ON CHARLES DARWIN
While evolutionary teachings are widespread and are highly favored in today’s modern world, Charles Darwin, whose name was so popularly attached to the evolutionary concept, continues to share the concept’s fame. Examining the man’s life, though, would lead us remarkably into questioning the theories and views that now many have blindly followed and claimed to have refined.
Born on February 12, 1809 and having breathed his last on April 19, 1882, Charles Darwin has left his generation both with praise and criticism for his most known and most controversial work, “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1859. This work laid the foundations of modern evolutionary thought through the concept he called “natural selection.”
Most write-ups would speak of Darwin in relation to his concepts on naturalism, concentrating on the very work he did as believed to be a worthy contribution to modern science. Much has been neglected though, especially without the analysis of the struggle that he has experienced since childhood.
In his autobiography, Darwin wrote about himself beginning from his childhood years, and said he believed that he “was in many ways a naughty boy.”[i] He was only a little over than eight years old when he was left without a mother by death. Scarce was his recollection of his mother, hence only a little can be deduced of his life from his relationship with her. Often he made mention of his sisters and his father in the autobiography, and much about how his father counseled him especially in his educational pursuits. Darwin, however, has grown to be passionate about the things of nature, and was deeply involved in pleasure-seeking by hunting before he ever was serious about his study on natural selection.
A pause at the moment might help us gain a sufficient momentum for reviewing his inner life. Charles was “baptized” as a baby into the Anglican Church by the choice of his father, but as a boy he was attending the Unitarian chapel with his mother and siblings. Of his personal faith, Darwin mentioned in his autobiography that as a school-boy in the Anglican Shrewsbury School, where he was boarding, he still often paid short visits to their home after class. For at least once, he ran back to the school before the gate locked up for the night, and when in doubt if he should arrive before the time, he said,
“I prayed earnestly to God to help me, and I well remember that I attributed my success to the prayers and not to my quick running, and marveled how generally I was aided.”[ii]
To think that the man Darwin, who had laid out a concept of origins that excluded God, the supernatural, from the beginning, would even mention God in his life story in childhood! And to think that he prayed to God, believed, and declared to have even been answered of Him!
It is a great wonder then that this aspect is not much, if not never at all, talked about in many accounts of Darwin’s life and works. Truly, there was a struggle in Darwin’s mind before he ever entered into finally putting down observations from nature for the purpose of deducing a theory that will eventually exclude God at the outset.
Of his boyhood at school, Darwin has confessed that his preference was not with the classical subjects of his day, which focused on a little ancient geography and history. Expressing his attitude towards schooling, he said, “The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.”[iii] This he might have only said because of the way learning was handled in his time and at his school, for he has also expressed delight and interest when taught by a private tutor on Euclidean geometry, or after having read a book such as Shakespeare by himself, or when having experimented on chemistry in a laboratory with his brother, or most especially when making collections of minerals and insects.
In those earlier years of school life, Darwin was doing no good, and so his father sent him to Edinburgh University with his brother, who was finishing his medical studies, while he was to enter yet to it. His brother left the university a year after they were together there, and in his second year, Darwin was alone and he considered it a bounty to have expanded his opportunities of getting acquainted with several young men fond of natural science. From this point on, he has been much more interested and absorbed in natural history and the collection of some species. And yet on vacations, he was more into amusements and some books in hand.
By this time, much less has been mentioned about his spirituality. Apparently, the boy Darwin that trusted in prayer and in God has not again come up in his college years. He had probably been absorbed in mere nature and pleasure-seeking, but was not drawn to the Author behind nature. More so, his readings of fiction and poems and books should have influenced his thinking and interests. After having spent two years in Edinburgh, his father perceived that Charles did not like the thought of being a physician, and interestingly enough, proposed that Charles should become a clergyman. To his father, this was probably disciplinary rather than an act to help his son pursue an ambition. Darwin, though, said that he liked the thought of being a country clergyman, without explaining his motivation for such. While yet thinking for a decision whether to agree with his father or not, he read some books on divinity. Soon after, he said,
“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 accepted.”[iv]
The word “then” is very worth noting. This should mean that at that time, Darwin was still considering religion with high regard, but that he has never yet considered it seriously to read and study a personal Bible in faith because later, as it appears, he entertained even the slightest doubt on the “strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible.” He probably assumed the creed to have been based on the Bible, and by persuading himself that their creed must fully be accepted without his personal knowledge of the Truth as it is in the Word, he was most prone to doubt. Add to that the misleading thinking he might have already been perusing from his books on divinity, Darwin was then on the pivotal point of casting down his former, simple and pure childhood faith.
Darwin attended Cambridge University to pursue theology. In this phase of his life, his career seemed to flourish in the scientific realm through the many people – professors, doctors, scientists – that he met. As a theological student though, he seemed uninterested with the common lectures. Again, he was absorbed with naturalism. After graduation, he said that his father’s wish for him to be a clergyman had never been given up, but that it just died a natural death when he joined the voyage of the Beagle as a naturalist. It was on this voyage that he made observations of many species, and related their adaptation to their environment to the differences that can be noted in their features. As in the many historical accounts on Darwin’s life, this part on is the most emphasized, and thus is most known. Since the time Darwin published his observations and the developments of what he deduced, he had met many criticisms as well as praises from diverse groups of people. Anyhow, he managed to pursue marriage after the voyage of the Beagle, and had a “happy” married life, as described in his autobiography. Nevertheless, his own words on the many questions that were then rallied against him, especially on the theological impact of his theories, would be well noted at this point.
On a certain letter, Darwin said,
“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 cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that the cat should play with the mice.”[v]
This statement, written shortly after the publication of the “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, reveals a rather concluding matter. Darwin actually worked on his theory of evolution from a theological premise. His view of God was one that upholds Him as beneficent and omnipotent, but that Darwin could not, in his finite mind, reconcile this with the misery that he could see in the world. Though not intending to undermine the simple childlike faith that he once exercised and experienced, he continued to express this in the same letter:
“On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. 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.”[vi]
Confused is the word for Darwin’s mind, and he died doubting his own theory. Whether on his deathbed he had given up the undoubting faith he once had, or whether he had finally taken the agnostic’s “I don’t care” viewpoint, we do not truly know. Today, though, the impact of his work had been rather fatal to our own faith in and our own understanding of the character of God, but a rejoicing to many of those who would want to be freed of their moral obligations to the Creator.
[i] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin, p.2
[ii] Ibid, p.4
[iii] Ibid, p.4
[iv] Ibid, p.10 (emphasis supplied)
[v] Letter to Asa Gray (22 May 1860); “the Ichneumonidae” has sometimes been altered to “parasitic wasps” in paraphrases of this passage (emphasis supplied)
[vi] Ibid (emphasis supplied)
The first edition of this article was originally submitted as an academic output to a secular university.