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The Origin of The Origin

Darwin’s motivation for writing The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was itself not altogether scientific. Before his beloved daughter Annie died, he had held an essentially Christian view of the world, though a more naturalistic and materialistic perspective had been growing within him for years. When Annie died after a slow and painful bout with tuberculosis at the age of 10, Darwin refused to accept her death as something that the Almighty understood better than he did, and rebelled against a God he viewed as cruel for allowing such suffering. Darwin watched helplessly as his beloved Annie died a slow and painful death from tuberculosis. In his own words, “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…” (Keynes, 217) Darwin was a man who “did not separate his thinking about the natural world from the ideas and feelings he held about his family and the rest of his life.”

Annie Darwin in 1849

In his Introduction to Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous” (Origin, 7). Unlike Job who, after losing his children, said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21), Darwin determined to find an explanation for life and the universe that did not require the intervention of the God with whom he was so angry. In 1859, he wrote to Sir Charles Lyell, “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, it if requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent” (Crews, 24).

In his recent book, Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution, Randal Keynes, Darwin’s great-great-grandson, states that, “After Annie’s death, Charles set the Christian faith firmly behind him…. He did, though, still firmly believe in a Divine Creator. But while others had faith in God’s infinite goodness, Charles found him a shadowy, inscrutable and ruthless figure.” As a young man Darwin had “noted the ‘pain and disease in [the] world’ without further comment.” But when he returned to the theme in the years after Annie’s death, “he wrote about it in a new way. He never referred directly to his personal experience; that would have been quite inappropriate. But he made some new points; there was a darkness in the wording of some passages, and others echoed his feelings about human loss.” One of the most critical of these new points was the survival of the fittest: “Charles continued to work on the ‘laws of life,’ but was now sharply aware of the elimination of the weak as the fit survived” (Keynes, 243-4).

Another of the points Darwin focused on more resolutely was his view of man as an animal. His daughter Etty wrote after his death that his “habit of looking at man as an animal had become so present to him, that even when discussing spiritual life, the higher life kept slipping away.” In Keynes’s words, “Etty was right to suggest that this habit undermined his thinking about ‘the higher life’; he was developing his own ideas about human nature at the same time, deep rather than high, to put in place of the claims of Christianity” (Keynes, 252).

By the time Darwin wrote the The Descent of Man, the “darkness” in his views of man included a strong element of racism and even the promotion of eugenics. He admitted that there was a “great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies [the primates], which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species.” He also acknowledged that the existence of such a large gap had “often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form” (Descent, 200). Nevertheless, he was not at all troubled by the size of this gap. In fact, he anticipated that the break in the evolutionary chain would get even larger as the higher “races” of mankind actively eliminated the lower “races.”

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break [between man and his nearest allies] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (Descent, 201)

Clearly, Darwin viewed Europeans as eminently superior to other races of men, especially people of color. Looking back from this side of the Holocaust, these are some very dark words indeed. If you ever wondered about the origins of the 20th century’s murderous theme of “racial cleansing,” you need look no farther than 19th century writings!