The Accidental Monkey

"That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false"—Paul Valéry 
Darwin was a Romantic. 

The Romantic is impatient with mystery. He must identify himself, and that means to identify with something, or someone—to be able to say, “That’s me”—which requires indulging in metaphysics, as who can help doing?

The usual Romantic choice is Nature. De Sade identified with a Nature that was bloody, murderous and, well, sadistic (see The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France); Byron, with the storm; Shelley, with the west wind“Be thou me, impetuous one!” (perhaps he's punning; péter is French for fart); Marx, with history, which he thought behaved rationally; Darwin, with the orangutan; and Freud with Darwin: the id is the ape within.

For the Romantics, and for much of the nineteenth century, time was an absolute. The ancient Greek absolute was space, three-dimensional Euclidian space. The Greeks knew the diameter of the globe, and one idea moving behind appearances gives the parallax of rational thought.

This same enthusiasm was unearthed in the Renaissance. Three-dimensional painting became an optical science, Baroque perspective dominated everything from Versailles to the ruler-drawn borders of America, and Newton built his universe in Euclid’s space. 

The inward-looking Romantics were in love with one aspect of this space, infinite time. An object is inert in that it doesn’t move unless acted upon, and in motion continues forever unless it meets another force. That line describes infinite time. Space, said Kant, is our outer sense, time our inner sense. Likewise for Godard the shot is a glance, montage a heartbeat. 

In all of literature, said Northrop Frye, there are only two books that go from the beginning to the end, the bible and The Communist Manifesto. Darwin stopped in the present, but his time-line was infinite.

This absolute collapsed, however, in the 1870s and 80s, when our telescopes became strong enough, and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, and we saw that their placement doesn't fit three-dimensional space. Of this arrangement we cannot construct a model—cannot imagine it. Euclid’s laws, it turns out, are the laws of the mind, and we can’t think outside them. (See on this Greece versus the Puritans.) 

We call intergalactic space “curved” as a metaphor derived from Mercator’s projection: if Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the right distance apart, Nairobi and Mombasa can’t be, and vice versa. (There’s more on this in What We Know.) But if space is skew, so is the now perhaps finite time-line. 

And the nineteenth-century view of things has survived. Is it therefore the fittest? That esteemed entomologist Vladimir Nabokov said, Perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest.

Evolution is our myth, our default belief about ourselves. Ask any jerk walking down the street and he'll tell you the score. Have a banana. The “scientists” who publish daily base their speculations on it, as do the literary Naturalists, from Flaubert and Zola to Norman Mailer. Poor disappointed Strindberg wondered if men and women were not descended from different monkeys.

It's a version of the medieval Great Chain of Being, from God and the angels down to minerals, laid on its side and extended in time. Stanley Kubrick, that stern satirist, was having none of it. In a gesture of victory an ape throws his bone-club, the first tool, into the air and, leaping the longest gap ever in a piece of montage, it becomes a space module. No explanation needed—our myth, and therefore invisible. But if being the fittest were just a matter of incremental circuitry the computer HAL (read IBM) would win. (See also Some Thoughts on Stanley Kubrick.) 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in many ways an exemplary thinker, said, “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” But it isn’t a “theory.” Scientific method requires of a theory that it be testable, “verifiable,” as Karl Popper put it. Nothing in the Theory can be tested. 

“Science,” said Paul Valéry, “means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. The rest is literature.” And there are other ways to read the fossil record. "Facts"? Turn a fact a little this way and a little that and it will show you a different face. The proper concern of science, as Edgar Poe said, is not with facts but with laws.

Why do I quote artists rather than scientists? Because they're better. Poe, with his take on Newton, and his understanding that physics is metaphysics, anticipated much that a later century found revolutionary. "Space and Duration are one," he said. Whereas scientists, so numerous, so earnest, are as guilty as the rest of us of scientism, the confidence that science knows it all, can know it all, will know it all.

Most of them are kids publishing or perishing, and have no time to think things all the way through—nor would they dare commit heresy. Sponsor spank. And so the Theory assumes the rigidity of religious dogma. Doubt "science" and you can go to the stake. Just look at the comments on this essay.

Must we be saddled with the effort to imagine one thing turning into another, and to explain the existence of “stuff,” that from which we “evolved”? Or was it always there? Always will be? Are we flirting with a model of God? Are we creationists?

Darwin was a creationist. And the pope is a Darwinist, no problem there. The Scopes monkey trial baffled literate onlookers. Only fundamentalists could insist that the world was created five thousand years ago like it says in the bible. In the movie, Spencer Tracy (marvelous man) shouts “I don’t give a damn about right and wrong!” “What do you give a damn about?” “TRUTH!” 

Well, truth is hard to come by, and overrated. We know how things behave, but what they are is a closed door.

Is our local Euclidian time-line long enough to accommodate the Theory? Godard, to come back to him, says no, it’s too short to get all the way from the amino-acid soup to us. “Our ignorance of our nature,” he says, “is total.”

And Valéry, to come back to him (he had what Nabokov calls “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist”), says:

Humanity is very young and its memory short. Hence it is quite legitimate to surmise that the known physical laws are no more than hasty conclusions drawn from too brief observation and that the human race as we know it (Homo sapiens) has so far existed only between two manifestations of prodigious, discontinuous “laws,” between two gaps in the order of the universe. But a man who watches a church clock from five past to fifty-five past twelve cannot know that it strikes the hour; cannot even guess this. It is not impossible that certain inexplicable phenomena, such as the appearance of life on our planet, are the effects of intermittent laws, laws whose successive manifestations we have not yet had time enough to observe.

Of course that opens things up to uncomfortable speculation. (See Some Notes on God.)

Perhaps I’ve been living too long in Greece. These Mediterraneans are classicists, rock people, as Dalí says, and he evokes Mantegna to prove it. Romantics are Nordics, forest-and-fog people, music-and-flowers people, gazing inward at evanescent visions. “My moustache is the contrary of Nietzsche’s, which is depressive, with plenty of music. Mine is a pair of erect scissors, the rocks of this country.” 
And indeed, Romantic depth can usually be traced to indigestion.
The accidental monkey
‘S a metaphysics junkie
With bothersome abysses on his mind;

Preoccupied with dying,
Interminably trying
To turn around and glimpse his own behind.

His finger in his yin-yang
He contemplates the Big Bang,
The earliest ancestor he can find,

Unless it’s all that room
The Bang had to go boom—
Or does it create space as it unwinds,

A spreading dance of gravity
In a potential cavity
Like that in which his finger is entwined?

Reality extrudes him.
Its structure still eludes him,
His probing finger warmer but confined.

A cosmos so anonymous,
How can it but be ominous
That such vast masonry was left unsigned?

Enigma born of distances
And exquisite resistances—
Too seamless not to seem that way designed.

Theisms, whether mono
Or other sorts of guano,
Have left his spirit largely unaligned.

Perusing Darwin’s Theory
He feels a little leery
Of sepia-toned free-market states of mind.

Amino acid soup-erman
Whose wake-up call so overran
’S the one myth all the apes have not maligned;

But too unscientific
To offer much specific,
As willing as he is to be resigned.

The spiral strands of rubble
He surveys through the Hubble
May possibly bear others of his kind.

Would that be any better,
To get an email letter
From some strange breed of orphans just as blind?

Abject on a conveyor,
Hunched over as for prayer
He’s hummed through life bowed down by double bind.

The horizontal motion
Admits no meta-notion,
His view cut off both forward and behind.

A bas with this banality!
He opts for verticality—
His heart leaps up and stands in him star-high!

A fallen god no longer,
Already he feels stronger,
Astral banana peeling off the rind!

Abyss-wise up is down though
And starry heaven’s clown so
Has raised his head it’s lodged in his behind.

Divine but rather stupid,
Of Morpheus and Cupid,
And to this grosser matter self-consigned,

The accidental monkey
At least is his own flunky,
And buoyed by this he hop-turns to the grind.


  1. I like what you say. Love the lyric by the way. Some good points there and I agree. Here's my take on the whole thing and following that a poem for you!


    Cursed cursed creator!
    Why did you let me live?
    In every cortex stitched,
    Mockery and woe.

    What hand, what fire,
    Framed this awful unsymmetric shape,
    Half animal half angel,
    Split and twinned with misery.

    A shape a shadow and a form,
    Changed and yet unchanging,
    Teeming shops in scores,
    Identity a number pinned to you.

    You tread not ice caps,
    Majestically undreaded,
    Your impotent anger and hunger,
    A mouse in the modern machine.

    Soul sold to packet designs,
    Wrapped in designer wretchedness,
    Your high held brow,
    Stalking the meat counters.

    Shelley's monster had his Gothic dread,
    The tiger his lauded forging,
    You are twenty first century man,
    There you stand,
    half animal half angel,
    Credit card in hand.

  2. You couldn't be more wrong. Evolution isn't a mere hypothesis, nor even a theory (a hypothesis is a proposed explanation with no evidence to support it; a theory is a proposed explanation supported by a significant amount of evidence and a lack of contradictory evidence). Evolution has such a huge wealth of evidence in support (and none against) that it has long ago graduated in status to that of a scientific principle (as in the Principle of Evolution). It fits perfectly into what we observe not only in the fossil record, but in ontology (embryonic developmental biology), genetics, and biochemistry. The factual existence of evolution is indisputable to anyone with the scientific education to undertstand that evidence; what remains debateable is the various mechanisms by which evolution proceeds. It's far more complicated that Darwin imagined. So while Darwin didn't get the mechanisms entirely correct, he did get the basic idea correct. Contrary to your assertion, evolution in fact is tested and observed every day, in experiments with short-lifecycle life forms like microbes, fruit flies, some plants, and so on. We have observed such species evolve before our very eyes, both from natural mutation and from artificially induced mutations.

  3. Robert, neurons are like the eyes, it took so long, such an evolution to perfect them, it would be regrettable to damage such refined technology with such queer and questionable theories, be careful ...

  4. I just don't buy it, Klod. Assumptions SHOULD be damaged. As for the eye, that's a prime argument against; there hasn't been time.

  5. It has been proved by experiment that evolution is also susceptible to go "backwards", like cave inhabitants losing sight ability, for example, after some cataclysm... DNA is constantly evolving when confronted to new contexts... If that is not evolution I'm going to make myself a monk...

  6. The eye has got plenty of time to evoluate, I don't understand that kind of argument and don't understand you can't understand such evidence.

  7. Some of these passions are so badly misdirected that one has to wonder why they persist as they do.

    First, the author badly misunderstands the empirical science of evolution. Long ago, its theoretical elements were validated with now countless independent studies. What remains theoretically interesting is far below this level of generality. I support the role of non-scientists commenting on the meaning and use of scientific findings; however, it is incumbent upon anyone who comments to understand what they are commenting upon. Such is not the case here.

    Are the empirical science findings that fall under the rubric of 'evolution' necessarily in conflict with particular belief systems? The only logical answer is that it depends on the proposition of the belief system.

    Religions are examples of belief systems but there are many other belief systems. Freudian psychoanalytic is an example of a belief system that was once thought to be an empirical science. By definition, belief systems exist as articles of faith that hold themselves beyond the reach (i.e., are not subjected to) empirical support or disconfirmation.

    A belief system that holds the age of the planet Earth to be 6,000 years is in direct conflict with the facts, even without introducing evolution. A belief system that holds humankind to the product of a special creative force is not in conflict with contemporary science.