Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Charles Darwin: A Man, Not a Monster

He has been cursed from pulpits and hailed by scientists. His name has been used for both good and evil; his ideas have spurred incredible scientific progress, leading to rapid advancements in medicine, agriculture, wildlife, and computer science; they have also been used to justify the evils of eugenics and mass murder. His breakthrough in science has been compared to those of Galileo and Newton [1] in recognizing heliocentric theory and gravity, but it is still rejected by many who would rather believe that "Darwinism" is the devil's work.

So who is Charles Darwin to have stirred up so many passions in men?

He was baptized into and taught by the Anglican Church of England. His father wanted him to become a physician, so for a while, he attended medical school. He wasn't fond of medicine, however, so his father ended up sending him to Cambridge to become an Anglican Clergyman. While there, he spent a lot of his time studying nature. It was very popular during that time to seek for evidence of God in science, and at the time, he didn't doubt a literal translation of the Bible. Upon reading some of the popular books of the time dedicated to reconciling God and science, he said that he had a "burning zeal" to contribute to that dialogue

After completing his degree, he was offered a position as a "naturalist," someone who studied and cataloged animal and plan life, on the HMS Beagle, and he spent five years traveling around the world, recording what he saw.What he observed during his travels caused him to question taking the Bible literally. The idea of a literal six-day creation occurring 6,000 years ago wasn't supported by what he had seen with his own eyes. He sent a lot of letters and specimens home while traveling, and upon his return, he found that he had become a relatively well-known scientist.

He spent the rest of his life studying and writing about what he had witnessed, and much of it eventually contributed to the evidence for his theory of Natural Selection. Two years after arriving home, he officially “conceived” of the idea of natural selection and shared the idea with colleagues and friends. He summarized it nicely: 

In 1858, he was contacted by a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who had independently developed the exact same theory while studying in the East Indies. They collaborated on a paper which introduced the concept to the world, and then one year later, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Religious responses to his book were mixed including some who rejected it outright - often scientists, believe it or not - a fair number of clergy who though it a plausible mechanism of God's creation, and still other clergy who accepted it whole-heartedly, claiming that a "miracle" creation is blasphemous to a God who works through laws. Darwin himself thought it “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.” In fact, the very last sentence of his book is a beautifully poetic take on it that could easily be reconciled with a Creator God: 

While Darwin had no problems reconciling natural selection with God, he did struggle with his religious beliefs, particularly with the idea a benevolent God who would create a world full of suffering and pain. He didn’t give up the idea of God as the ultimate lawgiver; he didn't identify as an atheist. He called himself agnostic. His own issues with God had nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with evil in the world.

Charles Darwin passed away on April 19, 1882, at home at Down House. In 1915, the "Lady Hope Story" was issued and claimed that, on his deathbed, he refuted evolution and became a "born again" Christian. However, this was report was rejected by his family and by historians and was completely falsified. His last words were, in fact, spoken to his family, in particular his wife, Emma: "I am not the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been to me – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me," then, while she rested, he repeatedly told his daughters, Henrietta and Francis, "It's almost worth-while to be sick to be nursed by you."

Charles Darwin was no monster. He was a man. Like many people, the pain and sadness in the world caused him to doubt God, to question if He was really there. He spent his youth in religious training and even sought to find God in science. And maybe, just maybe, he did.

[1] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

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