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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Darwin lost half his mind

Charles Darwin was one of the greatest scientific minds of recent centuries. Most of us are aware that he made an enormous contribution to knowledge. Yet fewer people know that he was deeply concerned about the wider biological, social and spiritual implications of his theory of evolution. Ground-breaking research by former Princeton psychologist David Loye reveals a Darwin remarkably ahead of his time. Far from being enamored with the idea of a survival of the fittest, Darwin also believed that love and moral sensitivity are key drivers in human development in general.
Darwin never held an academic post. He inherited a good deal of money, and used that endowment to spend many years meticulously classifying the plants and animals of the world, and developing his theory of natural selection. This changed him. In old age Darwin intuitively knew that there was an imbalance in his mind. In his autobiography he reflected upon his school days:

with respect to diversified tastes, independently of science, I was fond of reading various books, and I used to sit for hours reading the historical plays of Shakespeare, generally in an old window in the thick walls of the school. I read also other poetry, such as Thomson's 'Seasons,' and the recently published poems of Byron and Scott. I mention this because later in life I wholly lost, to my great regret, all pleasure from poetry of any kind, including Shakespeare… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive...

A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature (Darwin 1887 Italics added).

Darwin clearly knew that this atrophy of cognitive functions was due to a severely delimited use of his brain over an extended period of time. Spending many of his waking hours “grinding general laws out of large collections of facts”, his consciousness became machine-like. Even as his aptitude for classification was enhanced, his ability to employ other ways of knowing diminished.
Notably, Darwin saw the lost “emotional” parts of his mind as being “higher tastes”. This clearly indicates that Darwin not only valued emotional and moral development, but saw these cognitive functions as being more important than the analytical mind.
Darwin, an archetypal figure in the annuls of modern science, is actually a perfect representation of the imbalance that I believe has become full-blown in almost all human beings who pass through today’s society and education systems. We can sense that something is not quite right, that something intangible has been lost. My argument is that this “enfeebling the emotional part of our nature”, as Darwin called it, is a definitive attribute of the alienated mind. It manifests itself as a restriction in the ways of knowing which we are able to adequately employ, not only in our formal thinking and research, but in our lives. In turn this delimits the realms of knowledge which we are able to access and comprehend.

In fact the problem goes much deeper than what Darwin understood. Darwin’s experience of other ways of knowing appears to have been somewhat limited – restricted to the emotional arousal felt while reading poetry and listening to music. There are entire realms of human experience which we can add, when we talk about these lost parts of our minds. These are the intuitive and mystical experiences, so widely documented in spiritual traditions across the globe, but so desperately ignored in the modern world. It is my hope that these can be restored to our learning.



  1. Love that title How Darwin Lost Half his Mind. You will go far with such a good sense for snappy capturing of the essence. Just sent new, immensely improved third edition for Darwin's Lost Theory, with striking new cover (en route to you), new subtitle: Bridge to a Better World, and best of all, at last a comprehensive index, to Lightning Source for printing. SHould be available through online book sellers worldwide within another month. Also smartening up re promotion this time. Going for philosophers, theologians, profs of religious studies, historians, humanities, plus economists, political and systems scientists as well a general readers. See David Loye

  2. Wonderful post and I love that title, too. I totally agree about the educational system.

  3. I believe our brains "atrophy" for a lack of a better word, when we allow it concentrate on only one thought pattern. As we age, it becomes harder to change the ruts we develop over our lifetimes. (And habits.) It reminds me of a record that gets stuck in a groove, playing the same part of a tune over and over. Disciplining our minds to be flexible requires work, as our brains are not as flexible as they once were. Maybe that's where meditation comes in. Stepping into the silence gives the brain a rest from it's constant ruminating on the subjects that interest us.

  4. All the best with the new venture David (and good to see you here)

    In fact, Nancy, there is a whole lot of new science which backs this up. You might know about it - "plasticity". The old paradigm was that we are given so much brain stuff, and it atrophies over time. That has been turned on its head by recent research, and it has been shown that the brain is amazingly plastic right through to old age. Check out Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself". A fascinating read.

  5. Yes, I've read that the brain is much more plastic than ever imagined - including creating new pathways and cells, once thought impossible. However, what I'm talking about is more about how we think. It becomes harder and harder to change "the story lines" the older we get. Without constant discipline, I think our thinking can become stuck in ruts and hard to change. I tell my husband that we need to be aware of those parts of ourselves that may need attention now while we still can, because I think it becomes harder as we age. Especially if the person in not introspective. That doesn't mean that an aging brain in not able to be flexible, just that the inclination is not always in that direction. Does this make any sense?