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Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.”

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others,” the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal’s insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one’s ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.

Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) — a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.

With an eye to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s four rules for arguing intelligently and criticizing with kindness, Gopnik considers the essential principle at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical brilliance, which illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin’s singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin’s ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

But this clever rhetorical framework was both a stylistic strategy and a reflection of Darwin’s lifelong battle with anxiety:

Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone — believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet… The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.


In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.

Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims… What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made… It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.

Gopnik’s account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one’s own ideas — a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin’s prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:

Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.

[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.

The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.

Angels and Ages is an immeasurably stimulating read in its totality, exploring questions of time, loss, belief, reason, and other enduring perplexities of the human experience through the bifocal lens of two very different geniuses born within a few hours of each other on a chilly February day in 1809. Complement this particular portion with Amin Maalouf on how to disagree and Pascal on the art of persuasion, then revisit this graphic biography of Darwin and his disarming list of the pros and cons of marriage.

For more of Gopnik’s own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:

The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.


Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian’s ‘Darwin: A Graphic Biography.’ Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.


Scandal, Censorship, Science: How Darwin Shaped Our Understanding of Why Language Exists

What The Origin of Species and the love of dogs reveal about comprehension and cognition.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf memorably proclaimed in the only surviving recording of her voice. But even in this beautifully aphoristic observation lies an unsolvable chicken-or-egg mystery: Where did words come from in the first place?

Charles Darwinman of routine, graphic novel hero, upbeat evaluator of marriage, occasional grump, poetry muse, rap muse, frequent literary jukeboxer — may have carved his place in history as the father of evolutionary theory, but he also demonstrated that science and the humanities need each other as he made major contributions to our understanding of why language emerged and how it shaped the course of our species.

In The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (public library) — the fascinating chronicle of two intertwined stories, of how language evolved long ago and of what spurred a handful of modern scientists, including Darwin, to explore that mystery at the specific time they did — science writer Christine Kenneally traces Darwin’s linguistic legacy:

Although Darwin mentioned language very little in On the Origin of Species, the book is a keystone for every discussion about language evolution that has followed it. In fact, all debate about who we are and how we came to be on this planet can be divided into conversations that took place before the publication of Origin and those that have taken place after it. Origin was printed six times during Darwin’s lifetime, and many times since. Not only did it introduce the concept of evolution … but it initiated the modern study of evolutionary biology. The flow of books published about Darwin every year seems endless.

Darwin focused more on language in The Descent of Man (1871) than in Origin. Language was not a conscious invention, he said, but “it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” At the same time, he noted, humans don’t speak unless they are taught to do so … because language is “not a true instinct.”

Darwin believed that language was half art, half instinct, and he made the case that using sound to express thoughts and be understood by others was not an activity unique to humans. He cited the examples of monkeys that uttered at least six different cries, of dogs that barked in four or five different tones, and of domesticated fowl that had “at least a dozen significant sounds.” He noted that parrots can sound exactly like humans and described a South American parrot that was the only living creature that could utter the words of an extinct tribe. Darwin included gesture and facial expressions under the rubric of language: “The movements of the features and gestures of monkeys are understood by us, and they partly understand ours.”

In fact, the father of evolution, known for his experiments on emotional expression in humans and animals, was also one of history’s most significant dog-lovers and, at a time when the question of what it means to be human stripped most other sentient beings of comprehension and cognition, he believed dogs were capable of both:

“As everyone knows,” he wrote, “dogs understand many words and sentences.” He likened them to small babies who comprehend a great deal of speech but can’t utter it themselves. Darwin quoted his fellow scholar Leslie Stephen: “A dog frames a general concept of cats or sheep, and knows the corresponding words as well as a philosopher [does].”

He also explored the question of why birds sing with a surprisingly humanistic lens:

Darwin also pointed out compelling parallels between human language and birdsong. All birds, like all humans, utter spontaneous cries of emotion that are very similar. And both also learn how to arrange sound in particular ways from their parents. “The instinctive tendency to acquire an art,” said Darwin, “is not peculiar to man.”

What set us apart from animals, he argued, was a matter of degree, not kind — a greater ability to produce sounds and ideas, an expression of our higher mental powers. Where humans differ from other animals, Darwin believed, is simply in our greater capacity to put together sounds with ideas, which is a function of our higher mental powers.

But as the era’s linguists enthusiastically embraced the perfect parallel biological evolution offered a for the emergence of language, they remained skeptical about how scientific a problem speculating about the origin of language was and were thus ambivalent about adopting Darwin’s theory as fact. Perhaps ironically, given we now know that ignorance is what drives rather than hinders science and Richard Feynman has wisely advised that allowing for uncertainty and doubt is scientists’ chief responsibility, this inability to remain speculative resulted in one of the most profound instances of censorship in scientific history:

The distaste for speculation about language origins culminated in an extraordinary move by the Société de Linguistique of Paris in the nineteenth century: it banned any discussion of the subject, even though it was attracting more and more attention. Its pronouncement read: “The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.” In 1872 the London Philological Society followed suit.

This act of academic censorship, Kenneally writes, had strikingly enduring consequences. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that a handful of modern linguistic heroes — scientists like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker — picked up the vetoed inquiry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, which is spectacularly stimulating, goes on to explore the enduring mystery of how our vehicle of communication evolved. Kenneally frames the journey with precisely the blend of poetic reflection and rigorous scientific inquiry that underpins the fascinating story she unravels:

For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is little more than air. It exits the body as a series of puffs and dissipates quickly into the atmosphere.


Only very recently have scientists begun to work out how language evolved. But in the same way that no single fossil can provide an answer, no one researcher can solve this problem, which is fundamentally awesome and multifaceted. There will be no Einstein of linguistic evolution, no single grand theory of the emergence of language. Unearthing the earliest origins of words and sentences requires the combined knowledge of half a dozen different disciplines, hundreds of intelligent, dedicated researchers, and a handful of visionary individuals. Finding out how language started requires technology that was invented last week and experiments that were conducted yesterday. It also needs simple basic experiments that have never been done before.


The Rap Guide to Evolution: Baba Brinkman’s Homage to Darwin

Dropping rhymes on the natural selection of reason.

The life of Charles Darwin has been the subject of ample creative adaptations — from a graphic novel biography to a collaborative album to a series of biographical poems by his great-grand-daughter.

Now comes The Rap Guide to Evolution by the inimitable Baba Brinkman — a Darwinian rap-teaser for Mark Pallen’s book The Rough Guide to Evolution (public library) that does for science-lovers what Dan Bull’s Lennononandonandon did for Beatlemaniacs and The Elements of Style Rap did for literary nerds:

[Darwin], as far as anyone knows, was the first
To recognize the underlying pattern behind the pageant
Affectionately known as “life on this planet”
He was the first to understand it
The first to translate his amazement
At the wonder of life, into a way to explain it
So this is a celebration of Darwin’s greatness
In the form of a rap — some would say “a debasement”
I would say “be patient”, just think of this as
A manifestation of the evolutionary equation
A recapitulation of life, a re-enactment
So, how do you go from amoebas to rappers?

Complement with Darwin’s daily routine and his timelessly delightful list of the pros and cons of marriage.

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