A Dog and the Mind of Newton

It’s bad enough to see basic scientific misinformation about evolution getting tossed around these days. USA Today apparently has no qualms about publishing an op-ed by a state senator from Utah (who wants to have students be taught about something called “divine design”) claiming there is no empirical evidence in the fossil evidence that humans evolved from apes. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with the twenty or so species of hominids that existed over the past six million years. Perhaps just file them away under “divine false starts.”

But history takes a hit as well as science. Creationists try whenever they can to claim that Darwin was directly responsible for Hitler. The reality is that Hitler and some other like-minded thinkers in the early twentieth century had a warped view of evolution that bore little resemblance to what Darwin wrote, and even less to what biologists today understand about evolution. The fact that someone claims that a scientific theory justifies a political ideology does not support or weaken the scientific theory. It’s irrelevant. Nazis also embraced Newton’s theory of gravity, which they used to rain V-2 rockets on England. Does that mean Newton was a Nazi, or that his theory is therefore wrong?

Creationists are by no means the only people who are getting history wrong these days. Yesterday in Slate, Jacob Weisberg wrote an essay in which he claimed that evolution and religion are incompatible. He claims to find support for his argument in Darwin’s own life.

That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument. It destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries and was immediately recognized as a huge threat by his reverent contemporaries.

I get the feeling that Weisberg has yet to read either of the two excellent modern biographies of Darwin, one by Janet Browne and the other by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I hope he does soon. Darwin’s life as he actually lived it does not boil down to the sort of shorthands that people like Weisberg toss around.

Darwin wrestled with his spirituality for most of his adult life. When he boarded the Beagle at age 22 and began his voyage around the world, he was a devout Anglican and a parson in the making. As he studied the slow work of geology in South America, he began to doubt the literal truth of the Old Testament. And as he matured as a scientist on the journey, he grew skeptical of miracles. Nevertheless, Darwin still attended the weekly services held on the Beagle. On shore he sought churches whenever he could find them. While in South Africa, Darwin and FitzRoy wrote a letter together in which they praised the role of Christian missions in the Pacific. When Darwin returned to England, he was no longer a parson in the making, but he certainly was no atheist.

In the notebooks Darwin began keeping on his return, he explored every implication of evolution by natural selection, no matter how heretical. If eyes and wings could evolve without help from a designer, then why couldn’t behavior? And wasn’t religion just another type of behavior? All societies had some type of religion, and their similarities were often striking. Perhaps religion had evolved in our ancestors. As a definition of religion, Darwin jotted down, “Belief allied to instinct.”

Yet these were little more than thought experiments, a few speculations that distracted Darwin every now and then from his main work: of discovering how evolution could produce the natural world. Darwin did experience an intense spiritual crisis during those years, but science was not the cause.

At age 39, Darwin watched his father Robert slowly die over the course of months. His father had confided his private doubts about religion to Darwin, and he wondered what those doubts would mean to Robert in the afterlife. At the time Darwin happened to be reading a book by Coleridge called Friend and Aids to Reflection, about the nature of Christianity. Nonbelievers, Coleridge declared, should be left to suffer the wrath of God.

Robert Darwin died in November, 1848. Throughout Charles’s life, his father had shown him unfailing love, financial support, and practical advice. And now was Darwin supposed to believe that his father was going to be cast into eternal suffering in hell? If that were so, then many other nonbelievers, including Darwin’s brother Erasmus and many of his best friends, would follow him as well. If that was the essence of Christianity, Darwin wondered why anyone would want such a cruel doctrine to be true.

Shortly after his father’s death, Darwin’s health turned for the worse. He vomited frequently and his bowels filled with gas. He turned to hydropathy, a Victorian medical fashion in which a patient is given cold showers, steam baths, and wrappings in wet sheets. He would be scrubbed until he looked “very like a lobster,” he wrote to his wife Emma. His health improved, and his sprits rose even more when Emma discovered that she was pregnant again. In November 1850 she gave birth to their eighth child, Leonard. But within a few months death would return to Down House.

In 1849 three of the Darwin girls, Henrietta, Elizabeth, and Anne suffered bouts of scarlet fever. While Henrietta and Elizabeth recovered, nine-year old Anne remained weak. She was Darwin’s favorite, always throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him. Through 1850 Anne’s health still did not rebound. She would vomit sometimes, making Darwin worry that “she inherits I fear with grief, my wretched digestion.” The heredity that Darwin saw shaping all of nature was now claiming his own daughter.

In the spring 1851 Anne came down with the flu, and Darwin decided to take her to Malvern, the town where he had gotten his own water-cure. He left her there with the family nurse and his doctor. But soon after, she developed a fever and Darwin rushed back to Malvern alone. Emma could not come because she was pregnant again and just a few weeks away from giving birth to a ninth child.

When Darwin arrived in Anne’s room in Malvern, he collapsed on a couch. The sight of his ill daughter was awful enough, but the camphor and ammonia in the air reminded him of his nightmarish medical school days in Edinburgh, when he watched children operated on without anesthesia. For a week–Easter week, no less–he watched her fail, vomiting green fluids. He wrote agonizing letters to Emma. “Sometimes Dr. G. exclaims she will get through the struggle; then, I see, he doubts.–Oh my own it is very bitter indeed.”

Anne died on April 23, 1851. “God bless her,” Charles wrote to Emma. “We must be more & more to each other my dear wife.”

When Darwin’s father had died, he had felt a numb absence. Now, when he came back to Down House, he mourned in a different way: with a bitter, rageful, Job-like grief. “We have lost the joy of our household, and the solace of our old age,” he wrote. He called Anne a “little angel,” but the words gave him no comfort. He could no longer believe that Anne’s soul was in heaven, that her soul had survived beyond her unjustifiable death.

It was then, 13 years after Darwin discovered natural selection, that he gave up Christianity. Many years later, when he put together an autobiographical essay for his grandchildren, he wrote, “I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

Darwin did not trumpet his agnosticism. Only by poring over his private autobiography and his letters have scholars been able to piece together the nature of his faith after Anne’s death. Darwin wrote a letter of endorsement, for example, to an American magazine called the Index, which championed what it called “Free Religion,” a humanistic spirituality in which the magazine claimed “lies the only hope of the spiritual perfection of the individual and the spiritual unity of the race.”

Yet when the Index asked Darwin to write a paper for them, he declined. “I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough [about religion] to justify any publicity,” he wrote to them. He knew that he was no longer a traditional Christian, but he had not sorted out his spiritual views. In an 1860 letter to Asa Gray—a Harvard botanist, the leading promoter of Darwin in America, and an evangelical Christian–he wrote, “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. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.”

In private Darwin complained about social Darwinism, which was being used to justify laissez-faire capitalism. In a letter to the geologist Charles Lyell, he wrote sarcastically, “I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good quib, showing that I have proved ‘might is right’ and therefore that Napoleon is right, and every cheating tradesman is also right.” But Darwin decided not to write his own spiritual manifesto. He was too private a man for that.

Despite his silence, Darwin was often pestered in his later years for his thoughts on religion. “Half the fools throughout Europe write to ask me the stupidest questions,” he groused. The inquiring letters not only tracked him down to Down House but reached deep into his most private anguish. To strangers, his responses were much briefer than the one he had sent to Gray. To one correspondent, he simply said that when he had written the Origin of Species, his own beliefs were as strong as a prelate’s. To another, he wrote that a person could undoubtedly be “an ardent theist and an evolutionist,” and pointed to Asa Gray as an example.

Yet to the end of his life, Darwin never published anything about religion. Other scientists might declare that evolution and Christianity were perfectly in harmony, and others such as Thomas Huxley might taunt bishops with agnosticism. But Darwin would not be drawn out. What he actually believed or didn’t, he said, was of “no consequence to any one but myself.”

Darwin and and his wife Emma rarely spoke about his faith after Anne’s death, but he came to rely on her more with every passing year, both to nurse him through his illnesses and to keep his spirits up. At age 71, a few weeks before his death, he looked over the letter she had written to him just after they married. At the time she was beginning to become worried about his faith and urged him to remember what Jesus had done for him. On the bottom he wrote, “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this.”

It is a disservice to Darwin, and to history, to turn his tortured, complex life into a talking point in a culture war.

(Much of this post is adapted from the last chapter of my book, Evolution.)

0 thoughts on “A Dog and the Mind of Newton

  1. I was already planning on making your book my next stop. Reading this article, then, makes it impossible for it NOT to be. As one who found himself an atheist, not just an agnostic, I think I’m qualified to intensely feel some of Darwin’s pain as you have described it. Let me go see if I can remove this lump from my throat.

  2. I have often thought that the hostility to Darwin would abate if people knew something about his human qualities. Doubtlessly he had his faults, but over the years of reading his writings and both of the biographies you cited, I’ve come to admire him as a kind and decent man as well as a great scientist. It is grotesquely unfair to associate his memory with Hitler and other historical monsters.

  3. This shameless display of brown-nosing is disgraceful. I’ve read Carl’s book Evolution, cover to cover and I can honestly praise Carl for his writing. He displays creativity and imagination as he makes the subject come alive.

    That being said, it would be ridiculous for anyone to make the decision or proclamation that they will obtain and read the book based on its biography of Darwin. If Darwin is what interests you, follow Carl’s advice and examine the bigraphies he mentions.

    My main criticism of his books (I’ve also read At the Water’s Edge)is that they are written from a very authoritative point of view. If there is any doubt about any of the topics they are well hidden. This contradicts the scientists whose research he is reporting. The logical errors Mr Zimmer commits are generally along this scenario:

    It is hypothesized that A = B then later:
    Since A = B then C seems possible and again:
    Since we know C is true we may assert D

    Notice how A = B was elevated to fact. Then even though C wasn’t proven either, it was also elevated to fact, in providing a foundation for D

    I can’t spell out a specific example since the books were from the library. However, I doubt that anyone is surprised by my claim since its just a common trait of good writing. Its just something to keep n mind when reading Mr. Zimmer’s or any good author’s writings.

  4. Doug, I actually will be looking for his book; and I will be pleased to see it looking back–the cover is full of eyes.

    I find books this way, from discussions, recommendations. I’ve read about Darwin, but I’m interested in Zimmer’s book because I agree with and enjoyed his post here.

  5. Steven, I can only speak for this brown-noser. As I said in the first post of this thread, I was “already going to make your book my next stop”. I was HIGHLY touched, by his description of Darwin’s religious pains. Therefore, it sealed the deal for me. I may eventually get to some of the recommendations of books on Darwin. I still haven’t made it through all of Darwin’s books! Anyway, this is pretty funny… I bought Karl’s book today… sort of. For the first time in my life I bought a book on tape or, in this case, CD. I got it from Barnes and Noble. I’ve always wanted to have something interesting in the car so his book just happens to be my first such. Anyway, I’m finished sucking up. I haven’t received a single brownie point.

  6. But isn’t Gould going a bit far to suggest that Darwin knew how radically anti-God his philosophy was? After all, wasn’t he a kindly, doddery naturalist who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, who was persuaded by what he saw in the Galápagos?

    Wrong on all counts. If what follows sounds too revisionist, remember that Gould (an undisputed intellectual giant who has made a very careful study) is not alone in his conclusions, and has had access to unpublished notebooks of Darwin from when Darwin was a young man. It appears that:

    for the full link “Darwin’s Real Message”

  7. Excellent post. I would second Carl’s recommendations on the excellent biographies of Darwin, especially Janet Browne’s (one of the best accounts I have ever read of anyone’s life).

    So what if Stalin, Hitler or any other mass murderer claimed to be inspired by Darwin’s work? (Stalin was actually more of a Lamarckian, but that’s beside the point.) Wishful, ad hominem attacks on individuals engaging in the naturalistic fallacy with an appeal to consequences thrown in — how many fallacies can you fit into one argument?

  8. Howdy,
    Just wanted to apologize for the “shameless brown-nosing” comment. I must have been in a particularly argumentative mood. It wasn’t meant nearly as strong or insulting as it appears. Sometimes I forget that emotion isn’t always accurately conveyed in this medium. Please accept my apology.

  9. This is a wonderful and well written post, Carl. I read Evolution and enjoyed it. I also read and enjoyed Dan Dennett’s, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett says that evolution is a “universal acid”, eating through everything we believe and are taught and all the ways we look at the world. Evolution is a powerful set of ideas which is much more powerful since the discovery of DNA and the sequencing of numerous genomes. However, I don’t find it incompatible with a belief in one or many Gods. Weisberg’s essay is simplistic and superficial, Dennett is neither, but I think that he, Dennett, overstates the destructive effects of evolutionary ideas and goes way over the top on memes, a concept which turns out to be very elusive and more difficult than Dawkins ever imagined. Certain aspects of culture are infectious, maybe pornography is a good example, but it’s wrong to say that memes are the essence of human culture, or that non-humans have no culture. Maybe memes contribute to those pesky why questions- why do humans exist? Why there a universe? Do I have some special purpose or destiny etc?
    I like your portrait of Darwin’s neurotic complexities. I see a lot of similarity there with William James. Many writers (for example, *Huston Smith in Why Religion Matters-“science can save scientists, for the thrill of discovery and the sense that one works on important things is deeply fulfilling”.) have pointed out that Science need not destroy God for scientists- the more that we learn about the complexities of life and the universe, the easier it is to be amazed and thrilled, the harder to be blasé. However the 99% of non-scientist humans rarely glimpse that complexity and wonder, especially not in high school textbooks. That’s why we need popularizers like you and Jared Diamond (note the attacks on Diamond by fundamentalist Marxists of SavageMinds.org) – of course you oversimplify and of course others can see things from a different perspective, but you do good work and can be proud.

  10. To David’s comments and supporting websites which reveal where he’s coming from – A person can find evidence to support any cruel thing they want to do in the writings and teachings of great minds. Great thinkers who had no intention of others using their thoughts to justify death and destruction. I give you the death and destruction reigned down by Crusaders, Conquistadors and Presidents in the name of Jesus Christ. I have read Jesus. There is nothing in his teaching that would LOGICALLY lead one to the extremes that these, and many others, have gone in his name. Darwin makes no “call to action”. He has given an explanation of why all life on earth is as it is today, and why other life, abundant and dominant, has disappeared entirely. There is nothing in his writing that encourages on any level, any action. Let alone destructive action.

  11. Yeah, yeah, I read your book (and I’m happy that hyou didn’t repaint for us here the picture of a man (any man) insanely begging god for help in his torment). I apreciate your writing of the article as it was wonderfully written, lucid and informative as always. But d’you realize that your initial thoughts on contradicting Weisberg with Darwin’s bio don’t actually make sense?

    The facts clearly are that Weisberg is right regarding what he said and no true historical reading of Darwin – even based only in the few points that you’ve shared here – contradicts him. Not in a strictly literal reading of his sentence anyway.

    Aswell you have to admit that “skeptic” types are generally guilty of the same sin as the creationists are. Dawkins and others are full of blame for religion as it relates to various conflicts throughout history – conflicts and murders that Stalin, Mao… pulled off without recourse to religion.

    The truth of the matter of course is that humans will be humans and they’ll kill, main and torture – and then pin their sickly acts on some higher ideal, patriotic, religious, financial, moral – or scientific.

    So far as Hitler’s rationale was concerned though I’d say that at least some of his ideas and plans were based in very good Darwinian science. Natural selection didn’t end with the disappearance of homo-neanderthalensis you know.

    So yes, morally Darwinian science is repugnant – and Hitler rejected those Islamo-Christian morals.


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