Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Milton and I: Attacking Darwinism

            By early twenty-first-century standards, the laws governing heredity were improperly understood during Shaw's lifetime. We can however assess his criticism of Darwinism in terms of what he and his audience might have been expected to know in the 1920's.

            Shaw was not entirely ignorant about heredity: one story, possibly apocryphal, has him propositioned by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt who said of their amorous liaison, "Think of the children we might have with your brains and my beauty."  To which Shaw gives the legendary answer, "But what if they have your brains and my beauty?"  That Sarah was ten years his senior and he recently married may be neither here nor there; that she was then aged fifty shifts her interest more toward copulation for recreation than for procreation.  

       In 1921, Shaw completed his self-styled metabiological Pentateuch, Back to Methuselah, a series of five-plays which starts in the Garden of Eden arguably in 4004 BC — if we believe another Irishman, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh — and ends in the year 31,920 AD.  The play is famous for its rare staging — an uncut performance time in excess of eight hours — and for the seventy-nine page preface infamous for its enormous length.  Shaw claims that he wrote neither for performance, but we should remind ourselves that Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg address — 271 words — remains one of the world's memorable performances.  Shaw argues that to acquire the wisdom for self-government humans must develop longer life spans.  His argument is not entirely sequential and obscures a critical contradiction — he initially dismisses Lamarckism only to resurrect it later under a different name.

            Shaw correctly points out that evolution was accepted, at least within the botanical and zoological science community, long before first publication of The Origin of Species.  He writes, "Then came the great poet [Goethe] who jumped over the facts [and came straight] to the conclusion . . . that there must be some common stock from which all the species had sprung"  Conversely, I am tempted to retort, "Then came the [not so] great playwright [Shaw] who trod over the facts [only to come] to the wrong conclusion.  

            Shaw claims that he was a Neo-Lamarckian, from which we infer that by 1921 he was no longer one.  He uses the example of learning to ride a bicycle — clearly an acquired skill — something neither inherited, nor inheritable.  In the very next section of his preface, he argues the converse.  This is wishful, if not crooked thinking by Shaw and amounts to a variant of Lamarckism under the name coined by Henri-Louis Bergson, creative evolution and Shaw's pet project — voluntary longevity.  Giant tortoises have life spans of up to two hundred years, several species of tree — hardly sentient beings — have natural life-spans of five thousand years or more, whereas mice live for three at most.  Even forgetting the fate of Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs, Shaw's argument for antediluvian life-spans is delusional, and the evidence of biology is against him.  From Scripture he alludes to Methuselah's 969 years, not to mention Noah's 950, and Adam's 930; while conveniently forgetting about: Abraham's 175, Moses' 120, and King David's threescore years and ten.  Shaw quotes Psalm 90:10, but forgets that some things just are and that over many matters our will is profoundly ineffective.   

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