Genealogies and Language

The cover on my version of Darwin’s The Origin of Species illustrates a subject I assume many other covers have used:

The Genealogy of Evolution

The Genealogy of Evolution?

The image is fascinating for myriad reasons.  For one, none of these presumably male organisms have a penis.  Two, the cover suggests that it was a simple and straight shot from chimp to chiseled jaw.  But most interesting for me, it illustrates an idea not explicitly found inside the pages of the work – that man is descended from an organism that we might call a member of the great ape family.  The Origin of Species does decenter humans in the conception of life in the universe and explicitly states that extinction is the ultimate fate of all species (but also that man should not worry too much since we’ve only been here for a geological blink of the world’s history).  But Darwin would never say, “Man is just a grown up monkey.”  This illustration’s particular interpretation involves a reading which requires extrapolation and application – if not a bit of willful misreading.

The cover reverses the complex decentering I find in Darwin, instead placing homo sapiens in a progressive genealogy which places a (strangely de-sexed) man on the right side of the evolutionary sentence, presumably the pinnacle of its mechanisms, the ultimate living predicate, walking toward the metaphorical period on the border of the picture.  But in Chapter 10 Darwin himself uses a linguistic metaphor found in Lyell’s work to compare the strangely incomplete fossil record to a book, written over a period of years in changing dialects, to which we only have access in single words and phrases.  True, it is possible to say that the final letter in the final word in the final sentence in the last volume of an multi-volume work is the work’s culmination, but it is utterly meaningless without all the other words which came before it (imagine trying to extrapolate Christianity from “Amen,” or even “Surely he cometh quickly.”).   Darwin’s genealogy, despite his repeated use of the root and tree schemata, never says that living species are the pinnacle of anything, they are merely the currently best adapted organisms which must and will change.

In this conception, language is often a helpful parallel for understanding evolution, especially the 19th century German University’s linguistic conception of all languages descending in a tree and root system from an originator.  I make this comparison to purposefully suggest that the Biblical linguistic studies which resulted in modern linguistics and philology were a scientific endeavor (despite the fact that they relied on interpreting “literary” texts and contexts of words), and perhaps that Darwin’s highly rigorous and peer-reviewed work can be in some ways considered an interpretive reading of empirical material conditions.  If after Darwin’s point in time, language studies and science supposedly diverged, then that might make this (by “this” I mean, this class, this blog, this entry) a hybrid, a likely sterile combination of two varieties.  Or, if they are not so distant as we’ve often imagined, then the recombination of the two could be extremely fertile.

Michael

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~ by michaelalijewicz on January 22, 2009.

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