Saturday, February 29, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging III

Darwin became enchanted by the tropical jungle that he saw when the Beagle arrived in Bahia in February, 1832. They sailed down the east coast of South America, stopping in Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. Considerable time was spent in Tierra del Fuego, and there was also a trip to the Falkland Islands. Darwin made several long expeditions inland on the continent, during which he collected plant and animal specimens, along with fossils. He was well-liked by the officers and the crew, and this upset an ambitious naturalist who had come along in a more official capacity than Darwin, and the naturalist left the ship. Darwin accumulated crates of specimens and fossils that were shipped back to Henslow in Cambridge from various ports along the way. Besides this, he became more than ever before a full-scale outdoorsman, and he hunted game to supply the ship with food. He rode with gauchos on the Pampas and was stalked by bloodthirsty natives, reminding me of Blood Meridian. On that occasion, Darwin feared for his life for the first time.

For this voyage, FitzRoy had brought three Fuegians whom he had earlier taken to England, in order to return them home. While in England, they had been taught English, proper table manners, and dressed accordingly. Darwin became interested in them in a way that later affected his views on evolution. They had easily adapted to life in England, and Darwin was inclined to see them as members of his species. At the time, that was not a settled view, and others thought that various indigenous groups comprised separate species. It was a great shock to everyone on the Beagle to see the Fuegians quickly revert to their previous lifestyle, walking naked in that dismal landscape.

From June, 1834 to September, 1835, the Beagle sailed up the west coast of South America, stopping in Valparaiso, Copiapó, Iquique and Callao. On this leg of the trip, Darwin became more interested in geology. He and FitzRoy read recent works by Charles Lyell, who was revolutionizing geology at the time with the concepts of gradual change and the effects of subterranean pressures on the surface. It seems likely that this version of gradualism also influenced Darwin's theory of evolution. As luck would have it, they witnessed both a volcanic eruption and an earthquake. FitzRoy took measurements of a rise in the land following the earthquake and sent the information indirectly to Lyell.

While in Valparaiso, Darwin had an extended illness of uncertain origin and became homesick. At that time, FitzRoy was in a foul mood, because the Admiralty had censured him for overspending, and he threatened to resign his position. FitzRoy, who, according to Browne, showed signs of instability (manic depression?) throughout his life, had a violent row with Darwin then. However, by the time that Darwin had recovered and they had seen the volcanic eruption together, their friendly relationship had resumed.

After Callao, the Beagle set off for the Galápagos Islands, where they stayed from September to October in 1835. Darwin noticed that the species were slightly different from one island to another. They then set off for Tahiti, where they stayed for a few days in November, 1835.

As you can see, the voyage is taking far longer than originally proposed. They're already nearly four years into a trip that was supposed to take two, and they're not even halfway around the world. As noted earlier, Browne's account is quite adequate, but I would prefer a more succinct version with less verbatim use of original source material. For me, the main points could be made with far fewer words. Browne is also a little short on analysis, and I would find it more helpful if she had devoted more space to Darwin's psychological development and how his Beagle period informed his later theories. At least it's obvious that his voyage on the Beagle was a watershed experience that profoundly affected Darwin for the remainder of his life.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging II

The pace of the book is so slow that I find it a little tedious. After more than two hundred pages I'm only up to 1832, when Darwin was 23. So much detail is provided from letters, diaries and other documents that it reads almost like a novel. Part of the problem is that, so far, Darwin hasn't distinguished himself in any way, and it is a little painful to watch him develop into a functional adult. At the moment he is a mediocre student whose father has made futile efforts to start him in a career while showering him with money. Besides showing no vocational talents, Darwin also lacks social skills and is somewhat physically unattractive, in part because of his large nose.

During the 1825-1826 college year in Edinburgh, Charles had simply accompanied his brother, Erasmus, and neither of them mingled with people at the university. In the 1826-1827 year, without Erasmus, though Charles didn't like his medical studies, he socialized a little and made friends. He joined the Plinian Society, a student group which engaged in discussion of a wide range of topics, and he walked with friends along the shore looking for marine specimens. At the close of that school year, his father decided that, since a medical career wasn't in the cards, Charles should become a clergyman. To that end, a tutor was hired to brush up Charles's Latin, Greek and mathematical skills so that he might gain admission to Cambridge. In January, 1828 Charles began studies there at Christ's College, which his brother had attended.

The intellectual atmosphere in Cambridge was far more stimulating than in Edinburgh. Almost immediately, Charles began a friendship with John Stevens Henslow, a professor of botany and a mineralogist. Henslow became his mentor and was subsequently influential with respect to Charles's career advancement. This was a boom period in the natural sciences, and Charles met Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology. In the summer of 1831 they traveled together to Wales on a field expedition. Of course, Charles took no interest in studying for the clergy, and he engaged in a lot of outdoor activities while in college. He took a horse with him and liked to hunt. He became proficient at shooting and often went out in search of game birds. He also developed a romantic interest in Fanny Owen, a potential wife who seems as if she came right out of a Jane Austen novel.

Having received his B.A. in 1831, his father's plan was for Charles to return to Cambridge in October for a D.B., or Bachelor of Divinity, which would qualify him for the clergy. Charles hoped instead to travel with friends to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to study natural history, and his father opposed that idea. As luck would have it, unbeknownst to Charles, Henslow had put him forward for a position on the Beagle, which the Admiralty was preparing to embark on a geographical and hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego and then continue around the world on a voyage that would last two years. The position did not have technical responsibilities, and its main purpose seems to have been to provide a suitable companion for the captain, Robert FitzRoy. However, the companion would be permitted to collect specimens and record observations as a naturalist. Although FitzRoy was an aristocrat and a Tory and Darwin was not an aristocrat and came from a Whig family, FitzRoy took a liking to him when they met and he was selected for the position. Browne goes to some length explaining how Darwin benefited from the wide-reaching Cambridge network that was in place to dole out positions for the ruling class. In this case, it was an unpaid position, and Darwin had to pay all of his expenses, which were substantial. Of course, his father disliked the scheme and listed several objections. Fortunately, Charles prevailed upon an uncle to defend him and won the argument.

As far as I've read, the Beagle has made it to South America, Charles has often been seasick, and his potential girlfriend, Fanny, has dumped him by marrying someone else just as soon as the Beagle had departed.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging I

This is the first of two biographical volumes on Charles Darwin written by Janet Browne, who has spent much of her career studying Darwin's life and ideas. There are more than a thousand pages in all, not counting notes, so this may take me longer to finish than usual. It is fairly light reading but also thorough, and Browne covers Darwin's entire social background with perhaps more detail than I would prefer. I'm hoping that her knowledge and insights will keep the reading lively. Darwin was a prototypical naturalist, and I like the way that he developed his theories, but, as is already apparent, he was a product of his time.

Darwin was born into a wealthy family. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a medical doctor who had trained at Cambridge and Edinburgh and was influenced by Scottish enlightenment figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Erasmus's first son, Charles (1758-1778), followed in his father's footsteps but died while studying medicine in Edinburgh. It then fell upon his second son, Robert (1766-1848), to study medicine. Robert also trained in Edinburgh and later married Susanna Wedgwood, a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the wealthy potter. Robert and Susanna settled in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, near the Welsh border, and raised a family. Robert was one of three doctors in the town, but he made most of his money through investments and was a shrewd person with good judgment. Although the family wasn't religious or ostentatious, they fit the model that is found in Jane Austen novels and, for example, made trips to Bath, like many families of comparable social rank. Charles had four sisters and one brother and was the fifth child, born in 1809. His mother died when he was eight, but his sisters seem to have made up for her absence, and he hardly remembered her after he grew up. His brother, Erasmus (1804-1881), was five years older and a friend and mentor throughout his childhood.

Charles was initially home-schooled but then accompanied his brother at Shrewsbury School, which was a boarding school only a mile from their house. Boys like Charles spent much of their time outdoors collecting insects, plants, rocks, or whatever they could find. Chemistry was a new and exciting subject in school, and he and Erasmus set up their own makeshift laboratory to conduct experiments. Erasmus was a much better student than Charles, and he left Shrewsbury for Cambridge. Charles was poor at languages and mathematics, and was therefore not well-qualified for the usual college curriculum. When Erasmus finished at Cambridge he moved on to Edinburgh in 1825 for a year-long course in medicine, and Charles left Shrewsbury to accompany him.

Erasmus completed the program in Edinburgh but disliked the university and the city. After Cambridge, he found the students crude. In those days, academic standards were almost nonexistent in medicine. There was no fixed curriculum for most students, and a degree wasn't necessary to practice medicine. The faculty consisted of independent agents who were paid by the number of students who enrolled in their classes, and they designed their classes to attract as many students as possible. Furthermore, they competed with freelance tutors not affiliated with the university. Besides this, the admissions criteria were loose, and the classes were filled with rowdy students as young as fourteen. When Erasmus left in 1826, Charles stayed and pursued a medical course until 1827. However, he disliked blood and, as far as I've read, he is on the verge of dropping out.

So far, the book is notably slow-moving, and I may have to pick up my reading pace to remain interested. By the age of eighteen, Darwin hadn't stood out much. He was introverted, unathletic and not naturally talented in the standard academic curriculum of the time. However, as I'm sure will become apparent later, his relaxed childhood and financial resources helped him develop into the leading scientist of his century.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Sociology of Philosophy I

I had been hoping to start a new book by now, but it's coming from England and hasn't arrived yet. Therefore, I've decided to write a little about the sociology of philosophy, which falls within the broader topic of the sociology of academia and resembles the sociology of creative writing programs, which I touched upon earlier. I'm not primarily interested in the content of the academic fields discussed, and for me this is a more general analysis of human behavior in academic settings. The reason why I'm writing about philosophy is that I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and attended graduate school briefly. This is not a topic that I would ordinarily think about much now, but I occasionally look at 3 Quarks Daily in search of new reading materials, and S. Abbas Raza, the editor, has a graduate degree in philosophy and likes to include articles by philosophers. I usually skip them, but occasionally I read ones by Justin E.H. Smith, and this keeps me peripherally aware of the field. I have also occasionally viewed videos or listened to podcasts with Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci, two other philosophers whom Raza likes.

This subject goes way back for me, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I became interested in philosophy and why I eventually became disillusioned with it. I think many people enter the field of philosophy because they have broad interests stretching from mathematical and scientific areas to literature and the arts, and they don't want to specialize and become scientists, engineers, writers or artists. This is the kind of information that never presents itself directly to you, and you have to sort it out by yourself over many years. After thinking about it for a long time, I decided that my undergraduate philosophy department faculty included a few confused pastors. In the four years that I spent there, no one told me that the only tenured faculty had studied theology at some point in their educations. They were good students who initially thought that they would become clergymen; most of them ended up attending divinity school and subsequently got Ph.D.'s in philosophy. Thus, through a series of unpredictable events, they became philosophy professors at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. I don't think that any of them were talented at philosophy, and it seems that they came to it by accident. Because of this, they were unable to deal with philosophy majors who had no interest in theology.  My own background was quite different, and I simply liked the college environment, wasn't a particularly good student and didn't want to specialize. I certainly had no interest in theology. By the time I arrived in graduate school, philosophy seemed like pointless rote learning centered on the writings of mediocre thinkers. This thought was completely beyond the scope of my undergraduate professors.

Just to give an example, let me repeat what I said earlier about moral philosophy, which, in my experience, is a complete waste of time. If you study it, you may learn about Kant's categorical imperative. I have concluded that it is nothing more than a warmed-over version of the golden rule, which has been around since the Bible. I now think that more headway was made by E.O. Wilson, the entomologist, than moral philosophers were able to make collectively over thousands of years. This was simply the identification of humans as a eusocial species and the establishment of a connection between moral behavior and DNA. A lot of what passes for philosophy is simply an extension of theological reasoning dating from the Middle Ages. In the case of morality and ethics, I think it best to start from scratch and begin with human genetic predispositions, because without them we wouldn't have any moral tendencies. Wilson himself has little interest in this field, and the task is left to others.

Another example of why I dislike philosophy is the case of Daniel Dennett. On the surface you would think that I would find him appealing, because he is very science-oriented and his theories are more empirical than those of most philosophers. However, I attended one of his lectures several years ago and found him to be a windbag. He has an excellent academic background and is extremely knowledgeable, but he hasn't really developed a distinctive worldview that might differentiate him from an ordinary scientist. Unfortunately, Dennett tows the line as an academic philosopher and spouts faddish philosophical terms such as "qualia," which strikes me as slightly idiotic. I find that philosophers habitually obfuscate fairly straightforward scientific ideas, and that it is better to go directly to the science. In this vein, I'm also unhappy with Justin E.H. Smith, who is one of the most elegant philosophical writers you're likely to come across, but whose writings never seem to have any practical applications; I see him more as an entertaining writer than as a substantive one. I am guessing that he drifted into philosophy because he liked to write, but writing alone does not make a good philosopher, and he consistently lacks the depth of a serious thinker.

Perhaps the person whose life best sums up my thoughts on philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He came from a wealthy Viennese family and had wide cultural exposure. For example, one of his sisters posed for Gustav Klimt. His interests tended to be technical, and first he tried aeronautical engineering and later architecture. Somehow he became interested in mathematical logic and found himself working with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. By then, Russell was already getting tired of philosophy and was happy to unload his research on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's work was initially an odd combination of logic and mysticism, but after World War I and a stint as a schoolteacher in rural Austria it propelled him to rock-star status at Cambridge. However, as time passed, Wittgenstein increasingly became impatient with his philosophy colleagues, and his focus changed from logic to ordinary language. By the time of his death in 1951 he was recommending other fields, such as medicine, to his students. In my view, Wittgenstein was a frustrated artist, and none of his ideas are likely to be of lasting significance. I think that the same can be said of most philosophical ideas, and that the most durable ideas come from science. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with pursuing most academic fields, but that philosophy as an academic discipline has little to offer anyone.

My conclusion on academic philosophy is therefore much the same as my conclusion on creative writing programs. Yes, students can enroll in these courses and learn something, but they could just as well do something else and might end up happier. I see colleges and universities as economic entities in which the tenured faculty usually get good salaries and favorable working conditions while the students, particularly in fashionable subjects, may come away with nothing. I mean this not in the sense that the students are out a few dollars, but that the actual value of the education, in both technical and personal senses, can be quite low. Given my experience, it surprises me that intelligent people can still think that academic philosophy could be of value to anyone. The convoluted thinking that you have to go through just to make sense of it would drive most people mad.