Thoughts & Insights

Misunderstood Knowledge – Back to the Original Sources!

Ever since I first met him, considering our present situation as humans here on Planet Earth through the lens of evolutionary theory was for OUBEY one of the fixed poles of his thinking, feeling and creative life.

The equal value of all forms of life on Earth which have sprung from this evolutionary process in the course of countless millions of years was for him an incontrovertible irrefutable fact. From ferns to extinct dinosaurs, from ants and dolphins, from monkeys to human beings, “everything” for OUBEY “was connected with everything” and part of a process, part of a larger whole – not to mention the bonds connecting it with the even larger cosmos. OUBEY felt intimately, organically connected with this larger whole.


His reading of Charles Darwin confirmed this view. In his studies written so long ago Darwin showed that such a belief as OUBEY held was by no means fanciful or esoteric. Darwin showed how the course of evolution could have played out. He also showed many compelling parallels between patterns of social behavior in human society and the animal and plant kingdoms. This part of his research was inimical to the zeitgeist of his time and was ignored during his lifetime and long afterwards. But only that: parts of his research were torn out of their context, willfully manipulated and contorted in the service of abstruse “theories” of Social Darwinism which in the 20th century served as justification for the most abominable crimes.


Contrary to what popular opinion holds, Darwin also gave chance a role in the history of evolution and by no means preached that inexorable kind of causality that used to be so frequently proclaimed and paraded as “Survival of the Fittest”. Very early on he had seen and recognized the dynamics and sheer complexity of the forces driving the evolutionary process. But even more than that he had also seen that the principle of parental care among animals, whose vulnerable offspring require weeks, months or even years of rearing, was comparable to the care given by human parents to their own vulnerable babies and children who also require years of protection and supervision. For him this was the very source and origin of all social behavior among us humans.


That’s important here is not whether all this can be proven down to the last detail. The point is rather that it’s becoming increasingly apparent that what posterity has made of Darwin’s legacy has little to do with what Darwin actually thought and wrote. Each epoch cherry-picks from his works just those aspects which best underpin its own view of the world and best serve its own specific interests. Popular commonplaces carry the day and become rooted in the consciousness of following generations. A winning quote is endlessly repeated, establishing its own fatal dynamic – fatal at least from the standpoint of the man who first penned it.

Far too seldom do we see a really serious fundamental probing of what someone of the stature of Darwin really investigated, discovered and wrote about. In Darwin’s case, thankfully, this lack has been recently somewhat remedied in conversation of Raphael Enthoven with Jean-Claude Ameisen, Professor of Immunology at the University of Paris Diderot, a conversation broadcast on Arte on 14 June as part of the channel’s series of Sunday Philosophy discussions. It was an intellectual restoration job of the first order that liberated Darwin by chipping away the historical ballast of skewed interpretations and partial views that have accumulated around his name.

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But what about the many other quotes of Darwin that are constantly parroted without anyone taking the trouble to read the actual context and discover what the actual intent might be? Without sparing a thought for the enormous amount of research and painstaking intellectual effort that lie behind such words. The dead cannot protest at the travesties posterity makes of them.

So what should we do? We should read the original works. And if we don’t have time to read the original works, at least we should responsible enough to be wary of isolated popular quotes. We should take the time to inquire and do a little investigation before we use them to prop up the interests of our own zeitgeist. Stepping back a little from the zeitgeist can only be good for us. If I hadn’t known OUBEY, I wouldn’t be that sure it could be done – if there truly is a will. If I hadn’t taken OUBEYs paintings to New Zealand to encounter the Maori, I wouldn’t know with what enormous respect a people can treat the legacy left by its forbears. And ultimately this is what it comes down to – a question of respect for the lifework of our forebears. Darwin is only one instance.

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It might also interest you that in the encounter between Professor Stuart Kauffman, co-founder of the legendary Santa Fe Institute Santa Fe Instituts and a leading researcher in complexity theory and one of OUBEYs paintings, an encounter that took place five years ago, a connecting line to Darwin suddenly sprang up. OUBEYs painting reminded him of a “tangled bank of Darwinian form”. Click here to see the video.