Fly on the Wall—Turning the Tables of Interpretive Dogmas

With Help from Charles Darwin

Fly on the Wall—Turning the Tables of Interpretive Dogmas

The mere mention of Charles Darwin brings to mind fishy bumper stickers (imploring us all to evolve), bespectacled chimpanzees on t-shirts (proclaiming our 98% DNA match with monkeys) and flustered debates about human nature (where everyone goes home a little bit hurt and disgruntled).  Happily, there’s more to the man’s work than a series of dogmatic assertions.  If we don our scholarly spectacles we can read him in his own words, and thereby bring to fruition the essence of interpretation: understanding based on facts.  Often a text speaks for itself in a different way than our previous assumptions allow; developing our skills at critical investigation is part of what AU is all about.

Following his Origin of Species Darwin wrote a book called The Descent of Man.  On its pages he interpreted animal behaviour as illustrating a variety of human characteristics.  We AU students are human animals too, and hopefully we embody the best and brightest intellectual capabilities of our species.  The trick is to translate our learning into ways that our peers will comprehend, such that we can understand one another and even make the world a better place.  We’re not ordinary students like humans aren’t ordinary primates; our talents develop according to their own logic and contexts and away from institutionalized university life.  (Although, if you’ve not been to Athabasca it is a beautiful town and the library is particularly epic!)

Darwin saw human traits everywhere in the behaviour of animals.  In his own time animals were typically considered vastly lesser and incommensurately different from humans.  This is easy to forget in our century where seeing ourselves as hairless apes is as commonplace as feeling an intimate bond with a pet.   To Darwin, much of the best of homo sapiens was naturally present in the animal world; rather than reducing us to the level of beasts his research elevated animals to our level.  To do that he had to acquire some interpretive commonality across the animal world; this illustrates the necessity of any method in limiting its scope.

The More Human, The More Animal (and vice versa)

Darwin interpreted from a human point of view and his insights, rather than being projections of anthropocentric assumptions, shed light on both the natural world and the human condition.  His detailed observations are hard to quibble with.  Darwin began by asserting that humans are different than animals and yet exist on a shared spectrum, one which we can appreciate when we adopt a stance of adequate humility.  He freely admitted that homo sapiens are “capable of incomparably greater and more rapid improvement than is any other animal…and this is mainly due to the human power of speaking and handing down his acquired knowledge” (Darwin, 95).  However, animals certainly learn and improve, such as “where the fur-bearing animals have long been pursued…they acquire an incredible amount of sagacity, caution and cunning” (Darwin, 95)  Yet, at the philosophic level, “no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied that he reflects on such points as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth” (Darwin, 95).  To this day there is no evidence that animals ruminate, ponder and stew in such a way as humans do.

At AU we might note that, say, our psychology courses allow us a different reflective approach to the inner workings of our mind than non-psychology students.  What had previously felt intuitive or instinctive comes under closer scrutiny in the human mind, especially when taking academic courses.  In psychology coursework this thought translates into acquired tools such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  In CBT we learn to analyze our feelings in response to a stimulus and uncover the core belief that leads to emotional upset.  Animals do not sit in repose and ponder the abstract meanings of their responses; they live freely in the moment even as they learn from their environment.  This expresses an admirable and desirable Zen-like posture, one that we do well to appreciate.

How do We See Without Our Human Mind’s Eye…We Can’t!

While one might accuse Darwin of anthropomorphizing animals by seeing human traits in their behaviour, he clearly believed that animals were more like us than was typically believed.  He was generous for his time and stated unequivocally that “animals not only love, but have desire to be loved” (Darwin, 86).  Likewise, the range of uniqueness found in nature parallels the many fascinating types of people and their experiences we encounter in our lives as distance students.  AU also liberates us from the brick and mortar fishbowls of traditional university campuses.  We’re all attendant in the class of human life after all, and Darwin’s study of other species suggests a healthy humility in this regard.

Finding the unique components in social interactions allows us to glean the most from others.  In terms of other species, he stated that “Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognize our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it.  The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiased mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties” (Darwin, 181).  Lest we ever feel like experts in a given field, let us AU pupils ponder how much we have in common with other beings, including non-students.  The sky’s the limit.

One thinks here of Pico della Mirandola who, in the 15th Century, wrote of humans: “the Great Artisan mandated that this creature who would receive nothing proper to himself shall have joint possession of whatever nature had been given to any other creature.  He made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and, placing him in the middle of the world, said to him:

“Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone.  According to your desires and judgement, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose.  All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by our laws.  You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature.  We have placed you at the world’s center so that you may survey everything else in the world.  We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose.  To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgement, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.” Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess.” (Mirandola, online).

Our human powers of intellect, language and technology suggests that Mirandola saw with acute clairvoyance the potentials and pitfalls of our species.  Like a swinging saloon door, our potential swings in both directions.

Who Wears the Caprice Pants? We all Do!

Darwin also gives animal examples of all-too-human traits like revenge and caprice.  In terms of AU we can note that other people might acquire great knowledge in fields like sociology or political science and do so outside and separate from a post-secondary education.  To see non-AU peers in terms of their commonalities with us and our studies can only benefit our growth.  We are unique and privileged in our AU studies and yet we don’t want to over-estimate our value.  At root we are all human.  Taking issue with human exceptionalism Darwin notes that much of the best of humanity is also present in other species as is much of the worst.  “If man had not been his own classifier, he would never have thought of founding a separate order for his own reception” (Darwin, 165).  We don’t want to think of our educated status as above, beyond or distant from our fellow citizens.  Non-students are not only potential students, they also can teach us much about ourselves and our studies; there’s a reason that good textbooks are replete with case studies and anecdotes from the so-called real world.  To learn is to learn practically and to gain the tools to apply our learning to daily life and work.

‘New Footholds in an Interpretive Abyss: AU and the Ascent of Assessment’

The fact remains that as students we can only interpret our world and those in it from our personal educational perspective.  At an essential level we also only have recourse to our human minds and senses.  The insightful prose of counter-culture theorist Alan Watts summarizes this reality:

“One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it.  But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them…  As the philosopher tries to stand outside himself and his thought, so, as we have seen, the ordinary man tries to stand outside himself and his emotions and sensations, his feelings and desires.  The result is a fantastic confusion and misdirection of conduct which discovery of the mind’s unity must bring to an end” (Watts, online).

We are never outside our world in a place of total objectivity.  Yet, we may use the best of our abilities, and at AU this means all we learn in our coursework, to illustrate a more detailed and fecund interpretation of events. Darwin gives two examples of those most human of traits: revenge and caprice:

“Humboldt saw in South America a parrot which was the sole living creature that could speak a word of the language of a lost tribe” (Darwin, 197).


“An officer had often plagued a certain baboon, and the animal, seeing him approaching one Sundar for parade, poured water into a hole and hastily made some thick mud, which he skilfully dashed over the officer as he passed by, to the amusement of many bystanders.  For long afterward the baboon rejoiced and triumphed whenever he saw the victim” (Darwin, 85).

Although we cannot know with pristine certainty the nature of the thoughts and instincts these animals express, we can certainly interpret them in terms of our human minds.  Rather than being solipsist in our assumptions; that is, assuming that no one exists as we do because we have no final proof of their inner thoughts, we can take these humanesque examples from the natural world and consider them good evidence that nature is like us and indeed reflects the best and worst of our human natures.  Interpretation requires a certain leap of faith but only insofar as we realize that all we have are the abilities we possess and that, just as all beings are made out of the same stardust, other creatures likewise also experience similar responses to their worlds, no matter the differences in vocalization or brainpower.  Do animals philosophize about the nature of higher truths? Probably not.  But they do react and behave in ways we can relate to.

One aspect of interpretation that makes humans special is our ability to recursively reconsider an event or individual.  There’s a ghostly countenance to our thought process, one uniquely fertilized by our studies as our coursework teaches us to don various theoretical lenses as they apply to given topics and issues.  Interpretation is nothing if not an artful science.  It depends on our disciplinary background as well as an apprehension of the raw facts at hand.  There’s no putting lipstick on a pig; some stuff just is.

And yet, much of what we encounter may seem different ways to different people at different times.  For instance, a psychology major might look at the economist Adam Smith (notorious for claiming that capitalist marketplace relations are guided by an invisible hand of consumer preference) as unconsciously founding his philosophy on a moral expression of his upbringing as a fatherless child.  When an adult figure is lost early in life it’s common for that to affect our beliefs; Smith’s invisible hand may well personify the ethical guidance he imagined his deceased father would have provided were he there:  “His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother’s loss doubtless explains the lifelong attachment that flourished between her and her son” (Sprague, 461).  In the absence of a father, the mother took both roles, but young Adam would have been aware of the absence of his Dad.  Psychologists could interpret Smith’s lack of father as a key basis for his outlook on the world.  After all, when an absence exists in our mind it tends to inform our thought.  Yet, other disciplines might ignore this personal fact.  Who’s to say if this is a reasonable interpretation of Smith’s thought any more than whether a parrot really ceased to speak certain words upon the death of a certain human.

What’s absent is often what’s most important; just think of that one person or course you always wondered about! AU gives us a unique chance to fill in a few unique blanks in our lives.  Academic interpretation depends on the application of new perspectives and methodologies; no approach or person can imbibe all the facts under consideration if a rigorous analysis is to be applied.  This is why disciplines have limits just as do the behavioural bounds of species.   It all depends on how we choose to see the world and where our AU studies lead us.  It’s part of being a student to use our new-found academic resources to consider new approaches to material we encounter.

Learning to Beware of Dogmas: Critical Thought at Work

Darwin, and the ‘ism’ that bears his mind, tends to have been interpreted by some as sort of gospel that reduces the best of being human to the common denominator of being animal.  A certain elevation of one dogmatic version of Darwinism has occurred; an apotheosis where assumptions of meaning surpass the reality of their interpretive ambiguity and elevate themselves to the status of a master-narrative.  This Fly on the Wall is here reminded of Jean-Francoise Lyotard who wrote an elegant critique of grand narratives and expressed “incredulity toward meta-narratives” and their capacity to unconsciously maintain expansive epistemological blind spots (Lyotard, online).  This parallels the tendency of some peers to downplay our educational endeavours as somehow lesser than activities in that nebulous real world.  Everyone assumes they have an explanation for their world and this tends to extend to the world of others.  Yet we know that our distance education studies not only enrich who we are, but also give us tools to understand our surroundings with greater intuitive richness.

Much of our intuition is learned, no matter what kind of animal we are.  As scholars we learn to add a series of ‘ands’ to the possible interpretations facing us in our world.  Rather than binaries of ‘or’, interpretation adds colour and possibility to our life’s work.  The more ways of seeing the better our view will be.  And that makes all the difference; AU allows us new footholds on the abysses of meaning that embody our daily lives.  We don’t learn what’s right and wrong so much as we learn to see from a panoply of new and exciting lookouts.

Darwin, C.  (1874).  The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.  New York: Hurst and Company.
Lyotard, J.-F.  (1979).  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.  Manchcester: Manchester University Press & University of Wisconsin.  Retrieved from
Pico della Mirondola.  ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man (15th C CE).’ The Website of Prof Paul Brians.  Pullman: Washington State University.  Retrieved from
Sprague, E.  (1967).  ‘Adam Smith’.  The Encylcopedia of Philosophy Vols.  7 and 8.  London: Macmillan and Free Press.
Watts, A.  (19680.  ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’.  In.  Popova, M.  (2019).  ‘An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety, Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live With Presence’ Retrieved from