The Death of Adam
Marilynne Robinson, who received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington, is a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa. This connection of the scholarly and the arts reveals itself in all of her writings. She is the author of the acclaimed novel Housekeeping (1981), widely acknowledged for its themes of impermanence and transcendence but particularly celebrated for its lyricism and sustained use of precise, distilled, poetic language. Her second book, Mother Country (1989), is an award-winning nonfiction work about nuclear pollution in Great Britain; it is a searing attack on the plutonium processing business and, by extension, an indictment of attitudes and practices related to nuclear power. Reviewers of that volume, too, repeatedly praised Robinson’s mastery of language and her meticulously crafted prose. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought continues in this vein, showcasing her exceptional ability to write with a stunning elegance that also reveals a brilliant thinker with a passionate belief in the importance of her subject. The ten essays in this collection ultimately have as their theme nothing less than a vision of altering the way knowledge is apprehended, altering both the individual consciousness and the larger collective consciousness in order to save the world.
In the introduction to The Death of Adam, Robinson notes that these essays were written for various occasions and publications over the past few years and that they share in common a characteristic preoccupation with “the state of contemporary society.” All of them, she accurately states, are “contrarian in method and spirit. They assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong.” The essays demonstrate that there are different and more desirable modes of thought, and furthermore, that it is only by adopting and adapting to altered ways of conceptualizing the past and also the present “view of things” that humanity has much hope of survival.
The specific subject matter Robinson considers is ultimately of less significance than this overriding sense of impassioned urgency and the need for a will to change. In these ten essays, topics range from Darwinism to Calvinism to nineteenth century schoolbooks, with plenty of other titles such as “Facing Reality” and “Family.” In several cases, there are topics that a reader may think it unnecessary even to consider—either one already knows enough about it or it is not relevant anyway. Robinson, though, is persuasive. These are present concerns. In fact, one of her main themes is that, all too often, both common wisdom and specialist wisdom contain misapprehensions of the past and lack a thoughtful examination of the present.
The first and longest essay in the collection, “Darwinism,” provides a cogent example of Robinson’s argument that primary sources are seldom read and that the context of the original works is often ill-understood. Contemporary culture assumes that it “knows” what the nineteenth century English naturalist Charles Darwin wrote and knows what attitude to have about it. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), most people today would say (including those who write about Darwin), either show Darwin was a clear-headed scientist who essentially bypassed notions of God by proving the evolution of life forms or, its opposite, that Darwin was wrong about evolution and that creation theory should be included in biology textbooks. The facts—the actual texts and the historical context—Robinson suggests, are much more convoluted. The same is true about the popular shorthand version of Darwinism as “the survival of the fittest.”
The full title of Darwin’s first book (seldom included in mention of it) is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The title alone implies that “whatever is, is right,” the product of raw struggle, and that there is a teleology, or reason, behind it all that favors the elimination of species that die in the struggle. In The Descent of Man, Darwin explicitly argues that
. . . we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)