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Charles Darwin


Robert Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, the son of Robert and Susannah Darwin.

Charles Darwin

He was born into wealth and all its privileges, and this wealth, which he later increased considerably by his painstaking thrift, would allow him the leisure to become one of the most influential thinkers in history, the man credited with formulating the theory of evolution.

Robert Darwin, his father, was a freethinker, the son of the renowned poet, doctor, freethinker, dissenter, and libertine Erasmus Darwin. His mother, Susannah, was the daughter of the famous and prosperous Josiah Wedgwood, a maker of fine pottery and a Unitarian dissenter. In the shadow of the French Revolution, which had begun exactly two decades earlier, freethinkers, dissenters from the Church of England, and those of more democratic leanings had become suspect in England, so Robert and Susannah thought it best to have Charles baptized at St. Chad's Anglican Church on the seventeenth of November. Yet Susannah remained true to her Wedgwood Unitarianism and brought Charles to the Unitarian chapels on Sundays. She died when he was only eight. Charles' sisters took the place of his mother caring for him.

From early on, young Charles was an avid collector of every kind of specimen and would rather spend hours in his makeshift chemistry lab in the shed than study the Greek and Latin classics prescribed for the education of children of his social class. He also loved to hunt. Not surprisingly, his performance at school was less than stellar. "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching," his censorious father thundered at him, "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!" The cure devised by his physician father was to make Charles into a third-generation physician, and at sixteen, Charles found himself making the rounds with his father, Robert.

Robert Darwin decided to send Charles to Edinburgh for his medical education, there to be joined by Charles' older brother Erasmus. Edinburgh provided medical education to the wealthy dissenters who could not get into the more illustrious Oxford and Cambridge because they would not subscribe to the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles. Charles and Erasmus arrived in October of 1825. At Edinburgh, Charles received a deeper immersion into the cherished Whig political causes, including religious liberty (vs. the state church), the extension of suffrage, open competition among all so that the best may rise (rather than allowing societal privileges only to the aristocrats), and the abolition of slavery.

But Charles was unfit for medical education. What did not bore him, horrified him. Dissections mortified him, but it was the quick-and-dirty, anesthetic-free operation theater which filled him with dread, and after witnessing a botched operation on a child, Charles would never again enter an operating room. He dragged through his first year of medical school, enlivened only by the theatrics of a chemistry class and by learning taxidermy on the side from a freed slave.

By the second year of medical school, Darwin was almost completely detached from his intended training. Instead of following the prescribed courses, he followed his interests and soon found himself being mentored by Robert Grant, a brilliant iconoclast, expert on sponges, and staunch believer in evolution (or transmutation, as it was then called). Grant, a Francophile, had imbibed the theory of transmutation from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Etienne Geoffrey St. Hilaire, and soon enough, Darwin was reading Lamarck (although his French was rather weak); studying every manner of bird, animal, and sea creature he could lay hands upon; and taking up geology as well.

During that academic year, Darwin was proposed for the Plinian Society, an intellectual society that met regularly and discussed every manner of topic. The man who proposed Darwin, William Browne, was a radical materialist, and on the very night of Darwin's first presentation to the Society, he followed Darwin's talk on sea invertebrates with an argument that the mind, rather than being an aspect of the immortal soul, was reducible to the activity of the material brain. The soul, of course, did not exist. Needless to say, Browne's talk was denounced publicly, but undoubtedly left a strong impression on Charles, for he would argue much the same in his Descent of Man almost a half century later.

Darwin would not finish medical school, deciding to leave it for good in the spring of 1827. But during his short stay, he had been immersed in all the fundamentals of evolutionary theory and the materialist account of nature that underlay it.

As could be expected, Robert Darwin was not amused with his son's lack of success and decided that, if he had to shoot and play the amateur naturalist, he was suited only for the life of a country parson, a position of privilege in the Church of England for rich sons who proved lackluster in their abilities and hence could not make a living elsewhere. Darwin himself rather liked the idea of having a country parsonage, which asked the minimum of doctrinal rigor and allowed the maximum time and opportunities for a budding naturalist. In early 1828 he arrived at Cambridge, a new undergraduate at Christ's College, the son of a freethinker who had reconciled himself to the necessity of playing according to the current rules of Anglican-dominated society.

At Cambridge, while some passion for theology was aroused, a latent passion for collecting beetles burst into flames, and such collecting immersed Darwin in the stunning varieties of the beetle species. At Cambridge he also studied William Paley's Evidences of Christianity and was quite impressed with Paley's famous arguments that the intricate order of nature necessarily implied a Designer. Yet, in little more than a decade, the stunning varieties of various species, including the beetle, would lead Darwin to reject Paley's arguments for design, for (so he would later reason) certainly God would not have created every slight gradation of beetle variety.

But even though Darwin could not muster much of an interest in theology, he was able to squeak out his B.A. degree in 1831. His zeal for science, however, was by this time nearly boundless, and he threw himself into botany and especially geology. This zeal would lead rather quickly to his being offered a position as naturalist on the HMS Beagle, accompanying Captain Robert FitzRoy on a survey of the South American coast. After much delay, the Beagle set off On December 27, 1831.

On the trip, Darwin found giant fossils of extinct animals; met savage peoples whom he found barely distinguishable from beasts; read and accepted Charles Lyell's geological arguments that the world was not, as current Christianity claimed, a mere 6,000 years old, but millions of years old; and had, for the most part, accepted his one-time teacher Robert Grant's evolutionary account of the rise of new species, even of the rise of man. In October of 1836, almost five years after he had cast off, Darwin arrived home, quite a different man.

Darwin was greeted as a young scientific hero. He had sent boxes upon boxes of specimens back to England, including a wondrous collection of monstrous fossils, and was almost immediately elevated into the aristocratic domain of the respected naturalist. The only difficulty was that respected naturalists did not, at the time, countenance evolution (nor, for that matter, Whig political causes). Evolution was the theory championed by atheists, democrats, and radical dissenters from Anglican orthodoxy. Darwin was caught in an interesting trap. His real views were radical, but his prestige depended on the rejection of such radicalism.

To deal with the dilemma, Darwin lived a double intellectual life, moving in aristocratic, anti-evolutionary circles even while, privately, he was working feverishly on the details of his account of evolution. He was convinced that the human mind was entirely material, that human beings had indeed evolved from some apelike ancestor, and that morality itself was one more evolutionary artifact. Very soon, the anxiety of this double life began to take its toll on his health, so much so that often Darwin was unable to do any work and instead lay like an invalid in bed.

All of this, before Darwin reached his thirtieth birthday. All of this, a full twenty years before the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, when he first made his evolutionary views public. All of this, over thirty years before he would draw out, for all to see, the ramifications of evolution for human beings in his Descent of Man, published in 1871.

Darwin 's double life would have a parallel in his own home. In November 1838 he proposed to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. She accepted, and they married the following January. From the first, Darwin confided in Emma about his materialism, his belief in transmutation, and his doubts about Christianity (even in the weakened form of Emma's Unitarianism). From the first, Emma was mortified. She was not a radical Unitarian, but what might be called a transitional Unitarian, a kind of intermediate species dangling just over the edge of the Anglican Church, still holding onto the doctrines of heaven and hell. As a result, she did not fear that Darwin's opinions would cut him off from accepted scientific society; she feared that his heretical opinions would cut him off from spending eternity with her. Yet, despite this great disagreement and Darwin's continual sickness, the Darwins had a happy and fruitful marriage. They had ten children together, only seven of whom lived. Interestingly enough, in light of his arguments regarding the survival of the fittest, all of Darwin's own children were quite sickly.

This rather lengthy biographical introduction has shown us several very important things about Darwin and hence Darwinism. First, in contrast to the scientific hagiographies of Darwin, and hence the popular accounts which depend upon them, Darwin was not an intellectual pioneer. The theory of evolution was not discovered by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands; the theory of evolution was already alive and well and quite well known in England before he ever set foot on the HMS Beagle. Darwin helped to hone it, but he did not "discover" it. Second, Darwin very early on had seen the radical implications of evolutionary theory for human beings; however, he avoided saying anything about these implications in his most famous book, the Origin of Species. Why? He knew that if he did spell things out, his theory would be cast into the fire, and he himself would be persecuted along with the other evolutionists such as Robert Grant.

This second point is especially important. In assessing Darwin and Darwinism, historians have characteristically distinguished between Darwin's evolutionary arguments as set out in his famous Origin of Species and the misapplication of these theories to the realm of human morality by self-proclaimed followers of Darwin in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. We are assured that Darwin's focus was only upon a revolutionary scientific account of how new species emerged from the old in nature. Those who applied the cruelties of the survival of the fittest, the engine of evolution in nature, to the realm of human affairs were not followers of Darwin, so we are told, but his distorters. According to this standard account, then, the growth of the eugenics movement all over Europe and America after Darwin, a movement that flowered in a particularly infamous way in Nazi Germany, represents an aberration from the purity of Darwin's scientific account — a clear case of the misuse of science twisted into pseudoscience.

But this explanation, so common among historians, is simply false. Darwin both knew and approved of the implications of evolutionary theory as applied to human beings but waited, as we said above, to publish them until his Descent of Man appeared in 1871. And such was prudent on his part, for we shall find, upon reading Darwin's own application of his theory of evolution to human nature, that the results were rather shocking. Not only was Darwin a eugenicist, but also a racist and a moral relativist. To understand the full ramifications of Darwinism for the current Culture of Death, then, we must turn to his Descent of Man.

We repeat, the arguments of the Origin provided the theoretical foundations for Darwin's evolutionary account of morality in the Descent. In the Descent, Darwin assumed evolution to be true and sought to explain (among other things) how the existing moral varieties could have evolved via natural selection, in the same way that in the Origin Darwin explained how natural selection could bring about the great variety of existing species of animals and plants. In doing so, Darwin was displacing the Christian natural law account of morality that had formed the basis of Christian culture for over a millennium and a half, with a new moral relativism founded on evolution.

For Darwin, in contrast to the natural law account, the "moral faculties of man" were not original and inherent, but evolved from "social qualities", and these "social qualities" were likewise not original but acquired "through natural selection, aided by inherited habit". Just as life came from the nonliving, so also the moral came from the nonmoral. Right from the beginning, then, Darwin rejected the natural law argument, found in Stoicism and Christianity, that human beings were moral by nature. Instead, he assumed that human beings were naturally asocial and amoral, and only became social and moral historically.

To be more exact, for Darwin, we first had to become social before we could become moral. How, then, did we become social? "In order that primeval men, or the ape-like progenitors of man, should have become social," Darwin reasoned, "they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings which impel other animals to live in a body." These instincts were not peculiar to human beings or to their "progenitors", nor were these instincts natural in the sense of being built in from the beginning. The "social instincts" of man (as of other social animals) were the result of variations in the individual bringing some benefit for survival. Those born with stronger social instincts were bound together into stronger, more coherent, and more effective tribes. Those born with little or no social instinct were eliminated in the struggle for survival. "Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected." Above and beyond the social instincts, particular "moral" instincts (such as fidelity and courage) were selected because they benefited the tribe as a whole, causing it to "spread and be victorious over other tribes" in the "never-ceasing wars of savages". As with the other animals, there is no rest from such struggle. In the course of time each tribe "would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other and still more highly endowed tribe." Through this natural battle of tribe against tribe, "the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world". Significantly, the evolutionary development of the moral qualities that human beings happen to have depended essentially upon a long history of incessant conflict among different tribes for inadequate resources; thus, the evolutionary "progress" of morality could not have occurred "had not the rate of increase [of the populations in tribes] been rapid, and the consequent struggle for existence [been] severe to an extreme degree".

What we call "conscience" was also the result of natural selection. Darwin described it as a "feeling of dissatisfaction which invariably results ... from any unsatisfied instinct". Since the "ever-enduring social instincts" were more primitive and hence stronger than instincts developed later, the social instincts were the sources of our feelings of unease, when some action of ours violated them. Rather than being a kind of divine light guiding our choices, conscience was merely an evolutionary reminder of a more deeply rooted, earlier instinct.

Darwin's evolutionary account of morality provided a seemingly scientific foundation for moral relativism. Since the human conscience arose as an accident of natural selection, it need not have arisen in any particular form. As with the coloration of butterflies or the mating habits of particular birds, many variations were possible, and since evolution continues, many new variations of conscience shall continue to occur. Consequently, no particular variety of conscience can be judged any better or worse than any other. Indeed, natural selection does the judging for us, because the conscience of any particular surviving group has already been judged worthy by the only standard of evolution — survival.

Since conscience, as we experience it, could have been far differently formed by evolution according to quite different necessities pressing upon the survival of our ancestors, it would still be conscience even if it "told" us to do as good what we now happen to despise as evil. As Darwin himself informed the reader, "I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours."

If for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and others less strong and enduring; so that there would often be a struggle which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction or dissatisfaction would be felt.... In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong....

But we need not look only to such fictional examples. As Darwin made clear in his survey of the many "species" of human morality, such variability is indeed expressed within the natural history of human moralities as they actually evolved. This explained why, for example, infanticide has been widely condoned in so many societies, even while it is condemned in others. The difference resides not in conformation to or deviation from an independent moral standard, but from various conditions for survival impinging on different human populations.

Of course, since morality has been reduced to what proves helpful under particular conditions for social survival, then as conditions change, what proves beneficial for survival may change as well. To take an example, Darwin informed his readers that monogamous matrimony was a fairly recent evolutionary phenomenon, and as we shall see, he strongly suspected that under present conditions, monogamy had lived out its evolutionary merits and was now detrimental to the survival of the fittest.

Given the acknowledged brutalities of survival of the fittest and its essential goallessness, it might seem odd that Darwin also believed that, in one respect, evolution was morally progressive. It had provided humanity (at least the higher forms of humanity) with a "disinterested love for all living creatures", extending "beyond the confines of man ... to the lower animals". Darwin considered such sympathy "the most noble attribute of man".

However inviting it might sound, this ranking of evolved moral qualities had pernicious results. To begin with, it allowed Darwin as a naturalist to be a racist. If we measure by sympathy (and intellectual ability), Darwin argued, the "western nations of Europeimmeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization." Ironically, this evolutionary superiority (including sympathy) was gained only by the brutal struggle of survival between races, a struggle that was far from completed. Thus, moral progress entailed the extermination of the "less fit" races by the more favored, or advanced, races.

The inevitability of racial extermination was derived directly from Darwin's evolutionary arguments in the Origin (the full title of which was The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life). The different races or varieties of anything created by natural selection were necessarily and beneficially locked in the severest struggle for survival precisely because of their very similarity. As Darwin argued in the Origin,

the forms which stand in closest competition with those undergoing modification and improvement will naturally suffer most. And ... it is the most closely-allied forms, — varieties of the same species, and species of the same genus or of related genera, — which, from having nearly the same structure, constitution, and habits, generally come into the severest competition with each other; consequently, each new variety of species, during the progress of its formation, will generally press hardest on its nearest kindred, and tend to exterminate them.

This argument translated directly to his assessment of the evolutionary history of human races and the necessary and beneficial extinction of the least "Favoured Races":

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes [that is, the ones which look most like the savages in structure] ... will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope ... the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

Whatever antagonism Darwin had against slavery — which was indeed considerable, given his dissenter upbringing — these too are his words. Whatever grandiose statements he made on behalf of the beauty of moral sympathy, these too are his words. And these words could not be more clear. According to the laws of natural selection, the European race will emerge as the distinct species homo sapiens, and all the transitional forms — the gorilla, the chimpanzee, the Negro, and the Australian Aborigine — will be extinguished in the struggle.

Of course, natural selection works not only between races, but also among individuals within races. Issuing a complaint that would become standard among later eugenicists, Darwin maintained that savage man has an advantage over civilized man. In savage man, the intellectual and moral qualities are not as developed, but that also means that savages enjoy the direct "benefits" of natural selection without softening by sympathy. "With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health." Not so, lamented Darwin, in regard to his fellow European. Civilized men "check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment." Indeed, the very progress of medicine brings about evolutionary regress, for "there is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox". The unfortunate result is that "the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind". Such interference against the severity of natural selection is manifestly foolish, as "no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man". Such injury demands that we redefine the meaning and goal of charity. "It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed," lamented Darwin, "leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."

Yet, oddly enough, Darwin was better than his principles, asserting reluctantly that western Europeans could not "check our sympathy, if urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.... Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind." This from a man whose frailty of health almost completely disabled him and who, again, sired ten equally frail children.

But Darwin's fear of evolutionary backsliding was deep. If we "do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world". "We must remember", Darwin warned the reader, "that progress is no invariable rule.... We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence."

At the very end of the Descent, then, Darwin issued a eugenic warning. "Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes such care." To avoid further degeneration of the race, "both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind"." Apparently Darwin did not mean this to apply to himself.

Yet such soft eugenics, as we might call it, was not as soft as it might first appear. True to his evolutionary argument, Darwin asserted that the amelioration of the struggle for survival among human beings would result only in losing, in a few generations, the high ground evolution had gained over the millennia. Our present "high condition" is the result of "a struggle for existence consequent on [man's] rapid multiplication". If we want to avoid evolutionary backsliding, at the very least, or better, "advance still higher", human beings "must remain subject to a severe struggle". This led Darwin to suggest that monogamy has outlived its usefulness and that "there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring".

We have no record of what his wife, Emma, thought of his veiled proposal for a new form of polygamy.

Alter the release of his Descent, Darwin would live just over a decade, both honored and vilified, promoting his views among disciples and defending them against critics. Darwin, never in good health, began to suffer more and more the degradations of old age. "I cannot forget my discomfort for an hour", Darwin wrote to a friend, and "must look forward to Down graveyard [i.e., Down, Kent, his longtime home] as the sweetest place on earth." To the end, he was plagued by the same dilemma. His views led to atheism and the unsettling of the social order, yet he was surrounded by those who clung to Christianity and defended the moral and social order that Christianity upheld. As a consequence, Darwin refused to declare that he was an atheist, but instead insisted on the less aggressive term "agnostic". In order for Darwinism to become accepted fully, it had to remain duplicitous. Yet this duplicity wore away at Darwin, and his health, especially his heart, deteriorated quickly in 1881 and early 1882. It seems Darwin's doctrine of survival produced within the man a struggle that made him ever less fit. At the bottom of an old letter written by his wife and kept by Darwin all these years, a letter imploring him not to turn away from the saving doctrines of Christ for fear of the couple's eternal separation, Darwin tearfully scrawled during Easter of 1881, "When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed [sic] over this." Charles Darwin died in the arms of his wife on April 19, 1882. Emma would not have her consolation.

It should be quite clear from the above that however proper and staid Darwin may have appeared in his personal life and however reticent he was to attack religion directly, the effect of his theory was to offer "scientific" support for racism, eugenics, and the undermining of the Judeo-Christian natural law. Such was not alien to his scientific account of evolution, but was derived by Darwin himself from his theory as applied to human nature. And where Darwin himself may have been too reticent to attack directly the theological and moral edifice constructed by Christianity during the previous eighteen centuries, his followers grew bolder and more impatient by the year. On Darwin's foundation, as we shall see, men like Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckel, and many others, running down to the present day with Peter Singer, have built the Culture of Death.



Donald DeMarco & Benjamin Wiker. "Charles Darwin." (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004): 69-86.

Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press.

Ignatius Insight conducted the following interview with the authors:

Deadly Architects: An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker, authors of Architects of the Culture of Death

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of HLI America, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Wiker1wikerBenjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science, Director of Human Life Studies, and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. He is the author of In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, The Mystery of the Periodic Table, and Architects of the Culture of Death. His website is

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