecosystems within an archipelago portray evolution in its most elegant form. A close look at some of the myriad little island taxa, like the paradise kingfishers (Tanysiptera spp.) that illustrate this post, six species of which occur in the New Guinea region, from the western Moluccas to the Bismarck Archipelago, says more about evolution than the shouting dogmatists of both sides combined.
*Copernicus enlisted the theologian Andreas Osiander to oversee the printing of DROC. Osiander surreptitiously replaced the original preface with a more apologetic one, claiming that the book was not to be taken as the truth. Without the changes, Copernicus' book would have surely met greater fury in its day.
upper: NUMFOR PARADISE KINGFISHER (1999) Acrylic 10" x 8"
lower: BUFF-BREASTED PARADISE KINGFISHER (2005) Acrylic 10" x 8"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't get it.

8:12 PM  

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