Evolution Weekend Readings

For tonight’s study.  Feel free to answer in the comments.

Why is there variety among living things?

(nineteenth century C.E.)

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
. . . .
No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us. Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare? Yet these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant of this world. Still less do we know of the mutual relations of the innumerable inhabitants of the world during the many past geological epochs in its history. Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgement of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained — namely, that each species has been independently created — is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

* * * *
(first century B.C.E.)

The whole of life but labors in the dark.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only Nature’s aspect and her law. 
. . . .
You must not think
That all things can combine in every way,
Every conceivable pattern, for, if so,
You’d see such freaks as men-half-beasts, and boughs,
Instead of arms and legs, coming from torsos.
You’d see marine-terrestrial animals,
Chimaeras, for example, breathing fire
Out of their ugly faces, browsing over
All-mothering earth; but it is plain as day
This does not happen., since we see all things
Maintain the proper order of their kind,
Same kind of parenthood, same kind of seed
Definite causes, definite effects,
A fixed, assured procedure. In all things
The sustenance they take pervades the limbs,
The particles of nourishment combine
To set those limbs in motion. We can see
The opposite of this process also,–nature
Often casts out improper elements,
Rejects them; many elements are driven
Outward as if by blows, they cannot join
Within this frame, or that, can neither feel
Nor even feign the attributes of life.
Not only animals obey these laws,
The code applies to everything As all
Are different, so, in their origin/
They must derive from different shapes.
Of course I do not say that nothing ever looks
Like anything else, but that in general
Species are different, from different seed,
With different intervals, junctions, ways–weight, force,
Motion, and so on. Not animals alone
Are separate and distinct, one from the other,
But also land and sea, heaven and earth.

* * * *
(sixth century B.C.)

  In the beginning the Elohim made the sky and the earth, but the earth was shapeless and everything was dark. The Elohim said “Let there be light,” and there was the light that made day different from night. And that was the first day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be a dome to separate the heavens from the waters below,” and there were the heavens. And that was the second day.
      The Elohim said, “Let the waters of the earth gather so that there are seas and there is dry land,” and so it was. The Elohim said, “Let there be vegetation on the land, with plants to yield seeds and fruits,” and so it was. And that was the third day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be light in the heavens, and let them change with the seasons,” and so there were stars. Then the Elohim made a sun and a moon to rule over the day and to rule over the night. And that was the fourth day.
      The Elohim said, “Let there be creatures in the waters, and let there be birds in the skies,” and so there were sea monsters and sea creatures and birds. The Elohim blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply”. And that was the fifth day.
      The Elohim said, “Let the earth have animals of various kinds”, and so it was. Then the Elohim said, “Let us make humans after our own likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle and creeping things of the land, and over all the earth.” The Elohim said to these humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, ruling over the fish and the birds and the animals of the land. We have given you every plant and tree yielding seed. To every beast and bird of the Earth we have given every green plant for food.” And that was the sixth day.
      And on the seventh day the making of the heavens and earth was finished, and the Elohim rested.

* * * *
(tenth century B.C.E.)

    On the day that Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the land was dry and barren until a mist came up from the earth and wetted the land. Then Yahweh took dust from the earth and shaped it into the form of a man, and he breathed life into that form, and it came to life.
      Yahweh created a garden in a place called Eden. In this garden Yahweh placed all the trees that bear fruit, including the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden and watered the garden, and there it divided to become four rivers that flow to the four corners of the world. Yahweh put the man there and instructed him to cultivate the garden and to eat of whatever fruit he liked, except for fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
      Then Yahweh decided that the man should not be alone, and that he should have a helper. Thus Yahweh made the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and the man gave a name to each of them. However, none were fit to be his helper, so Yahweh made the man fall into a deep sleep and took one of the man’s ribs, and he made it into a woman. This man was Adam, and the woman’s name was Eve.
      In the garden was a snake, and the snake persuaded the woman that she could eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil without dying, and that eating the fruit would give her Yahweh’s knowledge of good and evil. She ate the fruit, and she gave some to the man too. For the first time they were ashamed of being naked, and so they made aprons for themselves.
      When the man and woman heard Yahweh in the garden, they hid from him, but Yahweh called them out and asked why they had hidden. The man explained that they hid because of their scanty clothing. Yahweh asked the man how they knew to be ashamed of nudity, and if they had eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The man explained that the woman had eaten of the fruit and given him some too. When Yahweh asked the woman, she explained that the snake had beguiled her into eating the fruit.
      Yahweh said to the snake, “Because of what you have done, you are cursed more than any other animal, and you will have to crawl on your belly in the dust, and you will be beaten by the offspring of this woman”. To the woman Yahweh said, “You will be cursed with great pain in giving birth to children, yet you will have the desire to reproduce, and your husband will rule you.” Finally, to the man Yahweh said, “Because of what you have done, the ground is cursed and you will never eat of this fruit again. You will grow plants and fields and eat bread until you die, until you become the dust from which you were made.”
      Then Yahweh said, “This man has become like us, knowing good and evil – next he will seek the tree of life and try to live forever.” Therefore Yahweh made the man and woman clothing and drove them out of the Garden of Eden, and he placed a winged half-human, half-lion creature at the Garden’s gate to keep them out.

15 replies on “Evolution Weekend Readings”

"Why are elephants big, wrinkled and grey?
"Because if they were small, smooth and white, they'd be aspirin."

This joke reveals something about "why" questions. The set up makes you think about why in terms of cause or purpose. The punch line is based on convention. I think it is possible that there is a similar distinction at work in these four pieces. Perhaps in modern times, we are more concerned with the mechanism by which things come to be, not the purpose they serve.

"modern times" or just different purposes?

Darwin was specifically asking a how question.

Lucretius was strictly asking a wherefore question.

The Hebrews were asking a how question, but had a lot of why and wherefore mixed in, because there hadn't been a materialist tradition laid down yet. The waters still mixed.

That's how I see it. I think the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus would have written a very, very different story had they written in 1852… even had they intended the same results of their text. Lucretius wouldn't have.

In other words, I think the Hebrews cared about the mechanism too, they just didn't necessarily see the difference.

I'm not really saying I think they were writing history, because in Genesis, I don't think they thought they were, certainly not. But the distinctions (between story and history) by the time of Chronicles was super unclear. Lineages mattered, but which actual biological entity issued from which actual biological womb wasn't at all the point.

Today we'd call that fudging the data, back then they'd wonder why you were trying to muddy the truth.

"Yeah, I know Judah wasn't Jehoiachin's *actual* father as in Judah had actual sex with Jehoiachin's actual mother, but I'm trying to tell these people a basic truth."

So, Darwin is very explicit in describing his methodology. Not so with the ancients. Lucetius seems to be trying the same method of developing his narrative as Darwin–I think. But, how did the Hebrew's get their story?

From where do myths come? Are they in our genes–see examples of recurring myths? Are they a product of cultural natural selection–the stories that most share the cultures values evolve and survive?

What do we make of leaving both stories in the canon?

I would imagine that the Hebrews got their stories from the cultures that preceded them, mixed with those contemporary cultures they shared their region with, mixed with the imaginations of their most charismatic story tellers.

Pretty much how we get them today.

Yeah, who knows about the intention behind the two competing stories… I think that's the strongest evidence to suggest–prove, really–that the author (or editor is maybe a better term) intended for us to know that the stories were sending a message that wasn't about historical fact.

And not adding anything explicit to explain the discrepancies says to me that the author/editor didn't care and couldn't imagine anyone ever would care.

Is it possible the editor of Genesis was hearing both these accounts in the zeitgeist and didn't want to jeopardize his relationship with Yahweh so he included them both just to cover his bases? That strikes me as totally possible given that person's general comfort level with different gods for different peoples.

Or perhaps these were in fact two origin stories known to be for the origins of two different peoples. So the Apharsites had this origin and the Sinites had this other origin, so throw them both in there since those are my intended audiences.

That can't be likely, but clearly the author/editor wasn't super concerned with an omniscient god who created the universe vs a god who could just beat up the silly Babylonian gods vs a god you could successfully hide from in a garden.

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