Inside the Mind of Charles Darwin


At the moment, I’m undertaking the final revision of a non-fiction book I’ve been working on for well over a year called I Think: Inside the Mind of Charles Darwin. It’s less than a month away from publication, so I thought I’d put the introduction up as a blog post. I hope you enjoy it.

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INTRODUCTION

This is not a biography in the traditional sense of the word. In this book, you will not learn anything of substance about Darwin’s personal life. If you’d like to know where he was born, what school he went to, or what his favorite toy was as a child, you should put this book back on the shelf and look for another. If you are considering this book wanting to learn more about Darwin’s voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, or his time in the Galapagos islands, or his marriage to Emma Wedgwood, you should look for a more general biography, as you won’t find that in these pages. This book is concerned with the thinking and reasoning processes of Charles Darwin, and looks at his life through the prism of his personal correspondence. It is primarily focused on the background behind his landmark work, On the Origin of Species.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and, for the first time, the world had a coherent, comprehensive theory explaining the rich diversity of life we see around us. The recognition of Natural Selection has opened up over a hundred and fifty years of public debate on the origin of diverse species as religious institutions have struggled to reconcile evolution with their traditional creation stories.

During his lifetime, Darwin remained largely on the sidelines of this heated debate, refusing to be drawn into endless, and often meaningless discussions, leaving others, like Thomas Huxley, to champion the scientific cause. But Darwin was not silent. He wrote profusely, writing hundreds of letters to his close friends and supporters, and it is these unguarded moments, captured in private correspondence, never intended to see public light, that provide us with a unique insight into the mind of Charles Darwin. They reveal his personal thinking, his reasoning, his intentions, his doubts, his triumphs and his personal struggles in a candid and honest manner.

All great men are, inevitably, both canonized and demonized after death, treated as both saints and sinners. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to be great is to be misunderstood,” but the letters of Charles Darwin allow us to avoid any misunderstanding, they allow the man to speak for himself. These private letters show us the real Darwin, the man stripped bare of any scientific adulation on one hand, and without the lies and half-truths spread by his detractors on the other.

Why is this book important?

There is a growing divide between religious fundamentalists and evolutionary science. Whether we consider Christians, Jews, Hindus or Muslims, the issue is the same: literal interpretations of ancient literature grossly contradict modern science, they contradict our modern values, our modern thinking, our modern reasoning. Science has transformed far more than just such areas as medicine, astronomy, biology and engineering. Science has transformed our perspective on life itself. Over the past five hundred years there has been a seismic shift in our point of view. We have learned that decisions in life should be based on clear evidence, not vague ideals, be they religious or otherwise.

For Darwin, science provided answers. In those areas where science was yet to mature, it provided a framework for finding answers.

The undulatory [wave] theory of light has thus been arrived at [by scientific investigation]; and the belief in the revolution of the earth on its own axis was until lately supported by hardly any direct evidence. It is no valid objection that science as yet throws no light on the far higher problem of the essence or origin of life.

In Darwin’s day, the awareness that light moved in waves had only just become apparent. The concept of the Earth revolving on its axis was accepted, but had little in the way of direct evidence. Darwin realized science was a process of exploration and discovery. Although there is no clear understanding of how life originated on Earth, Darwin understood that this presented an opportunity for science, not an impediment.

Do you believe the Earth spins on its axis, rotating around the pole? Do you believe the Earth turns to face the sun each day? If so, then it is fair to say you didn’t learned this from your own personal experience, or from any religious scripture, or any philosophical ideal, you learned this from science.

Sit out on the porch one morning and watch the path of the sun over the course of a day and think about how extraordinary and revolutionary this concept actually is. Both common sense and the scriptures will tell you that you never moved, that you sat still in your chair as the sun rose high above you over during the day, and yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose – Ecclesiastes 1:5

As persistent and convincing as this experience is, we know it is an illusion. The trees in the distance, the table on the patio, the picket fence around your home, they all appeared to stay perfectly still as the sun rose high in the sky before slowly descending into the distance, just as King Solomon described in Ecclesiastes. And yet, in reality, both you, your home and your garden, have spun around in a circle, like a child on a playground ride. You have moved in defiance of both your personal experience and the testimony of the Bible.
Why do we accept the scientific notion of the Earth spinning at thousands of kilometers an hour over the biblical notion that the Earth “cannot be moved?” We accept this counterintuitive view of reality not because of our experience, not because of any holy writ or the uttering of an ancient prophet, we accept this because of the evidence.

In our day, no one would seriously consider teaching Ecclesiastes in our public schools as an alternative to the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Not even the Kansas Board of Education would take these sections of scripture literally, and yet, against reason, when it comes to the topic of evolution, they actively promote a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

Think about what science is for a moment. Science is a collection of theories, or ideas about life.
A scientific theory has two components, it is based on evidence and it draws conclusions. And these conclusions give us the ability to test or validate an idea. If the results don’t match expectations, something needs to change. If they’re do, we can use these ideas for leverage, we can use them to build cars, trains, computers, antibiotics, planes, skyscrapers, bridges, mobile phones, traffic lights. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything in modern life that isn’t dependent on science. Even age-old practices like horticulture or making kiln-fired bricks to build a home have been enhanced and refined and taken to new heights by the advent of modern science.

And we trust science, we trust these evidence-based conclusions every time we step on a bus, every time we ride in an airplane, every time we switch on a light, or open a packet of cereal, or swallow a tablet of medicine.
Evidenced-based science is at the very heart of modern life. But when it comes to biology, the notion of evolution offends our religious convictions and for that reason, and that reason alone, it is called into doubt, regardless of the evidence.

Science represents a quandary for those who follow a literal interpretation of the Bible. There’s no doubt science is beneficial, but should it be trusted? After all, as the US dollar states, In God we trust, not man. And so the seeds of doubt are planted. Genesis is God’s Word. Natural Selection is the theory of man. How can it be trusted? And with this one, broad and gross over-simplification, the evidence is simply ignored and swept aside.

Some religious groups will go so far as to promote a semblance of pseudo-science in its place, accepting scientific findings where these agree with their theology, while substituting radical alternatives like Intelligent Design where the evidence does not. Such an approach is flawed from the start as it approaches science backwards. It seeks a means to justify its end, it starts with conclusions and manipulates the evidence to fit with its preconceptions. Intelligent Design is, in a word, dishonest, which is quite ironic given the supposedly high and lofty morals of its proponents.

In the beginning

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth – Genesis 1:1

Genesis uses clear, decisive terms. The language is forceful, with the Almighty commanding creation. On the first day, “God said, Let there be light and there was light.” With such grand, sweeping statements and regal declarations it is no wonder this section of the Bible has been taken literally even though theologians have documented more figures of speech in the first chapter of Genesis than there are verses of scripture!
With the best of intentions, Christian ministers and lay-preachers alike have advanced a literal interpretation of Genesis in defiance of science.

It is not uncommon to hear ministers depicting this conflict as a battle between science and faith, between natural knowledge and spiritual. They portray themselves as protecting “the integrity of the Word.” The reality is, it is not science that has attacked the Bible, it is biblical literalists who have attacked science.
Science is impartial, it does not take sides.

Science nether attacks nor defends, it simply presents the evidence and draws conclusions. In its rawest form, science is the recognition of natural laws. It is the categorization of observations and, based on these observations, science forms a series of rational, logical, consistent conclusions about the natural world. Whether these observations, and their subsequent conclusions, offend someone’s preconceived religious notions or not is irrelevant.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo.

Science is an expression, a formula. Whether we like it or not, two plus two equals four. Whether we like it or not, science has something relevant to say about the origin of our world. To rage against that simply highlights our own personal immaturity.

Like Galileo and Copernicus, Darwin sought to understand the scientific laws that govern our world. And like Galileo and Copernicus, Darwin has been vilified by religious leaders, by those ignorant souls who value blind loyalty over honesty and truth. Hopefully, this book goes a little way toward correcting that injustice.

Darwin’s Time Machine

While reviewing the material for this book, I considered two other possible themes to explore in this work, the first being Darwin’s Time Machine.

As you will see throughout the writings of Charles Darwin, from his casual correspondence with friends through to his publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin makes a series of remarkable insights that belie the times in which he lived.

Darwin’s genius was in seeing beyond the moment and realizing the possibilities that lay hidden in the vast array of seemingly contradictory facts surrounding the natural world. From these, Darwin distilled an astoundingly accurate picture of how life has flourished on Earth. His insights into the past, from thousands to millions of years ago, along with his conjecture about future discoveries, makes one wonder if he had a time machine hidden away in his garden shed, perhaps a DeLorean powered by Mr Fusion. Throughout this book, we will journey with Darwin in his Tardis as he elaborates on the progression of life on Earth over hundreds of millions of years.

Darwin the Creationist

Darwin was a creationist. This may surprise some, but it is undeniably true. Darwin was raised in a Christian family, studied divinity at university in preparation to become a clergyman with the Church of England, and, during his epic voyage on the Beagle, searched for what he thought of as “centres of creation,” those places where the Creator must have first breathed life into animals before they spread across the face of the Earth.
In writing On the Origin of Species, Darwin reveals numerous turning points on his decade-long journey from creationist to scientist, outlining in methodical detail the steps he traveled in his own personal journey as his scientific awareness slowly awakened.

Darwin understood how controversial Natural Selection would be and took pains to carefully and methodically confirm his theory before publication. And yet, for all his efforts to the contrary, he has been misrepresented and ridiculed.

My views have often been grossly misrepresented, bitterly opposed and ridiculed, but this has been generally done, as I believe, in good faith.

Darwin, ever the gentleman, understood the opposition his theory received from creationists because he’d personally struggled with the very same issues. He understood the genuine sincerity of his opponents because he’d been there and had once held the same doubts and concerns. And that is something I deeply appreciate when reading his works, as I too once struggled under the weight of the same concerns.

Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.

Darwin has been unjustly maligned and his works condemned, and yet few, if any of his detractors have ever read anything he wrote. I know I certainly hadn’t. In some sincere Christian circles, the very mention of his name invokes indignation and comparisons with Adolph Hitler, Karl Marx and even Satan himself. As you will see firsthand in this book, nothing could be further from the truth.

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Update: Since posting this, I’ve had feedback from some beta-readers and decided to expand the content. Given my current writing projects, it will be a while before I get back to this, but I will post an update when this book launches.
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4 thoughts on “Inside the Mind of Charles Darwin

  1. Pingback: RANDOM SEED :: richard j. finn » Blog Archive » Inside the Mind of Charles Darwin

  2. Peter, I mostly agree. I would, however, point out that many devoutly religious people over the centuries understood the Genesis account to be an allegory. Augustine, in On Genesis, looked at the Biblical account as a layered story or framework (each day was a layer, not an actual “day”). He wrote this around the turn of the century, the 5th century. Likewise, 2 Peter 3:8 states that a day to God is like a thousand years to us – written at a time when “thousand” was used like we use “gazillion” today. Early Christians (and Jews) clearly understood that the account in Genesis, like the parables of Jesus, were was not a literal story but a spiritual one. Many Catholics continue to hold this view as do Anglicans and other denominations. In fact, Tolkien’s creation myth in the Silmarillion is very interesting in regards to this conversation. Tolkien was a devout Catholic who managed to convince C. S. Lewis to return to his Anglican faith – Lewis was atheist at the time. Without Tolkien there would be no Chronicles of Narnia or the Christian commentaries Lewis would later write. At any rate, the creation myth in the Silmarillion is a kind of layered song, which creates a vision of the world very quickly which is then carried out very slowly as Illuvatar (God) sends the Airnur (angels) into the world to do his will.

    The current literal thinking on Genesis didn’t come about until much later, but didn’t catch fire until almost recently – when there was a perceived attack on Scripture.

    • Richard,

      You make a good point about distinguishing between creationists and other more thoughtful forms of Christianity. The point about Augustine is a good one and should be mentioned to counterbalance the perspective in this section, so I’ll look at revising that. I have tried to use the term “Fundamentalist” as much as possible to avoid everyone being tarred and feathered with the same brush, but this is the mentality Darwin was up against, and it is reflected in his writings. Darwin is scathing in his view on the Gospels.

      Augustine is progressive in his thinking. It is difficult to know what those like Christ, Paul and Peter thought, as they tend only to refer to Genesis in passing. Mark 10:6 is a reference to Genesis 1:27, but doesn’t clarify whether Christ took the whole section literally or not, although it seems that way, to me at least. In Luke 17:27 Christ took the story of Noah literally. Paul in II Corth 11:3 refers to Eve and the serpent, a literal interpretation of the fall of man. While Peter also took Noah literally in I Peter 3:20. So I can see why Genesis is taken literally. Certainly, Darwin was taught to take it literally as a young man.

      Your point about Tolkien and Lewis is quite fascinating. I read the Screwtape Letters as a teenager, but didn’t know C.S. Lewis was once an atheist.

      Writing this book as been challenging, particularly when working with the sections where Darwin does mention Christianity and religious beliefs. I suspect these sections will please no one, neither Christians nor atheists, but it does reveal Darwin’s thinking processes.

      Kind regards,
      Peter

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