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The Reluctant Mr. Darwin?

Another Darwin Biography

Ecclesiastes tells us, “Of making books there is no end,” and nowhere is that a greater truism than in the ever growing corpus of Darwiniana.  At present writing OCLC (Online Computer Library Center), the world’s largest bibliographic database, lists 14,129 books and articles with occurrences of Darwin, Darwinism, or Darwinian in the title.  That’s enough to confirm the second half of that verse, namely, that “much study is wearisome to the flesh.”  Fortunately, there are at present only two outstanding biographies of the man many consider the most influential scientist of all time.  The first is Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991).  Still frequently cited in the literature, Desmond and Moore’s 800-page biography has been overshadowed more recently by the completion of Janet Browne’s even more corpulent 2 volume prize-winning biography Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2003).  But the sheer massiveness of both endeavors (Browne’s effort totals nearly 1,200 pages in all) means that few but the most obsessive investigators will venture to traverse that terra incognita.  A book of more modest and accessible proportions seemed overdue.  Then I saw it – a   comparatively slim biography resting humbly on the shelves of Barnes & Nobles’ science section (it really belonged in the philosophy section but we’re coming to that).  It was David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin recently published in 2006.  Excluding the notes, bibliography, and index the total narrative comes to a mere 253 pages, and at $14.95 its price was destined to welcome rather than frighten readers away.  I said to myself: “Here is a book people are likely to actually read!”  I bought it and read it in a weekend. I’m glad I did, but not for reasons one might expect.

Quammen’s book is unquestionably yet another in a long line of largely uncritical accounts of modern evolutionary theory’s patron saint.  It’s not quite hagiography but it comes close.  I should have known what was coming.  In November of 2004 Quammen’s emphatic answer to his rhetorical question, “Was Darwin Wrong?,” in National Geographic was a resounding NO! But now this 25-year veteran of science journalism has amplified his answer.  He begins curiously enough by pointing out how few Americans actually believe in Darwinism.  “Between 81 and 87 percent of Americans,” he admits, “reject Darwin’s view of human evolution.”[1] Quammen says he’s mystified by this, but nevertheless calls Darwin’s theory “urgently relevant to education and governance.”  Darwin’s relevance to education is hotly contested territory, judges grandstanding decrees notwithstanding.  But governance?!  Surely Mr. Quammen doesn’t mean to suggest Darwinian evolution be used as a guide to governance!  The last time that was seriously tried we had forced sterilization laws (California’s 1909 law was particularly egregious, managing to sterilize some 2,500 “social undesirables” within a decade of passage) all under the guise of creating a “better world” by concocting a witch’s brew of half-baked theories made of equal parts Darwinian “natural selection,” Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin would quickly adopt), and Francis Galton’s (Darwin’s cousin) “nature vs. nurture.”[2]  It was called eugenics, a noxious weed of inhumane manipulation that received its fullest “flower” in Nazi Germany.[3]  I’ll simply assume Mr. Quammen was momentarily transported in a fit of hyperbole rather than believe that he actually meant to suggest a reinstitution of eugenics.

This indiscretion, however, shouldn’t condemn the work as a whole.  Indeed The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is very readable.  In a crisp and entertaining style Quammen takes the reader on an interesting journey into the life and world of this most notable Victorian figure.  The eight engaging chapters move the reader along quickly and not without imparting both a sense of the man and his age.  Well, at least a version of his life and times.  What we get is Darwin as a slow, methodical observer; an independently wealthy man fascinated with nature who didn’t need to work but who, through meticulous study and sober objectivity, turned his avocation into one of the most sweeping accounts of life and its development ever offered to the world.  In short, species were not immutable as most nearly every “natural philosopher” up to that time had said:  Darwin posited the idea that species evolved from a common ancestor through gradual mutations guided mainly by a random process of natural selection.  In this way the reader comes to see Darwin as a man unmoved by the sentimentality of the natural theologians, men like John Ray (1627-1705), William Paley (1743-1805), and even his own early teacher the famed geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), who all argued for special creation.  Life was not, according to Darwin, principally the product of a guiding benevolent God.  Perhaps, just perhaps some life was initially “breathed” into one or a few forms, but the real process was wholly random. Darwin the perfectionist experimenter, Darwin the objective observer, Darwin the man of science – one emerges from Quamman’s book with the impression that at long last science had triumphed over superstition.  So in what sense was Darwin “reluctant”?  Quammen uses the word in two senses.  First, it was Darwin’s very carefulness, his scientific caution, which underlay his slowness to reveal his theory even to friends.  He kept his cards close to his chest not letting anyone know of his theory until he dashed off a letter to his close confidant Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), dated January 11, 1844 revealing his “very presumptuous work”; six months later he completed a 189-page manuscript.  Somewhat surprisingly, after cautiously sharing it with a few friends, he did little with it, spending his time puttering with barnacles.  He broadcast his “dangerous idea” to the world reluctantly, literally scared sick of wholesale rejection. Only for fear of being totally scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a more solitary naturalist of considerably more humble lineage and nearly fourteen years his junior, did he finally go to press in 1859. 

But there is another sense in which Quammen uses the term reluctant.  Darwin is also portrayed as a reluctant agnostic. It’s slow, creeping advance is discernable with each turn of the page.  If one looks carefully there’s an interesting pair of quotes that frame Darwin’s slide into an ostensible agnosticism.  Quoting from an early Darwin notebook written in the summer of 1838 Quammen cites the naturalist’s declaration: “Mine is a bold theory.”[4]   By the writing of his autobiography in 1876 the effects of that “bold theory,” as Quammen tells it, had him also declaring Christianity “a damnable doctrine.”[5 ] Thus Darwin becomes for Quammen the reluctant scientist and the reluctant agnostic.  In fact, these two themes are symbiotic and serve to facilitate the view of a wholly objective scientific theory divorced from any taint of theistic intention.  In the end – science vindicated, theology dethroned! – that is Quamman’s leitmotif. 

Biography and the power of a paradigm

This dualistic reluctance is not unique to Quammen, and in this sense The Reluctant Mr. Darwin offers nothing new.  In fact, this book merely reiterates Desmond and Moore’s oft repeated assertion that, “However one viewed the new science, it was certainly born of Mr. Darwin’s moderation, impartiality, and patient industry in pursuing truth.”[6]  Janet Browne’s too refuses to depart from this laudatory assessment.  Darwin’s “remarkably powerful intellectual trajectory” was established early on as a boy dabbling in chemistry, she insists, and it was upon these humble beginnings that Darwin established “the footing for a lifetime of experimental science.”[7]  Darwin’s “Cambridge collecting days showed his fierce desire to outshine others in scope and ingenuity,” she states, and with them “. . . the beginnings of a methodical system of making full use of every available support.”[8]  When Darwin finally did send his manuscript off for copying it was still “unfinished in his perfectionist eyes.”[9] As for Darwin’s loss of faith, all the biographers just mentioned adopt the gradualist theme.  Desmond and Moore sum it up most succinctly by saying, “Even if, in his clear-headed confusion, he was agnostic about his agnosticism on occasions, in ten years it had become the respectable thing.”[10]

Is this view of Darwin as a methodical and thoroughly objective (if not perhaps a bit overly cautious and quirky) investigator accurate?  All the major biographers say so. Well, in part it is understandable.  It was a persona carefully crafted by Darwin himself.  He opened On the Origin of Species by alerting his readers to the fact that, “I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”[11]  The image of long, sober reflection was carefully cultivated by the naturalist from Kent.  But he had other perceptions to manage.  He knew the greatest objections to his theory would be theological, and he didn’t want to associate himself with the atheistic radicals of his day.  He sought above all else scientific respectability and so distancing himself from metaphysical extremism was essential in Victorian circles, and, in fact, Darwin spent a great deal of ink objecting to any religious intention in his work.  Writing to Asa Gray (1810-1888) on May 22, 1860, he complained:  “ With respect to the theological view of the question.  This is always painful to me.  I am bewildered.  I had no intention to write atheistically.  But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.  There seems to me too much misery in the world. . . . I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”[12]

Pain real or feigned, Darwin eventually stated that he simply couldn’t see the evidence for Christianity, and he always claimed that the “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete . . . [and] never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.”[13] Darwin had no need for any kind of Creator.  Writing to his close associate, Charles Lyell (1797-1875), about that same time he queried, “Do you consider that the successive variations in the size of the crop of the Pouter Pigeon, which man had accumulated to please his caprice, have been due to ‘the creative and sustained powers of Brahma?’  In the sense that an omnipotent and omniscient deity must order and know everything, this must be admitted; yet, in honest truth, I can hardly admit it.”[14]  Darwin eschewed religious faith for a different kind of faith, a faith in cold, hard “facts” or so he claimed.  Invoking any authority that might support him, the Down House naturalist adopted a lookalike system of measure (an affinity of homologies), claiming, “I put the greatest faith in resemblances in many parts of the whole organization. . . . That man is closely allied to the higher Simiæ is shown by the classification of Linnæus, who was so good a judge of affinity.”[15] Cartoonists and lampooners would have fun with the “man as monkey” image and they’d turn it into a virtually trademarked synonym for evolution itself.  Darwin’s version of man as an animal left little room for a divine spark and it bespoke his agnostic convictions. But Darwin was also always emphatic that this came to him comparatively late in life.  Playing host to the visiting Ludwig Büchner, famed German atheist, eight months before Darwin’s death in April of 1882, the Down House patriarch insisted that he hadn’t given up on Christianity until forty years of age.[16] Quammen underscores the point by writing, “years of studying the fixed laws of nature had eroded his credence in miracles, and he ‘gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation.’  There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will.”[17] 

So the current state of Darwin biography can really be discerned on two levels.  On one level the works look critical, even insightful, and at times they are.  Whether it is Quammen telling us that Darwin could be charming but shy and at times selfish and ruthless, or Desmond and Moore who view him as “arguably the greatest scientist in history” but still a product of his times who accepted the Victorian mores of subordinate roles for women and racial inferiority, or Janet Browne who casts Darwin are a cold calculating manipulator who would brook no opposition in promoting his theory and was fortunate indeed to have Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)  manage its promotion, all of them leave his theory essentially untouched.  On this second level, that of the man and his theory, a paucity of genuine critique prevails.  All hold to the conventional wisdom that sees Darwin’s evolutionary theory developing slowly and methodically, the product of a careful, objective eye and attitude, while at the same time the sea of scientific revelation slowly eroded the rock of religious conviction that at one time had been a youthful boy’s comfort and constant companion.  It is a scenario expressly drawn from and fostered by Darwin himself.  If true, Darwin clearly came to his theory of common descent and random mutation almost in spite of himself; he becomes then the very personification of the selfless scientist following the evidence where ever it may lead.  But can this be so uncritically accepted?  In a profession that prides itself on critical examination and asking the tough questions, it is frankly a bit astonishing that so many biographers accept Darwin’s own recounting of affairs through his autobiography and letters largely written after the appearance of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Historians normally have a dogged determination for the truth; the hidden nuances of context, motive, social and political connections and interactions lurking in primary documents usually have historians and biographers pursuing every angle and every lead like a bloodhound deployed in search of its subject.  But there seems no such tenacity here.  Could Darwinian evolution be the reason?  Could the paradigm be the tail wagging the historical dog here?  Before answering these questions, let’s begin by broaching a more fundamental question.

What exactly did Darwin know and when did he know it?

Before beginning we have to be quite clear about what’s at stake.  This is no small matter of priority or chronology.  Darwin insisted that he hadn’t abandoned Christianity until he was forty; that would be 1849.  So according to him some theistic belief remained in him all while he was aboard the Beagle and indeed until about five years after the initial draft manuscript of his evolutionary theory.  Under this scenario Darwin’s scientific beliefs clearly preceded his loss of faith.  If we look to his letters, particularly those written after 1859, that’s the clear impression we get.  Thus, the case that he came to his scientific conclusions unsullied by any preconceived metaphysical notion is easily made. But could there be an alternative?  Could it be that Darwin’s loss of faith preceded his scientific beliefs?  Could it be that his metaphysics directed his “science”?  In order to answer these questions we must turn to his notebooks.

Darwin commenced a series of personal notebooks when he was 27 (1836), recently returned home from his famous excursion on the H.M.S. Beagle.[18]  The last clearly dated notebook was written in 1844.  Seven notebooks are labeled alphabetically A-E, M and N.  They are further identified by subject:  notebook A is devoted to geology; notebooks B through E are headed “Transmutation of Species”; notebook M is titled “Expression” but elsewhere Darwin referred to it as “Metaphysical Enquiries”; and notebook N is the second in this metaphysical series.  Also of interest is a collection of loose notes identified as, “Old & Useless notes about the moral sense & some metaphysical points written about the year 1837 & Earlier – JCD,” a title likely added while he was preparing his Descent of Man some 34 years later.[19]  Finally, for our purposes here, are the collected manuscript notes to his reading of John Macculloch’s Proofs and Illustrations of the Attributes of God (1837).  Macculloch (1773-1835), a physician by training, was one of many writing on natural theology in the early nineteenth century; Darwin probably knew of him from his Geological Classification of Rocks with Descriptive Synopses of the Species and Varieties (1821) and his two-volume System of Geology, with a Theory of the Earth, and an Explanation of its Connection with the Sacred Records (1831).

Because these notes and manuscripts were not intended for public viewing (much less publication), their voyeuristic quality allow us to glimpse the inner workings of this would-be revolutionary thinker early on in his career.  Through them we now know what so many during Darwin’s lifetime didn’t, namely, how he really came to his theory of evolution.  It should be stated at the outset that this Victorian naturalist made constant reference to “Creation” and “the Creator.”  Whatever conclusions Darwin may have drawn from his empirical observations, that he fully appreciated and understood the religious/metaphysical implications of his work is obvious.  For example, in notebook B he rhetorically asks, “Has the Creator since the Cambrian formations gone on creating animals with the same general structure [?] – miserable limited view – .”[20]  A bit later in that same book he connects man and animals through pain and suffering, a problem that would haunt Darwin throughout his life.  Apparently he objected to the idea that man had a soul but not animals since both suffer pain.  Instead he suggests through “one common ancestor we may all be netted together.”[21]  It is important to notice the logical flow here: If as claimed man is endowed with a soul and animals not –> but both are subject to the same vagaries of pain and suffering –> ergo humans and animals are essentially one, the idea of  a soul-imbued humanity as a special creation is negated.  We may wince at the nonsequiturs and the weak reasoning, but this is a train of thought driven at heart by a metaphysical assertion.  Put another way, his scientific conclusion that man is linearly and directly related by mere degree rather than kind to beasts was not evidentiary, it was premised principally on the problem of pain and suffering and the need to answer it. Evil and pain clearly bothered the young naturalist, and this theory of evolution was at least in part designed to deal with it.  “Our descent,” he wrote in notebook M, “is the origin of our evil passions!! – The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!”[22]  Questions of nature’s “imperfections” and “cruelty” caused him to turn away from theistic accounts of a benevolent Creator.  Why would God have made cats to torture mice or ichneumon wasps to lay eggs inside living caterpillars?  To Darwin these facts argued against design and God. Interestingly, Alfred Russel Wallace, his counterpart and independent discoverer of evolution, asked similar questions and came up with a very different answer.  Wallace carefully distinguished between evil and pain and noted that the latter could not be related to man and animals in the same way Darwin had done. For Wallace, “pain was the birth-cry of a soul’s advance” and “susceptibility to the higher agonies is a condition of our advance in life’s pageant.”[23]  Wallace’s formulation was close to C. S. Lewis’s answer to such questions.  Almost as if in reply to Darwin nearly a century later Lewis observed, “a great deal of what appears to be animal suffering need not be suffering in any real sense.  It may be,” he added, “we who have invented the ‘sufferers’ by the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of reading into the beasts a self for which there is no real evidence.”[24]  Of course, humans really do suffer but neither Wallace nor any other theist (yes Wallace was a theist!) need use this fact to erase teleology from the context of that suffering.  Self-inflicted suffering aside, the problem of pain only assumes meaning in a teleological world that otherwise would truly be merely a cruel caprice.  As Lewis said, “Perhaps this is not the ‘best of all possible’ universes, but the only possible one.”[25] For all of Darwin’s imputed acuity and power of perception, his schoolboyish handling of theological questions seems remarkably underwhelming.  It is as if his default position was away from theism, as if he was hardwired for it.

Given his attitude toward pain and evil, it’s not surprising that Darwin would seek an explanation or at least some philosophical reconciliation.  His answer was materialism, and it was expressed early and often in his notebooks.  Writing sometime between late July and mid-October of 1838 in notebook C, he expressed the belief that “The intimate relation of Life with laws of Chemical combination” suggests that “spontaneous generation [is] not improbable.”26  He would later reject this.  Although the dramatic and incontrovertible demonstrations of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) over Félix-Archimède Pouchet (1800-1872) from 1862 to 1864, would send all the prominent Darwinists scurrying away from the ancient theory (the unfortunate Carlton Bastian [1837-1915] excepted), the materialistic appeal was undeniable. Still later in that book the youthful Darwin comments on the brain and emotion being little more than the product of heredity and with an uncharacteristic impish delight at his naughtiness inscribes, “oh you Materialist!,” and then immediately follows with lines which could have been written by Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, “Why is thought being a secretion of brain [an interesting use of the term “secretion”!], more wonderful than gravity a property of matter?  It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves.”[27]  Similarly, in his reaction to a quote from John Macculloch suggesting the design or plan of an omnipotent Creator, he scratched in heavy ink, “What bosch!!  Put to [a] case of man.”[28]  Numerous similar statements could be pulled from his notes, but the point is by his late twenties Darwin’s agnosticism was well formed and more importantly it was informing his so-called scientific theory.  His claim made years later that he didn’t leave Christianity until age forty is either the product of a terrible memory or outright deception.  In fact, the conclusion that Darwin’s alleged agnosticism really amounted to non-dogmatic atheism seems inescapable.[29]

Where did all of this come from?  It came mostly from Hume and Comte, both of whom he read with relish.  The impact of the Scottish skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) on Darwin was profound.  Writing in notebook M, he declared, “Hume’s essay on Human Understanding well worth reading.”[30]  In notebook N he referenced Hume’s “Of Reason of Animals,” and decided to consult Hume’s essay “Of the Sceptical [sic] and other Systems of Philosophy” on the source of reason.[31]  Of religion, philosophy, science, art, and the humanities, Hume thought all these human “perceptions” were really “nothing but a blind Nature . . . pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.”[32]  Darwin could have easily written these lines.  In the sixth and last edition of The Origin of Species (1872) Darwin added a very Humeian comment when he claimed any theory of sudden species transformation as well as special Creation was “to enter into the realms of miracle, and to leave those of science.”[33]  We don’t find this in the first edition.  In fact, he shied away from such references in his early work.  Why?  Because as William B. Huntley has noted, “Darwin like Hume realized the implication of what he wrote for the philosophical and theological world of his generation.  Darwin was less eager to draw out for his readers the implication that the watchmaker God of Paley was being as strongly challenged by himself as by Hume.”[34]  In short, Darwin was being cagey, offering to the world (at least initially) an account of his theory that permitted at best a deity of secondary causes and purposefully vague on the rest.  As if Hume weren’t enough, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was also high on Darwin’s early reading list.  We can see in Darwin’s approach to pain and suffering the operations of Comte’s rejection of God, a French positivist who had agreed with Schopenhauer that life’s cruelties pointed away from a benevolent Creator.  Darwin’s notebooks show his agreement with Comte that early science was a theological “fiction of abstractions.”[35]  Like Comte, Darwin agreed that all divine explanations for natural phenomena were mere “contrivances.”[36]  Elsewhere (in notebook N) he also heartily endorsed Comte’s notion of the “theological state of science” – i.e., the idea that all fields of knowledge pass through a theological or fictitious stage, a metaphysical or abstract stage, and finally a scientific or positive stage – calling it a “grand idea.”[37]  This from a man who insisted he hadn’t abandoned Christianity until some ten years later!

So what did Darwin know or at least what did he think he knew and when did he “know” it?  The epiphanal moment cannot be defined as his conversion to mutability; that alone would not have been unique or even especially interesting.  It was unguided mutability through natural selection that was so revolutionary.  Therefore, while it is true that he was convinced of some form of species “transmutation” by mid-July of 1837, that alone would not rule out teleology or theism per se.  After all Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation would appear in the fall of 1844 proclaiming, “It pleased Providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another . . . .”[38]  The question of whether his metaphysics preceded the development of his science is impossible to answer definitively but best understood as a hand-in-glove affair.  In fact, Darwin’s metaphysics was the hand into which he slipped the scientific glove.  When completed it looked like science, yet metaphysics guided its every move.  His notebooks bears out that he knew early on (at least by 1838/39) that he had become a disciple of the skeptical school led by Hume and its materialist/humanist ally headed by Comte.  His coy assertions of a slow and progressive loss of faith driven by the ineluctable evidence of the natural world was so much smoke, a thick blanket of which he laid down to give his theory the appearance of scientific detachment.  His rather lame doff-of-the-cap to deism was another layer of smoke.  But Quammen buys in completely: “Work was his opiate,” he declares, “and science was his religion.”[39]  I think it’s more accurate to say that his religion was his science.  Discovering the skepticism of Hume and the positivism of Comte, Darwin set about constructing a unified theory that would, in effect, ratify and complement those views.

Years later writing his autobiography he could afford to be more honest:  “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”[40]  Darwin had indeed inherited the wind.

A grand and sickening paradox

So was Darwin reluctant?  In a sense, yes, he most surely was reluctant, but not in the sense implied in Quammen’s book.  Darwin was reluctant to show his whole materialistic hand so he revealed his cards one at a time in successive editions of Origin and in other publications.  To comfort and shield his Victorian readers (this included his beloved wife Emma who regarded his religious views as “a painful void between us”) from the harsh implications of the faith which formed the infrastructure for his evolutionary theory, he often spoke of “Nature” in goddess-like terms, especially in the first edition of his Origin.  But within a few years his power base had solidified and his most ardent supporters were well ensconced in high scientific places.  Hooker followed his father as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and was a leading member of the Royal Society of London.  Huxley was also an important member of the Royal Society, having received its Medal in 1852, and more significantly his X-Club comprised of Darwinist fellow travelers (founded in 1864) provided a cadre of apologists that effectively insulated the Down House naturalist from having to respond to criticism.  With Huxley carefully controlling the terms of the rhetoric and debate, these “bishop-eaters” could guide Darwinian evolution into institutional hegemony within the biological and anthropological communities and secure its paradigmatic status.[41]  This new scientific priesthood took their place with Darwin as the reigning Archbishop. Thus, with his theory made safe, by the time Darwin published his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) he could claim, “I have . . . often personified the word Nature; for I have found it difficult to avoid this ambiguity; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events.”[42]  Darwin’s rationalization is strained.  Why explain now what could have just as readily done nearly a decade earlier? Answer: his was a conscious hedging on his materialism for fear of rejection or worse, dismissal by the scientific community.  The narrative of the first edition Origin was not an unbiased broaching of scientific findings; it was a calculated attempt to foist materialism upon the public under a veneer of scientific explanation. Everyone wasn’t fooled.  Sedgwick called it “a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up.”[43]  That Darwin purposefully withheld the most controversial aspects of his theory, namely the implications of his theory as applied to man until deemed safe seems undeniable.  But by 1871 Wallace had already parted with Darwin over the issue of the human mind and emotion so the now gray-bearded grandfatherly figure could make a clean breast of it; in fact, The Descent of Man was by then rather anticlimactic.  Quammen, in fact, barely discusses Descent, calling it not his best work.  Perhaps, but with Descent Darwin really shows his hand because by then it was safe to do so.

But early on Darwin needed to be cautious.  It was this rank philosophical materialism that drove Darwin’s macro-evolutionary processes of random mutation and common descent all of which was carefully and systematically withheld from public view until his ideas gained hegemonic acceptance.  The truth of this is revealed in a nervous letter to Charles Lyell on March 28, 1859, as he prepared his book for publication:  “Would you advise me to tell Murray [his publisher] that my book is not more un-orthodox than the subject makes inevitable.  That I do not discuss the origin of man.  That I do not bring in any discussion about Genesis, & c., & c., and only give facts, and such conclusion from them as seem fair.”[44]

By the time he did discuss the implications of his theory for man this sort of hand-wringing was unnecessary. But all this fretting made Darwin sick – literally!  If Daniel Dennett’s metaphor for Darwin’s “dangerous idea” – a “universal acid” he calls it – has any meaning it is for Darwin himself. The acid he concocted nearly killed him.  Terrible stomachaches, vomiting, flatulence, heart palpitations, headaches, even severe bouts of facial eczema all plagued Darwin during the bulk of his active career, abating only late in life.  Various theories have been advanced for the etiology of these symptoms with everything from Chagas’ disease (a South American parasitic infestation of Trypanosoma) contracted while on the Beagle to lupus erythematosus being suggested.  But Chagas disease doesn’t explain Darwin’s complex of symptoms and lupus is rarely seen in male Caucasians (Lupus Foundation of America).  Psychiatrist Ralph Colp Jr. has made an exhaustive study of Darwin’s complaints and concluded that they were stress related.  Darwin had an unmistakable “neurotic side” and they were driven by his feelings over his theory.[45]  In fact, Colp concludes that he suffered from a panic disorder.  This is not to suggest that his illness invalidates his theory.  Neurosis is no bar to brilliance.  But I think the psychosomatic nature of what Darwin himself described as “a perpetually half knocked-up condition” is attributable primarily to the fact that he knew two things:  1) that he, in fact, didn’t come to his theory as a disinterested scientist, he came to it as a committed materialist – a non-dogmatic atheist – and fashioned his “facts” around his worldview; and 2) this forced him into a lifetime of denials, rationalizations, and obfuscations of belief and intent.  Darwin genuinely believed materialism to be true but it forced him to live a lie, a lie that required his principal article of faith to masquerade as empirical science.  It was a grand but a hard paradox.  To make matters worse all it did was create a gulf between him and his wife Emma.  Becoming a poseur for science made life difficult and exhausting. 

In a sense Darwin had succeeded eminently.  He at last established and institutionalized what nearly every scientist before him had denied:  the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.[46]  God and teleology had been effectively stripped from science and if science, why not society itself?  Darwin could talk about the “ennobling” of an evolving nature, Dennett can replace the numinous with platitudes about the sacredness of nature and the “affirmation of its magnificence,”[47] and Richard Dawkins can wax poetic about “immortal genes,”[48]  but the cost is unmistakable.  Darwin’s theory, now descended into neo-Darwinian forms itself, in many ways epitomizes Arthur Koestler’s dark assessment of the march of modern secular science, an assessment that answers all three with sober eloquence:

As a result, man’s destiny was no longer determined from “above” by a super-human wisdom and will, but from “below” by the sub-human agencies of glands, genes, atoms, or waves of probability.  This shift of the locus of destiny was decisive.  So long as destiny had operated from a level of the hierarchy higher than man’s own, it had not only shaped his fate, but also guided his conscience and imbued his world with meaning and value.  The new maters of destiny were placed lower in the scale than the being they controlled; they could determine his fate, but could provide him with no moral guidance, no values and meaning.  A puppet of the Gods is a tragic figure, a puppet suspended on his chromosomes is merely grotesque.[49]

And Quammen is mystified that more than 80 percent of Americans reject Darwin’s scenario for humankind?!


So we return to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.  David Quammen is right, Darwin was the reluctant naturalist but he was reluctant for reasons that are unexplored in his book.  Perhaps Desmond and Moore’s term “tormented” is better.  Whatever we call Darwin, Quammen has produced – like all Darwin’s biographers – a very Whiggish history:  What the great historian Herbert Butterfield has defined as “the tendency in many historians . . . to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”[50]  I’m by no means the first to notice this.  Cornelius G. Hunter has correctly identified the pre-existing materialistic biases in Darwinian evolution as well as the Whiggish character of Darwinist histories.  Hunter’s work is seminal and definitive in this regard.  My research has been indebted to his Darwin’s God (2002), Darwin’s Proof (2003), and Science’s Blindspot (2007) Cornelius G. Hunter on Amazon.  But what I have tried to do here is identify these biases and subjective tendencies in Darwin himself and his biographers and to provide an alternative account through a more unfettered biographical assessment that doesn’t presuppose the sacrosanctity of his macro-revolutionary theory.  Having done that it can now readily be seen that Darwinian evolution is in every sense itself metaphysical.  Religion was let into the science classroom the first time Darwin was taught even if it did dangle on the end of a chromosome.

Is Darwinian evolution bad science premised upon even worse theology?  I think it most certainly is, just look at Alfred Russel Wallace’s dramatically different approach to the evolution question.  But that is fodder for the next posting.  Stay tuned . . .


[1]David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), p. 15 

[2]For details see Harry Bruinius, Better for all the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

[3]Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

[4]Quammen, p. 41.
[5]Ibid., 246.
[6]Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), p. 671.

[7] Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 31.

[8]Ibid., p. 104.

[9]Ibid.,  p. 446.

[10]Desmond and Moore, p. 636.
[11]Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1st ed. (1859; reprinted, New York: The Classics of Medicine Library, 1998), p. 1.
[12]The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. By Francis Darwin, v. 2 (New York: D. Appleton, 1897), 105.

[13]Quoted in Quammen, p. 118.

[14]Life and Letters, v. 2, 97.

[15]Darwin, who had read Linnæus’s dissertations, was being disingenuous here.  In fact, while there was certainly an empirical side to Linnæus, he constructed his system expressly upon the basis of fixed creations formed by a biblical God “according to their kind.” See Sten Lindroth, “The Two Faces of Linnæus,” in Linnæus: The Man and His Work, ed. By Tore Frängsmyr, rev. ed. (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1994) 20.  The idea that man is an animal was not news when Linnæus first issued his Systema Naturæ in 1735.  But Darwin’s invocation of Linnæan support for his materialistic notions would have brought an immediate protest from the Swedish naturalist.   Linnæus adopted a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of man – imago Dei – and would have pointed out, what Wallace would point out to Darwin himself, that the human soul and mind were distinctions far outweighing mere homology. 

[16]Desmond and Moore, p. 658.

[17]Quammen, p. 245.

[18]Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries, transcribed and ed. By Paul H. Barrett, Peter J. Gautrey, Sandra Herbert, et. al. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

[19]Ibid., p. 597.

[20]Ibid., p. 224.
[21]The passage literally reads as follows:  “the soul by consent of all is superadded, animals not got it, not look forward if we choose to let conjecture run wild then our animals our fellow brethren in pain, disease & suffering & famine; our slaves in the most laborious work, our companion in our amusements.  they may partake, from our origin in there one common ancestor we may all be netted together.” Ibid., pp. 228-229.

[22]Ibid., p. 550.
[23]James Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916), p. 465.

[24]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; reprinted, New York:  HarperCollins, 1996), p. 137.

[25]Ibid., p. 26.
[26]Darwin’s Notebooks, p. 269.

[27]Ibid., p. 291.

[28]Ibid., p. 634. 

[29]For details, see Maurice Mandelbaum, “Darwin’s Religious Views,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19.3 (June 1958): 363-378, 376.
[30]Ibid., p. 559.

[31]Ibid., pp. 591-592.

[32]Quoted in Henry Thomas, Biographical Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965), p. 125.

[33]Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 6th ed., v. 2 (1871; reprinted, New York: D. Appleton, 2897), p. 318.

[34]William B. Hunltley, “David Hume and Charles Darwin,” Journal of the History of Ideas 33.3 (1972):  457-470, 464.
[35]Thomas, p. 53.

[36]See his comment in notebook M, Darwin’s Notebooks, p. 535.

[37]Ibid., p. 566.

[38]Quoted in Quammen, p. 81.
3[9]Ibid., p. 165.

[40]Life and Letters, v. 1, 279.
[41]For an interesting account of this carefully managed public relations campaign, see Edward Caudill, “The Bishop-Eaters: the Publicity Campaign for Darwin and on the Origin of Species,” 55.3 (July 1994): 441-460.
[42]Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, v. 2 (1868; reprinted, New York: D. Appleton, 1897),  p. 7.

[43]Quoted in Quammen, p. 209.
[44 ]Life and Letters, v. 1, 507.

[45]Ralph Colp,  To be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).  Colp’s analysis has been subject to a various criticisms, criticisms ably answered in Colp’s “To be an Invalid, Redux,” Journal of the History of Biology 3 (1998): 211-240.

[46]This is discussed by Francis A. Schaeffer in Escape from Reason (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968), pp. 36-38.  This thesis is expanded further in Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994).

[47]Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995),  p. 520; and

[48]Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976; reprinted, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 266.
[49]Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959; reprinted, London: Arkana, 1989),  p. 550.
[50]Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931; reprinted, New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), p. v.

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13 Responses to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin?

  1. Great post Flannery. I look forward to the next one.

  2. Welcome Flannery. I hope you develop this material into a book.

  3. I think this is an interesting piece, but I think it’s a little bit of a stretch to assume that Darwin’s illness was the result of stress stemming from cognitive dissonance over the manner in which he presented his work. More evidence is required to justify if such a possiblity is probable, especially if you’re going to write a book on it…

  4. Dear WinglesS,

    Perhaps so, but Colp’s analysis certainly allows that interpretation. Embedded with that is certainly the gulf that his beliefs left between himself and Emma. More importantly, Darwin’s own path of discovery and method of disclosure most certainly forced him to live a lie on a couple of levels and if Colp’s thesis that Darwin’s poor health was stress related and largely psychosomatic, a thesis that has weathered several storms, it couldn’t have helped. I’d never make that a central theme in a book anyway. I find Darwin’s disingenuousness illuminating and instructive whether it made him sick or not (though I still think it very likely did). But thanks for the word of caution.

  5. Great work Flannery. In terms of the its relationship to his research, I have long been suspicious that Darwin’s loss of religious faith was less of an effect and more of a cause. Disinterested science appears to be less common that we once believed.

    In E. Michael Jones’ book, “Degenerate Moderns,” he points out that major figures like Freud, Marx, Mead and others developed their scientific theories to match their own philosophical biases and lifestyles. Marx, for example, who apparently lived off others and didn’t take care of his family, developed a philosophy based on the dispossession of others. Mead, who practiced adultery, concluded that sexual mores were largely a funcion of the culture. Freud seems to have projected his own hangups about sex in some his more bizarre accounts of parent child relationships. Jones provides other examples as well.

    One of the most dramatic examples may be found in the (work?) of Alfred Kinsey. His own battles with sexual dysfunction seems to have been the main impetus for his research. Indeed, he almost single handedly transformed American culture and contributed to the “sexualization of children” Apparently, a large number of scientists and other opnion shapers seek to remake the world into their own image and likeness.

    Jones’ thesis is that we have only two options; either we conform desire to truth or we conform truth to desire. All the examples in his book are evidence of the latter. It seems to me that something like this is happening here with Darwin. Perhaps Jones’ work would provide you with additional confirmation for your own conclusions.

  6. I think this is an interesting piece, but I think it’s a little bit of a stretch to assume that Darwin’s illness was the result of stress stemming from cognitive dissonance over the manner in which he presented his work. More evidence is required to justify if such a possiblity is probable, especially if you’re going to write a book on it…

    Perhaps an evolutionary psychologist should be brought in to settle this matter. These guys can reach back hundreds of thousands of years to analyze the thinking of unknown, illiterate prehumans(?), so glancing back to the 19th century to dissect Charles Darwin’s mental state and its likely physical consequences should be nearly as straightforward as interviewing and examining the man in person!

  7. StephenB,

    The Jones reference might be helpful in enlarging the context. I’ll see about getting a copy. Gould’s NOMA, of course, is ahistorical nonsense. Thanks, this was helpful.

  8. The notion of Darwin’s impeccable objectivity is nothing but a story. He knew exactly what he was about. First, science requires hypotheses. It was the theory of evolution that made his famous voyage of discovery possible, not the other way around. Meanwhile it strains credulity to think that Darwin was unaware of the work of his own grandfather.

    Darwin’s theory was not a case of spontaneous generation. There was a prominent strain of atheism in the Enlightenment, as epitomized by Hume. The latter half of the eighteenth century was marked by an increasingly militant naturalism in certain well-heeled circles. Darwin’s grandfather was part of this resistance movement; and evolution, following the lead of Lucretius, was the equivalent of its secret handshake.

    Hume claimed that natural philosophers could point the way to the good of happiness through reason for its own sake, without having to resort to any qualitative first causes in order to justify their theories of value. Darwin went a step further and described nature itself as a qualitative power. “Natural selection” implied that nature was in the process of making itself into something more beautiful and fit of its own accord. It no longer seemed necessary to invoke “the good” in order to account for its goodness.

    This notion of an ameliorative power in nature did not merely make atheism respectable; it imbued it with missionary zeal. Darwin’s theory enabled modern philosophers to cast materialism in a positive light. It is no coincidence that he was a favorite of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Natural selection indicated that it was possible to obtain happiness by purely materialistic means.

    Darwin provided modern philosophers with the ammunition they needed to overthrow the Transcendental Aesthetic, which itself had been a response to the gathering cloud of skepticism reflected in Hume. If the great values found in nature can be explained by purely natural causes, then the elaborate metaphysical superstructure outlined by Kant and executed by Hegel simply collapses of its own accord.

    For all of these reasons, the picture of ideological purity painted by Darwin’s admirers cannot be taken seriously. He was not just a scientist and goodly worker in the humble fields of observation; he had definite philosophical goals in mind, and these goals are evident in his theory.

    Kudos to Flannery for the excellent work above, by far the best gift this grateful reader has received this Christmas. One may hope that further steps are taken to give it the exposure it deserves.

  9. Flannery
    An excellent thought provoking and well researched examination of Darwin’s earlier years.
    I look forward to your subsequent sections.

    In quickly searching in Google Scholar for “Darwin daughter ‘problem of pain’” I found some interesting items:

    Charles Darwin, James Moore Ch 16, p 209
    , Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, Gary B. Ferngren Ed., 2002, JHU Press ISBN 0801870380

    Could a limited or misunderstanding of design have influenced Darwin?
    ‘Let one species alter and the whole creationist edifice “totters & falls” C. Darwin 1987 p 263
    ‘A world populated by natural law was “far grander” than one in which the Creator interferes with himself, “warring against those very laws he established in all organic nature.”
    “How beneath the dignity of him, who is supposed to have said let there be light & there was light” (C. Darwin, 1987, 343).

    Suggest exploring the influence of atheist, evolutionist and invertebrate zoologist Dr. Robert E. Grant and the Plinian Society in Edinburgh on the young Charles Darwin.
    ‘Grant was an atheist and evolutionist, following the French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck (1744-1829); the Plinian served as a platform for his and other members’ radical, materialist ideas.’
    Science and Religion, p 209

    Some think the following factors had a major impact in forming (or deforming) Darwin’s theology.
    “Recent scholarship has tended to focus on the more contingent engines of unbelief: his doubts about revelation, his moral aversion to preaching of eternal damnation for religious deviants, his sensitivity to the problem of pain and suffering, the existential crisis produced by the loss of his daughter Annie in 1851 and an ever hardening conviction that contingency itself, rather than providential intent, lies behind the accidents of daily life.”
    Concluding Reflections, John H. Brooke, Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 2005 p 256

    To the editor: Down syndrome in Down House: trisomy 21, GATA1 mutations, and Charles Darwin, David P. Steensma, Blood, 15 March 2005, Vol. 105, No. 6, pp. 2614-2616.

    Finally, recommend Frank Peretti’s Monster, (2005) ISBN-13: 978-1595541215 in which he explores the issues of fitness and pain, design and evolution with fascinating insights.
    This especially highlights how little most Darwinists understand of the consequences of mutations on biological design, and the consequent pain and suffering of mutations.

  10. Flannery:

    Another point if I may. The notion that Darwin suffered from psychosomatic problems as a result of his inner turmoil is not a stretch. Consult “A Divided Mind,” by John Sarno M. D.

  11. I have lately read Morley’s Life of Voltaire and he insists strongly that direct attacks on Christianity (even when written with the wonderful force and vigor of Voltaire) produce little permanent effect: real good seems only to follow the slow and silent side attacks. ~ Letter to George Darwin October 1873

  12. I want to thank everyone for their input. This will be most helpful as I develop my ideas for a published piece.

    Since my posting generated considerable comment over my assertion that Darwin’s duplicitious behavior contributed to his stress-related health problems, permit me to clarify a few things that add an additional dimension to my theory and now in retrospect I think I should have included in the original posting. Colp at first rejected the Chagas’ disease thesis, but later revised his assessment to agree with Drs. David Adler and Jared Haft Goldstein’s independent analyses that Darwin did, in fact, have the disease. Nevertheless, Colp still sees Darwin’s complex of symptoms as aggravated by psychological problems, most significantly to panic attacks. Nevertheless, the latest analyst rejects the Chagas’ disease theory. See Gordon C. Sauer, “Darwin Consults a Dermatologist,” International Journal of Dermatology 39 (2000): 474-478. Colp’s original thesis, unmuddied by his conversion to the Chagas theory, is stronger in my opinion. In his 1977 book he stated that he believed Darwin’s psychosomatic symptoms were directly related to his developing this theory of evolution and its metaphysical and religious implications. He suggests that the dissonance between prevailing theistic belief and the accumulating evidence was its source. But his own selected reference in this regard would indicate otherwise. Colp quotes Darwin from his private notebook on his fear of opposition: “I fear great evil from vast opposition in opinion on all subjects of classification, I must work out hypothesis & compare it with results: IF I ACTED OTHERWISE MY PREMISES WOULD BE DISPUTED [emphasis added]” (p. 17). Darwin’s last comment is revealing. In effect, Darwin is admitting to already having certain premises established a priori to the investigation itself. This alone suggests the strength of my opinion that Darwin’s anxiety was not fact driven but premise driven. It’s not as if Darwin’s hypothesis and subsequent evidence forced him to certain metaphysical conclusions. That’s not what he’s saying here; in fact, just the opposite.

  13. Good work Flannery, certainly worthy of pursuing further. Some 15 years ago, having read several biographies of Darwin and his family, whatever was locally available at the time, my curiosity was also piqued by this mysterious disease of Darwin. There were a few references pointing out a possible link to the Darwin and Wedgewood family insanity, or predisposition to insanity, related all the way to Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, who supposedly may have suffered something like that.

    Later, in a public lecture on Darwin, a professor who was promoting Darwinism, mentioned Darwin’s diseases in passing, but did not elaborate. He tried to make Darwin look like a hero, who would methodically work and write every day, despite his debilitating disease. I couldn’t help it and I lined up at the end of the lecture, and when my turn came, I asked him if he couldn’t elaborate further about Darwin’s disease. However, to everybody’s surprise, as soon as the professor heard my question, he abruptly finished the lecture and the question period, saying that he didn’t wish to answer any more questions.

    As you have pointed out, this disease of Darwin has become quite important, and rightly so. Perhaps it was “only” stress, or perhaps melancholy or whatever altered state of mind does set in whenever a scientist desperately tries to fit a square peg into a round hole and in the process manages to put God into the Dock or into the trash can. But I am not surprised that Darwin’s objectives were ideologically motivated. There was an evolutionary agenda all the way back to Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society, and even Charles Darwin acknowledged that.

    As far as I can tell, 15 years ago there wasn’t enough publicly accessible information to pursue this meaningfully. For example, the original unabridged Life of Erasmus Darwin by Charles Darwin was published only in 2003, and is under full copyright:


    But, it seems there are more sources available today, like this one, which makes for some interesting reading as well. Whether Miss Seward’s and Mrs. Schimmelpenninck’s accounts of Dr. Darwin’s behavior were calumny, you can judge for yourself, but it is a fact that Dr. Darwin’s sons Erasmus killed himself, (suicide is a form of insanity), and being a prestigius physician, Dr. Darwin was well aware of a possible hereditary link to insanity and other diseases. Ironically, eradication of insanity may have been one of the crucial motivations of the Darwin-Wedgewod-Galton clan:

    “Dr. Darwin fully recognised the truth and importance of the principle of inheritance in disease. He remarks:* “As many families become gradually extinct by hereditary diseases, as by scrofula, consumption, epilepsy, mania, it is often hazardous to marry an heiress, as she is not unfrequently the last of a diseased family.” His grandson, Francis Galton, so well known for his works on the subject of inheritance, would fully appreciate this remark. On the other hand, when a tendency to disease is confined to one parent, the children often escape. “I now know,” as he writes to my father, January 5th, 1792, “many families who had insanity on one side, and the children, now old people, have had no symptom of it. If it were otherwise, there would not be a family in the kingdom without epileptic, gouty, or insane people in it.”


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