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Charles Darwin’s Freudian Slip

Robert F. Shedinger
Photo credit: Arne and Bent Larsen or A./B. Larsen, CC BY-SA 2.5 DK , via Wikimedia Commons.

Last April, I wrote a post for Evolution News about the reception of Darwin’s book dealing with fertilization methods in orchids. Darwin, rather than following up the Origin of Species with the publication of his big book on species, which was three-quarters complete, instead turned to botanical concerns and published his orchid monograph in 1862. Darwin confessed to Asa Gray that his orchid book would serve as a “flank movement on the enemy.” 

Darwin clearly hoped that readers of the orchid book would be so overwhelmed with the variety of contrivances (his word) found in orchids to assure fertilization by insects that they would marvel at the power of natural selection to produce them. I argued previously that the orchid book was Darwin’s stealth attempt to provide the evidence of natural selection missing from the Origin, which was a mere abstract of his theory, and missing from the big book, which he never published.

A Grand Intelligent Designer

Darwin’s strategy, however, failed miserably. When reviews of the orchid book appeared in the British press, reviewers almost unanimously hailed it as one of the great books of natural theology. The amazing variety of contrivances by which orchids assure their fertilization by insects testified, in the opinion of these reviewers, to the existence of a grand intelligent designer. 

M. J. Berkeley, for example, in the London Review, opined:

Most certainly, so far from justifying anyone in considering the author as heretofore as a heathen man or an heretic for the annunciation of his theory, the whole series of the Bridgewater Treatises will not afford so striking a set of arguments in favour of natural theology as those which he has displayed.

The Bridgewater Treatises, of course, were a series of writings commissioned by Francis Henry Egerton, the eighth Earl of Bridgewater, designed to demonstrate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in creation. One would think that Darwin would be livid at someone comparing his orchid book to the Bridgewater Treatises. I thought so myself until I did additional research.

A Surprising Discovery

I recently discovered a letter by Darwin that I had originally overlooked. When writing up his orchid research, Darwin initially planned to publish it as a paper in the Linnean. But it became too long for a journal article, so he decided to publish it as a book instead. In September 1861, Darwin contacted his publisher, John Murray, to gauge Murray’s interest in potentially publishing this technical monograph on orchids. Darwin wrote:

Will you have the kindness to give me your opinion, which I shall implicitly follow. — I have just finished a very long paper for Linnean Society and yesterday for the first time it occurred to me that possibly it might be worth publishing separately, which would save me trouble and delay. — The facts are new & have been collected during 20 years & strike me as curious. Like a Bridgewater Treatise the chief object is to show the perfection of the many contrivances in Orchids.

Darwin could hardly complain about others comparing his orchid book to the Bridgewater Treatises when he himself had done the very same thing (though not publicly)! 

When one considers Darwin’s use of the word “contrivances” in his orchid book, the very word William Paley had used throughout his Natural Theology, and his own comparing of his orchid book to a Bridgewater Treatise in his letter to Murray, it looks like Darwin was as impressed as everyone else by the amazing ingenuity in orchids and could not ignore the evidence for design. 

If Sigmund Freud were alive today, he might well say that Darwin slipped!