Essays in Idleness


The only certainty

Among my most irritating traits — naturally selected, perhaps, by my participation in hack journalism over the years — is conducting intelligence tests in public bars. They would perhaps be more acceptable if I announced them openly, & set each in the format of a pub quiz. But my purpose is seldom to provide entertainment. It is instead, to find out whether it is worth arguing with any given interlocutor, about some topic he has raised. I ask apparently innocent questions, or make leading remarks, in order to establish if he has the fondest idea what he is talking about. For if he doesn’t, & by his manner shows no inclination to learn, there is really no point in arguing. Were I as wise as I am irritating, I would perhaps stop arguing when there is no point. Alas, too often, I take the bait anyway.

Out “drinking with the boys” last night (only one Tuesday left until Lent!) I was reminded of a test conducted elsewhere fairly recently. This was a couple of years ago, when I found myself being verbally assaulted by a pair of dreadful Darwinoids, to whom I had just been introduced. They knew me for the dreadful anti-Darwinian from the Ottawa Citizen, & had “a problem with that.”

Soon after our conversation began, for reasons too dull to recite, I became curious to know if either understood what the word “epigenetic” means. I wasn’t looking for a technical definition, along the lines of “an alteration in the genome that does not correspond to an alteration in the nucleotide sequence,” but something more fundamental than that. Did they grasp that genes can express themselves differently, & indeed so differently that a dramatically different creature could be constructed from exactly the same genes? (The point is important, because unless fully grasped, a great deal of deterministic nonsense about genes will be spoken.)

One of them rolled off something like a technical definition, but with a mistake to suggest it had been learnt by rote. The other, with no direct biological training that I could discern, was entirely clueless. He had incidentally been the more aggressive of the two in accusing me of “Mediaeval ignorance.”

But again: I wasn’t testing for rote acquisition of neo-Darwinist jargon. I was testing for elementary comprehension of biological process. Does the pupil in this case begin to understand the dimensional depth of his error when he glibly assigns, for instance, certain fixed traits to certain fixed genes? And if not, might it still be possible to explain the matter to him, so that he can, eventually, “get” the concept? In the event, “Darwinoid A” proved possibly teachable, “Darwinoid B” definitely unteachable.

A second line of intelligence testing was then administered. Both interlocutors asserted that the essential doctrine in some neo-Darwinian “consensus” is natural selection from random mutations. Now, this is unfair even to neo-Darwinism, which does flirtatiously wink at a few decidedly non-random factors in the production of mutations that must then pass through the “selection” filter. But more fundamentally: As avowed Darwinists, did they have any idea what Darwin himself had taught? For the old bearded wonder never asserted that mutation would be “random” in the coin-flipping sense. (He was cautiously vague.) Nor did he assert that “natural selection” was the only possible filter. On the contrary, he expressly asserted that he was not asserting that. (The man knew how to cover his backside.)

This is why I feel sorry for Darwin sometimes, & even for Karl Marx. Bad as they might have been, they did not deserve their supporters. Late in life, Herr Marx supposedly exclaimed, “I am not a Marxist!” while listening to French Marxists expounding his ideas. Likewise, we might imagine Mr Darwin in ye pub, exclaiming, “I am not a Darwinist!”

The specific issue at the 21st-century pub table became the book, What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli Palmarini. The authors are a couple of explicitly atheist, cognitive science types whose training was, respectively, more philosophical & more biological. It came out in 2010, & attracted the predictable hailstorm of abuse, mostly ad hominem. That I was physically carrying a copy of this book, & moreover, produced it visibly with a recommendation, perhaps contributed to my interlocutors’ spleen.

The book is worth keeping in circulation if only because it does actually provide a good summary of the case against basic Darwinism — against the idea that “natural selection” can explain anything at all about evolution — & then against the various ways neo-Darwinists have tried to extend the definition of “natural selection” to get around this obstacle. It is a summary only: so far as I remember (my copy of the book having since been passed along) none of the arguments were original. The genius was in gathering the arguments together, updating them with recent findings, setting them in concrete logical order, then placing this slab over poor Darwin’s corpse, in the hope it might stay buried.

The authors did not argue for “intelligent design,” unless implicitly. Their point was that Darwinism — in any form at all — is absolutely useless for the purpose of explaining evolutionary developments. Its attraction has nothing to do with science, & everything to do with metaphor: it appeals because its believers desperately want it to be true. But by now we know too much biology by direct observation to entertain the notion that evolution could have any single material driver, let alone such a limply passive one. There are so many drivers — so many, many, many drivers — & such incredibly complex interactions between them — that no sequence of trial-&-error experiment, nor other empirical method, can possibly extract such a philosopher’s stone. Darwinism must perforce go the way of alchemy, astrology, phrenology, &c.

My favourite chapter in What Darwin Got Wrong was entitled, “The Return of the Laws of Form.” This is because it exhumed one of my own great heroes, the polymath Scotsman, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860—1948, & anti-Darwin to his dying day). His glorious book, On Growth & Form, used mathematical principles from physics to inquire into the phenomena of morphogenesis in biology — how living creatures acquire pattern & shape. At its heart is the knowledge that Nature is not “random” in any sense — that not even the smallest fleck of inanimate dust will or could behave randomly. And, that the “Laws of Nature” are necessarily coordinated: you can’t change one thing without changing another.

At the frontiers of biology today, these principles from physics & chemistry have come back into play, on a molecular & sub-molecular scale. Crucial things happen for comprehensible physical & chemical reasons not separate from, but integrated with, biological process — providing plain empirical paths to the destruction of materialist glibness. Yet nowhere — not even where simplicity is presented at its simplest — can we observe an isolated cause & effect. Too much is always going on for that. We are dealing with “machinery” vastly too intricate for mechanistic analysis; with “machinery” that is, simply, not machinery by the metaphor handed down from Descartes & Bacon.

That is what makes current science so interesting. The phenomena have themselves, as it were, broken from the Cartesian (& Darwinian) moulds. The Mechanical Fallacy imposed upon Nature something the evidence can no longer bear &, so far as it is honest, empirical science is left with no choice but to revert once again from smugness to wonder.

That this would be a source of distress to those deeply invested in the Mechanical Fallacy, is easy enough to understand. Their very faith in the meaninglessness of human life is threatened, along with often quite elaborate liberal-progressive (or fascist) views that depend on that faith. The most fundamental salvationist article in the Atheist creed — that through suicide one may always escape the consequences of one’s acts — is, ultimately, kicked away. Where is one to turn for certainty after that?

Nisi Dominus

“Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

My favourite musical setting for this is Monteverdi’s from his Marian Vespers of 1610. Not his only setting of the Nisi Dominus; & apparently yet another washed up recently; I have yet to hear it. The opening of this one is however so decisively otherworldly & paradisal that it will perhaps always remain in my head as the default setting for Psalm 126 (or 127 Jacobean). The gates suddenly open — the castle gate, the city gate — on the cornetts & sackbutts, the dulcian & shawm, “the krum-horns, doppions, sordumes of jolly miners” in Auden’s imagination of the scene, when he closes his Arcadian eyes to escape the heckling of an angry Utopian. Or as his “Horae Canonicae” begin:

          Simultaneously, as soundlessly,
               Spontaneously, suddenly
          As, at the vaunt of the dawn, the kind
               Gates of the body fly open
          To its world beyond, the gates of the mind,
               The horn gate & the ivory gate

Unless the Lord; for returning to the Psalm: “it is vain for you to rise before light: rise ye after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.”

Handel’s grand version is also unforgettable, made I think for Italian patrons. England missed out on the Baroque, except in music; but even in music, the English (sometimes I use this word in an old Scots way, to mean “the English-speaking peoples”) were by the 17th century too far departed from Catholicism, too insular, too moated by the Channel, to enter into the spirit of the Baroque. To this day, I myself with my Protestant heritage fight a certain tight-assed quality that prevents me from fully enjoying, first, the extravagance of the Baroque. Then second, within it, the frank humility it expresses: the falling on one’s knees before Almighty God. Conversely, less noticed, the simplicity of means quite often employed, to express an invisible grandeur.

For Baroque could move both upward & downward through the scales; could turn inside-out & outside-in. It was not designed to accommodate mediocrity, & shoddy craftsmanship. It was continuing & adapting essentially Mediaeval notions of space, as sculptural & three-dimensional, in an age when everything was going stiff again, & architecture was returning to the old pagan façade — a big flat billboard, with a surface of marble; an appliqué of showy wealth with stuffed rubble behind it. Baroque was not “progressive” like that: not arrogant & empty of chest & brain. Baroque was reactionary. It was carved, in the round, & to be seen from every angle. It had nothing to hide; it had only to deliver.

Rubens is not loved, O gorgeous Rubens is not loved, & cannot be loved even in the resplendency of his colour, until one comes to terms with the Baroque. And this cannot be done until one overcomes one’s inner wincing at the Council of Trent, & the Catholic revival after all the defeats of the Reformation. The Protestant, Bauhaus sensibility shrinks from the Baroque as it shrinks from the Cross, when it finds the bleeding Man on it. (“Stand back! It might drip on your shoes!”) Rubens more or less intends the affront he offers to every pinched sensibility & soul: he was, after all, besides a painter, a diplomat & agent in the Tridentine cause, a welcome face at Rome & Madrid. He is the embodiment of “the Spanish Netherlands,” & God I love him for it.

We wince still, even at his fleshy women, having accustomed ourselves “progressively” over centuries now to our Northern, anti-Catholic notion of what a woman should be: thin, flat, & staring, like a boy; not curved & dynamic & fulfilled. By today, we inherit the anorexic runway model of post-Protestant capitalism: the perfection of onanism & sterility. But Rubens loved woman as woman: not hard & professional; but soft, round, & unashamed of her sex. There was nothing, as it were, “unisexual” about him. And his skies open, as the heavens open in the star gate; & his light shines down as from the Sun God. He will not be pinched; he will not apologize. He will not participate in the wince of the smug & self-satisfied — when confronted by their God.

There is a fine book by John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe (1958), should gentle reader decide to take a walk through southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria. I think that might be the best way for the Northerner — so long cut off from the light — to begin absorbing the Baroque spirit; to become acclimatized, & able to cope. Germans, even Lutheran Germans, could capture it (at least, outside Prussia), by constant exposure to the Catholic fact, which would not go away. And of course Bach understands it so well, that his Mass settings fit naturally into a Catholic church. He even used, pointedly, the old Latin Catholic texts, in his later settings. And his cantatas grow more Catholic as he ages. His fuges, too, are Baroque architecture.

My maternal aunt, Mildred Holmes — a Calvinist choirmistress & organist in Cape Breton — first called my attention to this. Bach grows “broader & broader, & ever more daring, & ever more certain what he is about.” (She scandalized her congregation by playing gratis at Catholic weddings; & then scandalized them again with her explanation that as there was only one Christ, there can be only one Church for Christians.)

But it is the Monteverdi that threw open the gate, for me, on this Psalm which has long been misread in our Northern climes. We take it, as we take everything, for a kind of hell-fire warning: “Except the Lord build the house,” … the sulphur will rain down. But no, it does not rain down, it is in us. For we have taken everything with a grain of sulphur.

Read the rest of this intensely, unambiguously pro-life Psalm. It is Baroque, Rubenesque. And it is addressed, as the Douay translation makes clearer than the old KJV,  to those who “eat their bread in sorrow.” Which would mean, us, for it describes us perfectly: our scowl in response to material wealth, our resentment of gifts, our childish cupidity & childless lascivity. Curiously enough, it tells us to have babies. “Blessed is the man who has filled his desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies at the gate.” (At, for instance, the Gates of Vienna.)

This is joyous stuff. And yes, it is meant to affront the narrow, in their pokey little houses, in their mean cities, in which there is no room for God to reside. “Unless the Lord build the house”; “Unless the Lord keep the city”; unless we throw open our gates before the Risen Lord — we will live in the kind of environments in which we now live, in a world that is entirely man-made, & therefore very nasty.