The final test of truth is ridicule (H.L. Mencken)

Literature

The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few religious dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Dowie’s whiskers broke the back of Dowieism. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to compromise and surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation…. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Harvey—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Jenner? Or Lincoln? Or Darwin?… They are laughing at Nietzsche yet…

From H.L. Mencken’s Damn! A Book of Calumny.

 

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“Darwinism” — Walt Whitman

Books, Literature, Writers

“Darwinism” by Walt Whitman

Running through prehistoric ages—coming down from them into the daybreak of our records, founding theology, suffusing literature, and so brought onward—(a sort of verteber and marrow to all the antique races and lands, Egypt, India, Greece, Rome, the Chinese, the Jews, &c., and giving cast and complexion to their art, poems, and their politics as well as ecclesiasticism, all of which we more or less inherit,) appear those venerable claims to origin from God himself, or from gods and goddesses—ancestry from divine beings of vaster beauty, size, and power than ours. But in current and latest times, the theory of human origin that seems to have most made its mark, (curiously reversing the antique,) is that we have come on, originated, developt, from monkeys, baboons—a theory more significant perhaps in its indirections, or what it necessitates, than it is even in itself. (Of the twain, far apart as they seem, and angrily as their conflicting advocates to-day oppose each other, are not both theories to be possibly reconcil’d, and even blended? Can we, indeed, spare either of them? Better still, out of them is not a third theory, the real one, or suggesting the real one, to arise?)

Of this old theory, evolution, as broach’d anew, trebled, with indeed all-devouring claims, by Darwin, it has so much in it, and is so needed as a counterpoise to yet widely prevailing and unspeakably tenacious, enfeebling superstitions—is fused, by the new man, into such grand, modest, truly scientific accompaniments—that the world of erudition, both moral and physical, cannot but be eventually better’d and broaden’d in its speculations, from the advent of Darwinism. Nevertheless, the problem of origins, human and other, is not the least whit nearer its solution. In due time the Evolution theory will have to abate its vehemence, cannot be allow’d to dominate every thing else, and will have to take its place as a segment of the circle, the cluster—as but one of many theories, many thoughts, of profoundest value—and re-adjusting and differentiating much, yet leaving the divine secrets just as inexplicable and unreachable as before—maybe more so.

Then furthermore—What is finally to be done by priest or poet—and by priest or poet only—amid all the stupendous and dazzling novelties of our century, with the advent of America, and of science and democracy—remains just as indispensable, after all the work of the grand astronomers, chemists, linguists, historians, and explorers of the last hundred years—and the wondrous German and other metaphysicians of that time—and will continue to remain, needed, America and here, just the same as in the world of Europe, or Asia, of a hundred, or a thousand, or several thousand years ago. I think indeed more needed, to furnish statements from the present points, the added arriere, and the unspeakably immenser vistas of to-day. Only, the priests and poets of the modern, at least as exalted as any in the past, fully absorbing and appreciating the results of the past, in the commonalty of all humanity, all time, (the main results already, for there is perhaps nothing more, or at any rate not much, strictly new, only more important modern combinations, and new relative adjustments,) must indeed recast the old metal, the already achiev’d material, into and through new moulds, current forms.

Meantime, the highest and subtlest and broadest truths of modern science wait for their true assignment and last vivid flashes of light—as Democracy waits for it’s—through first-class metaphysicians and speculative philosophs—laying the basements and foundations for those new, more expanded, more harmonious, more melodious, freer American poems.

Proving Darwin (Book Acquired, 4.23.2012)

Books, Writers

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Gregory Chaitin’s Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical is forthcoming in hardback from Random House. It’s a great-looking book, slim and neat with graphs and plenty of explications of the math for fellas like me. There’s also illustrations from Biblioklept fave Ernst Haeckel:

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Random House’s copy:

Groundbreaking mathematician Gregory Chaitin gives us the first book to posit that we can prove how Darwin’s theory of evolution works on a mathematical level.

For years it has been received wisdom among most scientists that, just as Darwin claimed, all of the Earth’s life-forms evolved by blind chance. But does Darwin’s theory function on a purely mathematical level? Has there been enough time for evolution to produce the remarkable biological diversity we see around us? It’s a question no one has yet answered—in fact, no one has even attempted to answer it until now.

In this illuminating and provocative book, Gregory Chaitin argues that we can’t be sure evolution makes sense without a mathematical theory. He elucidates the mathematical scheme he’s developed that can explain life itself, and examines the works of mathematical pioneers John von Neumann and Alan Turing through the lens of biology. Chaitin presents an accessible introduction to metabiology, a new way of thinking about biological science that highlights the mathematical structures underpinning the biological world. Fascinating and thought-provoking, Proving Darwin makes clear how biology may have found its greatest ally in mathematics.

The Coral Thief — Rebecca Stott

Books, Literature, Reviews

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Rebecca Stott’s second novel, The Coral Thief (new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau), tells the story of a naive medical student ensnared in a web of scientific intrigue in post-Revolutionary Paris. In July, 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo, Stott’s hero Daniel Connor enters the occupied capitol armed only with the valuable coral specimens he plans to bring to his new place of study, the Jardin des Plantes. Riding on a mail coach into the city, Connor meets an alluring, mysterious woman (of course) who ends up stealing his coral samples, but also introducing him to a radical new idea that will soon change the world: the theory of evolution. In Connor’s pursuit of the coral thief, he also becomes entwined with a sharp police chief who is also searching out the mystery woman.

Stott’s novel moves at a nice, steady clip, propelled by simple dialog and meticulously neat historical detailing that doesn’t intrude into her narrative. The Connor narrative is balanced with short intercalary chapters describing Napoleon’s journey into exile, suggesting a division of ways of thinking: as the Emperor is retired, a new mode of thought going beyond the Enlightenment’s obsession with rationalism is on the rise–evolution. In a sense, Stott’s novel is an attack on dogma, as Connor, the coral thief, and the picaresque band the two take up with, work to challenge the institutions that dominate European thinking. (It’s weird to think in America today that evolution is still a debatable, divisive issue).

While The Coral Thief is a novel that weighs history and philosophy, it’s also a great detective story that will appeal to those who want a bit more out of their adventures than Dan Brown can offer. Stott’s writing is succinct and well-researched, with none of the ponderous pretentiousness that can sometimes weigh down historical fiction. (Stott does, however, include a not-too lengthy bibliography for those who wish to read further into her post-Napoleonic France; listed authors include Victor Hugo and Balzac). The Coral Thief is great good fun for thinking people. Recommended.