January 16, 2021

1. Signatures

Here are the surviving signatures of William Shaksper of Stratford, his Complete Works:

Clearly the Stratford man is only semi-literate, and writing is uncomfortable for him, if not painful. In the 1600s, the antiquarian John Aubrey did some research on Mr. Stratford, and learned that “if invited to write he was in pain.”

Here’s the signature of the 17th Earl of Oxford:

As Maudie Lowe said of the signatures, “I know which one I’d bet money on wrote the works.”

The Shakespeare controversy raises an important issue: Truth. If civilization declines, one of the surest signs of that decline will be that man no longer pursues truth. I admit that the identity of “Shakespeare” isn’t one of the Big Questions, but it may be a symptom, a symptom of our attitude to truth. Tocqueville said,

Because Roman civilization perished through barbarian invasions, we are perhaps too much inclined to think that that is the only way a civilization can die. If the lights that guide us ever go out, they will fade little by little, as if of their own accord.1

The most important of Tocqueville’s “lights” is surely the pursuit of truth, respect for truth, refusal to accept untruth — truth on the big issues, like the nature of man and the nature of the universe, but also truth on secondary issues like the author of Hamlet.

2. John Burroughs and Evolution

I read an essay by John Burroughs called “A Critical Glance Into Darwin.” I found the essay at Project Gutenberg. The essay is a chapter in a book called The Last Harvest, which is a collection of Burroughs’ essays, written about 1920, when Burroughs was about 80.

Burroughs had a keen interest in Emerson and Thoreau, and the longest essays in The Last Harvest are about them. I don’t think Burroughs met Emerson or Thoreau, but he was on friendly terms with Walt Whitman and John Muir. Though he was a prominent nature writer in his day, Burroughs is largely forgotten today. He’s an eloquent writer, a deep thinker, and an astute critic — he deserves a higher reputation than he has. Burroughs was so well known in his day that he became friends with famous people like Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. Burroughs wrote a book about camping with Roosevelt in Yellowstone. Henry Ford said that he and Edison drove through the Adirondacks with Burroughs and “slept under canvas.”2

Burroughs (left) talking with Thomas Edison (center)
and Harvey Firestone
during a trip to the Adirondacks

Burroughs was born and raised on a family farm in the town of Roxbury, in the Catskill region of New York. Years later, he returned to the farm, spending summers at a cabin called Woodchuck Lodge. This cabin, and the land around it, is open to the public, as is another Burroughs home nearby, Slabsides. Slabsides is managed by the John Burroughs Association, which awards the John Burroughs Medal each year for nature writing.

The Catskills were to Burroughs what California mountains were to Muir. Burroughs doesn’t soar as high as Muir, he isn’t as ecstatic as Muir. Burroughs teaches the reader to appreciate the nature that’s in his backyard. Burroughs began his first nature-book, Wake-Robin, thus:

This is mainly a book about the Birds, or more properly an invitation to the study of Ornithology, and the purpose of the author will be carried out in proportion as it awakens and stimulates the interest of the reader in this branch of Natural History.

Instead of giving the reader just facts, Burroughs conveys the excitement of pursuing knowledge — the chase, the hunt — and he tries to awaken in the reader an appetite for knowledge. “Joy in the universe,” Burroughs wrote, “and keen curiosity about it all — that has been my religion.”

Like Thoreau, Burroughs worked initially as a teacher, but didn’t remain in that profession. Thoreau became a surveyor, Burroughs became a clerk in the U.S. Treasury, then a bank examiner. Burroughs met Whitman in Washington DC, and Burroughs’ first book was a study of Whitman, which Whitman himself revised.

One finds in Burroughs the same positive spirit that one finds in Thoreau and Muir:

The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world.... I am in love with this world.... I have tilled its soil, I have gathered its harvest, I have waited upon its seasons, and always have I reaped what I have sown. I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings.3

* * * * *

Burroughs’ view of evolution is similar to mine. He begins by dismissing the idea that a divine being can create species:

We find the earth swarming with the human species.... Where did they come from? We cannot, in our day, believe that a hand reached down from heaven, or up from below, and placed them there. There is no alternative but to believe that in some way they arose out of the antecedent animal life of the globe; in other words that man is the result of the process of evolution, and that all other existing forms of life, vegetable and animal, are a product of the same movement.

To explain how this came about, what factors and forces entered into the transformation, is the task that Darwin set himself. It was a mighty task, and whether or not his solution of the problem stands the test of time, we must yet bow in reverence before one of the greatest of natural philosophers; for even to have conceived this problem thus clearly, and to have placed it in intelligible form before men’s minds, is a great achievement.

The idea that a divine being created species is such a wild idea that it might be called self-refuting. On the other hand, to explain how species evolved is so difficult that it almost exceeds the capacity of the human mind. Burroughs agrees with me that Darwin hasn’t solved the problem, he has only clarified the problem. Burroughs wisely confesses that he doesn’t know the answer. I’ve argued that we can solve this “mystery of mysteries” by relating it to other mysteries — by relating it to the world in general, to quantum physics, to human history, to occult phenomena, etc. We can solve this mystery by taking a broad view of it, an inter-disciplinary view, a philosophical view.

There are various ways that we can approach the problem of evolution. Here’s one way:
Jung says that the unconscious compensates for any exaggeration in the conscious attitude. The demure, aristocratic lady will dream of wild Dionysian revels, while the serial killer will dream of saintly virtue. The unconscious is pushing us toward wholeness and balance. “Nature appears to be directing us,” Jung said, toward the center, the mid-point of conscious and unconscious. Nature has an urge, a goal. Could this help us to understand evolution? Is a similar urge/goal responsible for evolution, and perhaps for the origin of life? Is this a more plausible explanation than random mutation?

Burroughs realized that chance plays a key role in Darwin’s theory: “in fortuitous, or chance, variation [Darwin] saw one of the chief factors of Evolution.” Burroughs speaks of, “The world of Chance into which Darwinism delivers us.” But when we look at the world around us, when we look at the human eye, the human brain, etc., it’s difficult to believe that it happened by chance, and Darwin himself was candid enough to admit that he didn’t believe it. Darwin spoke of, “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity.”4 Burroughs rejects chance, but isn’t sure what to put in its place:

Is it possible to believe that the human body, with all its complicated mechanism, its many wonderful organs of secretion and excretion and assimilation, is any more matter of chance than a watch or a phonograph is? Though what agent to substitute for the word “chance,” I confess I do not know. The short cut to an omnipotent Creator sitting apart from the thing created will not satisfy the naturalist.

Burroughs realized that the Darwinian theory leads to a mechanical worldview, a world with no inner life, no will or impulse: “Are we to believe that we live in an entirely mechanical and fortuitous world — a world which has no interior, which is only a maze of acting, reacting, and interacting of blind physical forces?”

In general, biologists like the Darwinian view, they like the idea of a world that can be seen and touched and counted, a world that can be explained rationally. On the other hand, philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Bergson emphasize the inner life, the will, and they’re skeptical of Darwin. Naturalists and scientists with a philosophical bent, like Burroughs and John Herschel, are also skeptical of Darwin.

Burroughs doesn’t ascribe intelligence and will to a Creator, he ascribes intelligence and will to nature itself, to every particle. He would be fascinated by quantum physics, which has demonstrated astonishing capacities in subatomic particles.

While I cannot believe [Burroughs writes] that we live in a world of chance, any more than Darwin could, yet I feel that I am as free from any teleological taint as he was. The world-old notion of a creator and director, sitting apart from the universe and shaping and controlling all its affairs, a magnified king or emperor, finds no lodgment in my mind. Kings and despots have had their day, both in heaven and on earth. The universe is a democracy. The Whole directs the Whole. Every particle plays its own part, and yet the universe is a unit as much as is the human body, with all its myriad of individual cells, and all its many separate organs functioning in harmony. And the mind I see in nature is just as obvious as the mind I see in myself, and subject to the same imperfections and limitations.5

Like most Darwin-skeptics, Burroughs was receptive to Lamarck, who left room for impulse.

In following Lamarck [Burroughs writes] I am not disturbed by the bogey of teleology, or the ghost of mysticism. I am persuaded that there is something immanent in the universe, pervading every atom and molecule in it, that knows what it wants — a Cosmic Mind or Intelligence that we must take account of if we would make any headway in trying to understand the world in which we find ourselves.

After I read this, I made a note: “Good stuff, Burroughs. But don’t be afraid of teleology or mysticism.” In my view, Burroughs is sometimes too rational, too afraid of the occult. Terms like “mysticism,” “magic,” and “occult” shouldn’t be pejorative terms, they’re the key to understanding the world.

Burroughs realizes that evolution is about mutations (variations), and he argues that these mutations come from some sort of impulse:

Though I believe that the accumulation of variations is the key to new species, yet this accumulation is not based upon outward utility but upon an innate tendency to development — the push of life, or creative evolution, as Bergson names it.... The primary factor is the inherent tendency to development.... The Darwinians are hostile to Lamarck with his inner developing and perfecting principle, and, by the same token, to Aristotle, who is the father of the theory. They regard organic evolution as a purely mechanical process.6

Here’s an anecdote that shows how Bergson’s approach is more upbeat than the mechanical worldview:
Jacques Maritain was born in Paris in 1882. He attended the Sorbonne, where he studied chemistry, biology, and physics. He married a fellow student, Raissa. “Jacques and Raissa soon became disenchanted with scientism, which could not, in their view, address the larger existential issues of life. In 1901, in light of this disillusionment, they made a pact to commit suicide together if they could not discover some deeper meaning to life within a year. They were spared from following through on this because... they attended the lectures of Henri Bergson.... Bergson’s critique of scientism dissolved their intellectual despair.”7

The organic worldview beats the mechanical worldview in two ways: it’s more true, and more upbeat.

Burroughs realizes that there must be some sort of intelligence in the universe because man’s intelligence came from the universe. Man comes from nature, and nature comes from matter. Everything is related, and there’s some sort of intelligence in everything.

Each of us is a fraction of the universal Eternal Intelligence. Is it unscientific to believe that our own minds have their counterpart or their origin in the nature of which we form a part? Is our own intelligence all there is of mind-manifestation in the universe? Where did we get this divine gift? Did we take all there was of it? Certainly we did not ourselves invent it. It would require considerable wit to do that. Mind is immanent in nature, but in man alone it becomes self-conscious.

In a recent issue, I discussed cases of “rapid evolution” — evolution that takes place in two or three generations, too quickly for Darwinian mechanisms to operate. Burroughs mentions a similar case: “It is said that the rabbits in Australia have developed a longer and stronger nail on the first toe of each front foot, which aids them in climbing over the wire fences.”

Since Australia was settled and fenced only a few generations before Burroughs was writing, this would be a case of rapid evolution. If it couldn’t be the result of Darwinian mechanisms, which require long periods of time, what could have caused this “longer and stronger nail”? Burroughs says, “The needs of the organism influence structure.” Need creates will (conscious will or unconscious will), will modifies structure, the structural modification becomes hereditary. As I wrote almost twenty years ago,

Some Jungians have argued that evolution doesn’t occur through random mutations, but rather through synchronicity; “a species of animals, under great pressure or in great need, could produce ‘meaningful’ (but acausal) changes in its outer material structure.”8

Burroughs mentions other physical changes, ascribing them to need and will and tendency-to-development: “The aye-aye has a specially adapted finger for extracting insects from their hiding-places.... The snowshoes of the partridge and rabbit.... The spines in the quills in the tails of woodpeckers.” These may not be cases of rapid evolution, but they’re still difficult to explain by Darwinian arguments, they’re easier to explain with Lamarck’s arguments or Jung’s arguments.

Burroughs mentions a snake that has such a bizarre modification that it seems impossible to explain by Darwinian reasoning:

I have read of a serpent somewhere that feeds upon eggs. As the serpent has no lips or distendable cheeks, and as its mechanism of deglutition acts very slowly, an egg crushed in the mouth would be mostly spilled. So the eggs are swallowed whole; but in the throat they come in contact with sharp tooth-like spines, which are not teeth, but downward projections from the backbone, and which serve to break the shells of the eggs.

Once a modification like this arises, it would spread through a population by Natural Selection (traits that help the organism to survive are more likely to be passed on to the next generation than unhelpful traits). The key question is, How does such a bizarre modification arise? It’s difficult to imagine such a modification arising by random mutation. A Jungian explanation (an explanation that points to need and will) is, in my view, more credible than a Darwinian explanation.

Burroughs touches on a question that I discussed recently: What is the origin of beauty — the beauty of a bird, for example? Burroughs says, “[nature] is concerned with color and form only so far as they have survival value. We are concerned more with intrinsic values.” I argued that animals seem to appreciate beauty for its own sake.

In the following passage, Burroughs seems to anticipate Einstein’s theories of curved space, and ubiquitous energy (an equivalence between matter and energy):

The moon ought to fall upon the earth, and the earth fall into the sun.... But it does not, and will not. As nearly as we can put it into words, the whole visible universe floats in a boundless and fathomless sea of energy.

Was Burroughs familiar with Einstein’s theories? Were Einstein’s theories widely discussed when Burroughs was writing this essay? Or did Burroughs find his way to these truths by himself?

* * * * *

Among Burroughs’ contemporaries, it was common to be skeptical of Darwinism. “The period 1875-1925 has been called ‘The eclipse of Darwinism.’”9 After 1925, there was a Darwin revival known as The Modern Synthesis. The Modern Synthesis was a kind of “Counter-Reformation,” a movement to buttress shallow thinking, declare Darwinism a proven fact, and suppress dissent. In academia, one can’t question Darwinism, just as a Catholic priest can’t question Papal Infallibility.

Though Burroughs is skeptical of Darwinism, he’s Darwin’s biggest fan. Burroughs asks,

After we have Darwin shorn of his selection theories, what has he left? His significance is not lessened. He is still the most impressive figure in modern biological science. His attitude of mind, the problems he tackled, his methods of work, the nature and scope of his inquiries, together with his candor, and his simplicity and devotion to truth, are a precious heritage to all mankind....

He showed man once for all an integral part of the zoologic system.... Darwin impresses by his personality not less than by his logic and his vast storehouse of observations. He was a great man before he was a great natural-history philosopher....

The study of Darwin’s works begets such an affection for the man, for the elements of character displayed on every page, that one is slow in convincing one’s self that anything is wrong with his theories. There is danger that one’s critical judgment will be blinded by one’s partiality for the man....

Darwin himself almost disarms one by his amazing candor and his utter self-abnegation. The question always paramount in his mind is, what is the truth about this matter? What fact have you got for me, he seems to say, that will upset my conclusion? If you have one, that is just what I am looking for.

Burroughs is especially fond of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which I raved about in a recent issue.

How often [Burroughs writes] it turns out that a man’s minor works outlive his major! This is true in both literature and science, but more often in the former than in the latter. Darwin furnishes a case in the field of science. He evidently looked upon his Origin of Species as his great contribution to biological science; but it is highly probable that his Voyage of the Beagle will outlast all his other books. The Voyage is of perennial interest and finds new readers in each generation. I find myself re-reading it every eight or ten years. I have lately read it for the fourth time. It is not an argument or a polemic; it is a personal narrative of a disinterested yet keen observer, and is always fresh and satisfying. For the first time we see a comparatively unknown country like South America through the eyes of a born and trained naturalist. It is the one book of his that makes a wide appeal and touches life and nature the most closely....

His Voyage of the Beagle alone would insure him lasting fame. It is a classic among scientific books of travel. Here is a traveler of a new kind: a natural-history voyager, a man bent on seeing and taking note of everything going on in nature about him, in the non-human, as well as in the human world. The minuteness of his observation and the significance of its subject-matter are a lesson to all observers. Darwin’s interests are so varied and genuine.

3. Miscellaneous

A. Good Writer  One who deals with the topics that interest me.

B. Great Writer  One who reaches the same conclusions that I’ve reached.

4. William Dembski and Intelligent Design

William Dembski was, until his recent retirement, a prominent and controversial advocate of Intelligent Design, and a critic of Darwin’s theory. Dembski is a math expert, and he’s used this skill to compute the probability of evolution by random mutation. Dembski was affiliated with the Discovery Institute, where he worked with two Darwin-critics whom I discussed in an earlier issue, Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer. Though Dembski has retired from the controversy, he still believes in Intelligent Design.10

In 1998, Dembski published The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Wesley Elsberry, a marine biologist and a critic of creationism, reviewed the book in 1999, describing it as “a slim and scholarly volume, as one expects from a distinguished academic press [Cambridge University Press], with clear writing, illustrative examples, and cogent argumentation.” In 2000, Dembski was chosen by the periodical First Things to be on a conservative All Star Team, a group of writers that was discussing where society was heading. Dembski wrote numerous books, and they sold quite well. There’s a market for Intelligent Design; people have an emotional attachment to the idea of God, they want to believe, and they need an intellectual justification for their belief.

Dembski (and other proponents of Intelligent Design) argues that living things, with their astonishing complexity, couldn’t be the product of random mutation and natural selection, they must have been designed by some sort of intelligence. “Dembski’s position on Intelligent Design’s relationship with Christianity has been inconsistent. He has suggested that the ‘Intelligent Designer’ is not necessarily synonymous with a god: ‘It could be space aliens. There are many possibilities.’” At other times, Dembski has said, “The Designer of Intelligent Design is, ultimately, the Christian God.” Dembski said that his motive for promoting Intelligent Design is “to enable God to receive credit for creation.” Dembski has suggested that there may be a hidden code in the Bible, a code that would convince even the most hardened unbeliever of the existence of God.11

Why would God hide His meaning in a code? And why would He hide his code in a book that was obviously created by a small group at a specific time? Why would He wait billions of years, after creating the earth, to create life? Why would He wait hundreds of millions of years, after creating life, to create man? Why would He wait millions of years, after creating man, to reveal himself to man, and reveal the Bible to man? If there’s a code in the Bible, it’s doubtless a human construction, just as the Bible as a whole is doubtless a human construction.

Intelligent Design is a wild story indeed, as wild as a story about “space aliens.” It’s far more plausible to argue that earth and life and man all evolved gradually, through their own nature, their own properties and powers. Nature itself is awesome and intelligent, we don’t need to bring in a Super Being or a space alien, and we don’t need to take refuge in random mutation.

5. Soul

Soul (2020) is a new animated movie from Pixar/Disney. It can be streamed on the new Disney streaming service, Disney+.

At first, I was under-whelmed, Soul seemed sluggish, disappointing. But the last half-hour ties everything together well. What started out as a celebration of jazz, and a quest for artistic success, becomes something more. There’s a little confusion between one’s “purpose” and one’s “spark,” but the conclusion seems to be that the purpose of life is living — “regular old living.” Appreciate the whole. Be here now. Connect with nature by walking, star-gazing, etc. In an earlier issue, I quoted the Zen writer D. T. Suzuki: “Life doesn’t have meaning, life is meaning.”

The creator of Soul, Pete Docter, made cartoons and animated movies as a youngster, and studied philosophy in college. Animated movies depict a new world, with its own rules and vocabulary, so I sometimes find that I need to watch an animated movie twice.

Art often makes us feel better about life, but it pursues this goal indirectly. Soul makes a direct attempt to teach us to live better, to raise our spirits, and it does so with a light touch. Perhaps the intended audience is a young African-American (it’s the first Pixar film with an African-American protagonist), but the end result is a movie that’s suitable for all ages and races.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Democracy in America, Vol 2, Part 1, Ch. 10 back
2. Wikipedia. For more on these camping trips, see The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, by Jeff Guinn. back
3. The Summit of the Years (1913). This book is a collection of essays, like most of Burroughs’ books. The quotation is from the first essay, “The Summit of the Years.” back
4. Darwin, Autobiography back
5. Burroughs quotes a parable to illustrate the difference between a created world, and a self-created world: “A heathen khan in Tartary was visited by a pair of proselytizing moollahs. The first moollah said, ‘O Khan, worship my god. He is so wise that he made all things!’ Moollah Number Two said, ‘O Khan, worship my god. He is so wise that he makes all things make themselves!’” back
6. Schopenhauer traces the “impulse-theory” back to pre-Aristotle thinkers: “Anaxagoras and Empedocles quite rightly taught that plants have the motion of their growth by virtue of their indwelling desire.”(The World As Will and Idea, Vol. 2, #23)

Burroughs was evidently a reader of Bergson. Burroughs speaks of, “the wonderful style of M. Bergson, and the richness of his page in natural history.” Bergson had a strong interest in the philosophical problem of evolution, and he was skeptical of Darwin’s solution.

Burroughs says that Bergson champions the occult by saying that it’s all around us, but it’s hidden, like electricity: “We produce electricity at every moment; the atmosphere is continually electrified; we move among magnetic currents. Yet for thousands of years millions of human beings have lived who never suspected the existence of electricity.” back

7. Wikipedia back
8. My essay is here. The quote is from Man and His Symbols, Conclusion, p. 306. back
9. Wikipedia. For more information, click here. back
10. Wikipedia’s page on Dembski
Personal website
Bio at Discovery Institute
11. “Dembski has also indicated an interest in the Bible code. In a favorable book review of Jeffrey Satinover’s Cracking the Bible Code, Dembski wrote that ‘The philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked why he didn’t believe in God. He replied, “Not enough evidence.” Satinover’s fascination with the Bible Code is that it may provide evidence for God’s existence that would have convinced even a Bertrand Russell.’”(Wikipedia) back