Posts Tagged 'Science'

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 (

Mis-Creation—A Movie Review

I have not posted to DarwinWatch in well over a year, leaving you and me both wondering if I had abandoned the project.  It is only postponed while I have had to devote myself to my non-profit organization’s struggle to weather the global financial and economic meltdown of the past 18 months.  The effort seems to be succeeding, but it is too soon to tell for sure, and it has left me with more work responsibilities than I can handle.  Still, I’ve labored fitfully with a couple of very long posts that should appear on this site in the next month or two.

Annie’s Box as a Movie

What has drawn me prematurely back to posting is that, just this past week on an international flight, I watched a movie called Creation.  One of the Darwin websites informed me in 2008 that this movie was in production, based (very loosely, it turns out) on the book Annie’s Box by Randal Keynes, one of the descendants of Charles and Emma Darwin.  I liked the book very much and was looking forward to the movie, wondering how it would be done. 

Director Jon Amiel based this movie on the anguish of Charles and Emma Darwin over the inexplicable death of their ten-year-old daughter, Annie, in April 1851.  Charles is played by Paul Bettany, who played well the Darwin-like ship’s doctor in Master and Commander—The Far Side of the World (2003).  In more recent roles, however, Bettany seems to be type-cast as a man tortured by demons, as in The Da Vinci Code and now Creation.  I found Bettany’s portrayal of Charles almost a character assassination.  And Emma is portrayed by Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as a pinched, worried woman, darkly resentful of her husband’s strange work, strange colleagues and strange illness.  Even their children are made to seem fearful of Charles, with the exception of Annie, who seems too modern in her chummy patronization of her father’s weakness.  Charles’s closest friend, Joseph Hooker, came across as manipulative and dismissive of Charles’s reservations about publishing his theory of evolution.  The homunculus who played Thomas Huxley was appalling in his uncaring aggressiveness as a culture warrior hell-bent to use Charles as a weapon against religion, whatever the cost to Charles himself.

Historical Accuracy

I can hardly blame the actors for their portrayals of these historical characters.  No doubt they were doing the director’s bidding.  And what, after all, is so very wrong about the movie?  Is it historically inaccurate?  No, the facts of the movie follow the real history with only a few exceptions.

Yes, Charles suffered, at times greatly, from an undiagnosed illness that affected his stomach and head, causing vomiting, headaches, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks.  Yes, Charles was often shy of company, especially as the excitement of social interaction sometimes triggered bouts of his illness, but the Darwins were famously welcoming and cheerful hosts.  Yes, Emma suspected that the illness was psychosomatic, generated by the stress of intense, self-driven, mental work.  Yes, Charles was convinced that “hydro-therapy” helped his condition (though the break from work to go to Malvern for the “water cure” may have been the real source of relief).  He did insist on the dubious benefits of the strange coldwater douche baths.  

Yes, Charles was reluctant to publish his “species theory” for fear of public reaction and professional opprobrium, especially after the harsh reception of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844, about the same time he wrote the first version of his own theory of evolution.  Yes, Emma had expressed her concern in a letter or two to Charles (apparently never speaking to him directly on the matter) that the impact of his work on public attitudes toward Christianity might jeopardize his soul and divide him from her forever in the Hereafter.  Yes, Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley (and Charles Lyell, not mentioned in the movie) urged Charles to publish his theory, perhaps setting themselves at odds with Emma’s preference, but there is no evidence that Emma actively argued against publication. 

Yes, Annie became gravely ill and would not respond to normal medical treatment, so in desperation, Charles took her to Malvern for the “water cure” that had seemed to help his mysterious ailment.  Yes, Emma did not accompany them to Malvern, probably because she was in the later stages of pregnancy, and no doubt she felt guilty that she was not by her daughter’s side when Annie died at Malvern.  Yes, Charles and Emma were devastated by Annie’s death; Emma would not speak of her afterward, and Charles took several years to fully recover from his grief. 

Yes, Charles did not get along with the Rev. Innes of the local parish, but it is doubtful they were ever close friends, and Emma was a Unitarian Nonconformist who had equally deep differences with the Reverend’s Anglican orthodoxy.  Yes, Charles was deeply troubled by the cruelty of the natural world and the difficulty of squaring this fact with the goodness of God the Creator.  Yes, Annie’s death only further confirmed the inexplicable cruelty, driving Charles further from traditional Christian explanation, perhaps lessening his scruples about publicly differing with the Church of England.

Sacrifice the Man for the Cause! 

The movie, however, presents all these facts under a brooding cloud of interpersonal tension between Charles and Emma as he struggles with inner demons driving him nearly to madness.  Attempting to create a family psychodrama that reflects the larger culture war of post-modern Western civilization, Jon Amiel has taken extreme liberties with the true character of Charles and his marriage and his family to create a cariacature with features distorted by willfully grotesque exaggeration.  All reports (that I’ve read so far) are that Charles had a remarkably sunny disposition despite his strange illness, especially toward his wife, his children, his servants and his friends.  This was a fundamentally happy man in a remarkably good marriage with a bunch of well-adjusted kids living in a pleasant, high-functioning household and well-loved in their village and their social circle.  The contrast between the life of the Darwin family and the outside swirl of ugly controversy created by Charles’s work could not have been more striking. 

But happiness doesn’t make for critically acclaimed movies these days, and it certainly doesn’t suit the socio-political agenda of the movie’s makers in this case.  They needed Charles Darwin to be a tortured soul caught between the forces of science and religion at war.  What a travesty!

There ought to be a law against character assassination, even of historical personalities.

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

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 (


Science and Religion – Where is the Conflict?


“History is often about reminding us of things we’ve forgotten,” said Prof. Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins University in a course titled “Science and Religion,” one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company (, published in 2006.  Professor Principe is both an organic chemist and a historian of science.  He wants to remind us that science and theology have not, historically, been at war with each other.  They have come into conflict over particular scientific or theological positions, but so does conflict arise between scientific positions and between theological positions.  Conflict is typical of intellectual discourse, be it about the natural world or about the world beyond the material we can sense (directly or indirectly).  The two types of truth-seeking have grown up together within Western Christianity with much in common, informing each other along the way. 

Theology Informing Science

Theology pioneered the logical analysis and disputational techniques we think of now as distinctive to rational inquiry, science in particular. More surprising may be that medieval theologians developed the modern preference for explaining natural events in terms of natural causes.  They realized that only natural causation is really comprehensible to the human mind.  While a natural cause, like the wind, may itself have a supernatural cause, like God, only the natural or secondary cause we can comprehend has any explanatory power.  Recourse to the supernatural is pointless, because it is beyond our comprehension.  This is “methodological naturalism,” a practical theological invention that has become the foundation of modern science.  This is not the same as “philosophical naturalism,” which claims the “natural” is all there is, that there is no “supernatural” world.  This is a philosophical, not a scientific, assertion.  The very nature of science puts the supernatural beyond the scope of scientific understanding.

Science Informing Theology

On the other hand, according to Prof. Principe, St. Augustine asserted “the need for up-to-date demonstrated natural knowledge among theologians and exegetes [interpreters of Holy Scripture].”  St. Augustine himself (A.D. 354-430) spent 15 years in rational interpretation of Genesis I in light of Greek philosophy and mathematics and then-current knowledge of the natural world.  He concluded that the universe started in an instantaneous moment of creation and developed over time into what contemporary astronomers could see.  The Big Bang Theory was thus anticipated before medieval times by one of the most foundational leaders and thinkers of Christianity!  Prof.  Principe also claims the idea that living beings could arise naturally from non-living matter would have surprised no medieval theologian.  “Christian theology has proven itself remarkably flexible in its ability to adopt, adapt, and explore new scientific findings— to see in essence what they mean.”  “Theology has come away from the encounter with new views of man’s place in relation to the creator of time, space, and nature.”

A 20th-Century Conflict – Social and Political, Not Intellectual

What to make then of the conventional wisdom that science and religion are perpetually at odds?  In 12 excellent lectures, Prof. Principe lays out the historical argument that this conflict is more apparent than real and relatively recent historically and surprisingly trivial intellectually.  It seems Charles Darwin was reacting to an unnecessarily narrow and distinctively English Protestant interpretation of God and Christianity.  Moreover, the modern-day conflict between evolution and creationism (or intelligent design) is just that, modern, a phenomenon of the 20th century, not the 19th.  And it is more a social and political conflict among naïve interpreters of science and Christianity than it is an intellectual conflict.

Charles Darwin in Proper Historical Context

Before further exploration of the life and work of Charles Darwin after his return from the voyage of the Beagle, I will explore in the next few posts the general history of the relationship between science and religion, using Prof. Principe’s lectures as my primary guide (triangulation from different sources to come later).  As I have argued at the outset of this project, it is critically important to put Charles’s thinking in the proper historical context, so that we understand to what he truly was reacting as he developed his theory of evolution and his ideas about God and religion.

Defining Science and Religion 

Prof. Principe carefully defines his terms.  “The content of both science and religion is made up of statements and claims about the way things are; science, about the way things are predominantly, but not entirely, in the natural world; theology predominantly, but not entirely, about the way things are in the spiritual world.”  They each include both a body of knowledge claims and a set of methods for gaining, assessing, accumulating and integrating the knowledge claims.  Methodologically, good science and good theology are quite similar, even though their knowledge claims are mostly about quite different realms of reality.

Prof. Principe distinguishes religious practice, theology and faith.  Practice refers to “the observances and actions that flow from a religious commitment, for example, attending church, giving alms, praying, fasting at particular periods, moral self-discipline, and so forth.”  Theology “is the intellectual, methodical study of God, the spiritual world, God’s attributes, actions, and relationship to creation [the natural world].”  Faith “is a method of arriving at knowledge claims.  The method is by simple belief, by assumption, or suspended disbelief.”  When talking about the interaction of science and religion, we are very often talking about science and theology and typically in the historical context of Western Christianity, which created the culture within which modern science arose.

Traditional Christian theology generates its knowledge claims not just from faith but also logical argument, deduction, and reason.  Prof. Principe points out that the works of medieval theologians are masterpieces of logical analysis and rational argument.  For example, we scientists often fall back on a logical principle called Ockham’s Razor, named after a 14th-century Franciscan theologian.  Likewise, science depends on a number of faith statements (implicit assumptions) in order to operate, such as the natural, physical world having an independent existence outside our minds, and that our senses are giving us (directly or through an instrument, like a telescope or a microscope) reliable information about the natural, physical world, and that this real world behaves in ways that are regular and law-like (the rules don’t change every few minutes).  Prof. Principe assures us that these and similar assumptions, or leaps of faith, cannot be proven true.  Nonetheless, they prove themselves useful, indeed essential, for science to progress. We are comfortable with these leaps of faith, because they allow us to generate reliable and useful knowledge claims about the world around us.

No Easy Distinction of Science and Religion

Thus, we cannot distinguish science and religion simply by saying that one is informed by reason alone and the other by faith alone.  Nor can we segregate them by saying the realm of science is the natural or material world that we can observe and the realm of religion is the spiritual world which we cannot know with our bodily senses.  Prof. Principe is careful to say their realms of study are “predominantly, but not entirely” distinct, because there is overlap, and some of the most productive interaction between science and theology has taken place in these overlapping areas. 

St. Augustine and the Two Books

Christian theologians have made testable claims about the natural world, as St. Augustine did regarding the origin and evolution of the universe.  His sources were what he called the Two Books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the two ways St. Augustine believed by which God reveals himself to humankind (inspiration of scripture authors and creation of the natural world).  St. Augustine’s methods were both faith (Christian belief) and reason (Greek philosophical knowledge drawn from astronomy and other observations of the natural world).  St. Augustine insisted on the unity of truth; if reason tells us one thing and faith tells us another, then this disagreement must be resolved.  There is no teacher of truth but God, he wrote, and since God is omniscient and always consistent, there must be a single truth.  This is a fundamental faith-based assumption that underpins both theology and science; it is a claim that pertains to both the spiritual and natural worlds—here is a major overlap of faith and theology into study of the natural world.  Scientists don’t have to believe in God to make this leap of faith, to assume the unity of truth, but the assumption is fundamentally theological (drawn from knowledge claims about the characteristics of God). 

Unity of Truth

The unity of truth requires St. Augustine to assert that the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture cannot contradict each other.  However, both Books require careful interpretation.  If they appear to contradict, then St. Augustine would insist this is solely because of incorrect interpretations.  Understanding Nature does not reliably come from just using our senses; we have to apply rational analysis.  Understanding Scripture is even more difficult, since the passages have literal, allegorical and moral meanings simultaneously. 

“Literal” Interpretation of Genesis I

Much to my surprise, St. Augustine claimed that the literal meaning is the hardest to get right.  The surprise comes from our modern notion of biblical literalism as “believing every word of the Bible”—the surface meaning of the words.  Prof. Principe points out that for St. Augustine and all theologians until recently, “literal” means “interpretation of a passage in such a way that it maintains its connection to the topic it seems to be describing and assigns meanings to the individual words so that the passage makes sense in relation to other sources of knowledge.”  St. Augustine spent 15 years working out his literal interpretation of Genesis I.  He was not satisfied with his work until it resolved contradictions within the text itself and “provided an account of creation harmonious with both reason and knowledge from other sources” (the Book of Nature, in particular).  Prof. Principe quotes St. Augustine: “Interpretation of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge.” St. Augustine warned against the danger of embarrassing the reputation of Christianity by being ignorant or dismissive of the demonstrated scientific knowledge of the day.  From the viewpoint of traditional Christian theology, science is essential for full understanding of the “literal” meaning of divinely-inspired scripture (and vice versa).

History of Partnership

Science and religion continued in intimate partnership through the medieval apogee of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe and even through the rise of Protestantism and the birth of modern science and the Enlightenment.  Very often the early “natural philosophers” (not commonly called scientists until the 19th century) were in holy orders, because a position in the Church allowed time and even incentive to pursue knowledge of the natural world and how it works.  Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton saw their scientific work as discovery of the divine rules governing the universe and even the nature of God.  Prof. Principe devoted two lectures to explaining that even the famous conflict between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII was not truly about the resistance of the Roman Church to the heliocentric conclusions of Copernicus and Kepler.  The Galileo affair was driven by personal arrogance and misunderstandings, bureaucratic rivalries, political problems of the Roman Church, and Galileo’s insistence on his theory of what causes the ocean tides, which later was proven wrong, showing the wisdom of Church safeguards against being too quick to rewrite doctrine in response to new scientific “discoveries.” 

Even in modern times, churchmen have been responsible for major scientific advances.  Gregor Mendel’s experiments in breeding garden peas laid the foundation of modern genetics and ultimately the modern understanding of biology and Darwinian evolution by natural selection.  Mendel was also the abbot of an Augustinian monastery in what is now the Czech Republic.  The modern Big Bang theory of an expanding universe began with a 1927 paper by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest who also had a PhD from MIT and was a professor at the University of Louvain.  In 1960, Lemaître became president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  Speaking of the Catholic Pontiff, Pope Pius XII endorsed the Big Bang theory n 1951, after Einstein’s endorsement and well before the theory’s full acceptance in 1966 over the competing Steady State theory, promoted by the vociferously atheistic, anti-religious physicist, Fred Hoyle. 

Other Forces Driving the Science-Religion Conflict

Good science does not necessarily beget atheism, nor does formal religion necessarily negate good science.  Scientists and theologians do not now, and history shows they never did, divide into opposite camps.  There was indeed conflict between them but also within the two professions.  The range of responses among theologians to scientific discoveries and theoretical propositions spanned the full range from blind prejudice to full embrace.  In summary, there are other forces at work in driving the Science and Religion Debate besides science and religion. The next blog will explore these other forces and how they have driven the debate into a kind of culture war.

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

The Voyage of the Beagle – Species and Change

When the Beagle expedition set sail in 1831, the great majority of English natural philosophers believed that each species of plant, animal, even microorganism was a unique and direct result of divine creation.  Given the unknowable purpose of the Creator, a human person could not predict what sorts of creatures would be found as the European explorers fanned out across the earth.  Certainly the outrageous variety of the planet’s creatures seemed consistent with such divine unpredictability.  For Charles Darwin, there was no counterpart of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology for the living world, to explain this living material in terms of material causes.  He had instead William Paley’s books, particularly Natural Theology (or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature), which were so widely accepted as conventional wisdom in English society as to be an essential element of Cambridge University education (I will review Natural Theology in a later post).  Charles took uncharacteristic interest in Paley’s books, no doubt because they spoke to his passion for natural history.  His Cambridge mentor, Professor John Stevens Henslow, and the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, wholeheartedly embraced Paley’s explanations in terms of direct divine creation of each species.  According to Alan Moorehead’s account in Darwin and the Beagle (page 37), FitzRoy urged a very willing Darwin to use the voyage as a grand opportunity to substantiate the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis – looking for evidence of the Flood and the first appearance of all created things upon the earth – performing a valuable service by interpreting their scientific discoveries in the light of the Bible.


Linnaeus and the Collecting Imperative


Divine creation gave supreme importance to species as distinct entities presumed to be unchanged since their creation, much as the physical world was assumed to be now as it always was.  The great project for naturalists was to discover, describe, and catalogue these species, as a testament to the work of God.  Carl Linnaeus, of Sweden, less than a century before, had gathered the existing catalogues of species into a rational system of classification that serves us still.  The Linnaean system groups species into larger categories of similar organisms – genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom.  It is significant that this systematic grouping subtly contradicts the notion of divine unpredictability by its implicit acknowledgment of relatedness among species.  Relatedness implies kinship, which means descent from a common ancestor.  The Linnaean system is built from a platonic notion of the species as a divinely created archetype, which is manifested in the real world as living creatures with some imperfect variation from the perfect archetype.  The archetypes bear no necessary relationship to one another, other than all being created by the same Creator.  However, the relatedness embedded in this classification system invites us to associate the species idea with individual humans related by descent from a common ancestor or with breeds of domestic plants and animals that can be traced back to common ancestors in the wild.  It is only a small step from Linnaeus to a notion of new species developing from existing species rather than directly from God. 


The Linnaean system of classification energized those with a natural bent for collecting, because his system gave a unique name to each existing species and established rules for naming and describing newly discovered species (and for giving recognition in perpetuity to the first person to do so for each new species!).  Linnaeus established the rules of a game many people were eager to play, including Charles Darwin and also Captain FitzRoy and a few other members of the Beagle crew.  They were schooled in the techniques for preserving specimens of species for description and naming and storage for posterity by expert curators of the British Museum or university museums or private collections.  A scientific voyage like the Beagle’s was expected to bring back to England a rich trove of specimens of species from across the full range of life on earth.


Charles’ shooting skill and physical fitness served this collecting imperative very well.  He also had lots of help from his servant, Sims Covington, and others of the crew or local people hired to guide his travels inland.  The collectors’ determination is exemplified in a passage of Charles’ Journal of Researches about his foray into the Brazilian rainforest near Rio de Janeiro.  One of his party shot a howler monkey dead as its prehensile tail was wrapped tight around a limb high in one of the taller forest trees.  The poor monkey’s body hung by its tail, frozen in a death grip on the tree limb.  Not to be so easily thwarted, they felled the enormous tree with their machetes, just to secure the prize specimen.  After a couple of years of avid pursuit of such specimens, ranging from the minute to the enormous, Charles found his geological hammer more in keeping with his focus on geology than his guns, which he handed over to Covington for the work of shooting birds, mammals, and other fast-moving creatures.


The Argentine Fossils — Species Replacing Other Species Over Time


On the low bluffs of the seashore and river banks of Argentina, Charles made discoveries that straddled his interests in geology and biology.  In the deeper layers of ancient sediment, Charles found the fossil remains of giant mammals vanished from the earth thousands of years before – they were not unlike the present-day sloths, armadillos, and guanaco, but much more massive.  Other fossilized remains resembled elephants and hippopotamus, which no longer live in the Americas.  He even found a fossil horse, showing that horses once roamed these plains and then became extinct long before horses were reintroduced to the New World by the Spanish. 


Extinction poses a problem for understanding divine creation of species.  Why would a species created by God be so imperfect as to go extinct?  Captain FitzRoy and others had answers in keeping with the Biblical story – for example, some species just did not make it onto Noah’s Ark in time, the larger species being the harder to accommodate.  If their answers seem forced, it is because they had to acknowledge somehow the fossil evidence of extinction; a rich assortment of fossils of now extinct animals and plants had been known for decades in Europe.  These fossil giants of Argentina added some spectacular new evidence, but they were significant mainly as direct personal confirmation for Charles that the species we see here and now are not all the same as the ones we would have seen thousands of years before in this same location.  Fauna and flora, like the geology, change over time.


The layer or stratum in which each fossilized animal is embedded tells a story of the environment of that animal in its own time, and Charles figured from the fossil-bearing strata that climate and vegetation then were similar to the present.  Therefore, the extinction could not be explained by catastrophic or even gradual geological or climate change.  Charles thought at first that species, like individuals, might have “a fixed and determined length of life” beyond which they would lose their vigor and go extinct.  Even if this were true (which it is not), Charles found it curious indeed that the giant mammals had been replaced over time by similar species, but almost all of much smaller stature.


Two Rheas — One Replaced the Other as Charles Traveled South


Charles devoted long passages of his Journal of Researches to description of the animals he encountered, often drawing from reports of local people and his own observations of their behavior and ecology.  One animal he was particularly taken with was the “ostrich” (now called the rhea) of South America.  Actually, there were two species, one of which was later named darwinii after Charles himself, from a specimen he pieced together from the remains of a bird his party had shot for food and mostly eaten by the time Charles realized this was the rarer species reported by his guacho companions.  Most interesting to Charles was that the common rhea of the pampas gave way to Darwin’s rhea in Patagonia, the dividing line being around the Rio Negro at 41º South – one rhea species rather abruptly replacing the other going south, yet the landscape and ecology changed only very gradually.  


Isolated Archipelagos — No Fear Where No Man Has Been 


First in the Falkland Islands and much later in the Galapagos, Charles was amazed by the tameness of the land birds of these islands – that is, the birds were unafraid of people, allowing themselves to be approached closely and even touched (or killed with a stick).  He noted that “of the few archipelagoes of any size, which when discovered were uninhabited by man, these two are among the most important.”  He also noted that “Few young birds in England have been injured by man, yet all are afraid of him: many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been injured, but yet have not learned that salutary dread.”  Charles concluded that fear of humans is a particular instinct directed at humans, not just part of a general caution arising from other sources of danger.  He also concluded that fear of humans “is not acquired by them in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary.  With domestic animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge.”  It seems to me this remarkable passage gets insufficient notice in works on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution.  Yet here already is a sound understanding of change within a wild species due to a new challenge in the environment of the species, much like the change brought about by selective breeding of domestic animals for various physical and behavioral traits.


Islands and Mainlands and the Species Problem



The Galapagos Islands are more associated in the public mind with Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle than any other stopover of the five-year expedition, yet the Beagle spent barely more than a month exploring this archipelago and might have skipped the islands altogether in the crew’s eagerness to return home.  This distorted perception reflects the uniqueness of the Galapagos and its fauna and Darwin’s own recognition that this fauna and its distribution among the numerous islands triggered a line of thinking that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.  However, the Galapagos stopover also came toward the end of the voyage, and after maturation of Charles’s conviction of the correctness of Charles Lyell’s worldview in which change is gradual and relentless over long periods of time, allowing highly improbable events to become commonplace, like the lifting up of the ocean floor to become the high Andes.  He had read about the Galapagos and was eager to see these volcanic islands where raw, new land was almost at its moment of birth and certainly in its early infancy.  Here he could see life just getting established.  What he saw was a fauna and flora composed of only a few species, unique to these islands but clearly related to the fauna and flora of South America, filtered by ability to cross 600 miles of ocean. 


In short, the creation of species seemed to be derivative from what was already available nearby, rather than de novo.  Though he did not mention it in his Journal of Researches, Charles must have noticed that the land animals of the Galapagos were quite different from those of the Cape Verde Islands, which are very similar in being volcanic, arising from beneath the sea, about 600 miles from the nearest continent (Africa), and quite arid though tropical.  The fauna of each archipelago is closely related to that of the nearby continent and very different from the other archipelago, a third of the way around the world.  One would think direct divine creation would be free to generate on both archipelagos the same, or very similar, species well adapted to tropical, arid, oceanic island environments. 


Charles admitted in his Journal of Researches that he was slow to realize how much variation existed between closely related species on different islands of the Galapagos archipelago – “it never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.”  He was alerted by a claim by the vice-governor of the islands that he could ascertain the island of origin of each of the famous tortoises just by the shape of the shell.  Charles himself could distinguish three species of mockingbird.  He found mockingbirds on some islands but not on other similar islands, and each of the islands with mockingbirds had only one species.  This was a pattern of distribution consistent with a mockingbird species arriving by chance from South America and landing on one island, from which subsequent generations managed to reach a few other islands and then changed over time in isolation on those other islands.  Charles did not state this conclusion explicitly in his Journal, because he was barely aware of the pattern when he was in the Galapagos.  He missed the pattern entirely among the thirteen species of finches, because he “did not attempt to make a series of specimens from the separate islands.”  He was not even aware that the variation among the finches was enough to constitute separate species until he returned to England and had his collection analyzed by John Gould.


When the Beagle departed the Galapagos Islands, Charles had in hand and in mind the important pieces of the “species problem” that challenged the notion of direct divine creation of species that remain unchanged thereafter.  Certainly he and FitzRoy debated this problem as they puzzled over the evidence in the tiny captain’s cabin, making Charles very aware of how controversial it would be to follow his line of thinking about “mutability” of species to its logical conclusions.  However much his thinking had been set in motion, Charles did not admit in his Journal of Researches to evolutionary conclusions during the voyage itself.


The Thin Skin of Civilization — the Fuegian Experiment


This account of Charles’s observations about species and change during the voyage of the Beagle would be incomplete without mention of his observations about the people he encountered.  Most important were the three Fuegians, a mature man and two adolescents, a boy and a girl, whom FitzRoy had taken back to England from his first voyage to Tierra del Fuego.  He had them schooled to take on the manners of civilization, dressing, talking and acting like proper gentle folk, sufficient to present the threesome at the Court of St. James, in fact, to the Queen herself.  At his personal expense, FitzRoy implemented a grand but naive experiment to return the three Fuegians with an English missionary to establish a foothold for Christianity at the southern extreme of the inhabited world, among a people easily considered among the most primitive in existence.  The crew of the Beagle, Charles included, became quite fond of the two adolescents, charmingly named Jemmy Button and Fuegia Basket.  Certainly all had high hopes when the Beagle put the Fuegians and the missionary ashore to establish an outpost of English civilization among the primitives.  The Beagle then sailed away for a few weeks of coastal surveying and returned to find a disaster. 


The “civilized” Fuegians had been quickly co-opted by the local primitives and reabsorbed into the local culture, such as it was.  The missionary himself was besieged and felt at risk to his life.  The Beagle rescued the missionary and sailed away again.  After about a year, the Beagle returned and found only Jemmy Button, who lived like a typical Fuegian savage.  He and his new wife came out to the ship in a Fuegian canoe and spent time with the crew, clearly retaining his ability to interact like an Englishman, with wistful affection for his former comrades.  However, Jemmy freely chose to remain with his primitive wife and his savage life.  For Charles, this deeply troubling experience must have been a profound lesson on the “mutability” of the human person and species, making the boundary separating the gentleman from the savage seem shockingly thin and porous.  And given the animal-like existence of the Fuegians, even the separation of the human from other animals must have seemed distressingly slight.  The very notion of the human being as a special creation in the image of God was challenged.


Tahiti and New Zealand — Darwin and FitzRoy on the Missionaries


Don’t assume from this incident that Charles’s confidence in the superiority of Christian civilization was shaken.  Our modern mentality might jump to a conclusion of cultural relativism, in which all cultures are of comparable value in their appropriate contexts.  But this was not the mentality of early 19th century England, which was filled with unashamed confidence in the superiority of its own culture.  We “moderns” would deride this mentality as arrogant, paternalistic and imperialistic; however, before settling on this condemnation, we should read with an open mind Charles’s account of the expedition’s stopover in Tahiti.  He was very taken with beauty of the island and its people and of their way of life, including their rather sophisticated culture.  He was equally impressed by the impact of the English missionaries on the culture.  He makes a convincing case that introduction of Christianity by these missionaries actually changed the Tahitian mindset and way of life and thereby provided very real benefits for the average Tahitian, especially by eliminating truly savage practices which had been current only a few years before.


In contrast, Charles found the native culture of New Zealand repugnant, despite the same Polynesian roots as Tahiti.  Even worse, in his view, were the newly arrived English colonists.  Thus, Charles was not simply tilting toward his own kind; rather, he was holding all to a higher standard of behavior and civilization, a Christian standard.  This he made clear in his account of his visit to Waimate, a missionary-led agricultural community, where he found young Maoris quite transformed for the better by their adoption of the Christian standard.  Charles and FitzRoy were of one mind on this topic.  In fact, the two friends published a joint article (the first publication for both of them) on the success of the missionaries at Tahiti and at Waimate, New Zealand.  The editors of the Penguin Books edition of the Journal of Researches, Janet Browne and Michael Neve, make an important observation (page 25) that “it seems very probable that  Darwin’s views were shaped as much by his close relationship with FitzRoy as they were by his enthusiasm for Lyell or his own private love-affair with nature.” Charles’s correspondence from the Beagle “indicates a frank, cheerful trust in each other animated by a marked community of tastes and boyish camaraderie” which were fostered by “… long discussions, dangerous journeys, dust, dirt and shared enthusiasms …”


Australia — “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe” 


Finally, I’ll mention Charles’s impressions of Australia, founded as a British colony only 48 years before the Beagle’s visit in early 1836.  He was duly impressed by the uniqueness of the Australian fauna, especially the dominance of marsupial mammals.  But he argued from his observation of an ant-lion capturing insects in its unique conical pitfall trap, just as its sister species would in Europe, to reject the notion this mostly different fauna might be proof that two Creators were at work, one in Australia, the other elsewhere – “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe.” 


Charles noted the remarkable development of the economy and culture of British Australia.  Returning from his first walk around Sydney, Charles was “full of admiration at the whole scene.  It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation.  Here, in a less promising country, scores of years have effected many times more, than the same number of centuries have done in South America.  My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman.” 


As he came to know Australia better, however, Charles was disappointed in the state of society, its focus on acquiring wealth, its treatment of the aborigines and the convict servants, and its low interest in intellectual pursuits.  He decided he could never willingly follow the many other Englishmen emigrating to Australia.  His parting comment was “Farewell, Australia! you are a rising infant and doubtless someday will reign a great princess in the south: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect.  I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”  Rather harsh words!  Which Australia must have forgiven or forgotten as the new nation named the capital city and major port of its Northern Territory after Charles Darwin!


Charles on the Question of God — Answers from Nature, Society and Family Life


This post brings to conclusion my series of four posts reviewing Charles Darwin’s voyage of discovery with Captain Robert FitzRoy and the Beagle.  This was the most formative and influential event of Charles’s life.  Almost all that followed in his scientific and writing career built upon the relationships, events and observations I’ve tried to summarize for you.  What I will do from this point onward is review the post-voyage unfolding of Charles’s thinking and activities leading to his theory of evolution and his gradual abandonment of belief in the God of early 19th century English Christianity.  I will explore the possibility that the theory and the abandonment of belief were not necessarily cause and effect, as we all have come to assume.  My exploration will go as deeply as it can into Charles Darwin’s personality and family life and into the nature and origin of his society’s thinking about God.  My hypothesis is that these personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and the theory he concocted to explain it all. 



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





The Voyage of the Beagle – Focus on Geology

I long associated Charles Darwin’s round-the-world voyage solely with biology and evolution of living creatures, but that focus came after his return to England.  Certainly, Charles spent a large portion of the five years observing, collecting, classifying, experimenting with, and speculating about the animals and plants he found.  This activity tapped his life-long passion for observing and collecting from the natural world.  As he matured into a would-be naturalist under the guidance of Professor Henslow and others, Charles turned passion into profession.  As a naturalist, however, Charles was also interested in the inanimate components of nature, especially the fascinating variety of rocks and landscapes and climates.  It was typical of naturalists of his time to be interested in everything, looking at the whole even as they collected and described its parts.  The more sophisticated naturalists were natural historians and philosophers, speculating continually on the who, what, when, where, how and why of the natural scenes their educated curiosity drove them to investigate.


Putting Lyell to the Test in South America


Just in the few months before the voyage of the Beagle, Charles was introduced to the emerging science of geology by Professor Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge University.   In the three centuries before the 1830s, natural philosophy had advanced toward what we think of as scientific method and evidence-based theory, first in astronomy and physics, then chemistry.  Charles did not feel capable of mastering the mathematics needed to fully participate in these scientific specialties, but he appreciated their power to explain the material world in material terms – focusing on proximate causes that a person can directly or vicariously appreciate with the body’s senses, rather than on ultimate causes beyond human comprehension.  Charles joined his older brother, Erasmus, in doing chemical experiments in a shed near his house, often generating obnoxious fumes that earned Charles the nickname “Gas” among his schoolmates.  He learned what it means to experiment and to predict the outcome from prior experience and to be open to the possibility of surprises that force revision of future predictions.  Charles also saw how much sophisticated scientists and their useful knowledge were admired by well-educated men and women of social standing.  Esteem could be achieved by a career in such science, and geology was just then transforming into such science, and Sedgwick made the practice of this science accessible to Charles. 


Armed with the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Charles realized during the first landing of the voyage, in the Cape Verde Islands, his opportunity to become an esteemed contributor to the emergence of scientific geology.  The distinctly different layers of rock, lying one upon another, presumably in the same sequence in which each was deposited, told a geological history of the island of São Tiago. 


Mainstream thinking of the time, conforming to the Biblical story, maintained that the land was stable in the forms originally created and only the level of the sea had risen and fallen over time; the time periods allowed for inundation were relatively short and few.  Lyell (building on the work and words of others, of course) proposed that the land itself had been transformed over time by the same geological processes experienced in the present age – erosion and deposition, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.  Moreover, whole blocks of land the size of islands and countries and even continents could rise and fall relative to each other and the level of the oceans.  Lyell proposed cycles of erosion of rocks of varying chemical composition, deposition by water and wind of the eroded rock and organic material in lakes and shallow seas, transformation of these deposits into new types of rock under the weight of overlaying deposits and water, perhaps followed by volcanic activity that spread layers of lava from deep in the earth over the earlier deposited layers, then all uplifted in a series of small events accompanied by earthquakes, until all that had been submerged in the sea now stands inches or feet or even miles above the current sea level.  Acknowledging that all this complex process must require substantial intervals of time, Lyell proposed that the earth was millions, not thousands of years old. 


Lyell’s proposed principles were like a dictionary enabling Charles to read the story of the rocks and the layers of São Tiago.  The story fit the facts in front of him together so well that he was “convinced of the infinite superiority of Lyell’s views over those advocated in any other work known to me” (from his Recollections).  This particularly excited Charles, because neither Lyell nor other British geologists had visited South America, giving ambitious Charles the opportunity to be the first to apply the principles to the landscapes he would soon see first hand.  He could test the explanatory power of Lyell’s principles– perhaps even refine and add to this grand theory of the earth. 


The Coasts of the Southern Cone — a Continent on the Move Upward


After four months on the coast of Brazil, based at Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, the Beagle expedition spent nearly two years (July 1832 to May 1834) working up and down the coast of Argentina, from Uruguay to Tierra del Fuego, with a couple of visits to the Falkland Islands.  Charles left the Beagle several times to make long-distance excursions inland.  All along the shore of the essentially unbroken Argentine and Patagonian plains, he found thick deposits of alluvium (shingle, gravel and mud) that looked very much like they had been carried by rivers and laid to rest in smooth layers underwater in the estuaries where these rivers met the South Atlantic.  Yet these smooth layers of alluvium now stood a few feet to several hundred feet above sea level.  Were they gradually uplifted from the sea, as Lyell would suggest, or had the sea suddenly risen at some point to flood these plains and then withdrawn?  The smoothness of the plains and the sea mollusk shells embedded fairly evenly and deeply in the alluvium gave evidence of gradual uplift from under the sea.  Charles also found that the marine species represented in these layers were quite similar to the species found living in the present estuaries, which indicated the uplift had been fairly recent.  Was it possible that the whole of this long coast was rising up from the sea?  This question made Charles eager to see the mountainous Chilean side of the “southern cone” of South America, hoping for further evidence that the whole of southern South America was rising.


From June 1834 to September 1835, the Beagle expedition worked up and down the coast of Chile and Peru.  The southern coast of Chile, from Chiloe Island to Tierra del Fuego, is an archipelago of mountainous islands.  The line of mountains continues northward and inland from the coast north of Chiloe Island, becoming the highest Andes.  When Charles hiked into the coastal hills of central Chile near Valparaiso, he looked out across low mountains and valleys intervening between the coast and the Andes.  The valleys were filled by fog, and the mountains protruded from the sea of fog like the mountain islands of the southern archipelago.  This image gave visual substance to Charles’s hypothesis that the flat valleys had been the bottoms of ancient inlets and deep bays like those farther to the south, later drained as they were uplifted above sea level.  What about the high cordillera of the Andes in the hazy distance? 


Evidence in the Andes


Charles twice ventured into the Andes from Valparaiso, the second time doing a complete traverse by one alpine pass to the Argentine side, then back to Chile by another pass north of the first.  At 13-14,000 feet elevation, he found fossil shells of marine mollusks! Around 7,000 feet, Charles made an even more remarkable discovery – a standing grove of tree trunks petrified in white silica and calcareous spar, emerging from volcanic sandstone that had once entombed the trunks and then eroded away to reveal them transformed to stone.  Though he had little trouble interpreting this scene, Charles was still astonished by his conclusion.  From his Journal of Researches, “I saw the spot where a cluster of fine trees had once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic, when that ocean (now driven back 700 miles) approached the base of the Andes.”  The evidence showed that the land with its upright trees had been “let down to the depths of the ocean,” covered by sediment, and this again by enormous streams of submarine lava, then more sediment followed by more lava, repeated five times.  All this was uplifted so that he “now beheld the bed of that sea forming a chain of mountains more than 7,000 feet in altitude.” “Vast, and scarcely comprehensible as such changes must ever appear, yet they have all occurred within a period recent when compared with the history of the Cordillera; and that Cordillera itself is modern as compared with some other of the fossiliferous strata of South America.”


Eruptions and the Earthquake


The Andes testify to both the violence and the speed of geological processes, though belied by long periods (in human terms) of apparent calm.  But Charles and the Beagle crew actually experienced the episodic violence that drives mountain building.  Between his two journeys into the Andes, Charles sailed south with the Beagle to survey Chiloe Island and the Chronos Archipelago during the Southern Hemisphere summer (still the weather was rough and tempestuous for weeks).  On the night of January 18, 1835, the volcano Osorno, a hundred miles inland, lit up the sky with a spectacular eruption.  They learned later that the volcanoes Aconcagua, 480 miles to the north, and Coseguina, another 2,700 miles farther north, had erupted on the same night.  Just four weeks later, while Charles and his servant, Sims Covington, were ashore near Valdivia, the area was struck by a massive earthquake.  “It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes; but the time appeared much longer.  The rocking of the ground was most sensible…There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me giddy…Captain FitzRoy and the officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more awful; for although the houses, being made from wood, did not fall, yet they were so violently shaken that the boards creaked and rattled.  The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm.”  Charles concluded that “the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, has moved beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; one second of time has conveyed to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never have created.”


Two days later the Beagle sailed into the harbor of Concepcion and found the city utterly destroyed by the earthquake.  The epicenter had been just offshore, and a massive tidal wave had swept the shoreline of structures, livestock and people.  Charles devoted several pages of his Journal of Researches to description of the devastation.  While lamenting the loss of life and property, Charles was also deeply interested in what the patterns of destruction told him about the movements of the earth and the ocean during the quake and its after-shocks.  “The most remarkable effect (or perhaps speaking more correctly, cause) of this earthquake was the permanent elevation of the land.”  FitzRoy’s detailed survey work before and after the quake provided “a mass of evidence in proof of such elevation, far more conclusive than that on which geologists on most other occasions placed implicit faith.”  They calculated that, since the previous massive earthquake of 1751, the land had risen four fathoms – 24 feet!  With enough time allowed, Charles had no problem understanding how the Andes had been lifted up.  The earthquake had been accompanied by simultaneous eruptions of a train of volcanoes in the Andes of central Chile.  Charles concluded that the earthquake and volcanic activity formed parts of one great phenomenon underlying an area onshore and offshore that measures 700 by 400 miles.  In line with Lyell’s theory, all the evidence pointed Charles toward the conclusion “that a vast lake of melted matter, of an area nearly doubling in extent that of the Black Sea, is spread out beneath a mere crust of solid land.”


Volcanic Islands and Coral Atolls — Rising from the Ocean and Under the Waves Again 


Later in 1835, the Beagle expedition left the coast of South America at last and set sail for home – westward across the vast Pacific Ocean.  The Galapagos Islands were the first stop en route.  The expedition spent a bit over one month surveying the islands; Charles and Covington and some others of the crew were put ashore for a few days on several of the many islands.  Charles knew beforehand that the islands were of recent volcanic origin, evidenced by the activity of volcanoes and the vast expanses of recent lava flows.  He could see for himself that the volcanically very active western islands are younger than the eastern islands, which are lower, more eroded, more vegetated, and showing no present-day volcanic activity.  He correctly concluded that these islands had all originated as subterranean volcanoes that built upward until they broke the ocean surface.  In addition to uplift from beneath the ocean, Charles also had opportunity to see evidence of subsidence – volcanic craters partially submerged to form crescent bays, like what is now named Darwin Bay on Tower Island (Isla Genovesa).  These observations no doubt encouraged Charles in his budding hypothesis about the origin of coral atolls, though he had only read about them up to this point.  The Galapagos waters are too cold for corals (despite being right on the Equator), but Charles saw many of these thin circles of low-lying land as the Beagle moved on through the Tuamotu (or Dangerous) Archipelago to Tahiti.


After stops in New Zealand and Australia, the Beagle made a detour to survey the Keeling or Cocos Islands, in the Indian Ocean southwest of Java in Indonesia.   The main island is a lagoon atoll of coral formation similar to the Tuamotu atolls.  The deep soundings of the survey work on the ocean side of the lagoon island verified that live corals could not be found at depths in excess of 120 feet (coral polyps depend on sunlight penetrating the water), and at greater depths, they found only calcareous rock or sediment formed from dead coral, the same material of which the atoll’s islets were composed.


Charles’s theory was that all coral reefs start as fringes of the tropical shore of rocky land.  If the land rises, the exposed coral dies, but new living reef is formed along the new shore to the depth of 120 feet.  If the land subsides, it sinks into the water slowly enough to allow the tiny coral polyps to build their reef upward to remain just below the ocean surface.  As the gently sloping shore sinks into the water, however, the coral polyps, being most active on the side toward the open ocean waves, build vertically toward the sun on the calcareous base created by their sunken predecessors; thus, the rocky shore gradually withdraws from the reef in contact with the open ocean, leaving a shallow lagoon in between.  In the case of large islands, like New Caledonia, or even continents, like Australia, these became great barrier reefs.  In the case of isolated oceanic islands, which rise as submarine volcanoes from the seafloor and then subside back under the ocean surface, these become coral atolls.  The reef first forms a fringe around the rising volcano; the subsiding volcano then leaves a lagoon encircling the sinking volcanic peaks still above water (like spectacular Bora Bora).  Then even those remaining peaks sink below the lagoon surface, leaving only the outer reef and a thin circle of calcareous materials piled up by the ocean’s pulverizing waves into islets just behind the outer reef, barely high enough to be visible from a distance – an atoll in the middle of the open ocean.


His theory was a masterpiece of deductive reasoning.  From Charles’s Recollections, “No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this, for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of South America, before I had seen a true coral reef.”  This theory, which captured the admiring attention of Charles Lyell himself upon Charles Darwin’s return to England, overturned all others and still stands today.  Charles was rightly pleased with his theory – how he derived the ideas from his geological observations in South America and how they were verified by the evidence of coral reefs around the world.  In his Journal of Researches, Charles built on the theory of reef formation to show that the distribution of the three types of coral reef – fringing the shore, encircling islands with lagoons, and forming barrier reefs and atolls – indicates that large blocks or plates of the earth’s surface (including seafloor) are tilting, so that one end is rising while the other is subsiding.  Charles thereby extended his theory of reef formation, built on his personal verification of Lyell’s principles, to even more dramatically demonstrate “the never-ceasing mutability of the crust of this our World.”


The next and last post on the voyage of the Beagle reviews the major biological and anthropological observations of Charles Darwin during 1831 to 1836.


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













The Voyage of the Beagle – 1831-36


My previous post reviewed events and circumstances leading up to the sailing of HMS Beagle on December 27, 1831.  I drew heavily from the excellent introduction by Browne and Neve to their abridged version of the first (1839) edition of Darwin’s Journal of Researches.  They point out that for Charles Darwin the Beagle expedition was not so much a journey at sea as a voyage on land.  Of the nearly five years away from England, Charles himself spent only 533 days (18 months) at sea, the longest stretch being 47 consecutive days, and even that included many landings.  The usual sailing run was between eight and eighteen days.  This was fortunate for Charles, because he was always seasick!  Charles often could do nothing on board ship except lie down; nothing else would help.  In letters home, he made no secret of his growing hatred of the sea and all ships that sail on it.  It is hard to imagine how miserable he must have felt, not only physically but also from concern for what FitzRoy and the rest of the crew thought of his weakness.  FitzRoy worried in a report to the Admiralty that his guest would abandon ship at the first port of call.  It speaks volumes of Charles’s dogged persistence that he endured the agony of seasickness for all those 18 months at sea.


First Landfall in the Cape Verde Islands


The first sailing run from Plymouth to the Canary Islands must have been particularly awful for Charles – in winter seas, the shock of first reckoning with unexpected seasickness (Charles had had no problem on the three days sailing on a coastal ship from London to Plymouth to join the Beagle), and then the huge disappointment when the Beagle was denied landing rights at Tenerife in the Canaries because of local fears of English cholera.  Even before knowing of the Beagle and FitzRoy, Charles and friends had been inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative to plan a trip to the Canary Islands.


Then the weather and the mood improved as they moved on to tropical seas and the Cape Verde Islands, where they could finally go ashore.


The Cape Verde Islands are a former Portuguese colony a few hundred miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa.  It is an arid, tropical archipelago of volcanic origin.  Here Charles discovered the beauty of a theory that explains reality.  Charles Lyell had published the first volume of his Principles of Geology in 1831, and FitzRoy had given Charles Darwin a copy as a gift, reflecting their common interest in new evidence and ideas in geology.  Henslow also urged Charles to study this book but warned him not to accept the views advocated by Lyell.  This was one of the few books Charles was able to take on the voyage; others that he mentioned in his Recollections were von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels with Aimé Bonpland in tropical America, which shaped the content and style of his own Journal of Researches, and William Paley’s Natural Theology, which explained natural phenomena as evidence of God’s work in the world.  He also carried Milton’s Paradise Lost and other poems with him on the ship and always on his land journeys from the ship.  Of these four books, Lyell’s was the one that truly gave direction to Charles’s future thinking. 


Lyell’s “uniformitarian” theory of geological history immediately proved its utility to Charles as he puzzled over the origin of a layer of white rock that formed a horizontal stripe part way up and along the whole length of the low sea cliff that defines the eastern shore of the island of São Tiago.  In his Recollections, Charles described in detail only this observation during the voyage:  “… a stream of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of triturated recent shells and corals, which has baked into a hard white rock.  Since then the island has been upheaved.  But the line of white rock revealed to me a new and important fact, namely, that there had been afterward subsidence around the craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth lava.”  Lyell proposed that the earth’s surface has been altered dramatically over time by gradual changes, each small in itself, which continue today as they have for millennia, if not millions of years – uniformity of process over time, in contrast to a constancy of the earth’s surface interrupted only by cataclysmic events caused by forces outside the earth’s normal system, such as the Deluge described in the Old Testament.  Lyell’s theory served better than the alternatives to help Charles come to his satisfying explanation of the history of São Tiago. 


Imagine the profound impact of discovering a theory with such satisfying power to explain the phenomena of the world around us.  Charles was one of the first young men to set out on a round-the-world natural history expedition with Lyell’s book under his arm, able to put its explanatory power to the test.  In effect, for Charles, the defining purpose of the voyage became his application of Lyell’s theory.  In the same paragraph as the observation above, he went on, “It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a book on the geology of the various countries I visited, and this made me thrill with delight.  That was a memorable hour to me, and how distinctly I can call to mind the low cliff of lava beneath which I rested, with the sun glaring hot, a few strange desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal pools at my feet.”  He had encountered not only a new world but a new way of looking at the world.


Impact of the Wet Tropics


Charles must have found arid lands like the Cape Verde Islands quite inviting for geological theorizing, because the geology is uncloaked by vegetation or even soil in some places.  But Charles displayed a deeper, emotional response to the lush vegetation of the tropical forests of Brazil.  His first landing on the shore of South America was at Bahia, also known as San Salvador.  “Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.  Among the multitude of striking objects, the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears away the victory.”  And later at Rio de Janeiro, “In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.”  His journey then carried him for years into lands not nearly so appealing – the flat pampas of Uruguay and Argentina, the arid plains of Patagonia, the damp, cold forests and brooding peaks of Tierra del Fuego and the southern coast of Chile, the starkly arid coasts of northern Chile and Peru, and the equatorial, yet strangely dry, volcanic Galapagos Islands.  Only the spectacular Andes seemed to compete with the tropical forests for his enthusiastic affection.  


He did not see the luxuriance of the wet tropics again until he arrived in Tahiti, and there the luxuriance combined with precipitous mountains:  “On each hand the walls [of the ravine] were nearly vertical; yet from the soft nature of the volcanic strata, trees and a rank vegetation sprung from every projecting ledge.  These precipices must have been some 1,000 feet high: and the whole formed a mountain gorge, far more magnificent than any thing which I had ever before beheld.”


The Collaboration with FitzRoy 


While Charles lived and traveled ashore for long periods, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew spent long days and weeks cruising the coastal waters, making innumerable precise measurements – position fixes by the sun and the stars, chronometer readings, depth soundings, distance and elevation calculations – compiling a mountain of coastal survey data, from which FitzRoy and his lieutenants created detailed navigation charts and notes for the benefit of future generations of sailors.  It was exhausting work, as much or more for FitzRoy, who drove himself harder even than he drove his crew.  No doubt, Charles considered himself fortunate to miss, whenever he could, the tedious tacking of the ship to get the multitude of measurements at each location, plus FitzRoy’s fierce concentration on the work. 


In his Recollections, Charles wrote: “FitzRoy’s temper was a most unfortunate one.  It was usually worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then unsparing in his blame.  He was very kind to me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin.  We had several quarrels …” He described one early in the voyage, in Brazil, where Charles reacted to the abomination of slavery (his Whig family, particularly on the Wedgwood side, were early, well-known abolitionists), which FitzRoy (a Tory aristocrat) rather lamely defended.  Charles made a sneering remark which enraged FitzRoy sufficiently that he evicted Charles from the cabin.  Charles thought he would have to leave the ship altogether, but reflecting Charles’s popularity with the crew, “all the gun-room officers” invited Charles to mess with them.  However, within hours FitzRoy had vented his anger sufficiently to show “his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him.”  Charles went on to write that FitzRoy’s “character was in several respects one of the most noble which I have ever known.”  “… devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, and indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway.  He would undertake any sort of trouble to assist those whom he thought deserved assistance.”


Fitzroy certainly counted Charles among those who deserved his assistance.  He and his crew cheerfully accommodated Charles’s messy collections of animals, plants, sea life, rocks, and fossils, which he spread out on the ship’s well-scrubbed deck for sorting, describing, labeling, preserving, and storing away for later shipment from a suitable port of call back to Professor Henslow in England.  A few times, notably in Patagonia, FitzRoy and Charles with others of the crew made expeditions inland to explore the hinterland.  In the five years of the voyage, he improved upon the fitness and experience gained from outdoor adventures in England, distinguishing himself with his comrades by his endurance and courage in these overland treks.  More often Charles traveled independently with locally acquired guides, sometimes with his servant, Sims Covington.  FitzRoy coordinated with Charles so that while the Beagle worked its way along the coast, Charles traveled inland, toward a pre-designated pick-up point and date. 


Protected by Gauchos and the British Network 


His longest trip overland was across the pampas in the company of gauchos, whom he came to admire for their independent life under the open sky, their survival skills, and their primitive dignity, superior in Charles’s opinion to the people of Buenos Aires and provincial towns of Argentina.  It was a challenging, dangerous trip, in the midst of a savage war with the indigenous people of the pampas, benefiting from the protection of General Rosas, protagonist of war against the Indians, then rebellion against the government, and later dictatorship of the country.  As an English naturalist, Charles was an object of local curiosity but also gracious hospitality.  With his poor ear for languages, Charles must have spoken Spanish with a terrible accent, but he no doubt became fluent enough to do business with and even charm the locals.  He managed, sometimes barely, to slip through the turbulence of the time to each of his destinations. 


It is important to remember that Charles, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew were hardly explorers in the same league as Captain Cook or Lewis and Clark.  Surely they tread on some ground never before seen by people of European origin, especially toward the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River in Patagonia.  For the most part, however, they were exploring for more detailed knowledge of coasts and countries already known to Europeans, even the English – for centuries in some parts of South America.  They benefited from a resident network of British citizens doing diplomatic, military, and commercial business.  In the larger cities, they entered into society similar in refinement to what they knew in England.  Charles even stayed for a few months in Valparaiso at the home of an English friend from school days. 


Charles was also in communication with home, especially his sisters and Henslow.  It might take a year or more for one exchange of letters, but the British network knew enough of the whereabouts and plans of the Beagle to make sure the letters eventually reached the ship.  Charles was aware of events in the scientific community in England; most important perhaps, he received the second and third volumes of Lyell’s Principles of Geology while still in South America, which Charles and FitzRoy both eagerly read.  Moreover, Charles’s letters and collections sent to Henslow began to create awareness of Charles as an emerging man of science, thanks to Henslow’s promotional efforts in England well before his return home.


In my next post, I will identify the most significant observations made by Charles over the five years of travel.  I have already mentioned the impact of his visit to the Cape Verde Islands, which set the stage for much of what came later.


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

Charles Darwin’s life, work and words and their meaning for the Science-Religion Debate: a personal exploration committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective

Darwin Watch is a double entendre.  You, the visitor, can watch the life, work and words of Charles Darwin unfold in a series of essays and book reviews, starting in 2008.  You can also watch an author build a new book, Walking Fish – Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God (to be published by Novalis, if it crosses the finish line).  Along the way, you are invited to help – comment, advise, correct.  Actually, it is a triple entendre, because of the watch-as-timepiece metaphor used to illustrate intelligent design or refute it, from Paley to Dawkins.  But here “watch” means to watch a life or a book unfold.            
I am the author, Chris Dunford.  What are my qualifications for this audacious project?  Perhaps no more than yours.  I am starting this Web site in my 60th year.  I have a PhD in evolutionary biology and have contributed to the research literature, but for three decades I have made a living in the world of international development and non-profit management.  This career, and my wife and son, have allowed me to observe many faces of the human condition as well as of the natural world, around the world.  I don’t hope to explain what I’ve seen so much as to understand, in some intuitive way, and share this understanding with you, perhaps saving you considerable effort of your own.  If your curiosity insists, you may know me more deeply by reading another book I’ve authored, Life List – A Birder’s Spiritual Awakening.  This is a very personal exploration of nature (based on a visit to sub-arctic Canada ten years ago) and why it means so much to me, especially at the level of the spirit.  In writing my book, I discovered the conflict and interdependence of science and religion.  Yes, it’s about birding, too, but I promise you won’t have to read much about birds at Darwin Watch. 

Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish


What you read here is about Charles Darwin, the person.  It is the Charles the person who holds my attention, ever since I had to brake violently to avoid rear-ending a car in my California town.  As I recovered my wits and studied the bumper 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 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. 


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 that I knew him in person!  My great, great grandfather was born in England the same year as Charles – 1809.  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, but 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. 


My “friendship” with Charles Darwin does not authorize me to tell you what motivated him or what he believed without my going back to the written record, his own books, journals and letters and the writings of his peers, family and biographers.  What a daunting task that is!  I am not a trained historian or biographer, and I still have a day job and a family to care for.  For the most part, I have to depend on others who have done the tedious work of extracting and summarizing what Charles and others actually revealed about the man.  It is a voluminous record, yet very sketchy regarding his religious and philosophical positions.  It requires a good deal of interpolation and interpretation, always subject to personal bias. 


A Child of His Time


Even what Charles wrote is not the complete key to his train of thought.  He had his own biases welling up from assumptions, of which even he was mostly unaware.  As we all are, Charles was a child of his time and all that led up to that time.  Therefore, to properly interpret what Charles was thinking and feeling, we have to explore the history and philosophy and culture and society that influenced his thinking and feeling.  A daunting task indeed!


Charles was born five years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.  Charles’s parents’ generation was traumatized by the French Revolution and the following surge of Napoleon’s armies across the Continent.  The society in which he was an impressionable teenager, as all teenagers are, was the society of Jane Austen’s novels.  English culture was absorbing and adjusting to Enlightenment philosophy, its countercurrents, and its conflicts with orthodox Christianity, which overlay the disruption of the traditional social order by the emerging Industrial Revolution and its new classes of beneficiaries and victims.  Just think of the profound influence of the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate on the assumptions of my generation.  Charles could not have made full sense of our writings on any philosophical issue without knowing these great influences on our worldviews.  Likewise, we cannot interpret Charles without knowing the context of his life.


Charles the Family Man


And there was Charles’s family.  His enormous physician father, Robert, and physician-philosopher-poet grandfather, Erasmus, who was an early and well-known proponent of evolutionary thought.   And the Wedgwood family of his mother, founders of the famous Wedgwood line of fine china and old-style Unitarians (among the many Dissenter sects of Christianity, tolerated just barely by the Church of England and the Crown).  And there was his brother, Erasmus (Ras to the family) who kept a bachelor’s salon for London intellectuals, including notably Thomas Carlyle and his wife, whom Charles knew fairly well.  And his close friends, Charles Lyell the famous geologist, Joseph Hooker the famous botanist, and Thomas Huxley, the famous anatomist and firebrand advocate of Charles’s theory (up to a point).  And, of course, there was his wife and first cousin and closest friend, Emma Wedgwood, who was well-educated and worldly, having done the Grand Tour of Europe’s cultural treasures while Charles visited Europe only once, a brief trip to Paris a few years before his voyage on the Beagle, after which he never again left England.  To understand Charles, we have to understand Emma, too.  She was religious in a way Charles was not, but she was hardly orthodox.  In the Anglican church of Downe, the Darwin family’s home village for decades, Emma is reported to have regularly required their eight children to turn their backs with her to the altar as the Confession of the Faith was chanted, all the while glaring at the rest of the congregation!  Perhaps this embarrassing scene explains why Charles preferred to stroll the village while the family attended Sunday service.


Understanding the Object of Rejection


I think understanding the context of a person’s life is particularly important, because as I have repeatedly discovered in my own career, it is often impossible to understand why a person so passionately promotes an idea without understanding what the person is thereby rejecting.  Yet people seldom cite this object of rejection in building the rationale for the idea.  Indeed, the person may not even be fully aware of what is being rejected or perhaps is reluctant to admit it.  Guarding against the strong temptation to psychoanalyze, we can use the context of the person’s life to surmise what the person is likely reacting against and thereby come closer to understanding fully.


Learning from Analogy with Ourselves


Even if all these pieces of evidence and context can be assembled, there will have to be interpretation – educated guesses – of what was going on in Charles’s mind.  Aside from assembling the pieces, I hope to contribute my own understanding from my “friendship” with Charles.  We learn very often by analogy.  When we cannot directly know the nature of what we are trying to understand, we find an analogy to something we know already and say “if it is truly like this, we can imagine how it would react to that.”  Charles was a well-educated, well-traveled, perceptive and sensitive man, not unlike you and me, perhaps.  If we can establish how he was similar and how he was different from us, we can use ourselves as a useful analogy to make good guesses about how he thought and felt about things about which you and I think and feel.  This must be done very cautiously, guarding diligently against wishful thinking and unconscious bias.  It cannot be fully successful. But it can move us much closer than we were before to understanding the man.


Why is this important? 


Charles Darwin has become a touchstone for our modern world.  The “bumper battle” of the fish symbols leaves no doubt of this.  Commentators in the Science-Religion Debate, with all its political implications and consequences, often use Darwin as their point of reference, either to support or refute assertions about matters at hand.  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 mostly likely his true views on the issues that are now so controversial.  Surely this better understanding only improves the debate.  We also owe this consideration to such a remarkable, decent and likeable man.  Providing ready access to Charles, the real person, is the ultimate purpose of Darwin Watch. 


I am reading a series of books and articles and compilations of letters and will provide you “book reviews” and short essays commenting on what I’ve read.  You may expect to see something new from me at least once a month.  In the process, you will see the “book” take shape.  Your comments, advice, and corrections will help the process along.  Post a comment with your thoughts.  This daunting task cannot be done by one person alone.


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!