Thursday, September 13, 2018

From Darwin's own thoughts. Part IV.

Here is the fourth, and final installment of annotated quotes from Charles Darwin's autobiography (my comments in blue):

"As soon as I had become, in the year 1837 or 1838, convinced that species were mutable productions, I could not avoid the belief that man must come under the same law. Accordingly I collected notes on the subject for my own satisfaction, and not for a long time with any intention of publishing."

Darwin realizes that humans must have evolved, too.  There was no reason, from what he could observe, to except us.  But he knew the dangers of saying so!  We are still under some societal pressure to disavow evolutionary theory, not unlike his days.  Denial is all around us....

"My strength will then probably be exhausted, and I shall be ready to exclaim "Nunc dimittis.""

That means something like 'Enough--time to go!'

"My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use.  The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

Darwin bemoans his intellectual narrowness.  He elsewhere (as we've seen) refers to books or poetry he no longer reads or once liked.  How many of us are pressured to be technophilic workaholics, letting some of the deepest pleasures of life pass us by?  Take heed!

"....the 'Origin of Species  is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men."

"On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully."

A lesson might be not to fall into just accepting fads or what is selling these days, but to pay attention, for yourself, to the nature of what you are studying.

"This has naturally led me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences. On the other hand, I am not very sceptical,— a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science."

He means observe the world as it is, don't just accept theory or speculative ideas uncritically.  In not being skeptical he may mean that he believes there are truths out there, generalities or theories, that can be accepted if there is supporting evidence.

"So that here a belief— if indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be called a belief— had spread over almost the whole of England without any vestige of evidence."

One can identify fads (like 'Big Data' or 'precision genomic medicine' or other 'omics?) that feed the System.  But maybe closer, clearer, more patient thinking and observing could serve our impatient results-counting generation well instead.

"Lastly, I have had ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread."

Ah, to be wealthy!

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

My afterthoughts:
So, why did I extract and post these bits by Darwin?  I think he gives us a lot to think about.  This is not just about particular facts, or even the idea of evolution which was, in fact, 'in the air' despite Darwin's denial.

We might not have had the same exact theory today, as Darwin proposed it.  We have vastly more data, an understanding of inheritance, and even much better ideas about species distributions (for example, we know about continental drift).  We have more subtle understanding of the roles of natural selection and chance (genetic drift).  We have much more information on the complex nature of genetic control on our traits.  A century and a half of research, framed by the notion of evolution has framed our investigations themselves.  But the central idea of evolution stands without doubt among scientists.  Nothing diminishes Darwin's patience, observations, experiments, persistence, dedication to using detail to build a general picture, and, by no means least of all, his honor.

Careerist pressures are today often, if not largely, antithetical to the personal traits that worked so well for Darwin.  So, aside from seeing the thoughts of one of the most insightful of all scientists, there are lessons for our own time in Darwin's reprise of his life.

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