Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Natural Selection: Letter to The Argosy

Dear Argosy:

This letter concerns G.H.'s review of On Natural Selection by Charles Darwin in the February 14 2008 issue of The Argosy. I will start by applauding Mr. H.’s choice of book for review. Charles Darwin is often overlooked and misunderstood by otherwise educated and perceptive readers, and it made my heart glad to see his face in The Argosy. However, as I see it, the review itself had 3 major problems:

1. Mr. H.’s description of ONS as “a scientific publication meant for an audience of science nerds, not literature geeks” is a glib mischaracterization of both the literate public and Darwin’s work. The Origin of Species, from which ONS is taken, is widely regarded as a literary landmark as well as a scientific one. It requires no specialized scientific knowledge in order to understand it, and may serve as a paragon of thematic focus and argumentative integrity for any serious humanities student. Darwin was not writing for “nerds,” but for the whole human race, and the theory of natural selection—his gift to posterity—is one of the most profoundly original, true and beautiful ideas in the living world.

2. An “elegant” prose style is characterized not by aesthetic gush, but by graceful refinement, clarity, economy, and dignity: this is precisely the kind of writing found in Charles Darwin’s fine book. While there is nothing wrong with Mr. H.’s admission that he found the book difficult, he crosses a line by suggesting that Darwin, rather than Mr. H. himself, is at fault for this. It is boorish and incredibly arrogant for a student reviewer to hold a classic work of literature, even an abridged one like On Natural Selection, to his own self-indulgent standard of “readability.” He should instead consider measuring his own skill as a reader against the challenge such a work offers.

3. If Mr. H. understood Darwin’s ideas, he would be less eager to place them in proximity to so-called “social Darwinism.” Far from being a mere “extrapolation” of the theory of natural selection into the human realm, social Darwinism is fundamentally a misunderstanding, not a misapplication, of Darwinian evolution. Even the most basic understanding of human biology is actually incompatible with pseudoscientific racism. The all-too-human urge to evaluate something negatively before we fully understand it, however, has been responsible for, or at least complicit in, many of the bloodiest crimes in human history.

Mr. H. and self-styled “literature geeks” interested in the humanistic implications of Darwinian ideas may find the following works of use:

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Storey, Robert. Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Tooby, J. and Cosmides, L. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In J.H. Barkow, Tooby J. and Cosmides L. (eds.). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 19-136). New York, Oxford University Press.

Turner, Frederick. The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.



(image from


G.H. said...

Dear John,

First of all, thank-you for taking the time both to read and respond to my column. I was overjoyed to see your letter in The Argosy and also on your blog, though it might be confusing for your internet audience had they not read my original piece. It is available somewhere on in a very un-edited, less politically correct form. I feel that this is an appropriate space for my reaction to your letter rather than the pages of The Argosy.

In response to your letter, I must say that I cannot disagree with the majority of your comments. Certainly, The Origin of the Species is a pivotal work in the history of humankind – its influence solely on literature was enormous. And, you are correct in saying that its beauty lies in its clarity, etc. of thought. However, I stand by my assertion that it is generally unreadable and inaccessible as a piece of literature for the layman or student, for whom my review was intended. In short, it’s boring, especially when compared to other classic novels of the period. Regardless, such a debate is a matter of taste and thus does not merit further conversation as far as I am concerned.

I do take offence of your questioning of my ability to read and understand Darwin’s words rather than simple disagreement with an opinion of mine. To think “Ach, this student is arrogant and ignorant, etc.” to your presumably aged and educated self is one thing, to put it in print is quite another. When criticism is directed personally at a reviewer rather than their words, I feel that one is not acting in a professional manner. However, we’re dealing with a very small paper in a very small town, so no worries there, Sir.

Thank-you again for your interest,


John said...

Nice to hear from you, G.H. I've posted a link to your original review.