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The Life of Darwin

The Birth of Darwinism

Although Charles Darwin is usually given credit for originating modern evolutionary thought, he drew heavily on the ideas of others who preceded him.  Even the concept of natural selection had been proposed by at least two writers before him.[i]  But he tied the various speculations together into one package and popularized the idea of evolution to a world that had been primed to accept his ideas.  Since he’s the best known of the proponents of evolution, it’s worthwhile considering how events in his life unfolded.

His Early Life

Charles Darwin was born the son of a wealthy English physician in 1809.  He was the grandson of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, also a well-known physician and an early advocate of evolution.  Before Charles was born he published many of the ideas for which Charles later claimed credit.

Charles’ father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and pursue a medical career, but after two years at Edinburgh University Charles dropped out, totally disenchanted with medicine.  This was to be his only formal scientific training.

He would much rather spend his time hunting, drinking and carousing with his friends than studying.  As he had no particular purpose in his life, his father persuaded him to take up theology and become a country clergyman.  His father, an atheist, had no particular interest in religion but saw its stabilizing effect.  Charles followed his father’s wishes to please him, and enrolled in Christ’s College, Cambridge.  For a time he showed some interest in his studies, and even accepted the literal accuracy of the Bible.  Cambridge however, at the time was known for its moral laxity, gambling, drunkenness, and lack of discipline (a “party school” in today’s parlance).  One school administrator reportedly couldn’t open his mouth without swearing.  Darwin completed his only degree, a Bachelor of Theology, but later said it was a total waste of time.  He never had a born-again experience, and gradually abandoned any faith he may’ve had over the next thirty years or so.

The Voyage of the Beagle

Although he had no formal training in the natural sciences (other than medicine), an influential relative helped him secure a position as unpaid naturalist for a 5-year exploratory voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.  It was during this journey that he read the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a book which profoundly affected his thinking from that time onward, and set the stage for the development of his views on evolution.  Later he would become a close friend of Lyell. 

It was the time spent at the Galapagos Islands and Darwin’s observations there of the variations in species of finches that later were given much fanfare as contributing to his ideas on natural selection.

It was reportedly during this time that he first was exposed to spiritism.  According to one source, during the Beagle’s stops in South America he participated in Indian witchcraft ceremonies.[ii]  Some years later he participated in a séance.[iii]

Whatever the extent of his introduction to witchcraft, shortly after his return from the Beagle’s voyage, and upon beginning work on his theory, he was plagued with mysterious health problems.  According to his son, he didn’t enjoy a single day of good health from 1837 onward, although doctors were unable to find any physical cause for his maladies.

Darwin’s Ideas Readily Accepted

After the voyage on the Beagle, Darwin toiled for over 20 years on developing a theory of evolution, continually refining his ideas and looking for new evidence before he finally published his Origin of Species in 1859 at the insistence of Lyell. The event that spurred him into getting his ideas together in a book was a communication from Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a spiritist.  While in malarial fever in the Malaysian jungle the identical concept of natural selection that Darwin had been working on came to Wallace.  He immediately wrote Darwin of his idea.  Darwin, alarmed that Wallace might get credit for the idea, rushed his book into print.  It was an immediate best seller, the entire printing being sold out on the day of release.

Why was Darwin’s theory so quickly and widely accepted?  The intellectual climate of western culture had been moving away from the acceptance of Scriptural authority and toward naturalism for some years.  People had been primed for the acceptance of Darwin’s ideas by earlier writers such as James Hutton, who first proposed the uniformitarian model[iv], and Charles Lyell, who carried the concept forward.  Others were Erasmus Darwin, mentioned above, whose writings on evolution were well known, and Chevalier de Lamarck, who had proposed “the inheritance of acquired characteristics.”  Many other lesser-known writers also contributed to the climate of anticipation of a mechanistic explanation for the origin of living things.  Ironically, it was the theologians of the day who most readily accepted Darwin’s ideas, rather than the scientists.

Coupled with that was the reintroduction of spiritism and occultism, which gained in popularity throughout the 19th century.  It’s significant that all of the ideas proposed by Darwin in The Origin of Species, with the possible exception of natural selection[v], have since been disproved, yet he’s idolized as the originator of evolutionary thought. 

Yet, toward the end of his life he seems to have abandoned natural selection as a mechanism for evolution as unworkable, and gravitated back to Lamarckianism.

The Impact of Darwinism

As stated above, his main accomplishment was to pull together the ideas of others and popularize them.  Yet he’s had an impact on nearly every facet of society that few others have had.  His system of thought has left an indelible mark on economics, education, natural science, politics, philosophy and religion—even Christianity.  Regardless of his own self-doubt and wavering on his hypotheses, he’s been honored as providing the basis for freeing mankind from the constraints of religious dogma, especially belief in the Bible, and even in God.

In the keynote address at the1959 Darwin Centennial, atheist philosopher Julian Huxley stated that “Darwin’s real achievement was to remove the whole idea of God as the creator of organisms from the sphere of rational discussion.”  He went on to triumphantly declare that supernatural religion was dead and a new religion of evolutionary humanism based upon science would become the worldwide creed, with Darwin supplying the means.

A Deathbed Conversion?

There have been a widely circulated stories that Darwin recanted his evolutionary philosophies on his death bed, and that a Lady Hope led him to faith.  These stories began to appear shortly after his death in 1882.  He purportedly said, “When I gave forth my theories I was a young man with unformed ideas.”  The exact origin of these stories is uncertain, but apparently are embellishments of some remarks he made.  There apparently was an evangelist by the name of Lady Hope who visited Darwin, but that’s probably as far as it went.  He died April 19, 1882, still an agnostic, under the cloud of depression that had been haunting him for many years.

Bolton Davidheiser, Evolution and Christian Faith, p.56 ff: Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1969.
Luther D. Sunderland, Darwin’s Enigma, p. 14 ff: Master Books, Santee, CA, 1988.
Vance Ferrell, The Evolution Cruncher, p. 25 ff: Evolution Facts, Inc., Altamont, TN, 2001.
Answers in Genesis, Creation archive, Vol. 18 #1, “Did Darwin Recant?”
F. Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Appleton & Co., 1905
Voice of the Martyrs newsletter, 3/1987: Richard Wurmbrand, Middlebury, IN.
ICR Impact #383, “Darwin’s Love of Hunting & Killing:” Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA.
ICR Impact #358, “The Beagle at Tierra del Fuego:” Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA.
Henry Morris, The Long War Against God, p. 158 ff: Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989.

[i] Alfred Russell Wallace and Benjamin Franklin had published books or articles on natural selection before Darwin.  Darwin became aware of Wallace’s thesis just prior to publishing his Origin of Species.

[ii] The Evolution Cruncher, Vance Ferrell: Evolution Facts, Inc., Altamont, TN, 2001, page 25.

[iii] The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, F. Darwin, ed., Appleton & Co., 1905, page 364.

[iv] Uniformitarianism is the assumption that geologic processes have always proceeded at the same slow rates as we see today, leading to the conclusion of a very old Earth.

[v] Even the concept of natural selection has been given much more credit than it probably deserves, not having nearly the power generally attributed to it.  See Guliuzza, Acts and Facts, Feb. 2012, p. 15, “Answering Questions about the Fallacy of Natural Selection,” Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, TX.