Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power

With this title, I really wanted to include a picture of Homer Simpson kicking Walt Whitman’s grave. But I couldn’t find one. Just sit back and let your mind wander. It will come to you…

I had a lazy Sunday morning. Woke up a little late, went to McDonalds to grab breakfast, picked up the Washington Post, and sat in the baby’s room while he played and read the paper. It is one of those moments where you really feel like an adult.

I came across an editorial by George F. Will, How Congress Trumps Darwin (must have free subscription to read). The piece is pretty good, and I thought I would share a bit of it. I think Will is attempting to make the point that the Environmental Protection Act attempts to trump natural selection, but I’m impressed by Will’s elloquent statements about the science of humanity. He begins with a clear statement:

An American majority resists such an annoying notion, endorsing the proposition that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Still, evolution is a fact, and its mechanism is natural selection: Creatures with variations especially suited to their environmental situation have more descendants than do less well-adapted creatures.

Simple: acknowledge that some people don’t believe, but state the fact. Will then makes a point about the march of science and the necessity of one man in a community of scientists:

This Thursday, the 200th anniversary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, remember that Lincoln mattered more. Without Darwin, other scientists would have discerned natural selection. Indeed, Darwin’s friend Alfred Wallace already had. Without Lincoln, the United States probably would have been sundered into at least two nations. Probably into more: Southerners, a fractious tribe, would not have played nicely together in the Confederacy for very long.

I’m not a historian, but I know a few, and I know that speculative history can be dangerous. However, I son’t think this statement is all that controversial. Aside from Wallace, consider how easy it would have been to come up with the theory of natural selection once people read Mendel.

Walt Whitman, seared by Lincoln’s war to guarantee the nation’s survival, adopted a materialist’s mysticism about the slaughter: Human immortality is in earth’s transformation of bodies into an “unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence.”

A materialist’s mysticism. I love it. The poem is Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I Heard the Mother of All from Leaves of Grass. I want to share a bit more from the poem:

As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d:  
Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried—I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;          5
And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;  
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly,  
And all you essences of soil and growth—and you, my rivers’ depths;  
And you, mountain sides—and the woods where my dear children’s blood, trickling, redden’d;  
And you trees, down in your roots, to bequeath to all future trees,

It really is a beautiful piece of work. It’s taken a long time for me to be able to enjoy Whitman, but I’m glad I’ve come to it.

After Copernicus dislodged humanity from the center of the universe, Marx asserted that false consciousness — we do not really “make up our minds” — blinds us to the fact that we are in the grip of an implacable dialectic of impersonal forces. Darwin placed humanity in a continuum of all protoplasm. Then Freud declared that the individual’s “self” or personhood is actually a sort of unruly committee. All this dented humanity’s self-esteem.

I really like this bit. I like it because, in their own way, Marx, Darwin, and Freud (and by extention, Nietzsche) were all right about some things and wrong about others. They were great thinkers who, if you will allow me to br dramatic, were strangled by the limitations of their time and their respective field. I would say Darwin was most successful, although it took genetics to really push the point home. But we have some grand facts here: We are not the center of the universe, we are not as mindful of the social processes of production and consumption, we are not singular in the world but are evolved from other things, and are minds are a complex of various decision-making modules. We also experinence phenomena which arise from complexity, which we cannot fully understand because it cannot be reduced. We truly all small.

All in all, I like this piece. I’ll end this with the last paragraph from the Origin of the Species, included in Will’s article:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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.”

 

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