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Charles Darwin and Mary Anne Evans alone at the séance

Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there for this conversation? It is 1874 and spiritualism is the rage (you know: calling spirits back from the dead to knock on the pipes and lift tables off the floor). Charles Darwin and George Eliot have been invited to a séance at Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton’s house. Neither the author of such wondrous books as Middlemarch nor the founder of evolution by natural selection can abide such superstitious nonsense and stay outside and chat. Darwin is in the midst of writing his second great work, The Descent of Man, and Eliot is two years into her novel Daniel Deronda, with another two years until its publication. Both works explore identity in  beguilingly different ways. Darwin’s, our deep biological identity, and Eliot’s, our personal and social identity. In Eliot’s work the protagonist Daniel explores his Jewish Heritage, something he’s just learned about, and is trying to come to terms with. He wants to understand how that changes who he is—and how that affects the concepts that frame and structure his personal identity. Darwin’s book will do the same, forcing us to confront things about our deep biological history that are surprising and revealing, and which force us to reevaluate and reexamine what it means to be who we are. A frightening task at best.

I suspect their conversation was likely not as interesting as I fantasize. Both were in ill health. Darwin would have been uncomfortable with her flouting Victorian conventions and living openly with a married man. Neither was known for their gregarious nature. So likely after a few harrumphs about the event’s nonsense, the conversation would have turned to the pleasantness of the evening, the condition of the garden, or complaints about the terrible London air. And if I had been there I would have stammered incoherently like child visiting Santa Clause for the first time—intimidated and awed beyond speech. At best I would have bobbed up and down and muttered something awkward and conversation-stopping like, “By golly, you guys are, like, my, you know, like, pretty much, my heroes” (Beside Darwin’s works, I’ve read everything George Eliot has written (many twice), except Felix Holt the Radical, which I refuse to read because I can’t imagine life without there being just one more George Eliot to look forward to. When that is read, it will be time to slip from this mortal coil.)

Both of these two great thinkers, however, explore what our self-conception means. Who we think we are defines us and places us in relation to our lives and the lives of others past and present. What are the implications of a self-identity not grounded in spiritual realities? In biological realities? In psychological realities? In social realities? Galton, at whose house they were playing hooky from the séance, went on to be one of the main proponents of eugenics. This is the idea that some humans are flat-out biologically superior than others and that the lives of those better humans matter more than the less biologically worthy. He considered all other ideas of personal identity inconsequential compared with this biological one—with the horrors of Nazism turning out to be the intellectual offspring of his thought. What happens when our identities are not informed by all the realities that come into play and that make us a complete person? What are the dangers of not recognizing our biological, spiritual, and social heritages? Doesn’t really knowing who we are require engagement with all of these?

In the next life I’m going to try and get Darwin and Eliot together for a chat. Likely, however, I’ll just be able to gush, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you guys are . . . umm. . . well . . . you know . . . so cool!” And everyone will just be embarrassed.

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9 comments to Charles Darwin and Mary Anne Evans alone at the séance

  • Cap

    The thing is, that with all of these realities, (spiritual, biological, psychological, and social) I feel that I will never get to the bottom of any of them. They all effect my life, and I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of a lot of them. Not only do we need to have an understanding of these identities, but we need to continue to try and learn more about it. So in turn we will learn more about ourselves.

    For instance, if we don’t have a grasp on out social realities we will miss out on a lot of key things in life. To be aware of ones social surroundings is a key part of what makes us human. Also biologically what makes us human, and in turn how we can apply a spiritual understanding to all of this.

    I may be rambling on, but to me you need all of these realities, and more to really understand who you are. And also to come to terms with this life. Being aware of all of these identities, I feel will influence you in many ways as to the person you are, the things you believe, how you fit in with humanity, how you morally conduct yourself, how you view creation, how you can apply that to living now, and who God is.

  • Jeremy

    That’s a pity – Felix Holt was my introduction to the incomparable Eliot, and it is fantastic. While I certainly understand the sentiment, I wouldn’t let superstition rob you of enjoying a great work. ;)

  • Hi Steve! My husband is an ex-Science teacher and we just want to tell you that we’ve decided to becoming Steve groupies. We both love your blog! We’ve always been very passionate about the environment—a little worried that climate change and species extinction might just bring about the conditions described in the latter days, which is pretty freaky.

    We just moved to Utah from California and are feeling really discouraged about the lack of concern (or even open hostility) toward environmental issues from our fellow Saints. So, it’s nice to know we’re not alone. Keep up the great work!

    P.S. The ex-English teacher in me can’t help but mention that it wouldn’t hurt to proofread your blog entries from time to time. I know, I know… it’s no fun… But it helps your ethos. :)

  • steve

    Hi Alyssa,

    Thank you! I hope you will be a regular reader. There is a quite active online environmental group called: LDS Earth Stewardship on goggle that you might be interested in. There are some exciting thing going on there right now.

    There is the web address, but I’ve also sent you an invitation. Really do check it out.

    Alas, my ability to edit my own writing is a hopeless, quixotic quest. It is a tragic flaw that will in the end bring ruin and misfortune. Like a reindeer whose nose glows, I fear I’ve always been one for the Isle of Misfit Toys: “A writer who can’t edit or spell.” Put me next to the Charlie in the Box. ;)

  • Steve,

    A thought-provoking post. I agree that both Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) and Darwin’s work have had a major impact on how humanity views itself – Eliot for the better, and Darwin for the worse.

    Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is a masterful work that made me think inward about my social responsibility to others; to treat others with kindness and respect. Darwin’s work, on the other hand, has made me reflect on how easily people become deceived by the craftiness of men and how willing there are to renounce their divine heritage. As you say, his work has given us a profound insight into the “implications of a self-identity that is not grounded in spiritual reality.”

    While I agree that Francis Galton’s work had Hitlerian undertones, it is worth pointing out that he would have supported sterilization practices, not murder. In the field of statistics he is remembered as the father of statistical correlation, a more suitable title.

  • Tim

    As opposed to Dave, I find that Darwin’s work has had a positive affect on me.
    I know that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass…and I see this in natural selection.
    I see how we as human beings are connected to this planet that God has given us.
    In fact, I can honestly say that my testimony of the gospel has grown significantly since the time I accepted evolution (and thus accepted Darwin’s work).
    When I accept evolution (and I’ve studied it, along with intelligent design/creationism, quite a bit) I also know that I’m a child of God. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • Regarding Tim’s sentiments, I personally believe that Darwin’s work is a brilliant attempt at coming up with an empirical account of the origin of species and humanity. I like to think that I would have come up with the same theory if I had been as smart as he was and in his circumstances.
    I believe in evolution to a certain extent. The parts of evolution that I accept have the potential to enlighen people’s understanding of humanity. Specifically, I think it is possible that God relies on random events in the genome and environment to alter the life forms he placed on earth (microevolutionary change). Those alterations may please God and He may then use them in subsequent creations.
    My concern is the damage done by the idea that all life forms come from a common ancestor, thus taking God out of creation. Removing God from creation breeds atheism, agnosticism, and moral relativism.
    Some have said, “Well, perhaps God relied on evolutionary processes to create man.” I think I can safely say that this did not happen (although I would not have a problem if it did happen this way). Evolution relies on random genomic mutations. God did not use random mutations to create man because we are created in His image. There is no conceivable way we could be created in His image if our creation was left to chance.

  • steve

    Tim, I find the same thing. The more I study the natural world through the lens of evolution the more wonderful it becomes. As I said in a previous post, who is the greater computer programer: The one who has made lots of video games but constantly has to tinker with them to get them right, or the one who writes a program where the command ‘go’ creates a wonderful and breathtaking array of video games. I think the Harry Potter ‘wave of the hand’ view of God diminishes his creative abilities.

    Dave,
    Actually there are a number of faithful responses to a view where God does in fact use evolution fully to form the creation. Look at my Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion article posted on this web. Also the books mentioned in the post Sorry–A quick stop at Intelligent Design (Again) to see a number of fully compatible views of religious thinkers and evolution. Especially, Ken Miller’s books.

    . . .

    And just a reminder everyone that I’m in Vienna and your comments might not appear until I wake up tomorrow!

  • Cap

    Dave,

    I can see where you are coming from, but this is how I look at it. I do believe in evolution in its entirety, but I do not think when God created the world he said “Ok, Evolution… Go, lets see what stuff comes up in this world”. I think he knew that through all of the evolutionary changes that eventually there would be a creature ‘in his image.’ He knew this would happen. He did not have to tamper, but he did know that eventually there would be a creature that he could then have one of his spirit children inherit the body.

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