Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jose Rizal: First Pinoy Darwinist

Much has been written about Jose Rizal to the extent that Rizal historian Ambeth Ocampo has achieved a sort of historiographic megastardom (All of my Ambeth books are autographed by him!). Ambeth has written many popular essays on the national hero. But very little has been written about the history of science in the Philippines. Rizal figures in the history of Philippine science as children are taught. Textbooks say he is an inventor,naturalist, psychologist etc. Some authors would even concoct titles for Rizal as the first "hydraulic engineer" for making an irrigation system in Dapitan! (Didn't the Ifugao have a headstart on that?)

But none would say that he was probably the first Pinoy to have read Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" and "Descent of Man". Darwin's books revolutionized our understanding of biology and laid forth the idea that a Creator God isn't needed for the diversification of life. This idea made the two works more heretical than Rizal's novels. It is unlikely that the books were imported into the Philippines in the original English or in Spanish translation. The books were first translated into Spanish within Rizal's lifetime in 1877. It is likely Rizal read the books in Europe (most likely in English) as the evidence that we have he read the books is actually in El Filibusterismo.

Rizal writes in the chapter entitled "Consequences of the Posters"

"“Paulita complied with the law discovered by Darwin, unconsciously but rigorously: the female surrendering herself to the fitter male, to the one who adapts himself to the environment in which he lives.”[Soledad Lacson translation]

Rizal subscribes to Darwin’s hypothesis that human females actively choose their mates and the basis of sexual ornamentation. In the novel Isagani’s fiancĂ© dumps him to marry Juanito, a hunchback but who was rich. Contemporary sexual selection theory in humans proposes that cultural traits such as wealth and social status as possible “ornaments” for mate choice.

Rizal correctly interprets Darwin. This is still our theory to explain sexual selection.

In his letter to Father Pastells Rizal places the idea of ”survival of the fittest” and natural selection in the context of social conditions of the time in a likely allusion to Karl Marx. Rizal may have read Marx while he was in London.

Rizal the science literate Pinoy knew that the claims of the friars on their superiority had no basis. Even they shared a lowly origin with the rest of nature.

Rizal the science literate Pinoy believed that reason was enough to know the truth about the universe.

If Rizal were alive today what would he make off the Da Vinci Code brouhaha? Scarcely a year ago, we had this UST based Dominican Pinoy friar leading a book burning of this work of fiction.

I wonder what he would comment about Pinays marrying foreigners. Will his reading of sexual selection be verified once more? If he wrote about this how funny would it be?

Rizal had the wit and satire to write devastatingly. We don't know how his understanding of Darwinian theory would have affected the development of his analysis of Pinoy colonial society. Perhaps a scholar can tease this out of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. What we know is his indictment of the state of science education in the Fili still rings true today.

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