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  • Darwin’s Contemplative Vision
  • Douglas Burton-Christie

The Darwin fish has become a potent and provocative symbol of the tensions and cross-currents in contemporary discourse about evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. Usually displayed as a bumper sticker or a small silver icon, it plays on the meaning of the ancient Christian Icthus symbol by placing Darwin’s name in the body of the fish. As with all such symbols, its meaning defies easy explanation. However, it is not difficult to discern at least one of its meanings: evolution trumps creation. In other words, there is a different and more compelling explanation of how life came into being than the one offered by the belief system underlying the traditional Icthus. (Tom Lessl at the University of Georgia, who has done an extensive survey of those who display this symbol on their cars, argues that such display often amounts to an “act of ritual aggression”). Nor, in the bitter and divisive climate of today’s debates about evolution and creation, is it possible any longer to look innocently upon the Icthus symbol itself. It has now come to stand as the ultimate ‘anti-Darwin’ icon, a rebuke of atheistic, evolutionary thought. The power of these symbols owes much to the stridency with which the ideas of both evolution and creation are promoted by their respective supporters. The entire issue, at least within contemporary political-cultural debate, has become utterly polarized: one is either for God or for evolution (and Darwin).

One may object that such polarizing discourse is clearly oversimplified and that there is much evidence in contemporary thought of more subtle formulations of the question. Still, the common perception of Darwin—embraced both by scientists for whom Darwin’s understanding of evolution is nearly indisputable and by those Christian believers for whom Darwin’s ideas represent a threat to a theistic worldview—is that he saw the natural world as bereft of spirit. The challenge of rethinking these perceptions, in this bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth, is immense, not least because we must do so through the filter of our own increasingly hardened cultural and religious assumptions. Yet Ly-anda Lynn Haupt’s remarkable and beautiful book argues that we ought to try to do so, not only as a way of honoring Darwin’s own complex and intricate way of seeing the world, but in order to deepen our own capacity for seeing it.1

Haupt approaches her task not by examining The Origin of Species and its hugely influential legacy, but instead by focusing her attention on Darwin’s [End Page 89] little known Ornithological Notes, based on a notebook he kept during his five year voyage on the Beagle from 1831 to 1836, but only published eighty years after Darwin’s death in the Bulletin of the British Museum. Her reasons for doing so are worth considering, especially for anyone interested in comprehending how subtle but significant shifts in self-understanding unfold within human consciousness. In Darwin’s case, this means seeking a better understanding of how he grew as a naturalist during his years on the Beagle, and how his capacity to see and feel and interpret the natural world deepened and matured. Haupt believes that the only way to gain a real sense of this is to step back from Darwin’s more famous and fully realized works, whose power derives in no small part from the maturity of his theoretical vision, and examine instead the notebook that bears witness to his gradual, incremental shifts in understanding and awareness. For this reason, Haupt eschews using even Darwin’s Journal of Researches, which he put together two years after his return to London, or the bird volume of the Zoology of the Beagle. In these and other works prepared for publication, we find, says Haupt, “the polished results of his ornithological study and contemplation.” But in the Notes, she argues, “we find the study and contemplation themselves, and they are wonderful—quirky, zealous, irreverent, and humble” (11). This distinction is crucial to everything that follows. While Haupt acknowledges the lasting significance of Darwin’s more celebrated works, she makes a compelling case for looking more...


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pp. 89-95
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