Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Darwin vs. Pope: The Power of Nature and Reason

By Krista Allen

The lesson that Alexander Pope seems to be trying to impart in "An Essay on Man" is that man should follow (right) Reason and Nature in order not to overstep "his" limits as a being caught between God and animals. Arguably Darwin's theories can be taken as a way to overstep these limits, particularly when considering his investigations into the "natural order" and attempting to unlock "God's" knowledge of the processes propelling evolution. Though Pope's essay centre's around God and nature, Darwin's opinions and theories can be seen to be very compatible with Pope's idea of the natural world.

Darwin consistently refers to the "face of nature" in Origin of Species, and it is absolutely clear throughout that he has a profound respect for the animals and aspects of nature he is investigating, He purposefully steers away from speaking and about "God" and "His" natural order to show the reader the practical merit of his scientific findings. Darwin refers to how many "believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eyes of man, or for mere variety" (181-2) as compared to what he believes to be the spectacularly complex result of natural selection and thus, an intimate knowledge of the natural world. Pope's work points towards the belief that this knowledge is not worthy of man (being lesser than God and Nature) and should not be pursued. Darwin does not connect his theories with the much bigger themes of reason and nature as one entity, as Pope does, though Origin does speak to the interconnectedness of all nature.

The main divergence between the two texts seems to not be in the overarching idea of nature and man, but in the search for truth. Darwin is attempting to find the truth about aspects of nature that link to the propagation and survival of species while Pope is commenting on the basic idea of truth being found only through nature and God together. To Pope truth should no be pursued in order to figure out "God's" construction of the natural order, which Darwin could be seen to be doing. Pope suggests "that Reason keep to Nature's road" as anything other than this could cause a catastrophic break in the link that is God and Nature and that rules all things. In Origin Darwin has a very different idea of reason as a person being as rational as possible in order to discover the unknown secrets of the natural world. In Darwin rationality is a given, in Pope rationality is given by "God" and not to be used selfishly.

Both men pursue the ideas of the beauty of nature and the balance that needs to be struck between man and nature in order for the world to prosper. Both men also see knowledge of nature as beneficial to man but in different ways and for different means. Ultimately the main difference between Darwin and Pope is their view on reason and its implications in the natural order. If not for this one very significant distinction, these two eloquent descriptions of state of the natural world just may have met perfectly.

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