Evolution, Ethics, Beauty
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the 1974 lecture we are serializing, Poetry Is of Man, Eli Siegel discusses an article which, he says, “I regard as one of the most important articles that ever appeared in any journal.” It appeared in early 1850 in the Quarterly Review, and is an unsigned review of five books having to do with the development of species, including the human species. Two of the books are by James C. Prichard, a writer now little known, but whom Mr. Siegel respected very much.
Prichard and the anonymous reviewer are courageous in saying then, with firmness and logic, that all of humanity, whatever one’s race, arose from a common source. This was nine years before Darwin’s Origin of Species. “Prichard,” said Mr. Siegel, “was one of the first who said definitely: all people come from one source. That meant a good deal in 1850, because there were attempts to show that some people should be slaves.”
In this important lecture Mr. Siegel is presenting, at times from an anthropological and geological point of view, the very basis of Aesthetic Realism: that the structure of reality, which includes humanity, is aesthetic—it’s a oneness of such opposites as sameness and difference, many and one, rest and motion, order and freedom. And the oneness of these opposites is what we see, hear, feel in art—in every good painting, dance, instance of music, drama, poetry.
Aesthetics vs. Injustice
I’ve said in previous commentaries that the answer to racism and to other injustice is in this great lecture.
We need to feel we’re at once like and different from another person—whether that person is our mother or somebody of a different nation or background. But mainly in life, we make these opposites separate. So much domestic misery comes because we’ve made certain people “ours”—perhaps a parent, sibling, spouse. We feel we own them; that is, we’ve made them falsely like us—mere adjuncts to us. And in so doing, we’ve wiped out their mystery, annulled their distinction, flattened them.
Then, we make other people only different from us, and we can use anything to do that: their difference of skin tone, language, even style of dress. When we see someone as different and don’t see that within their difference is a tremendous, central likeness to ourselves, we’re cold, and we’ll be deeply—and sometimes viciously—mean.
Aesthetic Realism has explained what it is that makes us be wrong in this way about sameness and difference. The cause is contempt, the false feeling everyone has that we’ll get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” We lessen people by wiping out now the distinction of another person, now a person’s likeness to us. The one thing that can have us be steadily, proudly kind is to see that our relation to every other person is an aesthetic relation: a oneness of difference and sameness. And in this lecture, Mr. Siegel is showing that the very structure of humanity as such is that aesthetic oneness of opposites. What we need to see in order to be kind is ratified by science itself!
Evolution: A Study in Relation
Along with being immensely serious and careful in this discussion, Mr. Siegel is also casual, playful, humorous. The discussion is, in various ways, about evolution, and today we have the amazing sight of persons trying to make Darwinian evolution seem questionable after these many years. Therefore I’ll comment a little on what some, at least, of the anger about evolution has come from since 1859.
In the preface to his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Mr. Siegel writes: “Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.” Evolution is one of the great tributes to, one of the great showings of, the fact that a person is related to the rest of the world. We have to do, not only with our uncles and cousins, but with some being who crawled from water onto land millions of years ago.
The biggest fight within every person, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the fight between the desire to respect what’s not us and the desire to have contempt for it. The desire to respect reality is the desire to feel that we have to do with everything—that we’re related (and not just theoretically) to all things, beings, people, near and far in time and space.
But if we want to feel superior, if we want to have contempt, we have to hate relation in the fullest sense. We’ll consent to see ourselves as related to certain things and people. We may cultivate our genealogy, try to trace our family over ten generations. We may want to see ourselves as related to the college we graduated from, or a political party. But the idea that we’re related to everything and everyone and every creature is repugnant to our conceited sense of self—because if we’re connected to everything, how can we feel picked out and supreme?
Much of the objection to evolution, in the 19th century and now, has come from the same source as the objection people had to Galileo when he showed that the earth revolved around the sun. My earth (a person could feel) a mere planet?! Never! My earth has to be special, has to be the center of the universe—the way my mother made me the center of the universe! Likewise, my species, Homo sapiens, could not be part of long and continuous evolution! It has to be a “special creation,” because I want to feel I’m special and separate—and supreme.
I’m not condemning persons who have questioned Darwin with a desire really to see what is so. I’m also not criticizing a true desire to relate what religion is to what science is. I’m saying that the preponderant dislike of evolution comes not from religion but from what true religion itself opposes: contempt. The Observer of London (13 Jan. 2002) notes that there are persons
involved in social policy [who] hate natural selection, says [biologist John] Maynard Smith. “...They want to believe we are isolated from the animal kingdom.”
The desire to feel oneself as separate, unrelated—and “special” in a way that makes what’s different from oneself apart and inferior—is the source of all ethnic prejudice. It is also the thing that can make Darwinian evolution, in its grandeur and beauty, appear an offense.
So I quote a sentence of Darwin from the conclusion of Origin of Species. Whatever else, it is fine English prose:
When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.
Darwin is saying, in accord with Aesthetic Realism, that our distinction, our nobility, is not at odds with our relation, but comes from it.