“Man is But a Worm,” a cartoon published at the end of 1881 in the Punch almanac for 1882. Picking up on the fact that Charles Darwin’s last book was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881), the artist put Darwin’s head at the end of a spiral that emerges from “CHAOS” in the lower left corner and proceeds to advance through worms, monkeys, and primitive humans before arriving at the pinnacle of civilization—an Englishman in his top hat. Immediately behind the hat is a dial indicating that “[thou]sands of centuries” have passed on the circular “Timesmeter” (image source).
Six weeks ago I finished a long series about Antebellum religion and science. American thinking in that period was dominated by the notion that God has written two “books,” nature and Scripture, which ought to be read together and ultimately must agree. Ultimately inspired by the famous philosopher Francis Bacon, “concordism,” seeks a harmony or concord between science and the Bible. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, two years before the Civil War began. The two top Antebellum proponents of concordism, Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock, died during the war. They had both rejected evolution, whether found in Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) or in Darwin. Thus the question arises naturally: How Darwin change American thinking about science and the Bible?
Most American scientists of the next generation came to accept evolution before the end of the 1870s, but this does not mean that the concordist attitude simply disappeared from sight. As we will see in coming months, the same types of old-earth creationism espoused by Silliman and Hitchcock were popular among the fundamentalists of the 1920s, and concordist readings of God’s two “books” have remained influential down to our own day. Since the 1960s, however, many conservative Protestants have rejected concordism in favor of young-earth creationism, because they believe that the book of nature is much harder to read reliably than the book of Scripture. Non-concordist approaches have also been favored by those Christians who accept evolution—whether or not they maintain orthodox beliefs about God the creator and Christ the redeemer.
We’ll learn more about all of these episodes in this series, but first we need to understand Darwin’s story.
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.
In 1787 the Wedgwood Company made this famous jasperware medallion for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade, founded that year by Thomas Clarkson, depicting a slave in chains with the motto, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” (image source)
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.
The great painter Joseph Wright of Derby made two lovely portraits of Erasmus Darwin, this one (ca. 1770) when the subject was about 38 years old. Erasmus lived in Derby, and both men frequented the Lunar Society of Birmingham along with many other luminaries, including Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister who shares credit for discovering oxygen, and James Watt, who invented a new type of steam engine. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (image source).
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).
Josiah’s daughter Susanna Wedgwood married Erasmus’ son Robert Darwin. Her brother later became Charles Darwin’s father-in-law (i.e., Charles married his first cousin). (image source)
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.
Looking Ahead: The Education of a Naturalist
Next time we’ll review Darwin’s education, stressing the crucial influences of certain science professors at the two universities he attended, Edinburgh and Cambridge.