According to Benjamin Wiker’s provocative new biography, The Darwin Myth: the Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, Charles Darwin was an honorable and likable man, a family man. He loved his siblings; he was devoted to his wife; he loved his children and grieved deeply over his daughter’s death.
But Darwin was also someone who presented to the public an elaborate and even deceptive story about himself and his work to advance a philosophical agenda.
While there are many biographies of Charles Darwin, Wiker’s deserves attention because of its fascinating account of the complex interaction between Charles Darwin, the man, and Darwinism, the theory he advocated and popularized. Wiker’s presentation of Darwin’s human contradictions is a valuable contribution to this Darwin anniversary year (the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species).
Wiker demonstrates that Darwin coupled his theory of evolution — the idea that all living things descend from a common ancestor through a blind process of natural selection acting on random variations — with his persistent materialism. As Wiker writes: “The problem with Charles Darwin is not evolution itself, but his strange insistence on creating an entirely godless account of evolution. That evolution must be godless to be scientific is the Darwin Myth.”
To back his “myth,” Darwin created a story about himself which departs in significant ways from the reality, according to Wiker. For example, Darwin claimed that he had originally believed in not only religion, but orthodox Christianity. In his autobiography, written years later, Darwin talks about the time when he was considering the idea of entering the ministry. Wiker is skeptical:
So he read a few theology books, and “as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.”
Given his background, this statement rather stretches credulity.
The belief that all reality is material and that everything that exists is derived from purposeless, material causes, has a long philosophical history. In Darwin’s case, it also had a long family history. As Wiker explains, before Darwin was born his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was an advocate of evolution (which he called “transmutationism”) and, like many European intellectuals, of atheism. Erasmus Darwin called himself a Deist, but according to Wiker his skepticism had gone so far beyond Deism that even Unitarian Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after meeting him, concluded: “He is an Atheist.” As Wiker explains, “Erasmus famously described Unitarianism as a featherbed to catch a falling Christian. Whatever Erasmus was, he was beyond that.” According to Wiker, Darwin followed in his grandfather’s footsteps:
for Darwin, the notion of a soul and the afterlife was by now [the time of his marriage] entirely unintelligible. He was a thoroughgoing materialist, just as his grandfather had been, just as his father remained.
We know this because for about two years he had been busy writing away in his very private notebooks, all his most private thoughts about transmutationism. And the notebooks make very clear that he was after a particular version of the transformation of species, an entirely materialist version, one that began, with the aid of his father, as a meditation on his grandfather’s Zoönomia. In his “MNotebook” of 1838, we find that he probes his father for information, and both are bantering back and forth about the Zoönomia. Again and again we find “my father thinks,” “my father says.”
Although in later years Darwin preferred to describe himself as “agnostic,” his writings make clear according to Wiker that for all practical purposes Darwin embraced atheism. Indeed much of Darwin’s preference for the term agnostic appeared to be prudential: Darwin did not want to further shock his wife, a theist who was already dismayed at her husband’s lack of faith, or his contemporaries.
Perhaps Darwin’s insistence on absolute rejection of any reality except material realities was really loyalty to his family, who had been atheists for at least three generations. However, Darwin was reluctant to acknowledge his debts to others, even his own ancestors. Although all Darwin’s basic arguments about the transmutation of species were already present in his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s book Zoönomia,
Darwin longed to claim that the theory of evolution was his alone:
One of Charles Darwin’s very few character flaws was this: he was oddly possessive about his theory, so much so that he failed to acknowledge his predecessors, including his own grandfather, until his detractors pointed out the glaring omissions. He wanted the theory of evolution to be his discovery, his creation, his baby.
I’ll have more on Wiker’s fine new book in a second post later this week.