How Darwin Lives Again: and would have

This past weekend, Julie and I watched together the film, Creation: How Darwin Saw the World and Changed it Forever. We liked it very much. I just wonder how much Charles Darwin himself would have liked it, at which points in his life he could have enjoyed it.

The movie is based on a biography of Darwin, written by Randal Keynes, a great-great-grandson of Darwin. Keynes’s book (variously titled
Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution; then Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution; and now Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin) has its genesis in the box of mementos that Annie Darwin kept, which Keynes had found. Annie was the secondborn child of Emma and Charles, the person who figures large in the book and in the film, as her death creates much of the crisis around which the plot is formed. The screenplay is brilliant, and so is the acting. My favorite scene comes at the end, when Emma and Charles come to grips with how they’ve respectively grieved, when they talk finally, just how they talk together. It’s really very good. I must confess, I haven’t read Keynes’s book all the way through yet, but I did quickly find interviews in which he discusses the film. And below, I want to include some of that, and some quotations from Darwin’s own biography.

At the end of one interview, Keynes discusses “acting” and film acting as perhaps an advanced stage of evolution. That’s quite amusing. You can watch that here: In another interview, Keynes acknowledges how Darwin himself evolved with respect to the arts, with respect to poetry and plays and music. You can listen and view that here: Do pay attention to these bits transcripted:

Dr White [the interviewer]: The period in which Darwin worked is often viewed as the age of professionalisation in science and a period in which the early modern and romantic sentiment of wonder is banished from nature. But you emphasise the importance of wonder for many of Darwin’s mentors and leading influences, from Herschel and Sedgwick to Wordsworth, and you suggest, I think, that – contrary to much of the literature on Darwin – that this is something that he retains to the end of his life.

Randal Keynes: Yes. I am certain it remained important for him. I think to explain it, I’d couple it with imagination and what he says about imagination, and if you focus on the word ‘imagination’ through his writings, you find, very often, that it’s an important element in his view of how a scientist should approach any problem. I think it comes clearest in almost the last thing he wrote for publication, which was his preface to Hermann Müller’s book on the fertilisation of flowers. Hermann Müller was a brilliant young German scientist who was one of his best disciples, in the sense of taking his message and taking it on, and moving into new areas and developing new insights with it, and I’m sure that Darwin was particularly grateful to him – because he was doing that, not just following him as a disciple.

In this preface, Darwin writes how… Well, he mentions all of the ideas that he would love to take from this book and carry on researching, then says, that’s enough of my ideas, any young scientist with determination and imagination will be able to find so much in this book and just take it away… I’m sure he’s included ‘imagination’ there because he feels that you need imagination to be able to see beyond what everyone understands and gain a sense of purpose and interest about what lies beyond.

Dr White: There seems to be an emotional component of that. I’m always struck by Darwin’s remark in the Autobiography that his poetic sensibility dries up through a lifetime of work in science, that he’s unable to enjoy poetry and music; and this juxtaposition that he makes between science on the one hand and literature and the arts on the other seems too hard and fast…

Randal Keynes: Yes.

Dr White: … and doesn’t really capture the poetry that’s in his own writing and his scientific sensibility.

Randal Keynes: Yes, I think that’s right, and most interestingly, I think after writing how his ability to appreciate poetry had declined through the years, he was persuaded by his wife and daughter to take a holiday in the Lake District, and in 1879 he went to the Lake District, and it’s recorded that he re-read his Wordsworth and he clearly found a pleasure in the landscape and some of the poetry that revived the great pleasure that he had had when he was much younger, when Wordsworth was one of his favourite poets.

Dr White: Yes, you mention that he takes this copy of Wordsworth in which he had marked sections of this very long poem according to whether or not they were useful – and, presumably, the parts that he didn’t want to have to read again – very much as he annotated his own scientific library: very systematic and economical.

Randal Keynes: Yes.

I don’t have a lot of time to make a big deal out of how Keynes uses language, how he reads Darwin’s language, and how Darwin might have read all of that. But I do want to read again with you what Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

I have now mentioned all the books which I have published, and these have been the milestones in my life, so that little remains to be said. I am not conscious of any change in my mind during the last thirty years, excepting in one point presently to be mentioned; nor, indeed, could any change have been expected unless one of general deterioration. But my father lived to his eighty-third year with his mind as lively as ever it was, and all his faculties undimmed; and I hope that I may die before my mind fails to a sensible extent. I think that I have become a little more skilful in guessing right explanations and in devising experimental tests; but this may probably be the result of mere practice, and of a larger store of knowledge. I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

Having said thus much about my manner of writing, I will add that with my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso. As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher æsthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. 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.

My books have sold largely in England, have been translated into many languages, and passed through several editions in foreign countries. I have heard it said that the success of a work abroad is the best test of its enduring value. I doubt whether this is at all trustworthy; but judged by this standard my name ought to last for a few years. Therefore it may be worth while to try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can do this correctly.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.

Some of my critics have said, “Oh, he is a good observer, but he has no power of reasoning!” I do not think that this can be true, for the ‘Origin of Species’ is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men. No one could have written it without having some power of reasoning. I have a fair share of invention, and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe, in any higher degree.

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. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

What fascinates me most is Charles’s memory of his dad, his desire for novels to have persons who are lovable especially a pretty woman, and how his tastes for the arts have evolved so that Shakespeare whom he once loved later makes him sick. I find his writing on his own writing very interesting indeed. Doesn’t it make you wonder how he’d have liked his great great grandson’s writing about Darwin? And how Darwin would have liked John Collee’s screenplay, whether and at what points in it and in his evolution of thinking and writing it might have wanted to live and to live again. He wrote, “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.”


6 responses to “How Darwin Lives Again: and would have

  1. I’ve often wondered what Darwin would think of the common scientific views today.

    • What do you think, Nathan? Most Darwinists today rather naturally select just some of what he wrote, and there are a couple of his ideas that everyone today for the most part rejects.

      • Nathan Stitt

        I’ve never read Darwin. It’s on my to-do list. Hmm, maybe I will check at the library later this afternoon when I return all of the photography books I just finished…

        Just looked up the Dewey number, 576.8

        On a personal level, I believe that microevolution is possible, but reject macroevolution of species. I don’t totally rule out that God could have used evolutionary processes during creation, but I find it unlikely.

  2. Poor Darwin! He would not have enjoyed the marvelous Bach and Mendelssohn we just heard played by Paul Jacobs from Julliard – lovely. My (unreasonable) gut reaction to the personal section is that people probably shouldn’t write about themselves. I feel very sorry for him. No Barenblatt, no Shakespeare, no Bach.

    His arguments on evolution are quite thoroughly based on mutation over time. Too bad we don’t understand time very well or even the idea of randomness. Dice playing God.

    And as for his use of abstraction – he drew out of much discipline and detail some great things and a great story. Abs-trahare – that’s what abstraction is. Very concrete stuff. The proof of its concreteness is that we all fight about it. Spirit makes matter.

    • Bob,
      Your insights here are inspired and inspiring. As Aristotle’s logic led him to sexism it seems that Darwin’s Baconian principles bring the Adolf Hitlers of our planet to justify their draconian racism.

      Thanks for blogging and for being a reader. On photography, there’s a scene in the film where Charles Darwin is distracting his daughter Annie as she’s posing for her portrait. The same actual photo is in Keynes’s biography, the actual portrait that inspired the screenwriter to include the scene. It might be one of the most honest points in the movie, if the assumption is that Darwin has a growing disinterest in things like photography. The movie portrays him as quite sensitive to Emma’s piano playing, but he written words make you wonder. (Sorry about the edited, updated comments here. I’ve been trying to blog very quickly these day, some by phone, and this gets rather sloppy, I’m afraid). I’m interested in your thoughts in evolution with creation.

      • Nathan Stitt

        On photography, there’s… ?

        I picked up Origin of Species an hour ago, and couldn’t resist a book on Speciation either. I will likely read Darwin in full, the other book I will just skim. More later!

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