Dog-breeding, the colors of pigeons, beaver dams, and beehives. These were culled from the wide array of examples Darwin uses to propose evolution by means of natural selection. Typical of former renaissance writers, Darwin wrote with long sentences and erred on the side verbosity. In order to get into his work, you have to slow your mind and get it into a certain flow. Similar to many great writers, his volumes of work now might seem to the modern reader overbearing and archaic, overweighed by infinite trivial examples. But on the contrary, his examples demonstrate how evolution is all around us, in the everyday and in the mundane. And furthermore, where was Darwin supposed to start?
You see, since reading Robert Pirsig, I’ve become absolutely hung up on this notion of lateral truths. We often try to construct our lives in order to move straight forward, but Pirsig argued that there’s more to be gained from lateral movement. The movement straightforward, he argues, simply produces more and more things – be it facts or products – atop a weak edifice of previous things. Whereas lateral movement seeks to strengthen such edifices before going forward. I think that’s why I’ve been hesitant to write about the same topics both across blog posts and within them. Unfortunately I often stop and stutter in my writing, both in the typing and in my thoughts, going back and forth and checking my ideas in various ways. I apologize for any inconvenience, as it's anything but convenient for myself. But the point is that it’s not about adding on top, it’s about consolidating seemingly disconnected pieces across a wide array of phenomena. That’s where my mind seems to be gravitating so that's where I'll go.
Darwin began his scientific career as a barnacle expert, supposedly based on the advice that in order make any scientific contribution to the world you have to narrow your focus. He was heavily influenced by geologist Charles Lyell, who set forth similar principles as Darwin’s in his study of rock-formations across the world. On Darwin's formative Voyage of the Beagle, he inspected various islands and peninsulas. Supposedly Darwin brought 3 books on the trip: Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the bible. In piecing together The Origin of Species, he also met with dog breeders and a London-based pigeon-watching society.
When you look at all the separate pieces of evidence that yielded Darwin’s conception of evolution – of which the above are a small sample – you have to ask yourself where you don’t see evolution. It’s uncannily similar to religious arguments for the existence of God – just look around you, can’t you see that there's evidence of Him everywhere?
Darwin’s theory of evolution – and maybe even people's belief in God – both serve to consolidate seemingly disparate things. It’s atop these edifices that we’re then genuinely able to move forward for some time.
Adam Smith also had an uncanny ability to construct theory atop the seemingly mundane. In a stroke of literary genius, he began his multi-volume work by discussing pin-manufacturing in Europe. This topic would certainly seem pointless to most people, particularly ivory tower theorists, but that was exactly the point - that even in such a small everyday example, you can see the workings of the division of labor. Shakespeare achieved a similar feat of specificity in his line:
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child (King Lear, Act I, Scene IV)
As a professor once told me, consider how that line would've fallen apart if you replaced "teeth" for "tooth". But if Smith's pin-making example was merely a rhetorical gimmick or a literary hook, then he would have dived straight into abstract theory with little or no return to the real world. Instead, Smith constantly goes back to the real world to support and test his developing ideas. And this gets at the heart of the study of economics, which is to pinpoint the wide-ranging and long-term effects of policy decisions on areas as specific as pin-making. (Pun intended, but it's not really a pun due to the shared meanings of 2 words).
Evolution and capitalism are unfortunately often discussed in platitudes as ideologies. But what I love about Darwin and Smith is that in their writings you can see their theories organically growing out of their observations of the world. Not that this makes their theories automatically correct, but it reveals an honesty that’s too often missing in intellectual discussion.
A lot of writing these days is reactionary and steeped in hatred – this is particularly the case in Karl Marx, whose writings have succeeded more as a polemic against the upper-class than an applicable economic system. Whenever I detect too much spite in a book or an editorial I get a sense that it has little to teach me. All that Darwin and Smith were reacting to was nature right in front them; Thomas Sowell has a similar honesty in his writings as well.
In a few passages in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig will be talking to someone who disagrees with him, and the 1st thought that will come to my mind will be, “Oh that other person is so wrong.” This is because Pirsig builds his case so well in the book. But Pirsig will go on to say, “And in a way they were completely correct.” It’s not just another rhetoric gimmick, because in time you come to see how in that way they were completely correct. When you can see how everyone is correct in their own sense, then you can really get to the bottom of things. It harks back to using Aristotles' law of non-contradiction to your advantage. The law states: "It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not to belong at the same time to the same thing and in the same respect". What you have to realize, however, is that one person's opinion in favor of something is not the opposite as someone else's opinion against it: They're both true in their own sense, what differs is that sense. And it's that sense that you have to drag your mind to.
What I love about all these authors is that they’re not writing with an axe to grind. The benefit of reading such original sources like Darwin and Smith isn’t that they presented the perfect the version of their theories, it's that they truly saw their theory manifested throughout nature over and over and over again. They were thinking in the right sense. And in doing so, they consolidated phenomena, made the world simpler not more complex, and laid the groundwork for others to build upon. They weren’t moving up, they were trying to get to the bottom of things. There's an aesthetic appreciation for this as well; it's why repetition, used correctly, can be so powerful. Consider the role of repetition in learning or in music. Choruses in songs aren't just effective because they're good in and of themselves, they're effective because when you return to them your mind is slightly different from when it last experienced it.
This is what I’ve been trying to do recently. It recently struck me that the solution to most problems in life – be them intellectual or personal – is to stop and think to yourself, “What’s really going on here? What’s underlying the manifestation I’m seeing in front of me?” It’s a sort of analysis, or a division of labor in the mind so to speak. In my day-to-day life, when I face personal problems, I realize that my mind goes off and I forget to analyze, or I’m not analyzing correctly. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things. But it seems like the world's problems are all just due to a lack of clarity.
Ironically I realize that the last sentence may be vague, unclear. Pirsig expresses a similar sentiment when he describes an instructional manual he's saved over the years. The manual begins, "Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind." Pirsig describes this instruction as both the best and the worst instruction he's ever seen: It contains nothing specific to putting together the bike, but it's a great, perhaps even essential, piece of advice for piecing together the bike, and in that sense, it has everything to do with putting together the bike. Pirsig goes on:
Peace of mind isn't at all superficial, really...It's the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test's always your own serenity. If you don't have this when you start and maintain it while you're working you're likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.
So it’s not just analysis in the classical sense. Sometimes you have to ask yourself about general impressions that you get, make deductions based on them, and then follow those paths down to analysis. Like impressionistic art, you’re feeling a feeling, looking at a whole, and then diving down and asking yourself about versions of meaning. Which is why there's little to gain when at the bottom of things is an emotion like hatred, spite, or an attempt to maintain one's opinion rather than to learn about the real world, the latter of which should always be the focus. I’m sure that Darwin thought of evolution before he actively sought many of the examples in his book; it’s just that after he thought of his theory, he still kept his feet firmly planted on the ground.
Media (in order of appearance)
Photo: (1) Dauschund evolution, 01/03/2006, Colin Purrington; (2) Paloma, 06/30/2008, by Jaoa da Luna; (4) Barnacles, 01/27/2007, by Alanna@VanIsle; (5) lateral pass in football; (6) Shark tooth fossil, 08/27/2007, howzey; (7) Impression, soleil levant, 1872, by Claude Monet; (8) water lilly pads, 11/25/2005, Sarah Macmillan.
Video: Music video, 09/18/2007, gatojph4, of the song "Somthing" by The Beatles from the 1969 album Abbey Road. Sphere: Related Content