Guy Davenport on Darwin, Agassiz, Faith and Metamorphosis.
For the late Guy Davenport—author, essayist, one of the translator-editors of The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua—Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution “was born in some sense prematurely.” By this he means that geology had not yet “given Darwin the time needed,” nor had Mendel’s work yet been rediscovered. This was only one of a number of comments he made about Darwin’s work, some of which may be of interest to readers here.
In one of Davenport’s early stories “The Dawn in Erewhon” a young Dutch philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal, comments that “Man has a history rather than a nature. . . . He has to be taught. Otherwise his nature is the same as an animal’s.” This is one of the reasons Davenport doesn’t embrace received Darwinism; it has nothing to say to what is most important, most human, about man, that which sets him above simpler animals.
Writing of the immediate post-World War I years, when artists began embracing the archaic, Davenports points out that,
We had a new vision that death and life were a complementary pattern. Darwin and Wallace had demonstrated this, but in ways that were more disturbing than enlightening, and Darwin’s vision seemed destitute of a moral life.
Elsewhere, Davenport contrasted Darwin to the 19th century Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, a contemporary of Darwin and Thoreau—he and Thoreau discussed the mating habits of turtles at Emerson’s dinner table. But when Agassiz read The Origin of Species not long after it appeared he didn’t agree with Darwin’s theories. In his essay “Louis Agassiz,” Davenport writes,
Hindsight instructs us to wonder why Agassiz could not see the truth of Evolution. But hindsight also reminds us that Agassiz consistently located intelligence in or behind nature . . . rather than live with the miserable confusions of nineteenth-century mechanism. Darwin’s superimposition of Progress upon the process of Evolution taxes pure empiricism more than Agassiz’s finding an intelligent plan or even a divinity in nature. If Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection has the merit of doing away with a single act of creation, it nevertheless leads to the embarrassment of introducing both purpose in nature and cognition in the evolutionist as dei ex machina.
Agassiz felt that Creation had come about by way of the Divine Intellect, which didn’t mean that he denied change, but that he sought to find “premeditation prior to the act of creation. . . .” “The more we look into his work,” Davenport writes, “the more we realize that, in a sense, he did see the truth of Evolution.”
[Agassiz] had Darwin’s facts before him and saw with different eyes the pattern they made. . . . . For Agassiz, evolution meant the growth of the embryo in the egg. . . . This was the classic sense of the word until the Darwinians applied it to the entire organic world. Where [Darwinian] science now sees a linear development in time, Agassiz saw a lateral spread of design, somehow modified over long undulations of the eons.
That is, Agassiz’s interest in form lay along a different axis. So, in the end, for Davenport, Agassiz is only “a poet,” with a mind of intense brightness, while Darwin is the distiller of an epoch-altering theory.
Does all of the above indicate that Davenport preferred Agassiz to Darwin? No, because Agassiz looked for a detached Divine Intelligence, was unwilling to let Nature be responsible for itself. Davenport for his part looked for the actions of Nature’s own intelligence. In this, Darwin was much closer to Davenport, both of them interested in form, neither conventionally religious. Davenport acknowledges his respect for Darwin’s achievement by naming him, with Ovid and Picasso, one of his “Three Students of Metamorphosis.” Agassiz and Darwin are, in Davenport’s mind, descendents of Ovid, “and fairly soon we may find both [Agassiz and Darwin] on the shelf with Ovid, splendors of imagination,” but Davenport doesn’t place Agassiz among the exceptional three, the most deserving students.
Ovid studied men turning into animals; Darwin animals into men. Between these two brilliantly imaginative perceptions the subject of metamorphosis stands as one of the most lyric of natural facts.
Darwin, Davenport observed approvingly, placed the forms of nature “in a time-order, and invited scientists to find the serpent halfway in metamorphosis toward being a pterodactyl, the pterodactyl becoming bird. . . . The Origin of Species was a misnomer. Darwin’s Metamorphosis would have been better. . . .”
- W. C. Bamberger
 The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua, Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia (Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1996).
 Guy Davenport. The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature & Art (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996), 168.
 ____. In Tatlin! (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 149.
 ____. The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 27.
 Ibid., 241-243.
 Ibid., 243.
 Ibid., 246.
 Ibid., 245.
 Ibid., 245-246.