by ADAM GOPNIK
Charles Darwin, natural novelist.
Issue of 2006-10-23
Darwin was not especially preoccupied by the problems that move some Darwinians today: he readily saw through the puzzle of ostensibly intelligent design. (An eye that works well evolved from eyes that worked less well.) And, because he didn’t know about genes, the great hole at the center of his argument—how did inheritance happen—was one that he never solved. But he was obsessed with the problem of time: How old was Earth? Had there been enough time for evolution to happen? As men dug up the bones that showed just how ancient life really was, what lessons could you learn? How could you imagine time in a way that seemed to make sense of our own lives and emotions?
In Darwin’s work, time moves at two speeds: there is the vast abyss of time in which generations change and animals mutate and evolve; and then there is the gnat’s-breath, hummingbird-heart time of creaturely existence, where our children are born and grow and, sometimes, die before us. He wrote one of the founding documents of developmental psychology, a series of detailed notes on his son’s first twelve months. The space between the tiny but heartfelt time of human life and the limitless time of Nature became Darwin’s implicit subject. Religion had always reconciled quick time and deep time by pretending that the one was in some way a prelude to the other—a prelude or a prologue or a trial or a treatment. Artists of the Romantic period, in an increasingly secularized age, thought that through some vague kind of transcendence they could bridge the gap. They couldn’t. Nothing could. 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 human challenge that Darwin felt, and that his work still presents, is to see both times truly—not to attempt to humanize deep time, or to dismiss quick time, but to make enough of both without overlooking either.