How Darwin’s belief in natural selection changed his experience of life

On the subject of what happens to people when they embrace materialism as a thoroughgoing worldview, let us consider Charles Darwin’s own rejection of God and the transcendent, a rejection that Darwin soft-pedaled in his published writings but that was in fact radical, as John G. West demonstrates in the first chapter of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. West writes:

Darwin’s disbelief eventually spread beyond Christianity to include any sort of belief in God. While writing the first edition of The Origin of Species, he claimed that he had probably been a theist because he saw the “impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man … as the result of blind chance or necessity.” But that belief too had gradually eroded. “The old argument of design in nature … which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.” Moreover, it seemed inconceivable to Darwin that an omnipotent God could sanction the cruelties inherent in nature’s struggle for existence—“the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.” Having demystified the world through natural selection, Darwin was no longer filled with “higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion” when looking at nature. “I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.” (pp. 37-38.)

Thus Darwin, like so many atheists and liberals ever since, got rid of the troubling apparent contradiction between God and the injustices of life by getting rid of God—and, in so doing, getting rid of wonder in the face of nature, getting rid of admiration at the fact of man. No more could Darwin say, with the psalmist:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

No more could Darwin say, with Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey”:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth.

It is true that some atheists say they experience a sense of wonder at nature despite their disbelief in any higher truth. But when we remember that it was Darwin’s The Origin of Species that made atheism respectable and increasingly dominant in the modern world, Darwin’s own growing atheism, and the resulting deadness and coldness in his feelings about life, become paradigmatic of modern materialist man.

- end of initial entry -

Laura W. writes:

Darwin relished Wordsworth and Shakespeare as a young man, but was unable to tolerate even a few lines of either in his later years. The theoretical beauty of natural selection made up for the loss of aesthetic pleasure.

When you speak if the “deadness and coldness” that Darwin felt, it’s important to remember the rest of his character. He was a genteel Victorian paterfamilias, filled with basic decency and abundant love for his children.

These traits go a long way toward explaining his canonization as a secular saint. He was living proof an atheist could be good. This, as much as his theory, explains why he is such a powerful force in the Church of Latter-Day Atheism. If he had possessed the crude insensitivity of a Richard Dawkins, his theory would not have captured the public imagination in quite the same way.

LA replies:

When I picked that Wordsworth verse, it was just what came to my mind. I had no idea that Darwin had been a fan of his and that it was specifically Wordsworth that he turned off on in his later years.

Did you see this in a biography?

Laura W. replies:

Yes, I did just read it in a book and I believe I read it in Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution, which is about his family life. But as I was perusing a few books about Darwin, it may have been in another. I can find the exact quote where he talks about all loss of pleasure in Shakespeare when I get the chance. Poor guy. To think he was the person who once wrote:

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra de Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature; no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath in his body.

LA replies:

Ahh, so that’s the source of the “there is more in man than the mere breath in his body” line that he later referenced and rejected.

Also, the profound atheism and materialism and, indeed, moral nihilism, that Darwin reveals in his private writings shows again how insightful William Jennings Bryan was about the catastrophic moral and spiritual effects of Darwinism. This doesn’t mean of course that all believers in Darwin become moral nihilists. But they can only avoid becoming moral nihilists by making unprincipled exceptions to their own Darwinism. Or, alternatively, they try to find the source of morality in Darwinian evolution. But that bird just won’t fly.

Laura W. replies:

Darwin read Wordsworth deeply when he returned from his journeys. He had apparently entertained notions, similar to Wordsworth’s, that the scientist and poet could become as one, both engaged in the pursuit of the beauty of nature. Darwin, believe it or not, saw a kindred spirit in Wordsworth, according to Randall Keynes, a relative of Darwin’s and author of Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution.

Laura W. continues:

I think Darwin’s deep, intuitive sense of the sublime in nature drove him to extremes. He so wanted to grasp that sublimity with all his mental powers that he destroyed it. He was by nature a pantheist, as well as a scientist, and natural selection was a way of according to nature the powers he thought it was due.

Laura W. writes:

It’s funny you should bring this up because I was thinking about Darwin and his latent romanticism just last week. Suddenly, despite his obnoxious over-reaching and his way of putting the cloak of science on metaphysics, I had such a love for the man.

Bruce B. writes:

I don’t know how his beliefs changed over his life, but his conception of evolution through natural selection seemed to allow for the possibility that there were transcendent ultimate causes (my emphasis):

“I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favorable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously.”—Darwin

Terry Morris writes:

You wrote:

“Or, alternatively, they try to find the source of morality in Darwinian evolution. But that bird just won’t fly.”

It won’t, or it can’t? And why? Is it because random occurrence has not yet caught up to that bird’s potentiality; or is it because the bird’s potentiality has not yet caught up to chance occurrence and random mutations? ;-)

Sorry, couldn’t let that one get by.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 21, 2008 09:30 AM | Send

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