Science

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After a brief hiatus dealing with a broken computer just in time for tax season, it’s time to get back to business. So, here is one of those classic Hugh W. Nibley quotes that contains a wonderful statement by Brigham Young.

Brigham Young Academy In the quote below, President Young stated that the “scientific” theories of Darwin, Huxley, and Miall1 were actually being used to promote a political economic theory based on natural selection that thwarted the Saints from living the United Order. That was in 1875.

Last month, a post on Charles Darwin points out that over time the theory of evolution reached far beyond a scientific or biological theory.

In any case, here is the quote as promised:

As if to counteract these growing heresies, the old Darwinian view is being puffed today for all it is worth in a half dozen prestigious TV documentaries in which we are treated to endless footage of creatures ranging from amoebas to giant carnivores stalking, seizing, and with concentrated deliberation soberly crunching, munching, swallowing, and ingesting other insects, fishes, birds, and mammals. This, we are told again and again, is the real process by which all things were created. Everything is lunching on everything else, all the time, and that, children, is what makes us what we are; that is the key to progress. And note it well, all these creatures when they are not lunching are hunting for lunch–they all have to work for it: There is no free lunch in the world of nature, the real world. Lunch is the meaning of life, and everything lunches on something else–”Nature red in tooth and claw.” Tennyson’s happy phrase suited the Victorian mind to perfection. He got the idea from Darwin, as Spencer did his even happier phrase, “Survival of the fittest.” Darwin gave the blessing of science to men who had been hoping and praying for holy sanction to an otherwise immoral way of life. Malthus had shown that there will never be enough lunch for everybody, and therefore people would have to fight for it; and Ricardo had shown by his Iron Law of Wages that those left behind and gobbled up in the struggle for lunch had no just cause for complaint. Darwin showed that this was an inexorable law of nature by which the race was actually improved; Miall and Spencer made it the cornerstone of the gospel of Free Enterprise–the weaker must fall by the way if the stock is to be improved. This was movingly expressed in J. D. Rockefeller’s discourse on the American Beauty Rose, which, he said, “can be produced . . . only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. . . . This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

In this divinely appointed game of grabs, to share the lunch-prize would be futile, counter-productive, nay immoral. Since there is not enough to go around, whoever gets his fill must be taking it from others–that is the way the game is played. “In Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, or anywhere else in England,” as Brigham Young reported the scene in 1856, workers knew that “their employers would make them do their work for nothing, and then compel them to live on roots and grass if their physical organization could endure it, therefore, says the mechanic, `If I can get anything out of you I will call it a godsend,’ ” and does what he can to rip off the boss. If he gets caught, he is punished, yet he is only playing the same game as his employer.

Three years after Brigham made his observation, the Origin of Species appeared, putting the unimpeachable seal of science on the lunch-grab as the Supreme Law of Life and Progress. And it was expressly to refute that philosophy on which Brigham Young founded Brigham Young University in 1875: “We have enough and to spare, at present in these mountains, of schools where . . . the teachers . . . dare not mention the principles of the gospel to their pupils, but have no hesitancy in introducing into the classroom the theories of Huxley, or Darwin, or of Miall and the false political economy which contends against co-operation and the United Order. This course I am resolutely and uncompromisingly opposed to. . . . As a beginning in this direction I have endowed the Brigham Young Academy at Provo and [am] now seeking to do the same thing in this city [Salt Lake City].” With his usual unfailing insight, President Young saw it was the economic and political rather than the scientific and biological implications of natural selection that were the real danger and most counter to the gospel.2

Sources:

  1. Thomas H. Huxley was an English biologist and is best remembered as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. Louis Compton Miall was a Professor of Biology at Yorkshire College and in 1883 delivered a lecture on The Life and Work of Charles Darwin to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.
  2. Nibley, Hugh W. “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free”. Approaching Zion. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1989. 205-207.

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Charles Darwin

Last month marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Some have suggested that “Darwin has contributed more to our understanding of the world around us than any other person in the last 2,000 years of Human History.”1 And the Darwin Day Celebration web site notes that “there [were] 730 events scheduled in 45 countries” for last month’s Darwin Day. It would be hard to understate the impact Darwin’s theory of evolution has had upon modern society.

Charles Darwin seated As I reflected upon some people’s enthusiasm for Darwin’s theories, I couldn’t help but think “what of the prophets”? Robert S. Wood recently wrote:

For instance, if we begin with the premise that life arose by chance and that its development is largely random, we will interpret physical, biological, and social information in a certain way – a way that will distort our understanding. Such thoughts will have consequences for how our society operates and how we act individually. If, on the other hand, we begin with the premise that mortal life arose according to a plan and will develop according to eternal law, we will understand the bits and pieces of information in a different way. We will see the interconnectedness and wholeness of life. We will see patterns and purpose where others see disorder and chance.2

Without revelation, evolution’s “gradualism” is an attractive substitute. In this context, I quote Giorgio de Santillana who has been cited frequently on this blog:

Our period may some day be called the Darwinian period, just as, we talk of the Newtonian period of two centuries ago. The simple idea of evolution, which it is no longer thought necessary to examine, spreads like a tent over all those ages that lead from primitiv­ism into civilization. Gradually, we are told, step by step, men produced the arts and crafts, this and that, until they emerged into the light of history.3

Those soporific words “gradually” and “step by step,” repeated incessantly, are aimed at covering an ignorance which is both vast and surprising. One should like to inquire: which steps. But then one is lulled, overwhelmed and stupefied by the gradualness of it all, which is at best a platitude, only good for pacifying the mind, since no one is willing to imagine that civilization appeared in a thunderclap.

One could find a key in a brilliant TV production on the Stonehenge problem given a few years ago. With the resources of the puissant techniques of ubiquity, various authorities were called to the screen to discuss the possible meaning of the astronomical align­ments and polygons discovered in the ancient Megalith since 1906, when Sir Norman Lockyer, the famous astronomer, published the results of his first investigation. Specialists, from prehistorians to astronomers, expressed their doubts and wonderments down to the last one, a distinguished archaeologist who had been working on the monument itself for many years. He had more fundamental doubts. How could one not realize, he said, that the builders of Stonehenge were barbarians, “howling barbarians’ who were, to say the least, utterly incapable of working out complex astronomi­cal cycles and over many years at that? The uncertain coincidences must be due to chance. And then, with perverse irony, the mid­winter sun of the solstice appeared on the screen rising exactly be­hind the Heel Stone, as predicted. The “mere” coincidences had been in fact ruled out, since Gerald Hawkins, a young astronomer unconcerned with historical problems, had run the positions through a computer and discovered more alignments than had been dreamed of. Here was the whole paradox. Howling barbarians who painted their faces blue must have known more astronomy than their customs and table manners could have warranted. The lazy word “evolution” had blinded us to the real complexities of the past.

That key term “gradualness” should be understood to apply to a vastly different time scale than that considered by the history of mankind. Human history taken as a whole in that frame, even raciation itself, is only an evolutionary episode. In that whole, CroMagnon man is the last link. All of protohistory is a last-minute flickering.

But while the biologists were wondering, something great had come upon the scene, arriving from unexpected quarters. Sir James George Frazer was a highly respected classical scholar who, while editing the Description of Greece by Pausanias, was impressed with the number of beliefs, practices, cults and superstitions spread over the classical landscape of Greece in classical times. This led him to search deeper into the half-forgotten strata of history, and out of it came his Golden Bough. The historian had turned ethnologist, and extended his investigations to the whole glob. Suddenly, an immense amount of material became available about fertility cults as the universal form of earliest religion, and about primitive magic connected with it. This appeared to be the humus from which civilization had grown—simple deities of the seasons, a dim multi­tude of peasants copulating in the furrows and building up rituals of fertility with human sacrifice. Added to this, in political circles, there came the vision of war as both inherent in human nature and ennobling-the law of natural selection applied to nations and races. Thus, many materials and much history went to build the temple of evolutionism. But as the theory moved on its high-minded aspects began to wane; psychoanalysis moved in as a tidal wave. For if the struggle for life (and the religions of the life force) can explain so much, the unconscious can explain anything. As we know today only too well.

The universal and uniform concept of gradualness thus defeated itself. Those key words (gradualness and evolution) come from the earth sciences in the first place, where they had a precise meaning. Crystallization and upthrust, erosion and geosynclinals are the result of forces acting constantly in accordance with physical laws.

They provided the backdrop for Darwin’s great scenario. When it comes to the evolution of life, the terms become less precise in meaning, though still acceptable. Genetics and natural selection stand for natural law, and events are determined by the rolling of the dice over long ages. But we cannot say much about the why and the how of this instead of that specific form, about where species, types, cultures branched off. Animal evolution remains an overall historical hypothesis supported by sufficient data—and by the lack of any alternative. In detail, it raises an appalling number of questions to which we have no answer. Our ignorance remains vast, but it is not surprising.

And then we come to history, and the evolutionary idea reap­pears, coming in as something natural, with all scale lost. The accretion of plausible ideas goes on, its flow invisibly carried by “natural law” since the time of Spencer. It all remains within an unexamined kind of Naturphilosophie. For if we stopped to think, we would agree that as far as human “fate” is concerned organic evolution ceased before the time when history, or even prehistory, began. We are on another time scale. This is no longer, nature act­ing on man, but man on nature. People like to think of all constancy of laws which apply to us. But man is a law unto himself.

When, riding on the surf of the general “evolutionism,” Ernst Haeckel and his faithful followers proposed to solve the “world riddles” once and for all, Rudolf Virchow warned time and again of an evil “monkey wind” blowing round; he reminded his colleagues of the index of excavated “prehistoric” skulls and pointed to the unchanged quantity of brain owned by the species Homo sapiens, but his contemporaries paid no heed to his admonitions; least of all the humanists who applied, without blinking, the strictly biological scheme of the evolution of organisms to the cultural history of the single species Homo sapiens.

In later centuries historians may declare all of us insane, because this incredible blunder was not detected at once and was not re­futed with adequate determination. Mistaking cultural history for a process of gradual evolution, we have deprived ourselves of every reasonable insight into the nature of culture. It goes without saying that the still more modern habit of replacing “culture” by “society” has blocked the last narrow path to understanding history. Our ignorance not only remained vast, but became pretentious as well.

A glimpse at some Pensées might show the abyss that yawns between us and a serious thinker of those golden days before the outbreak of “evolution.” This is what Pascal asked: “what are our natural principles but principles of custom? In children they are those which they have received from the habits of their fathers, as hunting in animals. A different custom will cause different natural principles.” And: “Custom is a second nature which destroys the former. But what is nature? For is custom not natural? I am much afraid that nature is itself only a first custom, as custom is a second nature.”

This kind of question, aimed with precision at the true problematical spots, would have been enough to make hash of social an­thropology two centuries ago, and also of anthropological sociology.

As I reread de Santillana’s commentary about Darwin’s theories, it seems noteworthy that what was once a biological theory now seems to have gone far beyond even the “cultural history of the single species Homo sapiens.”

Sources:

  1. Happy Birthday to a Great Man”. 14 March 2009. About Darwin. 14 March 2009.
  2. Wood, Robert. “The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge”. June 2007. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 15 March 2009.
  3. The entire quote is from de Santillana, Giorgio and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission Through Myth. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: Godine, 1977. 68-71.

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