Darwin’s Living Legacy

Dickinsonia costata

Dickinsonia costata

This February 12th, 2009, is the bicentennial birthday of one of the greatest minds in history. This man’s inquisitive nature, generous spirit, strong character and hatred of slavery led him to ideas that jolted the society of his times, led to protracted conflict, and caused a seismic shift in how civilized society thought of human beings and life itself.

Abraham Lincoln?, the Civil War?, the abolition of slavery in the United States? Well, yes it is also Lincoln’s 200th birthday, but no, our man is Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882). While the celebration of Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809 – 15 April 1865) is important in the United States because of his role in the abolition of slavery there, the celebration of Charles Darwin is of wider significance because he opened a cornucopia of scientific knowledge, which helped free the minds of so many from the stunting influences of prejudice and religious fantasy. Just as Abraham Lincoln is the iconic marker for a major advancement in the social, political and economic nature of the United States of America, so is Charles Darwin the marker for a vast expansion in the understanding of this living world.

A Biographical Summary

Darwin was the son of a wealthy doctor, and soon showed an interest in natural history. He received an excellent education, first at the University of Edinburgh and then Cambridge, drifting from medicine to taxidermy, and numerous topics in natural history: marine biology, geology, botany, entomology. Darwin gravitated to the company of other gentlemen naturalists and parsons-to-be, who viewed their scientific studies as religious natural theology, the elaboration of the details of the divine design. At 22, he was invited to join Captain Robert FitzRoy, as a self-financed naturalist and gentleman companion, on the planned two-year voyage of the HMS Beagle to chart the coastline of South America.

The voyage of the Beagle lasted nearly five years. They sailed south from England to the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of northern Africa, across the mid Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, and south along the Patagonian coast to Tierra del Fuego at the cold and stormy tip of the South American continent, then into the Pacific Ocean and north along the coast of Chile and Peru, west from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands, then southwest across the Pacific to New Zealand, southern Australia and Tasmania, then into the Indian Ocean and north to the coral atolls known as the Keeling Islands, southwest to the island of Mauritius and Cape Town, South Africa, then across the southern Atlantic to Brazil again, and finally home to England. Darwin spent most of his time on land, making observations on the flora, fauna and geology, and collecting specimens. The 27 year old Darwin who returned to England in 1836 was already a celebrated scientist because of his many revelations in the form of his specimens, fossils and written reports, which had preceded his return to Cambridge.

Darwin plunged himself into the work of analyzing the profusion of data he had gathered, and information he caused to be generated. Data was in the form of his journals, the geo-physical data gathered by FitzRoy for the Royal Navy, and the wide variety of specimens he had retrieved. As geologists, ornithologists, botanists, entomologists, zoologists and early paleontologists studied the specimen collections and described their findings, Darwin was drawn to integrate all this information on the observed patterns of adaptation and geographical distribution, with corresponding environmental conditions. The central questions were: how do species come about?, and why have many passed away? In 1838, he conceived his theory of natural selection. In 1842 he wrote a 35 page synopsis of his idea, which was expanded to 230 pages by 1844. He instructed his wife, Emma, to publish this monograph in the event he died before publishing his theory.

Organizing his scientific findings from the Beagle’s voyage, and publishing them, was Darwin’s major task between his return to England and 1854. During this time he married, had children, developed a recurring illness (lactose intolerance?, Crohn’s disease?), and made geological and other field observations. He studied the role earthworms in soil formation, published separate books on the formation of coral reefs, and geology, and published two monographs on barnacles, in 1851 and 1854. Darwin’s work on barnacles earned him the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1853, and made his reputation as a biologist. Darwin had made his detailed eight-year study of barnacles so as to fully understand at least one species prior to publishing the generalizations in his theory of evolution by natural selection.

In 1856, Darwin began writing a “big book on species.” He was a methodical man intent to justify his radical generalizations with a profusion of specifics. This took time. Sir Charles Lyell, the foremost geologist of his day, urged Darwin to establish precedence by publishing a short paper on his ideas, because Lyell had seen similarities to Darwin’s thinking in a recent paper by Alfred Russel Wallace, a British biologist exploring Borneo. Darwin saw enough difference to remain unconcerned, but wrote a short draft updating material from his manuscript of 1844, for possible later use. In June 1858, Darwin was shocked to receive a scientific essay from Wallace, describing an independently arrived at theory of natural selection, which he sought comment on. Wallace had also asked Darwin to send this paper on to Lyell, which Darwin did with a recommendation it be published if Wallace consented. Darwin left the matter in Lyell’s hands because he was in the midst of a family crisis. There had been an outbreak of scarlett fever in his village, which Darwin’s baby son (Charles Waring Darwin) had contracted and would soon die from. Lyell and his editorial colleague decided to combine Wallace’s essay with Darwin’s short draft for a joint presentation on natural selection, on July 1st, which was published later that summer. Darwin was too grief-stricken to attend or notice, and the scientific community paid little attention to the new idea. Darwin returned to his writing in the fall, working hard, despite ill health, for thirteen months to complete a streamlined version of his “big book.” On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life, his most famous publication, premiered on 22 November 1859. The essential idea was stated in the introduction:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Variations occur among each new generation of any species. Some of these variants are better adapted to the conditions of their environment, and such individuals are more likely to survive and produce offspring, some of which may inherit the new trait. Over very long periods of time, small changes between generations can accumulate, mutating one species into another. Physiological and behavioral changes in harmony with the trend of environmental conditions shape the nature of successful species; traits that are maladapted to environmental conditions drive a species toward extinction. The greater reproductive success of well-adapted variants is a natural selection that drives the development of new species.

Darwin would live another twenty-two years, during which time he would write eleven more books on topics including: orchid fertilization by insects, variation in domesticated plants and animals, human evolution and sexual selection, human and animal expression of emotion, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, the action of worms; and an autobiography intended for his children. He would see himself lionized by scientists, and excoriated by religious fundamentalists; and he would see his ideas diffused widely among the public by sales of his own publications as well as by the popularization of his ideas by many speakers and other writers.

Darwin’s ideas breathed life into so many lines of scientific research, and were such a refreshing liberation of thought from the confines of ignorant religious dogma, that after Darwin’s death his colleagues at the Royal Society requested he be given the rare honor of a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey, which was done.

To give some idea of the nature of Western society during the course of Darwin’s maturity, we can mention a few notables who died within a year or so of Darwin: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, and James A. Garfield in 1881; and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jesse James, Mary Todd Lincoln and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1882. Darwin’s life had spanned the interval from the Napoleonic period to the dawn of the electric age (Napoleon divorced Joséphine and married Marie Louise of Austria in 1810; Nikola Tesla conceived the induction motor in 1882).

Darwin Day 2009 is a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin Of Species. Darwin Day in any year is always a celebration of the many triumphs of the human mind over backwardness, ignorance and superstition. Many Darwin Day events are planned around the world.

The Evolution of a Scientist

Darwin was born advantageously into a family of comfortable means and humanistic intellectual orientation. His father, Robert Waring Darwin (30 May 1766 – 13 November 1848) was a doctor, financier and freethinker who was reserved on the topic of religion so as not to antagonize his wealthy Anglican clientele.

Darwin’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (12 December 1731 – 18 April 1802), was a quite amazing man: a successful doctor, natural philosopher, inventor, poet, freethinker and abolitionist. Erasmus developed a theory of evolution — absent natural selection — that anticipated the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in turn is regarded to have foreshadowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. Erasmus had also written a poetical cosmological speculation of the universe as a recurring cycle of, in modern terms: big bang, expansion then collapse.

Charles Darwin’s older brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin (29 December 1804 – 26 August 1881), was also a freethinking abolitionist. Both Erasmus Alvey and Charles Robert were pensioned off by their father in their late twenties, so each could pursue their interests: literary Whig activities and naturalist studies, respectively.

Charles Robert was baptized into the Anglican Church for social reasons though both the Darwins and Wedgewoods (his mother, Susannah’s family) were traditionally Unitarian. Charles and his siblings were taken to Unitarian chapel by their mother, and his religious belief — in the literal truth of the Bible — into early adulthood was both sincere and typical; his education at Cambridge was for the Anglican ministry.

During his years on the expedition of the Beagle, Darwin observed too many natural artifacts, like fossils and geological marine formations raised to great heights, and clear physiological evidence of adaptation by plants and animals, to continue believing the dogma of separately created and immutable species. The varieties of finches and tortoises on the Galapagos Islands were especially telling in this regard. By his return to England, in 1836, he viewed the Bible as fiction, and all religions as equally valid. Two years later:

“In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population [An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798], and 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. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…”

Malthus had asserted that unless human population was held in check — a very stone-hearted suggestion in the 18th century — it would increase in geometric progression until the food supply was exhausted, and catastrophe result. Darwin could see how this would apply to the struggle for survival between species, and to the natural maintenance of a rough stability of the populations of existing species. Random variations within any species are always occurring. Those best adapted to the demands of the times are most likely to be passed on to offspring — a natural selection instead of the intentional policy of some overseeing Malthusian breeder — so the best variants select themselves by passing through the filter of natural conditions; “the most beautiful part of my theory” thought Darwin.

Life is evolution, it is a continuum of variation in harmony with the history of the geo-physical environment. Natural selection produces the good of adaptation without requiring an assumed Malthusian Omnipotentate whose “intelligent design” requires mass die-offs by starvation, and such individual agonies as that of a caterpillar paralyzed by an ichneumon wasp as live food for its eggs. What is most admirable about Darwin was that his objections to the Malthusian Omnipotentate are both intellectual — scientific and logical — and also compassionate. Why believe in a cruel god?

Darwin still believed in God during the 1840s, but one far removed from the orthodox conception of his contemporaries. He continued to take an active role in the activities of his parish church, no doubt from altruistic motives, sociability, and finally out of consideration for his observant wife, Emma Wedgewood Darwin (also a cousin). From about 1849, Darwin went for Sunday morning walks in the country while his wife and children attended church services. In late May 1876, Darwin began his autobiography, which he intended as a posthumous memoir for his family. In it he frankly described the evolution of his religious views, but these passages were omitted in the published edition, because Emma and Darwin’s son Francis were concerned about a negative impact to Darwin’s reputation. The unexpurgated autobiography was published in 1958 by Emma Nora Barlow, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. A selection of six passages of this material follows.

“By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, — that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible, do miracles become, — that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us, — that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, — that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitness; — by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.”

“Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last was complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.”

“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

“The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.”

“At the present day (ca. 1872) the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by most persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favor of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God…This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God: but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists.”

“Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps as inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

In his later years, Darwin would call himself an agnostic in the rare instances he spoke of his religious views. At a dinner with the Darwin family in 1881, Edward Bibbens Aveling (an English Marxist and partner of Karl’s daughter Eleanor Marx) advocated atheism because he “did not commit the folly of god-denial, [and] avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion.” The essentials of the subsequent exchange were as follows:

Darwin: “I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist.”

Aveling: “after all, ‘Agnostic’ is but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable, and ‘Atheist’ is only ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.”

Darwin: “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind? It is all very well for educated, cultured, thoughtful people; but are the masses yet ripe for it?”

Aveling: social progress required the wide dissemination of new and radical ideas, as was the case with The Origin Of Species.

Darwin was by nature non-confrontational, his methods of study and argument were logical, steady, incremental and based on a wealth of physical data. Also, we cannot neglect the fact that he was an old man not in the best of health, and might prefer to maintain the peacefulness of his life by keeping his peace in public on religion. Darwin had already responded to Aveling’s last point, on the possible benefits of speaking out publicly in favor of “atheism,” in a private letter to Aveling in 1880:

“Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.”

In 2008 and in anticipation of Darwin’s 200th birthday, the Church of England published an apology to Darwin “for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still”.

Darwin’s Influence On Today’s Science

Evolution by natural selection is the core phenomenon in the scientific study of life, and Darwinian logic is applied to questions as varied as the spread of viruses, and the interactions between human cultures. “Darwinian thought” has been so fruitful to life scientists that investigators in other fields, like psychology and computer science, have been drawn to mimic it. The word “Darwinian” has even appeared in papers on thermodynamics, quantum physics and black holes.

Within the life sciences, evolutionary theory has evolved and expanded with new complexities. One new development is “evo-devo,” the combination of evolutionary theory, embryology and genetics, to study the evolution of structure and form in organisms. Evo-devo makes use of modern capabilities for the analysis and manipulation of DNA, as well as computation.

While Darwin thought evolution was invariably a gradual process, Niles Eldredge, in 1971, proposed that it could also have sudden bursts of activity. This idea, called punctuated equilibrium, was further developed by Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, and one of the most popular writers on science from the 1970s to 2000, when he died.

The theory of punctuated equilibrium proposes that instead of just being a uniformly gradual progression of change, the evolution of most species is characterized by long periods of evolutionary stability punctuated by rare instances of rapid change. The theory was advanced to explain the overwhelming trend of the fossil record, and those periods of exceptional efflorescence of life, such as the 20 million year Cambrian explosion that began 520 million years ago.

Recent efforts in evolutionary biology involve the combination of evolutionary theory with genetics to study questions of bio-diversity and ecology, and involved interdisciplinary problems such as the impact of climate change and invasive species on ecosystems.

The application of modern molecular evolutionary science to medical applications is obvious: predicting next year’s strain of the influenza virus, or the next pandemic pathogen, so as to devise vaccines; and understanding how bacteria and parasites develop resistances to our antibiotics.

Mind and Freedom

The unknown and the unknowable are united anthropomorphically in the human imagination, and called God. As we evolve, God recedes. Our projections of fear, desire and anxiety onto the opacity of the unknown are reflected back to us as the mirages God, heaven and hell. These phantasms fade as we learn more about the nature we are a part of, by using our brains for rational and scientific thought. This enlarges our experience of freedom and our human potential. Darwin’s comment on religion stunting the mental development of children is chilling (“…the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps as inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed…”). Indeed, religious fundamentalism is a mental illness, and a great deal of religious training is mass child abuse. All gods are human inventions, and their societies of mind-limiting veneration are cults. Church is cult politics. Because all religions are cults of mass participation, the Hitler Youth and the Stalin Cult were religions. As long as we have temporal potentates on this planet there will be efforts to deify them, and to expand their cults into religions that seek to devour their rivals. This is the “clash of civilizations” debilitating the Judeo-Christian West and eroding the Islamic East. These psycho-viral infections of collective consciousness evolve resistantly over the course of human history, and we can only hope they all soon fall extinct before the evolution of the human mind.


Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle


Publication of The Origin Of Species

Darwin Day

Erasmus Darwin


Robert Waring Darwin

Erasmus Alvey Darwin


Emma (Wedgewood) Darwin

Charles Darwin’s views on religion

Darwin turns 200
(Science News, Vol. 175, No. 3, January 31, 2009)


Stephen Jay Gould

History (and evolution) of Darwin Day

Appendix: Darwin And Lincoln Parallel Lives


12 Feb 1809
Darwin (birth): in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England
Lincoln (birth): in southeast Hardin County, Kentucky (now part of LaRue County)


27 Dec 1831
Darwin (22):
– embarks on 2nd exploratory voyage of HMS Beagle
– a believer in literal truth of the Bible

Lincoln (23):
– unsuccessful campaign for the Illinois General Assembly, as a Whig
– parents were Hardshell Baptists, he never joined any church

Mastering Professions

2 October 1836
Darwin (27):
– HMS Beagle returns to England
– skeptical of religion

Lincoln (28):
– first protest against slavery in the Illinois House
– slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy.”

Darwin (29): conceived his theory of natural selection


Lincoln (49): Lincoln-Douglas debates

Darwin (50): On the Origin of Species

Lincoln (51): Cooper Union Address; 1st Republican president-elect


Lincoln (56): assassinated

Lincoln was reserved about his religious views so as not to offend public sentiment, or upset his wife. Intellectually, he was at least a deist, like Tom Paine, and at most a skeptic. During the depths of his depression in 1861-1862, when the Union suffered catastrophic and bloody military defeats, and during which time his young son Willie died, his speech was more infused with religious sentiments than ever before. One can see the “religious” tendencies of his life as being expressions of both deep emotional pain, and the pull of consoling socialization.

The following is from Forrest Church’s sermon of 17 February 2002:

Lincoln’s religious beliefs were far from conventional. Raised by Free-will Baptists in Kentucky, the young Lincoln found Thomas Paine’s Deism more attractive than his parents’ Christianity. But as he grew older, suffering through the death of brother, sister, and two sons, and contemplating the carnage of war, Lincoln gradually adopted a more Christian outlook. Even then he held no truck with theologians. “The more a man knew of theology,” he once said, “the further he got away from the spirit of Christ.” When asked why he refused to join a church, Lincoln replied, “Because I find difficulty without mental reservation in giving my assent to their long and complicated creeds,” adding that, “When any church inscribes on its altar, as a qualification for membership, the Savior’s statement of the substance of the law and the Gospel–’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind … and thy neighbor as thyself’–that church will I join with all my heart and soul.”

Darwin (73): dies.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

— from the Introduction of Darwin’s 1871 book, The Descent Of Man.


Original publication:

Darwin’s Living Legacy
6 February 2009

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