Mr. Darwin and His God


Mr. Darwin and His God

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on February 15, 2015

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.  His theory of natural selection as the means of the evolution of various forms of life is one of the landmarks of scientific and intellectual history, of course.  When the 100th anniversary of his birth rolled around in 1909, there were large celebrations in Cambridge, England, where he had gone to school, and in New Zealand where he had made some of his most important observations during the voyage of the HMS Beagle in the 1830s, as well as in New York.

But the idea of an international day of celebration only took root within the past twenty years.  The first Darwin Day celebration was in 1995 in Silicon Valley, organized by Dr. Robert Stephens of the humanist community there.  Two years later, annual Darwin Day events began in Tennessee, and a program began in New Mexico in the year 2000.

And today, we are celebrating Darwin Day by taking a look at his life, his scientific observations, his theories, the persons and books that influenced him, some of the complications that such a radical theory as his caused, and the way his experiments altered his view of the supreme being he called “God.”

Charles Darwin was the fifth of six children of a wealthy society doctor and his wife.  He was the grandson of abolitionists: his paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and his maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, both were firm believers that slavery was an evil and worked to abolish it.  Both his mother’s and his father’s families were largely Unitarian, though his father, a freethinker, had Charles baptized in the Anglican church.

Darwin’s mother died when he was nine years old; we can only speculate on what effect that might have had on the child.  He was sent to a boarding school after that.  It’s unclear what effect that may have had on his development, as well, but he seems to have been a compliant child and youth.

Following his father’s wishes, he attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh, but “he found lectures dull and surgery distressing” and he did not invest himself very deeply in his work.  During this time, though, he learned taxidermy from a freed black slave named John Edmonstone, whom he called this “very pleasant and intelligent man.”

As a sophomore, he joined a natural history group called the Plinian Society; their debates brought them into some unfamiliar and dangerous territory for the time, as they ventured into radical materialism, which Darwin found shocking at first.

In the end, he neglected his medical studies, which, of course, annoyed his father, who then sent him to Christ College, Cambridge, to study to become an Anglican parson.  Here, he became a close friend of John Stevens Henslow, a professor who saw scientific work as religious, as “natural theology.”  And Darwin found himself delighted by the logic of William Paley, whose book called Evidences of Christianity, was very influential for him.

Darwin also studied Paley’s book Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which made an argument for divine design in nature.  Paley’s argument, broadly stated, was that adaptation is God acting through the laws of nature.  Darwin became passionately interested in natural history, observation, and collecting.

When he read books by John Herschel, who argued that natural philosophy should seek the reasons for the laws of nature through inductive reasoning based on observation, and by Alexander Humboldt, who wrote a Personal Narrative of his scientific travels, Darwin’s imagination was stimulated and his passion stirred.  He became inspired to contribute to this field, and he planned a trip to the tropics with some of his classmates to study, a trip which never materialized.

But his friendship with his professor, Hensley, proved to be helpful in launching his career, though he could not have known at the time how things would play out.  Hensley’s recommendation got Darwin a place on HMS Beagle, the ship that was to sail for five years to various exotic spots in the world, the trip that would allow Charles Darwin to observe the fossils and wildlife of various climes closely and which would begin to get him thinking.

Darwin’s father objected to this plan as a waste of time, but he became convinced, at last, to fund his son’s passage.  Darwin’s role was to be a companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy.  The actual naturalist on the trip was its surgeon, Robert McCormick.

Stephen Jay Gould explains this strange circumstance in an essay in his book Ever Since Darwin.  “But why would a British captain want to take as a companion for a five-year journey a man he had only met the previous month?”  Gould says that in the 1830s, voyages lasted for many years, with long stretches between ports and very limited contact by mail with friends and family at home.  In addition to that, “British naval tradition dictated that a captain have virtually no social contact with anyone down the chain of command.  He dined alone and met with his officers only to discuss ship’s business and to converse in the most formal and ‘correct’ manner.”

FitzRoy was only 26 years old when he set sail, and he knew the psychological toll that prolonged lack of human contact could take on a captain.  The Beagle’s previous skipper had broken down and shot himself to death during the Southern Hemisphere winter of 1828, his third year away from home. And FitzRoy was worried that he had a “hereditary predisposition” to mental illness.  “In fact, FitzRoy did break down and temporarily relinquished his command during the Beagle’s voyage– while Darwin was laid up with illness in Valparaiso.”

So, FitzRoy took along Darwin as a social companion, and Darwin’s father bore the cost of the passage.  FitzRoy sent out the word that he wanted a “gentleman naturalist.”  That was explanation enough for the men on board, and reason enough for Darwin to be interested.  Darwin’s main role was to share the table at meal time with the Captain for five years.  His passion for observing, collection, analyzing and making conjectures meant that he would function in a more significant way than that.

Gould points out how “this story illustrates the importance of social class as a consideration in the history of science…  Darwin’s personal riches gave him the freedom to pursue research without encumbrance.”  Darwin had a number of illnesses.  And he was quite seasick for much of the time he was sailing.  His various illnesses, Gould says, “often permitted only two to three hours of fruitful work per day,” and he speculates “that Darwin’s social standing… played a crucial role at a turning point in his career.”

When Darwin embarked on his voyage on the Beagle with Captain FitzRoy, Darwin was “a naively pious student for the ministry,” but his first notes concerning the “transmutation of species” were made “less than a year after his return.”  His studies of geology and physiology of various species challenged his worldview in a profound way.

However, we are told from various sources that on board the Beagle, Darwin (at least for the first few years) was so pious that he quoted Scripture to the men to lecture them on their morality, gaining him a fairly comic reputation on board.  Imagine the challenge it was to him to try to justify the ways of God and the ways of nature as he followed his new calling.

Gould points out that we traditionally credit Darwin’s close study of the differences in speciation between various finches and tortoises as the primary impetus for his conversion from a Biblical literalist to an eventual agnostic, but Gould suggests that Captain FitzRoy himself might have been an even more important catalyst.

Here is where the roles of power and tradition come into play.  During the course of conversations between Fitzroy and Darwin, it became clear that the captain was a “martinet and an ardent Tory.”  Darwin was an equally committed Whig.  Darwin tried hard to avoid the topic of politics, but when the topic of slavery came up, the captain told Darwin that “he had witnessed proof of slavery’s benevolence.  One of Brazil’s largest slaveholders had assembled his captives and asked them if they wished to be freed.  Unanimously, they had responded ‘no’.

“Darwin was bold enough to wonder aloud whether the slaveholder’s presence might have intimidated the slaves.  FitzRoy exploded and informed Darwin that anyone who doubted his word was not fit to eat with him.  Darwin moved out and moved in with the mates, but FitzRoy backed down and sent a formal apology a few days later.”

In the end, Darwin disliked FitzRoy, but he was his guest and his subordinate (“a captain at sea was an absolute and unquestioned tyrant in FitzRoy’s time”).  Darwin had to keep silent.  For five years.  He sat for meals with a man with a tyrant’s authority, a tyrant who, later in life, was consumed with the “‘argument from design,’ the belief that God’s benevolence… can be inferred from the perfection of organic structure.”

Gould speculates: “Think of Darwin’s position on board– dining every day for five years with an authoritarian captain whom he could not rebuke, whose politics and bearing stood against all his beliefs, and whom, basically, he did not like.  Who knows what ‘silent alchemy’ might have worked on Darwin’s brain during five years of insistent harangue.”

Darwin’s growing materialistic view of the world was certainly formed in large part by his observations, but there is a psychological aspect to every person, and close relationships with persons with whom you don’t agree will have an effect on your thinking in all areas, scientific as well as personal.

Before Darwin ever embarked on his five-year voyage, he was aware that horse owners, dog owners, and farmers selectively bred for certain traits, a practice called “artificial selection.”  Knowing that allowed for the idea of a more “natural selection” to emerge, but it had to do so against a formidable obstacle: Darwin’s belief in the literal truth of the Bible.  If he were to be true to his convictions as they emerged from study and analysis, something had to give.

Stephen Jay Gould states the logic of the theory of evolution through natural selection this way:

  1. Organisms vary, and these variations are inherited (at least in part) by their offspring.
  2. Organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive.
  3. On average, offspring that vary most strongly in directions favored by the environment will survive and propagate.  Favorable variation will therefore accumulate in populations by natural selection.

Often enough, I think, we focus on the negative here– that natural selection is “the executioner of the unfit.”  But what of the positive version of the formulation?  Gould reminds us that “natural selection is the creative force of evolution…  Natural selection must construct the fit as well (as execute the unfit); it must build adaptation in stages, by preserving generation after generation, the favorable part of a random spectrum of variation.”

It’s this word “random,” I think, that causes the most problems for believers and those who want to believe that a loving God must have a plan, and that plan must have at its heart a goal that is constructive, life-affirming and good.  If you are a believer in natural selection by random variations, you will probably find yourself struggling to reconcile two ideas that seem to be irreconcilable.

Kenneth Miller, in his book Finding Darwin’s God, makes the case that you can be both a believer in evolution and a theist, a believer in a Creator God.  For most of the book, he argues against various belief systems or concepts of God that are reductive, literal, or specious.  In various chapters he attempts (and succeeds, I think), in arguing against the visions he sees as

  • God the Charlatan – a creationist viewpoint that explains fossil history as the stratagem of a Creator who plants false clues in the earth to test the faith of his creatures;
  • God the Magician – in which he takes on intelligent design as it is most usually conceived; and
  • God the Mechanic – a vision of God that maintains that “An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly by numerous, slight modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”

That last one is pretty complex– and complexity is at the core of the argument here against evolution.  The idea is that “if a system requires all of its parts to have a useful function as they work together, then there is no way for natural selection to produce it.”  Miller sees this as an attempt to argue for intelligent design from another angle.

Yet, Miller is a believer, a Christian, actually.  And far from denying it, it was his purpose, as stated in the subtitle of the book, to present A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.  He says in his final chapter,

“A nonbeliever, of course, puts his trust in science and finds no value in faith.  And I certainly agree that science allows believer and nonbeliever alike to investigate the natural world through a common lens of observation, experiment, and theory.  The ability of science to transcend cultural, political, and even religious differences is part of its genius, part of its value as a way of knowing.  What science cannot do is assign either meaning or purpose to the world it explores.”

What that means, Miller says, “is that our human tendencies to assign meaning and value must transcend science, and ultimately must come from outside of it.  The science that results… is enriched and informed from its contact with the values and principles of faith.”

Miller’s critique of those who object to the theory of evolution for various reasons extends to critiquing these same individuals for their theology.  He says that

“the various objections to evolution take a narrow view of the capabilities of life– but they take an even narrower view of the capabilities of the Creator.  They hobble His genius by demanding that the material of His creation ought not to be capable of generating complexity.  They demean the breadth of His vision by ridiculing the notion that the materials of His world could have evolved into beings with intelligence and self-awareness.  And they compel Him to descend from heaven onto the factory floor by conscripting His labor into the design of each organism that graces the surface of our living planet.”

Miller goes on to say “If we can accept that the day-to-day actions of living organisms are direct consequences of the molecules that make them up, why should it be any more difficult to see that similar principles are behind the evolution of those organisms.  If the Creator uses physics and chemistry to run the universe of life, why wouldn’t He have used physics and chemistry to produce it, too?

So, what about Darwin?  He was a biblical literalist and Scripture-based moralist when he signed on to accompany Captain FitzRoy on the Beagle in 1831. But his study of geological strata, the fossils found therein, the variety of species developed in order to adapt to a particular location– all of these things expanded his view of how the world works through time, and informed one of the most important scientific theories of the past two hundred years.

It also challenged his theology.  He had a few things to say about his belief system, and it’s not clear that they are consistent.

From around 1849, while his family attended church, he went for a walk instead.  At the same time, he said that it was “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist” (Wikipedia: “Religious views of Charles Darwin”).

Thirty years later, in 1879, he wrote “I have never been an atheist in denying the existence of a God. –I think that generally… an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” (Ibid.)  And he is quoted as saying this: “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence.  For myself, I do not believe that there has ever been any revelation.  As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.”

And perhaps, we should leave it there and open the floor for discussion and response.


  • Ever Since Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould.  W.W. Norton & Company.  NY, NY.  1977.
  • Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller.  HarperCollins Publishers.  NY, NY.  2000.
  • Wikipedia: Charles Darwin.  Religious Views of Charles Darwin.  Darwin Day.


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