While reading the autobiography of Charles Darwin a few weeks ago, I came across the following passage:
I rejoice that I have avoided controversies, and this I owe to [Charles] Lyell, who many years ago, in reference to my geological works, strongly advised me never to get entangled in a controversy, as it rarely did any good and caused a miserable loss of time and temper.
This passage is slightly ironic, because no scientific work has been more controversial over the last 175 years than Darwin’s theory of evolution. Clearly, Darwin did not shy away from explosive topics, so what did he mean by avoiding controversies?
A peek at my trusty 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language yielded a definition I immediately fell in love with: a controversy is “an agitation of contrary opinions” (similar, perhaps, to a murder of crows or an exaltation of larks, as I explored long ago in my nonsense poem The Problem of the One and the Many).
Agitation implies a number of phenomena, all negative: a violent stirring of emotions, a tumultuous confusion of voices, a disorderly mob of opposing groups, and the like. In the agitation of contrary opinions, there are two primary vicitms:
- The reasonable weighing of evidence and insights in pursuit of truth and wisdom.
- All feelings of calm, tranquility, and serenity (as Darwin put it: “a miserable loss of [good] temper”).
Sadly, we all seem to be in a state of constant agitation these days, tossed about in a neverending battle of in-groups vs. out-groups in which we’re nearly forced to take one side or the other side. But only nearly: each of us can decide to step outside the fray, to go beyond binary allegiances, to focus on the eternities, to never get entangled in the deafening controversies that keep us divided – but instead to think with clarity based on evidence and act with integrity based on principle.
There’s a good reason why I don’t pontificate about current controversies at my weblog, and I plan to keep it that way.