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19 April 2014

Best joke in the book: Bertrand Russell splits a side

Bertrand Russell: never judge a wit by his moustache
Judging by what I was told when I worked in the editorial department of Ведомости, where I tried to persuade the staff to write in way which readers might find more appealing, jokes are not considered good form in serious writing in Russia. That is not the case in Britain. There, any writing that is completely devoid of wit is suspect. And the occasional open joke is welcomed, even in books like Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (see previous two posts).
     I was not going to add to what I had said about that marvellous book, but I could not resist making a point about the desirability of wit when writing in English as a result of what I read with this morning’s tea in connection with Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution and natural selection. 
     In a chapter on the currents of thought in the nineteenth century, Russell describes the lingering influence of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment philosopher, Helvetius, who believed that genius was often a matter of pure chance. “If Shakespeare had not been caught poaching, he would have been a wool merchant,” Russell writes, with reference to the story that Shakespeare went to London only after having been convicted of killing deer on the local squire’s estate at Stratford. 
     Darwin, naturally, came to disagree with Helvetius since evolution was a matter not of chance but of continual, though unconscious, adaptation to circumstance. Russell says, “Thus from age to age deer run more swiftly, cats stalk their prey more silently, and giraffes’ necks become longer.”
     He then proceeds to describe the illogicality at the heart of Darwin’s otherwise conventional Victorian liberalism due to its egalitarianism. Darwin lived in an age when the vote was being given to working men. But he knew that nature is not egalitarian so, referring to Piltdown Man who was then believed to have been the “missing evolutionary link” between apes and humans, Russell wittily stretches logic to its extreme and makes his point in a way which few readers are likely to forget:

“The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that the differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with Darwin’s emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same [animal] species… There is a further consequence of the theory of evolution, which is independent of the particular mechanism suggested by Darwin. If men and animals have a common ancestry, and if men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal? Would Pithecanthropus erectus, if he had been properly educated, have done work as good as Newton’s? Would the Piltdown Man have written Shakespeare’s poetry if there had been anybody to convict him of poaching? A resolute egalitarian who answers these questions in the affirmative will find himself forced to regard apes as the equals of human beings. And why stop with apes? I do not see how he is to resist an argument in favour of Votes for Oysters.”


1 comment:

  1. Oh yes, we are brutishly serious. When I was a student, I was shocked to find jokes in English academic works. Even slighly informal language is considered improper in dissertations and most journals. Books, however, have much improved since about 2000: there are scholars who write in humorous style. However, it is still considered more appropriate in popular works that in research works.