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“”An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
|—Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker|
Historians credit Darwin, along with Alfred Russel Wallace, as the co-discoverer of the now-accepted theory of evolution by natural selection, the precursor to what became known (post-genetics) as the modern evolutionary synthesis. Darwin is best known for writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Origin of Species is arguably one of the few books to bridge the gap between technical science and popular science, being useful both to practicing scientists (to understand both evidence and theory) and to the general public. It became a best-seller that fascinated the Victorian culture of its day, following the gradual discovery of the concept of deep time, which allowed natural selection to work. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, was an early evolutionary thinker who wrote and helped develop the concept of “transmutation of species”, which demonstrated the variation that life exhibits in the real world and how such features could be inherited. Charles’s extension of this was to apply natural selection to this process, whereby successful variations lived to reproduce and unsuccessful variations perished, leading to evolution. This led to him becoming one of the most influential scientists of the modern era.
Because of his association with evolution, Darwin often becomes a victim of the phenomenon known as quote mining. Confused by the completely different concepts of personality cult and scientific theory, modern creationists will turn to Darwin’s works and derisively take his comments, out of context, as ipso facto proof that evolution must be “wrong”.
Charles Robert Darwin was born in the county town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, England on 12 February 1809. His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, an inventor and fellow member of the Lunar Society,[note 1] who also proposed a theory that was similar to evolution. When Charles was little, he liked to pull pranks and make jokes. In school, he did not pay much attention to teachers, because he was more interested in science, like chemistry, and not interested in what the teachers taught him, which was mostly Greek and Latin classics and ancient civilizations and empires.
As he got older, he initially studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but having lost interest in becoming a doctor, he, being interested in nature, then decided to go beetle-hunting. He also joined the Glutton Club, where the members would eat something exotic, like a porcupine. His father, Robert Darwin, was not pleased and forced him to enroll in an Arts degree at Cambridge University, where his father hoped he might study towards a place in the Anglican clergy. He was still more interested in geology, botany and zoology than his academic studies.
Luckily, every cloud has a silver lining, and (after his graduation in 1831, and thanks to his reputation as a keen amateur naturalist) Darwin got a letter from a sea captain named Robert FitzRoy, who offered him a place on the HMS Beagle, a survey ship charting the coasts of South America. They spent much time in South America, mostly in Argentina and Peru, and made stops in Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, and the Galapagos. The voyage lasted five years and also took place in the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Darwin spent as much time as possible ashore at these locations during the voyage, studying the local wildlife while other members of the expedition concentrated on charting the coastlines.
It was during this voyage that Darwin began to develop his theory of natural selection, and over the following decades, he honed the theory, conducting further research and seeking evidence for common descent. A common misconception is that Darwin thought of his theory because of the finches of the Galapagos. Although it is true that the finches did help him formulate the theory, most of his ideas came not from birds, but from skeletons of modern armadillos and sloths, compared with fossils of glyptodonts and giant ground sloths. Obviously, Darwin’s finches sound better than Darwin’s glyptodonts or Darwin’s giant ground sloths. Being meticulous in every detail (as evidenced by his earlier work as a botanist and marine researcher), Darwin took a considerable amount of time to write Origin, and actually planned it to be a significantly longer, multi-volume book covering every piece of evidence and each facet of his theory in full detail. He eventually settled on publishing only one volume on evolution in general, saving his work on application to human evolution until his later The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
As a scientific background, much was already known and theorised about evolution when Darwin was collecting data and writing. The ability of animals to alter or mutate over time was well-established—much of this was evident in pre-industrialised agriculture in the form of selective breeding and indeed Darwin's first thought for explaining natural selection was to put it in terms of artificial selection and selective breeding first. This explanatory tactic was repeated a century and a half later by biologist Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show On Earth; replacing the selection used by humans to create better crops or new breeds of dog with undirected, but equally powerful, natural selection pressures produces the same result. The amount of time required for species to diversify so dramatically was also dawning on the scientific establishment. Victorian England played host to the first serious scientific studies of dinosaur fossils and the birth of modern palaeontology, and the exhibits of dinosaur reconstructions at the Crystal Palace pre-dated Darwin’s publication of Origin by six years.
On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, prompted by Alfred Wallace’s essay showing that he had hit on the same idea and might steal his thunder, although of course Darwin had been planning to publish his theory for some years.[note 3] While Darwin's initial papers on the subject of natural selection were only lukewarmly received by the scientific community initially, the book sold tremendously. Though it met with some criticism and scepticism both from within and outside the scientific community, it eventually became accepted as the definitive work of Darwinian evolution, the founding text on evolutionary biology, and something that stood the test of time against countless new discoveries in evolution; from genetics to punctuated equilibrium.
The famous conclusion to On the Origin of Species:
“”Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, di- rectly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on ac- cording to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
His later publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) proved much more controversial, since it explicitly placed humans within the evolutionary schema and presented extensive evidence for our animal ancestry. This provoked severe criticism, not least from the Church and its supporters, and ridicule, such as all those caricatures of Darwin as a monkey. This line of criticism remains popular with modern creationists to this day. Many tentatively accept evolution as described, but outright reject a relationship of humans to other animals; from the display in the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm listing reasons that humans and apes cannot be related, to the oft-asked “How come there are still monkeys?” This has most formally been described as a battle between macroevolution and microevolution, even though Darwin’s theory, and its modern formulations, have no room (neither theoretically nor empirically) for such a distinction.
Darwin was married and had ten children, though three died during childhood. He avoided discussing his views on religion in public, but his private writings (from the Beagle era onwards) show that he was increasingly critical of theology and Biblical literalism, and had many doubts about God, including concerns about the problem of evil. In a letter of 1879, he described himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist, but stated that belief in evolution is not incompatible with theism.
False controversies against Darwin
Was Darwin racist?
Many anti-science deniers of evolution — from Darwin’s lifetime to this very day — have done all they can to project Darwin in as bad a light as possible. One of the most prominent lies about Darwin is labeling him and his theory as racist.
Darwin was born to a wealthy family in England, surrounded by British imperialism and one of the most ethnocentric societies in world history. Almost all of the "scientific" authorities, anthropological colleagues, and religious figures around him trumpeted the dogma that whites were the superior race and blacks the most inferior, a racist conception that goes all the way back to the Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece such as Plato and his prominent student, Aristotle. Darwin was born into this environment, but he did not share those views. In fact, he was probably amongst the most egalitarian and progressive men and women of the 19th century. He challenged the anthropological and social status quo and rejected the prevailing prejudices of his time. He also got into an argument with the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, when the latter praised slavery while Darwin rejected it.
Darwin often praised those he met from so-called "primitive" cultures, and said that the nicest man he had ever met was a free military man of color stationed in South Africa. He was not afraid to criticize people of his own ethnicity and frequently criticized his peers’ bigotry against subjugated people. He found every aspect of slavery abominable and wrote extensively against it. For example, a quote of his about slavery reads:
I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have staid in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. … And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.
He opposed the genocide of indigenous peoples and opposed the societal favoritism and double standards of Caucasian invaders. He defined "savages" by their actions, not by their color or race. In fact, he feared that his theory would be used as an excuse for racialism. Unfortunately, it was misused.
The Descent of Man may start out sounding like typical English thinking towards different races, but Darwin is merely repeating what he was told by others about different races, and the further one reads into the book, the more obvious an evolution in his thinking can be seen, as Darwin constantly criticizes those racist tendencies and begins to question the idea of multiple races: he says that the label “race” is inadequately defined and not of any actual value regarding human beings, who are not sufficiently distinct to be considered separate species.
While racists today try to claim that there is some kind of division between races (which there are none, at least not scientifically), Darwin said that our biased judgments against other people are superficial and erroneous, and that no matter how distinct other people may appear to European eyes, there is no consistent demarcation, because some Africans share traits in common with some Caucasians and the same is true of every other group.
He said that every race blends into every other race so smoothly that it is impossible to determine any real division. He even pointed out that noted experts could not agree how many “races” there were or how to categorize them. Before Darwin was born, the scientist Carl Linnæus (father of modern biological nomenclature and Linnaean taxonomy) categorized humans into 6 different “races,” but Darwin criticized that too. He pointed out that not even the best authorities on the subject could agree on the number of races there were, and that some of his colleagues had proposed as many as 63 races. However, this continuum view of biological variation extended to all organisms, and Darwin did not deny the utility of divisions.
Extinction has only separated groups; it has by no means created them; for if every form which has ever lived on this earth were suddenly to reappear, though it would be quite impossible to give definitions by which each group could be distinguished from other groups, as all would blend together by steps as fine as those between the finest existing varieties, nevertheless a natural classification, or at least a natural arrangement, would be possible.
Darwin also discarded the idea of a “pure” or “superior” race, arguing that “racial purity” would lead to defects and “superiority” was a variable and determined by the environment (not by some act of will of purity), and since ecosystems frequently change it will therefore drive more variations with populations.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin did affirm the existence of differences between human races:
There is . . . no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other, — as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitutions, in acclimatisation and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the light-hearted, talkative negroes. There is a nearly similar contrast between the Malays and the Papuans, who live under these same physical conditions, and are separated from each other only by a narrow space of sea.
Moreover, it would not refute evolution in any way if he'd shared any, some or even most of the common racist views in his time — that would be an ad hominem fallacy. After all, racists can or could be right sometimes about random subjects (they just happen to be very wrong all the time).
False deathbed conversion
Elizabeth Reid Cotton, Lady Hope, a British evangelist, claimed that she met Darwin on his deathbed and that he had a deathbed conversion to Christianity. The story was not reported until three decades after Darwin’s death in an American Baptist newspaper, the Watchman-Examiner, on 15 August 1915. The story has been promoted by some modern-day evangelicals, but it has been debunked by both Darwin’s family and by James Moore. It is even denied by Answers in Genesis.
Selection among humans
Darwin believed that evolutionary theory held insights not only for understanding the natural world but also human societies. The transference of heredity traits could explain some of the differences between individuals and populations. Moreover, reproductive trends could change a population's character. In The Descent of Man, Darwin endorses a form of group selection among humans, believing tribal warfare would have selected for more pro-social groups:
[A]n increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.
Writing in the Nineteenth Century, Darwin saw such selection as ongoing with the decline of certain indigenous populations:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes ... will no doubt be exterminated. The break [between humanity and other species] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
Darwin was not an active eugenicist like his cousin Francis Galton. Nonetheless, he did voice concerns regarding dysgenics. He approvingly quoted the Greek poet Theognis saying that he "clearly saw how important selection, if carefully applied, would be for the improvement of mankind." Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man:
[T]he weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
This passage is often cited by critics absent context to show Darwin supported eugenics. However, despite this he went on to reject the idea in the same passage, saying to "check our sympathy" for people who have genetic problems would undermine the highest aspect of humanity, our compassion, and we should only console them not to reproduce (rather than coercive measured be used, like most eugenicists proposed).
2009: Darwin Year
The year 2009 was the bicentennial of Darwin’s birthday, and heretics everywhere gathered to celebrate. Darwin Day (February 12) joins Evolution Day (November 24) as another pain in the ass for creationism. That year was also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his best-seller, Origin of Species.
In popular culture
Darwin is also the name of a character in the Cartoon Network show The Amazing World of Gumball, who is Gumball’s pet goldfish that went through what the average person mistakenly believes to be evolution and became his brother.
He also appears as a character in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and is met by the protagonists, like every other well-known historical person in the series. Ironically enough, humans in the AC lore are the result of intelligent design—not by God, mind you—but by beings comparable to ancient astronauts, who were seemingly born on Earth. Where they came from is a mystery, though.
Charles Darwin is also present in the backstory of the X-Men villain Mr. Sinister, inspiring him through the theory of evolution into becoming obsessed with inducing mutation. Sinister then pursues a lengthy career of mad science and cartoon villainy and going by “Mister” despite being a doctor.
Perhaps most significantly, the creatures from the Alien film series are partially inspired by his writings on the ichneumonid wasp, whose parasitic reproductive cycle troubled philosophers, naturalists, and theologians in the 19th century, who found the insect inconsistent with the notion of a world created by a loving and benevolent God. Darwin found the example of the Ichneumonidae so troubling that it contributed to his increasing doubts about the nature and existence of a creator. In an 1860 letter to the American naturalist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote:
I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.
Darwin stated that “an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” He also stated that “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.”
In June 1850, his nine-year-old daughter Annie, who had been a particular favourite of his, fell sick and, after a painful illness, died on 23 April 1851. During Annie’s long illness, Darwin had read books by Francis William Newman, a Unitarian evolutionist who called for a new post-Christian synthesis and wrote that “the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil.” Darwin wrote at the time, “Our only consolation is that she passed a short, though joyous life.” For three years he had deliberated about the Christian meaning of mortality. This opened a new vision of tragically circumstantial nature. His faith in Christianity had already dwindled away and he had stopped going to church. He wrote out his memories of Annie, but no longer believed in an afterlife or in salvation.
In his autobiography, Darwin wrote of the period from October 1836 to January 1839:
During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, & I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.
- Alfred Russel Wallace — Fellow co-discoverer of natural selection, unfortunately many times forgotten
- Darwinism — The label for the scientific theory devised by Darwin and Wallace, later improved into Neo-darwinism (also known as "modern synthesis")
- Francis Galton — cousin, co-founder of the "school of thought" known as Social Darwinism
- Herbert Spencer — the other co-founder of Social Darwinism, who also coined the term "survival of the fittest"
- Social Darwinism — Misnamed "ideology" justifying racism
- Darwin Awards — A joke "award" given out to people who "help benefit the gene pool by removing their stupidity from it"
- Darwin’s Predictions — Creationist claptrap
- Thomas Henry Huxley — His bulldog
- On the Origin of Species (1859) — His magnum opus on evolution
- Darwin’s complete works online. Even the stuff about barnacles.
- About Darwin
- Ash Ketchum versus Charles Darwin
- Who were a group of intellectuals, not people who wanted to fly to the Moon. Interestingly, they jokingly called themselves “lunatics”.
- Talk about unlucky.
- Yes, he really took his time on this.
- Richard Dawkins (b 1941), page 6 of the book.
- Darwin, Charles (1860), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (2nd ed.), London: John Murray, retrieved 9 January 2009
- Letter to John Fordyce, 7 May 1879, transcribed at the Darwin Correspondence Project
- Lamichhanney, S.; Han, F.; Webster, M.; Anderson, L.; Grant R.; & Grant, P (Nov 2017). ""Rapid hybrid speciation in Darwin’s finches"".
- Darwin, Charles The Voyage of the Beagle Chapter 4: Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca
- Darwin, Charles The Voyage of the Beagle Chapter 21: Mauritius to England
- Journal of Research, page 499, Charles Darwin, 1845
- Darwin, Charles The Voyage of the Beagle Chapter 5: Bahia Blanca
- Darwin, Charles Descent of Man Chapter 21 General Summary and Conclusion
- Darwin, Charles Descent of Man page 225
- “Even the most distinct races of man are much more like each other in form than would at first be supposed; certain negro tribes must be excepted, whilst others, as Dr. Rohlfs writes to me, and as I have myself seen, have Caucasian features. This general similarity is well shewn by the French photographs in the Collection Anthropologique du Museum de Paris of the men belonging to various races, the greater number of which might pass for Europeans, as many persons to whom I have shewn them have remarked. Nevertheless, these men, if seen alive, would undoubtedly appear very distinct, so that we are clearly much influenced in our judgment by the mere colour of the skin and hair, by slight differences in the features, and by expression.” -Charles Darwin http://infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/descent_of_man/chapter_07.html
- “But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having intercrossed. Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory de St-Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke.” - Darwin, Descent of Man Chapter 7
- See the Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Cotton, Lady Hope.
- The Darwin Legend by James R. Moore (1994) ISBN 0801063183.
- Darwin’s Deathbed Conversion—a Legend? by Tommy Mitchell (March 31, 2009; last featured August 17, 2010) Answers in Genesis.
- Darwin Watterson - The Amazing World of Gumball Wiki
- "Nonmoral Nature". Retrieved 2011-04-05.
- "Letter 2814 — Darwin, C. R. to Gray, Asa, 22 May [1860"]. Retrieved 2011-04-05.
- Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
- Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
- van Wyhe, John (2008), Darwin: The Story of the Man and His Theories of Evolution, London: André Deutsch Ltd (published 1 September 2008), ISBN 0-233-00251-0
- Darwin, Charles (1958), Barlow, Nora, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his granddaughter Nora Barlow, London: Collins, retrieved 4 November 2008