Bulldogs and Gods

If genius, as Swift observed, is recognisable by the confederacy of dunces set against it, there is no better example than the reception given to The Origin of Species. But it is a mistake to think that Origin was subject to total rejection and objections. The Voyage of the Beagle among other works had ensured that Darwin had already established a reputation as a writer and populariser of science, and the first edition of Origin sold out a print run of 1250 on day one. It was the age of the gentleman-amateur naturalist (a group to which in many ways Darwin himself belonged), and in the mid-nineteenth century works of Natural History outsold fiction. The serious and considered objections aside, the scientific world was ready for the ideas of Origin and welcomed its publication. However, religion and society at large would struggle with its implications for years to come. As Huxley commented, Origin was seen as a "decidedly dangerous book by old ladies of both sexes."

One of the reasons its impact was so widespread was the nature of the work itself. Whilst most new scientific theories have proved so complex as only to be understood by the inner-circle of scientific professionals, the principles of natural selection were presented in a way that anyone literate could understand. At the same time, however, Origin was sufficiently rigorous to appeal to the scientifically minded as well as protect itself from idle criticisms of the lay reader. Whilst scientists debated its findings, the Church looked on in dismay. It became increasingly clear that Religion was no longer able to engage science on its own ground. In the public debates that followed the publication of Origin - the most celebrated being that of Huxley versus the bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce - the religious camp was reduced to using phrases such as "we are interested in the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks." Wilberforce also asked Huxley whether it was through his father or his mother that he was related to an ape, to which Huxley replied that he was not ashamed of having descended from an ape, but would be ashamed of an ancestor who used gifts of eloquence in the service of falsehoods.

Whereas before the mid-nineteenth century science held onto the habit of incorporating religious precepts into its theories, Darwinism was a key force in ensuring the complete delineation of the two camps. And just as religion no longer dictated scientific thought, science no longer attempted to prove or disprove the existence of God. The days of Bishop Paley's nature as evidence of God were gone. It was Huxley, 'Darwin's bulldog', who coined the word 'agnostic' - literally an inability to know whether or not there was a God. And yet, a century and a half later, there remain those determine to shackle science to religion. In the United States over forty percent of the population still believes that the world was created within the last ten thousand years, and attempts to teach Creationism alongside evolution in the biology class has been spearheaded by so-called 'Scientific Creationism', which uses flimsy approximations of science in attempts to bolster matters of faith.

Backwards fundamentalism aside, Charles Darwin's attitude towards the Divine has been open to a certain amount of debate. Primo Levi writes that "in Darwin's work, as in his life, a deep and serious religious spirit breathes, the sober joy of a man who extracts order from chaos, who rejoices in the mysterious parallel between his own reasoning and the universe, and who sees in the universe a grand design." There is certainly scope to draw this sort of conclusion from Origin, but because Darwin is often illusive and non-committal with regard to God, people will often see what they want to see. However, Darwin's other writing, particularly towards the end of his life, show that he had all but abandoned belief in the God presented by the Christian Church. The talk of the "Creator" in Origin can be seen as largely a political and tactical decision to mollify his religious critics; the desire not to see accusations of blasphemy distract from the scientific importance of his theories. Indeed it was the second edition of Origin that contains inserted references to the Creator: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one." (Italics indicate addition to First Edition) And 'Creator' gives a softer meaning than 'God', arguably no more definite than Darwin's 'Nature', and with no more power of direct agency other than the "aggregate action and product of many natural laws." Darwin was certainly very clear that he was dealing with the differentiation of species, not the first cause of their original progenitor - a case of investigating process and not the origin of life itself. But by doing this, whilst he does not negate the existence of a Creator, he does remove the notion that

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