Would Darwin have put atheist slogans on buses?


It is one of the tragedies of humanity that brain-power is so seldom accompanied by judgment, sceptical moderation or even common sense.

The more I see of the intellectual world and its frailties, the more I appreciate the truth of G.K. Chesterton's saying: 'When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing. They believe in anything.' It is one of the tragedies of humanity that brain-power is so seldom accompanied by judgment, sceptical moderation or even common sense. The vacuum left by the retreat of formal religion is most commonly filled, today, by forms of pantheism. Zealots devote their lives to 'saving' the rainforests, deserts or habitats of endangered species. They believe, passionately, in pseudo-scientific myths like climate change, global warming and the greenhouse effect. Some worship science as a faith and a way of life. Others hate it. Occasionally on the Quantocks I see fierce young men in semi-military kits, often crudely armed, who vary their activities between physically attacking staghound followers and besieging laboratories where animals are used for experiments. In appearance and behaviour they resemble the original zealots or Sicarii of the time of Christ, who met nemesis at Masada. I do not exactly fear them, any more than I fear the Muslim suicide bombers whom they so much resemble. But their appearance, on the heath once tramped by those gentle nature-lovers Coleridge and Dorothy and William Wordsworth, adds to my concern about what is happening to the world.

The atheistic pantheists who have now taken to advertising their beliefs on buses stand close to those who wish to deify Charles Darwin, and have taken the opportunity to do so on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Of course they are not the first. Leslie Stephen, a former clergyman who lost his faith as a result of On the Origin of Species, 'admired Darwin as a god', and some of the things he wrote, about his centrality in modern intellectual history, have the flavour of the Apocalypse. Much rubbish is currently being published about Darwin as a 'super-scientist' and 'transcendental prophet of the humanist triumph' (two expressions I have noted in the last week, one on the BBC). They do not do the poor man justice, for he was not only a fine scientist but a modest man of rare decency and dignity who would have found his current apotheosis repellent and frightening. If ever a good man needed to be saved from his followers, it is he.

It is important to realise that Darwin was a man of exceptionally strong emotions, albeit capable, in his work, of cool ratiocination. The central event of his emotional life was not the development of his theory of natural selection, although that gave him great joy and satisfaction. It was the death, from fever, of his ten-year-old daughter Annie in 1850. Annie was his favourite child and his intense affection for her was reciprocated in full. He said he had never needed to rebuke her for the slightest fault; she was 'an angel'. When she became chronically ill in her ninth year, from some kind of gastroenteritis, or typhoid, Darwin's concern for her was overlaid with guilt, for he suffered from similar complaints all his life and he believed she had inherited his constitution. He attended her throughout her final prolonged illness, marked by phases of recovery followed by relapses, and he often sat with her all night. His description of her sufferings -- and his own -- make harrowing reading. When she finally died, emaciated, a skeleton, he could not bring himself to attend her pathetic funeral. He was tortured by remorse and rage, and quoted Tennyson's 'In Memoriam':

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life?

Twice during her death-agony, Annie made touching efforts to sing, and her destruction seemed to Darwin such an act of unthinking wickedness as to destroy for ever his faith in a benevolent universe. He was to write in The Descent of Man, 'The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts.' But this was something Darwin himself could never do. His thoughts continued to circulate around the death of his beloved child. He never got over it. It killed his belief in God and eternity much more comprehensively and finally than anything uncovered in his scientific enquiries. The circumstance in which he finally lost his faith confirms the view to which all my own experience and observation attest: that belief in the supernatural is a matter of emotion, not reason. Darwin never forgot Annie: her fate overshadowed the rest of his life and coloured his thoughts indelibly. He wrote a letter, six years after her death: 'What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horridly cruel world of nature!'

This quotation illustrates what seems to me a weakness in Darwin's theory of natural selection, and one shared by almost all his followers, especially his most enthusiastic ones. He and they have a tendency to attribute moral qualities to a process which, by its nature, ought to be entirely impersonal. Nature is not, and cannot be, cruel. The weakness is illuminating because it points to a more fundamental one. Although natural selection eliminates design (and so God the Creator), Darwin seems reluctant to drop design entirely. He drops it logically but it keeps popping back. He often implies that Nature 'designs' things.

Twice during her death-agony, Annie made touching efforts to sing, and her destruction seemed to Darwin such an act of unthinking wickedness as to destroy for ever his faith in a benevolent universe.

I find it hard to believe that Darwin worked out a perfect explanation of the origin of species, as some of his present-day followers seem to suppose. On the contrary, Darwin's writings raise as many questions as they answer. For instance, why does natural selection lead to endless complexity? Complex organisms are more fragile than simple ones. They are less capable of repairing themselves when things go wrong. If natural selection has a purpose, surely it is durability rather than complexity. How can it become more durable by becoming more complex? It may be that selection leads to complexity in the short run but in the long run it ought to lead to simplicity, which must make it more durable. Again, there appears to be no mechanism which links lifetime changes in phenotypes to genetic variation. Why is this? Why have not organisms, in the process of natural selection, acquired the ability to pass on acquired characteristics by genetics? There are many other riddles.

My guess is that Darwin's general theory will eventually be overthrown, or fundamentally modified, as Newton's was by Einstein's relativity. Unlike his fundamentalist followers, Darwin was not afraid of change, even if it proved him wrong about some things. He saw science as progressive. He continued to practise science in old age. He studied earth-worms. He found them to be surprisingly intelligent. He turned his billiard room into a working laboratory so he had more room to examine them and see how they responded to stimuli. He had them in earth-pots covered in glass. At night he flashed lights at them -- lanterns, candles, paraffin lamps. He found that intense light frightened them but anything dim had no effect. He organised his household to see how they reacted to noise. One played the piano, another the bassoon, or shouted, or shrilled on a tin whistle. He puffed scent and tobacco fumes at them.

I wish his followers and panegyrists today would engage in such entertaining and possibly useful activities, instead of treating him as a god. And I wish the spirit of Darwin would forbid them to engage in the vulgar activity of advertising atheism on buses.



Paul Johnson. "Would Darwin have put atheist slogans on buses?" The Spectator (February 4, 2009).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Johnson

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