Friday, September 30, 2005

The Darwin debate, 1872

The debate over evolution and ID invariably brings to my mind a charming Russian poem by Alexei Tolstoy (novelist Leo's less talented but much saner and smarter, and unjustly forgotten, relative), "Epistle to M.N. Longinov on Darwinism" (1872). Tolstoy, a poet, writer and dramatist, was widely regarded as a retrograde in his day; in fact, while his political satire often skewered the left -- the socialists, the nihilists, the populists and other radicals -- he was far from being a reactionary and envisioned Russia evolving toward a more Western-style liberal society. Mikhail Longinov, a personal friend of Tolstoy's, was the chairman of Russia's Committee on Publishing (i.e. the official censorship board). Tolstoy wrote the poem after hearing about a proposed ban on Darwin's The Origin of Species, which apparently turned out to be a false rumor.

The poem is quite relevant to today's debate, and I've often wished there were a translation. Well, today, in a burst of inspiration, I translated it myself, in abbreviated form (the original has 22 stanzas, I kept only 10 [update: make that 11] -- omiting a parallel between Darwinian and Copernican theory, and the conclusion which points out that Russia is not isolated from the world and science will find its way in). Here goes. "Misha" is, of course, the nickname for Mikhail -- the Russian equivalent of "Mikey."


Is it true, what people tell me?
Everywhere, the news I'm getting:
Misha, it is said, considers
Darwin's system quite upsetting.

Come now, Misha, why get fretful?
You've no tail on your own arse,
So the origin of species
Shouldn't cause much of a fuss.

What's, in any case, your problem
With a gradual creation?
Do you think that in his methods
God from you should take dictation?

Why restrict how He can do things,
By what means and to what end?
I would say that such a viewpoint
Smells of heresy, my friend!

Truly, that's a poor example
You have set from your high place,
And I fear you might be labeled
As a man of little faith.

In the distant past, moreover,
Not much glory's there for man:
For a lump of clay's no better
Than some old orangutan.

Do you think, perhaps, that Darwin
Is for nihilists a banner?
What, good Lord, have they in common
In their message or their manner?

From the beasts to human level
Darwin does us elevate,
While the nihilists would have us
Sink into a beastly state.

Far from being Darwin's vanguard,
They confirm his basic facts,
And their brutish, wild behavior
Of regression often smacks.

Crude and ignorant and shameless,
Spiteful, puffed-up, condescending,
They themselves, I'd say, are backwards
Toward their ancestors descending.

For the acts of bratty rebels
Darwin needs no absolution.
Therefore, Misha, calm your anger,
Cease your foolish persecution!



By the way, nice description of the nihilists -- the far left of their day. Nothing new under the sun, is there.

Those who read Russian can find the original (and the rest of Tolstoy's brilliant satirical poetry) here.

7 comments:

Richard Bennett said...

Excellent, especially the "bratty rebels" trope.

You've done the world a great service, comrade.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks! I'm quite pleased with this one myself.

Anonymous said...

Great work! And very appropriate too for the debate. Sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. I liked this.

thecobrasnose said...

Rhyming "arse" and "fuss"? Wow!

Terrific poem--thanks for sharing it.

Unbridled Greed said...

Great work!

Cathy Young said...

Thank you all.

John Howard said...

Yes, this is excellent, nicely worded. I like the condescending-descending line.