Some years back, I was given a tour of Down House, Charles Darwin’s country estate, and allowed to sit in the special chair in which he wrote “The Origin of Species” and other revolutionary works. The chair was one he had devised himself: High-backed, stuffed with horsehair, it had casters attached so that he could scoot around his study to reach his books, his working table and his microscope. He had fashioned a cloth-covered board to fit over the arms as a writing surface.
Once ensconced there, with the board lowered in place, I felt an indescribable thrill, like a child settling into the swing at a country fair when the bar descends to lock him in place. What a giddy ride Mr. Darwin has given us!
But I was equally intrigued by what I was shown next. The curator guided me to a nearby corner and pushed aside a curtain. Behind it Darwin had constructed a makeshift lavatory -- a porcelain washbasin set inside the raised floor. It was, the curator explained, a crude vomitory. Often during his morning writing, sometimes more than once, Darwin’s stomach would seize up. He would thrust aside his writing board, rush over and retch into the basin.
We tend to forget what a rough time Darwin had in his own day. He became a chronic invalid with multiple maladies so confusing that most biographers believe they must have been psychological in origin. After five years of romantic adventures sailing around the world on the Beagle, digging up fossils in South America and riding with the gauchos through hostile territory, he returned to England and immured himself in a quiet village in Kent. He turned pathologically shy in front of groups, so much so that he did not attend any of the historic debates over his theory of natural selection. And he was a world-class procrastinator: It took him 22 years to publish his theory, and he only did it when a competitor, Alfred Russel Wallace, came up with the identical idea.
To me, the explanation for these eccentricities seems clear. A gentle and nonconfrontational if unshakable soul, Darwin was paying a personal price for following the dictates of scientific principles to their logical end. When he began his career as a naturalist, he was a believer -- originally he wanted to become a country vicar -- but he followed his formidable intellect wherever it led, and it caused him to become the instrument that would overturn the hallowed dogma of Western religion.
Darwin was hardly the first to propose that so-called higher species evolved from so-called lesser species. That concept had been around for generations. But he was the one who made evolution intellectually compelling because he described the mechanism by which it works -- namely, that in the competition for resources, animals and plants born with beneficial variations will survive and pass them on to their offspring, while those without such advantages will die out.
There is no doubt that Darwin knew the immensity of the implications of his work. In “The Origin of Species,” he skirted any direct discussion of how life came into existence to start with, building his argument methodically and in a low-key manner, assembling fact after fact without directly attacking the concept of a supreme being. But his construct left no room whatsoever for the biblical creator who fashions every plant and animal, culminating with man and woman as the crowning achievement.
As might be expected, Darwin was pilloried by the establishment of his day. Punch lampooned him in caricatures; the bishop of Oxford, Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, ridiculed him from the pulpit, and Richard Owen, the great naturalist, attacked him in biting reviews. But undoubtedly nothing hurt Darwin as much as a letter sent to him by his wife, Emma, a devout Christian who worried that the views he was espousing would keep them separated through eternity. On it, he wrote: “When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed & cryed over this.”
Were it not for a circle of influential thinkers around Darwin -- mostly notably Thomas Henry Huxley, who described himself as Darwin’s bulldog -- his theory might have taken much longer to win the day. To them, Darwin’s cause became greater than that of the theory alone; its ultimate acceptance represented the apotheosis of science itself, what they thought of as the ultimate victory for rationality, logic and materialism.
The arguments that were used against it then are very similar to the arguments of creationism and intelligent design today. The difference is that his contemporary defenders had fewer arrows in their quivers because the means of biological inheritance -- DNA -- had not been discovered.
As he aged, Darwin’s atheistic convictions became stronger. He conceded Wallace’s point that the phrase “survival of the fittest” (coined by the philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer) was preferable to “natural selection” because it eliminated the idea of an entity doing the selecting. Back when he wrote “The Origin of Species” (which appeared in 1859), he probably could “be called a theist,” he noted later. But by the time he was in his 60s, receiving visitors at Down House as a famous thinker revered around the world, he readily described himself as a nonbeliever.
In his autobiography, written at the age of 73, he takes Christianity to task and looks upon the religious impulse as something that’s simply instinctual, “akin to a monkey’s fear of a snake,” as his biographer, Janet Browne, noted.
To read Browne’s book is to get a sense of a man of steely intellect, brave enough to confront “a godless universe.” For ultimately, if animals and plants are the result of impersonal, immutable forces, she observes, then “the natural world has no moral validity or purpose.” We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable.
Darwin was not afraid to look deeply into the void. His bold view can be seen as either noble and pessimistic or noble and admirable. For people of science, he is a hero. “Denying man a privileged place in creation,” wrote Primo Levi, the Italian philosopher, “he reaffirms with his own intellectual courage the dignity of man.”
But Darwin himself, Browne noted, sometimes “recoiled from seeing nature the way his selection theory demanded.” Writing to his good friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, he said: “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low & horridly cruel works of Nature. My God, how I long for my stomach’s sake to wash my hands of it.”