Hilde wakes up early on Sunday to the sound of her binder falling on the floor. This reminds her of the John Rawls thought experiment, and she imagines herself waking up with a new body, in the society she’s designed herself. She picks up the binder and continues reading.
Hilde continues to draw meaningful connections between the fictional contents ofher binder and her real-world life, suggesting that fiction, whether it’s “real” or not, has the potential to influence real life.
In the book, Sophie and Alberto are in the cabin, talking with an old, bearded man who introduces himself as Noah. Noah gives Sophie a picture of his famous ark, which he filled with all the animals of the world. With this, Noah leaves.Alberto dismisses Noah’s picture and proceeds to tell Sophie about Darwin’s theories.Charles Darwin is often paired with Marx and Sigmund Freud, as all three of these 19th century thinkers discovered laws that described the processes of human behavior and questioned mankind’s naïve belief in freedom and individuality.
The Noah episode marks a turning point in the novel. Previously, Sophie had a soft spot for fictional stories—myths, fairy tales, etc. Here, the gist of the chapter is that Darwin’s theories destroyed the supremacy of the Noah’s ark story, making it a “mere” fairy tale for the rest of history. In general, we should notice that Darwin, Freud, and Marx question man’s freedom—they suggest that individual freedom, as it’s typically understood, is just an illusion, and that little-understood scientific laws control the way people behave.
Charles Darwin (born in 1809) was trained as a naturalist. He sailed around the world studying exotic islands and forests in New Zealand, South Africa, and the Galapagos Islands. During this time, he began to form the theory of evolution—the idea that all animals will slowly adapt to their surroundings in a way that maximizes their chances of surviving and reproducing. There had been other scientists and philosophers who believed in a process of biological evolution before Darwin, but for the most part, people in the Western world believed that nature never changed in any fundamental way: God had created the plants and animals once, and nature had no reason to change.
This section establishes the historical preconditions for Darwin’s scientific theories. While there were some scientific reasons why scientists before Darwin didn’t believe in the notion of evolution (like fossil evidence), the biggest reason they rejected evolution wasn’t scientific at all—it was simply that they relied upon the notion of a perfect, unerring God to explain the origins of species.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists began to discover fossils buried in the ground. Often, these fossils didn’t look like any living creatures, suggesting that animals do change over time. Still, some scientists tried to explain this by saying that these were animals that died in the Great Flood described in the Bible. One reason why scientists underestimated the impact of evolution on life was that the Earth wasn’t understood to be more than a few thousand years old. Darwin, on the other hand, estimated the planet to be many millions of years old.
To most people at the time, evolution was impossible because a perfect god would never make an imperfect world, meaning that evolution wasn’t necessary in any abstract moral sense. Darwin, however, argues for evolution in spite of his Christian faith: he believed in a perfect god, but he also trusted his research and his evidence.
During his time on the Galapagos Islands, Darwin noticed that there were many different species of birds and tortoises, and each species was different from the others. Darwin began to think that all animals are just different species, which have slowly evolved over time. But Darwin didn’t yet have a way of explaining how this process happened.
Darwin began crafting his theory like any good scientist: by studying the available data. In essence, Darwin recognized a conceptual problem—the diversity of species—and tried to find an explanation for this problem that didn’t just fall back on God’s perfection.
Over time, Darwin developed a theory that could explain how animals evolve. Influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus, Darwin began by stating that animals are in a constant state of struggle for food and shelter—they’re competing with each other for the same natural resources. Darwin also assumed that some children often have small differences from their parents—longer ears, sharper claws, etc. Over time, these small differences magnify to become the bases for the differences between entire species, according to a process called natural selection. The animals with the right biological qualities (sharp claws, for example) will be able toobtain natural resources and have children that share their own useful qualities. Less successful species will gradually die out over time because of their failure to find food and reproduce. In this way, animals are always adapting to their environments. Over enough time (millions of years), different species will emerge, each with their own unique qualities that allow them to survive.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was an important paradigm shift because it re-conceptualized nature as a place of constant conflict (in much the same way that Marx saw society as the site of an endless battle for the means of production). One reason why people hadn’t really viewed nature in this way was that they didn’t understand (as Malthus did) that there were never really enough resources to go around: because they believed that the Earth’s resources were limitless, people couldn’t see any precise reason for conflict between animals. But perhaps most of all, people refused to see nature as a site of conflict because of their religious faith: would God create nature to be such a brutal place?
Sophiethen notices something outside the cabin—Adam and Eve. Alberto explains that, due to Darwin’s findings, Adam and Eve were eventually recognized as fairy-tale creations, no different from Little Red Riding Hood. In general, Darwin’s findings were devastating to 19th century society. One of the most shocking implications of Darwinism was that humans are just animals, too—constantly adapting to their surroundings. Humans aren’t that different from apes or chimpanzees—they’ve just evolved over millions of years in slightly different ways. 19th century Europeans were shocked by this idea, and they refused to believe that the Biblical description of creation was flawed in any way.
Darwin’s most controversial idea (both then and now) is that humanityitself isn’t immune to the process of evolution. This has all sorts of conceptual applications: for example, there were many who said (and still say) that society is a competition for control of resources, in exactly the same sense that nature is. One could respond, however, that unlike in nature, many societies don’t leave the weak to die; they support the poor and the unhealthy with welfare, healthcare, etc. But of course, this isn’t always the case.
Sophie asks Alberto why children are biologically different than their parents. Alberto acknowledges that Sophie has pointed out the weakest part of Darwin’s theory. Darwin didn’t really understand how tiny differences between animals arise in the first place—he could explain how these differences get magnified over time, but not where they came from in the first place. It wasn’t for a few more decades that the science of genetics was advanced enough to account for this phenomenon. Genetics proposes that children look different from their parents because of the process of cellular division that takes place during conception and birth.
Sophie’s question illustrates an important point about the scientific process: every new scientific theory raises new questions and new problems for other scientists to solve. There is no such thing as a theory that doesn’t raise some logical objections—even Darwin’s theory, supported as it was by logic and empirical observation, couldn’t quite explain how the diversity of species appears in the first place.
Sophie asks another question—where did the first life come from? Alberto admits that Darwin didn’t really know how to answer this question, either. But he guessed that there might have been a “hot little pool” in which various compounds, such as salt, phosphorus, oxygen, etc., were combined by electricity. This may have been the source of the original forms of life. A hundred years later, it seems that Darwin may have been right. Scientists believe that the earliest life forms arose in a warm, wet place—probably the ocean—due to the presence of electricity.
Darwin was remarkably prophetic in the way he hypothesized that life was born out of a warm, aquatic area. From hereon out, the chapter becomes sketchier than what we’re used to—Alberto gives a few theories for how life might have emerged millions of years ago, but can’t back up any of these theories with much logical or empirical proof.
Alberto moves on to describe the process by which life might have originated. He begins by establishing that all life is made of the same stuff—cells. Within cells, there is a substance called DNA. DNA is the molecule that controls growth, heredity, etc. The question becomes, then, where did DNA come from?
Alberto doesn’t just teach Sophie about abstract questions of right and wrong—he necessarily also has to teach her about science, physics, and other “practical” subjects.
Alberto gives one theory for the origins of DNA. Some 4.6 billion years ago, it’s believed, there was almost no oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is important, because it allowed for the formation of stable DNA molecules. It’s believed that the presence of electronic radiation—perhaps a bolt of lightning—combined proteins and carbon strands into a DNA molecule that survived in the ocean. Once this molecule appeared, it began dividing and subdividing, until there were billions of similar molecules.
The theory of the “primordial soup” was an important step forward for evolutionists, but it still, as of 2016, has a long way to go in showing how life could have appeared on Earth. (In 1990, when Sophie’s World was written, this theory was much trendier than it is now.)
Over time, DNA molecules formed complex structures—the earliest forms of life. According to the process of natural selection, different life forms evolved and reproduced, all of them confined to the oceans. Eventually, animals that could survive on the land evolved. Sophie finds this interesting, because the process of evolution was “random,” in the sense that there was no greater meaning behind it—it just happened, in response to the finite availability of resources.Alberto disagrees—he suggests that over the millennia, animals’ brains have been getting larger and more complex. For this reason, he believes that the process of evolution can’t be totally accidental.
Alberto raises an important point about the theory of evolution. As far as a “pure” evolutionist is concerned, evolution has no “master plan”—all genetic mutations are random, meaning that any genetic mutation with greater survival value is also random (for example, intelligence). Alberto, however, thinks that evolution may be “designed” to foster certain qualities, such as intelligence. (This is reminiscent of Aristotle’s idea of the four causes, andAlberto might be making the same mistake for which he criticized Aristotle; i.e., arguing that evolution exists “in order to” produce intelligent brains, rather than admitting that intelligence is just an outcome of evolution).
Alberto brings up the eye—an incredibly complex biological organ. Darwin was unable to explain how something as complex as an eye could have evolved according to the rules of natural selection, as an eye is only useful in its final form (what would be the evolutionary advantage of having half an eye?). Some thinkers have proposed that the existence of the eye suggests that there’s more of a “master plan” to life than Darwin suggested.
Alberto brings up another important objection to the theory of evolution—the theory of “irreducible complexity.” The eye is the classic example of this concept—and there are many who have used it to refute Darwin’s ideas altogether. For a refutation of the theory of irreducible complexity, consult Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
Sophie suddenly begins to quote a passage from Goethe’s Faust, in which a character complains that life is useless, since it must end in death. Alberto explains that Sophie is voicing the despair that many in the 19th century felt as they learned about Darwinism. And yet there’s an upside to Darwinism—if we’re all tied to the process of evolution, then all life forms are tied together, and every organism has a greater significance than previously believed. The poet Thomas Hardy wrote verses about feeling a sense of connection with the plants and trees—these poems were clearlyinspired by Darwinism. Sophie finds the poems beautiful. Alberto then shouts, “Next chapter!”
Darwinism may be a scientific theory, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have major cultural ramifications. Darwin himself wasn’t a poet or a novelist, but he created a new artistic mindset. One could interpret Darwin’s ideas as bloody and depressing (all species are destined to either evolve or die) or inspiring and fascinating. Alberto’s command at the end of the chapter only reaffirms the meta-fictional nature of the story, and shows that Alberto and Sophie have now fully accepted that they exist only within the world of a book.