I loved Mr Darwin’s Tree, a one act play by Murray Watts, a sort of “memoir” of Darwin–much of it quoted from Darwin’s own letters, journals and books–verbally lovely, rich and bursting with energy, poetic and full of pathos.
Darwin introduced a Copernican revolution into the all-or-nothing theological thinking of the age, which still prevails today in America’s Bible Belt, and among some evangelicals: Scripture is either all true, every word of it, or not true at all. If species gradually evolved, then the account of a six day creation was not true. Ergo, Scripture was not true. This crumbling of ancient foundations caused much anguish to Christian Victorians—and throbs through the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Tennyson, for instance.
But for me, the fact that God made the world in six aeons, that the finches and giant tortoises of the Galapagos evolved in response to environmental pressures rather than being created “as is” does not detract from the moral beauty and sublimity of the message of Jesus. One cannot sit and read or listen to the Gospels for hour after hour, and not feel convinced that Jesus is more than human, has wisdom beyond ours.
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Darwin’s theory of evolution in a nutshell is: There is competition for limited resources. Better adapted individuals (the “fit enough”) within each species have heritable traits—which can be passed on to their offspring—which make them better adapted to survive and reproduce, passing on their genes to the next generations. Species whose individuals are best adapted to their environment survive; others become extinct.
Over aeons, the adaption of species amounts to a new species being created. In Darwin’s words, “being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species.”
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Darwin’s wife, Emma Wedgwood Darwin was a faithful evangelical Christian, and it was partly in deference to her that he delayed publishing the Origin of Species. With his Cambridge theology degree, he foresaw how going public with his ideas would cause great upset. “It is like confessing a murder,” he wrote.
And cause upset it did. Edmund Gosse’s heartbreakingly beautiful memoir, Father and Son, describes how his father, the naturalist Philip Gosse was thrilled when Darwin published The Origin of Species. His intellect and careful studies told him that it was true. Then he realized that it conflicted with Scripture which was true, so it could not be true. Gosse published Omphalos, a fanciful attempt to reconcile geological discoveries with Genesis (postulating that God instantly formed the fossil record at the moment of creation) which made him the laughing stock of the scientific community.
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Darwin’s wife, Emma, loved Christ, and talked to him as a friend, writing to Charles, “Will you do me a favour? It is to read our Saviour’s farewell discourse to his disciples which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling.”
But this did not convert Charles. Sadly, “the ways he evaluated evidence led him to exclude God and religion because he could only accept what could be proved in a laboratory and scientifically demonstrated.”
In 1876 Darwin described his agnosticism: “Formerly I was led… to the firm conviction of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. In my Journal I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.’ I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.”
He lost faith in a beneficent creator. “I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”
(Well, wasps control pests. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae.
However, whenever I try to teach myself about the natural world—the size of the universe, the expanding universe, the big bang theory, the theory of relativity, the mysteries of the tides—my mind boggles. I realize I am but a child at the shore of the wide world, and why should I hope to understand it all? I believe God is good because Jesus says he was, and what Jesus says, I believe.
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Losing faith in God—losing faith in a good universe, governed by a good omnipotent Creator, brings other losses with it. In his Autobiography, Darwin plaintively spells these out.
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 also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work 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.
This curious and lamentable loss of the higher æsthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did.
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.
If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. 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.
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Despite the challenge by the evangelicals of his day, such as at the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate, Darwin’s ideas gradually gained acceptability, and he received a hero’s burial in Westminster Abbey.
Catch “Mr. Darwin’s Tree” if you can. It’s wonderful.