Jan 19 1836
“Earlier in the evening A little time before this, I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the Animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World. An Disbeliever unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim "Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work; their object however has been the same & certainly the end in each case the end is complete". — Whilst thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant: — A fly fell in & immediately disappeared; then came a large but unwary Ant; his struggles to escape being very violent, the little jets of sand described by Kirby (Vol. I. P. 425) were promptly directed against him. — NB The pitfall was not above half the size of the one described by Kirby. His fate however was better than that of the poor fly’s:- Without a doubt this predacious Larva belongs to the same genus, but to a different species from the Europaean one. — Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. — The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe. A Geologist perhaps would suggest, that the periods of Creation have been distinct & remote the one from the other; that the Creator rested in his labor.”
Commentators have observed that the younger Darwin here is making use of notions of a Creator. They have also said that his ideas on evolution (and that species could change) were yet to develop. He was still a young man in 1836.
What is of more interest – from our privileged perspective all these years later (and making much use of the hard work of thinkers like Charles Darwin) – is that he does not apply the same logic to the existence of different modes of human life.
His experiences with the people of Tierra del Fuego (some of who had been on the Beagle) had already provided him with this type of questioning. It may be that, for the young Darwin, all people are created by a single creator just as, for the older Darwin, we are descended from a common ancestor. That is not the point here. The existence of difference Ways of Being is the puzzle.
His scale for the measurement of humanity is implicit in his comment (on 16 Jan) regarding the Aboriginal men he had met:
“— Never the less, they appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in civilization, or more correctly a few lower in barbarism, than the Fuegians. —”
High and low, civilised and barbaric.
Of course, it is too much to expect that in 1836, Darwin could make use of the same sort of social science perspective that become possible much later (In part as a result of Darwin’s work), and as part of the unfolding of a secularisation of life in Europe (and its neo-European colonies).
The concept of ‘culture’ as used by modern anthropologists and others was not available in the early 1800s. While geography and mapping (of the kind the Beagle was engaged in) was well established, it excluded mapping of the socio-cultural landscape.
But there must have been many others, at this time, who pondered exactly this question from a religious perspective. So it is not entirely unreasonable – in revisiting Darwin at this juncture – and asking why he did not apply such thoughts to the differences between peoples. He himself has invoked the religious dimension with reference to a Creator.
(Was it Erich Auerbach in “Mimesis” who commented on the power to integrate experience which resulted from the concept of a single creator? I cannot locate the quote.)
By the time of Charles Darwin, of course, there had been thousands of years of use of such a concept – a single creator – by those in that tradition. It came pre-packaged to Darwin (who had looked destined to become a clergyman) and he was to be one of the key players who lessened it’s hold over our minds.
But in 1836, Darwin could invoke a supernatural Creator in order to make sense out of the differences between the animals in Australia and other parts of the world he was familiar with.
This is almost a form of so-called ‘totemism’ – using ‘animals’ as a means of thought. The world as made up by other life-forms (“animals”) provide our form of life which a means of thinking about abstract matters. (The category ‘animal’ is a culturally loaded category, and not to be used uncritically.)
In so-called totemism, distinctions between ‘animals’ are used (by humans) as a means to think. The origin of species is a classic theme in bodies of myth, many of which seek to make use of the distinctions between types of ‘animals’ for other purposes (including constituting social groups as different.)
Darwin, however, restricts his thinking to a narrow problem (the existence of difference on the ‘animal’ plane) and resolves it by making use of an imaginary single Creator.
He does not continue with the exercise in order to account for the existence of indigenous peoples and/or different Ways of Being. On that front Darwin is content to invoke the cultural pre-fabricated notions of civilised and savage, with its inbuilt high-low distinctions.
The step which begs to be taken – as part of an exercise in our transcendent imagination – is to make the parallel between different forms of life on the non-human level (Australian and European for arguments sake) with the equally striking difference between Australian and European life on the social level – in order to capture the existence of two major life formations (Ways of life).
Distinctly Australia animal forms of life (such as the Kangaroo and Platypus) are to European animal forms of life (domesticated sheep?) as the Ways of Australia’s First Peoples are to European Ways. (A:B::C:D)
That is, we need a conceptual apparatus which can affirm and recognise the co-existing differences without trying to assimilate and dominate one by the other.
The problem of a single Creator – in the absence of a more direct (unmediated) form of representation by such a Being in human affairs – is that a priestly caste uses this notion as a means of manipulating and controlling others.
While indigenous Australian life had it senior law people who may be compared, in some respects, to a priestly caste of some sort (cutting across other social distinctions) the existence of other social mechanisms act to dissolve concentrations of power.
Much indigenous life – such as the fights between groups which are often mentioned by first hand observers – make far better sense when viewed in terms of Ways of life completely committed to preventing any form of concentration of power in the hands of a single group.
The ‘failure’ to develop a State is only a failure in the eyes of those who have lost this struggle, and whose notions of ‘normality’ are fashioned to comply with the specifications of master narratives which stress ‘unity’ while systematically sacrificing ‘difference’.
And the history of contact in Australia demonstrates the misery which results from the attempts by Anglo-Australian authorities (and others) to impose European notions of unity and exclude indigenous insistences of difference.
It is only when we have the conceptual mechanism available that we can avoid the trap of trying to account for the whole in terms of the part – and the development of these conceptual mechanisms cannot emerge from a mere intellectual exercise – they result from a uncompromising commitment and lived attempt to reposition our Being.
The younger Darwin, a brief visitor to Australia, stayed away from these heavy and difficult issues. But that does not mean that those of us who have to work to complete life’s rethinking can passively rely on the myth-narratives of European master craftsmen when it comes to fashioning new forms of representation for life. Darwin-ism was incomplete when it was produced, and remains so today.
A bi-culturally balanced rethinking is required – one in which cosmologies of Dreaming have an informative place along with those of recent Western life. This is highly unlikely to emerge from the educational institutions of the modern nation-state (as presently constituted)
The thinking involved in ‘Dreaming’ cosmology places its stress on context – country – while that of modern biology has been on the micro ‘within’ an ‘individual’. With a developing appreciation in the late 20th century and present times of ecosystems as part of life there may be some ‘common ground’.
Thesis (Country) – Antithesis (Genes) – Synthesis (yet to emerge)?
But it will require a new sense of identity – of who ‘we’ are as forms of life – to resolve the contradictions. We will not be able to take life’s next step AND retain the false sense of identity which comes from the modern nation-state.and associated forms of exclusive ownership of property (What Benedict Anderson calls the ‘limited’ imaginings of imagined communities.)
The challenge for conceptual craftspeople is to fashion new forms of representation which enable both Ways and contribute towards a global repositioning of Being (vis-a-vis cosmos).
‘Culture’ has to be reintegrated with ‘nature’ (and vice versa) if we are to distance our work from what the former indigenous Senator Aden Ridgeway aptly characterised as ‘terra nullius of the mind’. Darwinism – with its cult of followers – continues to reproduce this lethal ideology.
New forms of representations will not be able to get away with the ‘stick-figure’ sketches of life which are deemed well-formed by Naturalists.
A vast array of existential considerations will have to be factored back-in – including the need to ensure the full well-being of Australia’s surviving First Peoples.
While the United States of America prepares to put a “Black” man in a White House, the Australian Houses of Parliament has not a single indigenous person as a Member of Parliament, let alone systems of law which (after two centuries) incorporate indigenous values, cultures and cosmologies.
Terra nullius of the mind a la Darwin is over.
“Oh horror!” cry privileged Western voices.
“Two Ways – Two Laws” say voices which cannot be silenced.
POSTSCRIPT – “CULTURE”
For a brief account of the development of the concept of “culture” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture
And see also the illustration there of Australia’s First Peoples encounter with Captain Cook – but note that the illustration is unable to depict how those First Peoples ‘saw’ these strangers. How do Western eyes read this picture?
In some cases, white skinned people were regarded by First Peoples as people like themselves returning from the dead – which, presumably, was not to be encouraged but striking evidence of what types of considerations First Peoples bought to the new forms of representation life had forced upon them.
In one reasonably well known case (that of William Buckley) a ‘white-skinned’ English man was more or less successfully integrated into everyday life for several decades. Buckley, having fled unjust authority while in ‘Port Phillip Bay’ in 1803, lived for over 30 years with indigenous people in what is now Victoria, and returned to Western society in July, 1835 – shortly before Darwin arrived in Australia.