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Evolution quotes: On human nature and doubt

That Pyrot had stolen the eighty thousand trusses of hay nobody hesitated for a moment to believe. No one doubted because the general ignorance in which everybody was concerning the affair did not allow of doubt, for doubt is a thing that demands motives. People do not doubt without reasons in the same way that people believe without reasons. The thing was not doubted because it was repeated everywhere and with the public, to repeat is to prove. It was not doubted because people wished to believe Pyrot guilty and one believes what one wishes to believe. Finally, it was not doubted because the faculty of doubt is rare amongst men; very few minds carry in them its germs and these are not developed without cultivation. Doubt is singular, exquisite, philosophic, immoral, transcendent, monstrous, full of malignity, injurious to persons and to property, contrary to the good order of governments, and to the prosperity of empires, fatal to humanity, destructive of the gods, held in horror by heaven and earth. The mass of the Penguins were ignorant of doubt: it believed in Pyrot’s guilt and this conviction immediately became one of its chief national beliefs and an essential truth in its patriotic creed.

Pyrot was tried secretly and condemned. [Anatole France, Penguin Island, trans A. W. Edwards, 1908]


  1. Gareth Nelson Gareth Nelson

    I was prompted to read again JBS Haldane”s piece (The duty of doubt. The Century Magazine 1927 113(3):257-264). Its best past is the ending:

    To sum up, science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories, even those on which one’s action is founded. The motto of the Royal Society, ‘Nullius in verba,’ which may be paraphrased, ‘We take nobody’s word for it,’ is a sound rule in the other departments of life. The example of science shows that it is no check on action. Its general adoption would immeasurably hasten human progress.”

  2. John the Plumber John the Plumber

    What a gem of a passage – thanks for pointing it out.

    Doubt is undoubtedly singular.

    Cow is singular. Cows is plural. A herd of cows though interestingly mixes singular and plural.

    Using collective nouns we see a singular group – like a herd of cows – in one time and place. – In the plural, two herds of cows – two different herds in different time and/or place.

    What of species? – Species hippopotamus for instance. – ‘Species’ goes somewhat beyond the confines of time place and number – species hippopotamus includes all the hippopotamus there ever were, are, or ever will be – anywhere.

    In this, the word species asks the question, “How did that hippopotamus I see singularly before me (or those plurally) come to be the hippopotamus it is (or they are) and will its (or their) like ever be something else?

    Species is obliged to carry the questions, “How does life evolve?” and “What is the mechanism (or mechanisms) of evolution?”

    When science has twenty six different definitions of ‘species’, I doubt the certainty that its current singular mechanism adequately answers the questions the words poses.

  3. Jeb Jeb

    I read the first half of the book. Wow! I loved it, particularly the conversion and the discussion between God and the saints. He clearly loved the history and literature of the period. Its almost early medieval observational comedy and really captures aspects of the texts.

    Seriously crafted and multi- layered piece of writing. Got me laughing still hours after reading it.

    A gem.

  4. It’s been my experience of arguing with people who believe themselves to be skeptics that they merely fail to see how much they believe because the things they believe are said to be known. They are generally incapable of questioning both the assertions of fact and what the difference between knowing something and believing it might possibly be. The more I’ve disputed issues in the “skeptical” cannon the more obvious it becomes that they aren’t less inclined to belief than those they disdain but are generally even more set in their belief both through mutual reassurance and the belief that they’ve got science on their side. They have their own index of prohibited ideas which are not to be believed and the literature of which is not to be read.

    Anatole France was a monarchist, as I recall. He hated republican government. Though I haven’t read much of anything he wrote since my last French course in college about fifty years ago. I thought Charles Peguy was more sympathetic and there was a lot to dislike there, too.

  5. jeb jeb

    No idea about Anatole as a skeptic, as a student of medieval history he has a sharp eye and has also stolen some stylistic features used in medieval literature and weaved them into his book. Its rather amusing.

    I can also understand how he would have been taught medieval history in youth to some degree and how his views have moved. So you can evaluate how much things have changed within a generation and its significant. So useful from a historical perspective.

    I would imagine if his corpse was reanimated and we met I would find lots not to like, he comes from a different time and context than me. I suspect I would find his views on society and politics highly questionable as much as his taste in clothing and food.

    If I was to judge the past by my own cultural standards I would either be very bored and not reading very much because I found it offensive or very angry.

    The more vocal parts of the skeptical community are not very reflective or questioning when it comes to culture or
    questioning to what degree it shapes their own
    perspective. But that’s to judge from the extreme end of
    inflection. Culture and context is rather difficult to escape from we are all creatures of it.

    • Thom Thom

      On the other hand, being unappreciative of what one’s culture brings to the table is just as irrational as believing everything your culture asserts is true.

      For example, I was raised in the western tradition and I believe Rule of Law is a very powerful paradigm which needs to be preserved in future societies. I came to this conclusion after having lived in the Philippines for years (my parents’ home country) and seeing how destructive and unjust arbitrary power can be.

      Despite how corrupt western culture may be, one has to admit it got a lot of things right at the end of the day. And knowing the difference between the good things, the bad things, and the neutral things present in one’s own culture is important for critical thinking.

  6. Jeb, other than the late Marcello Truzzi, I guess I have not found those non-extreme skeptics. Declaring oneself a “skeptic” is sort of like declaring oneself a great lover, few people are skeptical of things they believe but other people don’t necessarily see it that way.

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