The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

by Marilynne Robinson, Houghton Mifflin Company

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In these 10 essays, Marilynne Robinson brilliantly addresses subjects that have become the territory of specialists--religion, history, the state of society. The writing is "contrarian in method and spirit," as she states in her introduction, but "Who can imagine how the things we call ideas live in the world, or how they change, or how they perish, or how they can…  See more details below


In these 10 essays, Marilynne Robinson brilliantly addresses subjects that have become the territory of specialists--religion, history, the state of society. The writing is "contrarian in method and spirit," as she states in her introduction, but "Who can imagine how the things we call ideas live in the world, or how they change, or how they perish, or how they can be renewed?"

In the tradition of 19th-century novelists who turned to the essay, Marilynne Robinson offers a beautiful and authoritative approach to refining the ideas our culture has handed down to us. Whether considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by Midwestern abolitionists; how Creationism, "long owned by the Religious Right," has spurred on contemporary Darwinism; or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's Continental origins, Robinson writes meticulously and with great conviction. Her essays are filled with the excitement of discovery.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in... John Calvin. If I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt that the average reader would have read this far." That's the introduction to one essay, but it could also apply to most of Robinson's (Housekeeping) first book in nearly a decade. Among the 10 essays here is one on the idea of wilderness and an intensely personal meditation on growing up Presbyterian, but these are essentially afterthoughts to an impassioned argument against America's contemporary social Darwinists cum free marketeers. And here's where Calvin comes in. She rebuts the characterization of Calvin as protocapitalist and the quick dismissal of his Puritan followers as prigs. Instead, she finds in their example a more fulfilling morality, one that substitutes personal responsibility for contemptuous condemnation of our fellows and a more personal, independent relationship with God and conscience. The corollary of the notion that "our unhappiness is caused by society, is that society can make us happy," she writes, adding, "Whatever else it is, morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself." Though there are occasional problems--for example, the argument "an important historical `proof' very current among us now is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence unconscious of the irony of the existence of slavery" is simply a straw man. But for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity, and rather than accepting received wisdom she hunts it out for herself among original texts. In the process, she revives founding beliefs as a possible solution for current ills.
Library Journal
Contrarian in method and spirit, this title fields a host of unapologetically demanding critical essays. From the introduction, reclaiming religion's role in culture, to the final essay, on civilization and wilderness, each bracing page compels response to a positively asserted and forcefully argued moral vision. Here passion and intellect are wed. Robinson assays our common cultural ore, exposing dross and rediscovering worth and truth. An uncommon critic, she delves into diverse material and does not deny her religious roots but taps into them as she examines how Midwestern abolitionists inspired the McGuffey Reader, how Creationism spurs on contemporary Darwinism, and what's kind about Calvin. -- John R. Leech, Brooklyn, New York
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Housekeeping (1980) and Mother Country (1989) challenges the accepted views of Calvin, Darwin, and others to invigorate intellectual discourse and, by extension, change our days and minds. As with her earlier works, Robinson's essays are marked by her uneasiness with the workings of society and human consciousness. Here she attempts to counter people's disturbingly easy acceptance of the "prevailing view of things" by taking a "contrarian" approach that assumes any side—in fact, each—may be wrong. Her aim is not to ridicule but to provide alternatives: "Put aside what we know, and it will start to speak to us again," she says. Her essays on John Calvin revisit his contributions to modern government and religion, disputing Max Weber's views of Protestantism and uncovering the influence of Renaissance writer Marguerite de Navarre. With the Mencken-inspired title "Puritans and Prigs" she traces the "generalized disapproval" of Puritanism to today's self-congratulatory priggish eating of fish and correcting of offensive diction. The book's title refers to the consequence of Darwinism, that is, the usurpation of God and human impulses by hard-wiring. As with all good philosophical essays, these pieces do more than shape thinking. They're about life as it's lived now. Like the 19th-century reformers she so appreciates in "McGuffey and the Abolitionists," the author wants to engender good faith. When what passes for social criticism these days is issue-bound journalism, and when intellectual debate is largely confined to ivy halls, Robinson's laboriously researched, inclusively presented opinions are welcome. They serve scholarship well, enlarging theaudience for dialogue on broad questions of how to live. Her dogged textual dissections (e.g., of Lord Acton and other critics of Calvin) illuminate her readings; her epigrammatic observations (e.g., "spiritual agoraphobes") vividly capture our states of mind. Set aside Robinson's occasional sober prolixity and find a moral gauntlet. This is a book written in hope.

From the Publisher

“American culture is enriched by having the whole range of Marilynne Robinson's work” —Jane Vanderburgh, The Boston Globe

“A valuable contribution to American life and letters.” —Kathleen Norris

“A useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit.” —Doris Lessing

“Robinson's thinking is all in the service of humanity's survival, spiritually and environmentally.” —Charles Baxter

“One of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity.” —The New York Times Book Review

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Chapter One


American culture has entered a period in which atavism looks to us for all the world like progress. The stripping away of humane constraints to liberate great "natural" forces, such as capital flow or the (soi-disant) free market, has acquired such heady momentum that no one even pauses to wonder whether such forces are indeed particularly "natural." The use of the word implies a tendentious distinction. Billions of dollars can vanish into the ether under the fingers of a bad young man with a dark stare, yet economics is to be regarded as if it were lawful and ineluctable as gravity. If the arcane, rootless, disruptive phenomenon we call global economics is natural, then surely anything else is, too.

    Rivers flow to the sea -- this fact implies no obligation on our part to abet them in it, to eliminate meanders and flood plains. If economics were natural in this sense, presumably moderating, stabilizing mechanisms would be intrinsic to its systems. But economics is simply human traffic in what people make and do and value and need, or think they need, a kind of epitome of civilization. It is the wealth of nations, and also their fraudulence and malice and vainglory. It is no more reliably benign or rational than any other human undertaking. That is to say, it requires conscious choice and control, the making of moral and ethical judgments.

    Primitive, sometimes called classical, economics has long lived symbiotically with Darwinism, which sprang from it. Darwinists have always claimed that they were simple scientists, pursuing trutheven in the face of outrage and rejection, even at the cost of dispelling myths upon which weaker souls preferred to remain dependent. It seems fair to allow that Darwinism might have evolved long enough on its own to have become another species of thought than the one in which it had its origins, though nature provides no analogy for change of that kind. Yet we find the recrudescence of primitive economics occurring alongside a new prominence of Darwinism. We find them separately and together encouraging faith in the value of self-interest and raw competition. Furthermore, we find in them certain peculiar assumptions which are incompatible with their claims to being objective, freestanding systems. One is progressivism, which is implied everywhere in primitive economics, and denied everywhere in contemporary Darwinism.

    The idea of progress implies a judgment of value. We are to believe the world will be better if people are forced into severe and continuous competition. If they work themselves weary making a part for a gadget assembled on the other side of the earth, in fear of the loss of their livelihoods, the world will be better for it. If economic forces recombine and shed these workers for cheaper ones, the world will be still better. In what sense, betters? To ask is to refuse to accept the supposedly inevitable, to deny the all-overriding reality of self-interest and raw competition, which will certainly overwhelm us if we allow ourselves some sentimental dream of a humane collective life. This economics implies progress and has no progress to show.

    Contemporary Darwinism shuns the suggestion that the workings of natural selection are progressive, perhaps in resistance to the old error of assuming that humankind is the masterpiece of evolution. To do so would be to discover special value in peculiarly human attributes, to suggest, for example, that mind is something toward which evolution might have tended. That would be to legitimize the works of the mind, its most characteristic intuitions, concerning, for example, ethics and religion. Yet we are told by Darwinists to celebrate the wondrous works of natural selection, the tangled bank. Its authority must be received, its truth made the measure of all truth, because heaven and earth are full of its glory. To claim creation as the signature act of whatever power one prefers is clearly to overstep the bounds of scientific discourse. The intention is to demonstrate that there are emotional satisfactions in this worldview, which is at least to acknowledge the claims of one distinctively human longing. Characteristically, however, Darwinists, like primitive economists, assume that what is humane -- I use the word here, unexceptionably, as I believe, to mean whatever arises from the desire to mitigate competition and to put aside self-interest -- is unnatural, and therefore wrong.

    The debate between Darwinism and religion is and has always been very strange. I wish to make a distinction here between evolution, the change that occurs in organisms over time, and Darwinism, the interpretation of this phenomenon which claims to refute religion and to imply a personal and social ethic which is, not coincidentally, antithetical to the assumptions imposed and authorized by Judaeo-Christianity. Darwin's theory was published in 1859, two years before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. His achievement would be impressive if even a tiny core of scientific insight survived such an explosion of new understanding of the nature of things as has occurred in the last century and a half. It is important to remember, however, that evolution as I have defined it was observed and noted even in antiquity. In 1850 Alfred Tennyson had published In Memoriam, the long poem in which he ponders the dark implications of an evolutionary origin of man and creation, and arrives at a reconciliation of this theory with a new understanding of divine providence. In 1852 Matthew Arnold published "Empedocles on Etna," in which evolution is represented as exposing religion as mere human illusion. The tendency to confuse Darwin with Prometheus obscures the fact that his ideas, too, have an ancestry, and an evolution, and, most certainly, a genus.

    What, precisely, this theory called Darwinism really is, is itself an interesting question. The popular shorthand version of it is "the survival of the fittest." This is a phrase coined by the so-called Social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer, in work published before the appearance of the Origin of Species and adopted--with acknowledgment of Spencer as the source -- in later editions of Darwin's book. There is an apparent tautology in the phrase. Since Darwinian (and, of course, Spencerian) fitness is proved by survival, one could as well call the principle at work "the survival of survivors." This is not, strictly speaking, tautological, if the point is to bless things as they are, insofar as they are a matter of life and death. (The words "competition" and "struggle" are grossly euphemistic, since what is being described in Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population [1798], the winnowing that inspired Darwin, was the withholding of very meager sustenance from those who would die without it. Nothing more heroic was called for than closing one's hand, or turning one's back, both of them familiar and congenial exercises in Darwin's time, and both of them what Spencer was commending when he coined this phrase.)

    If we are to take this notion of natural selection as a chaste, objectively functioning scientific principle, however, the issue of tautology is not so easily resolved. Since those who are alive tend to make up the majority of any population, one cannot really be surprised to find their traits predominant, and their offspring relatively numerous. At the same time, one cannot be sure that they have not found the broad path to extinction, like so many creatures before them, doomed by traits that cannot at this moment be called incompatible with their survival, given the fact of their survival. In other words, the theory understood in these terms is notably weak in its ability to generalize, describe or predict. Life forms do change, and there is an orderliness in their existence over time, notably in the phenomenon of species, whose origins Darwin did not, in fact, explain, or even claim to have explained. That the drifting of the forms of life corresponds in significant ways to the drift of the content or configuration of their genetic endowment is not a fact whose meaning is self-evident. The change to be observed is change, not necessarily refinement or complication, and not even adaptation, because it is often maladaptive. In The Descent of Man, Darwin notes, "Natural Selection acts only tentatively." Behold the great Law that governs nature.

    It appears to me that the conjunction which allowed evolution to flourish as Darwinism was the appropriation of certain canards about animal breeding for the purpose of social criticism, together with a weariness in European civilization with Christianity, which did cavil, if anything did, at the extraordinary cruelty of industrial and colonial civilization. Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population to demonstrate the harmful consequences of intervening between the poor and their death by starvation. In his Autobiography, Darwin says:

[In 1838] I happened to read for amusement [!] Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from longcontinued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work ...

    It would appear he made Malthus's grim thesis, that alleviation of misery only results in greater misery, darker still by concluding that those who die deserve to, as the embodiments of unfavorable "variations." In The Descent of Man he treats human fecklessness as atavism, and perhaps that is part of what he means here. But as a consequence of the progressive character of change brought about by the process of destruction he describes as occurring within and between populations, survival is always a function of relative fitness. There is no such thing as intrinsic worth. No value inheres in whatever is destroyed, or destructible. In Origin of Species he says:

In each well-stocked country natural selection acts through the competition of the inhabitants, and consequently leads to success in the battle for life, only in accordance with the standard of that particular country. Hence the inhabitants of one country, generally the smaller one, often yield to the inhabitants of another and generally the larger country. For in the larger country there will have existed more individuals and more diversified forms, and the competition will have been severer, and thus the standard of perfection will have been rendered higher.

    Those who have wondered how it can be that larger countries so consistently dominate smaller ones will find their answer here--bigger countries have better people in them. Insights like this one must have sweetened the pill of Darwinism considerably for those among the British who felt any doubts about the glory of Empire. Especially to be noted is the progressivist spin Darwin puts on Malthus. A more populous country implies for him one in which there is more severe attrition, therefore a more highly evolved people. That is to say, success depends not on numbers but on the severity of competition that is the presumed consequence of large population. Brutal conditions at home legitimize domination abroad. Surely this is the worst of all possible worlds. But my point here is that the idea of progressive evolution through natural selection occurred to Darwin as a consequence of reading about endemic starvation in the populations of wealthy countries. He elaborated it into a theory of national aggression.

    If Darwin retreated, in one context or another, from the assertion that there is in fact such a thing as progress in evolution among the plants and animals, he nevertheless consistently assumed that human beings were "perfected" by the struggle for survival. In The Descent of Man he makes quite clear what form this progress takes. He says:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes ... will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

    Darwin speaks frequently about higher and lower races of man, and he also says that there is little difference in mind or temperament among the races of men. Mind is not a consideration for him, so this causes him no embarrassment. It is true of Darwinism in general that the human mind, and those of its creatures which are not compatible with the Darwinist worldview, are discounted as anomaly or delusion. Elsewhere Darwin remarks, with striking obduracy, "If man had not been his own classifier, he would never have thought of founding a separate order for his own reception." The fact that we alone are capable of describing order in nature is not a significant distinction in his view, but instead a source of error, even though the human brain is taxonomically singular, and should therefore set us apart if our sciences and civilizations did not. Darwin freely concedes to the savages (as to the ants) courage and loyalty and affection. He describes an anthropologist's overhearing African mothers teaching their children to love the truth. These things do not affect the confidence with which he assigns them to the condition of inferiority, which for him is proved by their liability to extermination by the civilized races.

    In his useful book, Darwinian Impacts: An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution (1980), D.R. Oldroyd, defending the phrase "survival of the fittest" from the charge that it is tautological, proposes that the reader "consider a simple case of natural selection arising from the struggle for existence." It is the "struggle" that led to the extermination of the native people of Tasmania by European settlers in the nineteenth century. "One group (to their lasting moral, but not biological shame) survived; another group failed to survive. Surely it is perfectly clear that this may be explained in terms of some criterion of fitness (say the possession of fire-arms) that is quite separate from the contingent fact that the Europeans did survive. Thus we can readily see this example as an empirical exemplification of the principle of natural selection or the survival of the fittest." He goes on to discuss the change in coloration of the English peppered moth, omitting to provide the list of contributions made by Anglo-Tasmanians to global well-being which might assuage our doubts about the persuasive force of this simple case, this systematic destruction of unarmed people. Darwinism is, intrinsically, a chilling doctrine.

    Rejection of religion was abroad in Europe in the nineteenth century, just as evolution was. Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Nietzsche are two noted debunkers who flourished in Darwin's lifetime, and Karl Marx is another. Marx, the gentlest of them, said, "Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Whether the protest against suffering makes suffering harder to relieve, as he argues, or simply makes it harder to ignore, weariness with the sigh of the oppressed creature is easy to document in the thought of the time, and the mode or avenue of such sentiment was religion.

    Whether Darwin himself intended to debunk religion is not a matter of importance, since he was perceived to have done so by those who embraced his views. His theory, as science, is irrelevant to the question of the truth of religion. It is only as an inversion of Christian ethicalism that it truly engages religion. And in those terms it is appropriately the subject of challenge from any humane perspective, religious or other. Insofar as ethical implications are claimed for it, it is not science, yet historically it has sheltered under the immunities granted to science. The churches generally have accepted the idea of evolution with great and understandable calm. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of Luther, Calvin, and Ignatius of Loyola, or of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and Martin Luther King, is no Watchmaker. To find him at the end of even the longest chain of being or causality would be to discover that he was a thing (however majestic) among things. Not God, in other words. Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) declares from its irksomely alliterative title onward that the complex of assertions I have described as Darwinism is vigorously alive. Dennett asks, "If God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create himself? Was it hard work? Did it take time?." This is my point precisely. It is manifestly not consistent with the nature of God to be accessible to description in such terms. Even Dennett, who appears to have no meaningful acquaintance with religious thought, is clearly aware that to speak of God in this way is absurd.

    If one looks at the creation narrative in Genesis one finds no Watchmaker, as the Darwinists would have us believe, but a God who stands outside his creation, and calls it into being by, in effect, willing its existence. This terse account does as little to invoke the model of a human artisan as it could do. The creation and blessing of everything, from light to the great sea creatures to whatever creeps on the earth, is done in the same formulaic terms. It all has the same origin, and it is all good. There is no suggestion of hierarchy in the order in which things come into being any more than in the language that names them, with the exception of man/woman, who are made in God's image and given dominion over the rest of creation.

    The narrative stabilizes essential theological assertions, first of all, that God is not embodied in any part of creation. He is not light, nor is he the sun, as the gods of other ancient peoples were thought to be. He is in no sense limited or local. He is not the force of good or order struggling against forces of evil or chaos, but the sole creator of a creation that is in whole and in part "very good." There are no loci of special holiness, humanity aside, and nothing evil or alarming or unclean. The sun and moon are simply "lights" and the markers of days and seasons. The alternation of day and night are not the endless recurrence of a terrifying primal struggle but the frame of a great order, identified by the repeated reference to evening and morning with the ordering of creation itself. All these things articulate a vision of being which is sharply distinct from those expressed in competing ancient cosmogonies. The narrative, with its refrain, tells off the days in a week, and culminates in the Sabbath, which is, therefore, as fundamental a reality as creation itself. It is as if God's rest were the crown of his work. This is a very powerful statement of the value of the Sabbath, so essential to the life of the Jews, and it seems to me it probably accounts for the fact of the narrative's describing creation as the business of a week.

    Certainly this cosmogony describes a natural order which is freestanding and complete, with rainfall and seasons established, as well as the fecundity of all living things. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche says:

In the imagination of religious people all nature is a summary of the actions of conscious and voluntary creatures, an enormous complex or arbitrariness. No conclusion may be drawn with regard to everything that is outside of us, that anything will be so and so, must be so and so; the approximately sure, reliable are we,--man is the rule, nature is irregularity--

    This statement is wrong, point for point, as a characterization of the world of the Genesis cosmogony, which is not in the least degree animistic or demon-haunted or dependent for its functioning on divine intervention. If ancient people had consciously set out to articulate a worldview congenial to science, it is hard to imagine how, in the terms available to them, they could have done better. And in fact, Judeo-Christian culture has been uniquely hospitable to science.

    But the point to be stressed is that religious people--by definition, I would say--do not look for proof of the existence of God, or understand God in a way that makes his existence liable to proof or disproof. It is naive to talk about proof in that way, which is why Darwinists need not apologize for their failure to prove the existence of the process of natural selection, which they freely concede they have not done. That attempts at proofs of God's existence have been made from time to time, under the influence of the prestige of Aristotle, or of early science, does not mean that religious belief has sought or depended on that kind of affirmation, as any reader of theology is well aware. Faith is called faith for a reason. Darwinism is another faith--a loyalty to a vision of the nature of things despite its inaccessibility to demonstration.

    The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right. The differences between these camps are intractable because they are meaningless. People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of "to him who asks, give," or "sell what you have and give the money to the poor." In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of "religion" have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor. The defenders of "science" have imputed objectivity and rigor to an account of reality whose origins and consequences are indisputably economic, social, and political.

    Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism, the caricature of religion that has seemed to justify Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion. Creationism has tended to obscure the fact that religion--precisely as the hope of the powerless and the mitigator of the abuse of the weak--has indeed come under determined attack by people who have claimed the authority of science, and that Darwin's work was quite rightly seized upon by antireligionists who had other fish to fry than the mere demystification of cosmogony. I am speaking, as I know it is rude to do, of the Social Darwinists, the eugenicists, the Imperialists, the Scientific Socialists who showed such firmness in reshaping civilization in Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, and, yes, of the Nazis. Darwin influenced the nationalist writer Heinrich von Treitschke and the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who influenced Hitler and also the milieu in which he flourished.

    If there is felt to be a missing link between Darwinism and these distinctive phenomena of modern history, it is because we pretend that only Darwin's most presentable book would have had circulation and impact. Reading The Descent of Man, one finds Darwin the obsessive taxonomist marveling that Hindus, who are apparently so unlike Europeans, are in fact also Aryans, while Jews, who look just like Europeans, are in fact Asiatics. This sort of language is a reminder of the kind of thinking that was going on in Europe at that time, which Darwin's cheerful interest in the extermination of races, and his insistence on ranking races in terms of their nearness to the apes, could only have abetted.

    Daniel Dennett alludes delicately to the sources and history of Darwin's thesis. He says, "The grim Malthusian vision of his social and political forces that could act to check human overpopulation may have strongly flavored Darwin's thinking (and undoubtedly has flavored the shallow political attacks of many an anti-Darwinian) [Shallow? Gentle reader, is this sufficient? Is this fair?], but the idea Darwin needed from Malthus is purely logical. It has nothing at all to do with political ideology, and can be expressed in very abstract and general terms." The idea Darwin took from Malthus was of a continuous cull. Darwin's understanding of the phenomenon was neither abstract nor general. The economic and social programs which claim the authority of Darwin have tended to apply this idea, in one way or another, to human society, in a manner he himself might well have approved, considering that he discovered it in its application to human society. The notion that this idea could have "nothing at all to do with political ideology," presumably because it is "purely logical," is the thinking of a true fundamentalist. Dennett seems unaware that zealots of every sort find every one of their tenets purely logical. Discussing the ongoing Malthusian "crunch," which means that only some organisms in a population will leave progeny, Dennett says:

Will it be a fair lottery, in which every organism has an equal chance of being among the few that reproduce? In a political context, this is where invidious themes enter, about power, privilege, injustice, treachery, class warfare, and the like, but we can elevate the observation from its political birthplace and consider in the abstract, as Darwin did, what would--must--happen in nature.

    This language is evasive, and also misleading. As we have seen, if by nature we are to understand the nonhuman world, that is by no means the only setting in which Darwin saw his principle at work. If, as Darwin argues, the human and nonhuman worlds are continuous and of a kind, then Dennett implies a distinction that is in fact meaningless. Since Dennett insists that an ethic is to be derived from Darwinism, our concern is not properly with what happens in nature--since, in any case, it must happen--but with the interactions among people in society, concerning which choice is possible. I think we all know that we cannot look to nature for a model, unless we are able to find equity in predation, as, in this century particularly, certain people have in fact claimed to do.

    The notion of "fitness" is not now and never has been value neutral. The model is basically physical viability, or as the political economists used to say, physical efficiency. In The Descent of Man, Darwin says:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

    This is pure Malthus. So is the demurral: "[We could not] check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature ... We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind ..." None of this is abstract or general or innocent of political history or implication. The Descent of Man (1871) is a late work which seems to be largely ignored by Darwinists now. The persistence of Malthusian influence in such explicit form indicates not only the power but also the meaning of its influence in Darwin's thinking. And of course its relevance is clearer when Darwin has turned his gaze, as Malthus did, to human society.

    It does bear mentioning in this context that the full title of his first book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. However generously this title is interpreted, clearly it does not assume that biological systems evolve by chance and not design, as Darwin is always said to have done. It clearly implies that whatever is is right, and--even less tenably--that whatever is is the product of raw struggle, and--still less tenably--that there is a teleology behind it all, one which favors and preserves. Darwinists seem unable to refrain from theology, as the supplanters of it. The old God may have let the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike, but this new god is more implacable in his judgments, and very straightforward, killing off those who die, to state the matter baldly. What need of this theology except to imply that there is wisdom and blessing and meaning in "selection," which the phenomenon itself does not by any means imply? If the temperature on earth rose or fell by five degrees, this same god would curse where he had cherished and love what he had despised, which is only to say that natural selection must indeed be thought of as blind, from the preserving and favoring point of view, if consistency is to be respected at all.

    Surely we must assume that a biosphere generated out of any circumstances able to sustain life is as good as any other, that if we make a desert of this planet, for example, and the god of survival turns his countenance upon the lurkers and scuttlers who emerge as fittest, under the new regime, we can have no grounds for saying that things have changed for the worse or for the better, in Darwinist terms. In other words, absent teleology, there are no grounds for saying that survival means anything more or other than survival. Darwinists praise complexity and variety as consequences of evolution, though the success of single-celled animals would seem to raise questions. I am sure we all admire ostriches, but to call a Darwinist creation good because it is credited with providing them is simply another version of the old argument from design, proving in this use of it not the existence of God but the appropriateness of making a judgment of value: that natural selection, whose existence is to be assumed, is splendid and beneficent, and therefore to be embraced.

    I am aware that many Darwinists do not argue that the complexity of organisms is a mark of progress in evolution, yet the idea is implicit in their model of adaptation. It is difficult to read about an amoeba, or for that matter a hydrogen atom, without beginning to doubt the usefulness of the word "simplicity." Rather, the universe itself seems to have evolved so far beyond simplicity, before there was any planet Earth or any sun to rise on it, that the only question is, how will complexity be manifest? Shut up in a cell or a spore, it is clearly still complexity. In other words, there is something archaic in the Darwinist assumption that there was anything simple to begin from, and that complexity was knocked together out of accident and circumstance, as a secondary quality of life. And it is consistent with this same archaism that its model for interaction among creatures is simpler than anything to be found anywhere in experimentally accessible nature. In considering how a black hole might lose mass, the simplest account is to be preferred, no doubt. But this is simplicity of a very rarefied kind. We are of one substance with these roaring phenomena our mathematics stumbles in describing.

    In any case, the passage from The Descent of Man quoted above, which undertakes to account for the physical superiority of the savages, suggests extraordinary limits to Darwin's powers of observation and reflection. If it was true, so far into the era of the contact of savages and Europeans, that the health of the former was still comparatively good, it was true despite the disasters of invasion and colonization and slavery and the near and actual extinctions on this continent and elsewhere brought about by the introduction of European diseases. Darwin notes these effects of the contact of civilized and savage at length in other contexts. He is remarkably inconsistent. He assumes elsewhere, as I have noted, that it is the high rate of attrition within nations that makes them successful in their "struggles" with the less-favored races.

    And if it was true that savages throve relatively well it was because they did not live in their own filth in vast conurbations, did not breathe air heavy with brown coal smoke, did not expose themselves to lead or mercury or phosphorus poisoning, did not hold torches to the feet of children to force them to crawl up narrow chimneys or set five-year-olds to work in factories or brickyards, did not sell one another opium tonic to hush the crying of babies. Malthus pondered at length the fact that the mass of the population of Europe, and especially Britain, lived continuously in a state of near starvation. There were two instances of outright famine in Ireland, an agricultural country, in the first half of Darwin's century. In neither case did any crop fail but potatoes, the staple food of the poor, who were virtually the whole of the population. Vastly more than adequate food to end the famine was exported for sale by nonresident landowners while death by starvation swept over the country. Relief was given only to those who had eaten the potatoes they would have put aside to plant a new crop, so the famine went on and on. No doubt the fittest survived, scrawnier for the experience, and not terribly presentable by comparison with the savages. Darwin is simply repeating a commonplace in finding benevolence the villain in the matter of European "degeneracy." History does not at all support the idea that benevolence was ever an important enough phenomenon to have done measurable harm, if, for the sake of argument, we concede it that power.

    That human beings should be thought of as better or worse animals, and human well-being as a product of culling, is a willful exclusion of context, which seems to me to have remained as a stable feature of Darwinist thought. There is a worldview implicit in the theory which is too small and rigid to accommodate anything remotely like the world. This is no doubt true in part because acknowledging the complexity of the subject would amount to acknowledging the difficulty of demonstrating the usefulness of the theory. Those best suited to survive do no doubt survive in their descendants, all things being equal, as they rarely are. The point is that, in the matter of interpretation, judicious and dispassionate consideration of all factors would be required to establish with certainty why an organism seems to be successful in evolutionary terms in any specific case. While Darwin argues, in one context, that traits such as generosity and self-sacrifice enhance group survival, though not the survival of the individual organism, in others he clearly sees these same traits as defeating the process of selection at the level of the social group. In the first instance he wishes to prove that such motives and emotions are biologically based and analogous with those of animals because they promote survival, and in the second to argue that their effect is contrary to the workings of nature because it prevents the elimination of the weak or defective. His conclusions seem merely opportunistic. Contemporary Darwinism appears generally to discount group survival as a factor in the operations of natural selection.

    Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses; not coincidentally, it had its origins in polemics against the poor, and against the irksome burden of extending charity to them--a burden laid on the back of Europe by Christianity. The Judeo-Christian ethic of charity derives from the assertion that human beings are made in the image of God, that is, that reverence is owed to human beings simply as such, and also that their misery or neglect or destruction is not, for God, a matter of indifference, or of merely compassionate interest, but is something in the nature of sacrilege. Granting that the standards of conduct implied by this assertion have rarely been acknowledged, let alone met, a standard is not diminished or discredited by the fact that it is seldom or never realized, and, especially, a religious imperative is not less powerful in its claims on any individual even if the whole world excepting him or her is of one mind in ignoring it and always has been. To be free of God the Creator is to be free of the religious ethic implied in the Genesis narrative of Creation. Charity was the shadow of a gesture toward acknowledging the obligations of human beings to one another, thus conceived. It was a burden under which people never stopped chafing--witness this unfathomably rich country now contriving new means daily to impoverish the poor among us.

    Darwinism always concerns itself with behavior, as the expression of the biological imperatives of organisms. Though, historically, it is truer to say that this feature of the theory arose from rather than that it ended in a critique of traditional ethical systems, Darwinism is still offered routinely as a source of objective scientific insight on questions like the nature of human motivation and the possibility of altruism. As I have said, the views of contemporary adherents on these matters are darker than Darwin's own. The theory has been accommodated to Mendelian genetics, yielding the insight that it is not personal but genetic survival for which the organism strives, a refinement which does not escape the tautology implicit in the popular version of the theory, but does add a little complexity to the myth of the battle of each against all, which, however it may thrill sophomores, cannot account for the existence of social behavior in animals. The redefinition of survival enlarges the theater of possible selfish behavior. "Selfish" is a word apologists use without hesitation or embarrassment, because they remain committed to the old project of transforming values, and therefore still insist on using ethically weighted language in inappropriate contexts. It is no more "selfish" for an organism to abide by its nature, whatever that is, than for an atom to appropriate an electron. Certainly finding selfishness in a gene is an act of mind which rather resembles finding wrath in thunder.

(Continues ...)

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Meet the Author

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the modern classic Housekeeping--winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award--and two books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989) and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Brief Biography

Iowa City, Iowa
Date of Birth:
November 26, 1943
Place of Birth:
Sandpoint, Idaho
B.A., Brown University, 1966

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