“Genesis Revisited”

It is a good thing I was not drinking anything when I read “Genesis Revisited,” or I would have had coffee or tea all over my ereader. (I’m reading The Portable Atheist, which contains a lot of great – and some quite challenging – excerpts of various mostly atheist authors. That’s where I found those Shelley quotes, and I decided I have got to read Middlemarch due to Eliot’s chapter.)

If Ideas Had Shapes

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply themselves (but not in those words). But the humans took God literally and now there are six billion of them.

(quoted in The Portable Atheist)

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Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)

Darwin ain’t your nanny

…so don’t expect him to hold your hand while you mouth the words you’re trying to read out of his tome. If he feels like quoting somebody in French and you don’t know the difference between salut and adieu, well, tant pis pour toi!

"Gratiolet opens his preface with the aphorism, 'Il est dangereux dans les sciences de conclure trop vite.' I fear he must have forgotten this sound maxim by the time he had reached the discussion of the differences between men and apes, in the body of his work."



But seriously, he quotes various people in the original French, some of it important and thorough technical information, and he never translates a word for the reader. Just assumes you can read it or will work it out if you care. The picture is the fourth instance, at least, in Descent of Man, and it’s by far the shortest and simplest quote. The first of the book proper (there’s one in the introduction, too) appears on page four of my edition and reads as follows:

“It is notorious that man is constructed on the same general type or model as other mammals. … Vulpian remarks: Les différences feelles qui existent entre l’encéphale de l’homme et celui des singes supérieurs, sont biens minimes. Il ne faut pas se faire d’illusions à cet égard. L’homme est bien plus près des singes anthropomorphes par les caractères anatomiques de son cerveau que ceux-ci ne le sout non-seulement des autres mammifères, mais même de certains quadrumanes, des guenons et des macaques. But it would be superfluous here to give further details…”

I speak a little French, but I’m missing a bit of this, too — I think feelles, at any rate, is antiquated language if it’s not a typo. The gist of the long quote is that the differences between the human brain and that of the anthropomorphous apes is very small, much smaller than the differences between the higher and lower primates. The author quoted says we should not delude ourselves about this. (Side note: sad, isn’t it, that some still insist on deluding themselves about such things more than 140 years after Darwin was quoting somebody else who already had said this.)

The handwritten quote in the image says that it’s dangerous, in the sciences, to make hasty conclusions. Same’s true outside of science, of course–first lesson of philosophy, for one.

On possibility, prudence, and a dangerous lack of wisdom

I’ve been gathering quotes on my haphazard bookmarks (aka library check-out receipts). Here are a few from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to understand a little bit about it.

There’s a new world next door. And we know how to get there.

All our self-inflicted environmental problems, all our weapons of mass destruction are products of science and technology. So, you might say, let’s just back off from science and technology. Let’s admit that these tools are simply too hot to handle. Let’s create a simpler society, in which no matter how careless or short-sighted we are, we’re incapable of altering the environment on a global or even on a regional scale. …

Such a world culture is unstable, though, in the long run if not the short–because of the speed of technological advance. … Unless there are severe constraints on thought and action, in a flash we’ll be back to where we are today. … And while such a devolution of the global civilization, were it possible, might conceivably address the problem of self-inflicted technological catastrophe, it would also leave us defenseless against eventual asteroidal and cometary impacts.

It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, a species returned to circumstances more like those for which it was originally evolved, more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent–the sorts of beings we would want to represent us in a Universe that, for all we know, is filled with species much older, much more powerful, and very different.

[But] If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves. … If we become even slightly more violent, shortsighted, ignorant, and selfish than we are now, almost certainly we will have no future.

Ok, so they weren’t all on the backs of check-out receipts, but that’s mainly because I was close to the end and wanted to finish before I distracted myself with copying the text. That and I tend to go for larger pieces of paper for the really long quotes. I love how optimistic Sagan could be – and how he didn’t lose sight of the fact that while humans could do even more amazing things than we’ve already done, we pose a significant threat of blowing ourselves up first.

The ultimate romantic nerd

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

I found this video via a forum thread on a particularly win xkcd. It is weird, a little trippy, and utterly awesome. Cheers to the late, great Sagan.