In Praise of Jacques Barzun - Evolution News & Views

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In Praise of Jacques Barzun

Historian Jacques Barzun was born on November 30, 1907, at Créteil, France, when Darwin's theory was still very fresh in the collective mentalité of the Western world. Indeed Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin's close confidante was still alive, as was the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Living in retired comfort at Old Orchard, Broadstone, Dorset, England, Wallace still had yet to write his grand evolutionary synthesis, The World of Life, three years later and his two social commentaries in 1913, Social Environment and Moral Progress and Revolt of Democracy, that would mark the farewell of England's great remaining naturalist and its most brilliant and prescient mind. But Barzun deserves honor for more than longevity.

On March 2, 2011, when Barzun received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, if not physically present at least a good many of us were there in high spirit and hearty assent. I had "known" Barzun for a long time. For me it was as a young undergrad at a state university when I picked up a copy of his Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. By then it was in its second edition (1958) and I must say the reading of that book was transformative for me. For the first time I recognized that in my hands was the work of a sagacious historian and an incisive social commentator who was unafraid of icons. Now in its third edition, it remains in print for a new generation to reap of benefits of Barzun's bold, rich analytical mind.

Forty years after writing Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Barzun points out "a continuing intellectual need" for "that which prompted me in my youth to see in the combination of three influences the origin of our leading superstitions" (p. vii). Here I will deal with only one of those great sorcerers of modernity -- the one that most captured my own attention as young student -- Charles Darwin.

I excerpt here a passage from Barzun's now-classic work:

By substituting Natural Selection for Providence, the new science could solve a host of riddles arising in practical life, though by the same exchange the new science had to become a religion. This necessity is what makes the Darwinian event of lasting importance in cultural history. We do less than justice to the men of the nineteenth century who first did battle for evolution if we think that it was altogether for secret or unconscious economic motives that they clung to Darwinism. A man like Huxley may have been tempted by his pugnacity and evangelical passion to overstate his conclusions, but he was neither stupid nor dishonest. He had the highest kind of courage, and a Calvinistic desire to be chosen for the right reason, which for him was the possession of truth. "Science and her methods," he declared, "gave me a resting place independent of authority and tradition." His rejection of everything untested by him was radical, revolutionary, heedless of consequences. And it left him and his world naked before moral adversity. Europe became more and more like the vaunted jungle of the evolutionary books, and Huxley died heavyhearted with forebodings of the kind of future he had helped to prepare (p. 64).
Barzun points out how deeply perturbed Huxley was over the fact that at no point had any human selection ever created a genuinely new species. For an idea that levied such a high social and moral cost, where was the dividend of empirical proof? Barzun goes on:
Are we to conclude that a sound scientific foundation is one which is also insecure in its logical basis? To the skeptical, Huxley kept affirming that evolution is "no speculation but a generalization of certain facts which may be observed by anyone who will take the necessary trouble." Yet it was the fact of observation that Huxley himself was seeking and waiting for. Until it was produced, evolution should have remained, at least for one who loved fine distinction, speculation and not theory (p. 64).
So how did Darwinism gain such authority? Barzun asks, "Why was evolution more precious than scientific suspense of judgment? Why do scientists to this day [and even now!] speak with considerable warmth of 'the fact of evolution,' as if it were in the same category as the fact of combustion . . .?" 

Barzun suggests that the reason for this warm embrace was the carte blanche it gave to scientists and especially to Darwinian scientists. Indeed, "They had their way in clerical as well as in civil courts, in education as well as in the popular mind. The spread of evolution was truly worldwide. . . . Materialism, conscious or implicit, superseded all other beliefs. Nor is it hard to understand why it did," Barzun adds, "for it satisfied the first requirement of any religion by subsuming all phenomena under one cause."

That is why Huxley called Darwin the Newton of biology, why he called the evolutionary debate a New Reformation, and why he liked to date events in the history of human thought as pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian -- under the old dispensation or the new. This profound emotional and intellectual victory once gained, it would have taken a superman or a coward to retreat from it for so trifling a cause as lack of final proof (pp. 65-66).
Under this new Darwinian Holy See, "Others who claimed for themselves the freedom of agnosticism or atheism were in fact just as deeply committed to dogma -- the infallibility of the new church -- as any prince of old" (p. 66).

Fortunately there have been enough "superheroes" and "cowards" -- Barzun among them -- to ask for this proof. What is most striking in Barzun's words (written now 70 years ago!) is how utterly true they remain today. Writing at a time in the mid twentieth century when it was in many ways least popular to do so, Jacques Barzun is brave and prescient figure for whom we all owe an intellectual debt. Thank you Jacques!   


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