Sunday, January 24, 2010

Evolution 2.0

Prior to Darwin, there was a kind of Nature mysticism abroad in the world of ideas. Dylan Thomas expressed it clearly as "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower;" at Iowa State University, that powerhouse of Midwestern belles lettres, one of my English professors scoffed at the notion of a "fuse" pushing a bud upward through a flowerstalk, thereby rather missing the point.

George Bernard Shaw nailed the idea to the wall in Pygmalion when he gave the final game, set and match to Eliza, whose inner "life force" overwhelmed and domesticated even the supercharged Professor Higgins. In those days, Germans were not the caricatures of villainy they are today; on the contrary, German culture, and in particular Johann von Goethe were ideal expressions of a Weltanschauung many would emulate. The viewpoint had consequences, not least of which was the angst, turmoil, storm and stress in the life of a pretentious idiot who had not yet figured out that almost everything electric in the popular realm of opinion is, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, utterly imbecilic.

Karl Marx's intellectual roots lay searchingly deep in the gray crags of German Romanticism. Charles Darwin's did not. Both have been called materialists, but Marx was a magician who sought in Hegel's philophy some sort of actual motive force that drives the history of mankind toward a conclusion foregone, a brilliant final utopia, while Darwin was an enthusiastic but intellectually honest naif who was himself driven slowly to the brink of a blazing insight that, unlike Marx's, has permanently changed the world.

For any pamphleteer of ideas, the distinction is worth making, I think, because people still misread Darwin. The notion of social Darwinism, that the upper crust of all social pie belongs to those suffiently endowed to take it from the weak, the lazy and the clueless, arises from no science other than the art of sophistry, for one. For another, Darwin was no teleologue; evolution is not ordained to specific ends, and the great chain chain of being, so called, has no predetermined highest link, least of all human beings. Even the words which Darwin himself used, "natural selection," have a kind of plangent timbre, as though played on a harpsicord and not a synthesizer keyboard.

Oddly enough, the Taoist notion of the void, of the female principle, an exotic imported into Europe and the source of much speculation and wild movements (such as German Romanticism), has more to tell us about the origin of species than unalloyed "selection." It turns out that plastic stuff is extruded into voids in the ecosphere as neatly as they are in industry — in biology, the glowing bronze that pours into the empty place of lost wax is DNA. DNA is malleable, the mutation rate is far more rapid than anyone thought a generation ago. And that is something Darwin never knew, that would have make him chortle had he known.

These days, it's Evolution 2.0, and there's nothing beta about it.

The explosion is in the flower, idiot. It's called "sex."



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