Notational, No. 13

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.

Direct Modification

The burdens of this season are not melting yet. In fact, they’re settling in strata. There is a transient geology to be studied in the sediments (and sentiments) that layer and compound, as winter weighs this chapter of the almanac down. We’re compressed. We ossify a little between frozen ground and snow, but also between the sub-freezing temperatures and the cost of keeping warm. Each stratum that complicates movement or rest contributes to our fixity and our preservation. We need to last ’till spring.

This season is uncommonly heavy with anticipation. This time around I am particularly aware of the burden, waiting out the winter of 2014; it is the year that the conditions that define my environment will change. We just do not know what precisely they are changing to.

This afternoon I wrote a technical summary of Lamarck’s theory of adaptation, the ideological precursor to Darwin’s version of descent with modification. In the early 1800s Lamarck proposed an intimate relationship between any given organism and its environment. He was one of the first to suggest that it is what surrounds life, what composes its boundaries and limits, that determines the expression of that life, not just behaviourally but physically. Accordingly, we are not born with a purpose or function that is our own: we inherit these things from those ancestors that developed them, an intergenerational transaction that tracks so far back that the concept of origins dissolve in a nebulous region of pre-identity, of deep time. We are all tracing the intricacies of a continuum that begins simply, but complicate as creation marches forward.

The premise states that the structure of our life, as it functions in the present, is more complex than the life that prefigured it. By exercising what we need to exercise, by flexing those faculties available to us—to cope with the acute demands of our environment—we are strengthening not just ourselves, but our descendants. There is agency in our inheritance and in our evolution; although Lamarck never used the word “evolution.”

It is an appealing theory in the way that it mobilizes the feel of history. The components of a use/disuse effect upon our very nature rewards the effort we put into our dedications, and seems to suggest that we can imprint our accomplishments onto a nascent future. It is not quite like Darwin’s lottery, where dice composed of cosmic rays determine the pace of change; even if, in the case of this example, the dice are anachronistic.

I like to think of my own development as Lamarckian, within the boundaries of my own existence. I prefer to consider my intellectual life in terms of successive generations, less complex manifestations self-generating my next iteration in response to an environment that has bounded me, and creating better adapted individual to live in the next era, just a little more complicated and assured. (The complication is an unavoidable consequence: I don’t know if I work more efficiently, but I do know I work more.)

You can see how compelling it is to think in these terms. You might understand how the modern theory of evolution still becomes easily conflated with more antiquated designs of thought. I hope the pressures of these layers upon me right now preserve some of what I have been during this last period. It may not be an accurate way to describe what is going on within the ecosystem of my own boundaries, but I feel the beginnings of another self more complex and purposeful.