Sunday, May 03, 2009

Notes on a Darwin Weekend
An Exploration of Evolutionary Ideas

There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this plane 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.
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

I just returned from a weekend immersed in the works and ideas of Charles Darwin who was born two hundred years ago, on February 12, 1809 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln). A group sponsored by the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education held a weekend study retreat, Charles Darwin: A Continuing Challenge.

On Friday night the weekend commenced with a lecture, "Does Darwin Support or Subvert Morality?", by Larry Arnhart, Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. The lecture and subsequent discussion considered the historical science in Darwin's writings and the difficulties he anticipated. It moved quickly into the consideration of morality where it was noted that Darwin was not neutral; for example, he advocated the abolition of slavery, even criticizing Lincoln who he felt went neither far enough nor fast enough. Darwin's critics claim that his view that people are just "animals" subverts morality; encourages atheism, advocates a materialism that leads to denial of free will, and ultimately leads to the sort of Social Darwinism that results in eugenics and racism. In defending Darwin Prof. Arnhart pointed out that in The Descent of Man Darwin claimed that man has a "natural moral sense" that develops from four stages of his evolutionary development: social instinct, intellectual faculties, language and habit. This "moral sense" is seen as a "highly complex sentiment" that leads to kindness, reciprocity, and mutuality. In conclusion Prof. Arnhart pointed out that sympathy for other humans is the "noblest part of our nature" (The Descent of Man).

Our Friday evening concluded with further discussion about these ideas and others over wine and conviviality. Darwin looked to be a topic that could support an invigorating exploration of ideas.

On Saturday morning, John (Jack) Melsheimer, Instructor in the Basic Program, presented "What Does 'Species' Mean in the Origin of Species?". Darwin said, "No one definition (of species) has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species."(p. 65). Generally Darwin uses species as a heuristic recognizing that species is "arbitrarily-given" and used for "convenience sake." Jack presented this and Darwin's discussion of morphology, taxonomy, descent with modification and other issues present in the Origin. It is here that Darwin summarizes his evidence, gathered over many years, for evolution of species such as the existence of rudimentary organs. Darwin uses his final chapter to recapitulate both the objections to his theory (he anticipates all the significant objections even though he does not have the evidence to rebut all of them) and the "general and special circumstances" in its favor. While presenting a picture of Darwin as a naturalist, and enthusiast for Aristotle and a genius capable of identifying and presenting fundamental scientific principles. We left the morning talk discussing the nature of species and pondering: are they real or theoretical constructs?

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1859)

The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin. Prometheus Books, New York. 1998 (1874)

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