It happened today – November 24, 2015

On this day in history men descended from monkeys. Well, not exactly. But Nov. 24 is the day on which in 1859 Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. And life was never the same again.

Darwin’s insight about the selection of advantageous mutations as the driving force in changing patterns of life on earth was a classic, profound and yet “simple” in the sense that, although it was very hard to think of, it was incredibly obvious once explained and incredibly powerful.

It seemed to explain everything at once. And I do mean everything. It was recently voted the most important academic book of all time in an elaborate exercise in which publishers submitted titles to an academic panel that chose 20 to be voted on by the public. It wasn’t a “scientific” exercise but it was a carefully thought-out one and I happen to think the result was correct. Darwin didn’t just change biology, he changed philosophy and metaphysics and powerfully challenged religion.

Important is not, of course, a synonym for good. Because evolution seemed to explain everything about humans by reference to purely material random causes, it also seemed to unthrone God and reduce man to a beast, while reducing beasts to random products of a heartless universe rather than “creatures,” that is, products of a creator.

I do not think this interpretation is correct. I have met people who insist that we are just bags of chemicals whose intellectual processes are just the inexorable product of electrochemical reactions driven by the laws of physics and chemistry. Our emotions, our thoughts, all are adaptive mechanisms to help us propagate successful descendants. Our ideals are illusions, free will absurd, morality and religion just tricks to make us cooperate for the benefit of our unthinking, soulless genes.

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that if true it’s false or at least unreliable. Our belief in evolution and materialism is not itself the product of genuine intellectual processes but just the random cast-offs of those inexorable processes that result when sodium meets chlorine and energy is released and so forth. If true, materialism it is true by accident and unverifiable. We have no independent reliable standard of rationality, no way to test our conclusions against truth, just a bunch of chemical reactions burbling away and hurling “thoughts” at us.

Or non-us. For in this way of seeing the world, we don’t exist. Our sense of self is just one more trick of the light particles. We do not decide, we do not choose, we simply react in extremely complex conditioned ways that, for some inexplicable reason, include the illusion of self-awareness.

It must be an illusion in the materialist vision because the chemicals are doing the “thinking” according to unchanging mechanical scientific laws. At no point can “we” step into the chain of reasoning, or out of it, and make a decision. There are no forks in the mental road, only equations with inevitable solutions. If we knew the initial position and velocity of every particle, we could predict everything including all your thoughts. Or, again, non-thoughts, because thought, as a deliberate self-controlling process of sifting truth from error, has no place in this vision. It cannot get in anywhere. There are no cracks.

In that sense, as C.S. Lewis once put it, arguing with a materialist is absurd because you are arguing with a man who insists he’s not there, and passionately defends as truths mental patterns his own theory insists are just useful conditioned reflexes. That includes Darwin, who downplayed his own commitment to such metaphysics for public relations purposes but accepted them privately and who is, ironically, buried in Westminster Abbey.

To say all this is not to dispute evolution in the narrow sense. I believe it is the principal mechanism driving the propagation and differentiation of life on Earth though I grant that there are some compelling critiques of its details, especially the question how such a complex mechanism as vision could “evolve” when the multiple independent steps necessary to complete an act of seeing are useless except in sequence which makes it very hard to grasp why they would have been selected as advantageous one by one. But I do not think that evolution is incompatible with the notion of a Creator directly concerned with his creatures on whom He has bestowed free will.

Many people disagree with me. And in doing so, in convincing many people that they are merely beasts, devoid of rationality, souls or dignity, they have helped to make them act that way. Thus Darwin’s impact was greater than that of any other abstract thinker, and helped shape the ghastly 20th century. But not in a good way.

In the face of evil, true evil, including the evils of Naziism and Bolshevism, we recoil in horror, knowing that our reaction is not just a conditioned reflex designed to help our DNA spawn mindlessly and pointlessly. Darwin was right about many things, but quite wrong about the biggest one.

We are not beasts. Indeed, we must either rise above monkeys or descend far below them. For when we act like brutes we sink below our true nature, which is not random products of clashing chemicals whose noblest aspirations are strange illusions. Westminster Abbey still stands above Darwin’s bones. And so it should, because we are here and we must choose.

It happened today – November 23, 2015

On this day in history, Nov. 23, back in 1499, Perkin Warbeck was executed for not being Richard IV. Or for trying to escape. Or for being in the Tudors’ way. Or for not grasping that someone named Perkin cannot seize a throne. Or for actually being Richard of Shrewsbury, younger son of Edward IV. It’s not entirely clear.

It’s not clear because here we have one case where the victors did write the history. And the victors were the Tudors, specifically the cold, cunning and ruthless King Henry VII, who seized the throne by killing Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Part of Henry’s claim to the crown, bolstered by propaganda from the brilliant playwright William Shakespeare, who I admire in virtually every other way, was that Richard III had himself usurped the throne by murdering his two nephews, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, sons of Edward IV.

It is not clear that Richard III did any such thing. Josephine Tey makes a convincing case to the contrary in my opinion in The Daughter of Time. And it’s also not clear that Perkin Warbeck was Perkin Warbeck. He originally claimed to be Richard and only changed his story under torture by Henry VII’s henchmen.

Of course he might have been a fake, whether he really had the unroyal name of Perkin and came from Tournai in Flanders or was Bob from Bristol or anything else. The fact that Henry VII said a man wasn’t king of England doesn’t automatically mean he was, though on at least one occasion it did. (Nor does the fact that Warbeck/Richard was declared the real deal by Richard’s aunt, Margaret of York, who may have been lying ot try to get rid of Henry VII before he got rid of her. She also supported the claims of Lambert Simnel, whose name alone was again surely a bar to any hope of royal achievement.)

Likewise, the fact that “Perkin Warbeck” he was executed for trying to escape from the Tower of London doesn’t mean he really was trying to escape, or that he wasn’t. But basically all we have is Henry VII’s word for it, which I trust as far as I can comfortably spit a rat.

Still, if his name was Perkin, he should have found some other ambition. No one has ever been crowned King Perkin and no one ever will be. If he was Richard IV, it just compounds Henry VII’s villainy which to my mind would be absolutely in character for the man.

I do feel that there’s a certain pitiful haplessness about this particular lunge for the crown. If he really was Richard IV, it’s a sad comedown. If not, it’s a predictable comeuppance. As for Henry VII, well, he got away with it, and wrote the history of it as well.

It happened today – November 22, 2015

Capture of the pirate

November 22 isn’t a great day to die. For one thing, you’ll be dead. For another, you’ll have a hard time getting people to notice. It’s still remembered overwhelmingly in that regard as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, an event oddly traumatizing to a nation that still idolizes their 35th president in ways he didn’t deserve. Yet it was on the same day, in the same year in fact, that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died, and arguably both were better and more important men than Kennedy.

Also, matey, it’s the day the famous pirate “Blackbeard” was killed by the British navy in the battle of Ocracoke Island in 1718. OK, maybe the second most famous pirate after Long John Silver. But the most famous really alive pirate. Briefly.

It’s a curious thing about Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, that his terrifying bloody career was also extremely short. Details are sketchy for some reason; pirating not being like major league baseball there aren’t records of every aspiring scurvy knave who stepped definitively onto the wrong side of the law and the deck of a buccaneer’s vessel. But he is thought to have been English and to have taken up pirating in 1713 as a crew member under Benjamin Hornigold, who had the good sense to accept a British amnesty in 1717 and hang up his cutlass, eyepatch, hook, wooden leg or whatever.

Not Blackbeard. He took over a captured French merchant ship (originally British, taken by the French and used as a slaver, then captured by Hornigold, increased its arsenal from 26 to 40 guns, renamed it “Queen Anne’s Revenge” for reasons that are unclear, and wreaked havoc for six months with a flotilla of up to four ships, capturing dozens of vessels, butchering prisoners, sometimes lighting his beard on fire to scare his enemies (frankly I would have thought seeing the captain’s face in flames would have scared his own men but perhaps they didn’t frighten easily) before accepting an amnesty from the governor of North Carolina in return for much of his loot, returning to pirating, and meeting a squalid and brutal end.

Despite fancy speeches by paper pirates like Long John Silver about “gentlemen of fortune” Blackbeard’s fate is unsurprising. It was a grubby as well as a brutal business and it didn’t just usually end badly, it usually ended quickly. There are exceptions; Edward Morgan having the sense to concentrate on England’s enemies wound up as deputy governor of Jamaica and a rum. Francis Drake was basically disguised as a pirate while secretly working for the English Queen Elizabeth I, though he died of dysentery rather than retiring in comfort. But most were squalid and vicious and soon dead.

Indeed, it’s odd that Blackbeard should have become so iconic despite having lasted so short a time. The legend says it took five musket balls and 20 sword thrusts to finish him off. But it would say that; for all we know a yard-arm fell on his head.

Perhaps the fact that he died on Nov. 22 has rather obscured the end of his career recently. But the truth is he was a wretched awful man who for once met exactly the fate he deserved roughly when he deserved it.