Charles Darwin was a great naturalist, but a failure as a philosopher and theologian.
His careful observation of nature opened the door for people to take his philosophy and theology much more seriously than they warrant.
Darwin’s ancestors laid some groundwork for his contributions to natural science. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a botanist and doctor, speculated about what his grandson made famous — the idea that humans evolved from lower species over a long period of time. His father, Robert, was a doctor in an age when medicine was advancing rapidly. His mother’s father was a famous potter, Josiah Wedgewood. Wedgewood is most known to evangelical Christians for contributing to the anti-slavery crusade of William Wilberforce with a piece of pottery created at his factory that had “Am I not a man and a brother?” inscribed upon it.
Darwin was born in 1809, a couple of years after Wilberforce finally got Parliament to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. He had a comfortable childhood, with three older sisters, an older brother, and a younger sister. He would explore his father’s greenhouse or play with his mother’s pigeons. Or he would wander down to the river and go fishing, using worms for bait. He collected everything from shells to birds’ eggs. It was a fit setting for a young man who would go on to be a naturalist. But his mother died when he was eight years old. His father was devastated, and family life turned gloomy. Charles was then enrolled in the Shrewsbury Grammar School, but, missing his family, he would sneak home in the evening, returning to his bed in the school dorm before curfew.
Though bored in school, Charles discovered his life’s calling. He collected minerals and insects and observed the habits of birds, making notes on them. Darwin’s father, the doctor, didn’t know how to encourage that passion and couldn’t understand the point of it. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,” his father once shouted at him.
His father sent him to medical school at the University of Edinburgh where his older brother Erasmus was studying. The medical studies bored him too, but Charles enjoyed the university’s natural history opportunities. He listened carefully to a demonstration of bird taxidermy by American naturalist John James Audubon. He joined the Plinian Society, a science club. He came under the influence of an evolutionist on the faculty, Robert Grant, a follower of the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
After a couple of years of pre-med studies, Charles was in a quandary. He did not like medical classes. His father proposed church ministry. That appealed to Charles, but not from an inner call to ministry. He was thinking of a rural pastorate and the chance to wander the fields for his love of nature.
For someone of a wealthy background like Charles, the Church of England was a respectable professional opportunity. The state church offered a comfortable living with salaries paid by the government, not necessarily the tithes of those in the parish. “In what other profession were the risks of failure so low and the rewards so high?” ask Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their recent, massive biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist.
The Church of England, as is the case with many churches, usually assumed its ministerial candidates had a personal commitment to Christ. Intellectual assent to the church’s doctrines was sufficient.
Charles headed off to study theology in Cambridge, and again he was bored. He did like a botany class and took nature hikes with the teacher, John Stevens Henslow. He also drew close to a leading geologist, Adam Sedgwick, who was vice president of the Geological Society of London and helped Darwin learn how to develop theories from observation.
Graduating in 1831, Charles received an offer to take a trip on a ship called the Beagle. His father thought it was another aimless notion of a son who needed to get serious about life and quit playing around with plants and animals.
But his Wedgewood relatives discerned that it was a good fit for Charles and persuaded his father to let him go. On the five-year trip around the world (1831–36), Charles flourished. He took notes and collected specimens of insects, birds, animals, sea creatures, shells, and bones. He discovered fossils, and he sent reports to his old Edinburgh teacher, John Henslow, who passed them on to scientific gatherings in England, making Darwin famous even before he returned home.
When Darwin came back to England, geologist Charles Lyell helped him get a government grant for a five-volume study of zoology. Darwin had seen enough on the voyage to speculate about how species may have developed across time, thinking that somehow simpler forms of life had changed into more complex forms by mutations. He wasn’t sure how it all happened, and he spent the rest of his life trying to figure that out.
He also considered marriage and methodically wrote down the pros and cons. In the end, marriage won, because according to Darwin a woman provides better companionship than a dog. Thus, he proposed to his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, continuing the close links between the Darwins and Wedgewoods. His brother Josiah already had married Emma’s sister Caroline. Charles’ father, of course, had married a Wedgewood, and he was inclined to downplay his agnosticism. He advised his son to do the same, lest he ruin his marriage before it got started.
Charles kept some doubts to himself and shared others, and Emma was troubled, asking him to read John 13. They settled down in London, later moving to a country estate. Both families had wealth, giving them a comfortable life. But Emma worried over Charles’ preoccupation with science and the neglect of his soul. She was trusting Christ for heaven and wanted him to join her there after death. “It would be a nightmare if I thought we did not belong to each other forever,” she wrote him early in their marriage in appealing him to realize that there was more to life than what he could observe empirically.
Emma, of course, brought money to the marriage, and she was a wonderful helpmeet to him, comforting him immensely in later physical ailments. She was a gift from heaven to him, even as he doubted God’s providence and love. He concealed his growing agnosticism. Darwin was a man of deep feeling and loved her and their children. Yet his cold calculation about marriage had some consistency with his emerging materialistic philosophy.
Publishing his work as a naturalist, he became a leader in the popularization of science in England. His Voyage of the Beagle sold very well, and he also published five zoology books in 1843.
Scientists made significant strides in his lifetime. Trains were connecting the country. Doctors found new remedies. Queen Victoria presided over the Great Exhibition in 1851, displaying the advances in science and engineering. Darwin’s discoveries were part of a larger movement, similar to the recent development of computers. Scientists like Darwin became respected popular authors and speakers for a public hungry to hear about the latest discovery.
Pride and arrogance characterized some members of this new scientific elite. Shaped by Enlightenment thinking, Darwin and others contended that Christian faith was part of the old-fashioned England, and it was time for the nation to realize that science was rendering God unnecessary. Yet not all scientists felt this way. Many were evangelical Christians, and the Enlightenment view had not yet become respectable in the British ruling class.
Thus, Darwin did not rush to print with his theologically unorthodox theory of origins. He didn’t want to be a social outcast, and he wanted to mount as much evidence as possible. His health broke in the 1840s after he had been such a vigorous person on the voyage around the world. His fellow travelers had been amazed at his stamina, but now his life changed.
Biographers speculate about the cause of his ailments. Was it repressed grief from his mother’s death? Or fear of a domineering father? Or anxiety about his secret theory of origins?
His beloved daughter Annie died in 1851 at the age of ten from tuberculosis, three years after his father’s death. His response to those tragedies is pertinent in evaluating his theory of origins. He never actually discovered the process of how one species could change into another. His theory emerged not just from the observation of nature, but as a philosophical consolation to explain the universe apart from the Bible.
Yet he should have understood what his wife grasped so much better after the death of their daughter. “Emma alone was left to comfort him. Ever since her sister Fanny’s tragic death at the age of twenty-six, she had found deep consolation in the Scriptures. She now drew from her inner source of strength, binding Charles to herself with cords of love, ministering to his daily needs and praying for him,” write Desmond and Moore. “Charles was entertaining many more religious doubts than Emma knew about. But she could bear Christian witness in this stressful time and help him rest.”
Darwin was not the first to propose the theory of evolution of one species to another, since his own grandfather (as well as others) had tinkered with the idea. French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had publicized the idea in 1801. A younger potential rival to Darwin, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him a manuscript in 1858 that outlined a theory of natural selection. Both Wallace and Darwin had come to their conclusions partly through Thomas Malthus’ book on population, which was an early version of the concept that only the most fit survive. Darwin was ahead of Wallace in documentation of his theory, and he and Wallace published a joint paper in 1858 outlining the theory. Then, in November 1859, Darwin published a succinct (still several hundred pages) version of his theory, titling it On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Now the natural world had been explained apart from a creator God. Darwin himself was not making a frontal attack on Christian faith. He was modest in his approach, and in the last paragraph of the second edition he added a reference to the Creator as the author or designer of it all.
“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” (Darwin, Origin, 2nd ed.).
Darwin also was not alone. He had assembled the evidence from nature to extrapolate a theory of origins. A philosopher, journalist, and biologist named Herbert Spencer was part of this philosophical crusade to change the popular worldview of that day. Spencer, a follower of Lamarck, translated evolutionary theory into the social sciences. He coined the term “survival of the fittest,” which became important in economics and politics. Other Darwin followers, such as Thomas Huxley, contended that these theories “proved” that man evolved from the slime, and the slime got here through time plus chance.
Naturalistic evolutionary theory, though, taken to its logical conclusion, reveals some of its own inherent fallacies, such as something coming from nothing — a problem that still troubles Darwin’s devotees today. But in the name of science many contend that science has proven the Bible false. Much Darwinian theory is a philosophical and religious position dressed up in the language of science.
In due time, Darwin got the reaction he feared from certain quarters. The son of the liberator of the slaves, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, debated Thomas Huxley. Wilberforce tried sarcasm: “I should like to ask Professor Huxley, who is sitting by me, and is about to tear me to pieces when I have sat down, as to his belief in being descended from an ape. Is it on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that the ape ancestry comes in?”
Huxley came back hard: “I would be ashamed of a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with…success in his own sphere of activity, lunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of the hearer from the real point at issue by eloquent digression and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.”
The Wilberforce-Huxley encounter shows how the philosophical materialists wrapped themselves in the trappings of science with its growing prestige. Darwin and his theory provide a good example of science straying beyond its natural boundaries. Darwin offered a theory about how one species evolved into another, and it was rooted in his detailed observations of microevolution, or changes within species. As a result, plenty of scientists declare how “science” has “proven” that the Bible is a fairy tale. When scientists start talking that way, they have moved out of their field into philosophy and theology, making claims that require a leap of faith on their part.
It is a common tactic. Every four years, as we elect a president, oftentimes famous actors endorse a certain one. Yet expertise on the stage does not translate into wisdom in political science. Likewise, science has made excellent progress in the past two hundred years, such as in medicine, the technology of transportation, and the development of computers. But such success can give some scientists swelled heads, and they reveal their arrogance when they claim that Darwin’s theory “proves” that we don’t need God to explain the origins of the universe. Darwin offered very vague speculation about the actual origins of life, and scientists are still offering theories about how life forms might have popped up out of the earth. They puzzle over human complexity, and they are still trying to figure out how one species might evolve into another. Scientists have argued that intelligent design moves outside the boundaries of science, but they have to move outside those boundaries to develop any real theory of origins and embrace some kind of faith in something.
Darwin tried to rule out God, but not because of evidence he saw in nature. Instead, he struggled with the problem of evil and the fall. He suffered personal pain from his own physical ailments, and he was devastated by his daughter’s tragic death. How could a loving God let such things happen?
He retreated to the shallow waters of agnosticism. The problem of evil never gets resolved that way. Darwin could have turned to wise authors on these topics. He didn’t seem to wrestle so hard in his studies with the evidences of God’s work in the world or the challenging message of Jesus Christ. He had studied William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity as a student of theology, but he pursued his science with much more vigor.
Benjamin B. Warfield, the Princeton Seminary professor, wrote sympathetically on the imbalance in Darwin’s life and kept an open mind on questions regarding evolutionary theory. Warfield suggests that Darwin almost became machine-like in his scientific research. “In this case the defection of a scientific man from religion was distinctly due to an atrophy of mental qualities by which he was unfitted for the estimation of any kind of evidence other than that derived from the scalpel and the laboratory,” Warfield wrote (taken from Evolution, Science and Scripture, edited by Mark Noll and David Livingstone).
Thomas Huxley told Bishop Wilberforce that he was venturing outside his area of expertise when he mocked Darwin’s theory. Huxley had a point that believers should consider, that clever comments about evolutionary theory are seldom persuasive to knowledgeable scientists.
Yet, Huxley, Darwin, and other philosophical materialists have the same problem. In the name of science they have tried to advance a materialistic explanation for origins, informed by a formula of time and chance. It only works when a person puts faith in some vague hope that somehow the world came to its present state of complexity through random sequences of nature. That is not a scientific theory, but a speculative position of philosophy and theology.