Reflections on the Life and Work of Charles Darwin
January 23, 2010 Length: 53:47
Fr. Tom continues his series on Darwin and Christianity. This is part 2.
We’re continuing now our reflections about Darwin and Darwinism and the Darwinian Revolution, the issues of evolution, this issue of the relation of natural science to Christian theology, and this is the second in our series. Today I would like just to, very briefly, superficially, go through the life of Charles Darwin: just who was this man who created this incredible explosion, this revolution? Whose name is in some places blessed and whose work is idolised and in other places it’s cursed and the man himself even is demonised? We have to go through all these things and to try today, out of love for our neighbour, to see who the man really was.
You know, the two things that have to operate in all of our work as Christians, all of our life, every though, word and deed are truth and love. We have to find out as much as we can how things really are and then we have to love everyone and everything without condition, without qualification. That’s what Christians do; that’s what Christians are. That’s how God is, we believe: God is always for the truth. God is truth. Christ is the truth and it’s the truth that makes us free, that gives us peace, [that] troubles us deeply first… it’s kind of like the Peanuts cartoon where the little boy is looking there and he says, “What are you reading?”
“It’s St. John’s Gospel.”
“What does it say?”
He says, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
And then the other fellow looks and says, “Yep. But first it makes you miserable.”
And what we’re going to see today is how miserable Charles Darwin was because of what he was convinced was the truth, what he believed was the truth.
So we have to be for the truth and we believe that every truth is Christian and every truth is compatible with the Gospel of Christ. There can’t be contradictions between truth anywhere, any kind of truth, and Christ himself. But there’s love too. When I was a young fellow I used to have to teach philosophy to the seminary students—collegiate division we had, in those days—and I was obliged to have then read through Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell, you know, and Nietzsche and all that stuff. And they’d say, “Father Tom, why do we have to read this?” I said because our Lord told us to love our enemies, [to] bless those who curse us. To treat them with respect, to hear what they have to say. And then of course we read last time from the 1 Peter letter in the Bible: we have to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us and we do it gently. I think, I’m not sure even if we quoted the whole passage last time, but it’s worth repeating if we did or if we didn’t. But where it says in Peter:
Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence and keep your conscience clear so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3: 15-16)
So we not only give an account of our hope but we do it with gentleness and reverence and a clear conscience. And if we ourselves are abused, that’s okay, let people revile our good behaviour that they may be put to shame.
And I think that what we’ll see today is that Charles Darwin really followed the truth as he saw it—maybe he didn’t see it totally clearly, but he followed it as he saw it—he tried not to lie and he always was a gentle man and a reverent man. He was not a pugnacious man; he was not a belligerent man. He was not a fighter. Thomas Huxley was and others were, but not Charles Darwin.
So who is this man? Well, one of the reasons that I got interested in him, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, was that this year of 2009 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. He was born on exactly the same day, in exactly the same year, as Abraham Lincoln: two huge figures in human life. And by the way, Lincoln, who quoted God all the time, never went to church—well, he went pro forma, but—he never was baptized and he never was committed to any particular church, Abraham Lincoln.
Well, Charles Darwin was born in England in the town of Shrewsbury and his father was a man named Robert Darwin who was a very workaholic, aggressive, very successful, very wealthy doctor/physician. He was an obese man, actually, I think he weighed over 300lbs or something like that. Robert Darwin cared for the sick people; he travelled around, he visited people in their homes, he took care of the sick. He was the son of a man named Erasmus Darwin who was a notorious fellow who taught evolutionary theory already, before his grandson became famous because of it. Erasmus, he wrote poetry, he was also a kind of a lewd, lascivious, bombastic type of man and a pretty out-there in your face atheist too. He had no use for the church or the Christian faith or anything.
Robert Darwin, his son, the doctor, Charles’s father: he never went to the church at all—and we’re going to see how ironic that is—Janet Browne in her biography, she says, as far as she could determine, Charles Darwin’s father Robert was inside a church building twice in his life: the day that they baptized him and the day that they took him in there for his funeral. He was simply not a church attending person; he was an atheistic person, pretty clearly. But he was not a belligerent one, like his father, Erasmus, and in that sense probably Charles was much more like his own father rather than his grandfather. But his father did tell Charles once that, you know, if you’re going to marry a pious woman… and both Robert Darwin and Charles Darwin married first cousins, they were from the Wedgwood family of the famous people who made plates and pottery in England: very, very wealthy also. But Charles Darwin’s wife Emma was very pious and Unitarian as I mentioned last time, but went to church all the time, believed in God, prayed, said her prayers, definitely believed in everlasting life—but I think functionally her belief in everlasting life was closer to Plato than it was to the Bible: she believed in souls going to happy places and heaven and almost like playing harps with angels or something, that was her view of the bliss of everlasting life, simplistically put, but she was a believer—and when Charles was going to marry her—I’m getting ahead of my story here, but—he discussed with his father the fact about her religiosity and the father said, “Well, just be quiet about it. Don’t talk about it. Go about your business, don’t make an issue about it. Let her do what she’s going to do and then you do what you have to do and live in peace.” And basically I think Charles Darwin did take his father’s advice on that one.
So he was born on February 12th in the year 1809, so that would be two hundred years ago this year. And the other date that we’re interested in is when he publishes the book On the Origin of Species According to Natural Selection. He did that in 1859, which makes this year the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. And I really wanted to get these reflections started now—time is flying by and I got caught up in so many things lately and I didn’t get started with this as quickly as I wanted to, but—I wanted to start this month, because this explosive book, revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection actually came out in November, 1859. So it was this very month, 150 years ago, that the book The Origin of Species appeared. [It] sold out immediately, it became a very popular book, everybody was reading it, and that started—well, it didn’t start, but it was a major, major event in—the relationship of natural science to modern life, and natural science, of course, in what we’re interested in: its relation to the Christian Gospel.
So Charles Darwin was born into this very rich family. His father though that he would never amount to anything, and his father even… there’s even a quotation in one of the biographies that I wrote down, it’s often quoted, where Charles wasn’t doing well in school at all. He didn’t like to study; he liked only to go out and shoot guns and kill animals and hunt and he loved that all his life. He said no more joy could be found than when he remembered killing his first snipe and reloading his gun, because his hands were trembling so much. But he lived in the countryside, in a huge house with great opulence, and basically Charles didn’t study very much and did what he wanted. And so his father said to him, this is the quotation: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching. And you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” That’s what he told him: “You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”
So Charles’s father, Robert, wanted Charles to be a physician, a doctor, and he would take him on his rounds and they would visit the people and Charles just couldn’t stand this; he couldn’t stand the sight of blood—even later on, he even had trouble plucking off the birds that he would study, their skeletons and everything, when he was doing his natural studies—and the smell of all that and so on, it really repulsed him. But Charles’s father, Robert, thought that he should become a doctor and he would make him go to doctor school, physician school, medical school. And he even tried to get him to go that way. And so, when Charles became of age, they tried to send him to the medical school in Cambridge and Charles just could not stand it. He witnessed his first operations, surgery, and the first dissection of a corpse or something and he just couldn’t handle it. He just went away and he didn’t know what to do.
And here’s where the ironic point comes in: his father said to him, “Well, if you can’t do this, why don’t you become a minister in the church? Become a priest in the Church of England: that’s a great job. You like to go hunting, you like to have birds, you like to collect flowers…” Because from his youth Charles was always studying this natural phenomena: flowers, plants, birds, bumblebees, carbuncles, God knows what, he was studying everything, he just loved it. And that’s where his heart was, that’s where his treasure was. And, you know, the Lord Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Well, Charles Darwin’s treasure was in nature, there’s no doubt about that. It was just in natural life, just the physical, animal, botanical world, that’s what he adored and that’s what kept him going his whole life.
So anyway, this Charles, the father thought he could be a minister. Now, we’re going to have a special reflection on the state of the Church of England at the time of Charles Darwin and of Christianity generally and what this poor Charles would have to come up against when he was dealing with the Christian faith. But in any case, what we want to see now is that it wasn’t very surprising that a parent who never went to church, who was a silent, non-pugnacious, non-belligerent, but certainly confirmed atheist, would actually recommend that his boy, his son, go to Cambridge to the divinity school and become a minister, become a priest of the Church of England. And that shows that people didn’t take it seriously at all. You know, they didn’t feel that it meant anything real at all; you just went through it. It was part of the aristocracy. And anyone who is familiar with the novels of people like Jane Austen and Trollope and all those people, you see what the clergy were like at the time of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century: they were guys who couldn’t be successful very much anywhere else. You know, and so then they were ordained into the clergy and that meant they had a nice big house and they had a garden. Sometimes they had a greenhouse; they had a botanical garden, they had fields. They could go hunting, they could go fishing, they could raise pigeons, they could raise orchids, flowers. And they just had a really nice comfortable life and so on. So it’s amazing, but this Robert Darwin suggested to his son that he do that: “You do that, that’s good for you.” It probably shows that he didn’t have much faith in him at all to be able to turn into anything.
And I can’t help saying, over the radio, that when I left my home at the age of seventeen to go to college and then I went to seminary the next year at eighteen and finished the college there, but my father, he thought that clergy—this was in the Orthodox Church of Russian tradition in America in the 1950s—he said, you know, what kind of a life is that? Where you make smoke and kiss pictures and spend your time with old ladies, sprinkling them with holy water? You know, that was his view of the clergy in the Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. Well, I think in England it wasn’t very far from that. In fact, my father insisted that I go to the University before the seminary, or at least concurrently, because he said he didn’t want anyone to think that his son was too dumb to study and too lazy to work. And so if you couldn’t go to work in the factories or the coal mines and if you couldn’t get out of college so you could get a better job, well, you became a priest. They married you off to some other priest’s daughter and you went there and you sang songs in Russian and Slavonic and you made services and you blessed baskets and you buried people and, you know, that was the view of life. One of my sisters actually said to me when I left home, “What a waste.” Because I was a pretty smart guy in school, as you can probably guess… not an intellectual or a scholar, but smart enough.
But in any case, Charles Darwin was not considered to be very smart, he was not considered to be too much worth anything. His father thought he’d be a disgrace to the family, so at least go and become a minister: enter the church, go through the motions, do the rites, read the Common Prayer Book prayers and do your natural studies like a whole lot of other ministers were doing. And it’s interesting how many of the naturalists in Britain, in England in the nineteenth century, were clergy. A whole bunch of them were clergy, because they liked studying those things and they had the means to do so and they were part of the higher classes of the country.
Well, anyway, Charles did go to Cambridge and while he was there he really kind of fell in love with geology. And, being at the University, he became a follower of a particular teacher in geology—I think his name was Hemsley, I could look it up here quickly, it really doesn’t matter too much what the man’s name was—it was J. S. Henslow, that’s right, it was Henslow. And Henslow was the geology teacher and oh, did Darwin love him! And his friends even would mimic Darwin walking around with Henslow, imitating the way he walked, carrying on discussions with this man, and he just loved it.
But what happened was this, and this is what changed Charles Darwin’s life and brought us to where we are today on this very podcast: this Henslow had the possibility and was offered the possibility to go on a ship, a ship called the Beagle, that was going to do map-studies and discovery-studies around the Galapagos Islands and near Latin America and so on. And they wanted a naturalist to be on board the ship: someone who would study the nature, the fauna, the flora, the animal life, fossil life, whatever they could find in these places, and keep a log and be on that ship and go with them. And I believe that Henslow himself was offered the trip and he couldn’t take it. He had just gotten married; it wasn’t a good time for him to go. And he thought: this is a perfect thing for Charles Darwin to do. So he said to Darwin, let’s try to get you to go with Captain FitzRoy on the ship, the big sailing ship, called the Beagle, HMS Beagle, and go on this round the world trip that Darwin had read about in so many books and he loved to read about foreign and exotic places and so on… So this Henslow convinced him that he should apply to go. And they were willing to accept him to go and to be the naturalist on HMS Beagle, this ship.
Well, his father was totally against it. He thought it was a complete and total waste of time, he thought it was just ridiculous, and he just basically forbade him to go. But then Charles Darwin went to his uncle—his future wife’s father, the Wedgwood family there, who he really adored—because his father said if you can get one rational man who has a shred of sense in him to convince me that this is a good idea, well then, okay, you have my blessing and my permission to go. And this uncle, I think his name was Josiah Wedgwood, he convinced Robert Darwin to let his son go on this tour on this boat.
So Charles did go. And the journey was five years long. For five years he was away from England; he was on this boat with the huge sails and masts, sailing all along the coasts of South America and the Galapagos Islands and all these places. And he was just fascinated, blown away, by what he saw. And all he did was think and think and look and look and write and write and find all kinds of specimens of rocks and plants and fossils and animals and birds and fish and everything that he could possibly do. He had a hard time on this voyage—he wrote about it actually, The Voyage of the Beagle, you can read about it, it’s published—but he had terrible seasickness. Oh, half the time when he was on the boat he was just throwing up. He had a terribly weak stomach and that would plague him his entire life long. And he was only so happy when he could get off that boat and the boat might go somewhere else for a couple of months and he would stay on land somewhere doing all of his naturalistic studies.
But after five years Darwin returned to England. He made it back home, the Beagle came back in 1836. It was in 1835 that he did the survey of the Galapagos Islands. And then he got back and he had all this data, not only in his head but in loads of notebooks and sources and boxes, and he [had been] sending back all the stuff from the journey. And here, the point is made very strongly in all the biographies, his father, who didn’t want him to go in the first place, bankrolled the whole trip. Whenever Charles need money, whenever he wanted to ship things, whenever he wanted to pack things; whatever he wanted to do, his father footed the bill. His father was very, very rich and he was willing to give the money to this son for the sake of this work that he was doing, and basically he supported him his whole life. Charles Darwin never worked a day in his life outside his own home. He never even was a professor anywhere, or a scientist in any group, or anything. He worked in his house, he had all his equipment there: all his books, all his fossils, all his specimens, everything that he was doing, everything that he was thinking of, everything that he was working on. And he had a big house and home and everything basically because of his inherited money. He was an aristocratic rich fellow who could just do what he wanted and what he wanted was natural science. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he loved; that’s where his treasure was.
So when he came back, shortly after he came back, he did not know how to put all this stuff together. He didn’t know what to do with it. But he started thinking, you know: what are species anyway? How do they inter-relate? It seems like there are different kinds in different places, but you don’t know how they are produced there… It didn’t seem to make sense to him that God, out of nothing, created each one directly, and he gave that theory up very early: that God independently created every possible thing that existed in some type of miraculous way, or he created the species unchanging in some kind of miraculous way and then the species just reproduce by producing the same type of species. So cows had cows and birds had birds and fish had fish and they were the same kind of fish and there were different kinds and they were called species. Well, he just began to doubt all that, just by studying what he saw.
And then, seeing what he saw, he began to develop a theory that it seems that species evolve. And evolution was already taught: his grandfather Erasmus taught it, Lamarck taught it. They just didn’t know how it worked. There was another book called The Vestiges by a guy named Chambers, he did it anonymously, that forthrightly taught evolutionary theory: that different species, different types of beings are produced by earlier beings by some type of change, some type of mutations. They didn’t know how or in what way, but they were pretty clear that that is what was going on. And Charles Darwin knew this, of course. And then he was studying the data that he had.
Well, as he was looking at this data, one of the books that really influenced him was a book by Thomas Malthus about population, where it says that populations produce more offspring than can possibly exist, so the stronger ones persist and the weaker ones die out. And then the stronger ones reproduce and hand on their strength and then what happens is, over very long periods of time, there are certain changes that take place—metamorphoses or whatever you want to call them, mutations or whatever—that then get passed on genetically. But Charles Darwin didn’t know at all how that happened.
And most historians of science will say that we have only, you know, allegedly… but certainly it’s a firm conviction of the scientific community by and large, that what happens is it takes place over very, very, very long periods of time with small incremental changes being passed on. And the changes that make the species stronger or make the being, the offspring, stronger, they persist and they continue to grow and then they change a little bit too and then the strong species grow and that’s how everything came. Probably from some very primitive form of life, even perhaps a one-cell thing, developed in all these ways and very different directions. Basically that’s what he was beginning to see. And then, by reading Malthus who was writing simply about population, you know, he came to the conclusion that that provided quite an insight into the possibility of how this possibly worked. It meant that the stronger survived and the weaker didn’t. And then you had these little changes and in those, whatever changes took place, however they took place, the changes that were for the better survived and those that were for the worse did not. And basically, in a nutshell, that’s what he came to believe.
Now, at this time, he got married. He married Emma, Uncle Josiah’s daughter, so he married his first cousin, and he even used to worry about that too, because he began to realise, even before genetics was developed, that when human beings marry their close relatives their offspring are usually weaker and they have troubles and they have sicknesses and so on. It’s not a healthy thing to marry someone close to you in your family. But he did and they had a couple of children who died. We’ll see the death of Annie as a huge thing in his life, one of his children. And by the way, death was all over the place here: Charles Darwin’s own mother died when he was, I think, eight years old. Charles Darwin’s father, Robert, his brother committed suicide; his own mother died when he was a baby. Death was all around at that time, even in the great progressive England of the nineteenth century. Diseases were rampant, you know, diphtheria and all these kind of things that killed off people.
But he marries his cousin in 1839. In the same year he publishes some of his journals of research and by 1842 he makes the first sketch of a kind of an evolutionary theory based on what we have just been saying: that species come from other species through development over a long period of time with incremental changes, and the stronger ones persist and the weaker ones are extinct. And then when there are geological changes and what we would call today ‘ecological’ changes, even sometimes whole species just become extinct. They all die out. Sometimes there are catastrophes that cause them to die out; all this was in Lamarck and others already. So we can’t get into that, but that’s what he was dealing with. That’s what he was dealing with.
And so, in the year 1844 he began to really be deeply troubled by what he believed that he saw, what he was convinced that he had learned by all these studies. And that’s all he did, day and night, was study all these things. You know, he later on will write a six volume work on barnacles. He will write about four thousand pages on earthworms. He just studied all these things, did all these experiments, made all these changes, and then he was involved very much with the people who were changing species by selective breeding. That was another idea that he had. He said if botanists and animal husbandry people can actually produce new kinds of animals and new kinds of plants by cross-breeding, why can’t that happen by some type of process of natural selection? Why can’t it just happen because of ecological changes or—he didn’t know too much about that, but—genetic mutations or whatever? Why could not that be? You know, that’s what he thought.
And so, in 1844, he wrote a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, who was his friend all the way through all this, and already in that letter to his new friend, the twenty-six year old botanist Joseph Hooker, this is what he wrote—and this is quoted in almost all Darwin materials that you would read—this is what he wrote, he said:
I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work, and I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one. I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms…
And by the way, there’s a movie going on right now, you can get it right now, of some Intelligent Design people, a scientific group, who went to the Galapagos Islands and tried to disprove the Darwinian theories by studying the animal life and plant life on those islands. I did not see it, I have to confess, I did not see it, but I know it exists. And if you’re interested you might want to try to look that up on the internet. A tour of some, I think they’re evangelical Christians of some sort, Intelligent Design supporters, who just made a trip to the Galapagos Islands to take a look over there for themselves, so to speak.
But anyway, here way back in 1844, Charles Darwin writes:
I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms and with the character of the American fossil mammifers, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear in any way on what species are.
And, by the way, what we’re going to see also, this is mentioned in Ben Stein’s movie, there’s still a huge debate even on what species are. When is a species a new species? And when is it not simply another variety of something within the same species? When do you have an absolutely new kind of a bird, for example, or a new kind of a dog, and not simply a variant of a kind that you already have? Why do you call it a different species? And there’s a fellow interviewed by Ben Stein who says we don’t even know what species are, even yet, we don’t know. And, in fact, Darwin himself in his notebooks, he says we’re trying to define the indefinable. He says I don’t think we’ll ever be able to find the answer to that question. But what he was convinced of is that new species really do emerge; in other words, you have some species the once could be considered, I don’t know, fish, and later can then be considered birds. Or once can be considered some type of animal and then later can be considered to be a human being. So this is what he was dealing with.
I was determined to collect all these facts, blindly, which in any way bear on what are species… At last gleams of hope have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not…
And then he writes, in parenthesis:
…(it is like confessing a murder) immutable.
So he says that “species are not immutable”. And then he puts, in parenthesis, “it’s like confessing a murder”.
I think I have found out (here’s the presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends. You will now groan, and think to yourself, “on what a man I have been wasting my time and writing to.”
And then he says:
I myself would have thought so, five years ago.
So it’s interesting that he feels like he’s committing a murder by what he finds. But he keeps on studying and he keeps on studying and he keeps refining the theory. He keeps putting it together and he comes up with a theory that changes in the environment, competition between and within and among species, variation naturally occurring within species as it was driven by the excess of procreation over the numbers the environment could possibly support.
So, this is what he’s coming up with. But it’s making him sick. It’s making him physically sick. He said, for example, that in an eight year period before he actually published On the Origin of Species, he had two whole years, if he added up all the weeks and months, in which he was simply bedridden. He was just plain sick; his stomach, he would throw up about every hour. He would go to take some kind of water-cures all over the place. This study of his was not something that made him joyful and peaceful and happy; he realised himself what he thought he was seeing and what the consequences of it were, particularly for those who simply believed in what most people call a ‘literal reading’ of the Bible.
Now, I’m going to critique that immensely when I get a chance. What is really a ‘literal’ or ‘literary’ reading of the Bible? How should the Bible be read? But in those days, at that time, and perhaps even today in many places, there are people who think that the Bible teaches geology, the Bible teaches biology, the Bible teaches all these things. And in Genesis you have a record of how it all happened and God created the world in six twenty-four hour periods, maybe longer, maybe shorter, whatever, but… and that the whole thing is not more than ten thousand years old, six to ten thousand. And, you know, people believe that and at that time that was pretty much the common knowledge. And everybody really… you had natural theology, very popular at that time. A man named Paley had a book that was widely read; he believed in certain forms of evolution, Paley did, but he said it’s designed by a Creator, there’s an intelligent cause to all of this. And he… there was a period where people even thought that nature was as much a revelation of God as the Bible was: you can study and see the hands of God working in nature. And that was an old Platonistic early Christian idea: the world as a book of God’s self-revelation. Certainly the Orthodox tradition holds that and we hold that to this very day, you know, I believe we do. We’ll get to that later.
But in any case, Charles Darwin was sick over all of this. And he kind of even hid it; he didn’t make it known. He didn’t discuss it much with anybody except other very close friends, scientists. He didn’t discuss it with his wife practically at all, although she was wondering what he was doing day and night, studying, studying, studying. She knew that he was going through something; he didn’t share the details of it. On the PBS film called Darwin’s Darkest Hour, there’s a film about the darkest hour of Darwin’s life, when he was struggling over whether or not to publish this, during which time his children were deathly sick and then his favourite little girl Annie died. Annie died away from home at some water-cure place; she died in 1851. He didn’t go to the funeral. He couldn’t bring himself even to go and look at her grave. He never saw her grave in his entire life. But after the funeral of Annie he never went to church again with his family. He used to go and sit there but now he didn’t even do that. He would walk with them to church and then go back home.
And we’re going to see later on what the issue of death, what place death holds in this whole story, this whole saga, because I’m absolutely convinced in my own mind that Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, they could not handle the church because they could not believe what the church was teaching them about death and about resurrection and about souls going to heaven and about going to hell and all that kind of stuff. They just couldn’t stomach it, you know, they couldn’t. And it didn’t comfort them; they weren’t able to be comforted by that. They knew too much about the scientific processes of death. We’re going to have to deal with that, very head-on, at some later moment; the issue of death and the theory of natural selection and the place of death in the Christian view. Because we’re all facing death, you know, we all are and we believe the world was saved by the death of God in human flesh. That should say something about our relationship to the theory of evolution. I don’t think anybody’s ever even thought of it too much; I’ve never seen much about it, frankly. But in any case, we’ll get to that.
But his daughter dies, he’s struggling over what he sees, he doesn’t want to prematurely publish it because he wants to have all the facts and all the ducks lined up and everything set, so that he can make his theory as unassailable as he possibly could make it. And while he’s struggling over all this and throwing up every day and working on his abstract, which is already something like five hundred pages long, he doesn’t know what to do. But then he discovers… he receives a letter in the mail from a man named Wallace. And this man named Wallace was also a naturalist and he was also studying the very same things that Darwin was. And he writes, this man named Wallace, writes to Darwin in 1857… this younger fellow of Darwin, about ten or fifteen years younger, he writes to him to share with him his theory. And, lo and behold, the theory is almost exactly what Darwin himself was coming to believe and be convinced of. And it really shocked Darwin. It really shocked Darwin, because he thought: I’ve done all this work, I’ve lived all my life, I’ve studied all these things, I’ve taken all my time, I’ve thrown up and been sick and done all these things, and then here this fellow Wallace writes me this letter and he tells me that he’s studying almost exactly the same thing that I myself have come to. And that took place in 1858.
Now, little Annie had died in 1851. And those years he kept working and he did this six volume work on barnacles and how they have changed. And then on June 18th 1858, he gets this letter from Wallace. And Wallace was influenced by the same Lyell that had influenced Charles Darwin. And so Charles Darwin just doesn’t know what to do and this is what was shown on TV when it said that that was Darwin’s “darkest moment”; those years when he didn’t know what to do, his daughter, his beloved daughter, Annie dies, the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace independently arrives at a very similar theory and sends it to Darwin. Darwin doesn’t know what to do; he’s [been] studying this all his life and now it’s going to come out. And so he has this decision: what is he going to do?
And what he does is he writes to Wallace and they decide together [and] it’s an amazing thing, that they could be so gentlemanly, it would be like two PhD candidates fighting over who is going to publish their theory first. In fact recently someone even, I borrowed a work from a person by the way, recently, on a particular subject, and I kept it kind of long and then I got an e-mail from this person saying, “What are you going to do? Write your own book about it and beat me to it?!” It’s sort of similar to Wallace and Darwin. I had to write back to the person saying, “No, no, I’m not going to publish anything. I don’t even know anything about it, I’m sorry, I’ll get your PhD dissertation back to you pretty quick and I prey to God that you’ll publish it very soon.” But the poor person thought that I was, you know, ripping off the work by myself. Well, Wallace and Darwin, they were gentlemanly and they said, “Let’s do it together.”
So at one of the scientific meetings in London at the time, where all the main scientists were together, the two of them gave a paper together about their theory. And what is really interesting is that the scientists almost didn’t even pay attention to it; they didn’t even take it seriously, they didn’t see how revolutionary it was. It was at the Linnaean Society in 1858. They just didn’t see what it was. But then, when Darwin then went ahead and published his abstract, and it was only considered an abstract although it’s 500 pages long—in the English version that I have it’s actually 459 pages long—he called that an abstract. He did write later volumes more, with more details and more evidence and so on, trying to defend his theory. But it came out, as I said, in 1859 in November. It saw the light of day, people snapped it up, they read it and so on.
And I tried to read it, it’s tough to read, but in any case, I’d just like to read you a little bit of the end of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, just so you would have a little taste here of how he wrote. He said, right on the next to last page, he said:
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researchs. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
In the book On the Origin of Species he never writes about man. He publishes his book on man only about eight years later, called The Descent of Man.
But then he continues:
Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator…
So he thought there was a Creator! That’s very important. Even though he didn’t go to church, [he] lost his faith over the death of his daughter, couldn’t stand what they were teaching in church, had a great trouble with Hell and death and Heaven and all that kind of stuff, nevertheless, he says “by the Creator”.
…that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual.
So he didn’t have any problem with the Creator using secondary causes, like happens even with human beings who die and leave their children and so on and are born from other individuals. He said, quoting again:
When I view all beings not as special creations…(—he meant directly, by the hand of God—)…but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.
So he claimed that it was “ennobling” to humans to think that they were the result of such a long tedious process of development. He didn’t think that they were degraded; he though that they were “ennobled”. That’s what he claimed.
Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species of each genus, and all the species of many genera, have left no descendants and have become utterly extinct.
So he said: not everything will go on forever. And, as a matter of fact, scientists tell us now that 99% of beings that once existed on the planet Earth no longer exist. They’re already extinct. And extinction is going on all the time. And then you have the question that’s got to come up: what about human extinction? Will that also happen? And I think scientifically we would believe it would happen. There will be an end of the world. Humanly speaking the world is, like Father Schememann used to say, a whirling cemetery full of dead people’s bones. Unless there is a God and God intervenes and enters into the process himself and becomes human and destroys death and raises the dead, as we Christians believe, and restores the whole of creation including all the plants and animals, as we Christians also believe. But I’m getting ahead of our story here.
So, anyway, I want to read that last line of this revolutionary book. The last line goes like this:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one form; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity (—he was still in the Newtonian understanding of gravity, not yet the Einsteinian one—) from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are still being, evolved.
So that’s not total atheism and that’s not atheism of a bad evil man. That’s just the view of a scientist who tries to understand what he’s dealing with. And, to Darwin’s credit, I think we can say, he never thought too much about the meaning of it all. I don’t think he had a metaphysical bone in his body; he was a naturalist, not a super-naturalist. He was not a philosopher, he was a scientist. But he was trying to say what he saw and not to lie about it.
Well, after that publication of that book his life went on and he did many more studies. He published about plants, he published about earthworms. He wrote a book about plants and animals, he wrote a book about human beings where he came right out and said that he thought that human beings had also evolved. So in 1868, that would be nine years after The Origin he published The Variation of Animals and Plants. Then he wrote a book, The Expression of the Emotions where he compares animal emotions to human emotions. Then he writes about insectivorous plants, in other words plants that eat insects. Then he writes about the effects of cross- and self-fertilisation. He writes about the different forms of flowers. He writes about the power of movement in plants and he writes about the formation of the vegetable mould. And I should have mentioned that after the book on the variations of animals and plants, I’ll specifically mention again, in 1871, he has the book on The Descent of Man.
Then he finally dies in 1882 and he’s sick all that time. He’s so sick. That’s why you see him in old age with a big long beard, because it was just too painful for him to shave his face. But he continued working and working and working till the end, and he never fought much. He didn’t fight at all practically; he let other people fight his battles. People like Thomas Huxley and Hooker, his friends. But he was a kind of a quiet, introverted, scientific man who agonised over what he saw but could not lie. He felt that had had to tell the truth about what he saw. And he would admit all the gaps, he would admit all the hard questions. He would not omit them; he would admit them. He would say, “I still don’t understand this, I still don’t see this. I still don’t see how that could be. But, nevertheless, this is what I do see.” And this is what he did.
And when he finally died, they buried him in Westminster Abbey, right next to Newton, as one of the greatest scientists of his time. And I don’t think anybody who has a shred of kindness and truth in them honestly can say that this was not a great man. A man who suffered; a man who did his job, but a man who was not very much helped—in my opinion, at all—by the theologians and philosophers and church people of his time. And he wasn’t even interested, I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t even capable, of a kind of integration of what he saw naturally with what would be an understanding of it, a meaning of it, a purpose of it. Because he even said that, naturally speaking, you can’t see a purpose of it. He said when people tried to use his theory, like Herbert Spencer, to show that man was progressing better and better—and of course the white English man was better than the black African and everybody else in many people’s theories—and so you had a kind of ‘social’ Darwinism, he didn’t get into all that. He said, “In my theory I just see what I see and it seems to me that man is one of the products on one of the branches and we don’t even know what the common root is between man on one side and perhaps chimpanzees or somebody on the other side.” By the way, according to Darwin, man didn’t come from apes, apes were on the other side of a tree, man came from a different way.
But there’s always this problem of when is a man a man? When is there self-consciousness? When is there understanding of self-consciousness—like Dobzhansky will say in the next century—when is there an awareness of freedom, of transcendence, of intelligence, of morality, of death, an intelligence of death? Well, man is the only animal who has that particular consciousness. To quote Aristotle, he’s the only rational animal. And to quote Heidegger, he’s the only animal who has consciousness of his own death. That distinguishes him from everybody else. And he’s got to deal with death and he’s got to deal with the agony of it. Well, Darwin dealt with all that in the agony of his own soul over the death of his own child in his own lifetime, but he never philosophised about it. He never made a public statement about it. He certainly never came out as a missionising atheist, let’s say, like Richard Dawkins, who considers himself one of Charles Darwin’s main disciples in our time.
And, of course, the theory was attacked, it was modified, it is causing controversy to this day, even in the scientific world, not just in the world of Christian faith or ‘religion’—to use that horrible word—generally. You know, it’s still with us, all these problems. And Darwin suffered with them as a sickly man, a sensitive man, a gentle man, an honest man, but a man really who, indeed, never practiced any faith in that sense. But he would speak about the Creator, he would speak saying, “Thank God.” He would use those expressions and I think that, sometimes, I feel to get into all that was just too painful for him. He just had to live with his own sorrow about the tragedies of life and live with what he saw, feeling like a man who had committed murder, but nevertheless feeling that he did his duty. He did not lie about what he believed he saw.
And maybe that’s why Metropolitan Tryphon respects him. Who knows? I respect him. I pray for him. But we’ve got to see what happened with all of that and we’ve got to go on and see what kind of issues does that all raise for us today? Like interpreting the Bible, like the relationship of God and Creation, like the relation of nature and super-nature, like the meaning of death, like the place of the Crucifixion of Christ in human flesh: how does that all fit into all of this? And is it true or is it not true? Now, it’s a theory, but is it just a theory? Or is it a theory that’s really very convincing and very plausible when you look at the evidence? And the evidence, of course, is the vestiges of former kinds of reality in the human body itself, the fossil record, especially in more modern time where a lot of gaps have been filled, the issue of the embryology and the genetics and the genetic code. All of these things: the understanding of radiation and time and long periods of time and how that works… So much more has been discovered since Darwin, only God knows how much more is known.
But the question for us today is: we who believe in the Gospel of Christ, who believe that Christ is the life and the truth, how do we relate to all of this? Because we’re forced to do so and have been compelled to do so, in large measure, by the work of this man, Charles Darwin.
"I cannot thank you enough for the endless source of teaching, encouragement, and inspiration. May God continue to give you all the wisdom and strength to continue the invaluable service you offer to those of us who are new to Orthodoxy!"