Friday, June 15, 2012

An overwhelming sanity

In the preface to his book of poems Darwin's Ark, Philip Appleman, who grew up in Indiana in the 1930s-40s, wrote:
I am sure it is difficult for anyone reared in a more enlightened time and place to imagine the sense of exhilaration in a young person schooled in Midwestern fundamentalism, reading Darwin and understanding evolution for the very first time. But I recall that experience vividly: the overwhelming sanity that emerged from Darwin's clearly thought out and clearly written propositions; the relief at being finally released from a constrained allegiance to the incredible creation myths of Genesis; the profound satisfaction in knowing that one is truly and altogether a part of nature.
Appleman, who is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, went off to the Merchant Marine in 1948, at age 22, with a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species -- the same age as Darwin was when he boarded the Beagle. He read the book with ever-growing wonder and appreciation. It was a life changing experience.

I also grew up without hearing much about Darwin or evolution, this in spite of the fact that my childhood home was only 40 miles from Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous Scope's "monkey trial." I certainly didn't grow up in a fundamentalist family, but evolution was an iffy subject in Catholic schools and biology instruction was not a strong suit. I was well into my twenties when I read Voyage of the Beagle, a thrilling eye-opener that led me straight-away to Origin.

The book, of course, is a founding document of modern biology, and arguably the most important book ever published for its effect on how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It is also a model of scientific thinking and exposition.

Darwin begins by laying out his assumptions: heredity, variation, competition, selection. Each step is closely argued and vigorously illustrated. Then Darwin addresses the "most apparent and gravest difficulties" of his hypotheses. The final chapters apply his ideas to the real world in space and time. He ends with a succinct recapitulation.

It is, as he says, "one long argument," stunning in its cohesiveness. Darwin is never reluctant to recognize difficulties. He does not, as do his present day religious critics, cherry pick his facts. In successive editions of the Origin, he shows himself willing to retreat from earlier opinions when faced with reasonable objections, as in the case of hybrid sterility arising from natural selection.

There is a grandeur in this view of life, Darwin famously says in his concluding passage. He is referring, of course, to evolution by natural selection. There is also a grandeur in the man himself, in the amazing scope and depth of his researches. Most of all, there is a grandeur in his way of thinking, willing at every juncture to let dispassionate observation be his guide.

For me, like for Philip Appleman, reading Darwin opened windows of the soul.