I was very unwilling to give up my belief…. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. —Charles Darwin
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I have on occasion speculated that if I weren’t a deist, I would without doubt (or more accurately, with doubt) be an agnostic. For me, atheism is a non-starter; I cannot rule out possibilities beyond the point where mere mortals have the capability to ascertain. For me, the difference between an atheist and an agnostic is humility: we’re limited humans. Even if you and I don’t believe in the ‘revealed’ God, why fall into the trap of conflating man’s invented God (religion) with the fact of creation and thus the plausibility of a creator, divorced and absent though He (It) may be from what He (It) hath wrought?
These thoughts were in the back (but not too far back) of my mind as I was reading CHARLES DARWIN – A SCIENTIFIC BIOGRAPHY by the late Sir Gavin de Beer, a British scientist and author of many books on zoology, embryology, genetics, etc. I’d come upon this old book while library-browsing, and realized that, while we all know what Darwin was famous for, do we really know Charles Darwin, the man? What was he like, and what did he believe at various points in his life as his thinking evolved (pun intended)?
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in getting to know Darwin is that he was “The man who struggled with his own ideas” (BBC website), keeping silent for 20 years before going public with his painstaking research, and describing his writing On the Origin of Species as “like confessing a murder.” Its publication in 1859 represents “one man’s struggle with the most radical idea of all time — the idea that humans shared a common ancestor with apes.”
Darwin was born of Christian parents in 1809 at Shrewsbury, England, the son of a successful physician and a mother who died when Charles was eight years old, after which (quoting de Beer) “his home upbringing devolved largely on his elder sisters to whom, in spite of their persistent fault-finding, he was ever grateful for instilling in him the spirit of humanity.” Additionally, his grandfathers were important Enlightenment figures: Josiah Wedgewood, anti-slavery campaigner, and Erasmus Darwin, a doctor who ‘wrote the book’ (ZOONOMIA) on the radical idea that one species could transmute into another.
Darwin’s father wished him to become a doctor, but after realizing that his son had an aversion to practicing medicine, he (quoting de Beer) “proposed that he [Charles] take holy orders in the Church of England. Indeed, at this time in his life, he felt so convinced of the truth of his religion” that he accepted. But after three years of studies at Christ’s College, he considered the time “wasted. His greatest pleasure was collecting beetles for the sheer joy of collecting.” After meeting men of distinction in botany and other fields, he studied geology and read books “from which he derived a zeal to travel and study natural history.”
A set of fortuitous happenings led to a position as a neophyte naturalist on the HMS Beagle, which set sail from England in Dec. 1831, not to return until October 1836….five years of meticulous observations, collecting specimens and exhaustive exploration too lengthy to detail here, but which began a new chapter in the history of science.
Years later, “The result of his experiences was that (says de Beer quoting Darwin) My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details….the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wonderful universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know from whence it came. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect.”
“Darwin never felt any but the most friendly and charitable feelings for those who differed from him in matters of religion, provided that they were honest. This is amply confirmed from both sides. Rev. J. Brodie Innis wrote to Darwin, We often differed, but you are one of those rare mortals from whom one can differ and yet feel no shade of animosity, and that is a thing of which I should feel very proud if anyone could say it of me. Darwin’s description of their relations was equally generous: Innis and I have been fast friends for thirty years, and we never thoroughly agreed on any subject but once, and then we stared hard at each other, and thought one of us must be very ill.”
And now I feel I know Charles Darwin, the man.
P.S. My thanks to Richard Cahill, whose July 23rd post “God, Man and Donald Trump” inadvertently suggested my title for this post after I thought better of my original (or more accurately, less original) title.