Sunday, February 08, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 2-12-09
Jeff Gill

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (sugg. Title)

Too little known about Charles Darwin’s seminal work, published 150 years ago this coming November, is that it is a fascinating and even enjoyable read.

“On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” or later republished as simply “The Origin of Species,” was written in the 1840s and 50s, and is in many ways a High Victorian literary masterpiece.

But I’m uncomfortably aware that describing the book that way sends many of you running in the opposite direction, as if I’d said “Brussels sprouts” (which, if you roast them first, are actually quite tasty as well, but that’s a different column).

“David Copperfield” and “A Christmas Carol” were written by Charles Dickens just a few miles away at about the same time; the other literary Charles was finishing “A Tale of Two Cities” just as “On the Origin” was hitting the bookstalls in London. No one finds it too odd to hear that reading any of those Dickens novels is an enjoyable read for pleasure today, but if you said you were reading (or re-reading) Darwin’s “On the Origin” most would assume you had an assignment for school, and a pretty nasty one at that.

The truth is that Darwin’s book is fun to read, and offers discussions of scientific things in language anyone can follow, whether to agree or disagree – and the author clearly welcomes disagreement and debate, an approach that brings out fine writing and reasoning, I think, from those who engage him thoroughly.

A few weeks ago I recommended “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Haupt for those trying to understand just what motivated and inspired Darwin as a young scholar, and I’m delighted by how many have e-mailed me to say what a pleasure and marvel this book has been. She delves deep into Darwin’s own letters and handwritten notebooks, and follows his growth in observational sensitivity, and passionate interest in the vital processes of creation.

Haupt touches lightly, but distinctly, on Darwin’s spiritual journey, a seminarian headed for ministry who becomes condemned as “a great infidel.” Her chapter “God and the Nightingales” is a great corrective to this misunderstanding.

“Annie’s Box” by Darwin’s great-great-grandson Randal Keynes (and father of the Narnia movie’s Edmund) tells the story of the life and death of Darwin’s ten year old daughter, and traces an outline of Darwin’s struggles with a faith community around him, more interested in social status than comforting the afflicted.

Yet reading Darwin’s own letters, which you can do for yourself at, you find that while he tussles with official clergy (type “Ffinden” into the search box), he writes with warmth and welcome to invite evangelists like James Fegan to come use his property for a revival, greets Lady Hope with Bible quotations (if not a “deathbed conversion” as has been mythologized out of her later “reminiscences”), and reminds Asa Gray, Harvard geologist and committed Christian, that a theistic faith can be held close while digging deeply into natural selection and deep time.

Darwin avoided using the term “deist” in his letters, which intrigues me greatly. Deism was a very respectable stance, even within the Church of England, arguing that God created “in the beginning,” then stepped back, letting processes and plans wind out without any direct involvement. He argued strongly that his theory of evolution did not, itself, prove or disprove the existence of God, or a faith in Jesus Christ, nor did it intend to undermine or support such beliefs.

The question of what about faith could be explained or proven by scientific means intrigued Darwin, and he often talked about this; sometimes folks use these quotes to say that Darwin thought religion was purely a product of evolution.

To them I would say, read the man’s work for yourself, not selective quotations.

And I’d add the words of an Orthodox saint of the Fourth Century, Ephrem the Syrian, whose hymns are still sung in the Christian churches Eastern and Western, and whose thought inspired John Wesley – “In every place, if you look his symbol is there,” Ephrem sang,

“Nature and the Scriptures
together carry
the symbols of his humanity
and of his divinity.”

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he promises to stop talking about Darwin and Lincoln for at least a while after Feb. 12! Tell him a story at, or to “Knapsack” on Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment