Posts Tagged 'commentary'

Science and Religion – Where is the Source of Authority?

In previous posts, I offered this hypothesis: Personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and his theory of evolution by natural selection. 

And more generally about the “social factors” influencing Charles’s thinking: There are other forces at work in driving the Science-Religion Debate besides science and religion.

At this point in the development of my book about Charles and Emma Darwin on the question of God (working title: Walking Fish), I want to do a series of posts on social, political and intellectual history of Western Europe to identify and describe these “other forces at work.”  I aim to make this a short but deep dive into the evolution of Western European thinking about God and Nature.  For those schooled in this academic discipline, I hope you will be entertained by my gross generalizations, and I ask your forbearance and correction (Comment, please!).  For other readers less steeped in intellectual history and philosophy, I hope to make the topic interesting in itself but also show how essential this ground work is for the project when I return to the early and mid-19th century and Charles and Emma themselves.

Here is the overriding question:

Who Gets to Say What is True and Right and Good?

Who, where or what is the source of Authority?  The term authority has so many meanings and connotations, evoking all sorts of emotional response.  Here I don’t mean authority in the sense of who has the Power, the control over others in the social structure or in the marketplace or on the frontier with other societies – that is the authority that derives from possessing greater strength or weaponry.  If you maintain that Might Makes Right, you are often right in specific situations and for periods of time.  However, to endure, this political authority must be legitimized by a higher authority, a source of knowledge about what is True from which flow ideas about what is Right Conduct that leads to what this authority asserts to be Good.  This is the Moral Authority which ultimately has to underpin any lasting political authority.

Let me explain with a couple of examples.

Consider the coach of an athletic team, like my son’s baseball team.  This man is in charge.  My son and I fear displeasing him, because he has the power to decide whether or not my kid gets to play a particular position, or at all, in the next game.  But to remain coach for the whole season, and especially year after year, this man has to demonstrate to the great majority of kids and parents certain qualities of character and knowledge of the game and ability to motivate kids.  We give this man permission to have the power he has because he earns at least minimal respect for his knowledge of what is True about the game, for his Right Conduct with the kids and on the field, and his ability to lead the team to what we collectively agree is Good (fair play, winning games, skills development and having good, clean fun).  His political authority depends, in the long run, on his moral authority.  Note: this moral authority is collectively defined and supported by all involved – without defining from scratch what is true and right and good.  Our notion of what is “moral” is culturally defined and passed (with modification) from one generation to the next.

Now consider the Constitution of the United States of America.  The American citizenry give permission to the federal, state and local governments to have the power they have because the moral authority of the Constitution legitimizes this government structure.  If you doubt this, consider the passionate conflicts that are resolved by U.S Supreme Court decisions simply by reference to what is “constitutional.”  There are winners and losers in these Supreme Court decisions, and the losers often vow to fight on for their cause.  Nonetheless, the losers respect the power of the Supreme Court decision, and the necessity to fight on within the bounds defined by the Constitution-mandated government.  Why?  Because of the citizenry’s collective respect for the moral authority of the Constitution, which derives from the ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment, particularly as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.  Even in the 21st Century, there is collective agreement among the citizens of the United States that ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the right of the individual person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, define what is True and Right and Good in governing the United States of America.  

God or Me or Some Other Person 

We have to go further back in history to find the source of moral authority for the Enlightenment ideals.  In simplest, starkest terms, the answer to “Who gets to say what is True and Right and Good?” is either God or Me or Some Other Person.  Only a few who choose “Me” as their answer are audaciously self-confident; the vast majority is simply intellectually lazy.  They don’t really care about sources; they simply “know” what is true and right and good – enough said.  But a truly thoughtful person has to admit that her or his development of moral beliefs is based on more than personal experience. 

Think about it—how often do you accept something as true or right simply because it comes from a source you trust and admire, to whom you look up to?  Most of the time, right?  You are “taking their word for it.”  There is no shame in this.  It is how we humans efficiently gain knowledge without having to experience everything ourselves or do all our own original thinking. We depend on our sources having done the hard work of unearthing and examining facts (including experience) and making sense of them through logical analysis leading to rational conclusions.  Who are these sources?  They are parents, friends, teachers, coaches, authors, scientists, religious leaders, politicians (sic), journalists, news anchors, op-ed writers, books, movies, etc.  More implicitly, you trust and admire your source because you believe this person has looked at reality through the same lens or worldview that you would look through, if only you had the necessary skills, experience or data, and time.  Your source has saved you the trouble of working hard (even taking risks) and thinking deeply for yourself.  You can also have “anti”-sources—if information comes from them, it must not be true or right.  It works both ways, does it not?

We all have been strongly influenced by the moral beliefs of other people, often from the writings of long-dead other people. So, where did these “other people” get their moral beliefs? 

The intellectual history of Western Europe traces the source of moral authority to the God of Christianity. If this is self-evident to you, you can skip the rest of this series of blog posts.  But for those who do not accept this assertion at face value, the burden of proof is on me!  For starters, it is irrelevant whether or not you believe in this particular god.  This is not about your worldview or mine.  It is about the worldview in which Charles and Emma Darwin grew to intellectual maturity and to which today’s scientists are the intellectual heirs.  It is a long, man-made road from the original Christian story to the intellectual life of 19th-century England. 

Bear with me in the next few posts!  This is important.  I promise to be as brief as possible.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

Ken Miller’s Near-Perfect “Finding Darwin’s God”

Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is “a scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution.”  Though it was first published in 1999, I took a decade to discover and finally read this near-perfect effort to reconcile science and Western religion.  I admit that I wasn’t looking all that hard until three years ago.  As I finished the book, I thought “Okay then.  It’s resolved!  Game over.”  Apparently not!   Contemporary debates about science and religion continue with seldom a mention of this wonderful book.

Skip the Polemics

I became aware of Ken Miller by a chance invitation to one of his brilliant lectures.  He is a leading cell and molecular biologist at Brown University and a Roman Catholic with serious interest in traditional Christian theology.  He is also co-author of high school biology texts and is committed to introductory biology education, which has entangled him in the debates—and legal proceedings—that have turned high school biology curriculum choices into key battles of the ongoing culture war in the United States.  This entanglement turned Dr. Miller into a public “apologist” for evolutionary theory, in the sense of intellectual defense by edifying explanation (in contrast to saying you’re sorry for things gone wrong).  His explanations are indeed edifying and effective in defense of both evolutionary theory and Western (particularly Christian) theology.  Finding Darwin’s God commits Dr. Miller’s apologetics to print in a superbly written tour de force of the science-religion debate.

Why then has this excellent work had so little impact on the public consciousness?  If I knew better the history of science-religion publishing in the past few decades, I might be able to offer a definitive answer.  All I can do at this point is to recommend you read this book as the best balanced summary of the evolutionist-creationist-intelligent-design arguments I’ve seen so far. 

As Prof. Principe stated (in his lectures I introduced in my previous posting more than a full year ago!), the conflict as we know it today is “a fabrication of the late 19th century” motivated by concern for political and social control and fueled by poor-quality theology dueling with poor-quality science.”  The ongoing cultural struggle is not really about the reality of evolution.  It is for control of the public narrative about the meaning of life on earth.

Dr. Miller’s very important contribution is to re-introduce both high-quality science and high-quality theology into the debate.  If you want to save a great deal of time, just read this book and skip the polemical books of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, to name but a few whose claims are too often (says Prof. Principe) “philosophically naive and clothed in arrogant sarcasm and dismissive disdain” that forbid interesting and productive discussion.  My purpose here is to glean insight into the true nature of the modern science-religion debate and take that back to my exploration of the views of Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God.

Evolution as History and Mechanism

Dr. Miller starts by establishing that “evolution” has two different meanings: history and mechanism.  The first is “a living natural history in which the roots of the present are found in the past,” a time sequence of change shaped by “descent with modification” (Charles’s term for evolution).  The second is a mechanism by which the modification occurs during descent from ancestral forms to species of the present day (what Charles called “natural selection”).  Thus, “evolution” is both a set of facts (the fossil record and the present-day diversity and distribution of living species) and a theory that attempts to explain these facts.   Dr. Miller convincingly confirms the logic of drawing inferences from present-day evidence of the past and the current distribution of species, denying that we have to directly witness the history of the natural world anymore than we have to be witness to human history to be convinced of its reality by artifacts of the past.  Evolution as history was fairly well established among learned people before Charles set sail on the Beagle.  His distinction was to offer and thoroughly document a theory to explain the past and present of life, a theory that has accurately predicted subsequent discoveries and been confirmed by new understandings of genetics, biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology.

Creation Science

Then Dr. Miller takes on the three prominent versions of concerted criticism.  First, Young-Earth Creationism—Prof. Principe points out that “an enormously wide range of distinct viewpoints” bear the label “creationism,” so we must be careful to specify which viewpoint we’re talking about. 

Led by the writings of Henry Morris and colleagues at the Institute for Creation Research, the Young-Earth Creationists are the strictest, maintaining that the Earth is no older than 10,000 years.  In defense of this extreme position, their rejection of evidence in all fields of science is breathtaking.  Nonetheless, Dr. Miller plays the role of good scientist, respectfully and carefully examining the Young-Earth Creationist assertions in light of evidence and logic.  To counter the abundant, incontrovertible evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, these adherents of “creation science” back themselves into a very awkward position that “corrupts both science and religion” (in Miller’s words on p. 80).  They concede the evidence of great age but propose that God created the universe in a way that creates the “appearance of age” (in their words).  It is impossible to escape the implication that God means to deceive us humans through an elaborate and seemingly pointless planting of evidence of a very old universe.  Dr. Miller harshly concludes that these attempts to explain the mountain of evidence that contradicts naively literal reading of Genesis deserve “a place in the intellectual wastebasket.”

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

Next, Dr. Miller counters the more sophisticated critics who know better than to attack all science head on.  Instead they focus on biology and allege specific factual defects in evolutionary theory.  Phillip Johnson, a UC Berkeley law professor, has led this version of creationism by creating the “reasonable doubt” typically used to undermine criminal indictments.  Ironically and very strategically, the attack seizes on the notion of “punctuated equilibrium” first proposed and then made well-known by the late Stephen Jay Gould, the super-star Harvard biologist and popularizer of evolutionary theory.  In a 1972 paper with Niles Eldredge, Gould observed that the fossil record often shows long periods of little change “punctuated” by sudden, short bursts of major change.  Challenging Darwin’s emphasis on the gradual nature of evolutionary change, Gould and Eldredge made too much of “punctuated equilibrium” as a new understanding of evolution.  Johnson and others picked up on this whiff of scientific dissent from Darwinism to suggest that the jury was still out in the case against evolutionary theory. 

Johnson invoked an “intelligent designer” as an alternative but non-scientific explanation of facts that seemed to violate the assumptions of Darwinian theory.  These punctuations of the fossil record could in fact have been events of “special creation” of new species by the Intelligent Designer.  How else to explain the development of complex organisms, like whales, that seemed to have no progenitor in the fossil record or, more particularly, no series of intermediate forms that connect them through time to land mammals?  Surely these problems with predictions of evolutionary theory create sufficient reasonable doubt to force serious consideration of an alternative explanation. 

Again, Dr. Miller uses evidence and logic to defeat the argument for special creation of species.  When we narrow the timeframe from hundreds of millions of years to focus on the much shorter periods of rapid change, we find again a continuous series of changes over time explicable by natural selection, not a sudden appearance of something totally new.  Moreover, subsequent fossil discoveries have filled the gap in the record of whale evolution and other gaps as well.  Thus, Johnson’s arguments for special creation of species succumb one by one to the ongoing process of scientific discovery.

The argument from design depends on there being phenomena that elude explanation by science in terms of material forms changing through material mechanisms.  When science fails to provide a naturalistic explanation, the default is intelligent design; it hinges on our ignorance of material causes and mechanisms.  This Intelligent Designer is the God of the Gaps.  But this god leads a precarious existence, constantly threatened by science’s well-demonstrated ability to discover naturalistic explanations for phenomena once thought to be inexplicable. 

The Miraculous Cell

Next, Dr. Miller takes on the biochemist Michael Behe, who makes a very sophisticated argument for design based on the fact that the living cell includes complex biochemical processes that depend on a very particular number of components.  The removal of any one of these components would abort the overall processes.  How could such complexity have evolved from simpler processes that were missing one or some of these key components?  This harkens back to the similar argument of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1803) that the vertebrate eye had to be as complex as it is today in order to serve any function at all.  How could it have evolved through a series of simpler forms that could serve no function remotely resembling sight?  What purpose would such intermediate structures serve?  Again, Behe like Paley believes our ignorance forces us to default to intelligent design—not in service of special creation of whole species but to explain how new, “irreducibly complex” biological systems, like the biochemical systems of the cell, can arise.  Behe claims that Darwinian evolution offers no explanation. 

Once again, Dr. Miller uses logic and evidence to demolish the argument from design.  To start, he shows that the intermediate forms between simple and complex organ systems have been found and are known to serve a function that is favored by natural selection—the visual and auditory organs of vertebrates, for example.  The complexity is not irreducible.  But can Darwinian theory account for the molecular structure of life, as Behe asks quite reasonably.  There is no fossil evidence to look for, so how can we test the ability of evolutionary processes to produce complex biochemical systems?  Behe foolishly goes out on a skinny limb by claiming such tests have never been done and implying they never can be done.  Miller simply saws off the limb by describing persuasive studies that Behe himself could have cited.   

An Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist

Dr. Miller asks why intelligent critics of evolution, who are certainly aware of the very strong evidence against them, persist in opposing evolution with such passion and persistence.  He finds the answer among the attitudes and actions of scientists—“the reflexive hostility of so many within the scientific community to the goals, the achievements, and most especially the culture of religion itself.”  Most scientists seldom think of themselves as hostile to religion, but we create a hostile environment for “believers” simply by assuming that “religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated” to quote Dr. Miller (pp. 184-85). 

“The prospect of an educated person who sincerely believes in God, who prays and fasts, or who is naive enough to think there is actually such a thing as sin, is just not taken seriously.  There is, in essence, a fabric of disbelief enclosing the academic establishment.  My colleagues do their best to be open, fair-minded, and tolerant.  They practice these wonderful virtues of free inquiry and free expression.  But their core beliefs do not allow them to accept religion as the intellectual equal of a well-informed atheistic materialism. 

In practice, their exultation at seeing evolutionary biology successfully provide material explanations for the origin of species and the history of life leads to triumphant excess.  Even though philosophical conclusions about meaning and purpose are generally thought to lie outside science, any number of self-assured scientists display no hesitation in claiming that evolutionary biology is capable of making a powerful and profound statement on the ultimate meaning of things.”

He is talking about Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Daniel C. Dennett and many less known “self-assured scientists,” who appreciate Charles Darwin’s work as having “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” as Dawkins put it so memorably.  The wording is telling.  An atheist looking for intellectual (scientific) justification of his or her personal belief system is the counterpart of a believer in God, like Phillip Johnson or Michael Behe, who searches for intellectual respectability by claiming that science is wrong.

Blind, Pitiless Indifference

When both sides frame the argument in terms of what scientific materialism can or cannot explain, the atheists seem to carry the day.  But many atheists are not content to win the argument on purely scientific grounds.  As Richard Lewontin put it (quoted by Miller on p. 186), “science is in the midst of a ‘struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world,’ a struggle against ignorance and spirituality that it cannot afford to lose.”  Feeling so threatened, these scientists surge beyond the boundaries of science to use evolution as an anti-religious weapon, not just to disprove literal interpretations of Genesis but prove the fundamental purposelessness of life.  As Dr. Miller states (p. 187), “Without purpose to the universe, there is no meaning, there are no absolutes, and there is no reason for existence.”  By insisting that evolution implies a universe ruled by “blind, pitiless indifference,” Dawkins and the others advance an absolute materialist worldview that is anathema to “people who see the world as a place of deliberate moral choice, who see clear differences between good and evil, and who cherish virtues such as courage, honesty, and truthfulness” (Miller, p. 171).  “The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual” (Miller, p. 189). 

Though “these writers have gone well beyond any reasonable scientific conclusions that might emerge from evolutionary biology” (Miller, p. 185), they have convinced many believers in God that evolution is their enemy—“that evolution isn’t really about science, but is instead an ideology of belief, power, and social control” (Miller, p. 190).  These believers are emotionally committed to discrediting these dangerous ideas of science in general, and evolution in particular.  However, they have chosen the wrong strategy.   They believe they must show that science cannot explain the natural world, despite overwhelming evidence that it can. 

Offering one of his most important contributions to understanding this clash of opposing philosophical worldviews, Dr. Miller claims that the most extreme viewpoints depend on the same unspoken assumption that “if the origins of living organisms can be explained in purely material terms, then the existence of God—at least any God worthy of the name—is disproved” (p. 190).   

What if this assumption is wrong?  Dr. Miller goes on to challenge the logical connections between materialism and atheism.  Accepting as scientific truth “that the world runs according to material rules, that we are material beings, and that our biology works by means of the laws of physics and chemistry,” Ken Miller asks, “What if the regularities of nature were fashioned in a way that they themselves allowed for the divine?” (pp. 190-91).  He then engages in an Augustinian effort to reconcile science and religion without forcing either to make unacceptable concessions to the other. 

Two Assumptions

Ken Miller’s argument starts with two assumptions.  The first is based on science—that the natural, material world is self-sufficient.  In simplest terms, this means that all natural phenomena are part of a universe driven by natural causes, the laws of physics and chemistry that control the behavior of matter and energy.  No immaterial, unnatural causes are required for this universe to function as we see it functioning.  The second assumption is based on theology in the “Western tradition”—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that a nonmaterial, spiritual being called God created the material universe and everything in it by an act of His own volition; humans exist as a direct result of God’s will; and God has revealed Himself to us.  There is a spiritual reality that surpasses the physical reality of nature.  This spiritual reality is beyond the detection of science, but God is quite capable of reaching out from that spiritual reality to act in the material world in ways that seem personal—as though each of us is treated like an individual person.  But God chooses not to intervene in the material world in any way that denies humans the free will to choose good or evil, to love God or reject Him. 

Note that Miller has to be quite explicit in defining the theology he refers to, because there are so many theologies to choose from, whereas there is just one science.  That’s because theology deals with a “reality” we can only guess at, but science comes from (directly or indirectly) observable reality.  By itself, this difference convinces many of us to reject theology as a useful exercise, but this discomfort does not by itself disprove the spiritual.  More positively, there are scientifically unsolved problems in our understanding of the universe that imply existence beyond the material.

Three Problems Unsolved by Science

The first problem is posed by thermodynamics.  “The enormous energy expended by the sun and its multitude of sister stars had to come from somewhere, for eventually it would burn down to nothing” (Miller, p. 223).  Had to come from somewhere before and therefore outside the material universe.  The need for a First Cause is no longer just philosophical.  All evidence indicates the universe started with the Big Bang, which had to have a cause.  Philosophical materialism, which insists there is nothing beyond the material, natural reality, is left speechless in the face of evidence of creation ex nihilo—something from nothing, a material universe from a nonmaterial reality before and beyond. 

The second problem is the “anthropic principle”—the physical constants of the universe (like the gravitational constant) are set at values that allow life to exist.  Even slight changes in these values and there would be no stars, no planets, no water, no carbon, no life, no humans.   Given we live on a tiny planet revolving around a small star on the edge of a minor galaxy among a vast multitude of galaxies, it is hard to believe we humans are at the center of the universe.  Yet the values of the physical constants support the opposite conclusion, that the universe was designed for life, if not specifically for us. 

Of course, the notion of design is anathema to nonbelievers.  Some, notably Daniel Dennett, have proposed an alternative view that our universe is only one among many “parallel universes” with a variety of value settings for the physical constants; one of these universes just happens to be suitable for the evolution of life, and of course, we are only aware of the universe that permits us to live and measure the physical constants!   Dennett maintains his multiple universe hypothesis is a reasonable alternative to “any traditional alternative,” which is to admit that his alternative is equally untestable scientifically.  But Dennett’s multiplying swarm of universes is no less outlandish than the notion of a designer God.  And it doesn’t address the First Cause problem.

The third problem is Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” which states that we cannot know with precision both the position and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle—the fundamental uncertainty of quantum mechanics.  Since these particles and their behavior are the building blocks of all material existence, unpredictability is an inherent characteristic of nature, of material existence itself.  The impacts are not confined to a sub-atomic micro-level that is irrelevant to our macro-level lives.  While the quantum behavior of electrons is averaged out into statistical laws that are descriptive of what happens at the more macro level, the level of Isaac Newton’s physics, the next move of an electron is inherently unpredictable.  Electron behavior causes chemical changes that lead to firing neurons and mutating genes that drive individual behavior and evolutionary change.  “Life is surely explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry … but the catch is that those laws themselves deny us an ultimate knowledge of what causes what, and what will happen next” (Miller, p. 208-09). 

The Absentee God

The deterministic physics of Newton left philosophers from the 17th through the 19th centuries (including Charles Darwin) with the conclusion that God plays no role in the day-to-day world run by laws that could be used—in principle—to predict the behavior of every atom.  This Deist view regards the universe as a kind of clockwork, built and wound up by God but allowed to run untouched ever since the Creation.  Nature could be described as “a system of parts whose energies, positions, and velocities, if known, would be absolutely sufficient to predict each and every future position of the system.  Reality would be set in stone.” (Miller, p. 204). 

An Active, Personal God

The quantum physics of the 20th century falsifies this deterministic view of the universe.  It does not disprove the absentee God of the Deists, but it does allow the possibility that God plays a role at the sub-atomic level of reality, influencing events without being obvious to humans operating at the macro-level.  Ken Miller builds upon the indeterminacy of the quantum reality of the physical sciences to develop his Theist theology of an involved deity.

Miller doesn’t pander to emotionally unsatisfying notions of God as a “smart, modern and sophisticated” (p. 221) label for love or the universe or the laws of nature.  His notion of God is the unabashedly traditional God of the great Western religions—the Creator of the universe who somehow has been involved in the history of our world and continues to be involved in our lives in a very personal way.  How can this be?  Especially given Miller’s insistence on the sufficiency of material explanations for the events and substance of our material world?    

 Never abandoning his commitment to logic and evidence, Ken Miller makes a convincing case that evolution through random genetic variation winnowed by natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin and those who followed, can be seen by thoughtful, scientifically wise people as the mechanism for fulfilling the divine intention to create a universe in which a sentient species arises with the ability to know its creator and discover the very mechanism of its creation—the physical laws that make chemistry, life and evolution possible.  It is a breathtaking theological insight.  God has created a fully self-sufficient material universe that runs according to physical laws and needs no further tinkering to keep on ticking, like Paley’s watch, but God also has built in (by design) the mechanisms to change, elaborate and diversify into the fantastically complex world around us on earth.  God can and does intervene in the operation of the material world, but only rarely and then only at the indeterminate sub-atomic level of reality, in order to remain scientifically undetectable to his sentient creatures.  Okay, but why this subtle and elaborate process to create an independent material world, if God is quite capable of intervening to directly control events accordingly to His will?  Why even create a material world?

Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Ken Miller draws on traditional Western theology to explain such an elaborate approach to creation (p. 243):

“By any reasonable analysis, evolution does nothing to distance or to weaken the power of God.  We already know that we live in a world of natural causes, explicable by the workings of natural law.  All that evolution does is to extend the workings of these natural laws to the novelty of life and to its changes over time.  A God who presides over an evolutionary process is not an impotent, passive observer.  Rather, He is one whose genius fashioned a fruitful world in which the process of continuing creation is woven into the fabric of matter itself.  He retains the freedom to act, to reveal Himself to His creatures, to inspire, and to teach.  He is the master of chance and time, whose actions, both powerful and subtle, respect the independence of His creation and give human beings the genuine freedom to accept or reject His love.”

And on p. 253:

“The Western God stands back from His creation, not to absent Himself, not to abandon His creatures, but to allow His people true freedom.  A God who hovers, in all His visible power and majesty, over every step taken by mere mortals never allows them the true independence that true love, true goodness, and true obedience requires.

For our freedom in this world to be genuine, we must have the capacity to choose good or evil, and we must be allowed to face the consequences of our actions.”

Such language is directed to those who are comfortable with the Christian worldview.  Ken Miller addresses a good part of his book, perhaps most of it, to Christian objections to evolution, trying to show believers that belief in the Darwinian process of evolution need not be threatening to their Christian worldview.  In that, I think he is highly successful.  But he is less persuasive for those who believe in evolution already and are struggling with the implications of a divine creation process that not only allows but requires the commonplace and massive destruction of life in order to fuel the natural selection that drives the evolution of life. 

The evolutionary process seems too cruel to be the work of a loving God who is personally involved with His creatures.  This was a particular problem for Charles Darwin, especially after the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie.  This wanton destruction of life in the material world has long been and remains a major barrier to belief in a personal, loving, creator God.  Miller explains this evil as the price of human free will—allowing the choice to do good also allows the opportunity to choose evil instead.  That could explain the evil wrought by human beings.  But wanton destruction is “woven into the very fabric” of the continuing change process that has taken billions of years to create a sentient being capable of free will.  Evil is not due solely to the sins of human beings; it is in the fabric of the universe itself.

Free-lance Theology

This inherent capacity for evil is better explained by the late Harold Kushner, a rabbi distraught over the untimely illness and death of his son.  In When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner reconsidered the traditional Western concept of God as always loving, all knowing and all powerful.  He concluded that the frequency of apparently random evil (bad things happening to good people) forbids us from believing that God can have all three of these divine characteristics.  Rather than conclude that God does not exist or is not personally supportive in our lives, as many others have done, Rabbi Kushner settles on God not being all powerful.  He can’t intervene directly in the flow of material events on our behalf or on behalf of any of His creatures.  He can only strengthen us spiritually in our struggles in the material world.  God is Great—but not Perfect.

Ken Miller seems to disagree.  God can intervene.  The quantum uncertainty of sub-atomic reality allows God to intervene without being detected and thereby compromising the free will of human beings.  But God mostly chooses not to intervene, because to do so too often would, well, blow His cover!  So here we have a fundamental disagreement among those who share belief in God’s existence and active participation in the world—in a Theistic rather than a Deistic God.  One says God doesn’t intervene in the material world, because He is not powerful enough to provide more than spiritual support.  The other says God is powerful enough, but He doesn’t want to intervene, even to prevent the suffering of our world.  Nonetheless, He can affect material events if He so chooses, and He does so, but only for very good reason and only very rarely. 

For many readers, both believers and disbelievers, this kind of theological disagreement may seem silly and unimportant.  To the contrary, theology is very practical in seeking to understand what we can expect from God.  We could be setting expectations of God that are unreasonable even for God to meet.  We may childishly insist that God must be Perfect or else God cannot possibly exist.  And if we deny the existence and influence of something so important as God, we have a very incomplete grasp of reality.

Building on both Miller’s and Kushner’s points, perhaps God is always loving and all knowing and also all powerful—Perfect—but His system of creation is imperfect and God knows this all too well.  It is the tragic genius of the creation mechanism in the material universe that it has to operate in this randomly destructive way beyond His direct control—in order to be creative.  Perhaps there is no other way available, even to God!  This flaw (what else can you label something so destructive of so many little lives?) in the creative system may be inherent in any complex system driven by only a few universal rules working from a small set of initial conditions.  This flaw should be a caution against the hope of perfectability of complex systems, especially perfectability forced through extensive centralized control, whether the system be divine, natural or human-made.

Miller and Kushner do seem to agree that God can and does strengthen and guide the spirit within a receptive human being, thereby affecting human consciousness and behavior in ways that have no better explanation (so far! we have to be careful to acknowledge).  In so doing God’s “will,” we can act as God’s agents in the material world – a form of divine intervention in the traditional sense favored by Miller.  Like a parent watching over an adult child, God may love and care desperately for each of us and seek to guide us when the opportunity arises, knowing full well (and sadly) that however much we mess things up, He cannot live our lives for us.

All three of us, Miller, Kushner and I, are free-lancing as theologists, but this reasoned following of logical threads anchored to observable reality is more or less how good theology is done by the professionals.  It leads to a reasonable and possible concept of God.  Another free-lancer, Charles Darwin, could have appreciated these insights into the power of God in relation to the evolutionary process.  If created by God, even if influenced by God at critical moments, the process is still not controlled in its details by God.  However, this concept of a self-limiting God was unavailable to Charles. 

Genesis, the Straw Man

Ken Miller makes the crucial point that naively literal understanding of the book of Genesis, which had become the rule in most Christian denominations, including the Church of England, by the 19th century, made an easy target for anti-Theists and anti-religionists in general.  In fact, Genesis was presented by Christian authorities in England and elsewhere as a scientifically valid account of the creation of the universe and all its component parts.  By pinning the reputation and validity of Christian religion on this literal interpretation of the Bible, in direct opposition to scientifically well-established knowledge of the material world, the Church of England made it all too easy for its many intellectual, social and political enemies to discredit Christianity in general, and thereby undermine the authority and power of Christianity in modern society.  In the 19th century, the only alternative to the biblical account was the Newtonian determinism that seemed to have no need of divine existence much less intervention.  This was all that was available theologically to free-lance thinkers like Charles Darwin, who saw too much evidence against biblical inerrancy.  It seemed that God could not really exist, at least not a Theistic God.  The implications of quantum indeterminacy were unknown, and even today are little understood. 

The modern-day conflict between creationists and atheists is driven by their unspoken agreement that discrediting the Bible and associated “god talk” is sufficient to discredit religion and even the concept of God as the creator of and currently active agent in the universe. The Bible and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution have become the “weapons of disbelief” (Miller, p. 269) in a battle that is more about control of the social and political agenda than it is about theology and science. This is a travesty for both the Bible and Charles Darwin, for religion and for science. 

Darwin’s God 

The great value of Ken Miller’s wonderful book is that he shows quite conclusively that this conflict between Western science and Western religion need not be so.  His theme is summed up on his second to last page (p. 291):

Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided, will always be disappointed.  As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one way direction or the other.  But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be.  In many respects, evolution is the key to understanding our relationship to God.  God’s physical intervention in our lives is not direct.  But His care and love are constants, and the strength He gives, while the stuff of miracle, is a miracle of faith, hope, and inspiration.

Ken Miller closes by stating, “I believe in Darwin’s God.”  Many of us think we do, too.  But until Ken and the rest of us can more convincingly account for the evil “woven into the fabric” of God’s creation, we haven’t found the God that Charles was looking for.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

The Voyage of the Beagle – Antecedents


In 1831, Charles Darwin was earning a lack-luster degree from Cambridge University and setting his sights on becoming a clergyman of the Church of England.  He was not enthused by the prospect, but he stood a good chance of getting a rural parish.  This would allow him to indulge his passion for natural history on the side, as had many rural clergymen for whom a career with the Church was more means than end.  Not that Charles was in the least insincere.  His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, having concluded that medicine was not for Charles, allowed him to leave Edinburgh University without a degree (as had his older brother, Erasmus) and enroll at Cambridge University to study the classics in preparation for a profession in the Church.  This had long been a fall back position for gentlemen in need of a respectable profession.  Before accepting his father’s offer, Charles considered carefully his ability to pledge himself to uphold the finer points of Church doctrine.  After much reading and thinking on the question, Charles decided that he could do it:  “… as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.” (from his Recollections).  And so he went up to Cambridge. 


Charles at Cambridge


His brother had preceded Charles to Cambridge and had told him about Professor John Stevens Henslow as a man who knew every branch of science.  His cousin and close friend, William Darwin Fox, a fellow beetle enthusiast, also went to Cambridge and soon got Charles an invitation to the regular Friday evening gatherings of students and faculty at Professor Henslow’s home to explore common interests in the natural world.  Something about Charles made him stand out enough for Henslow to take him under his academic and personal wing.  More than mentor and student, Henslow and Charles became field trip companions and soon very good friends.  In early 1831, after Charles had effectively completed his course work but still had to reside on campus for another two terms to fulfill degree requirements, Henslow encouraged Charles to take up geology under the tutelage of the revered Professor Adam Sedgwick.  Again the relationship became close.  Sedgwick invited Charles to accompany him during the summer on a geological transect of North Wales.  He taught Charles the intimate details of how geologizing was then done.  Charles loved the vigorous hiking across the landscape, observing and collecting samples with his new geological hammer, and putting the pieces of evidence together in a coherent map and understanding of the geology of the area.  Still, he was anxious to get back home in time for the start of the fall partridge hunting.  The start of his career with the Church could wait another few months.


FitzRoy Plans the Beagle’s Return to South America


Also in 1831, Robert FitzRoy was planning a second voyage in command of HMS Beagle to map the coasts of the “southern cone” of South America.  FitzRoy was in his early twenties but already an accomplished naval officer when he joined the earlier expedition at its midpoint.  The Beagle had sailed with HMS Adventure under the overall command of Phillip Parker King.  The expedition returned to England in 1830 with much work left to be done.  A second expedition was needed, but King decided to retire and live in Australia, so command of the second voyage fell to young FitzRoy with only the Beagle sailing this time. 


Their coastal mapping mission was motivated by the opening in the 1820s of the newly independent South American colonies for commercial relations with countries other than Spain and Portugal.  To facilitate trade by commercial shipping, and its ability to protect this trade, the Royal Navy needed more consistently accurate and detailed charts of the South American coasts and adjacent waters.  The expedition also was of vital strategic importance to learn more about these countries in general, especially their people and natural resources as producers of commodities to feed the growing demand of Britain’s industrial revolution.  Scientific exploration served national interests, and military careers in the poorly known regions of the early nineteenth century world not only permitted but even encouraged interest in natural history, from which knowledge of natural resources was likely to come.


In Need of “Some Well-Educated and Scientific Person” 


FitzRoy was given command of the Beagle quite suddenly on location in South American waters when her captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide.  The incident and his own experience of command heightened FitzRoy’s concern about the pressures and loneliness of command at sea, especially given his particular vulnerability to bouts of despair. This time he wanted a gentleman companion to share his cabin and meals, to dispel the loneliness and distract him from the relentless pace of work he was inclined to set for himself.  He asked a friend, who declined.  FitzRoy therefore asked Captain Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the British Admiralty (and inventor of the Beaufort Scale for describing wind force) to help him find a suitable gentleman.  It was appropriate that he ask Beaufort, as he was the technical supervisor of the expedition and was engaged in writing FitzRoy’s “terms of reference” (as we today would call his memorandum describing in detail the mapping and other assignments for the second voyage).  In FitzRoy’s own words, he “proposed to the Hydrographer that some well-educated and scientific person should be sought for who would willingly share such accommodations as I had to offer, in order to profit by the opportunity of visiting distant countries yet little known.”


When FitzRoy requested a “gentleman,” he was not asking for just any well-mannered sort of fellow but a person of particular social status and outlook compatible with his own – a man of his own class with whom he could deign to associate as an equal.  Actually, FitzRoy was an aristocrat descended from Charles II, but he would find a “gentleman” of some wealth, education, and refinement quite acceptable.  Beaufort contacted Professor Peacock of Cambridge University, and the old school network was activated.  Peacock contacted his friend, Professor Henslow, who was sorely tempted to take the position himself, except for the forlorn expressions of his wife and young children.  Henslow extended the invitation to Charles Darwin, as a very capable, if “unfinished” naturalist. After some famous hesitation, Charles accepted to go to London immediately to meet FitzRoy, to see if both could stand the idea of spending years together in the intimate quarters of a ship at sea.  After some equally famous hesitation by FitzRoy regarding the shape of Charles’s nose (phrenology, or study of the shape of face and head, was seriously considered by many educated people of that time), the two decided they liked each other and sealed the bargain, with the understanding that Charles (rather, his father) would pay all his own costs and would be designated the Captain’s personal guest, with liberty to leave the voyage at any port of call, to return by another ship to England.  FitzRoy was concerned from the start about the staying power of any companion he invited along.


Bonds of Friendship, Adventure and Ambition


During preparation of the Beagle in the autumn of 1831, these two young men, Robert FitzRoy, 26, and Charles Darwin, 22, quickly became friends, united by the excitement of high adventure to come.   Just imagine the anticipation of Charles as FitzRoy and his crew figuratively and literally showed him the ropes, helping him buy the right equipment and stow his gear in the tight spaces of the tiny cabin, even demonstrating how to hang his sleeping hammock and get into it without being thrown to the deck!  Charles was not the only landlubber guest of FitzRoy who must have amused the Beagle crew.  In addition to the complement of 65 crew, FitzRoy brought along nine “supernumaries,” counting Charles.  The others included a “draughtsman,” Augustus Earle, to record the voyage in paintings as well as, I presume, to make good-looking maps from the charts created by FitzRoy and his officers.  And an “instrument maker,” George Stebbing, to tend the 22 finest chronometers ever carried around the world, for FitzRoy to measure “meridian distances” that would greatly improve accuracy of locating major geographic features of the earth by longitude, still a relatively new method (this task was the primary motive for circumnavigating the globe once the work of surveying the South American coasts was completed).  And Richard Matthews, a missionary, and three Fuegians FitzRoy had brought back to England from the first expedition and educated at his own expense; Matthews and the Fuegians were to establish a mission at the bottom of the world, the vanguard of Christianity in Tierra del Fuego.  Plus FitzRoy had his own steward, and Charles had his own servant, especially to assist in his collecting and preserving of specimens. 


Excepting Charles and his servant, all these supernumaries and more were at FitzRoy’s personal expense.  To our modern ears, it seems quite remarkable that a military expedition would include the personal projects of its leader and mix public and personal funding of the diverse endeavors.  But this was typical for the time.  Such expeditions were usually led by wealthy, upper-class men who often had ambitious agendas of their own, compatibly mixed with service to the Crown. 


Adding to the bond forged between adventure travelers, FitzRoy and Charles shared a common ambition to use the opportunity of the voyage to establish themselves as experts in their respective professional fields and thereby launch their careers and secure their positions in English society.  An expedition to unknown lands, discovery of new knowledge, and the subsequent reports of the findings had established the reputations and positions of many young Englishmen prior to the second expedition of the Beagle.  Therefore, both FitzRoy and Charles could clearly see the future rewards of literally staying the course, of persisting through the long years of privation, hardship, danger, homesickness, hard work, and boring weeks at sea.  The burden was relieved, no doubt, by their sharing the resolve to see it through.  FitzRoy had the added incentive of being under Admiralty orders.  For Charles, completing the voyage was optional; on the other hand, he was motivated by intense desire to prove himself in some important way – especially to his family, it seems.  Plus, he was passionately committed to the work, and he knew how FitzRoy and Henslow and Sedgwick and many others in scientific English society thought it so exciting and important.  He had a respectable profession, at last.


.  .  .


I have based the foregoing on three books.  Charles’s Recollections, introduced in my previous posting, devotes only eight pages to the period of the voyage, mainly adding some personal information about his relationship with FitzRoy and events leading up to the sailing of the Beagle on December 27, 1831.  Charles’s public account of the voyage, drawn from his daily journal, was first published with FitzRoy’s account in 1839, and later in the same year as a stand-alone book entitled Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836.  This book of travels was a surprising publication success; several editions were published with variations of the title and translations into several languages.  It continues to be widely read today.  Charles admitted in his Recollections that “The success of this my first literary child always tickles my vanity more than that of any of my other books.”


The version I have read carefully is the Penguin Classics book, Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1989 – this is the first (1839) edition of Journal of Researches edited and abridged by Janet Browne and Michael Neve.  “Abridged” means that Browne and Neve reduced the length of the original first edition by removing whole sections they deemed of less interest, without touching the remaining sections, shortening the whole by about one third.  I admit to being grateful for the abridgment.  Charles wrote well, often with vivid imagery and lively spirit, but his was still an early 19th century literary style.  I love Jane Austen, but Charles was not that good, and often it is a slog to follow his prose.  Moreover, I find his rather long geological digressions on the landscapes he traveled through quite tedious, and I am just not interested in his minute invertebrates (there is one memorable passage (p. 191) about zoophytes in the seas around the Falkland Islands which left me totaled puzzled after several readings).  The scientific expedition narratives of the time served the dual purpose of entertaining the generalist readers as well as informing the experts looking for information new to their specialty, creating in an uneven reading experience. 


I preferred reading the first edition, rather than the 1845 second edition, for which Charles “took much pains in correcting” the first edition, possibly obscuring what he was thinking or not thinking during or shortly after the voyage.  For example, I understand (and plan to verify) that he made more of the Galapagos observations in the second edition than in the first, overlaying his later interpretations on the raw observations and initial reactions during his visit to the archipelago in Sept-Oct 1835.


Browne and Neve do the reader a very great favor in their 26 pages of introduction.  Seldom have I found an introduction more enlightening and useful.  I am indebted to them for most of what I have written above about the historical context of the Beagle expedition and the background on Robert FitzRoy.  I highly recommend this introduction as an important document in itself. 


Browne and Neve very usefully attach two appendices:  “Admiralty Instructions for the Beagle Voyage” which includes Beaufort’s memorandum of detailed assignments for FitzRoy, and “Remarks with Reference to the Deluge” written by Robert FitzRoy himself as a counter to Darwin’s geological interpretations of what the two men saw together in distant lands.  Both of these pieces first were published in the second volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HMS Adventure and Beagle (1839).  Charles’s Journal of Researches first appeared as the third volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative.  I drew insights from the “Admiralty Instructions” in writing this post and the next.  FitzRoy was given a daunting set of surveying and other tasks, and his faithfulness to the instructions accounts for the length of the voyage extending from the original (and unrealistic) projection of two years to almost five years.


The third book is the Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead, published by Harper & Row in 1969.  This is the first book I read about Darwin himself (rather than his theory and its impacts).  I was a young graduate ecology student at the time.  Moorehead’s book tells the story of Charles and the Beagle experience so well, and so beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings and sketches of the places, people and creatures, that it awakened in me a longing to travel the world, seeing it as an ecologist, especially the tropics.  I was the same age as Charles when he boarded the Beagle, and I identified with his youthful desire to see what he had only read about in books and his ambition to contribute something new to science.  I hoped that I, too, would gain wonderful insights from experiencing new natural worlds.  I highly recommend Moorehead’s book even today as an easy and compelling way to travel vicariously with Charles on his famous voyage.


However, in re-reading this book recently, I was reminded of the ever-so-subtle way an author, whether Moorehead or any other (including me), can create impressions that distort historical facts, without conscious intention to deceive or obscure.  Moorehead highlights a bit too much the intellectual conflict between Darwin and FitzRoy, during the voyage itself, regarding interpretation of geological observations.  He creates an impression of confrontation between the enlightened scientist just looking at the facts and the fundamentalist Christian clinging doggedly to the literal truth of the Biblical account.  As in most books about Darwin and evolution, Moorehead approaches his task with unspoken celebration of the triumph of the modern mind, as science defeats religion, as reason overcomes ignorant tradition, as light dispels the darkness.  Browne and Neve, in their introduction, paint a more complex and interesting portrait of the relationship between Charles and FitzRoy during the voyage.  No doubt they engaged in running debate as they tried together to make sense of what they encountered along the way (reflected by FitzRoy’s “Remarks”), but it seems to have been a friendly exchange between mutually respectful and relatively open minds that only later fully settled on diametrically opposing interpretations of fact.  During the voyage, they had some famous arguments, such as about the benefits of slavery in Brazil, reflecting their different political upbringings.  But it is doubtful that either grew furious with the other over their interpretations of the history of South American landscapes, much less the origin of species. 


In this posting, I have dwelled mostly on antecedents to the voyage of the Beagle.  In my next posting, I will summarize what I have learned about the events of the voyage itself.


Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (







Autobiography of Charles Darwin: A Book Review and Reflection on the Personality

What better way to get started toward understanding Charles the Person than with his own words about himself.  In 1876, at age 67, seven years before his death, Charles wrote Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character for the benefit of his wife, Emma, and his seven living children.  He begins with a passage that shows his humility and his intent:


A German Editor having written to me for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children.  I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read ever so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked.  I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life.  Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.  I have taken no pains about my style of writing.


Unlike his Victorian peers, his style of writing is easy, direct, approachable – and revealing.  I enjoyed these 79 pages more than any other by Charles Darwin.  Of course, it would not be important to read these recollections without his other more important books.   By 1876, Charles was aware of his global fame and therefore the public fascination with himself.  Were it not for the controversy he fueled in British society, he would have been knighted by Queen Victoria, as were some of his close friends (and, later, even some of his own sons).  Yet British society showed its enormous respect by interring the unknighted Darwin almost beside Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. 


Charles’s Testament to His Heirs


He was pleased by the success of his books and his theory but distressed by the way his writing so distressed others.  A determinedly private man, Charles refused to engage publically with the socio-scientific-religious dust storm he had kicked up.  He fully expected a quiet burial in the Downe church cemetery, but this was not a man whose contribution to science and society lay undiscovered until after his death.  He had a profound effect on his peers, and he knew it.  Yet, in acceding to requests for his autobiography, he wrote as father and husband, aware that like his own curiosity to really know his nearly-as-famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, his children and grandchildren would want to know how he thought, worked and lived.  This was his testament to his heirs.


Can We Trust Charles’s Account of Himself?


Charles was aware of his success in achieving the scientific stature he clearly craved yet remarkably frank about his own shortcomings.  Did he engage in false humility?  Only a little, if at all.  Can we really trust what this man has written about himself?  Yes, I think we can.  Charles observed his own life with the same dispassionate acumen he applied to the natural world, but surely nothing is more difficult to observe with dispassion than one’s own life.  The best we can hope to get directly from Charles is an honest portrait of his self-image, an accurate rendition of what his memory chose to hold on to over the decades.  I suspect we do indeed get the best in this sense.  Emma Wedgwood, his wife and first cousin, knew Charles literally all his life and found him the most open man of her acquaintance (we would say “transparent” these days), a major reason she gave for falling in love with him.  His openness of mind and demeanor, and even writing style, made Charles stand out as exceptional in a generation given to artifice and ceremony.  By his nature, he seems worthy of our careful trust in what he has to say about himself.


A Passion for Collecting


Charles remembered that by the age of eight, “my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed.  I collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals.”  This passion for collecting extended in his teenage and university years to insects, especially beetles.  “But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.”  His mind kept “indelible impressions of many beetles” he encountered, as one might remember time, place, and circumstances of meeting a fascinating person.  Just by the subtle shift in his writing of these lines, an increased intensity and detail, I can sense his passion.  Today, Charles would certainly have become an avid birder, like me, keeping detailed lists of species seen, lists which evoke vivid, colorful, detailed memories of the birds themselves and the circumstances of finding them.  We share this odd collector’s mentality. 


A Passion for Shooting (and Keeping Records)


Unlike me, Charles also had a passion for shooting (we would call it “hunting” these days), which was how one studied birds in those days (the double-barreled shotgun was the predecessor of the double-barreled binocular).  His “zeal for shooting in autumn” extended to keeping “an exact record of every bird shot through the whole season” which made him the butt of jokes by his “wicked friends.”  “I must have been half-consciously ashamed of my zeal.  I tried to persuade myself that shooting was almost an intellectual employment.”


Youthful Shortcomings


I can see in this admission a reflection of Charles’s self-consciousness about his youthful shortcomings.  Respect for the intellectual life was instilled in him, no doubt, by his intellectually distinguished father and grandfather.  Respect for the industrious life was instilled, too, by his father, a well-regarded physician, and his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood II, who made Wedgwood china the dinnerware of royalty.  As a boy and even as a young man, Charles was neither intellectual nor industrious in usual sense.  He was never a good student.  To him a classical grade school education was a waste, most university lectures a tedious bore, “maths” was repugnant, and his medical education at Edinburgh was distressing, even haunting.  “During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language.”  He was hilarious among friends for his tin ear and inability to remember even simple musical tunes.  He thought his school masters and his father considered him “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”  His father even once made the stinging remark that “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”  Charles excused this as an uncharacteristic outburst by “… the kindest man I ever knew, and whose memory I love with all my heart …” Nonetheless, the threat of disapproval by his beloved but remote father lingered long into Charles’s adult life.


Intelligently Curious and Socially at Ease


In contrast, Charles clearly possessed deep native intelligence and curiosity, as well as a confident and pleasing social character.  Reflecting more positively on his school life, he wrote “I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing.”  He loved reading books, and regretted that later in life he lost all pleasure from poetry of any kind.  He often took long, solitary walks and loved to ride (horses, of course) across beautiful landscapes.  But Charles was hardly a loner.  He made many friends at school and considered his disposition to be very affectionate.  He was at ease in society and adept at making friends with those who shared his general interests in collecting, riding, and shooting – and later in science. 


A Companion of Distinguished Men of Science


Most important for an unaccomplished youth, Charles’s personal qualities of openness, enthusiasm, curiosity, drive to understand, passion for nature, personal charm, and gentleman’s manners enabled him to become the companion of several distinguished men of science, when science was still known as “natural philosophy” and not quite yet an acceptable university major.  These men, especially Cambridge University Professor Henslow, the pioneering botanist, saw more in Charles than he could see in himself.  As Charles put it, “Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them.”


The Opportunity of a Lifetime


What they saw recommended him for the opportunity of a lifetime, to travel as Captain FitzRoy’s gentleman companion and unofficial ship’s naturalist on the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle to map the coasts of southern South America and to circumnavigate the globe to take chronometric measurements.  Charles’s personal qualities prepared him well for integration with the socially diverse crew of the Beagle for five long years, 1831-1836, and his many arduous collecting expeditions from various ports of call.  In these Recollections, Charles treats the voyage briefly, referring the reader to his first published  book on the topic, but he sums up simply, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career …”  He felt he owed to the voyage his first real education.  “I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”


Imagine such a gift of opportunity to a young man!  It was almost a fluke, and he would have passed it up, except for the intervention of his Uncle Jos(iah Wedgwood II) with his skeptical father.  Unpromising as Charles was for a standard career in English society, his mentors recognized exceptional qualities that might be nurtured by an exceptional experience.  The voyage of the Beagle was one of many expeditions of exploration, especially following in the wake of Captain Cook’s voyages.  And many ship’s naturalists and medical officers collected specimens of all sorts and reported their findings to a society eager to learn about the world beyond Britain and Europe – in fact, Charles was able to draw on their work to put his own observations in global perspective.  To his generation, these voyages of discovery were equivalent in fascination to our exploration of space.  Even as late as the 1830s, it was still almost easy to discover something new and interesting for science and society simply by traveling the world.  If he could capture his observations and experiences in good English prose, his reports would have a guaranteed, eager audience.  However, there was nothing so unusual about Charles or the voyage of the Beagle that a scientific breakthrough would inevitably result.  His personal qualities, the mentors he gathered, and pure chance delivered him to this fabulous opportunity.  It was then solely up to Charles to make something very special of it.


Perspective Gained from Knowing the Young Man


Charles continued in his Recollections to briefly recount the people, places and events of his life from the departure of the Beagle from Portsmouth in December 1831 to his writing them down during May-August 1876.  I won’t summarize these recollections here, as the facts are recorded in other letters and books by and about Darwin.  I will review and reflect on many of these in later blog postings.  What is particularly important about his Recollections is that we have little else to tell us the story of Charles’s life and its influences during the formative years before his momentous voyage.  I believe that understanding the basic personality and the experiences that formed it into a young man is fundamental for putting his later life and work in proper perspective.  I will return to this theme repeatedly. 


I found Charles’s Recollections in a small volume reprinted from the Life of Charles Darwin, edited by his son, Sir Francis Darwin.  The volume was published as a small hardcover book, No. 7 in The Thinker’s Library, published by Watts & Co. (London) in 1929.  It is titled Autobiograhy of Charles Darwin with Two Appendices, comprising a Chapter of Reminiscences and a Statement of Charles Darwin’s Religious Views, by his Son, Sir Francis Darwin (Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge).  I will review the chapter and statement by Charles’s son in upcoming postings.


Copyright 2008 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!