The Life Force Speaks to G.B.S. Out of the Evolutionary Whirlwind

In our last post, we touched on Bernard Shaw’s all but single-handed creation of a “religion of the future”: Life Force Worship. Not surprisingly, a faith in which God does not exist (yet) was not widely welcomed by the conventionally religious. Perhaps more surprising is the animus Shaw got from the scientifically literate—an animus that still persists today.

Shaw’s friend H. G. Wells, himself a former pupil of T. H. (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) Huxley, told Shaw that his religion embodied “an almost encyclopedic philosophical and biological ignorance.” And Richard Dawkins remembers with shame that “my own appreciation of Darwinism as a teenager was held back for at least a year by Shaw’s bewitching rhetoric in Back to Methuselah.”

Why such hostility? In the spirit of Story, let’s play with this question in a free-verse fable — with an accompanying video …

He was sitting there minding his own business and trying his best to write a potboiler replete with adulterous affairs and a couple of good sword fights when it had him round the throat again demanding:

“How dare you disobey me thus?
I who made the fish to thirst for the air and create nostrils for itself and feet so it could walk upon the earth:
I who made the giraffe to stretch its neck to attain the green beauty of the leaves:
and the mouse to insist on wings and arrange them out of its own flaccid flesh so it might fly in the dark like a bird:
and apes like you to seek more mind out of muddled mute sludge over eons of hit-and-miss attempts:
a mind to be my pilot and my guide and you use it to feed your own greedy face.”

“There you go spewing Lamarckian nonsense again,” said he.
“And if that isn’t bad enough you make me talk it too:
mystical gobbledygook that flummoxes science and slurs divinity and goads all sentient clusters of cells subscribing to fact or faith to shout ‘Blasphemy!’ from the bowels of billion-year-old lungs:
and who can blame them?
And to make matters worse you make me believe it myself:
you make me a cursed genetic freak and a puncture on the face of life and a damned mutation with no like organism to breed more of my kind with:
you make me to speak with such infernal roundabout wit that my fellow creatures are too delighted by how I say things to pay the first shred of attention to what I have to say:
just as you did with Jesus Christ damn you:
and now I demand to know if I’m to be crucified like he was.”

“Certainly not,” it replied. “You’ll live to be ninety-four.”

“Too old to be martyred and too young to learn,” he moaned.

“Remember the giraffe,” said the Life Force out of the Chaos.

A Play and an Idea

“… and did you know that William Jennings Bryan died on the last day of the trial, right there in the courtroom?”

I was sitting in a café listening to two customers at another table holding forth about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. They seemed to be valiantly trying to outdo each other for ignorance. For absolutely nothing they said was historically true.


William Jennings Bryan

No, William Jennings Bryan didn’t die that day in the courtroom. He died in his sleep five days after the trial ended. And no, John Scopes was not a biology teacher but a high school football coach. And no, the text Scopes got into trouble for teaching was not Darwin, but a chapter in George William Hunter’s textbook A Civic Biology. And so on, and so on, and so on …

None of this misinformation surprised me. All of it comes from Inherit the Wind, that perennially popular 1955 drama by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Neither Lawrence nor Lee ever claimed that their play had much to do with history. In a 1996 interview, Lawrence explained that it was really intended as a parable attacking the McCarthyism of its era …

It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.

Nevertheless, Inherit the Wind is all-too-widely accepted as a factual account of the trial.

Now why should this bother me? It’s not that I object to the play’s status as a rousing polemic against Creationism. Pat and I are passionately devoted to evolutionary thought, and we’re constantly exchanging and discussing the latest news stories about discoveries in natural history. To us, the simple fact of evolution is wonderfully and endlessly pertinent to our ongoing fascination with Story.

But as a storyteller, I think that a cultural milestone as momentous as the Scopes Trial merits a more reliable account than you’ll find in Inherit the Wind. And the politically progressive William Jennings Bryan deserves fairer treatment than the character assassination he has suffered from being equated with his fictional proxy, the laughable but dangerous buffoon Matthew Harrison Brady.

Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow

The actual Scopes Trial and the media circus surrounding it were quite melodramatic enough without recourse to Lawrence and Lee’s extravagant distortions. And the trial did not bring out the best in either Bryan or his nemesis Clarence Darrow, especially during Darrow’s climactic cross-examination of Bryan. Bryan managed to fit perfectly the image that Darrow had drawn of him as a Bible-thumping bigot. And by embarking upon an obsessive (if also eloquent and effective) defense of science against religion, Darrow succeeded in botching what ought to have been a fairly straightforward legal defense of free speech. Despite all this, a deeper historical and intellectual subtext lies beneath all the melodrama.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould offered a remarkably nuanced view of both Bryan and the trial itself in his essay “William Jennings Bryan’s Last Campaign,” which appeared in his 1991 collection Bully for Brontosaurus. And now I’d like to do likewise.

In our next post, I’ll offer a sort of 10-minute thumbnail revision of Inherit the Wind. In it I hope to portray both Bryan and Darrow somewhat more favorably than they did themselves in 1925.

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie

Spencer Tracy and Frederick March in the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind”

P.S. to “That Other Darwin”

In my previous post, I certainly didn’t mean to “diss” Charles Darwin by calling him the “consummate hedgehog.” The world of ideas must have its hedgehogs as well as its foxes. It is true that Charles’s überfox grandfather Erasmus anticipated a lot of evolutionary theory, including Natural Selection, many years before Charles got around to it. Charles’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, also figured out the basics. But neither Erasmus nor Wallace gathered the sheer weight of evidence needed to make their ideas stick. It took the world’s greatest hedgehog to do that.

And Charles came by his ideas the hard way, with no noticeable influence from his grandfather. True, he read a book by Erasmus when he was seventeen “in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me.”

Charles’s way was longer and more tortuous. To begin with, he had to let himself be amazed and puzzled by the sheer diversity of life he observed during his youthful, legendary, worldwide journey aboard HMS Beagle.

In an age in which the first two chapters of Genesis were almost unanimously accepted as the final authority on natural history, what was young Charles to suppose upon seeing his first platypus in Australia? Why would an all-creating God scatter such anomalous creatures in entirely different parts of the world? His earliest speculation was about as far from evolution as you can get:

An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.”

“Two distinct Creators”! It was as heretical an idea as Natural Selection would later prove to be. But young Darwin was not an “unbeliever”—not yet, anyway. Soon after his encounter with the freakishly odd platypus, he took comfort in noticing that the Australian antlion larva was very similar to a European species. Such a resemblance, he thought, could be no cosmic coincidence:

Now what would the sceptic say to this? Would any two workmen ever have hit upon so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so: one Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.

“One hand” creating, of course, in a manner consistent with Genesis. But Charles Darwin’s Story was just getting started.



Shared Story

How much are we shaped by stories told by others?

I left that question hanging at the end of my last post. As it happens, the ever-popular neurologist Oliver Sacks touched on it in a recent article. In his 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Sacks recalled a childhood incident that took place during the London Blitz of 1940-41. Here’s how he described it in his book:

[A]n incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire—indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.

Not surprisingly, the incident was seared on Sacks’s memory in fearsome detail. But after his memoir was published, Sacks found out something alarming. He hadn’t been at home during the time of the firebombing. He had learned about it via a letter from his brother—a letter so vivid that the incident eventually became, for him, indistinguishable from a true memory.

Sacks’s error prompted him to consider how our memories can be altered by written accounts, photographs, verbal narratives, and countless other sources. He realized that “source confusion” leads not only to “fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections” of memory, but to “great flexibility and creativity”:

It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Devoted as we are to the topic of Story (with a capital S), and also to collaboration, Pat and I might put it this way:

Consciousness itself is an act of collaborative storytelling.

So to return to my question, “How much are we shaped by stories told by others?” The answer would seem to be, “Enormously.” And all of our lives are richer for it. As the late psychologist Julian Jaynes pithily put it,

We are all subjects, one of another.

Concerning Bones and Thrones and Parking Lot Stones

640px-King_Richard_IIIIt’s a story perfectly suited for a blog entitled “Story.”

I mean the recent unearthing of the bones of King Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester—a discovery so fresh that the bones are still cold, so to speak. The find has me thinking about another king, a currently reigning queen, and the power of Story to shape their lives and ours.

Not surprisingly, the find has rekindled that hoary debate about the character of the Plantagenet monarch, who reigned between 1461 and 1483. His popular image comes from Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard III, in which he is portrayed as murderous and conniving, both physically and morally deformed. The real Richard, who reigned from 1483 until his death in 1485, seems to have been a well-meaning reformer whose good works were thwarted by the brevity of his reign.

All that’s unfair, of course. But I can’t help fretting about a monarch even more unjustly reviled than Richard III, and that’s King Macbeth of Scotland. Once again, the Bard is the chief culprit in his defamation.

As Garry Wills shows in his book Witches and Jesuits, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is as much a propaganda piece as it is a literary masterpiece. Written in the wake of the notorious, failed “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 to blow up the British Parliament, the play is filled to the brim with scarcely veiled flattery to the reigning King James I, who claimed descent from the play’s King Duncan and quasi-mythical Banquo. If Shakespeare’s earlier Richard III was a paean to Tudor rule under Elizabeth, Macbeth was a paean to the ascendency of the Stuarts under James.

Shakespeare’s story has precious little to do with facts. King Duncan, whom Shakespeare portrays as blameless, kindly, and fatally naïve, was actually a cruel, aggressive, war-mongering, and rather incompetent tyrant whose six-year reign was bloody and oppressive. Macbeth had good reason to get rid of him, and he did so in open combat, not while he lay asleep as a guest in his castle.

As for Macbeth himself, Scotland greeted him as a welcome change and prospered under his reign of nearly two decades. He ended long wars, generously supported monasteries, preserved the Celtic language and traditions, and made a holy pilgrimage to Rome. Macbeth’s defeat by Malcolm in 1057 with English aid was nothing for the Scots to cheer about.

As Marc Antony said of the title character in Julius Caesar,

The evil that men do lives after them:
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

And so let it be with both Richard III and Macbeth. But let’s pause to consider the power of Story to transform a person’s life. Is the Richard III whose bones lay under that parking lot fundamentally more real than Shakespeare’s “subtle, false, and treacherous” Machiavellian fiend? And is the historically benign Macbeth more real than Shakespeare’s murderous necromancer?

The cognitive philosopher Daniel C. Dennett once chatted with the fictional Hector Glasco about the supremacy of public image over private reality:

I remember some years ago seeing on the BBC in England a series of interviews with young schoolchildren … about Queen Elizabeth II. And they were asked, “Well, what does she do? Tell us about her day.” And it was fascinating. These children were very sure they knew exactly what the queen did. For instance, she vacuumed Buckingham Palace while wearing her crown. And she sat on her throne while she watched television, things like that. It was wonderful. And it struck me then that [the children’s beliefs about] Elizabeth II … had a much more important role to play in British social history than the actual living woman … and also had a certain power over her.jvpold-new

So let it be with Queen Elizabeth II.

And as for the rest of us …
… how much are we shaped by stories told by others?