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Darwin, Group Think, and Confirmation Bias

Image: Charles Darwin caricatured in Vanity Fair. Date: 1871

Yesterday I wrote about Charles Darwin and the British secularist tradition. The latter is the subject of a great volume of material discovered by Timothy Larsen, author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England. Larsen’s book provides a clue (as I read matters) that might be used to resolve what I in the company of many others find to be one of the greatest historical cruxes of 19th-century history. I refer here to the matter of how Darwinian theory, despite its lack of empirical support or even semblance of verisimilitude, was able to advance to its present position of orthodoxy. Since I suspect that the answer to this conundrum is most likely to be found in the area of group psychology, I would beg leave to make a small detour here to consider the issue of what we now term “confirmation bias” as that theme was treated by one of history’s most perceptive analysts of human nature, William Shakespeare.

Those acquainted with his drama Othello will know that Shakespeare’s psychological insight is nowhere more apparent than in his depiction of the negative dynamic between the eponymous hero and his villainous lieutenant, Iago. Although the exact motivation(s) behind Iago’s resentment of his military superior still remain a matter of critical debate, the reason for Othello’s unfounded jealousy of Michael Cassio for supposedly having committed adultery with Othello’s wife, Desdemona, is all too clear. Much in the play is made to hinge on the notorious prop of Desdemona’s handkerchief which Iago had contrived to misappropriate and plant in Cassio’s rooms and which Othello is duped into taking as “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s adultery. Iago’s malign stratagem works perfectly. As he had predicted, his chosen mark proved to be “as easily led by the nose as asses are.” Othello, witnessing the handkerchief, tragically succumbs to his own paranoid insecurities, and jumps to the wholly erroneous conclusion that his wife must be an adulteress with the colorful ladies’ man Cassio. Iago, in what is surely a particularly spot-on description of such confirmation bias, soliloquizes in an aside audible only to the audience,

I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin

And let him [Othello] find it. Trifles light as air 

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of holy writ. 

Othello, Act 3, scene two, lines 373-6

“Trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmations strong/as proofs of holy writ”: in other words, once some particular thought, however poorly substantiated, has for whatever reason become lodged in our minds, it tends to develop into a Freudian idée fixe and all our future perceptions are somehow made to be congruent with that original idea. It is precisely for that reason in modern jurisprudence any information leading towards possible confirmation bias must be withheld from a jury to prevent it from jumping to conclusions.

Othello’s sexual insecurities were to have, mutatis mutandis, something of a 19th-century correlative in the insecurities and loss of nerve in matters of faith which were developing in a significant number of Victoria’s subjects in the first half of that century. All this was of course well before publication of the Origin, so that Darwin’s magnum opus will have served only to confirm and strengthen their mood of skepticism in a way comparable to that in which Desdemona’s handkerchief served to convince her husband (wrongly) of her infidelity. The empirically demonstrable truth-value of the Origin might have been negligible (in Shakespearean terms, a “trifle light as air”) but that mattered not a jot to persons already primed by their prior ideological formation to accept Darwin’s argument as a form of secular gospel. The Origin will have come together with their prior misgivings to create a “resultant of forces” precipitating an even greater degree of secularist thinking in many who had in any case all but bidden adieu to the religion of their youth. There is, however, some firm historical evidence that some of the more self-critical secularists were to experience a light-bulb moment in later life which prompted them to reassess their previous stance.


The secularists chosen for study by Larsen all eventually returned either to the faith they had initially rejected or to some other form of spiritual orientation. Typically, they would find over time that secularism offered no positive program for people to live by. Gordon came to refer to secularism as “just what you like-ism” which he took to be a recipe for immoral self-indulgence. William Hone came to realize that materialism could not account for the totality of human experience — there must be a power behind matter. There was a general feeling amongst the reconverts that their erstwhile skepticism might have been the result of “a procrustean system of logic, an oppressively narrow definition of reason. They came to believe that human beings knew more than could be proven by such a method.”1 Notably, the reconverts were also prompted by dint of lived experience and maturer reflection to revisit what seems to have been a very basic unexamined assumption amongst their number with the result that they now at long last “reassessed their assumption that the cause of radical politics and the working classes naturally led to an opposition to Christianity.”2

Not all returned to orthodox Christian forms of worship. Some “were led away from materialism by reengaging with the realm of spirit in a form decoupled from Christianity.”3 In this they made common cause with other, more famous secularists of the age such as Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh’s close ally, who went as far as crossing the floor from secularism to Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy. One may also think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose hero, Sherlock Holmes, was the very apotheosis of dry secularism but whose author, although he had lost his faith in earlier years, was eventually to turn to spiritualism. Or in more recent memory there is the example of that later scion of the Huxley dynasty, Aldous, who turned in later years from a form of positivist philosophy to embrace Eastern mysticism and the so-called perennial philosophy.4

In a more minor key we can trace a comparable development in the rise in popularity of the English ghost story in the second half of the 19th century. This may in good part be understood as an imaginative protest against the growing desacralization of the world brought about by the burgeoning age of science. As Julia Briggs pointed out, the ghost story was in a superficial sense designed to scare readers but at a profounder level it supplied them with the comfort of a deeper spiritual reassurance:

For it [the ghost story] seemed at the outset to invite the reader’s modern cynicism, only to vanquish it with a reassertion of older and more spiritual values. Even amongst its superficial terrors it might provide subtle reassurances.5

Larsen, dissociating himself from the kind of “God’s funeral” historiography practiced by such writers such as Basil Willey, A. O. J. Cockshut, and A. N. Wilson,6 interprets such reversions as symbolizing a victory of the spiritual over the exclusively material worldview and goes so far as to claim that the reconverts “serve to orientate us toward the intellectual strength of the Christian tradition in nineteenth century tradition.”7 Whether such a large historical revision is warranted by the statistically limited sample of persons he adduces in his book may be open to question. What is not in question, however, is the service he has rendered in going beyond the top-down historiography practiced by many other historians of ideas. Instead, he has revealed a largely unsuspected but quite sizeable demographic of self-educated people who, although they were far distant from the major levers and megaphones of power, exerted a considerable influence in shaping ordinary people’s attitudes to fundamental existential issues. 

This finding is particularly significant since it throws light on the major historical crux mentioned above relating to how Darwin was able to “palm off” an empirically unattested theory on so many of his countrymen and women. We already know from Ellegård’s classic study of British press reactions to Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century that some sections of society simply resisted and disbelieved Darwin.8 Larsen’s researches, on the other hand, indicate that Darwin had a more forgiving and considerably less critical constituency of honest doubters and militant secularists to rely on. For that group Darwin’s work came to confirm what they had either already been persuaded of or else begun to figure out for themselves on other grounds. They were willing to give his theory a pass because it suggested an atheistic conclusion they had already arrived at by an alternative route. It was not Darwinism that they endorsed so much as the ideological direction in which his Origin of Species was thought to point, and so, like Thomas Huxley, they were more than willing to give Darwin their enthusiastic support.


One final, seemingly superficial but in practice rather significant point to be made in the matter of Darwin’s appeal to the secularist demographic is that his Origin will have made agreeable and accessible reading for this group of politically but not biologically informed individuals.9 It is attractively presented in a volume free of scientific jargon, and has often been lauded as the last specialist work fully intelligible to the man or woman in the street. It also comes laced with just the right amount of gentlemanly hesitancy to endear it to a British audience which might have been deterred by a showier or overly “intellectual” mode of presentation. Surely few other writers would have been minded to flag up their reservations about their own material in the same manner as Darwin who remarkably devoted a small chapter to “Difficulties on (sic) the Theory.”

By implicitly disclaiming airs of omniscience, Darwin avoided the vice most disliked by English readers: that of trying to appear “too clever.”10 As one 20th-century intellectual historian observed apropos of this strange national quirk, “People were as delighted with Darwin’s apparent lack of cleverness in youth as they were in 1940 with Mr. Churchill’s inability to learn Latin verbs at Harrow.”11 In reality, as we know, Darwin’s claims to discovery were every bit as trenchant as the literary detections shortly to be achieved by the abrasive fictional figure of Sherlock Holmes. However, to continue the Conan Doyle analogy, Darwin’s method of “packaging” those claims seemed more like an adumbration of the self-effacing manner later to be adopted by Holmes’s fictional foil, Dr. Watson. His readers will doubtless have concluded that the author of the Origin must surely be a regular sort of guy — “one of us” deep down despite his being, from their perspective, a toff. 


  1. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, p. 242.
  2. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, p. 243.
  3. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, p. 242.
  4. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy [1944] (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) contains a valuable later essay written by Huxley in the 1950s (Appendix, pp. 6-22) with an account of a spiritual odyssey not dissimilar to that of some of the “reconverts” considered above.
  5. Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 17.
  6. Basil Willey, More Nineteenth-Century Studies: A Group of Honest Doubters (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963). A. O. J. Cockshut, The Unbelievers: English Agnostic Thought 1840-1890 (London: Collins, 1964); A. N Wilson, God’s Funeral (London: John Murray, 1999).
  7. Larsen, Crisis of Doubt, p. 253.
  8. Alvar Ellegård, Darwin and the General Reader: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press 1859-72[1958] (repr. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990).
  9. People in all ages have recognized how important it is for a writer to win the good will of his or her audience. Medieval rhetoricians had a ready formulation of this PR tactic in the term captatio benevolentiae (getting one’s readers on side).
  10. Darwin’s diffidence was real enough, as is evidenced in the no fewer than five emended editions of the Origin which followed in quick succession in the decade following the first edition of 1859 in which he was able to interpolate his responses to critical objections to his work.
  11. A. O. J. Cockshut, The Unbelievers, p. 176.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



A. N. WilsonA. O. J. CockshutAldous HuxleyAnnie BesantArthur Conan DoyleBasil WilleyCharles BradlaughCharles DarwinCrisis of DoubtDesdemonaevolutionIagoidée fixeJulia BriggsMadame BlavatskyMichael CassioOrigin of SpeciesOthellosecularismsecularistsSherlock HolmesspiritualismTheosophyTimothy LarsenWilliam Shakespeare