Magazine article Natural History

Lucy on the Earth in Stasis

Magazine article Natural History

Lucy on the Earth in Stasis

Article excerpt

Queen Victoria, just a bit behind the times as usual, took her first journey by railroad in 1842--from Windsor to London (by 1840, the United States already had 2,816 miles of track in operation, while England boasted 1,331 miles). Beyond this royal symbol, 1842 was a good year for change in general. Darwin composed his first sketch of the theory of natural selection (followed, in 1844, by an expanded draft and finally, in 1859, by a published version, The Origin of Species). And in Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote the most famous of all Victorian lines about the inevitability of change: "Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change."

I unite Tennyson's line with Victoria and rail transport for several reasons, most literally because Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar, metaphor for change (both visual and aural) arose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line."

We are beset by dualities, perhaps because nature favors pairings, but more, I suspect, because our mind works as a dichotomizing machine: night and day, sun and moon, male and female, life and death (the question, as Hamlet told us). Among the organizing dualities of our consciousness, change and constancy stands out as perhaps the deepest and most pervasive. Heraclitus said that we can't step twice into the same river, while his contemporary Pythagoras tried to extract invariance from the world's overt complexity by discovering simple regularities in number and geometry--a scholar's dream still pursued, as by Bertrand Russell in our day, when he included among the three passions of his life, "I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux."

These deep dualities cannot be analyzed in terms of truth and falsity, for the two sides are both and neither. In our struggles to comprehend this immensely puzzling and amazingly intricate universe, both themes of change and themes of constancy yield crucial insights for different questions and different scales. Since the two sides of this duality are equally true and useful, the favoring of one or the other at various, fluctuating times in the history of science becomes our best illustration of social impact upon a process that mythology regards as free of personal preference and driven exclusively by observation--for no organizing construct of the mind can be more socially and politically influenced than our transient preference for either change or stability as the essential nature of the universe.

Many periods of Western history have favored stability if only as a supposed natural buttress to a ruling political hierarchy of monarchs and nobles or popes and bishops. But a fundamental tenet of Western life, at least since the late eighteenth century, has proclaimed change as natural and constant. Social conservatives may rail and moan, visionaries and romantics may dance and sing, but the ringing grooves have dominated our view of the world for the past two centuries at least. Belief in change as nature's essential way blossomed in the eighteenth-century age of revolutions, with America and France leading a sometimes ambiguous way, nourished with the subsequent wave of romanticism in the arts, and reached an apogee (for Tennyson chose his metaphor wisely) with the even more ambiguous Victorian triumph of industrial and colonial expansion.

Evolution is a fact of nature--one that could probably not have been perceived, and certainly not widely promulgated, before preference for change in this cardinal duality swept the Western world. But evolution also enjoyed a much easier path to acceptance in Darwin's century because its central theme of change meshed so well with prevailing social context. …

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