Archive for February, 2009

Happy Birthday to Charles the Person

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the very same day, February 12, 1809, a fateful day for the world.  That their births mean so much to so many 200 years later reflects far more than their amazing life accomplishments.  With its love of Great Men, history has turned each into a symbol of a major inflection point in the development of Western Civilization, marking the emergence of the Modern in our world.  Lincoln symbolizes the final collapse of slavery as an acceptable practice of Christian people.  Darwin symbolizes the final collapse of the traditional Christian explanation of how the world works.  These historic changes in worldviews originated centuries before their birthday.  Neither Lincoln nor Darwin was a major agent of the change.  But each was fated to drive the final nail.  Neither Lincoln’s presidency nor Darwin’s writings completed the change, but each turned the tide, making it forever impossible to slip permanently backward.


It is ironic that Lincoln symbolizes vindication of the Christian concept of the dignity of the individual person, with God-given rights, whereas Darwin symbolizes the Modern concept of a remote God uncaring about the lives of individual persons.  The triumph of Divinely justified abolition was concurrent with the legitimizing of belief that God, even if God exists, is irrelevant to life as we know it.  


Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish


Several years ago, I was driving home from work, a bit too lost in my thoughts.  I had to brake violently to avoid rear-ending a car stopped at an intersection in my California town.  As I recovered my wits and studied the rear-end of the car I nearly smashed, I saw for the first time the Darwin fish – the “Jesus fish” with Darwin’s name instead and little feet underneath, like the familiar figure of a fish sprouting feet to become an amphibian.  I laughed!  And I continued to laugh as I saw more of these Darwin fish on the rear ends of cars around town.  It is a university town, where you expect such clever, irreverent humor.  Over time, I saw the growing bumper battle between the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish, with ever more clever designs, culminating in the Darwin fish opening wide to eat the Jesus fish!  I became concerned.  Too many people are taking this battle seriously, seeing Darwin as displacing Jesus. 


This was not the reaction of an offended Christian or shock at such public display of intolerance.  I was reacting to the name Darwin coming to symbolize so much other than the man or even his work.  The Darwin fish proposes an equivalence between Darwin and Jesus.  Darwin the prophet of modernity, Darwin the symbol of Ultimate Truth, Darwin an object of “religious” reverence.  This struck me as profound misrepresentation of who was Charles Darwin and what he himself stood for.  This was not science versus religion or science versus Christianity but Science as a religion competing with Christianity as a religion.  I knew Charles the person would have been appalled. 


A Visit to Down House


Two years ago, I spent a March day at Down House, Charles’s home for forty years.  No other single house is more closely associated with the work of a great man.  It was a weekday, so I nearly had the place to myself.  Charles Darwin and his wife Emma and his children and his servants and his experiments and his village came alive in my mind. 


I prowled the family rooms, furnished almost as they were 150 years ago, imagining I could hear Emma playing the piano in the parlor.  I stood for an hour in his study, just watching Charles in my mind as he worked with total concentration yet smiled when his children came noisily rushing in to find scissors for their project.  I returned a few minutes later to imagine Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker sitting with Charles in rapt conversation.  I stood by the dining table to watch Charles holding court as local magistrate to settle disputes among his fellow villagers.  Then I saw him alone at the table carefully reconciling the accounts of the Friendly Club he helped start so that local laborers could save for their future needs.  I had tea at the kitchen table, where Charles once played a hand of whist for the cook while she tended the stove.  I walked the Sandwalk round and round five times as a snow squall swept through the stand of old trees Charles had planted then changed abruptly to pale Kentish sunshine over the fields that once belonged to the neighbor, Sir John Lubbock. On the Sandwalk, I thought for the first time in years about that near-accident in my own town and then about the meaning of the “Darwin fish.”   


In Defense of Charles the Person


I am a friend of Charles the person and therefore feel obliged to defend his good name.  Not that I knew him in person!  My great, great grandfather was born in England the same year as Charles.  But I know Charles a great deal better than I know my own ancestor.  His voyage on the Beagle inspired me to travel the world, too.  His evolutionary theory structured my worldview in university and to this day.  To me, however, Charles is more than a voyage and a theory.  Charles is a life-long friend – not a mentor or a teacher or a hero or an icon – a personal friend – like the fantasy friend of a child, I suppose – with passions and aversions, strengths and weaknesses, to which I relate my own.  He is a person with whom I can sympathize but also criticize.  He puzzles yet inspires me.  He makes me smile, and he is exasperating.  We agree, and we disagree.  We walk together in silence.  He speaks, I listen.  He is a personal friend, no less than my deceased father, who is gone, yet with me.  It is a person-to-person connection.  In short, I like Charles Darwin a great deal.  I know him too well to sit by while the modern world enthrones him as its demi-god.  Nor can I idly allow him to be branded the Anti-Christ. 


To Understand Charles the Person


The Darwin name will be taken in vain regardless of how hard we try to set the record straight, but those of us who honor intellectual honesty and historical accuracy should have ready access to the real man and what were most likely his true views on the issues that are now so controversial.  Surely this better understanding only improves the debate.  We also owe this much to such a remarkable, decent and likeable man. 


You might ask what more there is to know about Charles Darwin.  Surely his life and work are among the best chronicled of any historic figure.  What can be added to the numerous biographies based on volumes of personal letters, notebooks, manuscripts, and of course, his many books? 


Nonetheless, lots more is being written now, because today is February 12, 2009, the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth.  The world is celebrating as it would for no other scientist, because Darwin has become the patron saint of the secular worldview that needs no god for explanation of past, present and future.  The commemoration will be the occasion for new assaults in the ongoing culture war between evolution and creationism, more generally between secular and religious worldviews.  There will be lectures and symposia, sermons and articles, popular books and television specials revisiting and interpreting the life, times and writings of this iconic figure of the modern (and post-modern) world.


Whether the authors are triumphant or defiant in their attitude toward Charles Darwin, the naturalist of H.M.S. Beagle and author of On the Origin of Species will overshadow Charles Darwin the remarkably likeable countryman of Shropshire and Kent, the loyal friend of leading intellectuals around the world, the loving, playful father of accomplished children, and especially the devoted husband of Emma Wedgwood.  The influence of Emma on the career and thinking of Charles goes well beyond her famous roles as hostess and lady of Down House, guardian of his health and spirits, and worrier for his eternal soul as his worldview evolved toward its irretrievable break from Anglican orthodoxy.  She was a devout believer, but as a thoughtful Unitarian, not a rote Anglican.  She was the sophisticated daughter and granddaughter of great industrialists.  She had done the Grand Tour and learned the languages and music of the Continent (in contrast, Charles visited Europe only once, a brief visit to Paris, before his famous voyage, after which he never left England again).  She was keenly interested in the politics and current events of the day.  And she was Charles’s best friend.


An Online Book Project


As I stood in the parlor of Down House, it occurred to me that Emma and Charles were a couple worthy of a Jane Austen novel.  As I did my five turns around the Sandwalk, I started an ambition to achieve a novelist’s level of sympathy with this historic couple, if only to better understand Charles. 


What Charles and Emma wrote about their own personal views gives only partial insight.  Each had personal biases welling up from assumptions, of which even they were mostly unaware.  As we all are, Charles and Emma were children of their time and all that led up to that time.  Therefore, to properly interpret what they were thinking and feeling, we have to explore the history and philosophy and culture and society that influenced their thinking and feeling.  A daunting task indeed!


In July of last year (2008), I launched DarwinWatch on which I am posting a series of essays and book reviews I am writing as I read and think on this task.  Someday I plan to meld these into a book, which I may title Walking Fish: Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God.  There is no way to know how successful this project might be, but you may find my effort interesting to monitor on occasion.  I welcome your comments. 


Copyright 2009 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (



Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!