Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Saint Charles

Honestly, I’m not sure where the idea of votive candles started. An educated guess—which will have to do in my state of limited research time—is that candles, like oil lamps, began as a practical necessity in places of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques—these tended to be large rooms and sometimes featured stained glass in their windows. Even if they didn’t, sometimes people want to pray after dark. Especially after dark. In the days before electricity, a lamp or candle was an obvious choice. Over time the practice of lighting votive candles developed. Lighting a candle for someone, living or dead, symbolized saying a prayer for them. The idea is much more common in liturgical branches of Christianity than it is in strongly reformed ones. Still, it’s a comforting idea. The few times that I’ve lit a candle for someone I’ve always felt better for having done so.

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Whenever a practice becomes sacred, parody is shortly to follow. As human beings we seem to be inherently aware that we take ourselves far too seriously far too much of the time. When I go to the grocery store—usually in the aisle with the more “Catholic” ethnic foods—I glance at the large, painted votives for sale. Secretly I’m hoping I might spot one for Santa Muerte, but this far north and east of the border that’s unlikely. Our own version of Saint Death is about to take office anyway. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Charles Darwin votive candle in my stocking this past month. Intended, of course, as a novelty, there’s nevertheless something a bit profound here. What we’re praying for is the continuity of life. Evolution itself is under threat of post-truth science which is soon to receive official sponsorship. Time to light a candle and hope for the best.

I plan to keep my Darwin candle for emergencies. The idea isn’t that the figure on the candle is a deity. Those painted on the candle are the saints who have some influence in the divine hierarchy of this cold universe. When you light a candle you ask that saint to witness your prayer. I sense that many among my own political party have recently rediscovered how to pray. The beauty of a Darwin votive is that it’s non-denominational. We all evolve, whether we admit it or not. So if you can’t get yourself to a church, synagogue, or mosque on the traditional day of worship, Darwin can shed light at any time. And maybe even support a prayer for light in the coming darkness.

God’s Meteorologist

weatherexperiment“To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.“ I honestly don’t remember writing those words. A friend of my drew them out in a quote last year (perhaps the only time my book has every had such an honor) and they resonate with what a much better known writer has said. The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future was a book I bought upon first sight. Peter Moore’s story, like the science of the atmosphere, is only a small part of the whole. I glanced through the index for Increase Lapham while still in the bookstore, but despite his absence bought the tome anyway. I’m glad I did. Throughout this account of how meteorology developed in the nineteenth century religion and science are continually at play. As Moore points out, when faced with a violent storm, before any means of grasping the sheer enormity of the atmosphere existed, the only reasonable explanation was God. And it wasn’t just the clergy who believed this. Those we now recognize as scientists thought so too.

There are several key players in the drama of how we’ve come to our current understanding of the weather, but one that surprised me most was Robert FitzRoy. Everyone knows that FitzRoy was captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin’s voyage that revolutionized science for ever. Some are even aware that FitzRoy, especially after his marriage, because a staunch evangelical Christian, parting ways with Darwin so far as to wave a Bible over his head at a public debate on evolution. I, for one, had no idea that FitzRoy almost singlehandedly invented the weather forecast. And that he did so as a government employee and doing so brought the ridicule of the scientific establishment because predicting was considered the purview of unscientific minds. It was as if the world I recognize had been whirled 180 degrees around by some unseen storm.

Any book on the weather, as I’ve learned, has to include a discussion of global warming. Climate change is real, and it is something we’ve done to our own planet. In a day when statistics can be produced showing that many scientific results are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome of the experiments—even those at top universities—and we can see just how complex this web of financially motivated truth has become. Science is not pure rationality. It never has been, and it never can be as long as humans are the ones undertaking it. And we are beginning—just beginning—to see that there are some places where the wind blows freely through although those in white coats have assured us the room is sealed. This is a fascinating read and any book that makes me think I had the start of something profound to say is one I’ll buy on impulse any day.

Darwin Down the Road

Chapman TrialsThe accidents of birth are the stuff of evolution. When I first heard of Matthew Chapman, direct descendent of Charles Darwin, over a decade ago, I was determined to read his book (then new). Like the accidents of birth, the finding of books at used bookstores is also a kind of evolution, so I picked up Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir recently and finally read it. Mission accomplished. It had been long enough that I couldn’t recall what the reviews said that made me so eager to read it—I had been developing a course on science and religion at Nashotah House and had been reading about evolution—but I’m glad I got around to it. The book was neither what Chapman nor I had expected. Maybe I’d better explain.

The year 2000, apart from its millennial aspirations, was also the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Chapman, a screenwriter from England, decided to go to Dayton, Tennessee to report on the reenactment of the Scopes Trial that was caused, accidentally, by his great-great-grandfather. With acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he narrates how he missed the performance by arriving for the wrong weekend and yet how he’d already begun the book based on it. Instead of reviewing the reenactment, he wove his own life story into those of the people he met on his two trips to Dayton, and left us with an engrossing memoir. Most Europeans, we know, consider American reaction against evolution with some puzzlement. As an Englishman, Chapman shares that curiosity and also, he admits, kind of wanted to make fun of southerners. His encounters, however, forced him to realize just how human all people are.

There’s a healthy dose of exposure to some of the weird ideas of fundamentalism here, but Chapman pulls no punches. The people he met treated him kindly. Some fundamentalists were even likable, even though they could not agree on much. At turns very funny and very sad, this autobiography represents, in its own way, the tensions of any life. The sensual confessions would have made famously squeamish Darwin blush, no doubt, but demonstrate to the reader that a man who can make a lot of money writing movie scripts can be very human as well. And so can the religious. The denizens of Dayton didn’t convince Chapman that their exclusive faith was true. They did, however, open him to the realization that such faith is not as simple as it may seem. A fortnight may have passed since the millennium, but creationism has continued to gain ground. Until more people take Chapman’s cue and actually try to understand those who believe, the trial of the century will continue to go on and on, ever evolving.

Evolution’s Snapshots

DarwinsCameraIn America’s political climate any book about Darwin takes on a religious cast. As strange as it may seem, an odd equation exists between Darwin, evolution, creation, and the Bible. We forget that Darwin was a retiring man with many interests and a very keen intellect. Erstwhile groomed for the clergy, he lived at a time when much of the world was known really only to the local inhabitants, and observations were still mostly made by the human eye in person. So it was that as photography developed, a new avenue into science opened up. Darwin’s Camera, by Phillip Prodger, is a rare look into, as the subtitle says, Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Darwin wrote several books. Among them was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book was among the first scientific tomes published with photographic evidence to illustrate, if not prove, the points being made. Prodger takes us through the process by which Darwin procured and commissioned his photographs for the book and reveals some deeper truths about his life.

Interestingly, one of the sources of early photos was asylums. There was a belief, apparently, that photographs might be used diagnostically. One of the emotions that was presented to Darwin for his consideration was religious rapture. (Not that I can make any great claims here, but having experienced at least mild versions of such states—whatever their physiological cause—I know that they are powerful.) The observation comes through that religious rapture is difficult to distinguish from insanity, on the face of it. This may sound like an anti-religious slur, but it’s not. Ask around the mystics and you’ll see what I mean. Sanity has its uses, to be sure, but mysticism is all about letting go.

The only real religion in this book comes in the confrontations to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Prodger does, however, briefly delve into Darwin’s late (and brief) concern about spirit photography. Shortly after cameras were developed, photographic tricks evolved. The Victorians, as we all know, had a very palpable sense of death’s nearness. It is no accident that Spiritualism developed during this time period when a reasonable lifespan was anything but assured. Spirit photographers claimed to capture ghosts of the dead revisiting the living. Darwin, who’d lost a beloved daughter prematurely, knew what grief was. He did not, however, allow it to interfere with his critical thinking. Photographs could be used to prove a point, but they could also be used to make a false claim. Darwin’s success in his book on emotions falls somewhere in the middle. He did have to have some staged shots to illustrate his point. Ever the gentleman, however, Darwin’s decisions were made to enlighten, not to deceive. One wonders whether creationism can even remotely make that same claim.