Genesis vs. The Origin — are you kidding me?

Check out this nonsense from an article in The Toronto Star, which for some reason decides to pit the Bible against The Origin of Species as works of literature.

You can spot the difference in the quality of the writing from the very first lines of the respective books. The first line of Genesis – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth” – is simply the best sentence ever composed: strong, active, concise, clear, complete and yet turgid with hidden depths. Though not a single word is out of the ordinary, each word radiates with startling power on examination. “In the beginning” is an everyday expression, but in everyday speech, it always describes the beginning of something, a book or a road or a life. When we hear the phrase “in the beginning,” we immediately ask “the beginning of what”? The beginning of Genesis is just The Beginning. The absence clarifies, more than words could, how high the stakes are.

“The heaven and the Earth” is also a powerfully succinct expression. Instead of God creating everything, God creates duality from the beginning: He created out there and in here, the universal and the particular, the cosmic and the terrestrial.

Compare that perfection of expression with the first sentence from the introduction to The Origin of Species: “When on board HMS Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.” What the hell are you on about, Charles Darwin? We have to wait for the next sentence to understand his subject (in newspaper-speak, this bad writing habit is called “burying the lead.”): “These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.” It’s a perfect model for what not to do with a lead sentence. Not only does it contain a passive construction, it is also a tissue of conditionals, stuffed with “seemed to me,” “some light,” and “one of our greatest.” Its vagueness and weakness have real consequences, too. They lead Kansas school board trustees and ex-U.S. Presidents to believe that there’s reasonable doubt about the ideas in The Origin of Species, when there is not. Good writing matters.

Ok. Using the same method, let’s compare the final sentences rather than the first ones.

Genesis:

So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

The Origin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I rest my case.

(See Adaptive Complexity for a more detailed smackdown of the Star’s argument).


9 comments to Genesis vs. The Origin — are you kidding me?

  • Well, not to defend the article, which is pretty ridiculous considering that Genesis wasn’t written in English, but Darwin really loved those annoyingly long rambling sentences. Even the closing sentence of the Origin, which I admit is a pretty thought, really ought to have been two or three sentences.
     

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    • You said it, man. But check out this rambling mess I found that’s even worse:

      To be, or not to be: that is the question:
      Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
      The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
      Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
      And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
      No more; and by a sleep to say we end
      The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
      That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
      Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
      To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
      For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
      When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
      Must give us pause: there’s the respect
      That makes calamity of so long life;
      For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
      The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
      The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
      The insolence of office and the spurns
      That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
      When he himself might his quietus make
      With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
      To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
      But that the dread of something after death,
      The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
      No traveller returns, puzzles the will
      And makes us rather bear those ills we have
      Than fly to others that we know not of?
      Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
      And thus the native hue of resolution
      Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
      And enterprises of great pitch and moment
      With this regard their currents turn awry,
      And lose the name of action.

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      • Actually, that soliloquy is a bunch of sentences, not just one  — a question mark ends a sentence as much as a period does :-)

          (Quote)

        • Um, ok:

          To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

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  • Don Cates

    But did you read the last sentence from the article?
    “It’s just that Genesis is a pack of lies that has served the cause of bafflement for millennia, while The Origin of Species is true and has done more to liberate us from ignorance than any other book.”

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    • I suspect it was meant as a tongue-in-cheek piece or just an excuse to publish that last sentence, but talk about a misfire.

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    • Cindy Thompson

      To Mr. Cates, God always has the last laugh.  After telling us He created the heavens and the earth, He paused and then looked and nothing happened.  It did not evolve, it remained void until He spoke again.  He settles the dispute over evolution over six thousand years ago.  Your eyes can be opened to truth also, just ask God for truth. He has all the answers, not man.

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  • Very strange article.
    There is also some dispute on how to translate the first sentence in Genesis.  A few scholars have put forth the idea that a better translation is “in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth”.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6274502/God-is-not-the-Creator-claims-academic.html
     

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  • Robin Owens

    The people who told of the bible were story tellers down through the ages. They know how to make things interesting. Darwin was not a writer, he was a naturalist, as shown in the first sentence.

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