Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Offenses of "Miss Cobbe" And Darwin's Condescension

I have tried to look up all of Darwin's citations in the passages I've used here, some of them have been harder to find than others, as my post a week ago Saturday pointed out.  I decided to see if I could find "Miss Cobbe's" essay that so annoyed Darwin that he did what he so seldom did, cite a woman.  I found it, thanks to Google Books,  Darwinism in Morals and Other Essays by Frances Power Cobbe, a quite radical and early Anglo-Irish feminist and social reformer.  The essay was written in the florid Victorian style but it was far better written than a lot of the other things I've read from the same era by more respected writers - such as all of those anthropologists etc. I poured through last week.

Reading it I was also struck at how it read like Haeckel or Thomas Huxley or a number of other, later Darwinists only, whereas they approved of the same consequences of believing what Darwin said,  Cobbe foresaw the depravity that would logically follow from believing it.

Here's part of what she said.

It must be admitted that these two doctrines between them effectively revolutionize morals, as they have been hitherto commonly understood.  The first dethrones the moral sense from that place of mysterious supremacy which Butler considered its grand characteristic.  Mr Darwin's moral sense is simply an instinct originated, like a dozen others, by the conditions under which we live, but which happens, in the struggle for existence among all our instincts, to resume the upper hand, when no other chances to be in the ascendent.  And the second theory aims a still more deadly blow at ethics, by affirming that not only has our moral sense come to us by a source commanding no special respect, but that it answers to no external or durable, not to say universal or eternal, reality, and is merely tentative and provisional, – the provincial prejudice, that we may describe it, of this little world ad its temporary inhabitants, which would be looked on with a smile of derision by better informed people now living on Mars, or hereafter to be developed on earth, and who, in their turn, may be considered as walking in a vain shadow by other races.  

I'll pause here to say that I'm certain Cobbe was very used to being looked on with such smiles of derision by "better informed people."  I'm sure as a woman, a feminist, a social reformer, she had frequently experienced such smiles of derision of the kind you have to sense Darwin gave her in his debunkery effort.

Instead of Montesquieu''s grand aphorism “La justice est un rapport de convenance, qui se trouve réelle­ment entre deux choses; ce rapport est tou­jours le même; quelque être qui le considère, soit que ce soit Dieu, soit que ce soit un Ange, ou enfin que ce soit un homme”  Mr. Darwin will leave us only the sad assurance that our idea of justice is all our own, and may mean nothing to any other intelligent being in the universe.  It is not even, as Dean Mansel has told us, given us by our Creator as a representative truth, intended at least to indicate some actual transcendent verity behind it.  We have now neither veil nor revelation, but only an earth-born instinct, carrying with it no authority whatever beyond the limits of our race and special social state, nor within them further than we choose to permit it to weigh on our minds. 

Let me say it at once.  These doctrines appear to me simply the most dangerous which have ever been set forth since the days of Mandeville.  Of course, if science can really show good cause for accepting them, their consequences must be frankly faced.  But it is at least fitting to come to an examination of them, conscious that we are criticizing no ordinary problems, but theories whose validity must involve the invalidity of all the sanctions which morality has hitherto received from powers beyond those of the penal laws.  As a matter of practice, no doubt men act in nine cases out of ten with very small regard to their theories of ethics, even when they are thoughtful enough to have grasped any theory at all;  and generations might elapse after the universal acceptance of these new views by philosophers before they would sensibly influence the conduct of the masses of mankind.  But, however slowly they might work, I cannot but believe that in the hour of their triumph would be sounded the knell of the virtue of mankind.  It has been hard enough for tempted men and women heretofore to be honest, true, unselfish, chaste, or sober, while passion was clamoring for gratification or want pining for relief.  The strength of the fulcrum on which has rested the virtue of many a martyr and saint must have been vast as the law of the universe could make it.  But where will that fulcrum be found hereafter, if men consciously recognize that what they have gleaned to be 

“The unwritten law divine, 
Immutable, eternal, not like those of yesterday, 
But made ere Time began,”  Sophecles:  Antigone

The law by which “the most ancient heavens are fresh and strong,” – is, in truth, after all, neither durable nor even general among intelligent beings, but simply consists of those rules of conduct which, among many that might have been adopted, have proved themselves on experiment to be most convenient; and which in the lapse of ages, through hereditary transmission, legislation, education, and such methods, have got woven into the texture of our brains?  What will be the power of such a law as this to enable it to contend for mastery in the soul with any passion capable of rousing the languid impulse?  Hitherto, good men have looked on repentance as the most sacred of all sentiments, and have measured the nearness of the soul to God by the depth of its sense of the shame and heinousness of sin.  The boldest of criminals have betrayed at intervals their terror of the Erinnyes or remorse, against those scourges all religions have presented themselves as protectors, with their devices of expiations, sacrifices, penances, and atonements.  From Orestes at the foot of the altar of Phoebus to the Anglican in his new confessional today;  from the Aztec eating the heart of the victim slain in propitaion for sin to the Hindu obeying the law of Menu, and voluntarily starving himself to death as expiation of his offenses, – history bears testimony again and again to the power of this tremendous sentiment and, if it have driven mankind into numberless superstitions, it has, beyond a doubt, also served as a threat more effective against crime than all the penalties ever enacted by legislators.  But where is repentance to find place hereafter, if Mr. Darwin's view of its nature be received?  Will any man allow himself to attend to the reproaches of conscience, and bow his head to her rebukes, when he clearly understands that it is only his more durable social instinct which is reasserting itself, because the more variable instinct which has cause him to disregard it is temporarily asleep?  Such a physiology of repentance reduces its claims on our attention to the level of those of our bodily wants;  and our grief for a past crime assumes the same aspect as our regret that we yesterday unadvisedly preferred the temporary enjoyment of conversation to the permanent benefit of a long night's rest, or the flavor of an indigestible dish to the wholesomeness of our habitual foo.  We may regret our imprudence, but it is quite impossible we should ever again feel penitence for a sin.  

You can read the passages from Galton, Haeckel, Huxley, and especially the next generation or two dealing with morality and see that she came to pretty much the same conclusions they did about the consequences of Darwin's natural selection and far earlier than most of them.  Only, whereas the Darwinists thought the destruction of the basis of morality was wonderful, she didn't.   Her great offense to Darwin wasn't in what she warned would happen, he already approve of books and other writings  by authors who spelled that out in quite awful detail.  Her offense is in that she didn't think it was a good idea and said so in a quite coherent, quite informed essay.  Or maybe it was that she was a woman while saying it.  I don't think I was imagining very hard when I sensed a sneer in the way Darwin called her "Miss Cobbe".

Frances Cobbe seems to me to have been a quite intelligent person.   Before she wrote her essay she  did what I've noted Darwin's contemporary fans have not done, read him.  And she clearly informed herself as to what its implications were.  And not only Darwin, but many of those in his circle and other figures in science that I'd guess few of Darwin's lay readers have bothered to look at.

Mr. Wallace, in his contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, appears to me to sum up this argument admirably.  After explaing how very inadequate are the Utilitarians' sanctions for truthfulness, and observing how many savages yet make veracity a point of honor, he says: “It is difficult to conceive that such an intense and mystical feeling of right and wrong (so intense as to overcome all ideas of personal advantage or utility) could have been developed out of accumulate ancestral experiences of utility, but still more difficult to understand how feelings developed by one set of utilities could be transferred to acts of which the utility was partial, imaginary, or absent,” – or (as he might justly have added) so remote as to be quite beyond the ken of uncivilized of semi-civilized man.  It is no doubt a fact that, in the long run, truthfulness contributes more than lying to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.  But to discover that fact needs a philosopher, not a savage.  Other virtues, such as that for the weak an age, seem still less capable, as Mr. Mivart has admirably shown of being evolved out of a sense of utility, seeing that savages and animals find it much the most useful practice to kill and devour such sufferers; and, by the law of the survival of the fittest, all nature below civilized man is arrange on the plan of so doing.  Mr. W. R. Gregs very clever paper in Fraser's Magazine, pointing out how natural selection fails in the case of man in consequences of our feelings of pity for the weak, affords incidentally the best possible proof that human society is based on an element which has no counterpart in the utility which rules the animal world.

Of course, Cobbe was writing in the later half of the 19th century and had some ideas we don't generally have and her style isn't modern but, compared to Darwin and his circle, she can seem quite enlightened and, more importantly,  aware of likely practical outcomes in real life.  One of her most noted writings were attacks on laws that allowed husbands to torture their wives, she frankly called it wife torture instead of the euphemisms common then and now.  She was also an anti-vivisectionist, writing a book in which she detailed, in horrifying particularity, the abominably inhumane treatment of animals in the hands of 19th century science.   She had no illusions about what people relieved of moral consideration were capable of doing.  As she shows in her essay, no doubt informed by her knowledge of what the law could allow by way of the stronger exercising dominance and violence against weaker people, she had a clear eyed skepticism that it was sufficient to keep men from being depraved.

The things she read from Darwin and his closest followers were not only claiming some of those things were a social benefit for the survivors but the way of nature, arguing that moral teachings intended to try to lessen the frequency of them were mere illusions, the epiphenomena of evolution with no foundation within themselves.  That was something she got from reading what was being said, not out of any ignorance.

Her predictions of what would come about if Darwin's ideas on morals became generally held are borne out by subsequent history.  That prediction is something she shares with William Jennings Bryan, only she was writing more than a half-century earlier than he was.  Darwin's dismissal of her, which I pointed out in my post yesterday,  is absurd, given what he was saying in the book, proven to be so by what happened when a society was ruled by Darwinian precepts.  Even today, the ultra-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins,  has had to downplay the societal consequences of  Darwinian amorality, explicitly saying that a society ruled by Darwinian principles would be a horrible place to live in, that he wouldn't want to live in one and that we don't have to*.  You can contrast that with what Darwin and many of his disciples, even today, say about the inevitability of natural selection, its inescapable nature overriding human reason and morality.  That is the basis of eugenics.  Only, as Cobbe also showed, Dawkins' kind of utilitarian lite means of avoiding that is entirely inadequate.  Given her predictive abilities and insight gained, no doubt, by her fully facing a more nearly Darwinian-Malthusian society, I'd trust her on that point over Dawkins.

Frances Power Cobbe wasn't your stereotypical Victorian prude.  She was a feminist and, apparently, a lesbian who considered herself to be married to another sufferage activist, Mary Lloyd.  The extent to which their relationship was a physical one was, apparently, kept private between the two of them but, if you followed that last link, you will see their marriage was openly known AND you will read that she knew Charles Darwin.  I haven't been able to look at primary documents but other things I've read said that she met the Darwins and Emma, Charles' wife was quite taken with her.  Another thing I read said that Charles Darwin broke with her when Cobbe published an excerpt** from a letter he had sent her without his permission.  I don't know what that letter concerned, her suffrage, anti-vivisection or other activities.  Or if it dealt with natural selection.  The extent to which Darwin might have seen her marriage with Lloyd as sexual, of her as being a lesbian would be interesting to know.  Despite all of the things he wrote about sex,  in his letters Darwin comes off as pretty prudish about sex, preferring the prospects of bloody struggle to birth control because if women could have sex without worrying about pregnancy they might enjoy it and become promiscuous, more about that next week.

What I've read of her writings the past two weeks, "Miss Cobbe" was anything but an insignificant and ignorant critic of Darwin.  She obviously read and understood the background material quite comprehensively, at least what was available in English.  It's a kind of scholarship she brought to her other critical writing, even on the topic of religion, in which she also seems to have been anything but conservative.  She was not troubled by the idea of evolution, early in her essay, she shows she is informed and the idea doesn't seem to much bother her.  She, unlike many scientists, took the experience and suffering of animals seriously.  That would indicate that she saw real and significant bonds between human beings and other animals.  She did have the strongest problem with the idea of natural selection as a prescription for human behavior and the destruction of morality that Darwin's strongest supporters, those whose understanding of him, he confirms, were already  promulgating.  Since Darwin knew her and she was famously outspoken, he must have realized she was not an ignorant or superficial critic.  His dismissal was, I'd have to say, him exercising his male privilege because he had no real answer to her arguments.  He couldn't because she could cite him and his closest circle to refute them.  And he would have known that, which is why he had to try to make her seem ridiculous or insignificant.  

Note:  The issue of women according to Darwinism is one that could fill another series.  I haven't dealt with it here but I have read some of the contemporary criticism of Darwin's theory regarding women, all of that from women.  I may get around to writing on that in the future.

I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, "The Selfish Gene," was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscience intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.

**  I would be interested if anyone has looked at Darwin's practice in citing other peoples' letters were.  He seems to have had no problem doing so in private correspondence, I doubt that he always sought permission to do so, and not in full.  His son, Francis, in publishing his father's letters after his death, did what Cobbe apparently did.

Update:  Rereading this, Cobbe's analysis of Greg's article, subverting his eugenics argument to point out the inadequacy of the theory of natural selection to explain human society,  was rather ingenious.   It is gratifying to see her getting a bit of hers back in her description of it.  Or at least that's how it feels, having read Greg's article in all its pretty disgusting,  bigoted contortions.   Her having lived in Ireland and, having seen the famine's results more closely than Greg or Darwin had, I can only imagine what she must have thought of their bigotry on that point.

Update 2:   I found this, containing some of what Frances Cobbe had to say about her relationship with Darwin.  According to her it was Darwin's and her disagreement over vivisection that led to their falling out.  She specifically notes that she sent her review to Darwin for review and posts some of his response.  Considering how he characterized it in his book, I'm surprised they didn't fall out of that.

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