Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Man and His Ideas

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Almost 150 years have passed since the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species launched a theological, philosophical and scientific revolution. Nearly everyone knows about the theory of evolution, but few know the man and motives behind it.

In a series of coincidences fewer than two years away, three important historical dates will converge—the bicentennial of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (both born on Feb. 12, 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication (in 1859) of Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Many celebrations will take place honoring the memories of these two influential men in world history.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, is known primarily for three great accomplishments: his Emancipation Proclamation that set the stage for freeing the American slaves; his efforts to preserve the United States when it was wracked by the American Civil War; and his actions that marked him as one of the most humane and respected leaders in recent centuries.

Yet, of the two, the social, psychological, political and scientific impact of Charles Darwin is greater. Ideas based on Darwinian evolution still permeate most scientific fields and the philosophical perspectives presented in schools, universities and the popular press. Just recently, for example, the Science Channel named its top 100 scientific discoveries of all time—and trumpeted as number one Darwin's theory of evolution.

Who exactly was Charles Darwin? Why did his theory of evolution have such an impact? And more importantly, is what he proposed really true?

Much has been written about the man, but two books (by pro—evolution authors) have exhaustively covered his life— Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1992) by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, and the two—volume set Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2002) by Harvard professor Janet Browne. Along with these two biographies are Darwin's own autobiography and what was written by Darwin's son, Francis.

On the other side of the ledger, books critical of Darwin and his theory include the masterly exposition Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) by biochemist and physician Michael Denton and Darwin on Trial (1991) by University of California law professor Phillip Johnson, to name a few. Much of the material for this article is drawn from these sources.

Darwin's early life

Many today assume Darwin was the originator of the idea of evolution, but the concept had actually been around as early as Greek times. Darwin's achievement was proposing a mechanism for evolution to work—natural selection.

Two of the most influential people in Darwin's early life and thoughts were his father, Robert, and, indirectly, his famous grandfather Erasmus. Although Erasmus died before Charles was born, Charles' father made sure Charles was familiar with his grandfather's writings on evolution.

Erasmus Darwin wrote a book, Zoonomia, that included many evolutionary concepts Charles would later adopt. Erasmus had been a successful physician, as was his son, Robert, and both were decidedly anti—Christian—although careful to disguise their ideas in public. "The name of Darwin," write Desmond and Moore, "was already associated with subversive atheism. Dr Robert was himself a closet freethinker . . ." (p. 12).

Charles Darwin eventually rejected Christianity, in part because he could not accept the fate he understood it to decree for unbelievers such as his grandfather, father, older brother and even himself. He wrote in his autobiography: "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 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 text 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 this is a damnable doctrine" (Online edition).

Sadly, Darwin was influenced by an erroneous, though widely believed, view of Christian doctrine. (To learn what the Bible really teaches on this subject, request or download our free booklet What Happens After Death? )

Darwin 's mother tragically died when he was 8 years old, and he followed the loose and freethinking ways of his father and deceased grandfather. He wrote in his autobiography, "I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement" (emphasis added throughout).

"He was an attention—seeker; he wanted praise . . . ," Desmond and Moore add. "He would still do anything at school 'for the pure pleasure of exciting attention & surprise,' and his cultivated 'lies'. . . gave [him] pleasure, like a tragedy.' He told tall tales about natural history . . . Once he invented an elaborate story designed to show how fond he was of telling the truth. It was a boy's way of manipulating the world" (p. 13).

"He often told lies about seeing rare birds," concurs Janet Browne. "The lies were not connected to any sense of shame . . . More accurately, they mirrored a search for attention. He wanted to be admired . . . Lies—and the thrills derived from lies—were for him indistinguishable from the delights of natural history" ( Charles Darwin: Voyaging, pp. 13—14)

As we will see, these tendencies for clever but unfounded tales and the fondness for hiding secrets would, regrettably, arise later in his adult life. As one biographer notes, "There will always be an ineluctable mystery surrounding the origin of the theory of natural selection, just as there will always be a shadowy web surrounding the real Charles Darwin" (Loren Eiseley, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, 1979, p. 93).

Darwin was not a very good student at school. He quit medical school, only to be rescued by his wealthy father and sent to Cambridge in the hope he would make something of himself.

He confessed in his autobiography: "When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in it; and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, 'You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat—catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.'"

Around the world on the Beagle

His father, although inwardly rejecting Christianity, thought the best thing for his undisciplined and carefree son would be to live the comfortable life of a country parson, wherein he could placidly pursue his interests in natural history.

Darwin actually completed his theology degree and for a while embraced Scripture, but before he could find a job in the clergy he was offered a berth on the British vessel HMS Beagle, as the captain's dining companion. He was not the naturalist on board, a role given to the ship's surgeon. Those five years on a trip around the world would radically change his life and beliefs.

Four great experiences then shaped Darwin's future. The first was the trip itself—he discovered a wonderment and love for natural history and geology that would continue throughout his life.

Secondly, he would rebel at the bigoted Christianity of the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy.

Thirdly, he read Charles Lyell's books on geology arguing the earth was millions of years old, shaking his faith in the Bible and ending any desire for a career in the clergy.

Fourth, he became perplexed by the different varieties of creatures he encountered, especially in the Galapagos Islands. He wondered how these differing species could fit into the standard creationist accounts of his day.

Returning to England and wearied by the long and perilous journey, he vowed never to sail again. He would spend most of his life within the confines of his rural home in Downe and in London, some 15 miles away.

At 29, he married his first cousin, Emma, and it looked like he would become another British squire, living comfortably off his father's money and surrounded by a cohort of cooks, maids, butlers and gardeners. He was never duly employed by anyone and had all the wealth and free time he needed to seek whatever interests suited him.

Conflicting ideas on natural selection

He dedicated his life to the study of nature, deeply desirous of making a name for himself as a naturalist.

While reading Thomas Malthus' book Essay on the Principle of Population, he was struck by the similarity between man's competitive struggle for limited resources and the constant fight for survival in nature, providing a possible basis for evolution—natural selection, the survival of the fittest. "Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work," he wrote.

In Darwin's conception, random genetic mutations would give some offspring physical advantages over others. These fitter creatures would outlive their companions in struggles with environmental conditions and with one another, enabling them to reproduce in greater numbers, passing the genetic advantages on to the next generation. Darwin imagined that over many generations this would give rise to whole new species—thus explaining all the kinds of plant and animal life we see.

As he mused over evolution, then called transmutation, Darwin started to question the need for a Creator God. He began to write some secret notebooks on the subject, afraid to divulge his radical ideas. For a country gentleman with a Christian wife and many Christian friends, he wanted to keep his heretical thoughts to himself. He said they made him feel like "confessing a murder."

So he cleverly disguised his ideas and used many euphemisms. "He began devising ways of camouflaging his materialism," say Desmond and Moore. "Don't mention it, he admonished himself, talk only of inherited mental behavior: 'To avoid stating how far, I believe, in Materialism,' he scrawled in a rush, 'say only the emotions[,] instincts[,] degrees of talent, which are heredetary [sic] . . .' He was learning to guard his words" (p. 259).

Yet in his secret notebooks he was candid enough to say to himself, "Oh, you Materialist!" In the terminology of the day, this meant one who believed that only matter exists in the universe and that this strictly material universe is governed by physical laws without the need for a Creator.

Sadly, as he tried to live a respectable life that outwardly appeared very normal, his conscience was being torn by his shocking beliefs. "But now, deep into his clandestine work," continue Desmond and Moore, "compiling notes that would shock his geological compatriots, his health was breaking. He was living a double life with double standards, unable to broach his species work with anyone . . . for fear he be branded irresponsible, irreligious, or worse" (p. 233).

Two devastating deaths in the family

Next, he received two devastating blows to his young family. According to biographer Janet Browne, the death of his beloved daughter Annie at age 10, followed a year later by the death of his firstborn son William, caused great bitterness toward God. "This death was the formal beginning of Darwin's conscious dissociation from believing in the traditional figure of God . . . Bleakness swept in. The gradual numbing of his religious feelings . . . and the godless world of natural selection he was even then still creating came implacably face to face with the emptiness of bereavement" (p. 503).

Yet, ironically, some might say Darwin was a victim of his own theory of natural selection because of the genetic dangers of inbreeding.

In 1839, he married Emma, his first cousin. Both families had intermarried through first cousins for some time, a dangerous trend for heredity. Twenty—six children were born from these first—cousin marriages; 19 were sterile and five died prematurely, including Darwin's daughter and first son. Many suffered from mental retardation or other hereditary illnesses, as was the case with his last son. All these effects engendered great hostility toward the idea of a personal, intervening God.

"A Devil's Chaplain"

Darwin wrestled at this time with publishing his theory, fearing ostracism. Moore writes: "The strain showed . . . In a letter, Darwin . . . blurted, 'What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!' It was a book that Darwin feared he might be accused of writing, a book that would reveal him as an unbeliever and open him to punishment—like the original Devil's Chaplain, Rev. Robert Taylor—the Cambridge graduate and apostate priest, who was twice imprisoned for blasphemy" ("Darwin—A Devil's Chaplain?" online edition).

He finally did write what he called his "accursed book," but most of the writings were hidden away for 20 years. Only after a colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him a paper with essentially the same theory was his hand forced. Fearing Wallace might get credit for the theory, Darwin first read his own paper and then Wallace's at a scientific meeting.

From the time he began to write his secret notebooks on evolution and materialism, he started to suffer terrible psychosomatic disorders for most of his long life. He experienced some 40 years of generally poor health.

Not only was he suffering from what seemed to be psychologically induced illnesses, but he was also racked with doubts about his own book. He confessed to some fellow scientists: "It is a mere rag of an hypothesis with as many flaws & holes as sound parts . . . [but] I can carry in it my fruit to market . . . A poor rag is better than nothing to carry one's fruit to market in." To another colleague he wrote, "I . . . have devoted my life to a phantasy [sic]" (quoted by Desmond and Moore, pp. 475—477).

The fruit he wanted to market was his theory of evolution—which included a direct attack on the prevailing notions of God, Christianity and the Bible. And what deadly fruit it turned out to be!

As Desmond and Moore explain: "Plumbing the radical depths Darwin saw the cataclysmic consequences. 'Once grant that species . . . may pass into each other . . . & the whole fabric totters & falls.' The Creationist 'fabric' and all it entailed was his target. He peered into the future and saw the old miraculous edifice collapsing" (p. 243).

A man for the times

Although torn with doubt, Darwin's ideas came at an opportune moment for him. It was a period deeply affected by the French Revolution and the overthrow of many European monarchies and clerical power. In his autobiography Darwin wrote, "Nothing is more remarkable than the spread of skepticism or rationalism during the latter half of my life." He was able to take advantage of the radical political and social winds that were blowing his way.

The age of positivism had arrived, promising science would lead to an epoch of constant scientific and material progress, ultimately answering all of man's questions and solving his problems without the help of religion. It was also a time when the churches of Britain were viewed by many radicals like Darwin as corrupt and outdated.

Darwin proposed a theory that essentially displaced the Creator God, with only physical and undirected mechanisms such as natural selection and adaptation doing the creating. "His vision," state Desmond and Moore, "was no longer of a world personally sustained by a patrician God, but self—generated. From echinoderms [marine creatures such as starfish] to Englishmen, all had arisen through a lawful redistribution of living matter in response to an orderly changing geological environment" (p. 237).

It should be noted that in later editions of The Origin of Species , Darwin did add the term "Creator" in a few places and in his conclusion, in one place stating: "There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one." Yet he later confessed to his outraged colleagues that this impression of theistic or deistic evolution was to soothe the feelings of his Christian wife and of a likeminded public.

Even so, Darwin admitted to wavering views and claimed to be an agnostic. In an 1879 letter he wrote: "I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God . . . Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind" (Darwin to J. Fordyce, published by him in Aspects of Scepticism, 1883).

Consequences of the theory

The results of Darwin's theory of—evolution were dramatic. Atheism and secularism became widely popular. As one of today's most ardent modern supporters of Darwin and atheism, Richard Dawkins, has famously said, "Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist" ( The Blind Watchmaker , 1986, p. 6).

So scientific materialism spread like wildfire. Karl Marx, the father of communism, out of gratitude to Darwin, sent him Das Kapital, his principal book on com—munism. "Although developed in the crude English fashion," he wrote to his communist colleague Friedrich Engels, "this [Darwin's The Origin of Species ] is the book which in the field of natural history, provides the basis for our views." To another he wrote that Darwin's work "suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle" (Browne, p. 188).

This evolutionary backing eventually helped establish the philosophical framework for the twin scourges of communism and atheism in Russia, China and many other nations.

As Darwin's ideas gained respectability, moral absolutes were increasingly questioned. If there is no Creator, then it seemed all things are permissible. If there is no God, then there are no ultimate consequences. If there is no greater authority than yourself, then the rules of survival of the fittest are in effect and back the idea that you can succeed by any means by applying the law of the jungle—only the strong survive.

To cap it off, Darwin wrote in 1871 his Descent of Man, describing human descent from apes, a book with considerable baseless speculation and even racist claims—including that of white supremacy (as whites were reckoned as further from apes along the evolutionary advancement chain than blacks).

Hitler later used some of these ideas, called "social Darwinism," in World War II to eradicate millions of Jews and others he thought were racially inferior. He said: "Nature is cruel, therefore we, too, may be cruel . . . I have the right to remove millions of an inferior race that breeds like vermin! . . . Natural instincts bid all living beings not merely conquer their enemies, but also destroy them" (quoted by Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction, 1940, pp. 137—138).

In effect, Hitler could say he was applying the theory of evolution and only quickening the inevitable end of the weak. This was necessary to make room for a fitter, superior race. It gave him what he thought was a scientific and moral validity for his warped views—and some 65 million people died in World War II largely because of those warped views.

Flaws in Darwin's theory

As we near the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, we find a world deeply divided over Darwin's ideas. The belief in God, creation and the Bible has not disappeared, although admittedly it has been greatly weakened.

Yet as more scientific discoveries are made, including the intricacies of the human DNA genome (consisting of carefully assembled instructions 3 billion genetic letters long), the mind—boggling complexity of the cell and the millions of missing transitional forms between different animal and plant types, Darwin's theory truly is in trouble.

"As recently as twenty—five years ago," noted Patrick Glynn, a former atheist and a Ph.D. from Harvard, in 1997, "a reasonable person weighing the purely scientific evidence on the issue would likely have come down on the side of skepticism. That is no longer the case. Today the concrete data point strongly in the direction of the God hypothesis" ( God: The Evidence, 1997, pp. 55—56).

But many scientists are unwilling to give up evolution because of the theological and philosophical implications.

"We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs," Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin once candidly admitted, "in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just—so—stories, because we have a prior commitment . . . to materialism . . . We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door" ("Billions and Billions of Demons," New York Review of Books, Jan. 9, 1997, p. 31).

Where's the evidence?

Of course, what Darwin always lacked was the evidence of transitional forms between one—celled and multi—celled organisms, between reptiles and mammals, and between apes and men, just to name a few. He even asked: "Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory" ( The Origin of Species, 1958, Mentor edition, pp. 293—294).

So what did he do? He explained away the missing fossil evidence—saying the geologic record was sparsely excavated and imperfect. Yet, today, according to biochemist Michael Denton, of the 44 orders of living terrestrial vertebrates, 43 have been found as fossils (a 97 percent recovery rate!). And no transitional forms have been found among these groups. Not even, for instance, anything in between reptile scales and bird feathers—and these are groups of creatures supposedly related.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould admitted, "The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology" ( The Panda's Thumb, 1980, p. 181).

If Darwin's theory is correct, there should be millions of transitional forms—animals and plants in different stages of transformation into other kinds through mutation and natural selection. In fact, if evolution were true, we should see far more transitional forms than fully complete, fully functioning species. In addition, we should expect to clearly see gradually changing creatures in the more than one million species on earth and the even more numerous fossil types. Yet none have been found.

There are some reports that Darwin had a shift in thinking near the end of his life—perhaps regretting how far his ideas had been taken and even accepting the idea of salvation through Christ (though still believing in evolution). While possible, as Darwin considered personal beliefs to be private, none of his family ever admitted to such a change in his thinking, including his believing wife. And for society it wouldn't have really mattered, as his disciples would not have turned back.

Biographers Desmond and Moore conclude on page 677 with the following scene as Darwin is solemnly laid to rest in Westminster Abbey: "It marked the accession to power of the traders in nature's marketplace, the scientists and their minions in politics and religion. Such men, on the up—and—up, were paying their dues, for Darwin had naturalized Creation and delivered human nature and human destiny into their hands. Society would never be the same. The ' Devil's chaplain' had done his work." GN

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