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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Two Recurring and Interwoven Strains

The first link for me in a recent chain of reading coincidence was David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, a fascinating look at American visitors to Paris in the nineteenth century, but it required a second book for a chain to begin to be forged, and that second book was Jacques Barzun’s Darwin Marx Wagner, presenting the same century in very different perspective, European rather than American and critical rather than reportorial. Then Steve asked his question: Is nature evolving intentionally, with some purpose? Put another way, is evolution making progress to a goal? I recommended the Barzun to him and went on my merry way, but, as it happened (a happy coincidence), I had in my bookshop a book giving all possible permutations of the answer to Steve’s question, as formulated by all the big names in science. That book is Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life, edited by Connie Barlow.

Of the arguments presented in favor of progress, I could not help favoring those of Julian Huxley, who made a strong case for his side, in my opinion (and, in my opinion, a more complex and persuasive argument than E. O. Wilson’s case for progress based solely on biological diversity). But was I persuaded, in the end?  Stephen Jay Gould’s nay-saying argument is not given at length, but even so his statement that “luck” rather than intention accounts for the appearance and present dominance of our species is hard to refute. Maybe Steve needs to read this whole book! All the big-name scientists are included.

(What it comes down to for me is not an ax to grind either way, for or against progress, but I do want to point out that an ax has two sides—relevant to me because it brings us back to my personal philosophy of life, Everything is a double-edged sword. You win some, you lose some. Or, as Joanie Mitchell so memorably put it, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now/from win and lose, and still somehow/it’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all.” Know it, as in understand its secrets? Hardly. But I am deeply grateful for all its wonders, large and small, and my “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” prayer still bursts out spontaneously on many lovely days.)

But well, so now I find myself thoroughly absorbed in a book that could win the prize for “Most Boring Title” and one whose delights I’m afraid many people miss (as I did until recently) on that account, The Education of Henry Adams. Adams writes of his life in the third person, telling the story of Henry’s education broadly understood, beginning with school but including parents and their friends and his own boyhood friends, going on to Harvard (which gave him no real lessons at all), then to Washington, DC, to Germany, Italy, and England, where life educated him pitilessly. As if he is examining a tiny insect under a microscope at different stages of its life, Adams looks back and reveals his own follies and shortcomings in bemusement from as objective a point of view as possible. And the language! The charm, quiet humor, and grace of his sentences!
The bearing of the two seasons on the education of Henry Adams was no fancy; it was the most decisive force he ever knew; it ran through life, and made the division between its perplexing, warring, irreconcilable problems, irreducible opposites, with growing emphasis to the last year of study. From earliest childhood the boy was accustomed to feel that, for him, life was double. Winter and summer, town and country, law and liberty, were hostile, and the man who pretended they were not, was in his eyes a schoolmaster—that is, a man employed to tell lies to little boys. – “Quincy (1838-1848)”  
Sometimes in after life, Adams debated whether in fact [education] had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart, Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other university then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple, ready to receive knowledge. – “Harvard College (1852-1858)"
Here I was in the nineteenth century again, with names familiar from the McCullough book popping up one after another—and then, suddenly, in Rome, where Henry Adams came face to face with the century’s big question, that of evolution! Rome, much as he loved it—overwhelming, sensual, drenched in history and saturated with sin—was to the eyes of young Adams the living refutation of the nineteenth century’s beloved theory of progress. 
...The month of May, 1860, was divine. No doubt other young men, and occasionally young women, have passed the month of May in Rome since then, and conceive that the charm continues to exist. Possibly it does—in them—but in 1860 the lights and shadows were still mediaeval, and mediaeval Rome was alive; the shadows breathed and glowed, full of soft forms felt by lost senses. No sand-blast of science had yet skinned off the epidermis of history, thought, and feeling. The pictures were uncleaned, the churches unrestored, the ruins unexcavated. Mediaeval Rome was sorcery. Rome was the worst spot on earth to teach nineteenth-century youth what to do with a twentieth-century world. One’s emotions in Rome were one’s private affair, like one’s glass of absinthe before dinner in the Palais-Royal; they must be hurtful, else they could not be so intense; and they were surely immoral, for no one, priest or politician, could honestly read in the ruins of Rome any other certain lesson than that they were evidence of the just judgments of an outraged God against all the doings of man. This moral unfitted young men for every sort of useful activity; it made Rome a gospel of anarchy and vice.... – “Rome (1858-1860)“
Succession no more equals progress than correlation equals cause and effect, and the lesson Adams draws from the vision of Rome with its layers of bloody past and present is this: “No law of progress applies to it.” He goes on to say that “not even time-sequences” apply! Moreover, the immorality of Roman history “was going to be America.” This is a strong statement!

Before his two years of desultory study in Germany and his time as a tourist in Italy, Adams had seen enough ot his own nation’s capital to have any illusions of grandeur shattered. Friendship, he had learned there, went under the threshing bar when a political was at stake. Taking this lesson to Europe with him, it is no wonder he reads into the American future the downfall of the glory that was Rome, and that interpretation of the march of history clearly refuted any idea of moral progress.
The great word Evolution had not yet, in 1860, made a new religion of history, but the old religion had preached the same doctrine for a thousand years without finding in the entire history of Rome anything but flat contradiction.
Somewhere Adams reflects that in the nineteenth century every civilized person was either a banker or an anarchist. (I can’t find the page for this citation.) Presumably he was thinking that “bankers” were prepared to take advantage of the great disorders of society, while “anarchists” wanted to do away with corruption and start all over again.

If Evolution was the “great word” of the nineteenth century, it is hardly surprising that someone writing of that period would dwell on the idea. The coincidence is only that I picked up McCullough, Barzun, and Adams in such rapid succession, with no historical reading plan in mind, as somehow the 1800s and their burning scientific and social question would not leave me alone. I cannot say the same of the Barlow anthology. No, that book I opened deliberately, intentionally pursuing Steve’s question. 

But now, could evolution be a similar mix of chance (75%) and intention (25%)? Could the course of my reading (I won’t call it progress) be an example of microevolution, mirroring the Big Picture? Who is ready to see more than coincidence in the recurring and interwoven strains of my unplanned reading?

1 comment:

Gerry said...

The 19th century has grabbed you and won't let go, eh? Imagine such a thing.

Now I'm going to go dig out my copy of Henry Adams and read it. I think the first time I tried I did not bring enough life experience to the enterprise.