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Quitting, Darwin, and Wedgwood Pottery
January 16, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Antecedents of Evolution, Capitalism, and Socialism

Perseverance is a highly praised trait in our society. Quitters are losers. Those who persist overcome difficulties. I think I can is the mantra. If necessary, fake it until you make it. Aggression is better than passivity. Simply waking up and acting like a tyrant, making demands of underlings, like Steve Jobs, is what is best for society. Never mind the ulcers and early deaths of the losers, I mean winning team members, who suffer the lash.

I come in praise of quitting, or at least knowing when to quit. It is a good thing to know when to quit consumption of alcoholic beverages. It is a good thing to quit a lousy job and take one with better opportunities. It is a good thing to leave a dysfunctional team and join a functional team.

So there are times to persist and times to quit. The trick is knowing which is which. One measure of smartness, not measured on IQ tests, is knowing when to quit.

The greatest achievement of human beings to date is the discovery of Evolution by Natural Selection by Charles Darwin. The worst achievement to date is destroying the earth by burning fossil fuels, changing the atmosphere, heating the earth, and likely destroying most if not all the species that have evolved over the last 60 million or so years. Both of these achievements are rooted in the 1800s, aka the 19th century.

While he was not alone in discovering evolution as we now understand it, Charles Darwin deserves what is credited to him. We deserve to understand him. In America, even among intellectuals, I do not think we do. Because of the hold of religion on society we see Darwin and Evolution diminished. Many public high schools do not teach it, and those that mention it seldom explore either Evolution or Darwin in depth. Or, as in my case, we simply accept the fact and move on. We learn the Tree of Life, we read the occasional news story or book about the end of the Age of Dinosaurs or the demise of the Neanderthals. A scholar might even read Darwin's Evolution of Species. But we take science progress as a given, with Darwin just part of the Big Bang cast along with Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick. But what Darwin and his cohort of biologists discovered was far more profound than the basic laws of physics. Evolution, and the time scales required for evolution, more radically changed people's view of the world than any other scientific discovery.

How did Nature create Darwin? Usually he is treated as a one-of. He just kept looking at plants and animals, and fossils, and he did not quit until he overturned the Creationist theory. But before he got there he did quit things; he would not have discovered Evolution had he not been a quitter. His father was a doctor and sent him, at the age of 16, to medical school. Not because he was a Sheldon Cooper like genius who had already completed high school and college. No, because back then if you could pay for medical school, you could go. His father paid, but Charles did not like it. No Doogie Howser, Charles. So then his father decided to send him to what we would call undergraduate college. There, at Cambridge, in some ways Charles did well, but in others not so well. Because he liked collecting natural specimens, but did not seem likely to become a professor of natural history, his father steered him towards becoming an Anglican clergyman. This too, was something (in that era) that his father could buy. Charles would be a minister and could have biology as a hobby.

But Charles quit that path too. He was an energetic lad, quite good with a pistol or long-gun (this was before rifles), who liked the long hikes involved in looking for mineral specimens, beetles, and butterflies. So when a friend offered him a chance for adventure, as the science guy on the Beagle, Charles was eager to go. His father had to be persuaded. The job entailed no salary, so Doctor Darwin had to support Charles for the long years of that famous exploration. The voyage made his scientific reputation. As far as I can tell he never worked a paid job. He lived off his father and eventually that inheritance, plus what his wife, a cousin, Emily Wedgwood, brought to his marriage.

The Wedgwood name takes us deeper into history, and hence the genesis of evolutionary biology. I think culture in this case is much more important than genes, but let us look at Darwin's genes first. His father was Doctor Robert Waring Darwin, son of Doctor Erasmus Darwin and Mary Howard. His mother, Susannah Wedgwood, was the oldest daughter of Josiah Wedgwood and Sarah Wedgwood. The ancestral Wedgwoods had long inhabited a small region within Staffordshire, in western England, mostly occupied in the pottery business. So something like half of Charles Darwin's genes were from the Wedgwoods, including in particular his mitochondrial genes.

Going back one more generation, looking at culture, the Darwins were well above the Wedgwoods in wealth and education. But Josiah Wedgwood elevated his family (though not necessarily all Wedgwoods running around Staffordshire, most of whom were common pottery workers) well above the Darwins in wealth, and social estimation. Josiah did not go to college, he did not even go to high school, but he not only educated himself. He was, to use an analogy, the Thomas Edison of pottery. He worked on the chemistry of pottery, including glazes, and he also was a pioneer at marketing. By the end of his life Wedgwood pottery was a global phenomenon. You can still buy it, or modern versions of it, today.

wedgwood pitcher with Darwin flycatcher

Darwin's Flycatcher, modern Wedgwood pitcher

Doctor Darwin was smart, educated, and practical, but likely more conservative than his wife, Susannah Wedgwood. The Wedgwoods were Unitarian, which at the time put them in the class of Dissenters from the Church of England, or Anglican Church (later Episcopal in the U.S.A). They believed in God, but not that Jesus was God, and they believed in reason and conscience. When Charles was a child he was taken, Sundays, to Unitarian services, by his mother. After she died Doctor Darwin, despite Age of Reason, Unitarian sympathies, had Darwin baptized in the Anglican Church and attend an Anglican school. Dr. Darwin would certainly have found more clients, and more high-class clients, in the Anglican Church.

So Charles was trained to be an Anglican minister. He knew his bible well enough, and some of the Greek and Roman classics, but had also been exposed to Unitarians and to the new sciences, particularly geology and biology. He had enough money to be a gentleman scientist. He had no PhD, he did not need to teach for a living. He took a mass of biological data gathered mostly by clergymen who believed that studying God's nature glorified God's creative abilities, and found, beneath the gloss, Natural Selection.

The Christian Bible uses pottery as a metaphor: God molded man out of clay. The geologists and biologists of the 1800s showed the Bible, at least its creation story, could not be literally true. But those who wanted to believe in God still could: however Nature made its myriad creatures, they could believe something made Nature. Even when philosophers pointed out that if everything is created by something, then why stop at God, or why if God created Hisself, then why could not Nature be self-creating?

In gambling and in the stock market, Quit While You're Ahead is good advice. Whether to quit or to persist is a judgment call. Good judgment, as always, turns out to be the key. Good judgment comes from experience, analysis, and personality. A person with good judgment in one field may exhibit poor judgment in another.

Both Capitalism and Socialism came into their own, as political ideologies, in the 19th century. Social Darwinists tried to use Natural Selection as an intellectual prop for the cruelest forms of free-market capitalism and even for slavery and racism. But Darwin and the Wedgwoods, while not socialists, were against slavery, racism, and unfair treatment of workers. Carl Marx lived and worked not far from Charles Darwin. His most famous work, Capital, has much similarity, in intellectual approach, to The Origin of Species. But dogmatic Capitalists and Socialists came to have something in common: the desire to simplify, to ignore the facts, and to prefer Power over fairness.

I will continue to develop these themes in future blogs. Meanwhile, I strongly suggest reading The Radical Potter, The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood, by Tristram Hunt. It is the most wonderful book I have read in quite some time. You can usually get a used hardcover copy at a reasonable price from AbeBooks.

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