A different view of Darwin: the poet who died
The young Darwin was the most tender hearted and deeply feeling and most joyful of souls. His experiences of nature in South America during the voyage of The Beagle were intense and ecstatic encounters with the sublime, which, he wrote later ‘were intimately connected with a belief in God’. ‘‘the luxuriance of the vegetation…..the elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers’ he wrote, beside himself with the beauty of it all. His mind was ‘a chaos of delight’. Pausing in a shady nook, he listened to ‘the droning, croaking, throbbing life’. Now, as in ages past when no human interlopers were around to hear, the forest reverberated to ‘ a most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence’, like ‘some great cathedral at evensong’, with the anthem fading to ‘universal stillness’. Adding ‘raptures to…raptures’ he began collecting flowers enough to ‘make a florist go wild’ and countless beetles. Such ‘transports of pleasure’ he had never known.
Most sadly, in middle age this most intensely feeling and wonderful man died emotionally. He could now feel nothing. He had first conceived his great idea on the Beagle voyage, but it was twenty years before he wrote his book, and it was during the interim that this terrible internal dying occurred. The wonder and beauty of nature that he had experienced in Brazil found no place in The Origin. Instead evolution is caused by ‘war, extermination, disease and death’. Surely this grim message is not unconnected to his own personal experience. In fact ‘war, extermination, disease and death’ cause nothing. They are not causes but consequences. Extraordinarily, natural selection is presented to us in The Origin not so much as a scientific thesis as a religious tract, in language as fictionalized as that describing any god. I don’t suppose you will believe this. But read my book.
Contrary to what most people think, the publication of The Origin was not a triumph of scientific reason over religious error. In fact, almost the opposite was the case. In the nineteenth century few scientists accepted natural selection, it was only with the discovery of radiation and the re-discovery of Mendelian genetics in the twentieth century that Darwin’s discovery was seen to be the great truth that it is. On the other hand, after a little preliminary huffing and puffing in 1859, the Church took on natural selection with enthusiasm. In 1859 Darwin had not even said that human beings were a product of evolution, merely that ‘light will be thrown’ but ‘the monkey question’ inflamed religious believers to outrage. Yet when ten years later The Descent of Man was published, where Darwin states categorically that mankind is descendant from apes and not a direct creation of God, there was hardly a murmur, and after his death the Church buried Darwin as one of their own in Westminster Abbey.
There is a distinction between facts and meanings in science. Facts are certain and the one Darwin discovered is amongst the greatest of all scientific discoveries. But onto it he projected a myth of competition and the deliberate extermination of the weak by the strong drawn from Victorian capitalism. Animals do not compete in the human sense. They just do what they do and some survive and some don’t, and incidentally, as he so perspicaciously saw, hand on their characteristics to their descendants. All through its history mankind had seen nature as its nurturer and mother. But now the Victorians were embarking on an unprecedented exploitation of nature which they were now seeing as a merely material resource. All societies are founded on a creation myth. But for the Victorians the myth of Genesis was rapidly weakening in the face of geological science and biblical criticism. They badly needed a new creation myth to justify to themselves what they were now doing. The Origin of Species was such a huge hit because this was exactly what it provided. Self-promotion, aggression and the extermination of the weak by the strong which had hitherto been regarded as moral failings were now seen to be inescapable facts of nature. It was just what the Victorians, and we still today perhaps, wanted to hear.
‘Loveliest of Men: Darwin and the tragedy of The Origin of Species.’ Amazon kindle £2.77 paper £2.99 or if you send me a land address and £1.50 p&p via paypal I’ll send you a free copy. My e mail is firstname.lastname@example.org