genesis and the genius

This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to  a human mind. The idea is Evolution-by-Natural-Selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins

The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4 series presented by Richard Dawkins

Incredible though it may seem, with the weight of evidence accumulated since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, 4 out of every 10 British people still believe a god created every species as you see them today. It is with this daunting task of re-education that popular biologist Richard Dawkins presents a modern and exciting first hand look into Charles Darwin’s discovery in the Channel 4, 3-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin. 

Richard Dawkins, Presenter. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and author of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and most most recently, ‘The Magic of Reality’.

Author of The Selfish Gene, which built on Darwin’s theory with more recent discoveries and proof of genetic evolution, Dawkins is a uniquely credible source of certainty. More than a theory, “Evolution is a fact.” The viewer is transported with Dawkins as he travels around the world, from the modern English classroom, to the Galapagos and Kenya, in search of the same clues and evidence by which Darwin discovered Evolution.

Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Photo by Laura Nunes.

It is, in Dawkins’ words, “nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of human life”.

The series offers fascinating insight into Darwin’s personal life, the genius’ personal struggles and reluctance to spread a knowledge that would undo centuries of belief in a supernatural order. Born in 1809, science could not as yet supply Darwin the proof we have today, the genetic coding of our species’ ancestors and relations. By naked observation however, Darwin’s five year round-the-world voyage yielded  samples of hundreds of species, where tiny differences among sub-species in neighbouring islands yielded huge heretical questions. Lifeforms were not fixed, but changed over Time and circumstance. On the Origin of Species was the result of 20 years’ research, combining the best scientific opinion from geologists such as Charles Lyle, and the study of fossils dating specie developments over millions of years.

Dawkins takes us through the historic collections of Darwin’s studies. A ‘pigeon fancier’ Darwin could observe first-hand how characteristics in the species could be bred out or encouraged, demonstrating the ‘plasticity’ of a species over generations. Similarly, chance cycles of variation occurred in Nature over an extended period, and favoured those variations most successful in being reproduced.

In Kenya, Richard Dawkin’s birthplace, Dawkins shows that there is “nothing orderly about the relations between predator and prey”. Nature leads animals in a generational “arms race” to greater speed and physical weaponry in the pursuit of finite resources. As Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species,

Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing the world every variation and even the slightest, neglecting that which is bad and preserving all that is good, silently and insensibly working. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of Time has marked the lapse of Ages.

 

In 1859, the possibility another biologist named Wallace might ‘scoop’ his discovery finally encouraged Darwin to publish his findings and its explosive implications. Still timidly afraid of presenting the mountain of evidence gathered, observed and deliberated before him, Darwin’s book was finally released to the public, selling out in its first two days of release. 152 years later, it has never again been out of print.

The genius of Charles Darwin, his personal struggles and domestic losses, are presented against a viewer backdrop of Darwin’s own home and grounds, lending elegant and historic setting to Darwin’s step by step development as biologist and author. Dawkins’ own genius has been to present the soundness of this at once complex and “elegantly simple” solution to the origin and diversity of lifeforms inductively. That is, we are lead through each stage to observe as Darwin did, the sameness and variety by which variation led from prehistory to the present.

Popularly conceived as a dry theory devoid of moral import, Dawkins’ feat of genius is to present to the layperson the grandeur of the evolutionary world view. We humans are the result of a long line of millions of the most successful pairings of gene and generation, developing brains that can examine our self origin like no other species can. We are a ‘nervous system’ for a planet at last waking up. Over 150 years old, evolution-by-natural-selection represents the most modern and genius of ideas. What’s more, Dawkins shows, it’s true ♦

[Charles Darwin’s complete works are now available online. imodernreview has previously reviewed Richard Dawkin’s editorship of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing in a new ‘turing test’. The TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin is available to order on DVD]

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enlightened doubt: christopher hitchens 1949-2011

Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. Left behind are a modern legacy of articles and essay collections projecting his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview.  In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of its values in contemporary journalism.

‘Hitch-22: Confessions and Contradictions’ (2010) by Christopher Hitchens

‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 , and Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on his much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his analysis of world events. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Taken as a whole however, it is consistency that encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind. Through his own, there lies its proof in the tremendous output of his journalistic career, where his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.

The modern Enlightenment, with its corollary values of scientific inquiry and individual rights he argued, are a sustained outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. It’s darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomfortingly close analysis of the war zones he witnessed.

We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.

(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)

A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.

Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.

(‘Minority Report’, 1989)

A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and instead championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He visited for himself the chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. He also won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.

Hitchens argues for humanist values in literature and art in ‘god is not Great’ (2007)

Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from a lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,

Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.

Therein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, identifying the ‘enemy’ of the modern as the uncritical and totalitarian mindset (See also his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman). The Enlightenment, were it to hold any fixed element, would be to codify the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through this consistency.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.

(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)

‘Pursuit’ finds worthy and serious meaning in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist who found his permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦

Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994)  Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.