Happy Birthday, Darwin! Jane R. Shoup

By Jane R. Shoup

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true.”–Charles Darwin

Several years ago author Christopher Hitchens commented, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” How much better the world might be were this axiom more frequently practiced! Acquiring evidence to support hypotheses is the province of science, and science is under orchestrated attack today by religious dogmatists. The life and monumental work of Charles Darwin provides an unparalleled example of science in action. Darwin’s journey included initial unquestioned acceptance of the prevailing assertions of 19th-century creationist doctrine, his increasing doubt in those verities, and finally his dismissal of the biblical explanation based on exhaustive scientific evidence and reason to reveal the truth–that is, his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection.

It was on Feb. 12, 1809–199 years ago–that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Both were to become Great Emancipators: Lincoln to free American slaves from physical servitude, and Darwin to liberate the human mind from the bonds of supernatural dogma. Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. His parents were the well-known and respected physician Robert Darwin, and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin of the prominent Wedgwood family, world-famous as the makers of fine china. Charles’ grandfather was the imposing and unconventional Erasmus Darwin, physician and philosopher of the late 18th century.


Jane R. Shoup

On both sides it was a prosperous, well-educated, upper middle-class, largely Unitarian family, believing in the unity of God but skeptical of Trinitarian doctrine. Charles’ mother died when he was eight years old, so he was brought up predominantly by his older sisters who exerted a loving, humane, sensitive influence on him.

Darwin’s childhood was otherwise unremarkable. He thoroughly enjoyed outdoor pursuits, especially hunting and collecting wildlife specimens, but showed no signs of genius or future greatness. In fact, his father, the corpulent Dr. Darwin, is reported to have once said, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!” How ironic that young Charles would go on to deduce what can arguably be acknowledged as the most important contribution ever to science.

Robert dreamed of Charles carrying on the medical tradition, so Charles dutifully went off to Edinburgh to study medicine. Within a few months, young Charles realized that he was quite unsuited in disposition and personality to this profession. Eventually, the elder Darwin suggested his son change his career objective to theology, an appropriate vocation for a person of his social status. This was agreeable enough to young Charles, who, in his words, “did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible.”

So Charles Darwin transferred to Cambridge in 1828 where he completed a degree in theology. He read and was greatly influenced by the late 18th-century theologian William Paley, patron saint of today’s creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. Paley’s 1802 book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, proposed that “[in nature] the marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person must have been God.” In his Autobiography Darwin wrote, “I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s. I could almost . . . have said it by heart.” (Paley’s seemingly plausible argument is vividly laid out and then artfully refuted by the eminent biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1986 book, The Blind Watchmaker, a metaphor for the undirected, ratcheting effect of non-random natural selection over eons of time. It is a good read and a primer on how science works.)

During his Cambridge years, Darwin became close friends with several influential faculty members, notably botanist Rev. John Henslow, a strong proponent of natural theology, and geologist Adam Sedgwick, who was a catastrophist, believing in biblical interpretations and that catastrophic events like Noah’s flood were responsible for the earth’s current appearance. The prevailing intellectual view at Cambridge and elsewhere embodied the concept of natural theology: the study of nature as an act of religious devotion.

Darwin graduated prepared for a quiet, respectable, parish clergy position. Fortuitously, his botany professor, Henslow, recommended young Charles for a position as “gentleman naturalist” and dining companion to Capt. Robert Fitzroy, commander of the HMS Beagle, about to embark on a hydrographic survey trip exploring the coasts of South America. The chosen man was required to be of Capt. Fitzroy’s approximate age and social class. Darwin jumped at the opportunity and, despite initial family opposition, joined the entourage and set sail on the Beagle in 1831.

Darwin began his voyage on the Beagle as a believer in the biblical account in Genesis, and an unquestioning Christian. As the late biologist Garrett Hardin has commented, “Most long-surviving religions call for a commitment that discourages the asking of questions.” Like virtually all of his contemporaries, Darwin was a creationist, believing that the exquisite adaptations of many species were compelling evidence that a “designer had created each species for its intended place in the economy of nature”–an idea often called “the fixity of species.”

Darwin carried with him aboard ship a copy of the first volume of young Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830), which challenged the catastrophism of Darwin’s geology professor, Sedgwick, and posited instead the principle of uniformitarianism: The idea that geological changes currently at work, such as mountain building and erosion, are the same as processes that have taken place throughout the earth’s vast history. Lyell’s ideas suggested a much older earth than accepted at the time. Darwin’s friend from Cambridge, the deeply religious botanist Henslow, had warned him against the heresies of Lyell’s ideas, especially on the age of the earth.

The Beagle set sail from Plymouth, England, on Dec. 27, 1831, a date that Darwin vowed to commemorate as the birthday of his “second life.” She crossed the Atlantic and traveled up and down both coasts of South America, west to the Galapagos Archipelago, across the Pacific to Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and eventually, in 1836, returned to England. The voyage, envisioned to be completed in two years, extended to nearly five. Conditions were miserably cramped; Darwin was tormented by continuing seasickness. Capt. Fitzroy was an intense, authoritarian and puritanical aristocrat, prone to alternating periods of depression and passionate outbursts of temper.

Despite hardships, the voyage awakened in Darwin his innate scientific instincts. He kept copious notes. He was cautious, compulsively industrious, and exacting in his work. According to his son, Francis, “Doggedness expresses his frame of mind . . . his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself.”

For five years in exotic lands, Darwin explored coral reefs and river beds; hiked Argentinian pampas and climbed Andean mountains; experienced volcanic eruptions and a Chilean earthquake; recorded stratifications of rocks and soils; examined the earth with lens, compass, and penknife; discovered fossils of conifers, shellfish, and mastodons; collected flowers, birds, insects, and reptiles. He observed distributions of organisms that did not make sense unless some scientific laws were governing their past history. He saw evidence of extinction when he unearthed the bones of fossilized mammals in Patagonia. He found fossil seashells more than 1,000 feet above sea-level in the Andes mountains, evidence that ocean floors had been uplifted in the remote geological past. He saw remarkable adaptations of plants and animals to their surroundings.

Traveling northwest from the Chilean coast, the Beagle reached the Galapagos Archipelago in 1835, the place credited as the site of Darwin’s most crucial observations. The Galapagos Islands were formed by volcanic eruption in the comparatively recent geological past (about two million years ago). Darwin realized that this phenomenon must have presented life with the opportunity for a new beginning. He wrote, “Hence both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact, that mystery of mysteries, the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

He reasoned that novel Galapagos species must have originated as accidental colonists from Central and South America, only to modify their adaptations in subsequent generations in response to the differing environments on the islands. He at last began to recognize the critical importance of immense amounts of geological time in the accumulation of tiny changes that eventually lead to the appearance of new species.

When Darwin returned to England in 1836, he was already famous. His letters to his teacher, Henslow, had been privately published without his knowledge and distributed to leading naturalists in Britain. But Darwin returned a changed man. As Elof Carlson, distinguished geneticist and historian of science, has put it, “[He] returned with a secret he could not share. He had lost his faith. He had demoted himself to a Deist, that Unitarian-like penultimate descent to atheism.”

Darwin lived several years in London, where he consulted with experts, attended scientific meetings, published his Journal, and continued to identify and catalog the specimens he had collected on the voyage. He married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, in 1839. They settled at a comfortable country estate in the small village of Down about 20 miles from London. Most of the Wedgwoods and Darwins were Unitarians, but none was particularly devout. In fact, Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus, had once described Unitarianism as “a featherbed to catch a falling Christian.”

But Charles’ new wife, Emma, was a devout Christian. Although his father had urged him not to share his religious doubts with Emma, Charles nevertheless confided in her from the start of their marriage. Still, he respected her sentiments and let her set the tone for their domestic life. Only in his Autobiography did Darwin express his religious opinions freely. Emma was the model Victorian wife, devoting her life to caring for her husband and producing children (ten of them) at respectable intervals; all were baptized and confirmed in the Church of England.

At their estate in Down, Charles worked in comparative isolation and relative comfort, surrounded by his devoted family. He spent the next 20 years patiently sorting out all of the data he had collected on the voyage of the Beagle, and using it to construct a unifying theory to explain the evolution (or “transmutation”) of species. Designing experiments to test his hypotheses, he examined breeds of ornamental pigeons, skeletons of rabbits, wings of ducks, and variations of 10,000 specimens of barnacles. He studied the viability and dispersal of seeds, kept notebooks on “transmutation,” and discussed the “species problem” with close friends, before he finally dared to begin writing his great book on natural selection. Darwin understood the strength of conventional scientific opinion on the fixity of species.

Darwin’s doubts about Christianity can be traced, at least in part, to his encounters with slavery and slave-owning Christians–a practice condoned in the bible. He observed firsthand brutality among slave-owners in Brazil and argued bitterly with Capt. Fitzroy over the subject. Darwin was an ardent supporter of the North in the American Civil War and even canceled his subscription to The Times of London because of its pro-Southern bias.

Darwin was profoundly troubled by the problem of evil. Believers, including Fitzroy, argued that suffering is ennobling, but Darwin’s knowledge of the suffering of animals, not to mention that of humans, prevented his reconciliation of evil and suffering with the goodness of God. He saw a kind of war in nature in which organisms produce far more offspring than can possibly survive. He saw what looked like a massive destruction of life, especially among the newborn. “Was God indifferent to the suffering of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time?” he asked. And why would a benevolent God have created all his wondrous creatures only to allow them to die out in the mass extinctions that clearly had taken place over time? The agonizing death of his favorite child, Annie, at the age of ten, threw him into deep despair and further estranged him from religious belief.

In his Autobiography (published in unexpurgated version only in 1958), Darwin wrote:

“[In the years immediately after the voyage] I was led to think much about religion. . . . I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world . . . and from its attributing to God the feelings of a vengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred book of the Hindus or the beliefs of any barbarian . . . that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become; . . . I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. . . . I was very unwilling to give up my belief . . . but I found it more and more difficult . . . to invent evidence that 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 ever since doubted, even for a single second, that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of [the bible] seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all of my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And that is a damnable doctrine.”

In 1838, Darwin read the economist Thomas Malthus’ essay on Population (1817), in which Malthus, referring to human populations, stated: “Population when unchecked . . . increases in geometric ratio . . . but subsistence increases arithmetically.” Darwin was already seeing the failure to adapt as a key to the evolution of species; he had come to the conclusion from his study of domesticated species that selection was the mechanism of change. Then, after reading Malthus’ observations about human populations, he saw at once how to apply this mechanism to populations in nature. He realized that in the struggle for scarce resources, favorable variants would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones destroyed. As a result, over long periods of geological time, new species would appear. Darwin’s staunch friend and supporter, the brilliant biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, later to be known as Darwin’s bulldog, famously quipped, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!”

In 1842–in pencil!–Darwin wrote the first abstract of his theory, and expanded this document in 1844. In the next dozen years he published The Voyage of the Beagle and a number of monographs on his research topics, most notably an extensive treatise on barnacles. In 1856, his friend, geologist Charles Lyell, advised him to publish his theory of natural selection, but Darwin was still reluctant and procrastinated.

Then, unexpectedly in June 1858, he received a stunning letter from a fellow naturalist then working in the East Indies, Alfred Russell Wallace, describing his own recent discovery–“in a flash of insight”–of the principle of natural selection. Shaken and incredulous, Darwin reported this to his friend Lyell, who promptly arranged a joint session of the Linnaean Society with presentation of short papers by both Darwin and Wallace.

Darwin then quickly finished the 1844 “abstract” and published The Origin of Species in 1859, followed by The Descent of Man in 1871. Darwin bombarded his readers with so many facts that the cumulative weight of the evidence in support of his thesis became overwhelming. He had anticipated most of the criticisms that would arise and answered them in advance. Response in much of the scientific community was generally positive, but the anticipated storm soon broke among the clergy and the general public. Among the most famous of remarks regarding humankind’s surmised descent from apes, was that attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Wilberforce: “Let us hope that it is not true, but if it is true, let us hope that it will not become widely known.”

Within a decade, most of the educated community accepted the fact of evolution (i.e., “descent with modification”), if not the theory of natural selection, which explains the fact of evolution. However, many were uneasy about where the evidence and their reason were leading them. Some tried to incorporate a deity into their thinking, either as an original creator or as a guiding hand in the process of species change. There were at least four controversies in which the Darwinians were engaged between 1859 ( Origin) and the death and burial of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey in 1882: 1) establishing science as a recognized profession; 2) liberating science from theological influence; 3) establishing evolution as a fact in the public mind; and 4) winning scientists to the Darwinian view of nature, i.e., natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution. The first three of these goals were largely achieved by the end of the 19th century. The fourth was partly but not completely accomplished until the 20th century, with the modern synthesis: merging Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics.

The Darwin-Wallace Theory can be outlined as follows:

(1) All species have excess reproductive capacity, i.e., they produce more offspring than can possibly survive;

(2) There is considerable individual variation within species;

(3) This variation is heritable;

(4) Some individuals are better able to survive in given environmental conditions;

(5) The best-adapted individuals will survive and reproduce, passing on their advantageous traits;

(6) Species change over time, and new species appear as a result of accumulation of new traits.

The impact of the theory of evolution by natural selection has been profound, all the more so since the modern synthesis incorporating genetic theory in the 1930s and ’40s and the late 20th-century breakthroughs in phenomena of embryological development, known as “evo-devo.” In 1973, evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Evidence leads us to conclude that life on earth has diversified on its own without any kind of external guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next over eons of time. We can think of natural selection as a sieving process, in which the best-adapted individuals in a given environment will survive and reproduce, passing their heritable variations on to subsequent generations.

With every new major scientific advance, religion has fought to protect its “divinely revealed” domain. Copernicus in 1543 had to conceal and water down his idea of a sun-centered solar system within a vast universe. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his heretical beliefs, including Copernican cosmology. Galileo was arrested and silenced on threat of excommunication and death for his support of Copernicus’ denial of geocentrism.

E.O. Wilson, who has recently published a new edition of Darwin’s works, points out, “The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation and not its purpose either. . . . Evolution by natural selection as applied to humans means that the essential qualities of the human mind also evolved autonomously. . . . However elevated in power over the rest of life, however exalted in self-image, we were descended from animals by the same blind force that created those animals, and we remain a member species of this planet’s biosphere. . . . Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products.”

Darwin and his friend Huxley were often accused of being atheists, but both consistently maintained they were agnostics, a term coined by Huxley–meaning that they felt they had no knowledge, based on empirical evidence, about the existence of any sort of supernatural being (hence, a-gnosticism, “without knowledge”).

It is hard to believe that nearly 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species, and after a monumental accumulation of peer-reviewed supporting evidence by the scientific community, we are still fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of religious doctrinal ignorance. The recent Intelligent Design charade is testimony to the dangers inherent in literal belief in any mythology in which reason and free inquiry are not permitted to shed their light on truth. The Christian Right is embarked on an unrelenting, stifling attempt to roll back the clock to the theocratic tyranny of another age when the revealed biblical message was essentially unchallenged in the western world. This effort is not only confrontational and sharply divisive but, as such is highly dangerous to the survival of our democratic principles and to the tenuous quest for international accord and world peace.

In much of the Western world and among developed nations, America is being chastised and even ridiculed because of our societal tolerance of creationism in this scientific age. Darwin remains a figure reviled by evangelicals and other literalists because, as Richard Dawkins has put it, “Darwin’s ideas carried to their logical conclusion undercut the very basis of Christianity if not indeed all theistic religion. Evolution has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

This is why we must openly confront and criticize the outdated beliefs of the great Abrahamic, monotheistic religions. There is the mistaken, political correctness notion adrift in our society that religious ideas are outside the realm of acceptable criticism–that criticism of religion is taboo. Why should this be so? Sam Harris in his bestselling book, The End of Faith, stated:

“The idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and even art to be entertained–as the beliefs, rituals, and iconography of each of our religions attest to centuries of cross-pollination among them. Whatever their imagined source, the doctrines of modern religions are no more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning the seas.”

Science and religion are in deep conflict, and religious beliefs are perhaps the major forces tearing our world apart. It is an affront to our intelligence that today we must waste our time and effort fighting to protect our school curricula from the intrusion of Iron Age religious ignorance, and to fend off a full-scale assault at the highest governmental levels upon the wall of separation between church and state.

Nobel Laureate Christian DeDuve wrote: “It is tempting to say that dialog [between science and religion] will be possible only by compromise. Let each add some water to their wine, and there will be understanding. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a political or ideological conflict, but with respect for truth. On what has been convincingly demonstrated, science can make no concession. If there is conflict between what science knows and what religion believes, [religion] must give in. . . . The science of today cannot prove wrong those who wish to attribute the origin of life to divine intervention. Science can only point out . . . that such an intervention appears unnecessary, as well as unlikely, in the light of present knowledge.”

Most of the world is still locked in dogmatic belief systems which eschew, even disdain, critical thinking. The New Enlightenment, born of doubt and forged on the rule of reason and free inquiry, is by no means assured. Back in the 1960s, historian Lynn White observed:

“Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature, which are almost universally held, not only by Christians and neo-Christians, but also by those who regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin we are not–in our hearts–part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”

Charles Darwin, at a time when it was even more difficult to speak out with contrarian views, broke from the taboo against unquestioning acceptance of Christian doctrinal belief. Darwin realized, as Christopher Hitchens put it, that “Assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Darwin, the reluctant revolutionary, was a quiet, retiring, kind and patient man. But he had an unrelenting thirst for evidence to bring real truth to light. The unifying theory of evolution by natural selection is his great gift to us. It is incumbent upon us not to waste it or set it aside out of “politeness” or “political correctness” in the face of religious polemics. Rather, we should continue to be inspired by Darwin’s own poetic and uplifting words at the conclusion of Origin:

“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” ( Origin, 1st ed., 1859)


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Jane R. Shoup is Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences at Purdue University-Calumet, Hammond, Ind., where she taught for more than 35 years. She holds a B.A. in Biology from the University of Rochester and a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago. She and her husband, Stefan, live in a rural solar home in central Wisconsin. They maintain an active interest in church/state separation issues and population/environment problems. Jane and Stefan are the parents of two grown daughters; all are Life Members of FFRF.

Freedom From Religion Foundation