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28 November 2010

Book Review: Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life

Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern LifeAngels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gopnik's thesis is not proven in this short collection of long essays.  Not in the slightest.  But that doesn't mean this book isn't worth reading.  Rather than a sensible step-by-step building of connective tissue, an evolution of an idea, you might say, Gopnik wanders about and repeats himself and never really makes anything concise or clear.  I did not leave this book thinking, "Yes!  Darwin and Lincoln WERE midwives to the spirit of a new world! They DID reshape our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning!"  That Darwin and Lincoln were amazing harbingers of the next is a given but Gopnik doesn't really till new ground in demonstrating the idea.   He does, however, bring up some interesting tidbits for deep thought and these, alone, make the book worth reading.   For example;

"We can find plenty of astonishing ideas in that day, just as we will find traces of the astonishing ideas of the next century somewhere on the fringes of our own time."

"...these styles [the writing styles of Darwin and Lincoln] have in common the writer's faith in plain English, his hope that people's minds and hearts can be altered by the slow crawl of fact as much as by the long reach of revelation."

"The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between minds and parties; liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.  Imperfect effort at being just is no different than perfect indifference to it ... a good man who plays footsie for an evening under the table with a single bad idea becomes the equal of a man who spends a lifetime sharing a slovenly bed with an evil ideology."

For Kazin [a Lincoln biographer], Lincoln's God is neither the God of confident Christendom nor the punishing God of the Calvinist imagination but the God of both Job and John Donne, the God who is the stenographic name for the absolute mystery of being alive and watching men suffer while still holding in mind ideals that ennoble the suffering and in some strange way make sense of it."

"[On the Origin of Species] is both an explanation of evolution, an old idea, and a theory of natural selection, a new one.  If you concentrated on the evolutionary part, which is, as Darwin knew, an old and long-present idea, one of Granddad's tall tales, then you could make it into a kind of progressivism--an explanation of eternal change and social improvement with a vitalist charge.  If you concentrated on the natural selection part, the struggle for survival, you could make it into an endorsement of free markets or imperialism ..."

"People are different, in Darwin's view--he thought there were savages, primitives, at one end and civilized people at another--but what knit them all together was the habit of sympathy, which could be extended wherever, and as far as, we chose to place it."

"We should not judge the past by the standards of the present.  Darwin wrote about "savages";  we wouldn't.  (But then, we use words that our great-grandchildren will be shocked by, too--though which ones:  wife?  veal chops?)"

"...we are allowed only a tiny glimpse, in our hummingbird lives, of what duration and endurance and repetition can actually achieve.  We have a moral and scientific duty to seek out those places--coral reefs and earthworm-plowed fields as well as fossil pits and mussel-moved mountains--where we can get at least a sense of how an earthworm can do a farmer's work, if you give him time."

"The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much.  There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows."

"The pacifists are not always right.  But the warmongers are almost always wrong."

"Science lets us think big but we still feel small.  No cosmologist has ever felt more serenely about his tenure case by contemplating the vastness of the universe.  We get the big picture, but it's not where we live."

Just using these ideas as jumping off points for thought and further reading make Gopnik's book more than a worthwhile way to spend a few hours' time.


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