I think Marilynne Robinson is a genius. Her prose style is magnificent, and Gilead is a great novel; certainly one of the best I have ever encountered. I picked up The Death of Adam, excited by the prospect of learning her opinions on a variety of matters, especially her religious views (I’m very curious about such things, and inordinately fond of the apologetics of G.K Chesterton and C.S. Lewis).
The introduction didn’t disappoint. It was a brilliant campaign for the importance of verifying claims with primary sources, a practice that has been largely abandoned. How misinformation can quickly proliferate when we ignore, or incorrectly cite, historical sources is demonstrated with some common views of Calvinism and Thomas Jefferson’s views on slavery. This passage is of even greater significance today than it was when the collection was first published in 1998 (with the rise of ‘fake-news’ and all that…). The scientific community (science happens to be the academic discipline that I most familiar with, in fact it’s my current source of income), should certainly take note, as the proliferation of papers that do not cite primary sources is shocking, in fact, I found that as a graduate student it was actively discouraged by certain academics. I also believe that her observation that we now generally encourage the view that “…people have areas of competence from which they should not wander, and into which others should not stray” captures the very reason for our current lack of great ‘distracted’ writers/thinkers in science and elsewhere (à la Chargaff, Da Vinci, Goethe, Hutchinson, Huxley, Lovelock, Schrodinger, Wilson, etc).
However, in her opening essay on Darwinism, she seems to completely abandon the principles she had previously asserted so effectively. In Darwinism she seems, at first, to be primarily concerned with the social consequences of Darwinism, but soon proceeds to produce a muddled account of the history of Darwin’s theory, Darwin’s life, and the scientific consensus on evolution vs. Darwinism. It all betrays an ignorance of the content of the primary sources cited, which is only just falls short of the tripe dished out by those Darwin slanderers with fake PhD’s (ahem…Jerry Bergman). I think such untruths are so easily churned out because writers like Robinson pick out small non-technical fragments from Darwin’s work (heavy going, but rewarding) isolating broad, easily misinterpreted passages out of context with which they can illustrate their points.
What can I say? Bitterly disappointed. The sad fact of the matter is, a perfectly intelligent person that happens to have a weak background in science or the life of Darwin (FYI, there are many objective bios about) could easily be taken in by the introduction, and completely buy Robinson’s poor scholarship (to be fair Robinson herself would probably not encourage readers to take her words for granted). What she produces in Darwinism is largely ignorant trash, that happens to be stylistically brilliant. I think it would be an amusing, though rather difficult, challenge to pick out any scientifically or historically accurate points in the entire essay (economics section excepted), using only primary references. If anyone would like to give it a try, I’ll be happy to publish the results. I won’t hold my breath. Huxley would have made short work of her.
I recommend her works of fiction, and will continue to slog through this, as well as several other works of her non-fiction; as I still believe her views on certain topics will be of interest. Nevertheless, my respect for her ‘objective’ views and academic integrity has certainly taken a shot.
–The Death of Adam (introduction), Marilynne Robinson
-The fiction of Marilynne Robinson (esp. Housekeeping and Gilead)
-The works of Darwin (esp. the big four, on the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, and the formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits)
– The many biographical writings about Darwin, as well as his own autobiographical sketches and letters (esp. the correspondence of Charles Darwin, and Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore)
-Aphorisms and reflections from the works of T.H. Huxley by Thomas Henry Huxley, is a worthwhile read if you wish to see a sample of the wit and wisdom employed to tear down so many early critics of evolutionary theory
–‘Useless’ knowledge from Bertrand Russell’s In praise of idleness is a spirited argument for a broad knowledge base, that is certainly worth a read
Short notes in the (possibly distant) future:
-What is wrong with modern science? A short exploration with the guidance of Chargaff, Hutchinson, and Medawar
-Naturalism, mimicry, and the scientific aesthetic
-On Electron microscopy