Saturday, February 14, 2009

Adam Gopnik on Darwin and Lincoln

It is a remarkable coincidence that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day 200 years ago--February 12, 1809. In some previous posts, I have suggested that this should lead us to think about the points of contact between these two men.

Many books are now being published in connection either with the Lincoln bicentennial or the Darwin bicentennial. But one book combines the two--Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (Knopf, 2009). Gopnik is an award-winning writer for The New Yorker; and, as one might expect, this book is wonderfully written. A short excerpt from the book has been published in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine, which can be found online.

Gopnik's main theme is that Lincoln and Darwin were alike in helping to shape the "moral modernity" of "liberal civilization" as based on democratic politics and scientific reasoning--"science and democracy, an idea of objective knowledge arrived at by skepticism and of liberty available to all" (14, 18, 21). Gopnik uses the term "liberalism" in such a broad sense that it encompasses both the political "conservative" in American politics as well as the political "liberal" (18).

According to Gopnik, the crucial change associated with Lincoln and Darwin is the move from a "vertical" view of human life to a "horizontal" one. This is the move from "angels" to "ages." Previously, human beings saw themselves as looking up to the divine realm and down on the subhuman creation. With modernity, they began to see themselves as living in history--looking back to the past and ahead to the future--so that they were neither set above the natural world nor striving towards the supernatural world.

I have learned a lot from reading Gopnik's book. In particular, he has helped me see more clearly than I have previously the importance of the distinctive writing styles of Lincoln and Darwin. I also agree with much of what Gopnik says about the "liberalism" of Lincoln and Darwin.

I also think there is great insight in Gopnik's observations about how Darwinian science recognizes (and even explains) the gap between general knowledge and individual experience. "Individual experience is not reducible to general laws, not because of some mysterious essence that defies scientific explanation but because the explanation, as Darwin saw, begins with the existence of the irreducible individual case" (200). As Gopnik sees, there's an emotional reality to this--our knowledge of the common experience of life gives us no understanding or consolation before our personal tragedies.

Gopnik makes some mistakes. For example, he says that Darwin referred to his idea of evolution by natural selection as a "theory" to set it apart from any theological explanation of origins (185-86). But, in fact, Darwin concludes THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES by comparing his "theory of natural selection" and the "theory of creation." Darwin did not deny that creationism was a "theory." He did deny that this theory was as well supported by evidence and reasoning as his theory.

As far as the general themes of Gopnik's book, I disagree on three points. I don't agree with Gopnik that the liberalism of Lincoln and Darwin requires atheism. I don't agree with Gopnik's ignoring Darwin's evolutionary explanation of morality. And I don't agree with Gopnik's claim that Darwin's science has absolutely no political implications.

Although he suggests that Lincoln was an atheist, Gopnik is forced to recognize the biblical character of Lincoln's rhetoric and the fact that Lincoln frequently--especially in the Civil War--invoked God and conveyed a providential view of history. Gopnik speaks of Lincoln's faith as "the most vexed question in all the Lincoln literature" (126). Gopnik's attempt to answer this question turns out only to be a restatement of the question.

The young Lincoln was an atheist, Gopnik indicates, but the older Lincoln had experienced too much grief from death in war and death in the family to accept the idea of a universe governed only by natural necessity (130). "He came increasingly to believe in Providence, but it was a Providence that acted mercilessly through history, not one that regularly interceded with compassion" (131). This was most evident in Lincoln's later speeches--most memorably in the Second Inaugural. Gopnik compares this to Karl Marx's "new religion of history."

Although Gopnik rightly notes the Old Testament style of Lincoln's later speeches, he does not notice that Lincoln quotes from Jesus in the Second Inaugural, which suggests the influence of New Testament Christianity on Lincoln's providential view of history.

Gopnik shows us that both Lincoln and Darwin were moved by their personal experiences with death--Lincoln's boy Willie, Darwin's girl Annie--"to seek some form of transcendence, some meaning beyond the human cycle of breathing and eating and dying, even while resisting the supernatural meanings of faith." They found this transcendence in the "mystical sense of the power of time--time the explanatory force, the justifying force that gives meaning to life by asking us to think in the very long term" (186-87). This "faith in deep time" supports Lincoln's "private mysticism touched by public secularism" and Darwin's "shining inward faith in tension with scientific skepticism" (188).

Gopnik concludes his book by saying that the "Darwin and Lincoln, along with all the other poets of modern life" can affirm "mystical materialism" or "intimations of the numinous." The "space between what we know and what we feel" allows us to believe in "angels and ages, and both at once" (202-204).

Doesn't this contradict Gopnik's assertion that the modern liberalism of Lincoln and Darwin is necessarily atheistic? Isn't Gopnik forced to admit that they both show a religious longing for transcendence? And doesn't this suggest that the modern life of liberal democracy and scientific reasoning cannot obliterate the natural human desire for religious understanding?

I am reminded of that most famous of modern atheists--a contemporary of Lincoln and Darwin--Friedrich Nietzsche. Lou Salome--Nietzsche's friend and love interest--noted that Nietzsche never succeeded in becoming a scientific atheist, because he could never shake off his religious longings. Like his Zarathustra, he became "the most pious of those who don't believe in God."

When Gopnik speaks of how the "poets of modern life" will give us "intimations of the numinous," I am reminded of Nietzsche's prediction that modern artists would cater to the yearning of modern people to feel religious emotions without the burden of having to believe religious doctrines.

By comparison with Lincoln and Nietzsche, Darwin often seems serene in his scientific rationalism. And yet, even Darwin speaks of the limits of reason in striving for ultimate explanations for why nature is the way it is. As he wrote in his Autobiography, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

My second point of disagreement with Gopnik concerns his silence about Darwin's evolutionary explanation of morality. When Gopnik comments on Darwin's early notebooks and The Descent of Man, he says nothing about how these writings show Darwin's preoccupation with explaining human morality. Darwin knew that there could be no complete science of human life that did not include a science of human morality.

But like many of the proponents of evolutionary psychology, Gopnik invokes the "fact-value" distinction in assuming a dualistic separation between moral values and scientific facts. Human morality cannot be explained scientifically through the study of natural facts, because morality arises from free human choices. "It might be true, for instance, that life is brutal and pointless, but we can choose to live as though it were otherwise. . . . we all choose to live as though what we are doing has meaning and purpose beyond the day and moment" (195).

Like the existentialist philosophers, Gopnik appeals to human freedom from nature as creating a realm of choice that cannot be accounted for by modern science. But then he never explains how this metaphysical dualism of human freedom and natural causality can be compatible with Darwin's science, and especially Darwin's science of morality as rooted in evolved human nature.

Darwin and Lincoln did not regard the immorality of slavery as merely a matter of free choice. After all, slaveholders could freely choose to believe that slavery was morally right. Darwin and Lincoln thought slavery was wrong because it was contrary to the natural moral sense.

My final point of disagreement with Gopnik concerns his denial that Darwinian science has any political consequences. He writes: "The truth is that Darwin implies no politics: one can be a passionate Darwinian and be of the far right, the right, the liberal center, the left, or even the far left; great Darwinians have been found all around the room" (192). In fact, Gopnik declares, Darwinism does not even imply a liberal politics, although it does imply a "liberal science" (197-98).

Is that really true? Gopnik says that "traditionally, it was leftists, and Marxists in particular, who, despite the allegiance of Marx to its master, were the most hostile to Darwinism" (190). In proposing a "Darwinian left," Peter Singer argues that Marxism was a utopian vision contrary to evolved human nature as studied by the Darwinian. He admits that a "Darwinian left" would have to be "a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved."

As I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, much of this "deflated" leftism would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy. In his Darwinian Left, Singer recognizes this at the end of the book when he hopes for a "new kind of freedom" that might one day "take us beyond the conventional Darwinian constraints" in human morality and social life.

Doesn't this show that leftists like Singer can never fully escape the utopianism of the leftist tradition of thought? And doesn't it show that any such utopian vision must be contrary to our evolved human nature as confirmed by Darwinian science?

1 comment:

Michael said...

And doesn't this suggest that the modern life of liberal democracy and scientific reasoning cannot obliterate the natural human desire for religious understanding?

Doesn't it depend upon how broadly you define "religious"? Not having read Gopnik's book, I can't say whether I'd agree that "the modern liberalism of Lincoln and Darwin is necessarily atheistic," but I think certainly that it can be atheistic. You seem to be defining the longing for transcendence as expressly religious in nature, yet there are many ways of looking at the world, nature, the universe, and our place in it that involve some degree of transcendence and do not have recourse to belief in supernatural beings, or even a concept of eternity. Would you characterize those as "religious"? I would not.

I was talking with a Christian friend the other day and the conversation veered toward religion. He asked if I don't believe in God how can I explain the Big Bang? What caused it? Why? I said I can't explain it, and I have serious doubts about whether any human will ever provide a definitive explanation. We both experience the natural human desire for understanding, and experience curiosity, but we diverge on accepting an explanation that can never be proven vs. accepting that we may never have an explanation that can be proven. It is no more satisfying to me to mythologize a super-being as the explanation than it is to my friend to accept that there might not be an explanation. I agree with Darwin's understanding of the limits of reason, but I see nothing wrong with accepting "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us." So it doesn't strike me that this proves your contention -- liberal democracy and scientific reasoning don't necessarily obliterate that desire, but they can, or at the very least, they can direct that desire away from expressly religious understanding.