Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

The Death of Darwin

Michael Flannery


As a young man Charles Darwin loved music, had a fondness for art, and appreciated fine literature. But as the world would come to know him, Darwin became devoted to science, and aboard The Beagle his pursuit of studying nature would become a passion. After this he would quietly develop his theory of evolution by natural selection, unveiled to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. From that point forward Darwin continued to expand on his explanation for the diversity of life by first presenting his wholly naturalistic theory in the Origin (1859) and then applying it to humanity itself with the Descent of Man (1871).

But the true “descent” for Darwin was not just in vague speculations about mankind’s primordial past, but in his descent from science into scientism. The aesthetic sensibilities of his youth were put aside in favor of a picture of the world bereft of the numinous, a world in which he was “inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance” and with “no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”

By the time Darwin reflected on his life in his autobiography, the sexagenarian noted an unmistakable sense of loss:

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have almost lost my taste for pictures and music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been working on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.

Darwin concluded by saying:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive….The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

What a sad commentary! But it wasn’t science that did this to Darwin, it was scientism. After all, a worldview that sees everything in terms of blind, completely random actions, holding that the only explanations that count are natural processes functioning via unbroken natural laws in non-purposeful ways, would tend to have a negative effect on precisely those areas described by Darwin. While this might not have been an ineluctable outcome, it certainly seems a very probable one. Darwin’s physicians said that he died of “heart-failure” and indeed he did, but the heart that failed him did so before his death on April 19, 1882.

Image by Francis Darwin (Ed.) (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1891)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.