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Charles Darwin: his character and convictions

Paper presented by Professor Tom Frame, Charles Sturt University
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

NICHOLAS DRAYSON: Tom Frame is now going to talk to us. I hope one day Tom will tell us how one goes from cadet, midshipman to bishop, but today he’s going to be talking about ‘Charles Darwin: his character and convictions’.

Prof. TOM FRAME: Charles Darwin is one of the most revered scientists in the modern era. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and Nobel laureate, controversially claimed that Darwin ‘will eventually be seen as a far more influential figure in the history of human thought than either Jesus Christ or Mohammad’. Darwin, can I suggest to you, is also among the most reviled scientists of recent times. The founder of the modern ‘Creation Science’ movement, Henry Morris, condemned the allegedly and ‘atheistic and satanic character’ of Darwin’s work and its ‘far-reaching and deadly effects’. Darwin the man has attracted considerable attention. The private life, the personal habits of no other modern scientist have been the focus of such close examination.

This morning I want to answer three questions: first, why the interest in Charles Darwin’s character; second, what were the convictions guiding his research; and, third, what was the effect of his character and his convictions on his scientific work?

I believe the first question can be answered quickly. Interest in Darwin’s character had to do with the enormous consequence of the work with which he was engaged. In what ways and to what extent did the man influence the theories? The noted American biologist Ernst Mayr suggested that:

Einstein’s theory of relativity or Heisenberg’s of statistical prediction could hardly have had any effect on anybody’s personal beliefs. The Copernican revolution and Newton’s world view required some revision of traditional beliefs. None of these physical theories, however, raised as many new questions concerning religion and ethics as did Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.

Because Darwin’s scientific conclusions had a bearing on the validity and cogency of religious claims, there have been attempts by theists, then and now, to show that elements of Darwin’s character predisposed him to scientific bias, intellectual imbalance, philosophical unorthodoxy and religious apostasy. I believe that this is part of a continuing campaign to discredit Darwin’s ideas by disparaging Darwin’s character. Thankfully, that campaign has failed.

In brief, Darwin possessed a sensitive soul and a genial spirit. He was personally shy but intellectually outgoing. A social conservative who enjoyed substantial affluence, Darwin was altruistic and he was also compassionate. He was devoted to his family and was especially concerned for their own well-being when his work produced such public controversy. He disliked conflict and confrontation but was ready to defend and debate his ideas when he thought they were misunderstood or misrepresented. He was unwilling to join a dispute if it generated just more heat and not a great deal of light. Darwin was a quintessential Victorian gentleman but he was without any trace of the cant or hypocrisy that was usually hidden by the veil of respectability that characterised much of Victorian life. Despite the fame he attracted even in his own lifetime, Darwin was modest and reserved.

Let me now turn to my second question: what were the convictions guiding his research? I have already hinted at an answer. Like many of his era, Darwin was fascinated by the natural world. He and many others were of the view that, if you had the choice with what you could do with your life, natural history would be obviously the thing that you would want to pursue. He was driven - and I think that is not too strong a word - by an adventurous spirit. I can remember as a small boy the first time I went to sea with the navy and I thought after two hours of seasickness, ‘well death was almost preferable.’ This poor man for nearly five years put up with seasickness. You don’t do that, as one who was temporarily seasick, without believing the cause in which you are engaged is worthy of such physical, emotional and even spiritual discomfort.

Once he decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a physician, and setting aside thoughts of becoming an Anglican clergyman during his five years on board HMAS Beagle, Darwin became a full-time naturalist and writer. Can I suggest to you that his character, the kind of person that he was, suited him to these twinned vocations. He was a great collector and classifier who paid attention to detail but was endowed with an ability to impose order and meaning on an otherwise random mass of data and he was able to explain it to ordinary people in a way that few others could do in that period. Because he belonged to a wealthy family, as Iain has already so well pointed out, Darwin had the means to pursue his own research interests and to do what he thought was important, without having to justify his decisions to an institution.

His personal outlook was shaped by the period and the circumstances in which he lived. Darwin believed in the British Empire. When he arrived in Sydney he thanked himself on being British, and he thought there was much to commend the spread of European civilisation. He abhorred slavery and was shocked by the conditions in which some Indigenous peoples appeared to live happily. In terms of his religious beliefs, I have argued that Darwin largely abandoned whatever remained of his Christian beliefs on philosophical grounds by 1842. He rejected the authority of Christianity’s sacred texts - indeed, all ancient texts for which divine authority was claimed - and thought some of the prominent doctrines of Victorian Christianity, particularly the eternal torments of hell, were pernicious and immoral.

His scientific work, I want to argue, did not lead him to reconsider his rejection of theism. He may have been a deist between 1842 and 1850, but I have my doubts. Darwin did not draw attention to his changing attitude towards religion and preferred to avoid the subject altogether. In fact, he tried to conceal his lack of religious conviction from prying public eyes fearing that accusations of atheism might bring opprobrium to his work and shame to his family, although the period from 1840 to 1880 marked a substantial loss of religious faith among the English intelligentsia. In fact, if there is a period of lost belief in British society, it isn’t the twentieth century; it is this period in which Darwin was living. So in rejecting theistic belief he was far from alone.

Darwin himself was saddened but unperturbed by the controversy that followed the publication of On the Origin of Species. He thought some of his critics were worthy of better. It is apparent from private correspondence that Darwin went to some lengths to avoid any confrontation with the tenets of religious orthodoxy that so marked English public life. Commenting on his theories in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell dated 28 March 1859, Darwin said, referring to Origin:

My book is not more unorthodox than the subject makes inevitable ... I do not discuss the origin of man … I do not bring in any discussion about Genesis.

His views did, however, have a direct bearing on theistic belief which was at that time heavily dependent upon natural theology. Put simply: the argument for God’s existence based on the presence of design in nature was challenged directly by the theory of evolution by natural selection. Although Darwin used the word ‘Creator’ in his writings, his theories did not require a creating or sustaining deity for their coherence.

In the fifth chapter of Origin which concentrated on the laws of variation, Darwin touched briefly on the problem of cosmogony and noted possible conflicts between evolutionary theory and conventional Victorian religious belief. If God created animals and designed them to be perfectly adapted to their environments, Darwin mused, why did he provide them with rudimentary organs such as the human appendix? Why did upland geese have web feet when they never swam? In Darwinian theory, God was pushed out of the ordering of nature and was relegated to the origins of life. Darwin’s work involved a three-pronged clash with the principal aims of contemporary theistic belief: first, that nature was constantly changing and was not made once for all time in a state of perfection; second, that change involves chance variations on which natural selection acts; and, third, that natural selection meant nature was not benign but a venue for the struggle to exist and to survive.

When Darwin decided it was time to begin his next major work The Descent of Man which appeared in 1868, he was fully conscious of the gravity of the subject and the kind of response his views would almost certainly elicit. There was no sense in which he was stumbling innocently into a fight or inadvertently attacking orthodoxy. Darwin argued that:

Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.

He had now uttered the previously unutterable: as a result of similar events to those which led to the evolution of other organisms, human beings had evolved from an ape-like primate. Not surprisingly, this claim prompted a great deal of discussion and debate from those with religious perspectives and those with none.

Darwin was increasingly consumed by his work as the years passed. He was never much interested again in overseas travel, particularly if seagoing was involved. He took surprisingly few holidays. When he stopped working it was usually prompted by sickness or a desire to regain his heath and vigour. By 1870, an obsession with research and writing had also affected Darwin’s personal preferences and tastes, the great naturalist confessing that he ‘could not endure to read a single line of poetry’ and found ‘Shakespeare intolerably dull’. Music didn’t soothe him either because it ‘merely drove his thoughts to worry about his work’. Despite his youthful love for literature and the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven, he could not account for his ‘curious and lamentable loss of high aesthetic tastes’. Perhaps for Charles Darwin it was simply the case that he gained more enjoyment and satisfaction from his work than anything else in life. Believing that his death would soon follow if he were obliged to ‘give up observation and experiment’, Darwin finished working on 17 April 1882. Two days later, he was dead.

Now to my third question: what was the effect of his character and convictions on his scientific work? Darwin had many friends and very few enemies. He was respected and admired within the scientific community. There is nothing in Darwin’s character, no moral failing, to which anyone could point that would detract from his ideas or divert observers from their significance. He wasn’t devious like Richard Owen. He wasn’t seeking institution recognition and didn’t crave public honours. He thought at the end of his life he would be laid to rest in the churchyard at Down, but only the Anglican church can take the person who most upset religious belief in Victorian times and bury them in Westminster Abbey.

Because he was essentially a private, independent researcher, it was easier for him to promote contentious ideas and to engage in the unfashionable practice of theorising. Darwin was free as few others to oppose scientific orthodoxy and did so. In his autobiography, Darwin explained that he had not encountered anyone who ‘seemed to be in doubt about the permanence of species. Even Lyell and Hooker, though they would listen with interest to me, never seemed to agree’. Iain has brought out so well for us this morning the outcome of that conversation. But by sheer persistence and belief that he was right, a characteristic happily possessed by few, Darwin changed the minds of the leading scientists of his day.

He did acknowledge gaps in his theories and points in his arguments where he was engaging in inference on the basis of possibility rather than proving his point with reference to evidence. But there is nothing to suggest that Darwin was committed to an ideological agenda. He was personally sincere and scrupulously honest. He was an open man. There was no deliberate attempt to avoid contrary evidence or to disguise the appeal of alternate explanations. The one consistent complaint though from critics was Darwin’s tendency to hurdle objections to his theory rather than to remove them.

Within his own lifetime, Darwin was concerned that his scientific work was being appropriated for purposes well removed from the physical sciences - and we will hear more about that today. Evolution apparently could be used to explain the ebb and flow of market forces. It could be cited as a scientific endorsement of capitalism. Imperialism and the imposition of a higher culture on more primitive peoples could be rationalised by the need for the survival of the fittest. Darwin never saw his work though as the basis of a theory for everything. He recognised that there were limits to the application of his work; he counselled reticence and even restraint when well-meaning supporters overstated its significance or exaggerated its insights. Conscious of what his work meant for religious sensibilities in Victorian society, he deliberately described himself as an agnostic, after his friend Thomas Huxley coined the term in 1869, rather than an atheist. In a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker dated 12 April 1870, Darwin remarked:

My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed design of any kind, in the details. As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a special end, I can no more believe in that, than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.

Darwin’s recorded thoughts and published writings extended well beyond the physical sciences, as we have already heard. While he saw himself first and foremost as a scientist, he was deeply interested in the great existential questions and wondered, sometimes aloud, how his scientific work might shape the answers. That wondering continues. There was, and is, so much to admire in Charles Robert Darwin as a scientist and as a human being. This perhaps explains why there is nearly as much interest in the man as in his work. His achievements as a scientist I think can be attributed in part to his character and to the possession of a mind that allowed him to discern the right question - and asking the right question is usually the most important element in arriving at the right answer.

I am looking forward to hearing from the other contributors in today’s symposium and their depictions of Darwin’s character and convictions. Given that Darwin possessed such a balanced and even temperament, I suspect their depictions might not be too different from the one that I have offered you this morning. But we shall see. Thank you.

Date published: 30 April 2009