Charles Darwin's Faith
In the mid nineteenth century Charles Darwin developed a Theory of Evolution that is recognised as having impacted
human societies across the World - not least in the areas of faith and religious beliefs!
and Religious Beliefs
These diverse impacts on so many aspects of human lives have been so far-reaching that a "Darwinian Revolution"
has been accepted as having taken place. It is not unknown for political or cultural revolutions to take place
but what might not be generally appreciated is that this use of the word "revolution" derives from an early
scientific "revolution"! The revolution in question being the one where Nicolas Copernicus' view that the Earth
revolved around the
Sun, rather than itself being at the fixed centre of God's creation, was published to meet much controversy, in
his work "Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs".
Interestingly, Darwin hesitated about making his theory - which he had crafted into a 'publishable' sketch in the early 1840s - widely known in his own lifetime. His wife was sincerely
religious and he also seems to have feared for his own and his family's perceived respectability if he made his potentially massively controversial evolutionary views public. It was
almost completely as a result of another "evolutionary" theorist named Alfred Russel Wallace writing to Charles Darwin in 1858,
seeking his aid in bringing his own, independently arrived at and virtually identical, evolutionary theorising to
the attention of Sir Charles Lyell, who was a particularly prominent scientist, that led to Darwin agreeing to
make his own ideas known.
Several days after Darwin had received this communication from Wallace he wrote to Sir Charles Lyell:-
As I had not intended to publish my sketch1, can I do so honourably, because
Wallace has sent me an outline of
his doctrine? I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any other man should think that I
behaved in a paltry spirit. Do you not think that that his having sent me this
sketch ties my hands? I do not in least believe that that he originated his views from anything
which I wrote to him.
In the event, Darwin, in consultation with Sir
Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker, agreed that there should be
a public joint presentation of his own and Wallace's potentially
dramatically controversial views.
(1 This sketch being a manuscript prepared by Darwin in 1844 and subsequently stored under
a stairs securely wrapped and labeled "only to be opened in the event of my death".)
As a sixteen year old Charles Darwin was encouraged by his patriachal father, a well-regarded and prosperous medical man,
to study medical science with the view of entering the profession. In the event Darwin junior experienced a degree of
distress at the sufferings of patients undergoing medical procedures in these times before the availability of
reliable anaesthetics and this distress contributed to him withdrawing from his medical studies.
His father then encouraged him to consider another gentlemanly profession - that of clergyman - and, after
some consideration, Darwin agreed - his Autobiography contains a brief passage describing his approach to faith
and his religious beliefs at
this time in his life:-
...I asked for some time to consider, as from what little I
had heard and thought on the subject I had scruples about
declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England;
though otherwise I liked the thought of becoming a country
clergyman. Accordingly I read with great care Pearson on the
Creeds and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then
in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in
the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully
Charles Darwin's medical course had been based in Edinburgh and whilst there Darwin seemed to show more real enthusiasm for
private studies in Natural History than for his medical studies.
Although he did subsequently qualify with a degree from Christ's College, Cambridge, that would have
helped to qualify
him for entry upon a life lived as a clergyman Darwin's passion for Natural History continued during his Cambridge years
and led to his developing friendships with a Professor of Botany named John Stevens Henslow and with a Professor of
Geology named Adam Sedgwick. Both Henslow and Sedgwick were impressed by Darwin's enthusiasm and abilities as
an amateur naturalist and Henslow's contacts led to Darwin being offered a position as naturalist on a Royal
Naval ship that was to sail on a long term voyage to the coasts of South America and beyond.
Despite paternal opposition Darwin won the support of his maternal uncle, the rich pottery magnate Josiah
Wedgwood II - for whose opinions the elder Darwin had a great deal of respect, such that the younger Darwin,
whilst never formally abandoning what would presumably have been a respectable career as a clergyman, soon
found his feet on the timber decking of HMS Beagle on the way to South America.
It happened that, in the salty atmosphere on board ship, Darwin began to lose his earlier faith as this
selection from his Autobiography, which considers faith related aspects of Darwin's life during the latter part of
his voyaging on the HMS Beagle and the early months of his life as subsequently resumed in England, relates:-
During these two years (i.e. October 1836 to January 1839) I was led to think much
about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite
orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the
officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an
unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the
novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by
this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false
history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign,
etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a
revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of
the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian...
The skeptical Charles Darwin, then twenty-nine years of age, proposed to his sincerely Christian first cousin
Emma Wedgwood in the summer of 1838 and she accepted him as a good-hearted
and companionable man with whom she hoped to be happy.
As Emma Darwin wrote to an aunt in November 1838:-
I must now tell you what I think of him, first premising that Eliz. thinks pretty nearly the same, as my opinion may not
go for much with you. He is the most open,
transparent man I ever saw, and every word expresses his real thoughts. He is particularly affectionate and very nice
to his father and sisters, and perfectly
sweet tempered, and possesses some minor qualities that add particularly to one's happiness,
such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals.
We shall live in London, where he is fully occupied with being Secretary to the Geological Society and
conducting a publication2 upon
the animals of Australia.
(2 The publication Emma's letter refers eventually became Darwin's first best-seller:
The Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle.)
Against his father's advice Darwin did tell Emma a little about his skeptical views prior to their
marriage and this disclosure caused her some distress. She wrote to him a little on this theme in November 1858:-
...When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone
some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important
subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious
doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you
from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you
were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.
It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now do belong to
each other & I cannot help being open with you...
A few days before the ceremony, which
took place in late January 1839, Charles Darwin wrote to Emma Wedgwood:-
...during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these
two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure
was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild deserts or glorious forests, or pacing the
deck of the poor little Beagle at night.— Excuse this much egotism,— I give it you, because,
I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there
is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret
the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you. But I will not be solemn any more,...
In direct reply Emma Wedgewood wrote:-
...You need not fear my own dear Charles that I
shall not be quite as happy as you are & I shall always look upon the event of
the 29th as a most happy one on my part though perhaps not so great or so
good as you do. There is only one subject in the world that ever gives me a moments
uneasiness & I believe I think about that very little when I am with you
& I do hope that though our opinions may not agree upon all points of religion
we may sympathize a good deal in our feelings on the subject. I believe my
chief danger will be that I shall lead so happy comfortable & amusing a life
that I shall be careless & good for nothing & think of nothing serious
in this world or the next. However I won't be solemn either...
shortly thereafter, in early February 1839, the newly married
Mrs. Charles Darwin included the following passage in a letter to her husband:-
...May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your
mind too much in other things which
cannot be proved in the same way, and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension ...
Charles Darwin had grown up in and, despite his own skepticism after returning from his voyages, continued to live in a society that generally accepted biblical
explanations of creation whereby the Earth and all of its unchanging, immutable, life forms were, as they were and
as they ever had been, as a result of Original Acts of Divine Creation.
Against this pervasive cultural background, in a confidential letter of 11 January
1844 to a fellow scientist named Joseph Hooker, Darwin wrote that:-
I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very
foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers,
&c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural
& horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to
opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a
“tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,—but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different
from his—though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species
become exquisitely adapted to various ends.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my
time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.—
Despite the difference in their outlook and religious beliefs Emma Darwin co-operated to some degree, as an editor and critic, in
the preparation of a two hundred and thirty page-long overview of his Transmutation of Species Theory for publication.
Darwin also framed,
in July 1844, an accompanying letter to his
wife asking her to seek the aid of friends to that end and asking her to regard a then substantial sum
as being set aside to fund the project:-
I have just finished my sketch of my species theory. If as I believe that my theory is true & if it be accepted even by one competent judge, it will be
a considerable step in science. I therefore write this, in case of my sudden death, as my most solemn & last request, which I am sure you will
consider the same as if legally entered in my will, that you will devote 400£ to its publication & further will yourself, or through
Hensleigh [Wedgwood], take trouble in promoting it.
As the Darwin's married life continued so also did some divergence of attitude towards matters of faith and religion between them. Darwin's
acceptance of religious beliefs seems to have been further shaken by the untimely death of their well-beloved oldest
child, Annie, at
only ten years of age in 1851. It often happened that, whilst Charles Darwin would travel with his family to church, the skeptical
man of science took himself off for a country walk whilst his wife and children attended church services.
Nevertheless, Emma Darwin was later much involved, as an editor and critic, in the preparation of
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species for publication in 1858-9.
Darwin's decision prepare an abstract (i.e. his On the Origin of Species) of his researches for publication being largely
based on his reluctance to see his own insights scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace!!!
When Emma Wedgwood married her skeptical husband in 1839 he had already had, whether she was aware of it or
not, at least two insights that Darwin regarded as being crucial to his Transmutation theory.
These insights being a " Tree of Life " insight:-
Charles Darwin's Tree of Life sketch
from his Notebook B dating from 1837-8, (and deemed by editors of Darwin's papers to be concerned
with his thoughts about the Transmutation of Species), shows his early -
Tree of Life sketch - theoretical insight of how a genus of related species might
originate by divergence from a starting point (1).
An accompanying text annotation reads:-
Case must be that one generation then should be as many living as now. To do this & to have many
species in same genus (as is) requires extinction.
Thus between A & B immense gap of relation. C & B the finest gradation, B & D rather greater
distinction. Thus genera would be formed. — bearing relation (page 36 ends - page 37 begins)
to ancient types with several extinct forms.
From Darwin's notebook B now stored in Cambridge University library
And a Malthusian " Struggle for Existence " insight-
This key stage in his development of an inherently
persuasive hypothesis about a scenario where there would be a naturally explicable origin of species being Darwin's
reading, late in 1838, of an Essay by the Reverend
To use Charles Darwin's own words from his Autobiography.
"[F]ifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population,
and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits
of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable
ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species.
Thus when Emma Darwin wrote her letter of February 1839 to her new husband he was already well on the way to having
a rounded Theory of the Evolutionary Origin of Species in place in his mind.
Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some
time to write even the briefest sketch of it."
Nevertheless, whether she knew her husband's mind or not, she felt able to begin her letter:-
The state of mind that I wish to preserve with respect to you, is to feel that while you are acting conscientiously
& sincerely wishing, & trying to learn the truth, you cannot be wrong; but there are some reasons that force
themselves upon me & prevent my being always able to give myself this comfort. I dare say you have often thought
of them before, but I will write down what has been in my head, knowing that my own dearest will indulge me. Your
mind & time are full of the most interesting subjects & thoughts of the most absorbing kind, viz following
up yr own discoveries—but which make it very difficult for you to avoid casting out as interruptions other
sorts of thoughts which have no relation to what you are pursuing or to to be able to give your whole attention
to both sides of the question...
...We can only wonder as to how far she knew that despite his personal qualities of being "particularly affectionate
and very nice to his father and sisters, and perfectly sweet tempered, and possesses some minor qualities that add
particularly to one's happiness, such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals", she had also taken on
as life-partner a complex human being who had written these words to her a few days before "I think you will
humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence &
solitude." A complex human being who had also, by his own admission and in his own restrained and gentlemanlike way,
already, according to his later Autobiography speaking of the period October 1836 to January 1839, pretty much closed
his mind against faith and religious beliefs before he was thirty years of age:-
...I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel
sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing
day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts
being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most
striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it
more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince
me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last
complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never
since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.