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Charles Darwin, the man

June 2009 | by John Peet

Charles Darwin, the man

 

Who was this man who, by his book, changed so much of the world’s thinking – not just in biology but in allied sciences, sociology, politics, economics and even religion?

 

His biographers describe him as sensitive and mild-mannered, but his ideas have caused heated battles between his supporters and his critics. Politicians from all parts of the spectrum have used his arguments to justify their ideas. Atheists use his theory to make their position respectable (at least, in their own eyes!).

Christians are divided between ‘creationists’ (who ascribe the origin of material and biological systems to divine fiat) and ‘theistic evolutionists’ (who believe that God used evolution to create the biosphere).

The debate continues. But what of the man himself?

 

Father’s influence

 

12 February 2009 was the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and November will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the origin of species. He did not originate the theory of evolution (that had been around for a couple of millennia) but he believed he had discovered the mechanism by which evolution worked – the process of ‘natural selection’.

He was born in Shrewsbury, the son of Robert Waring Darwin, a doctor, and Susannah, daughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. The Wedgwoods were Unitarians but Robert, though an Anglican communicant, was probably an atheist like Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Charles had a strict but happy upbringing.

After leaving school, and undoubtedly under his father’s influence, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine. These were the days before general anaesthetics and he had to attend surgery on a young lad. He found this so traumatic that he withdrew from the course after two years.

During his time at Edinburgh, he became friendly with a leading zoologist, Robert Grant, who encouraged his interest in invertebrates and introduced him to the importance of scientific publication. Grant was an evolutionist and undoubtedly influenced Darwin’s thinking.

When he dropped his medical studies, his father encouraged him to study theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a view to entering the Anglican ministry. Though he did graduate in theology with some distinction, he sensed no calling to the ministry.

 

HMS Beagle

 

Of particular future importance to him was a clergyman, John Henslow, who was a professor of botany. It was Henslow who proposed Charles Darwin for the position of ‘gentleman companion’ to Captain Robert FitzRoy, commander of HMS Beagle. The captain – an evangelical Christian – wanted someone who was not a part of the ship’s company to travel with him on his forthcoming voyage.

Charles had not completed his medical studies and was a naturalist only by hobby, but he was nevertheless appointed ship’s doctor and official naturalist. Having recently received and read Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology he also became the geologist for the trip.

Lyell rejected traditional catastrophism based on the biblical record and proposed instead a gradualistic approach to the formation of the earth’s geology. Darwin accepted this concept and Lyell’s influence would later be demonstrated by his claim, ‘My aim is to free science from Moses’.

Robert Darwin did not at first approve his son’s involvement in the Beagle enterprise. Because Charles was not a member of the ship’s company, he had to pay his own way. However, he eventually supported his son when Charles obtained Josiah Wedgwood’s approval.

 

Building a reputation

 

Darwin collected specimens for study along the coast of South America. Eventually the expedition reached the Galapagos Islands where he stayed for five weeks during 1835. He experienced an earthquake on the west coast of South America which raised the shoreline through five feet. This convinced Darwin of Lyell’s scenario and strengthened his commitment to geology.

While he was on the Beagle, he wrote reports to Henslow who, in turn, published extracts. As a result, Charles Darwin’s reputation was being built up without his knowledge.

Following his time on the Beagle, he spent time classifying his specimens with the help of more experienced biologists. He gradually formulated his ideas about the way new species could develop from previous ones. This lead to him develop his now famous ‘tree of life’ – showing all life forms as branch-like developments from one unique original form.

A recent issue of New Scientist1 demonstrated how this simple view has become discredited as the complexity of life has become more apparent. Evolutionists still believe that all life forms are inter-related, but the ‘tree of life’ is now seen as a tangled bush – with new species arising less by direct descent and more by hybridisation and other kinds of genetic transfer between species.

 

The origins of evolution

 

It is commonly assumed that Darwin originated the theory of evolution. This is not true; it had been around for a long time before him. As the full title of his book indicates, his contribution was to offer a mechanism for the process, namely, natural selection.      This concept was borrowed from the writings of Thomas Malthus, who focussed on the struggle for survival among species (especially man) as they competed for limited food supplies. He held revolutionary ideas on the survival of the strongest, believing that the poor should be allowed to die.

It was from Malthus that Charles obtained the hitherto missing mechanism for speciation – natural selection or survival of the fittest.

Darwin was almost beaten to the publication of his ideas by Alfred Russell Wallace, a free thinker. Wallace had noticed the same features in nature as Darwin and wrote a paper on the concept of natural selection. Darwin was encouraged to put his ideas into print urgently, and his book On the origin of species was the result.

 

Cruelty in nature

 

After returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Charles settled down and married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, who was also a devout Unitarian. It was a good marriage and she frequently sought to persuade him to become a believer (though Unitarianism should not be confused with true Christianity). In September 1842 they settled at Down House in the village of Downe, Kent.

Charles’ mother died when he was eight years old and his daughter Annie died aged ten in 1851. The latter tragedy hardened his heart and led to deeper rebellion against God. This grew as he thought about the cruelty he observed in nature. Like so many of his followers, he did not examine the Scriptures to find the true cause of evil and suffering.

One thing that troubled Darwin scientifically arose from Annie’s illness. As mentioned, Darwin married a first cousin. In addition, their grandparents, Sarah and Josiah Wedgwood, were also cousins. He became concerned that his daughter’s death could be related to this ‘in-breeding’, and the effects of marriage between cousins became a key area of his research.

 

Weaknesses of the theory

 

One of the fascinating things in Darwin’s writings is his own assessment of his theory and its weaknesses. This is how all scientists should work, but few, especially in this controversial area, do so.

He commented on issues such as the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, the problem of the supposed evolution of the eye, the amazing tail feathers of the peacock, and the mystery of the origin of life itself. He also highlighted the problem of the development of a complex organism through small steps (which his theory required) and the difficulty of conceiving the development of symbiosis.

One of the biggest problems to him was the origin of the human mind. This is neither matter nor energy, so where did it come from? In his autobiography, he wrote: ‘This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time … when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt – can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?’

It is surely significant that these issues, which he clearly identified, are still debated fiercely today. But in contrast to many of his modern supporters, he did encourage debate. He said, ‘A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question’.

In the introduction to his famous book he wrote: ‘I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be done here’.

 

Insoluble mystery

 

There have been persistent rumours that Charles became a Christian and also rejected evolutionary theory before he died – having been influenced by a Lady Hope who visited him, read the Scriptures to him and prayed with him.

Fifteen years ago, James Moore did a thorough study of the evidence in The Darwin legend2 and identified Lady Hope, but demonstrated that she did not claim his conversion. Indeed, there is no evidence to support this contention or the idea that he rejected evolutionary theory.

Darwin himself claimed to be an agnostic. In his autobiography, he wrote, ‘The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic’. He did acknowledge that there was evidence for intelligent design. In the same book he wrote:

‘Another source of conviction in the existence of God – connected with the reason and not the feelings – impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capability of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as a result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to look at a first cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a theist’.

He apparently gave financial support to a South American mission (in recognition of their humanitarian work) and had a close relationship with the vicar of his home village of Downe.

It is probably true to say that his followers, such as Huxley and Haeckel (not to mention the modern Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones), were more keen to use evolution and natural selection to bolster their atheism than was Darwin.

But, sadly, his theory gave him confidence that the origin of the biosphere did not require a Creator – and he had to wait till he departed this life on 19 April 1882, following a heart attack, to discover his error. It is ironic, to say the least, that he was buried in Westminster Abbey!

J. H. John Peet

 

References

 

1. Graham Lawton, ‘Why Darwin was wrong about the Tree of Life’, New Scientist, 2009, 2692 (21 January), 34-39.

2. James Moore, The Darwin legend (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1994).

 

General background

 

John van Wyhe, ‘Darwin vs. God?’, BBC History Magazine, 2009, 10 (1) 26-31.

J. H. John Peet