Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

As Americans, February 12 tends to resonate for us as Abraham Lincoln's birthday, even if he does end up rolled in with George Washington under the banner of "Presidents Day." But for the secular-minded and the science-minded, another great figure's birthday (in the same year) comes to mind: Charles Darwin. Some even think of the day as Darwin Day. What with Presidents Day and all, Lincoln's hardly using it anyway.

Darwin, of course, is a controversial figure, because evolution is still a contentious issue, since it challenges a religious literalist's belief system. The theory of evolution by natural selection, however, is about as rock solid as any big-picture theory in science can be. And when I thought about this entry, I thought I might spend some time talking about that, or why the resistance is so strong, or about why Darwin is, warts and all, a great man to celebrate. But now we're getting to the end of the day and I still haven't done so, and I don't have the time, energy, or brain-power to do it justice.

All that said, whenever I think of Charles Darwin, I think of my friend Dorothy Sutton, a poet who wrote a collection of poems called Startling Art, which revolves largely around Darwin and the artist Matisse (I also think of her when I look at the Matisses we have framed around here!). I'd like to share with my readers one of her Darwin poems, and since I've found it on-line elsewhere, I trust she won't mind if I share it here (and I'll happily remove it if she or her publisher don't want it up!). For whatever reason, this one particularly struck me today. As it would happen, this is not one of the 2 1/2 poems of hers that I've written choral settings for:

Edinburgh, 1826
Darwin and brother Erasmus
meet John James Audubon, there to enlist
subscribers for Birds of America.

Black wings of fear hover in the air:
the man in the street might come to embrace
the notion that human beings evolved
independent of Supernatural Source,
cracking the Church's One Foundation
to leave it in ruins. If people think
of themselves as animals, they'll act that way.
Civilization so long in building,
they whisper, reverting to savagery.

Audubon tosses his long black hair
back over his shoulder, explains, as he roughs
out the buzzard on the drawing board,
to the students here for medical school
the intricate steps of preserving a carcass
to capture on canvas each exact detail. 


And, finally, I will let Darwin speak for himself, from the end of the first edition of "Origen of the Species":

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,
clothed with many plants of many kinds,
with birds singing on the bushes,
with various insects flitting about,
and with worms crawling through the damp earth,
and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms,
so different from each other,
and dependent on each other in so complex a manner,
have all been produced by laws acting around us.

There is grandeur in this view of life . . .
that whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning,
endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.

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