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Mohler, Giberson, and the Genesis of Charles Darwin: Will the Truth Set Karl Giberson Free?

On August 21 Karl Giberson, physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College and one of several engaged in the ever-interesting juggling act of defending “faith and science” by means of a Darwinian apologetic, now has added to his litany of misconceptions a boorish attack on Al Mohler in The Huffington Post, “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth.” Since David Klinghoffer has provided an excellent summary of the issues involved in an earlier post to this site, Karl Giberson v Al Mohler on Darwin: The Grudge Match, they need not be restated here. The point here is to address Giberson’s principal objection, namely, Mohler’s assertion that “Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged . . . .” Giberson wants to dismiss Mohler’s comments as merely an effort “to undermine evolution by suggesting that it was ‘invented’ to prop up Darwin’s worldview.”

Giberson’s complaint is easily addressed from his own standpoint. Since he seems to privilege the historians on this issue (rejecting Mohler’s comments as those of “a theologian and not a historian” is an odd dismissal since Giberson isn’t a historian either!), what have the subject specialists said on this matter? As will become evident, it really is very much a question of worldview. The central issue at hand isn’t whether or not Darwin embarked upon the Beagle “in search of evolution” but whether or not his mental attitude was prepared for it and what the nature of his attitude really was. In other words, had Darwin already formed a mental template of how natural phenomena would be interpreted once he encountered them on the Beagle? The issue certainly isn’t Genesis but the genesis of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The historians tell us three major things in this regard.

  1. Darwin was a member of the Plinian Society while at the University of Edinburgh from his election on November 21, 1826 until April 3, 1827. He was 17 years of age and while there was exposed to some of the most radical “freethinking” of the era. For example, he heard William A. F. Browne (1805-1885) attack Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy and Physiology of Expression (1824) by insisting that there was no difference between animal and human facial anatomy, and he heard William Rathbone Greg (1809-1881) attempt to prove that “the lower animals possess every faculty & propensity of the human mind.”1 When Browne reprised his rabid materialism with, as Desmond and Moore put it, “an inflammatory harangue on mind and matter,”2 tempers became so flared that it was decided to strike Browne’s diatribe from the Plinian Society minute book. The notion that none of this left any impression upon the attending teenager strains credulity.
  2. While a Plinian, Darwin became a close companion of the elder naturalist Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874). It is Grant who introduced young Charles to aquatic invertebrates AND to Lamarckianism. “Theirs was a decisive meeting,” write Desmond and Moore. “Darwin was coming under the wing of an uncompromising evolutionist. Nothing was sacred for Grant. As a freethinker, he saw no spiritual power behind nature’s throne. The origin and evolution of life were due simply to physical and chemical forces, all obeying natural laws.”3 Darwin tried to downplay Grant’s effect upon him in his Autobiography, claiming to have listened “in silent astonishment [to Grant], and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind.”4 But even Desmond and Moore don’t buy it. “What he learned from Grant in these months,” they counter, “was to shape his own initial approach to evolution ten years later.”5 Even more recently, in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Desmond and Moore note that this early Edinburgh period is often passed over as “barren” but, in fact, they insist, “it likely helped condition his life’s work on the deepest social–and scientific–issues.”6 For those who might think Desmond and Moore have succeeded in their attempt at creating a kinder, gentler Darwin by highlighting his opposition to slavery, Darwin’s Sacred Cause offers nothing new, and little of importance is suggested.
  3. Charles was also introduced to what was then called transmutationism by his own deistic grandfather Erasmus (1731-1802) in the latter’s Zoonomia (1794). Referring to Darwin’s careful reading of his grandfather’s work even Janet Browne, the reigning dean of Darwin biographers, admits that in claiming innocence in the matter of evolutionary theory Darwin was “Far too disingenuous in his Autobiography, he was in truth well prepared to understand the importance both of Lamarck and his grandfather.” Charles had already read Lamarck’s Systême des animaux sans vertèbres (1801) when Grant was mentoring his fledgling student. “Young Darwin, it now turns out,” concludes Browne, “was well aware of evolutionary views and perfectly capable of grasping the full implications of what Grant had to say.” 7
    All this adds up to a young man who boarded the Beagle with a certain mental template–a certain way of perceiving the world–that would determine how his “facts” would be interpreted, and this does impact his science. As leading Darwin scholar the late Howard E. Gruber (1922-2005) has noted, “The pandemonium of Darwin’s notebooks and his actual way of working–theorizing, experimenting, casual observing, cagey questioning, reading, etc.–would never have passed muster in a methodological court of inquiry among Darwin’s scientific contemporaries. He gave his work the time and energy necessary to permit this confusion to arise . . . . Insofar as he said anything publicly on the subject of method, Darwin presented himself in ways that are not supported by the evidence of the notebooks.”8 This has led to some confusion as to the actual nature of Darwin’s methodology, some of which, Gruber explains, “arises from Darwin’s desire to defend his unpopular views by suggesting that he had been driven to them by a mass of unassailable evidence, rather than the less acceptable reality that much of his evidence had been indeed patiently assembled, but only after his views were quite well developed.”9 Darwin always insisted that he left his faith slowly, imperceptibly, even reluctantly, but the facts speak otherwise. “In truth,” writes Browne, “Darwin was profoundly conditioned to become the author of a doctrine inimical to religion.”10

This idealized picture of “objective observation” and assiduous “fact sifting” crafted by Darwin in his Autobiography undoubtedly led Janet Browne to open her two-volume magisterial work with an observation of her own, namely, that Darwin’s “autobiography and the path of history itself have thrown up a smoke screen almost as effective as if no records had been left behind at all.”11 Sure, we can all say that Darwin’s autobiography was originally intended only for close friends and family, that it was only posthumously published, and that these reminiscences were clearly designed to be informal reflections. “Nevertheless,” Browne reminds us, “in choosing which memories to record in words, in selecting the anecdotes, he was constructing himself in the shape in which he wished to know himself and to be known by.”12

These are all points made by noted historians and well-established Darwin scholars. Giberson’s insistence that Mohler is simply trying to defend his particular view of Genesis by impugning the head of modern evolutionary theory is really a red herring. These are historical, not religious, arguments. Giberson’s Down House hero’s claim “to have worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale”13 is most certainly some of the smoke to which Janet Browne alludes. Unfortunately, Giberson seems lost in Darwin’s autobiographical smoke. Will the truth set Giberson free? Assuming he wants to be freed it could, but his Saving Darwin gives no hint of familiarity with these authors. Browne’s biographies or Gruber’s work are absent from his book, and as for Desmond and Moore’s Darwin, there is one–one!–reference to the biography’s last page.

Giberson notwithstanding, a most compelling case can be made for Darwin’s worldview having preceded his theory. Darwin’s brand of evolution became a version of which Robert Edmond Grant and his fellow Plinians would have approved. Giberson should be more circumspect in his accusations about who does and who does not have regard for the truth. In leveling his charge against Mohler it seems clear that physics professor Giberson assumed historical knowledge he, in fact, did not possess.


1 Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), p.32.
2 Ibid., p. 38.
3 Ibid., p. 34.
4 Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin (1893; reprinted, Amberst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), p. 13.
5 Desmond and Moore, p. 36.
6 Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), p. 17.
7 Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995),p. 83.
8 Howard E. Gruber. Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity. Together with Darwin’s Early and Unpublished Notebooks, transcribed and annotated by Paul H. Barrett (London: Wildwood House, 1974), p. 122.
9 Ibid.
10 Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 177).
11 Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, p. xi.
12 Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 427.
13 Darwin, p. 42.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.