Review: Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond & James Moore

Darwin’s Sacred Cause distinguishes itself as being the first biography that I find readable, and the reason for this is probably that it is not a biography in the purest sense. Instead of chronicling the details of Darwin’s life it tell about how his two famous books Origin of Species and Descent of Man came to be.

To do this the authors has had to explain the political, economical and ideological climate of Darwin’s time and because of this the book interweaves history of the 19th century British Empire, slavery and abolition, political discourse, economic and political change, and history of science.

On reading the book my mind set off on various tangents, exploring ideas and making new connections with pieces of knowledge laying strewn about the floor and desk of my brain –

– We who grew up in the wake of WWII are, at least in Sweden, saturated with images from those wars; public service TV, which was the only TV we had, showed lots and lots of WWII documentaries. The atrocities of the concentration camps and the siege of Stalingrad was standard fare.

Until I read Darwin’s Sacred Cause I had not fully understood how intrinsic stratification and racism is to our culture, to the very social fabric holding western society together. Growing up during a period when outrage over the possibility of places like Auschwitz and Dachau was mandatory I had no real concept of a society were treating humans as less valuable than a good work-horse or a car was acceptable.

Mind you, I was well aware that the racism of the Nazis wasn’t conceived out of thin air. Intellectually I knew they were children of their time. And economic stratification is one of the most important mechanisms of capitalism. But reading this biography I got the instruments to understand how ingrained both stratification and racism is to our culture, as is now aptly demonstrated by the revival of nationalist movements across Europe. It makes the post-WWII part of the 20th century look like a parenthesis when shame forced us to at least pay lip service to the idea that every human had equal value.

Darwin, of course, did not think every human had equal value. Very few of his contemporaries did. And I did say this was tangential to the book. But as the book touches on the American Civil War, on slavery and abolition, and on the birth of anthropology and ethnography in all its colonial splendour, I could not ignore that my train of thought ran off towards personal experiences of for example LA’s South Central or downtown New Orleans, as experienced in the late 1990’s, or by segregated suburbia in present-day Stockholm.

Much as we want to be upset over the way plantation slaves were treated and much as we want to put distance between ourselves and the attitudes of Darwin’s contemporaries and their colonial mindset we – humanity as a whole – need to ask ourselves if these changes we perceive are just superficial, veneer, difference in dressing rather than context.

Much as we want to distance ourselves from the atrocities of the concentration camps we as humans have not yet managed to face why these things happen. We want those things to be the result of aberrant behaviour in individuals. We want those things to be the result of skewed minds manipulating the well-meaning and innocent.

They aren’t. They are the fruits of our blind spots, were we don’t see – don’t want to see – what consequences our theories about individual freedom as sacrosanct for the successful have on the exploited; an exploitation necessitated by our demand for more. We don’t want our well-deserved vacation to a tropical island to be possible because children labour to produce our iPhones and our Nikes.

Neither did Darwin, despite his same blindness. And this biography of his set me thinking, and that is a value in and of itself.

Easily one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long long time.

Highly recommended.

Some prior knowledge of the history of science makes the text easier to parse, though, because there’s lots and lots and LOTS of names and it is easy to lose track of who had what opinion.

 (…and by coincidence a friend posted a link to this New Inquiry essay the other day – related, in my view, to my musings above.)


Review: The search for the perfect language, by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed this book. There’s only one problem with it – I’m not erudite enough to make it the fast read it should be; it’s so stuffed with information I had to stop every fourth page or so to digest what I’ve read.

Eco states in the preface that it is written with the layperson in mind, but his idea of a layperson knows way much more about linguistics and the history thereof than I do. Apparently. Even if he also states that this is not a book on linguistics but on the history of ideas, which it is, in part – he sketches a history of European thought during the most recent 1000 of the years that led us to be where we are today, using the search for the perfect language and how the idea changed and evolved throughout that millennia as a method for dissemination. This gets especially interesting when he links it with the industrial revolution, the evolution from alchemy to science, and the formation of the nation states and colonisation.

In the conclusion he tells the reader that the discussion could had been even more interesting if he’d included extra-European though and efforts on the topic. I cannot but agree and I’m sure I’m going to seek out some book elaborating on this.

As for now I’m glad I pressed through and actually read the book through, but I’m also glad it’s over. Recommended reading for everyone with an interest in linguistics and European history of ideas. Everyone else is allowed to spend their time on something else.

No patience for fantasy

As a rule I have small patience for works in the fantasy genre. I have not stopped to analyse why; I just tend not to choose to read a work of fantasy, except if it has gotten raving good reviews by people who I trust.

Reading Eco‘s The Search for the Perfect Language has inadvertently provided me with some tools for analysing, though. While telling the story of the search for the perfect language the book also works as a rough catalogue listing different beliefs and concepts ruling the statesmen, intellectuals and the church of Europe, starting with the late Greeks and proceeding through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into our own time.

This exposé of the evolution of ideas is extraordinary (and quite fun, Eco has a wry sense of humour and I do not agree with those deeming this a “dry” book). He connects the need for different ideological constructs with the economic history of Europe, the development of the nation states, etcetera, all the while telling the reader about one bizarre idea after another – ideas genuinely held as true, at least by the originator, some hundreds of years ago.

And as I said – it also helped me analyse my aversion against a lot of fantasy. Because there, in the clear open, lies a smorgasbord of ‘magical’ concepts commonly used in fantasy novels. Everyone of them justified, historically, by a lack of knowledge and a wealth of imagination, and a basketful of faith, in one god or another (but mainly one in number, lol, whatever the creed of the originator).

Today superstition can’t be justified, at all – it’s just ignorance, or wishful thinking. Of course, most fantasy isn’t about today, or about ‘here’. This means that if the concept is well executed and the characters are nicely done the book can be a highly enjoyable experience. If not it just becomes a hotchpotch with deus ex machina on deus ex machina – it’s just poor writing, nothing more. However famous the author.

Urban fantasy is even worse. It’s supposed to be here and now, with werewolves and demons and whathaveyou (zombies, now, are the worst – don’t get me started…). It’s just so unbelievable and… downright INANE.
I get very sad when authors I otherwise think highly of do this kind of book. Like Guy G Kay did with Ysabel

Most of these books are written as pure ‘entertainment’, many of them utilising the horror trope. I have no problems with that. Entertainment is good, I read a lot of books for entertainment, not to mention watching TV or films. Now, to me, of course, entertainment is not having to wince inwardly twice on every page, like I do when I read a Harry Dresden book. So it’s poor entertainment.

I accept that some people like these things. Everyone to his or her own. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s NOT my cup of tea. At all. And now I know why.
Thank you, Umberto Eco, for that.