Down with the Origin of Speciousness

It doesn't much look like an abode of evil. On the contrary, Down House, the home of Charles and Emma Darwin, exudes so much rural English charm that I almost expect to be greeted by smiling badgers, moles, and—who knows—maybe a hobbit or two.

Yet, it is here in the green and pleasant Kentish countryside where Charles Darwin composed the Origin of Species, Descent of Man, and other works that many believers regard as malign attacks. Indeed, Darwin's Down House writings form so powerful a perceived threat to faith, decency, and hope that its opponents have dubbed it “evilution.” Despite legal victories in the courts and spectacular confirmations through genetic, paleontological, and other lines of research, rejection of Darwin's theory in the English-speaking world remains widespread.

The public's reluctance to embrace evolution results not only from ignorance and fear but also from active, well-funded efforts to discredit it. These fill every conceivable niche, from schoolyard whispering campaigns (“Darwin converted on his deathbed and admitted to Jesus that he'd made it all up”—as reported by my daughter while studying 9th grade biology) to sophisticated propaganda like the 2008 film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” in which host Ben Stein blames evolution for the Nazi Holocaust.

I contend that these pious lies and the fears they represent amount to a terrible misapprehension of evolution. Darwin himself misdirected our attention. He made it all too easy to accept “nature red in tooth and claw” as the emblem of evolution. But we should not be too hard on Darwin. Evil events at Down House contributed to this grim interpretation—one that misses the larger majesty of evolution altogether and moreover obscures a path to reconciliation with faith.

And so, in this 200th anniversary year of Darwin's birth, I have traveled to Down House from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to confront the origin of specious beliefs about evolution, and in my own small way try to uproot them.

* * *

For a 19th century mansion, Down House has a rather cheery atmosphere. The rooms are bright, and signs of that Victorian anathema fun abound—tennis rackets, billiards, and curios. Gwen Raverat, one of Darwin's granddaughters, recalls in her memoir, “to us, everything at Down was perfect. And by us, I mean not only the children but all the uncles and aunts who belonged there. ... Everything there was different. And better.”1

An exception to the cheerfulness is Darwin's study, where duty ruled. The highest portrait on the wall, higher even than his grandfather's, is of that stern Scotsman Charles Lyell, the geologist who eventually browbeat Darwin into publishing his by-then 20-year-old theory, an act Darwin compared with “confessing a murder.”

The most revealing feature, however, is the sick bay partially concealed in the room's darkest corner. There Darwin frequently lay ill, retching and writhing for hours at a time. He later estimated that his mysterious chronic illness, likely a tropical parasite that followed him home from his voyage on the Beagle, had cost him six years of work. That was nothing, however. Disease, one of Nature's chief tools of selection, exacted a far greater price at Down House.

* * *

During their long marriage, Emma Darwin gave birth to ten children. Two died in infancy. That alone might have been heartache enough to drive Charles into the arms of Malthus.2 But then in 1851, still eight years from the publication of Origin of Species, their daughter Annie fell ill and died at the tender age of ten.

It was a shattering blow. The weight of grief crushed in Darwin any remnants of belief in a benevolent natural order. He could no longer bear to accompany Emma to the village church and hear sermons about God's grace.

Charles knew that what his family had suffered, tragic though it felt to them, was merely normal. Nearly every family lost children to disease. The Darwins were among the most privileged in England, yet they were no more exempt from Nature's culling than their gracious sovereign. Queen Victoria, Defender of the Faith, moral crusader, and object of millions of loyal subjects' daily prayers, not only lost two children in infancy but at some point underwent a spontaneous mutation that conferred a hemophilia gene on two of her surviving daughters and one of her sons.

Darwin, of course, knew nothing of genetics, but with the loss of Annie he became obsessively aware of the pitiless way that Nature proceeds. Worse yet, his theory of evolution, which he had drafted and locked in a desk drawer as early as 1844, made him feel responsible for her death. Charles feared that Annie had inherited his infirmity, rendering her liable to negative selection.3 From his close study of animal husbandry he knew that breeders would examine every litter for signs of weakness and assure that the frail and sickly would not live to reproduce. Nature, it appeared, worked in much the same manner.

Ever the scientist, Darwin set out to prove it to himself. In the “weed patch” behind Down House he planted 357 hundred seedlings and then tracked their growth. Six months later, no more than 62 survived. If anything, the Darwins were lucky to lose only three offspring. How fortunate that trees cannot weep.

When at last Charles Darwin published his theory, its full title laid bare his stark view of existence: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That last phrase has provoked vast misapprehension ever since.

True, competition among genes drives evolution. True, this often brings about cruel results, such as childhood death. But evolution is above all a creative force. It explores every attainable pathway to survival. And the most hopeful path it has yet found lies at the heart of Darwin's theory.

* * *

Bacteria do it. Bees do it. Even self-centered men do it. No, not love, although that is an important human element, but cooperate. Cooperation is essential to evolution. Consider genomes. Like human societies, they have their drifters, slackers, and traitors, but no genome can succeed in directing the construction of an organism unless the vast majority of its active genes cooperate. So with our bodies: As many as 100 trillion cells gather in each one, and more than 99 percent (leaving aside the symbiotic bacteria in our guts) selflessly support our gametes in their reproductive quest.

Still, the more interesting and promising level of cooperation humans exhibit is in our construction of civilization. Simply put, civilization is an effort to contain and channel competition into mutually beneficial cooperation. Religion, though subject to selfish hijackings, often plays an important role in persuading members of a society to limit their self-interests in favor of the group's needs. We'd all like to kill someone at times, but religious injunctions against murder help to moderate the impulse, or at least to direct other members of society to react against it.

Competitive cooperation is essential in science as well. Without it, the accumulation of tested knowledge which is its hallmark could not occur. Since Darwin's time, the progress of science has assured that we in the technologically advanced countries rarely experience the loss of a child. The coming decades hold the promise of gene therapies that may overcome both infectious and congenital diseases. Much of this advancement could not have happened without the organizing theory of evolution, so we must be grateful for its publication a century and a half ago.

But it is worthwhile to speculate: if Darwin were living at Down House today, taking breaks from his work to play with his ten children (all thriving, thanks to modern medicine), might he have given us a sunnier Origin? Might he even have connected his theory with the theological insights of Bishop John Shelby Spong, biblical scholar Marcus Borg, or perhaps even Rabbi Harold Kushner? I believe so.

Turning his thoughts to cosmogony, Darwin remained attracted to the idea that a Creator put everything in motion. Philosopher Elliott Sober says Darwin's letters show that while the great scientist found his theory sufficient for biology, he could not imagine an unplanned universe. Today, we have hypotheses that account for spontaneous self-organization even on that scale. Be that as it may, there is no rational imperative to declare this an unintended result. Nor does acceptance of evolution imply a general purposelessness.

For those whose faith hangs on the literal truth of ancient scriptures, evolution is indeed bad news. But so too are astronomy, geology, and, for that matter, history.4 For those with a larger, more adaptive vision of faith, the door at Down House stands open to a new natural theology or just plain naturalism. Feel free to walk right in.


1 Gwen Raverat, Period Piece. New York: W.W. Norton, 1952, p. 141.

2 The point is debatable. Darwin, I am advised, had already digested Malthus before his marriage, but his family losses surely drove home the lesson that more offspring are born than can survive.

3 It seems likely that Annie died from tuberculosis, an infectious disease, but in a larger sense her susceptibility might have had a genetic component. In any event, Darwin was hardly to blame, yet his feeling of guilt is all too understandable.

4 Bishop Usher estimated from his biblical studies that Adam and Eve were strolling about Eden in 4004 B.C., but the earliest known writing—the basis of history—dates back considerably further than that. Inscribed tortoise shells from China have been radiocarbon dated to 6,000 B.C. and more.See Andrew Lawler, “Tortoise Pace for the Evolution of Chinese Writing?” Science May 2, 2003, vol. 300, no. 5620, p. 723.

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