It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
♦ Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
I do not study biology; but I do study the modern world, and Darwin’s frequently eloquent treatise has remained, arguably, the second great punctuation mark of modernity. The first, of course, was Copernicus’ solar system; but this second blow to our anthropocentric reality came at a time when change must have felt almost inevitable. Something, or someone, had to liberate a new paradigm for the human race to inhabit. We had to be integrated with the world that we had come to feel so apart from. To be re-encircled by the forces that move and shape all life must have seemed a momentous thing. I suppose it still does.
The awe and respect that Darwin articulated so clearly in his conclusion of his most famous project did little to mitigate the wild resentment of the contemporary conservative. Still, now, contemporary conservatives manage to unselfconsciously refute an elegant system that, though refined over the past 155 years or so, still remains predominantly intact as the most plausible mechanism to account for the development of life on earth. It seems some of us are still growing into the concept.
Or flat out denying it. Such avowals of theistic reasoning are atavistic. I know that we try and play nice, show each other a good time, and do our best to avoid making anyone feel stupid or maligned, but there’s a sequence to this. Auguste Comte wrote it down: theology gives way to metaphysics, which is in turn supplanted by positivism. Not to subscribe to a specific, preordained teleology, but this is a process of enlightenment. The move to reject the positivist becomes progressively more absurd the further we get from the epiphany that it really isn’t all about us; any one of us, or even as a group; but there is all the room in the universe to make something valuable out of what it is that we’ve got.
Darwin in this age should be read like a celebration.