Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


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.


Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.


Monkey’s Uncle

T.H.Huxley(Woodburytype)

An opinion piece in Saturday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger highlights the 150th anniversary of T. H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature this month. Well, Huxley may be forgiven for writing in the idiom of his day—he was Darwin’s contemporary after all—when he really meant humanity’s place in nature. The article, by Brian Regal, points out the common fallacy that evolution, as propounded by Darwin, says that we descended from monkeys. Quite apart from the insult to monkeys, Huxley was the one, as Regal notes, who made explicit something about which On the Origin of Species kept decidedly mum: the evolution of humans. People did not descend from monkeys. Nobody except religious opponents ever suggested that they (we) did. Evolution is a biological fact, and monkeys are evolved just as we are evolved. We had a common ancestor somewhere back a few millions of years ago.

This neverending story of religion (of some sorts) fighting evolution should capture the fascination of anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. It shouldn’t be ignored. Darwin wasn’t trying to start any fights. Huxley, well, he may have been, but with good cause. The facts, even in the 1850s, were definitely pointing to descent with modification. In fact, breeders of dogs and pigeons and other animals had known this for centuries. All that Darwin and Huxley attempted was to be intellectually honest with the evidence. It was religious believers who, reading between the lines, picked this fight. The Bible, after all, seemed to say we’d been created on day six (or day one, if you read Genesis 2 literally), and that meant science had to be wrong. Religion is used to setting its own terms. The debate is in the cathedral, not in the academy. Although by the end of the nineteenth century nearly all major branches of the church had come to some kind of understanding of the facts, the issue flared up with again around the time of the First World War with the advent of “social Darwinism.” Then, the religious objectors claimed, we did not descend from monkeys.

Funny thing is, Darwin and Huxley would’ve agreed. Instead, insidious motivation was attributed to some of the greatest minds in science. Accusations were made that everything in the lives of both Darwin and Huxley gainsaid. Natural selection made Darwin ill with its implications, but he could not shy away from the evidence. He believed in truth. Although Huxley coined the term “agnostic” to define his position, he had good reason. The biographies of these scientists are well worth reading before making accusations. So as we stand (or more likely, sit) on the sesquicentennial of Man’s Place in Nature, it might be a good opportunity to assess whence the friction is arising. We claim, in our still limited understanding, that monkeys can’t speak. (I’ve seen the movies and I know differently, nevertheless…) If they could, I imagine the debate would go something like this: “those hairless creatures who say that we are less important than they, they have the audacity to claim a common ancestor with us? Maybe evolution is a myth after all.”


Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.


Shelley, Byron, Trelawny, and Ahab

“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.

Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.

Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.


Sleeping with Darwin

Although I’m hardly capitalism’s biggest fan, it would be difficult to overestimate how much the closing of Borders last year has affected my life. It is formidable to explain, as I sometimes must, to friends who don’t find books as irresistible as I do, how the simple pleasures of knowing a friendly bookstore was in town could make the world seem a little less cruel. There were towns that I instantly identified with the Borders located within their borders. Towns I rarely visit any more. All of this is by way of preface to explain the book I just finished. As the last desultory books lugubriously lined the shelves, my wife and I went through picking up titles we supposed we might have not found any other way. One of those titles was the little travelogue Darwin Slept Here by Eric Simons.

My admiration for Charles Darwin began when I realized that the Creationist venom I’d been bloated with from early days had been misguided. There was a fascination with this “evil” of evolution I’d been taught to shun. As I began to read more objective accounts, I realized Darwin possessed a keen, if tortured, mind that could not rest with half-truths and theological figure-fudging. In his account of following Darwin’s tracks in South America, Simons’ narrative not so much takes evolution any further, but presents a portrait of a world that has continued to evolve. In lives filled with uber-capitalism, where would a young person find five years to sail off on a voyage of discovery? Where would the health insurance come from? The 401K? The dental? As a species, humanity has been utterly domesticated.

Once in a while I dream of the Galapagos. I think of Easter Island and smile. So many places I will never be able to go. I spent three years specializing in Ugaritic studies and I will never make it to Syria—not on an editor’s salary. Not as an American. The world that we’ve constructed opens travel to the young who rarely have the resources to enjoy it. After seminary I spent six weeks in Israel. Young and healthy and heavily in debt, I at least glimpsed the sun setting over Jerusalem before getting hog-tied into the economy. Simons’ little book will not make him a millionaire, but as I read his reflections of rainforests, youth hostels, and rental cars on the Pampas, I thought where our world would be now had Darwin not been of a family of means. So much of our health care is based on understanding evolution. We would not be chained to our desks by threats of a slow, painful, and perfectly legal death without health insurance. We would be subject to biblical literalists who rejected the tenets of science— Come to think of it, perhaps we’d all better make tracks while we still can.


Darwin’s Descendents

The plague that goes by the name of Creationism has been attempting to spread its reach to the shores of Britain. Proponents of a biblical literalism, whether overt or covert, have championed the idea that the world is terribly young—a mere cosmic toddler, in fact—compared to the vast geological ages of actual fact. When I unfolded my first ten-pound note and found Charles Darwin on the back, I smiled. England may claim a lion’s share of the heritage of one of the great unifying theories of science. In my brief jaunts between bouts of work I came across the tombstone of Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” On a visit to Kew Gardens I strolled through the Evolution House. When I paid for my lunch, Darwin passed hands as the common currency of the realm.

Ten pound note

A school of thinking exists among many religious believers that insists that if science makes its claims justly then God cannot condemn them. Evolution runs as close to fact as does atomic theory. Those who doubt the latter should visit Hiroshima. Or Three Mile Island. Our literalist companions certainly don’t doubt nukes, but then, the Bible is mum on the subject of what things are really made of. Well, almost. According to Genesis 1, everything is made of chaos and divine words. The Bible doesn’t describe the origin of chaos—it is the natural state of things. God’s word, when it generates uranium, can be very deadly indeed.

Evolution House

Creationists selectively choose which science to believe and which to reject. Fundamentalism can trace its origins to Britain, but the culture rather quickly outgrew these childish fantasies. In America literalism sank deep roots, roots deep enough to withstand the hurricanes of reason that would otherwise clear the air. Can an American imagine Darwin sharing the money which reads “in God we trust”? And yet, Darwin lies scarcely two meters from Isaac Newton in England’s holiest shrine of Westminster Abbey. Science and religion have here embraced one another. Perhaps when we put all the monkey business aside, we will come to realize that we may still have a thing or two to learn from the nation of our founders. Literally.

Darwin at rest


Abbey Rood

On the long flight home from London, experiences during my brief free time play back in my head in a continuous loop. One monument to civilization I wanted my daughter to experience was Westminster Abbey. I would liked to have taken her to St. Paul’s as well, but churches are just too expensive to visit. I’ve written before about our drive to visit places of significance, the urge toward pilgrimage that is as old as humanity itself. (Perhaps even earlier.) Because of the reach of the British Empire, events that have taken place in Westminster have affected people all over the world. The cream of the British crop is buried there. To see them, however, you need to pay an unhealthy sum of money. “Money changers in the temple,” as my wife aptly observed. And once inside photography is prohibited. How easy simply to become a slab of marble hazily remembered in the mind of an overstimulated tourist. There is no way to absorb it all.

The church has fallen on hard times in much of Europe. Speaking to several Brits the real interest seems to be in Islam, a religion clearly on the rise in the United Kingdom. During a brief respite from work, during which I ducked into the British Museum, the queues were out the door for an exhibit on the hajj. Tickets for the exhibit were sold out. Meanwhile, across town, the Church of England charges a visitor 16 pounds even to enter the great minster with roots in the eleventh century. Christianity and capitalism have become inextricably intertwined. A building as massive as Westminster, let alone St. Paul’s, must be costly indeed to maintain. These have become, however, icons to culture rather than religion. Their value in that regard cannot be questioned.

Standing beside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, it is noteworthy how few clerics buried in the Abbey maintain such a draw. Kings, queens, knaves and aces of many suits may abound, but apart from the eponymous Archbishop of Canterbury, few men and women of the cloth stand to gain our attention. The nave soars high overhead and the crowds of sightseers jostle one another to get a view of the sarcophagus that now houses the dusty bones of those whose names endlessly referenced from our childhoods vie for admiration. The sign says “no photography,” and the docents throughout the building cast a suspicious eye on anyone holding a camera. How jealous Christendom has become in a land of secular advance. I stand next to Sir Isaac Newton and contemplate how the seeds of destruction are often planted within the very soil that surrounds the foundations of mighty edifices of yore.