Monday, December 31, 2012

Thoughts On A New Year's Eve

The first "thought" being: Why is there no "New Year's Adam"?

Just asking....

In fact, Adam and Eve - yes, the world's first couple, lifted from the dust of Eden - have been on my mind a lot recently. It started a few months back when I parked my not-so-shiny-any-longer Mustang in the lot of a big shopping centre in Ottawa's West End. Ottawa residents, and even occasional visitors, will know of which I write when I mention that it's the site of a gigantic new IKEA store, an edifice only slightly smaller than your average medium-sized city. I think one day the owners might declare it to be an independent municipality, a city-state, even. But it is well-organised - way better than my apartment - and you could probably live there. Well, I probably could. The bathrooms are neat and tidy, there is every kind of furniture imaginable, a nice display of artwork decorations on the walls, and a huge cafeteria with very nice food; even wine in little bottles.

But to get back to the parking lot, and the "inspiration" (at least in part) for this post. I pulled my nssal Mustang into a spot alongside a family vehicle that had on its rear bumper a clever sticker which read:
                            Evolution Is Only A Theory. Creation Is A Fact.

Well, yes, that's true. As far as it goes.

But being a sort of scientist by training - I possess a somewhat dog-eared (1966, University of Toronto) Doctorate in Plant Pathology, or Phytopathology if I feel like being snooty about it - my hackles started to rise. What did the author(s) of the bumper sticker think they were postulating here, exactly? But the hackles went back down pretty quickly, because, apart from my long-time acceptance of Darwin's genius and the validity of evolution as a truism, I had to acknowledge (to myself) that I really didn't know all that much about the subject; by "subject" I mean Darwin the man, and the theory of evolution as his crowning achievement.

So I started to think and read, and - given my long-established visual bent - borrow a collection of educational DVDs from the local library. And started to educate myself a little. Well, more than a little, in fact. The process will go on for some time yet. And if, as I now plan to do, I actually get hold of a copy of Darwin's 1859 book, On The Evolution of Species - there were at least six editions in Darwin's lifetime, but the first is said to be the best - I will learn a lot more.

I will move on from this part of my post in a moment, but I will pass along three references that I have found especially informative, and also entertaining.

The first comes from the sterling PBS series, Nova: What Darwin Never Knew (2009):

What Darwin Never Knew

Essentially, the program updates Darwin's theory and buttresses it with recent discoveries in molecular biology, notably molecular genetics.

The second reference is a first-class biography of Darwin by the noted, and award-winning, American Science writer, David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution:

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

And the third, the 2009 feature film, Creation, with Paul Bettany as Darwin, and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma:

So, what does any of this have to do with writing crime fiction? Not very much, really, but there was a time - mid- to late-1800s - when there was a lot of serious pseudo-scientific speculation that criminality was related to, and possibly derived from, man's animal beginnings. The term "social Darwinism" entered the vernacular. Criminals were seen by some, at least, to be "throwbacks" to an earlier phase in human evolution, violent and vicious creatures who were victims of their own unfortunate biological inheritance. The notion of the "born criminal", embraced by the study of "anthropological criminiology", developed by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso in the late 19th century, came into popular parlance. It possibly exists even today in some quarters. The phrase, and the notion, of the bad seed is an almost indelible part of the English language.

The famous French artist, Edgar Degas - among others - was very attracted to this area of thought and study. Degas was an avid reader of a popular science journal, La Nature, and it was there that he encountered the photographs that Darwin used in his study of human expressions:

From this, Degas developed an interest in what was termed "degenerate and criminal physiognomy", which was a part of the debate on crime and degeneracy in late 19th century France. This interest resulted in his two well-known portraits of three working-class men on trial in Paris for a gang-related murder:


Sketched in the courtroom, Degas's pastel portraits were exhibited in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition with the titles "Physionomie de criminel". This conformed to the idea, current at the time, of biological determinism, and applauded by critics who "read in them a Darwinian subtext, and a Lombrosian demonstration of innate criminality," consistent with the idea that certain members of the "working class" were throwbacks to earlier, more "animalistic" evolutionary stages.

Think of it, perhaps, as an early version of "criminal profiling", more highly refined in the present day certainly, but still at least somewhat controversial.

That Darwin never suggested any such cause-and-effect relationship between evolution and crime - or if he did I am not aware of it - is almost beside the point. Nor is there any reason to link violent crime with animal behaviour, as is so often done even today. How often do we read or hear that a particularly violent criminal "behaved like an animal". It just isn't so. We humans are a special case. Animals don't behave the way some of our fellows do. One is reminded of Mark Twain's famous aphorism: "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or has need to".

And Twain, again: "What is Man? Man is a noisome bacillus whom Our Heavenly Father created because he was disappointed in the monkey."

And now, briefly, back to that famous bumper sticker that gave inspiration to the above golden words and phrases. What, I have to wonder, did the author of those two short sentences have in mind when he, or she, penned the words? I am guessing that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were what s/he was thinking about. I had to think about that also.

Some years ago, I audited a short course at Ottawa's Carleton University on "Creation Myths"; and, yes, the Adam and Eve story was part of the subject matter. I will make no bold statements on this because I know it is a delicate subject. But I do have two questions.

First, if Eve was created from Adam's rib, as I believe Genesis tells us, how was the genetic change from Adam's XY sex-chromosome configuration to Eve's XX configuration effected?

And, second, just who did the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve "go forth" and mate with to populate the world? There was only one human family on the planet. I balk at the notion that the planet's human population was created by serial and multiple acts of incest. A practice forbidden by all major religions, Christianity included.

Those questions have always intrigued me. And even more so now than in the past.

And with that, I will close, adding with a special greeting to iPhone owners and users - which growing population includes my partner Suzanne.

A Very Appy New Year to you all!

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