Monday, March 22, 2010

Wagner and Evolution

I've mentioned a couple of times how Western culture was permeated with the concept of evolution long before Darwin, and this undoubtedly had some effect on how Darwin's claims were received (this isn't meant to call evolution into question). Both times the primary example I gave was Wagner's Ring Cycle, his tetralogy of four massive operas, comprising over sixteen hours of music, which were well underway by the time Darwin published Origin of Species.

The first opera of the Ring Cycle is Das Rheingold, and the Vorspiel (prelude) with which it begins illustrates this idea beautifully. It starts with the basses playing a low E-flat which is held throughout the whole piece. Then the bassoons come in a fifth above them in B-flat. Then the brass instruments start. Slowly it builds, more instruments, more notes being added. Eventually, emanating from that low E-flat, you have an indescribably beautiful harmony, harmony in the fullest sense: many different voices, coming together without clashing with each other, and creating a greater sound through their confluence than the mere adding of their parts together.

And then some women start singing and ruin it.

Now, Wagner intended the low bass note to symbolize the flowing of the Rhine River, and the whole cycle is really an expression of paganism (as well as anti-Semitism). But I think the prelude -- with the low E-flat devloping into a complex and yet fully sonorous euphony -- illustrates the evolutionary concept that from a single and simple form of life all of the diversity of life on Earth arises, which fit together into an enormously complex ecosystem. Moreover, I also think this piece can equally illustrate God's creation of the universe: the E-flat is the ground or source or base (bass?), from which everything else flows. In that sense, it could almost be understood as neo-Platonic where all existence is an emanation or overflowing of the divine nature. Yet I still think it can be understood according to the Christian paradigm as well. You could call this piece "Genesis 1" without any incongruity.

In fact, to read even more into it, the fact that this piece can fit so easily with both interpretations may show that these two concepts -- evolution and creation -- are not in conflict at all. Indeed, when I listen to this piece, I think of God creating the universe via evolution.

You can listen to the Vorspiel here. If you're able to, turn the volume up as loud as you can, close your eyes, and make sure you're not interrupted for the next few minutes. It's just glorious.


Joshua Allen said...

If the distinctive characteristic of "evolution" is that creation progresses from simpler to more diverse, then you'd be right. But the idea of complexity arising from unity is not the distinctive characteristic of evolution -- it exists in Genesis, Platonism, and other places.

I'm pretty sure the distinctive characteristic of "evolution" is that the more advanced forms arise with no intelligence behind them -- out of pure chance. Every other system assumed some intelligent purpose or direction in the creation. As such, "evolution" probably owes more to Dante's old idea about "fortuna" ruling the sphere of the mortals.

Tyson said...

Regarding Joshua's comment, I recently taught a Sunday School class on the Doctrine of Man, part of an effort to teach systematic theology at our church. One of the concepts we taught was Traducianism, which teaches all humanity was created in Adam, and then individually generated through natural processes sustained by God. This view struck me as very similar to the "creation through evolution" idea. The alternative concept is that each person (body, soul, and spirit) is created sometime between conception and birth.

Jim S. said...

Hi Joshua, thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right about evolution if you take it de jure, but I'm just thinking of it de facto. That is, life started as a single, simple form of life, and has gone from that to multiple forms of incredible complexity and diversity. In principle, evolution favors the easiest solution, and that will often be the simplest form of life, but life on earth has gone from the comparatively simple to the comparatively complex.

Tyson, I remember studying that stuff years ago. The idea is whether God has to have an active role in the creation of each new soul, or whether he endows the first soul with the capacity to replicate itself. The latter case still requires his action, it's just a single action in the past instead of constant action in the present.

Joshua Allen said...

I guess I wasn't clear enough. I think that by comparing Wagner to "evolution", you're indulging in a fairly common, yet very serious, epistemological error. Here's the deal: people have always known that life formed from dust. It's easy to empirically observe. Just kill a few living things, stick them in a box, and come back after a century or so.

There are competing theories about *how* that dust was formed into life, and how the varieties formed. Most people prior to Darwin believed that there was an intelligence directing things. Evolution says that it all happened by chance.

Sorry to be pedantic about it, but this is not an issue of no consequence. People today far too often say "evolution" when they mean "competition", "adaptation", "creation", or any other number of things. I work with designers, and I cringe every time I hear a designer claim that his design "evolved". The whole point of "evolution" is to debunk the idea that the universe was designed by "intelligent design". So when a professional designer tells me that his design "evolved", it's as if he's saying that there was no intelligence involved -- as if he's a blind watchmaker/designer. It's then that I'm reminded of the Psalmist's warning about idolators: "those who worship them will become like them; having eyes that can't see". When we use words and models wrong, we impair our ability to see clearly.

You are correct that the prelude of das rheingold expressed glorious diversity emerging from simplicity. But the leap from that to "evolution" is just wrong and strange (albeit common). Why do people do that? Do people think it sounds more scientific to say "evolution" than "glorious diversity emerging from simplicity"? Perhaps it *sounds* more scientific, but it's not very scientific at all.

It's especially annoying when people try to project "evolution" onto the German thinkers who preceded Darwin. I've seen this done many times, and it's just senseless. If Goethe or Wagner had really meant the same thing as Darwin, then why did Darwin have to invent a new theory? In the 50-100 years before Darwin, English society was *obsessed* with ideas pertaining to racial competition, clashes of empires, and so on. Were *they* also talking about "evolution" before Darwin? No! Clearly, there was something distinctive and new about Darwin's theory, and you should figure out what it is before claiming that everything is the same as "evolution".

Really, "evolution" has no place in discussion of Wagner, or any of the other great classical composers for that matter. Beautiful music is never a random arrangement of notes, and more importantly, *starts* with an object to be expressed rather than having the object *emerge*. Music follows a fairly narrow Brownian motion, as does birdsong. Indeed, we can say that human limbic systems and bird brains have evolved to appreciate melodies within this Brownian motion range *because* it expresses something higher. In the bird's case, a mate that is healthy and intelligent enough to faithfully produce the melody. It's hard to imagine a song that properly represents "evolution". Such a song certainly wouldn't be beautiful to our ears, and certainly wouldn't be Rheingold.

Wagner was intimately aware of the creative principle, and the forces he modeled in his works are mirrored by the effort he put into creating those works. You can accuse him of being too pagan, too racist, or too impressed with myth. But you can't say that his music expresses evolution. It is against the ordinances :-)

Jim S. said...

Well I would simply disagree that the point of evolution is to debunk the idea of God creating. It seems to me that virtually any law of nature could be used this way to imply that God is not responsible -- i.e. the effect is explained by gravity not God. But the very existence of laws of nature points to a law-giver, and this holds true for evolution as much as anything else. The fact that the universe is ordered according to laws (like evolution) shows that there must be a divine Orderer.

You're right to say that Darwin's evolution was different from the evolutionary concepts that preceded him, otherwise he didn't contribute anything. His point was to explain it without recourse to teleology, and many scientists and philosophers of science believe that science cannot investigate teleology. But it's not evolution or science but scientism that then says that if science can't discover it, it's not real. For the rest of us, the limitations of science do not reflect onto reality.