Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

by Doug Linder (2004)

Charles Darwin understood better than anyone how his theory on the origin of new species threatened prevailing religious beliefs.  He referred to himself as “the Devil’s Chaplain” and complained that publishing the theory felt “like confessing a murder.”  He knew especially well how his ideas troubled his pious wife.  (BB, 388) 

Darwin himself might well have spent his life quoting Genesis rather than studying speciation had it not been for his friendship with a professor of botany at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow.  Two years into his training for the Holy Orders, Darwin fell under the wing of Professor Henslow.  The two men frequently strolled the campus together, prompting dons to call Darwin “the man who walks with Henslow.”  Darwin later recalled that his mentor’s “strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations.”  In 1831, when Henslow received a call from Admiralty asking whom he could recommend as a naturalist on a voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle to map the South American coastline, he identified his favorite pupil.  Darwin’s father at first fought the idea, preferring that his playboy, dog-loving, “rat-catching” son stick on the road to the clergy.  Eventually, however, he relented—perhaps persuaded by the argument of Charles’s uncle, Josiah Wedgwood II, that “the pursuit of natural history, though certainly not professional, is very suitable to a clergyman.” (DB, 466-67)

Darwin’s theory did not, contrary to popular opinion, suddenly pop into his head as he observed differences in the beaks of Galapagos finches.  Darwin’s thoughts on the origins of species developed slowly, and only in 1842—six years after returning to England from his voyage—did the great naturalist put his ideas about evolution onto paper.  Remarkably, after completing a 230-page “sketch” in 1844, Darwin let his revolutionary work gather dust for fourteen years while he raised a family and tended to other scientific studies.  (BB, 383-85) 

A letter from a young naturalist in 1858 finally spurred Darwin to publish his theory.  The letter came from a friend of his, Alfred Russell Wallace.  Wallace laid out a draft of his own ideas on the subject of the origin of species.  Darwin quickly saw that Wallace’s ideas bore a striking resemblance to his own.  “If Wallace had my manuscript sketch,” Darwin wrote, “he could not have made a better short abstract.”  (BB, 386)

Darwin found Wallace’s letter strangely bothersome.  Ideas that he developed only through years of careful and plodding work came to his young friend in a single insightful flash.  It hardly seemed fair.  Nonetheless, Darwin recognized Wallace’s contribution.

On July 1, 1858, Darwin buried his son.  That same day, the theory of evolution was announced to the world—or, more accurately, thirty or so persons at a meeting of the Linnaean Society.  The paper bore the names of both Darwin and Wallace.  Wallace, for his part, generously referred to the theory forever afterwards as “Darwinism.”

The sketches and essays of Darwin and Wallace, which filled seventeen pages of the Linnaean Society’s 1858 journal, in the words of Darwin, “excited very little attention.”  (DB, 469) At the end of the year, Thomas Bell, the president of the Society, noted, “The year which has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize…the department of science on which they bear.”  (DB, 464-65)

Darwin fretted whether his editor, John Murray, might find his ideas too unorthodox to be published.  He asked a scientist-friend whether he should point out that he did not “bring in any discussion about Genesis…and only give facts” or whether it would be wiser to “say nothing to Murray” in the hopes that he will not fully grasp how revolutionary his work truly was.  He needn’t have worried; Murray decided to publish after reading only the chapter titles.  (DB, 474-75)

Darwin’s work on evolution, called Origin of Species, was published in London in November 1859.  His editor, skeptical of the level of interest in such a theory, encouraged him to write next time about another interest of Darwin’s: pigeons.  “Everyone is interested in pigeons,” he assured him.  Despite his editor’s reservations, the first printing of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day, and the book has remained in print ever since.  (BB, 380-81)

Nowhere in the first edition of Origin of Species does the word “evolution” appear.  Instead, Darwin refers to his theory as “descent with modification.”  Only in the sixth edition did Darwin, finally giving into widespread use of the term, substitute the term “evolution” for the phrase he favored.  (BB, 384)

Critics soon began pointing to alleged problems with Darwin’s explanation for the emergence of new species.  First, they argued that the earth was far too young to allow for the gradual evolution of species as Darwin proposed.  By this time, thanks to the work of geologist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and others, scientists unanimously rejected Ussher’s estimate of a 6,000 year-old-earth.  Nonetheless, they generally agreed that the earth must be only tens of millions of years old, not billions.  Lord Kelvin, a widely respected applied mathematician of the day, had calculated that in about 24 million years a body the size of the sun would consume all its available fuel—and, it scarcely needed to be pointed out—the earth could not be older than the sun.  A second difficulty with Darwin’s theory seemed to be the scarce fossil support.  Scientists wondered why, if Darwin was right, there were not hundreds of (“transitional”) fossils representing “missing links” between species.  (BB, 389-90)

Eventually, most scientists—if not laypersons—would see flaws in Kelvin’s calculations and transitional fossils would begin to appear.  (Conveniently, one such fossil was discovered in 1861, just two years after publication of Origin of Species.  It was an archaeopteryx, a creature that sharing features of both dinosaurs (teeth) and birds (feathers).) (BB, 389)  Moreover, there gradually arose an appreciation of how difficult in was to become a fossil.  Over 99.9% of all living things end up as decayed matter, and even the .1% that don’t are unlikely to be fossilized and then discovered.

Another criticism of his theory, however, gave Darwin more difficulty.  Critics saw little chance that complicated organs such as the eye could have emerged gradually.  They must, it was believed, be the work of an intelligent designer.  Even Darwin admitted doubts.  He wrote, “It seems, I freely confess, absurd to the highest possible degree” that natural selection could produce such organs gradually.  (BB, 390)  (Decades later, evolutionary biologists would take up the challenge, and would attempt to trace the evolution of the eye.  They would point out, for example, that the human eye shares many “quirky vestiges of extinct ancestors, such as a retina that appears to have been installed backwards.”)  (SP,51)

The first skirmish in the war by religious leaders on the theory of evolution occurred at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford on June 30, 1860.  Darwin did not attend, but naturalist Thomas H. Huxley, an outspoken champion of Darwin’s ideas (and the inventor of the word “agnostic”), did.  The program got off to a contentious start when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce turned to Huxley and insisted that he state whether his relationship to apes came by way of his mother’s or his father’s side of the family.  Huxley rose in anger to proclaim he would rather claim the ancestry of an ape than that of someone who used his position to push religious nonsense in what should be a serious scientific forum.  While emotions roiled, Robert FitzRoy, Darwin’s former ship captain on the Beagle, roamed the halls, holding up a Bible and shouting to all within range, “The Book! The Book!”  Each side left the meeting claiming victory, much as sides would in Dayton sixty-five years later (BB, 393-94; DB, 476)

Over time, the theory propounded by Darwin and Wallace became increasingly viewed as Darwin’s alone.  Wallace’s interests veered off towards socialism, women’s rights, extra-terrestrials, and communication with the dead. (BB, 387-88)  Most significantly, Wallace began to back off from the implications of his own theory.   He concluded that the mind could not be a product of evolution, and could only be the design of a superior intelligence.  He rejected the idea that man was subject to “the blind control of a deterministic world.”  (SP, 28)  Darwin expressed some misgivings about Wallace’s new spiritualism.  In a letter to his old friend he wrote, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your and my own child.”  (DB, 472)

In Origin of Species, Darwin kept his focus on explaining how new species emerged over time.  He carefully avoided any discussion of the origin of humans.  In 1871, however, Darwin made the connections between apes and humans explicit when, in 1871, he published his second great work on evolution, The Descent of Man.  Darwin argued that his theory could account for the emergence of a species capable of self-conscious thought.  To his critics, Darwin robbed man of his special place in the universe—and they saw the implications as profoundly troubling.  Man was the product of too much randomness—our chances of being on this planet remote in the extreme.  If the universe were replayed a billion times, in none of those replays would humans likely have emerged.  A single break anywhere on the long chain that led to us—and there have been several periods of mass extinctions—and there would have been no human history.

Darwin never doubted that the human brain evolved from the brains of extinct species.  If Darwin is right then, by implication, evolution might also explain morality.  He saw in animals the types of empathy that underlie moral systems.  (R&L, 41) He saw the mind as the accidental outcome of random variations over time.  Man’s “wonderful advancement,” according to Darwin, “largely depended” on the evolution of “articulate language,” not on any special programming added by a watchful creator.  (R&L, 42)

Darwin’s view left no place for God--or so it seemed to those who would take up the fight against evolution.  Morality, his religious critics would maintain, had to have a transcendent source or all was lost.  (SP, 52)  Not only would Darwin’s naturalizing of the mind attract the fire of Fundamentalists, but also many other religious leaders who accepted other aspects of his theory.  For example, the Pope in 1996 acknowledged that evolution was “more than just an hypothesis,” but he insisted that evolution could not account for “the spiritual soul.”  The spirit, he stated, could not develop “from forces of living matter.”  Any theory that contends otherwise is not compatible “with the dignity of the person.”  (SP, 186-87)

Shortly before Darwin died in 1882 and was buried in Westminister Abbey (next to Isaac Newton), he was visited by a young American studying in England, Henry Fairfield Osborn.  Osborn would become, by the time of the Scopes trial, the nation’s leading paleontologist and expert on evolutionary biology.  John Scopes traveled to see Osborn at the American Museum of History in New York when he visited the city to meet with ACLU officials coordinating his trial work.  Osborn told Scopes of his earlier meeting with Darwin and said, “I was greatly inspired.  Now you young men can see me, and I hope you’ll be equally inspired!”  (GMT, 94)  Osborn told Scopes that his wife’s illness would prevent him from traveling to Dayton for the trial, but he promised to secure a letter of support from Leonard Darwin, the great naturalist’s son and president of the Eugenics Education Society.

Osborn was true to his word, and Leonard Darwin sent his note of encouragement to John Scopes.  Darwin congratulated Scopes on his “courageous effort to maintain the right to teach well established scientific theories.”  Darwin told Scopes, “To state that which is true can not be irreligious.”  He ended the letter with the words, “May the son of Charles Darwin send you in his own name one word of warm encouragement.”  (GMT, 94-95)


When all the battles were concluded in the Rhea Country Courthouse, as the Scopes trial ends on July 21, 1925, Judge John Raulston makes his concluding remarks.  Raulston tells those in his hot, crowded courtroom that “there are two things in this world that are indestructible.” “One is truth,” he intones, and the other is “the Word of God.”  Left unsaid is his implication that there can be no conflict between these two indestructible things.  The last exchange comes between Arthur Garfield Hays and the judge. When the applause ends for Raulston’s final speech, defense attorney Arthur Garfield Hays speaks up:  “May I, as one of the counsel for the defense, ask your honor to allow me to send you the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man by Charles Darwin?”  Raulston, in a charitable mood, replies, “Yes, yes.”  There is laughter and applause.  A train whistle blows outside the courthouse, Brother Jones gives a benediction, and the judge raps his gavel and announces, “The court will adjourn sine die.”  (T, 38-319)