No one is more closely associated with evolution than Charles Darwin, yet many people today lack an accurate picture of his life and beliefs. Many do not know that he staunchly opposed slavery, that he never regarded himself as an atheist, that he probably believed in God the Creator when the earliest versions of The Origin of Species were written. Few realize that he sought to make biology more scientific, reflecting more clearly the law-bound sciences of physics and astronomy, that his theory of evolution was partly based on the free-market economics of Adam Smith, or that he himself left open the door for a new type of natural theology that cannot be refuted by evolution. This series explores topics such as these, concluding with a brief look at some important objections to his theory raised by a very thoughtful critic who reviewed his book at length a few years after it was published.
I begin by sketching Darwin’s family background.
A Tale of Two Families: The Darwins and the Wedgwoods
Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809—exactly the same day as Abraham Lincoln. I cannot think of a more august historical coincidence. For two white boys from England and America at that time, it’s hard to imagine family circumstances more different. Literally born in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky, Lincoln grew up in Baptist family of very modest means, had almost no formal education, and worked very hard to earn a meager living before receiving a license to practice law in his twenty-eight year. Darwin, on the other hand, was born (as the English say) with a silver spoon in his mouth. The son of a highly successful country surgeon who had also married into wealth, Darwin received a first-class education and never had to work a day in his life.
What they had in common was far more important: brilliance, the ability to write well, and racist views by modern standards coupled with a deep hatred of slavery. Lincoln’s family belonged to an anti-slavery church in Indiana, he witnessed slavery for himself on a flatboat trip to New Orleans at age twenty-two, and battled politically first to limit its spread and then to end it. Darwin’s grandfathers opposed slavery and helped fund the efforts of William Wilberforce to prohibit British ships from carrying slaves, and he saw slavery with his own eyes in Brazil in his early twenties.
Charles’ grandfather Erasmus Darwin, born two months before George Washington, was a physician, author, and philanderer. His other grandfather was the highly successful industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, whose daughter married Erasmus’ son Robert Waring Darwin. Both families were free-market capitalists and religious liberals, the Darwins unrepentant deists and the Wedgwoods Unitarians. Charles’ wife, Emma Wedgwood (Josiah’s granddaughter), was a pious women who revered the Bible but did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.
Significantly, Erasmus was an early advocate of transmutation—what we now call evolution. In one of his many books, Zoönomia (1794), he mentioned both extinction and transmutation: “If this gradual production of the species and genera of animals be assented to, a contrary circumstance may be supposed to have occurred, namely, that some kinds by the great changes of the elements may have been destroyed” (Vol. 1, p. 399).
Thus, evolution was already in the family when Charles Darwin was born. We mustn’t trivialize the originality of Charles’ own version of it, but it wasn’t created from nothing. It evolved from pre-existing forms.
A Tale of Two Schools: Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, though sometimes very cold, even in mid-summer. I still remember a July afternoon nearly thirty years ago, when a bitter wind blew me off the streets and into the woolen shops for for something to fortify me against the icy blast. Charles Darwin went there in 1825 at age 16, sent by his father to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he had studied himself. It didn’t work out. He was revolted by operations in the surgical theatre—who wouldn’t be, at a time before the invention of anesthesia? As he recalled decades later, he “saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.”
On the other hand, he very much liked learning about natural history, especially from Robert Grant, an Edinburgh native twice Darwin’s age who was the leading invertebrate zoologist in Great Britain. Having studied in Paris with Cuvier and Geoffroy St Hilaire, Grant brought French evolutionary ideas to Scotland and began to proclaim them while Darwin was there. An atheist, anti-clerical materialist, and perhaps a homosexual, Grant was a genuine radical. He was also a prominent member of two important organizations of naturalists, the Plinian Society and the Wernerian Society. Grant took Darwin and some other students to the meetings of those societies and on field trips to collect specimens of marine life in the rich ecosystem of the Firth of Forth. He was especially fond of sponges and sea-slugs.
Although they soon had a falling out, when Darwin felt that Grant had not properly credited him for certain discoveries that Grant published, he was initially enthralled by Grant and thrived under his tutelage. He was not yet an evolutionist himself, but as Peter Bowler says, “the programme of research begun in Edinburgh would be revived on the Beagle voyage,” and Darwin would move ever closer to Grant’s view that the animal and vegetable kingdoms were linked historically (quoting Bowler, cited below, p. 40).
Darwin also sat through Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology. (I talked about Jameson in connection with Benjamin Silliman last year.) He found Jameson “incredibly dull,” adding that “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science.” How little he really knew about himself, it seems. It’s no secret that Darwin wasn’t the most studious person on campus, so we mustn’t judge Jameson solely on this basis.
Since a medical career was clearly not in the offing, Darwin’s father suggested that he consider becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. Coming from a “freethinker” like Robert Darwin, that may seem a bit surprising, but he loved his son, accepted his son’s religious faith, and knew that it would make for a respectable career, with a guaranteed income and plenty of time for doing natural history. Charles wasn’t sure that he fully accepted the 39 Articles of the Church of England (their statement of faith, formulated during the Reformation), but he took his father’s advice. He left Edinburgh and enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
A Tale of Two Schools: Cambridge
At Cambridge, Darwin studied classics, divinity, and mathematics—not biology, at least not officially within the curriculum. Cambridge was only just getting up to speed in many of the sciences, so students weren’t examined on them yet, but they could opt to hear lectures and take part in various scientific activities. Darwin particularly enjoyed hearing the lectures and going on field trips with botany professor John Henslow, an ordained minister, to whom Darwin was introduced by his cousin, the future clergyman W. Darwin Fox, who also taught him how to collect insects. He became a frequent dinner guest at Henslow’s home, and Henslow encouraged him to become a “naturalist,” someone who studied widely in geology, botany, zoology, and natural history. Darwin was interested in all of those areas.
Geologist Adam Sedgwick was also at Cambridge then, but Darwin did not attend his lectures—recall his experience with Jameson’s geology lectures at Edinburgh. In his final year, however, he did go on field trips with Sedgwick and became fascinated with learning how to interpret rock strata, just at that time in the history of geology when interpreting rock strata was the biggest game in town.
Overall, however, Darwin was not a particularly good student; he’d much rather go “shooting” (hunting for birds and small game) and he was not very good at mathematics, though he did better in divinity classes. One topic that did catch his attention was the natural theology of William Paley. As many readers know, Paley brought the centuries’ old English tradition of writing natural theological works to a height. Although he had few original thoughts of his own, he was unusually gifted at capturing the essence of well-known arguments from others and composing very persuasive prose in which to present it. Paley stressed how creatures were exquisitely adapted to specific environments, and their inter-relatedness in what was commonly known as the “economy of nature”, a concept and term originating with the great naturalist Linnaeus that Darwin would fully embrace, even to the extent of using that exact term himself. The crucial difference would be that Darwin later turned Paley on his head, explaining the whole economy of nature in terms of common ancestry driven by natural selection, a concept he took from Thomas Malthus’ work on the “economy of man.”
When Darwin finished his degree in the spring of 1831, he was more interested in science than the ministry. Consequently, when a major opportunity to pursue scientific research came his way a few months later, thanks to Henslow, he jumped at it.
Having surveyed Darwin’s university days, we now present an account of his experience on a life-changing voyage around the world. Although he wasn’t an evolutionist during the voyage, what he saw and learned would soon lead him to adopt an evolutionary view of natural history.
The Education of a Naturalist
A few months after Darwin completed his studies at Cambridge, in August 1831, he received an eventful letter from John Henslow, the botany professor who had so graciously taken Darwin under his wing and into his home. Indeed as Peter Bowler says, “it was Henslow who encouraged Darwin to become a full-time naturalist” (cited below, p. 43). Henslow told Darwin that he was positioned “to recommend [to the British Admiralty] a naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S[outhern]. extremity of America.” He was frank: “I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation— I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History.” Robert FitzRoy, the young captain of HMS Beagle, “wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman.”
If you’ve seen the film, Master and Commander, or read the novel by Patrick O’Brian—whose books are admired by naval historians for their highly accurate pictures of seafaring life in the age of Napoleon—then you’ve already had a glimpse of what FitzRoy wanted. Did you notice that the British captain (played in the film by Russell Crowe) forms a close friendship with the ship’s surgeon (played by Paul Bettany)? That’s realistic to the period, a time when most sailors were uneducated, even illiterate young men, some of them just adolescent boys. Like O’Brian’s captain Aubrey, Captain FitzRoy needed to bond with “a gentleman,” that is, a man of education and refinement, with whom he could share personal thoughts and adventures on shore. Furthermore, the captain of a ship was under great psychological stress. Not only was he held responsible for keeping his ship clear of shoals and storms, as far as possible, but the very lives and health of his crew were ultimately in his hands. On top of that, he had to ensure that every single man on board—and they were all male in those days—was prepared to obey any lawful order without hesitation, even an order that put him directly in harm’s way. Disobedient sailors must literally be whipped into obedience. The strict discipline that a successful captain had to administer necessarily kept him emotionally distant from his crew: in short, it could be a very lonely job, and madness was a known occupational hazard. FitzRoy sought to share his table with an educated civilian—someone not under his authority in the same way, someone who might add his expertise to the scientific purpose of the voyage while providing interesting conversation and offering a release valve for the pressure-cooker that was the lot of the sea captain.
FitzRoy had never met Darwin before Henslow all but offered Darwin the job, but he knew he didn’t want to go it alone on this expedition. The Beagle had already made a voyage to South America, and FitzRoy had served as an officer on the flagship of the flotilla. It ended badly. The captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes, worn down by violent gales, mountainous seas, and a long list of chronically ill seamen, became so depressed at Tierra del Fuego that he shot himself in the head, lingering for twelve days before gangrene ended his life.
The twenty-three-year-old FitzRoy, a type-A personality from a family of distinguished public servants, rather unexpectedly was appointed to Stokes’ role for the duration of the voyage and occupied the same cabin—a development that he must have viewed with great anxiety. Six years earlier his mother’s brother, leader of the House of Commons, had slit his own throat with a razor—an event that left a powerful impression on the young FitzRoy, who would do exactly the same thing himself many years later.
For the time being, however, he wanted civilian companionship to keep the demons at bay. A very capable surveyor and meteorologist, he was also a very conservative Christian, strongly committed to mission work but he did not share the staunch opposition to slavery that was so deeply rooted in Darwin’s family history. Darwin himself would detest slavery when he saw it up close in Brazil. As Janet Browne points out, although the aristocratic FitzRoy “did not by any means endorse slavery, he saw nothing wrong with paternalism and its associated systems of tied and virtually unwaged labour.” It was difficult for someone of his patrician background “to equate wage slavery,” in which his family was immersed, “with chattel slavery” (cited below, p. 198). Darwin and FitzRoy would have some bitter arguments, including a major one about slavery, but also some great adventures together on shore.
First, however, Darwin had to convince his father to consent—and to pay for his food and scientific supplies. The job didn’t come with a paycheck. Today we’d call it an unpaid internship, but it lasted almost five years (three years longer than planned). However, after his uncle Josiah Wedgewood enthusiastically endorsed the idea, his father caved in and provided the necessary financial support.
Prior to the voyage, Darwin later said, “the sagacious Henslow … advised me to get and study the first volume of the ‘Principles,’ which had then just been published, but on no account to accept the views therein advocated” (Autobiography). Darwin was referring to Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology (1830-33), which advocated a non-progressive interpretation of earth history that Henslow did not accept. FitzRoy kindly gave Darwin a copy; the second and third volumes arrived by mail, at ports in South America, during the voyage.
He quickly became “a zealous disciple of Mr Lyell’s views,” he told his cousin, W. Darwin Fox, in August 1835. Observations of the after-effects of an earthquake in Chile, especially at Concepción, where the cathedral was destroyed, reinforced Lyell’s view that the land rose and fell, relative to the sea. FitzRoy recorded that the nearby island of Santa Maria was lifted several feet. Darwin later used the same idea as the basis for his own theory of coral reefs—his first really important piece of science.
The Galapagos Islands: What Really Happened?
According to the traditional story—which we now know is wrong—Darwin had an epiphany at the Galapagos Islands, where the Beagle landed in Sept 1835. Supposedly, it was there that Darwin noticed how the birds and tortoises differed markedly from one island to the next—especially the finches. Right then and there, the story goes, Darwin started to become an evolutionist; he started to question the traditional view of the separate creation of fixed and permanent species.
In fact, Darwin did not realize how important this was while he was there. The specimens of birds he had taken from the various islands were scrambled together, and he did not fully sort out which ones had come from which islands until he got back to London and got help from ornithologist John Gould. Indeed, Darwin himself contributed to the misunderstanding: when he revised his popular book about the voyage, Journal of Researches, for a second edition, conclusions he reached only later on were used to shape the interpretation of his experiences and observations at the time. To be fair, he did say that for some time he had failed to realize how important this was.
The truth of the matter, as psychologist and historian Frank Sulloway has shown, is that Darwin’s major interest during the voyage was geology, not biology. Indeed, his first publications after he returned were geological, such as his work on the elevation of the Andes Mountains and the formation of coral atolls in the Pacific. According to Sulloway, the chief benefit of the voyage for his later work was the confidence it gave him in his own scientific abilities—which enabled him to tackle evolution.
So far we’ve examined Darwin’s family background and university education, leading up to his long internship on HMS Beagle. Now we get to the meat of the matter: his theory of evolution by natural selection, which was to a significant degree an idea shaped by ideas put forth by Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, two giants of British economics. Basically, Darwin took ideas from the “economy of man” and applied them to the “economy of nature.” This is why some historians like to say that only a nineteenth-century Englishman could have come up with evolution by natural selection.
The Mystery of Mysteries
When the Beagle arrived back in England in Oct 1836, Darwin was not yet an evolutionist. Soon he moved to London, where he became involved in the Geological Society of London (the most active scientific group at the time) and befriended geologist Charles Lyell, the doyen of British natural history whose ideas about the great age of the Earth and the very gradual pace of geological change had been, and would remain, so influential on him.
At just this point, Darwin started compiling several notebooks devoted to the species question: how are species related to one another in time? What factors must be explained? We get a sense of his quandary from a line in a notebook devoted to transmutation (the word then used to mean what we now call “evolution”): “Herschel calls the appearance of new species the mystery of mysteries.” John Herschel, son of the great astronomer William Herschel, was a prominent philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. Darwin had visited him when the Beagle stopped at the Cape of Good Hope en route back to England. Just a few months earlier, Herschel had written to Lyell, in appreciation for Lyell’s Principles of Geology. He also commended Lyell’s boldness for addressing “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others.” Lyell had not accepted transmutation at that point, but he had put the question prominently on the table. Herschel went on to endorse a Creator who “operates through a series of intermediate causes,” adding that if we were ever to understand the production of new species, it “would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process.”
Herschel’s view was about to become Darwin’s view, and the connection was not lost on Darwin. As he put it later, reflecting on his experience in the Galapagos, “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.” The same phrase appeared once again in the second sentence of the introduction to On the Origin of Species.
At some point in 1837, Darwin became convinced that transmutation had taken place on a wide scale. Partly, this resulted from the influence of Lyell’s gradualism: sudden changes, such as special creation, just would not do for scientific explanations. However, Darwin lacked a plausible mechanism for transmutation—how did it work? He did not find Lamarck’s idea—that traits acquired by an organism during its lifetime could be inherited by its offspring—very convincing.
Enter the Reverend Thomas Malthus: the Struggle to Survive
Darwin found the answer in the autumn of 1838, when he read Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and seq.), by clergyman and political economist Thomas Robert Malthus. Near the end of his life, Darwin recalled reading Malthus simply “for amusement,” but we now know that it was actually part of a focused study he was then doing of the implications of evolution for human beings (quoting his Autobiography, p. 120). The problem that concerned Malthus was overpopulation. As he saw it, without applying artificial checks, rapidly increasing human population would inevitably outstrip slow advances in our ability to produce food, leading to widespread starvation. Furthermore, an increasing labor force would depress wages. His solution? Marry later in life, so that fewer children would be born. (It’s ironic that Darwin was reading that particular advice just as he was contemplating his own, relatively late, marriage to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood!)
The survival of Darwin’s notebooks puts historians like me in the anteroom of heaven: we get to see the ideas precisely as Darwin saw them, as they developed in his mind. In this case, here is what he wrote on 28 September 1838, in a commonplace book known by the glamorous name of “Notebook D”:
“The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change.—to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect by means however of volition of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.”
In the space of two sentences, Darwin took Malthus’ view of a grim struggle in the economy of man and read it into what he himself called “the economy of nature.” In the process, he obliterated William Paley’s benign natural theological vision of the wonderful “contrivances” of living things co-existing in a divinely created world. Indeed, he turned it upside down. Where Paley saw harmonious balance, extending even to predation, Darwin saw “a force like a hundred thousand wedges,” all trying to force their way into the same ecological niches, “by thrusting out weaker ones.”
Over the next six years, Darwin developed his theory enough to write it out at some length, first in a 35-page “Sketch” on natural selection (1842) and then in a much longer “Essay” of 230 pages (1844) that he wasn’t yet ready to publish. This was the situation when, in June 1858, he received an unpublished paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, an English naturalist living in the Maylay Islands who had independently hit upon the same idea of evolution by natural selection—also after reading Malthus. It was a remarkable coincidence, though not unique in the history of science.
What was Darwin to do? He was crushed, telling Lyell that “all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” It was decided that Darwin would quickly write a paper of his own, and that both papers would be read at an upcoming scientific meeting, along with a letter Darwin had recently written to Harvard botanist Asa Gray in which he discussed his theory—as a way of proving that he hadn’t stolen the central idea from Wallace.
Immediately Darwin got busy finishing the long-postponed book. Publisher John Murray printed just 1,250 copies that were all purchased by bookshops on the very same day of publication, 24 Nov 1859. There would be five more editions, the last (1872) quite different from the first. The title of the third chapter, “Struggle for Existence,” emphasizes the over-fecundity of living creatures in the face of limited resources. This results in a competition to survive and to produce progeny. As Darwin stated, this is “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage” (p. 63f). The next chapter, called “Natural Selection,” argues that useful variations, advantageous variations, tend to survive. “This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection” (p. 81).
Enter Adam Smith: the Benefits of Competition
In addition to the influence of Malthus, which Darwin publicly acknowledged, there was also an important, unacknowledged influence from another British economist, the great Adam Smith, author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Darwin read Smith during that crucial period from 1837 to 1838, when he seemingly read everything he could get his hands on and evolution was percolating in his mind. Although he didn’t spell out the connection explicitly, as he did with Malthus, it’s still unmistakably present—not only as found in Smith’s book itself, but also in the general worldview of a nineteenth-century English gentleman from an upwardly mobile family.
A leading expert on the history of evolution, Edward J. Larson, deftly connects the dots as follows:
“Darwinism represented simply one among many logical developments of an increasingly pervasive Western mindset that accepted competition among people or groups of people as socially beneficial. During the late 1700s, Adam Smith argued that economic progress depended on individual competition. His faith in the natural harmony of human interactions gave him hope that all people would benefit from laissez-faire capitalism. Embracing laissez-faire, Thomas Malthus soon observed that some individuals must gain and others lose in any social competition due to limited resources. Referring to the process as a ‘struggle for existence’ (at least in the context of primitive human societies), Malthus wrote of the ‘goad of necessity’ bringing out the best in people. … With Origin of Species, Darwin pushed this line of reasoning a critical step further by presenting competition as producing fitter varieties, races, and ultimately species.” (Evolution, p. 185)
Furthermore, as Stephen Jay Gould insightfully pointed out, the parallel between Darwin’s natural selection and Smith’s “invisible hand” is remarkable. “The theory of natural selection is uncannily similar to the chief doctrine of laissez-faire economics” (cited below, p. 14). In both instances, there is no regulation from on high to govern the individual transactions; neither natural selection nor the invisible hand actually exists as a tangible entity, but each works to benefit the whole system.
In other words, just as Smith saw competition leading inevitably to specialization and diversification that enrich the economy of man, so Darwin saw competition leading inevitably to specialization and diversification that enrich the economy of nature.
Looking Ahead: Natural Selection, Politics, and Creationism Today
Whatever one may think of the evidence for common ancestry, the basic mechanism of natural selection was not very controversial then and is not very controversial now. Even young-earth creationists accept it. Why else would Ken Ham proclaim that “Natural Selection is Not Evolution!”? Writing about the antibiotic resistance of bacteria, Answers in Genesis biologist Georgia Purdom freely admits that, “the process of natural selection will occur, favoring the survival and reproduction of the mutant bacteria.” She even goes so far as to call this phenomenon “a testimony to the wonderful design God gave bacteria, master adapters and survivors in a sin-cursed world.” Creationists draw the line, however, at any effort to equate natural selection with evolution: adaptation governed by natural selection, in their view, operates only within, not across, the genetic boundaries of the original created “kinds,” whatever they were. I can almost hear Darwin laughing, since for him natural selection was inseparable from evolution.
Those Christians who have come to terms with Darwin, including myself, continue to struggle with the struggle Darwin saw in nature. How can a good God and a “very good” creation be reconciled with evolution by natural selection? There are no easy answers here, but I offered some pointers toward possible answers in another series. If nature does indeed have a cruciform shape, then perhaps this is not really quite so surprising.