Yours faithfully

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 52

DARWIN, CHARLES. 1809-1882. Autograph Letter Signed ("Ch. Darwin"),

Yours faithfully

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 44, Autumn 2015

Page 52

Did Charles Darwin believe in God? A letter sheds light on the beliefs of a conflicted man for whom religion would always be at odds with his theory of evolution. A.N. Wilson reads between the lines

It is a short letter, but it is highly revealing. A young barrister, Frank McDermott, who had been reading Darwin's books with interest, wrote in 1880 to ask the great naturalist if Darwinism was compatible with Christianity. McDermott wanted "a yes or no to the question, do you believe in the New Testament?" – and promised not to reveal the recipient's answer to the "theological papers". The elderly Darwin did not know the young man, but took him at his word, marking his reply 'Private'. "I am sorry to have to inform you," he wrote, "that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation & therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God. Yours faithfully". He left open the question of whether he believed in God at all.

The trajectory of Darwin's life is often depicted, especially by those who find him a gentle or sympathetic character, as if – in the matter of religious belief – he was a leaf blown by the wind, a man driven into agnosticism, if not absolute unbelief, by the sad consequence of having discovered the truth of how species evolve. As a young man, Darwin had been intended by his doctor father to be a clergyman of the Church of England. With this end in view, he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, and passed his exams, which involved reading a book called Evidences of Christianity, by a Fellow of Christ's and archdeacon of Carlisle named William Paley.

Darwin also enjoyed reading Paley's book Natural Theology – which has become famous in our own time because the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used its most famous analogy as the title for his bestseller, The Blind Watchmaker. The analogy is as follows: if you were walking across a field and came across an elaborately-constructed pocket watch, you would, when you saw how intricately it worked, conclude that it had a maker. By the same token, Paley had argued, when you find out about the laws of nature, the mind is ineluctably led to conclude that the universe did not appear by chance, but is the product of intelligent design.

Darwin certainly seems to have believed this as a young man, but by middle age, in spite of, or because of, being married to a very devout evangelical Christian – his cousin Emma – he had stopped regarding himself as an orthodox believer. His surviving children were unbelievers. And it is reasonable to suppose that the death of his beloved daughter Annie, aged ten, finished off the last vestiges of belief for him.

The persistence of his wife's faith was obviously a source of tension between them, even though they were a loving couple. Darwin, who had lost his own mother when he was nine, made Emma into a mother substitute. He called her 'Mammy'. Anger with the loved one who is lost plays a large part in the grieving process, but Darwin's anger with Susannah, his mother, for not being there, could not overtly be directed against dear, placid, kind Emma. It could very easily, however, be fired at 'Mammy'.

From quite early in his marriage, even before the death of Annie, Darwin had become an agnostic. The theory that species evolve by an impersonal process of micro-mutation, what he called 'natural selection', was not in fact unique to him, though he would always trumpet it as 'my theory'. The scientist Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the same idea almost simultaneously, as had a lesser-known amateur zoologist named Edward Blyth, a pharmacist from Tooting, whose articles expounding the theory of natural selection young Darwin had read shortly in the 1830s after his second voyage on HMS Beagle, on which he had been the ship's naturalist.

What made Darwin's contribution to the subject distinctive was that, from the beginning, there was a theological obsession running through it. He had believed in Paley's 'natural theology' – but only, it would seem with the 'watch' analogy. He does not refer to the later part of Paley's book, which expands and makes warm the other reasons for considering theism plausible.

Darwin then came to disbelieve. He likened it to becoming color blind. As he lost his religious faith, he also recorded his inability to appreciate poetry, and his loss of musicality. To avoid startling the public, he continued, in his published writings, to refer to a 'Creator', but his critics realized that this was simply a metaphor for the impersonal force of nature which drove forward 'natural selection'. He had somehow come to convince himself it was a substitute for God, disproved the Bible and made Christianity redundant, even when some of his staunchest allies, such as Thomas Huxley, professed a belief in 'macro-mutation', or evolution by leaps and starts.

Nowadays, the Darwinians are divided into two camps. Those who follow the late American biologist Stephen J. Gould accept that all the palaeontological evidence shows evolution happening in strange leaps, whereas those led by Richard Dawkins insist that only micro-mutation can be true. All this is the confused legacy of Darwin's original theological dilemmas. Believers in God are not committed to saying how God created the world, and there have been as many Christian thinkers who, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, passionately believed in Darwinianism, as those who believed that we came into being by a different process.

This late letter from Darwin, to be sold by Bonhams in New York's History of Science and Technology Sale, is confirmation that towards the end of his life, Darwin was prepared to 'come out' as an atheist, albeit in private. He remains one of the most knowledgeable, wide-ranging and comprehensively-minded naturalists the world has ever known – way up there with Aristotle, Pliny, and Linnaeus. His collections of specimens and his wide observation of birds, beetles, geology and so on were prodigious.

Alongside this, however, went a sort of anti-religious mania. Darwinism and the 'struggle for existence' was a way for the Victorian rich to remain in their selfish villas and carriages, ignoring the plight of the poor, and persuading themselves that this was 'the way things are'. Darwin, looking like a prophet, told them that their gross selfishness was the law of nature. That was why they made him a hero and buried him in Westminster Abbey. And why the Bank of England places the face of this very, very rich but muddled man on £10 notes.

A.N. Wilson is an award-winning novelist, biographer, journalist and the author of The Victorians and After the Victorians.

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