Charles Darwin (1809-1882) has rightly acquired the reputation of an Olympian among scientists and is widely regarded as the greatest naturalist for his discovery of the holy grail of biology – the modern theory of evolution. Darwin’s life and scientific work grips the popular imagination to a degree reached by few other scientists.
Adventure and discovery on a famous voyage on the Beagle; the heart-rending tragedy of losing a most-loved daughter at such a young age; the publication of a blockbuster that fundamentally and irrevocably changed man’s self-image and ideas of his place in nature; burgeoning fame, but recurrent illness; burial in Westminster Abbey: these are just some of the key moments in the Darwin story. The fascination in studying Darwin’s life and scientific work perhaps lies in the paradox that the radically subversive and revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection was accomplished by such a genteel and eminently respectable Victorian.
Charles Darwin was possibly the most mild-mannered revolutionary of all time. The many religious and political controversies that Darwin’s theory of evolution posed will help us to appreciate the revolutionary and iconoclastic nature of his work and to understand the extraordinary personal dilemma of the author.
Before Darwin, the origins of life on earth were understood through a framework of interpretation known as "natural theology". The design of an omniscient and omnipotent God took pride of place in this explanatory scheme. Natural theologians supplied a beautiful evocation of life abounding with goodness and joy. All species of animals were complex mechanisms shaped in the divine workshop.
They were exquisitely fitted to their niches in the world and they were so well designed that there had to be a designer, just as every watch presupposes the existence of a watchmaker. This comforting and reassuring “argument from design” was radically undermined and could never recover from Darwin’s painstaking observational research and resultant theory of evolution by natural selection, for it was Darwin’s genius to provide a natural explanation for the organisational and functional design of living beings, thereby bringing the living world fully into the realm of natural science.
After his voyage on the Beagle – his reflections on Galapagos turtles and finches famously guiding him to understanding the evolutionary mechanism – Darwin had effectively rejected the prevailing Christian-influenced view. This held that organisms were perfectly adapted to their environment through God’s agency. Instead, Darwin suggested a conception of the natural world as an arena of incessant struggle between competing individuals with different degrees of fitness for survival.
His reading in 1838 of Malthus on population helped him clinch the formulation of the theory. Malthus had highlighted the tension between the “arithmetic” increase in food supply and the “geometric” rate of population growth, so that population increase was always checked by a limited food supply. Darwin saw that, under similar conditions in the natural world, favourable variations would be preserved and unfavourable ones destroyed. He became convinced that, over vast periods of time in response to changes in the environment, that mechanism provided the basis for the transmutation of species.
The result of these ideas was revealed many years later in Darwin’s bestseller, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). To the chagrin and indignation of many in Darwin’s social circle, the arguments in the Origin seemed to challenge many aspects of Victorian Christianity: the historical accuracy of the Creation narratives; the persuasive force of the argument from design; the meaning of humankind’s supposed contrivance in the image of God; the ultimate grounds of religious and moral values. There was certainly no room for God or miracles in this evolutionary explanation of the development of forms of life. Darwin’s identification of 'natural selection' as the mechanism of evolutionary change insisted that the apparent design in nature was not the result of God’s creative mind, but – alarmingly for respectable and devout Victorians – of random variation and struggle.
A longer-term perspective helps dramatise Darwin’s revolutionary accomplishment, for he effectively completed the project embarked upon by Copernicus when he dethroned the earth from its special place at the heart of God’s universe. After Darwin, not even man was special or the most favoured species in the eyes of God. Darwin’s fundamental scientific idea connected all life together; all life to nature – above all, linking humanity to nature. We, too, have evolved, just like other creatures and could no longer be viewed as separate from or above nature by divine dispensation. No wonder that Darwin memorably acknowledged that coming up with the theory of evolution was “like confessing a murder”.
It is worth reflecting on the extraordinary personal dilemma faced by this Victorian gentleman with a burdensome secret. Here was a man from a pious upper middle class family whose father, a well-to-do physician, wanted him to become an Anglican clergyman! After giving up on the idea of becoming a doctor, largely because of his horror at the dissection table and his dread of witnessing pain and suffering at the bedside, Charles moved south from radical Edinburgh to Tory-Anglican Cambridge, where he was encouraged by the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology, and the Reverend John Henslow, Professor of Botany. Of course, in this period, Oxbridge dons were clergymen by definition. These were men who stood steadfastly for God’s laws and for whom the very idea of transmutation was an abomination. Darwin’s recurrent illness, often attributed to psychosomatic causes, has been seen as a symptom of his pervasive fear over his dangerous secret. Indeed, Darwin had sat on his theory for nearly 20 years and was impelled to publish only when he realised that A. R. Wallace had independently arrived at an almost identical theory, threatening to pre-empt Darwin’s life’s work. Still another irony in the saga is the fact that the reader of Origin will find only one sentence that even mentions mankind – to the effect that “light may yet be shed” on human origins by the evolutionary theory outlined in the book.
Characteristically, after publication, Darwin wanted to get out of the limelight and virtually retired from public life, leaving the forceful task of propagandising the theory to “Darwin’s bulldog”, T. H. Huxley. Darwin seldom made public pronouncements on religion, all too painfully aware of the hurt inflicted on his wife, Emma, for whom “Darwinian evolution” amounted to heresy. Darwin’s maladies waxed and waned over the years, but in the last decade of his life, when he concentrated on botanical research and no longer speculated about evolution, he experienced his best health since his time at Cambridge.
Political and religious attitudes to the evolutionary debate often overlapped. Anglicans upholding the natural theological tradition were more likely to be Tory in their political outlook (the quip about the Anglican Church being the Tory party at prayer springs to mind) while materialists who believed in transmutation might well be radical, republican and atheistic. New ideas such as evolution acquired political overtones because they symbolised a challenge to the existing power structure both within science and within the wider society. The spotlight shines once again on Darwin’s personal dilemma.
We have already seen the influence of political economy (Malthus) in the germination of Darwin’s ideas, and many have argued that Darwin’s theory of evolution through individual competition reflects the competitive ethos of Victorian capitalist society – that Darwin portrayed the world of nature as almost identical to the world as Victorian political economists saw it. But this is a misconception. The doctrine of "social Darwinism" had more to do with the ultimate apostle of Victorian laissez-faire, Herbert Spencer; it was Spencer - not Darwin - who coined and popularised the term “the survival of the fittest”.
Historians are not usually allowed to engage in speculation, but for all his Victorian respectability, I like to envisage Darwin as a progressive who, if he were alive today, would delight in debunking the daffy reactionary nonsense of present-day Creationists and perhaps even take issue with today’s “ultra-Darwinists” and their blinkered obsession with genes and memes. In any event, Darwin should be viewed as a great revolutionary who inaugurated a new era in the cultural history of mankind – a titan of a scientist and, in his own idiosyncratic way, a titan of a man.