– Adam Kirsch, p.18 (Rocket & Lightship)
It must be severely doubted whether any one single contemporary theory, to the hapless lay person such as myself, can be more maddeningly ambiguous than Darwin‘s theory of evolution. It concocts in my amateurish mind an even blend of appreciation/clarity and confusion/over-saturation.
To begin with, as one is taught in the early going, it‘s not even really just Darwin‘s theory. It goes back to a number of different theorists, including JB de Lamarck [who had the first, fancy, non-contradictory theory of evolution], Compte de Buffon [for elaborating the idea of nature‘s history as a matter of superduper longue duree rather than the paltry 7k or so of biblical fancy] and, oh yeah, A. R. Wallace [adventurer and busy-body] who basically provided the final camelus-dromedarius-spine-fracturing impetus to get Darwin to even publish work that had been languishing on his desk for a happy two decades. So even the genetical basics of the theory are messy and complicated and quite the opposite of allopatric conceptual speciation: there was no primordial cell of the theory of evolution.
The second point is this theory‘s indisputable elegance: it postulates a few laws or axioms, which, when applied to both the fossil and living record of the planet‘s biodiversity make sense of a broad spectrum of phenomena, both diachronic and synchronic.
One can explain biodiversity. One can explain competition for resources. One can make sense of the importance of sex in an entirely non-erotic mode. One can, though one probably shouldn‘t, go ahead and make up insane social ideologies, e.g. social darwinism. One can even very partially explain the necessity of death itself. One can, ultimately, if one wishes so, take one or two steps of cogitation and apply the theory to any conceivable phenomena.
And therein lies its problematic potency: it is almost too easy to think with! It is a theoretical edifice so easily applied to any and all phenomena that, whatever complex natural or cultural pattern begins bleeping on our cognitive radar, we have shot it down in no-time with one of our darwinian scud missiles. Not shot down, in fact, but fully analyzed and filed away for future reference without a second, third or fourth thought about what that bleep might‘ve been if conceived of in anything other than evolutionary terms. What would Wittgenstein think? What would Badiou surmise? And what, while we‘re at it, would I consider this?
In fact the radar will not do, what the evolutionary theory these days often amounts to, especially in the hands&brains&media of semi-literate journalists and experts [designations that teeter on the verge of semantic extinction], is an epistemological empire: nothing can escape its imperial explanatory power, no territory of phenomena is beyond its cognitive canons. As seen through its own retina, the Master‘s subjugating gaze.
And so this will, mistaken for a power, to explain everything manifests in numerous forms of negativity: hindrance to original thought, discrimination against heterodox theories, justification of eugenic/racist ideologies [not theories!], crass reductionism combined with over-simplification of actual advances in the theory itself, political instrumentalization, etcetera. Combined with the magic word „gene“ it is made to account for 99% of the biological and socio-cultural cosmos.
I find myself drawn to this explicatory elegance while recoiling from the intellectually imperial impulse.
But both the rarity of commonsense and the omnipresence of phenomenological experience rebel against an explanation of reality in purely evolutionary terms. There are many areas of human existence where meaning-making proceeds in the absence of what Charles et al. were theorizing about. Adam Kirsch encapsulates this in a most lyrical expression, the denial of „the empire of mere life“:
– AK, p5, R&LS
As a presently non-reproducing, scribbling member of humanity, I naturally [impelled by neurons rather than the hale&hearty gonads] heartily subscribe to such and similar ways of putting it and wish hereby to posit reading and writing and the odd hour of physical exercise as the ne-plus of human here‘ness.
And I have to parenthesize, almost leave entirely out, the question of agency: Do the selfish genes want anything? Extremely doubtful given their absence of consciousness. Does a population of finches have any kind of collective volition? Mehhhhhhh. Does an individual human being envision a goal? Most certainly! Is it at all times Niños o Muerte? Surely not.
Finally, as an appreciator of Darwinian theory and a lover of art, allow me briefly to join shoulders with Kirsch in batting the notion that our artistic-sensibilites are somehow hitched to the survival-of-the-fittest out of the stadium. Kirsch (p.10) states:
I‘ll second this simply by something so blindingly obvious that it‘s embarassing to state, yet necessary: as human beings, now and then [even if all too rearly], we get to pick our own purposes. Our function, our telos. If I choose to go to a museum for the sublime delight of the experience, then that is exactly fucking it. I don‘t need to adduce my procreational prowess to justify a jaunt to Beyeler! I‘m not contemplating a turbulent Basquiat because I‘m subconsciously upping my odds of improving tomorrow night‘s pick-up game so as to inject an art-historically-dazed damsel with my egotistical genes. In other words, Darwin‘s fabulous theory concerning the speciation of the living kingdom doesn‘t get to call the plays of my subjective existence; not that the guy ever had anything of the like in mind either but empire has a way of outrunning and even getting away from its originators…