The eternal struggle of why with how (3/5)

Last week Cathy and I went to dinner at Richard’s house.  There were two other couples there.  I had taught the son of one of the couples last year, and as 2009 was his final year at school I asked what he was planning to do.  He was planning to stuff around for a year.  His parents seemed relaxed about this.  I’m glad they were relaxed about it.  The young man in question is intelligent, talented and engaging.  Things will work out.

It reminded me of the year I tried stuffing around after I finished school.  When I left school I had very little idea what I wanted to be.  Even if I was a day-dreamer with personal fantasys about being a rock star, or travelling the world, I also had some notion that I would probably need to get a real job.  Nobody wanted to give me a real job in 1991 so I went to university.  I went to university with the odd idea that you just studied what you enjoyed and were good at.  I took English and History, and picked up a bit of Classics, and Anthropology along the way. 

1991 was the last year that university was more or less free.  I think it is no coincidence that when fees were introduced there was a decrease in the notion of university as a place that provided a useful general degree, and an increase in the view that it was a training institution that would get you a high paying job.

While I spent my time at university sneering at this view of university as a training institute, I ended up in 1998 with a very mediocre MA in English Literature which is a complete career dead end.  By 1998 I had stopped sneering, and was fairly desperately wondering what I was going to do with my life.

I went to Japan and taught English there for a bit over five years.  It was this experience that actually educated me, and gave me a profession.  My current life is built on the foundation of those five years in Japan.

Which is saying this: I had no idea who I was or what I should be until around the year 2000, or 2001 when I was 27 years old, and that was only the beginning of the process.  It took another five or six years for me to accept the ideas, and train, and get through the hard early years of teaching. 

When I look back at myself as I was in my first year out of school I can see almost a different person.  If I were to resort to simile I would say I was like the first draft on the potter’s wheel; a mound of soft, pliable clay.  Under the hands of time and experience the outline of myself has become clearer, and harder.  This is good and bad.  I feel like I know myself a lot better, but I also sometimes miss the sense of not knowing what I could be.

You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all  your family.

Dr. Darwin to his son, Charles


Dr. Darwin sent his useless son to Edinburgh to study medicine but the useless son found that observing surgeries performed without anasthetic was not his cup of tea.  He convinced Dad to let him go to Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1828 to read for Holy Orders.  Of course Darwin was never to become either a medical doctor or a priest, and it was while he was at Edinburgh that he first became interested in botany.  A hobby he continued to develop at Cambridge.

While he was at Cambridge he read and accepted the views in Paley’s famous book Natural Theology (1802).  The most famous part of Paley’s books was an analogy about a watch.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

If you accept that a watch must have been designed and made by an intelligent being then when you observe the incredible complexity of nature you must also accept that it was made by an intelligent being.  God.

By the 1820s Paley’s views and Charles Darwin confronted the relatively new science of geology.  In 1830 Charles Lyell published the first volume of his book Principles of Geology.

The central argument in Principles was that the present is the key to the past. Geological remains from the distant past can, and should, be explained by reference to geological processes now in operation and thus directly observable. Lyell’s interpretation of geologic change as the steady accumulation of minute changes over enormously long spans of time was a powerful influence on the young Charles Darwin.

It was the “enormously long spans of time” that was a problem for those who took the Bible literally.  Douglas Palmer in his book Earth Time describes his grandfather’s Bible published in 1890.  This Bible has a margin down the side of the text, and in that margin is written the year that the events described took place.  The date next to the first entry for Genesis is 4004BC.  Geologists like David Palmer currently believe that the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.

In a sense I don’t think this matters too much.  The human mind can’t comprehend 6000 years, let alone 4.5 billion.  Length of time was a problem, but I think it was minor compared to this one:

As the fossil record became clearer, the extinction of kingdom after kingdom of monstrous prehistoric animals before the appearance of man raised issues about God’s purpose in creation. (22)

In late December of 1831 Charles Darwin began a voyage that formed the basis of his views about life on Earth.

AFTER having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to 1830—to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific—and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World.

Journal of Researches, Darwin

It was a voyage that took five years.  Darwin took with him Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He also took with him John Herschel’s idea that man should look for underlying patterns in the endless variety of the living world, and search for grand principles to explain them (Netwon’s theory of universal gravitation was an example). 

So that is the state of play in 1831.  Charles Darwin is all soft clay on the potter’s wheel, and here come the hands of time and experience.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

4 thoughts on “The eternal struggle of why with how (3/5)”

  1. “Last week Cathy and I went to dinner at Richard’s house.”
    The correct spelling of my name is Richard (of RBB).

  2. I am not a dog person, but I freely admit that these dogs look pretty cute.

    Who would have thought that rat-catching was such a dubious hobby? Actually, no, scratch that, who would have thought it was a hobby at all.

  3. The quote from Darwin senior — “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” caught my attention. My dogs are rat-catching terriers whose ancestors came to be seen as a “breed” in the nineteenth century when they were used for flushing out crop-paddocks and barns in East Anglia. They were typically kept in packs by farmers or horsemen.

    In the later nineteenth-century, at least one of these horsemen started selling these ratting terriers to middle-class university students (mostly at Cambridge), who ran ratting competitions (and I presume gambled on the results) with their pet dogs. The dogs were small enough to live comfortably in their living quarters. Thus, as in other parts of the UK, rat-catching went from being a necessity of farm- and equine-life to a middle-class sport (and one which was retroactively taken up by the working classes in the north as well).

    I presume that is a big part of what Darwin senior objects to in his son: not just spending all his time in betting on sport, but a new, faddish sort of sport imported from the working classes. What would the modern equivalent be? Darts, pool and foosball? Or maybe online betting on the Super 14?

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