Darwin and Religion: History of a Dialogue Between Science and Faith
Juan Pablo Martínez Rica focuses on the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) also referring to his predecessors and successors in the formulation of the theory of evolution.

Author: Juan Pablo Martínez Rica |

The author focuses on the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) also referring to his predecessors and successors in the formulation of the theory of evolution

Juan Pablo Martínez Rica, Vice-president of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Zaragoza and scientific researcher emeritus of the Higher Council of Scientific Research, was in charge of the seminar of the Research group reason and Faith Science of The University of Navarra on April 8, 2014.



Humanity has experienced a few revolutions that have radically changed their cultural traits and their conduct. These revolutions have been caused by military conquests, by popular uprisings, by the expansion of religious or political doctrines and by scientific discoveries of great transcendence. In all cases, the origin and initial development of these revolutions are one or several exceptional men and, in the latter case, that of the scientific revolutions, the role of these people is more noticeable.

Some scientific revolutions have reached an extraordinary prominence and perhaps not entirely deserved. I would like to say that other major social and technological changes can be unjustly obscured and even go unnoticed almost completely, despite having more transcendence than those and having made them possible. For example, the publication and dissemination of Copernicus' ideas about the solar system was an important scientific revolution, to the point that it has become the scientific revolution par excellence, and thus, when it is meant a very scientific or extra-scientific change important in human society is spoken of "Copernican revolution". But the revolution induced by Copernicus' ideas would not have been possible without the previous technological revolution of the printing press, nor would the confirmation of Copernicus ' ideas by Galileo have been possible without the technological revolution that the latter began with his, nearly, invention of the telescope.

On the other hand the Copernican revolution provoked a moderate social impact. In the ecclesiastical spheres, of course, this impact was important, although in large part because of the artificial publicity added by the processes of Galileo, but for the general public it was of little importance that it was the sun that revolved around the Earth or that it was the one that revolved around the sun. On the contrary, the scientific revolution unleashed by Darwin's work was much deeper and more widespread. It not only took place in a more advanced scientific and technological time, with daily newspapers, railways and telegraph that facilitated the diffusion of scientific advances, but it affected much more central aspects of the human person and of the society. Indeed, to designate a truly profound and absolute scientific revolution, the term "Darwinian revolution" should have been used instead of "Copernican revolution." But these are the advantages or disadvantages of arriving first or second to a historical goal.


The religious stance of the scientific world before Darwin.

Darwin's predecessors in proposing a general theory the evolution of the organisms were numerous. Darwin does not recognize this debt in the first edition of his famous book "The origin of the species", but this is because his work is largely original and especially that he wrote it hurriedly, pressed by the independent proposals of Alfred Wallace. Later, from the third edition, it already includes a prologue with 36 names of predecessors (more Aristotle, which it names in a footnote). This relationship is somewhat short, as the number of previous authors who dealt with the subject before Darwin, is far superior, above a hundred, and among them are not missing Christians and even the saints of the Catholic Church. Among these Christian precursors who adopt pre evolutionist or even fully evolutionary stances are Gregorio de Nisa, Escoto Erigena and St. Thomas Aquinas, but above all, and in a prominent way, St. Augustin of hippo.

However, these writings had very little influence on the scientific world in which Darwin was educated and, in fact, most of the XVIII century naturalists did not even know them. The scientific advances in natural history of that century were dominated by two outstanding figures, that of Carlos Linnaeus and that of Georges Leclerc, to whom it is known better by the name of Buffon. These two characters influenced, not so much in Darwin (although this one said of the first of them that, together with Georges Cuvier, was its god), as in the general scientific atmosphere of its century. It was this influence that paved the way for Darwin.

Two doctrines about the origin of the organisms dominated then in the religious world and in the scientific one. Of the origin of the individuals, of course, there were no discussions, although the reproductive mechanisms were barely known. As for the species, the dominant doctrines were creationism and fixism. According to the first, each species had been created according to the narration of the book of Genesis taken literally, and had been perpetuated by ordinary reproduction. For many authors, the divine act of creation had not been interrupted, and occasionally new individuals appeared by spontaneous generation, that is, from inert matter and without the intervention of living parents. Fixism argued that the species remained immutable from their origin, both in conformation and in number, and that the possible variations that were among the members of the same species were minor and unimportant. 

In principle it can be said that the European naturalists of the XVIII century were Christians, and that in general they accepted the creationism and the fixity. There was, it is true, much opposition to the Christian religion on the part of many writers and philosophers, but little on the part of the scientists. The flag-bearers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot, were writers or philosophers (although Rousseau was also fond of botany and, as Darwin would later, had Linnaeus for his God). The other director of the encyclopedia with Diderot, D'Alembert, was mathematical and physical, and confronted the then Christian orthodoxy only in the preliminary discourse of the work, and not for scientific reasons, but especially on the grounds of historical reasons, such as The existence of the Inquisition.

Carlos Linnaeus, for his part, was a Lutheran Christian, as the vast majority of his Swedish compatriots. He argued that animal and plant species had been created directly by God, and that they had not changed since the time of their creation, some 6000 years ago. Although his influence on natural history was enormous, especially because he introduced the system of scientific nomenclature that still remains in force, in his creationist and fixist positions he was less often, so that one of his admirers, as Darwin, or of his opponents, like Buffon, turned away from him in that regard.

As for Buffon, decided adversary of Linnaeus in the scientific field, he also distanced of him in the religious field. Without being a encyclopedist, he exerted an extraordinary influence on the society of his time. He conceived and published an immense Natural history, the biggest published until then, which reached a remarkable success, to the point that it can be equated to the current best-sellers. Fashionable in all the halls and circles of the high society, was forced acquisition by all French cult (and wealthy). In the first volumes of this work, published towards 1750, Buffon exhibits his "Théorie de la Terre", which includes novel hypotheses about the 3 origin of our planet and the solar system. Among his conclusions is the first attempt to establish the age of the Earth by experimental way. To do so, he manufactured clay spheres and heated them to red in proper furnaces. It then noted the time it took to cool down in relation to its diameter, and concluded that for a sphere of the size of the earth that time should have been at least 73 000 years. Although much less than the age that is currently estimated for our planet, this time was much higher than that was taken from a literal reading of Genesis, and therefore his works were soon to be put in question by the faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne, in Paris. Buffon got rid of the interdiction by adding an initial statement in his books, a statement, not sincere, that affirmed his membership of the Catholic Church, his obedience to it and his acceptance of all his teachings.

This addition allowed the free dissemination of the work of Buffon, and its continuation by his disciples even after the date of his death, in 1788. Possibly it was also one of the causes that in the subsequent years, during the revolution, his memory was condemned, his confiscated properties and his son and heir executed in the guillotine. But it was not part of preventing that in other countries, including Spain, Buffon's Natural history was seen as a work too audacious, and measures were taken to avoid their translation into Spanish and its diffusion in our country. This slowed down its circulation but did not prevent it, as it did not prevent the circulation of clandestine versions since 1775. The first official translation, very incomplete, began to be published in Spain in 1785, and was not interrupted, without being completed, until 1804. Shortly thereafter, the Napoleonic Wars constituted a much faster and more efficient vehicle for the entry of Buffon's scientific ideas into our country.

In the late XVIII and early XIX century three other authors were able to influence Darwin, his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck and Cuvier. The first was not scientific, but it was an enlightened physician, who developed an initial version of the theory of evolution. That theory lacked any scientific basis, and it was also very inferior to that little later Lamarck would elaborate. In spite of this, perhaps for reasons of kinship or because in some respects, like the proposal of the sexual selection, it exceeded Lamarckism, Darwin would treat it later with less hardness than that which it employed to judge that of Lamarck, although both discarded them. Erasmus Darwin, who was a mason, also did not influence his grandson Charles on the religious grounds, unless he provided him with a certain orientation towards the freethought. Charles Darwin, who wrote, in addition to his autobiography, the biography of his grandfather, insists on rejecting the accusations of atheism that had been made to him, and argues some texts that prove his assertion:

"Darwin was often called an atheist, although in each of his works can be found expressions that testify to his belief in God as the creator of the universe. For example, in "The Temple of Nature", a posthumous work, writes: "Perhaps all the productions of nature are in progress towards greater perfection, an idea supported by the modern discoveries and deductions concerning the progressive formation Of the solid parts of the globe, and in consonance with the dignity of the creator of all things".

According to Charles Darwin, his grandfather was certainly a theist according to the ordinary meaning of the term, but he did not believe in any revelation, nor did he sympathize with Unitarianism, a syncretic and liberal Christianity, which was then beginning to spread markedly in England. We will return later to discuss these points in relation to the religious evolution of Darwin himself. 

Jean Baptiste de Lamarck influenced Darwin by opposition. It elaborated a theory of the complete evolution and with scientific base, but to which it added some theological elements that disgusted the English biologist (by the way, was Lamarck the inventor of the term "biology"). Moreover, some of the scientific assumptions on which it was based were then falsely revealed. In the religious field Lamarck was an enlightened materialistic, not completely atheist if we judge by his frequent references to the creator, but that aspect had no influence on Darwin.

Georges Cuvier, French too, was Darwin's second "God." He went on to be the wisest and most intelligent man of his time, and perhaps he was, always, naturally, with the exception of Goethe. It developed paleontology and anatomy compared in such a way that it has been considered with some reason founder of these sciences. His influence in the world of the natural sciences was probably the most important before Darwin. He confronted Lamarck and other supporters of evolutionary ideas, who were not opponents to him. He supported the existence of some vast occasional changes in the world fauna, which he called catastrophes or floods, a point that Darwin always rejected. In the religious aspect Cuvier was a Lutheran, but he rarely lets his faith, if he kept it, be transparent in his writings.

This was the scientific-religious landscape in the world in which Darwin began his journey. Following the same in the scientific aspect, from his initial interest in nature as a child collector, to the great scientific structure that he built up little by little, with an admirable tenacity and intelligence, is a fascinating task, but very difficult to reduce to the of a talk. As the title wants, we will comment on its journey in another area, the religious, although it will be necessary to make some references to its scientific ideas. It is a much less extensive path, but no less exciting. 

Darwin's religious trajectory

Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. Boy of Good family, with medical father, settled, and very rich mother, whom he loved very much. This one died when Darwin was 8 years old and that struck him a lot but later he would confess that he remembered very little his mother. He studied at Shrewsbury Elementary School, where he was considered a mediocre student.

Darwin's biography describes the beginnings of his interest in science. Like many other children, he liked to collect natural objects, such as shells, minerals or eggs. But in these years of childhood there were manifested in him certain human qualities that revealed his sensibility. He never took more than one egg from a brood, and he was disturbed by the cruelties of other children with animals. His mother, in the early years, and his sister Carolina, conveyed those virtues to him, as well as his initial religious mindset.

The first religious experience Darwin recounts refers to these years of childhood. He was a good runner, and he used to walk to school, located a couple of miles from his house. Normally he was walking, but sometimes he was late and he was forced to run. In such cases I used to ask God to help him to arrive on time, and when this was so, as it happened almost always, blamed success to his prayers, rather than to his legs.

In the second decade of the XIX century, the time of Darwin's childhood, the rural England was practical and unanimously Anglican. Darwin went on Sundays to the religious services accompanying his mother, while she lived, and her sisters. His father was not practicing and, as we will see later, probably was not even religious, as a young man entered the masonry, but had to profess an ambiguous deism.

Darwin also attended the middle school in Shrewsbury, in which, he would declare later, he did nothing but waste his time and get bored. His father was aware that he was a mediocre student, and on one occasion he told him that it would be a disgrace for himself and his family, because he thought only of hunting, dogs and catching rats, words that made the boy very bitter, but that later it would attribute to the passenger anger of his father, and that would try to excuse. But Robert Darwin's words were not improvised; He was really worried about the future of his son, and when he turned sixteen, he decided to send him to Edinburgh to study medicine. It was natural to orient Darwin to the career of doctor, since his father was a doctor, his grandfather had been his, and his older brother, Erasmus, was then in Edinburgh, in his last year of his career. 

But a problem arose. Darwin had from a child horror to the blood, a horror that he inherited from his father, who, however, had defeated him to support his studies and practice as a doctor, an exercise that, as is well known, in those times he behaved frequent indentations. But Darwin could not beat him, and in his first year of career he had to retire from the only two operations he was forced to witness. This horror was combined with that which caused the suffering of other beings, which, at a time when surgical interventions were done without anesthesia, disabled him to continue his studies. As if it were not enough, the theoretical classes were extremely boring, like those of his previous studies. The consequence was that he devoted himself to more pleasurable activities, such as hunting, cheerful meetings with his companions, or the continuation of his collecting. In the second year, without his brother who could keep an eye on him, Darwin abandoned his studies almost entirely, although he attended classes in other disciplines, such as geology, not being too enthusiastic about them. The rumors that came to him about the substantial inheritance he would receive from his father affirmed in his purpose to live without working, and further diminished his interest in ending a career.

Information about his son's scant enthusiasm and lack of application in the studies led Robert Darwin to consider that with these studies he was wasting time and money, so he called Charles home and raised the need to change students God, suggesting the career of Anglican Shepherd.

It is surprising that a person like Robert Darwin, incredulous and Mason, destined his son to an ecclesiastical career, but he did, and this decision was the germ of his son's later destiny, as we will soon see. Charles accepted on the condition that his final destination was a rural parish. He expressed his scruples before dedicating himself to a church in many of whose dogmas he no longer believed, but the reading of some introductory books to the Anglican doctrine led him to the acceptance of such dogmas and followed his father's suggestion with all its consequences.

The candidates for pastor had to have then a higher degree, which was generally that of Master of Arts, equivalent to a diploma of our days. Darwin was then sent to Cambridge, where he enrolled at Christ College to follow those studies, focusing on classical languages and philosophy. The studies interested him as little as the previous ones, but this time he began to apply to them without desire, but with responsibility.

If Darwin had not gone to Cambridge, he would not have met John Henslow, an Anglican priest who was then a professor of mineralogy and botany at that university. Henslow had a decisive influence on the young Darwin, welcoming him into his home, conversing with him about natural history and turning the vague amateur naturalist hobbies that Darwin had into real scientific concerns. It is not an exaggeration to say that Henslow was the scientific father of 6 Darwin, not only for having trained him, but also for having put him in contact with other naturalists, such as Adam Sedgwick, also a clergyman and Cambridge professor, whom Darwin accompanied on numerous geological excursions by the countryside. Paradoxically, Henslow was also going to be the instrument destiny would use to impede Darwin's religious career, and lead him on the path of the theory of evolution. 

Darwin's interest in natural history was growing, always at the expense of his dedication to the official program of studies, and aided by the readings provided by his friends. At the end of 1830 the book of Alexander von Humboldt fell into his hands in which he recounted his long journey through South America. Darwin was so enthusiastic that he decided to travel with his friends to the island of Tenerife, first scale of the Humboldt trip, and even began to study Spanish for that purpose. The plan was underway when in 1831 Henslow made him abort and changed Darwin's whole life by giving him an opportunity with which the young man would not have dared to dream. An English ship, the Beagle, was going to sail that year from the port of Plymouth to go around the world, stopping in South America to map the coasts. The captain, Robert Fitz-Roy, was looking for a naturalist to accompany him on the journey, preferably he was also a pastor and could be a chaplain to the ship, and contacted Henslow for this purpose.

Other candidates, such as Sedgwick and Henslow himself, were better qualified for the trip, and would have been preferred by Fitz-Roy, as he sympathized with the clerics very much. In fact Henslow came to prepare his baggage. It is not known for what reason, perhaps for family reasons, he renounced in favor of Darwin and recommended his pupil to the captain. He didn't like Darwin at first sight, but he accepted it. But Darwin was facing a serious problem. He had to communicate his father, and he was rightly afraid that he would be angry at a further interruption of his studies and the postponement of these for five years, in the interest of non-curricular activities. Actually, that's what happened. His father opposed the journey, despite Darwin's pleas and reasons, in whose intelligence and responsibility he did not rely too much. Now, he left an open door: if someone with intelligence and responsibility pleaded for the trip, he would revoke his decision.

Then there was a chance again, and there are seven of them. Darwin's uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, came in those moments of visitation. Darwin accosted him on the way and exposed him to the problem, finding his support decided. Wedgwood accepted the task of convincing his brother-in-law, and as for this he was an intelligent and responsible person, granted permission.

Darwin would always confess that at the origin of his ideas were three fundamental factors: the influence of Lyell, a British geologist, the voyage of the Beagle and the works of Thomas Malthus, by the way, also cleric. The latter would not know him until the return of his voyage, but at first he met him at the beginning of it, because then he read his fundamental work, principles of Geology.

Darwin embarked on the Beagle at the end of 1831, not without having previously passed the exams that gave him the Bachelor of Arts degree. The subject of the review was the famous book by William Paley Natural Theology, a book that Darwin managed to learn almost by heart, and that impressed him to the point of declaring that it was the only interesting reading he had in all his studies. At the time of embarking, Darwin's scientific ideas were embryonic, not to say null, but he quickly learned from the books he had taken. According to his autobiography, his religious ideas were faithful to the Anglican faith, which, in theory, was to serve back to his return. The sailors affectionately called him "the 7 young philosopher", and when he spoke to them or to the officers, they always claimed passages of the Bible to support their ideas. Of course, he could not direct the religious professions, but he did attend the service that was chaired by Captain Fitz-Roy, an extremely devout man. By the way, in a little-known painting, painted after the return of the "Beagle" from the notes taken by Earle, the draughtsman of the expedition, Darwin is seen attending one of these trades, and apparently reading the Bible, as other attendees. However, an examination of the picture reveals that the book in question was not the Bible, but probably Lyell's book on Geology. This would indicate that already then Darwin's participation in the Sunday trades was more nominal than sincere.

Upon his arrival in Brazil, Darwin had finished Lyell's book and had completely converted to his idea of ​​gradualism. Accepted that current geological processes, however weak, can lead to the birth of mountain ranges and their dismantling, provided they have enough time for it. If the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis regarding the creation of the world in six days was dispensed with, all geological structures and phenomena could be explained without recourse to other means than those which nature currently exhibits. He did not know it then, but strict gradualism would later be at the base of his theories on the evolution of organisms, which would be based on current processes of minimum changes accumulated over millions of years. For the moment, upon arriving in America, he noted the immense differences with respect to Europe in fauna and flora, as many other visitors had noted before him. And like those visitors, the same inevitable question arose: Have these species been created independently in the Old and New World, or do they come from Eurasian species? In the case of man, the Holy Scripture demanded an origin from the Old World, but for the other species, so different, the solution was not evident. 

Throughout the five years of the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin, who returned to England at the age of 27, was maturing in all aspects. In the physical field he arrived affected by a disease whose nature is still discussed. He spent a month sick in Valparaiso (Chile), probably Chagas disease, but it is not known if it was this disease that brought with him on his return, although it is most likely. The fact is that it affected him deeply in his work and in his life, forcing him to take some steps that determined it. In the social field, he had become a gentleman, typical of the early Victorian era, but not the idle and hunter gentleman who would have been carried away by his initial nature, but an affable and respectful man, somewhat introverted , enemy of all violence, even verbal, and let's not say of all cruelty. In the scientific field, he had become serious and determined to dedicate his life to science, with a wealth of data and knowledge that he planned to organize and develop, but which were not yet assimilated or ordered. In the political arena, he had adopted a liberal ideology, assuming the ideas received from his father and friends, and contrary, for example, to the conservative Captain Fitz-Roy, with whom he had faced several times during the trip on purpose. of slavery, which Fitz-Roy supported while Darwin hated it. And, in the religious realm, he had changed enough to decide his resignation from pursuing his ecclesiastical studies and, in fact, had begun his path to disbelief. 

It was, then, a budding scientist. After spending a few months in Cambridge, finishing the interrupted studies, by the way, with good qualification, and distributing the copious collections brought from his trip among the corresponding specialists, he fixed his residence in London. He already had the title of "Master of Arts", and did not follow the career of pastor. He was of age (in those days the age of majority was reached at 8 25 years old) and decided to get married, settle down somewhere convenient and work on his own. He was promised with his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and they were married in 1839, when Darwin reached the thirties. His father left him enough money to invest him with fortune and live off his rents, and his wife provided a substantial dowry and an annual income enough to sustain a family like hers, so he didn't need to worry about how to make a living.

This is another of the many coincidences that Mark Darwin's life. If he had to work, and more with his broken health, he would have had very little time to devote to the scientific study. Undoubtedly, the theory of evolution based on natural selection would have been formulated as well, perhaps by Darwin himself, but he would not have had the depth or scope that Darwin gave him. That was evident in some of his colleagues who also came to formulate it with little success. For example, much later, his colleague Alfred Wallace would also receive an important amount of money that he would invest to live off his income, but the investment was unfortunate and he lost everything. Only Darwin could have the time and the means to develop an argumentation as copious and informed as the one that exposes in the "The origin of the species".

A couple of years after their marriage, Darwin left London and settled permanently in Down, a small town where he would work the rest of his life. Until that moment his scientific career had taken off, despite the limitations imposed by his illness (he could only work four hours a day on the days when he was perfectly well, none when he felt bad, which was very frequent). He had published several articles and books, the first article in 1835, that is, before the return of the Beagle, from the letters he was sending to Henslow and the British Geological Society (in fact it was his first scientific article, as previously published another, signed jointly with Captain Fitz-Roy, dedicated to ponder the importance and convenience of the work of the missionaries among primitive peoples, a point that is interesting when analyzing the religious trajectory of Darwin). By 1841 he had already published his book on the origin and evolution of coral reefs and had advanced his work on living barnacles and fossils. But his most important contribution in those years was the first glimpse of the theory of evolution. As he says, in July 1837, eight months after his return, he opened one of his notebooks and reflected in it his first reflections on the changes of the species and the relations between them, adding a scheme that has been made famous Of course, he lacked a mechanism that could explain such changes and relationships. This mechanism was found the following year, after reading the work of Thomas Malthus "Essay on the Population Principle". From that moment he could devote himself to elaborate and develop his theory. 

Darwin's religious evolution is worth following during these years. As he later stated, it was in the years between his return and his marriage that he thought more of religion and unfortunately it was not for the best. His path to unbelief lasted as long as the rest of his life, and throughout it he was losing faith in such a slow and gradual manner that, according to him, at no time was any psychological trauma to him. It initially ceased accepting the literal sense of the Old Testament, and soon after its validity. But he remained faithful to the doctrine of the New Testament, which he considered far superior. His objections were the classics: the absurdity of the stories about the creation of the world, the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign of alliance, etc. But above all, the painting that for Darwin, and for many others, makes the Old Testament of God as a Tyrant 9 Avenger. After his marriage, and on the advice of his father, Darwin hid these ideas from his wife and the rest of his family so as not to cause them to grief.

Then began a process, much slower, of general rejection of Christianity. His dependence on the Old Testament, the impossibility of miracles for a rational mind, not for the gullible minds of the contemporaries of Jesus, the inability to prove, what a feeble argument! that the gospels would have been written in the time of the facts Who narrate, and the circumstance that Christian morality is contingent and dependent on one or the other interpretation, were the motives adducted by Darwin for the abandonment of the Christian faith. This process took twenty years, and by 1859, when it published "The origin of the species", it could be considered finished.

Naturally, the loss of faith did not mean the loss of the moral principles that derived from it. Darwin continued being a good and honest man, lover of his family, and of his friends, and tolerant with his enemies, opposed to all violence and even to every word or aggressive expression. Nothing reflects better the level of honesty that he pretended than the situation in which he found himself when, after more than twenty years working to develop his theory of evolution, he learned that a colleague had achieved the essentials of his ideas, and was going to publish them It would be worthwhile to pause at this point and explain Darwin's doubts, and his moral argument to sacrifice his primacy for the benefit of his competitors. However there is no time for it. Suffice it to say that, having been a Catholic Darwin and turned to a confessor, there is no doubt that he would have considered him more than honest, overly scrupulous, but in any case his attitude reflects an intrinsic kindness that no one knows about his life and his work you can forget. 

The retired life in Down illustrates Darwin's gradualist idea with his own person: small amounts of work, accumulated for twenty years, can lead to a gigantic work. Darwin wrote a lot, not only scientific papers and books, but also numerous reports and letters. His main goal, however, was his basic work on the evolution of living beings, who could never finish according to his plans, and who was forced to publish in a nutshell in 1859 with the title that made him famous: "The origin of the species". The gestation, content and analysis of this work, and more reasonably those of the other books of Darwin, cannot be commented here, and they would deserve not one, but several seminars. Fortunately many other people have already done that work and, in any case, Darwin's complete work, including correspondence, is now available to everyone.

Between his installation in Down and the publication of his great book took place some family events that affected Darwin to a greater or lesser degree. It was the first death of his father, occurred in 1848, too early to witness the triumph of Charles and the consequent breach of their prophecies. The second was the death of the eldest of his daughters, Anne, in 1851 because of scarlet fever. Both events deeply influenced Darwin. He loved and admired his father, whom he knew to be incredulous, and the prospect of a person as good as himself being condemned to eternal fire for rejecting the dogmas of the Christian faith seemed an intolerable prospect and made Christian doctrine, according to his own words, "a disgusting doctrine." As for his daughter Anne, whom he loved deeply, it caused him deep pain. Others of his children would die shortly after birth, but the case of Anne, just ten years old, was especially hard for Darwin, who for the rest of his life, his eyes filled with tears every time he remembered his dead daughter The fact is that, like so many people, his pain made him more pessimistic and made him harden his position about the presence of evil in the world. He stopped attending the 10 Sunday religious services and, for many authors, this is the moment that marks the loss of faith, although we have already seen that the matter had distant precedents. He even projected his disagreement in his scientific work. It seemed to him that a God who allowed, for example, a caterpillar to be devoured slowly in life by the larva of a parasitic wasp that grew inside him, was anything but benevolent, and the many other examples of extreme cruelty he could find in nature led him to reject a God responsible for them. We already know the horror that Darwin felt toward any form of cruelty or violence. 

Let's not imagine, however, that because of these circumstances their unbelief was made total. Still in his autobiography, written a few years before his death, he weighs the beauty and harmony of creation, and summarizes that, although there is abundant pain and cruelty in it, still predominate harmony and beauty. It also evaluates in the same writing its religious trajectory, and is declared agnostic, term which had invented its friend Thomas Huxley. It is usually quoted to prove this phrase of his biography: "The Mystery of the origin of all things is for us insoluble; and as far as I'm concerned, I must be content to remain agnostic". But this reveals insufficient reading of the text, for some lines further back writes: "When I reflect in this way I feel compelled to seek a first cause, possessing an intelligent mind to a certain extent analogous to that of man; and so I deserve to be considered theistic". In fact, his religious attitude was oscillating between these extremes, tending to be more agnostic before the believers, and more theistic before the atheists.

Darwin died in 1882, in full glory, but also reviled by many. He was worshipped a solemn funeral, attended by the best of English society, especially the scientific world. Despite Darwin's unbelief, the funeral was religious. And despite the fact that both Darwin and his family had indicated their desire for the burial to be held in down, he was buried in Westminster Abbey as other great men of the country, not by the tomb of Isaac Newton, as is often said, but not far from it. There is no epitaph in his grave, only his name and the dates of his birth and death. Probably, if he had desired an epitaph for his burial, he would have chosen the following paragraph of his autobiography:

"As far as I am concerned, I think I have acted correctly by constantly pursuing my dedication to science. I do not feel remorse for having committed great sins, although I have often regretted not having done the good to my fellows in greater degree. My only and poor excuse has been my poor health and my mental structure, which made it extremely difficult for me to move from one subject or work to another. I can imagine myself, with great satisfaction, dedicating my whole life, and not just part of it, to philanthropy; this would certainly have been a much better line of conduct than I have followed".


Darwinism and social consequences.


From the beginning of the 19th century, British society was in a kind of intellectual fermentation very conducive to the genesis of great theories. Natural history had definitely taken a scientific path, and exploration of the little-known areas of the Earth was done methodically and exhaustively. Thousands of specimens belonging to new species entered every day in museums around the world, and the British Museum of Natural History was a leader in these acquisitions. The social interest for the natural history was maximum, and it was in London where the first Linnean Society was formed, to develop the system proposed by Linnaeus. It was not alien to this interest in natural history the rise that Unitarianism was taking in England, a religious doctrine that simplified Christian beliefs, eliminating some of the especially arduous dogmas of Christianity (the Blessed Trinity, the original sin and, therefore, , redemption, etc.). This liberal Christianity, it seems, adhered Darwin's wife for much of his life, and Darwin himself for some years, and this despite the tirades of his grandfather Erasmus against Unitarianism, which he considered "a bed of feathers on which fools rest on their way to atheism". 

An indication of the social interest of the time on natural history is provided by the success achieved by a book of disclosure, "vestiges of the natural history of creation". This book includes an informative exhibition about the evolutionary history of creation, which covers the evolution of stars and planets, that of minerals and rocks, the origin of life, the evolution of organisms and their culmination in man. The author, officially unknown, although it was the journalist and editor Robert Chambers, did not dare to sign his work for fear of the scandal that would cause, and took all the necessary measures for almost no one to recognize him as an author. The play caused scandal, indeed, but it also saw an unusual success. The first edition, of 1750 copies was exhausted in a few days and met ten other editions in life of its author. So much was his success that Prince Albert read it aloud to his wife, Queen Victoria. Of course, the Anglican Church lashed against its unknown author, but the Unitarians, for example, hailed him enthusiastically.

In the same year that the quoted book appeared, Charles Darwin had drawn up his first schematic writing on the theory of evolution. He gave it to read to friends and colleagues, always making it clear that it was a sketch that would develop in future years. It was clear that he realized his importance, so much so that he allocated a legacy of 400 pounds for someone to complete and develop for him, if he died before completing his entire book. He was not disturbed by the publication of Chambers or the success he achieved, as he considered it without scientific basis, and comparable to Lamarck's theories, quite discredited by then. But he kept in mind neither the success of sales nor the scandal aroused. Success encouraged him to publish his own work, and the scandal moved him to take the necessary precautions at the time of publication, which he saw still far away.

Darwin's ideas initially had a minimal projection, being known only by his friends. Over time, some of them were worried about the possibility that someone would go ahead and publish such ideas before Darwin, depriving him of his paternity, and so he was advised to hurry up to publish his book. Darwin resisted it; I wanted a job well done and not a rushed summary. In addition, he feared the reactions of the church and society. And it was extending his project until the beginning of 1858, when he received the letter and the fateful manuscript of Wallace. His friends had been right, finally. Someone had gone ahead of him. 

After a complicated story, Darwin finally published his incomplete book at the end of 1859. Throughout that year he had been making arrangements with his editor to secure the publication. It stressed, for this reason, that the book contained no allusion whatsoever to the Christian faith or to the Scriptures, which collected only data taken from nature and which did not deal with man. The publisher would have published it without such precisions, but these reveal the fear that Darwin had to the reaction of the public. The fact is that the book was published and knew an immediate success. The success of the work is usually weighed by pointing out that the whole edition was exhausted the first day of its sale. It is a true success that we would all like for our works, but comparable to the one that had experienced the work "Vestiges..." 15 years before. And quite minor, in any case, that which reached a work today forgotten, entitled "Essays and Reflections" written by a group of liberal Anglican clerics after the publication of "The origin of the species" and in which the work was extraordinarily praised.

The impact of Darwin's book on the Anglican Church and the British society was not made to be expected. The caricatures and the more or less coarse jokes in which monkeys appeared, often with the head of Darwin, proliferated, as did the criticisms of all kinds. Darwin shunned all controversy by staying in his retirement from Down, but read the favorable and adverse criticisms, and some commented in letters to his scientific friends. These, and especially one of them, Thomas Huxley, a man of vast culture and not only biological, took on the role of proponents of Darwin's ideas, and they did so with good fortune. The most notable, or at least the most well-known, episode in this controversy between the church and Darwinism took place during the annual meeting of the British Society for the Progress of Science in 1861, attended by both Huxley and the archbishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. This episode has been referred to in very different ways by some of the participants in it. In summary we can say that both sides, Huxley and Wilberforce, claimed victory. Old Captain Fitz-Roy also appeared there to affirm his absolute faith in the Bible (and probably to regret in his heart the fact that he had admitted on board the Beagle, thirty years ago, to that presumptuous anti-slavery upstart who had initially fallen ill with him. shape of his nose).

The controversy persisted for a long time, and in fact still lingers, but it weakened and was confined to the fundamentalist positions of the Anglican Church. In other countries and other confessions, the effects were different, but always late. In general, in the Protestant countries and especially in Germany, Darwinist ideas spread rapidly, especially because of the work of important naturalists, such as Ernst Haeckel. In France, where the ideas of Lamarck, Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire still had weight, the scientific community remained divided into the eclipse of Darwinism at the beginning of the XX century. In Italy, the Catholic Church opposed Darwin's doctrines, but this was not its main concern. Indeed, at that time the pope, pressured by the loss of the Pontifical States, adopted very conservative positions, and led the Catholic Church on a path of claims on temporal power.

Special mention deserves the dissemination of Darwinism in Spain. In our country the positions marked by the Catholic Church were initially followed, but with little knowledge of the subject, especially by the scientific class. Darwin's first work published in Spanish was in 1876. It was not "the origin of the species", but of "The Origin of Man", which Darwin had published five years earlier and which was more controversial, since it incorporated the human species into the laws that it had established for other species. The Spanish version was not published in the metropolis, but in Cuba, and it showed from the beginning the path that was going to follow the evolutionary debate in our country. In fact, here the scientific viewpoints on the subject were scarce considered and, indeed, the first naturalists who accepted evolution did not appear until after Darwin's death. Darwinism particularly interested the leftist political groups, in which it was seen as a materialistic and anticlerical doctrine, which nourished its ideologies. For this reason, and through the free teaching institution, some Spanish politicians adopted as guide Darwinism in its most combative form, less coming from England than from Germany, with its scientists (Haeckel or Gegenbaur) and politicians (Engels) more Radical. The Spanish groups on the left probably did not know, but they would have been surprised to have known that Marx and Engels had offered Darwin to later add his signature, along with theirs, in the Communist Manifesto, which Darwin had refused.

Darwinism not only impacted the Church and politics, as we have seen. It also had an impact on society and its values. A certain interpretation of Darwin's ideas, which many today estimate as distorted, but which for others is a faithful reflection of such ideas, gave rise to the so-called "social Darwinism." According to this doctrine, the concept that already appears on the cover of the "Origin ..." of the "survival of the fittest in the struggle for life" is applicable to man, and in its literal form. This would mean that Darwinism justifies the application of the law of the jungle to human society, that it is normal for the strong to end the weak, and that any violence is justified. In a more benign form, but still difficult to accept, social Darwinism justifies and even promotes policies to improve the race, either through eugenics or through more drastic procedures, ranging from the prohibition of reproduction to the extermination of certain ethnicities It has been this interpretation that has done the most damage to Darwinian doctrines, at least until the middle of the XX century. 


Darwinism and religion during the XX century.


It is not easy to summarize a century of history of Darwinian ideas in a few paragraphs. I will try to do so by referring only to three aspects of the problem, that is, to the vicissitudes of Darwinism in the scientific, political-social and religious fields. Well, it will be to stop at three moments of this history, those corresponding to the respective centennial or sesquicentennial of the birth of Darwin and the publication of "The Origin of the Species", that is, the years 1909, 1959 and 2009.

In 1909 Darwinism went through a period of some disrepute. The main cause of this was the birth of genetic science, which in those days seemed to be based on discrete units, genes, and chromosomes, which apparently prevented Darwin's gradualism. Nonetheless, tributes were paid to Darwin's person and work throughout the world. In Spain there were not many or lucid, and the main of them was the one taxed to Darwin in Valencia by radical writers and politicians (with the unexpected and forced addition of Miguel de Unamuno, the failed of the great foreign figures and the voluntary of some Local naturalist). The Catholic Church did not change its position, but Catholic writers and journalists intensified their criticism of Darwin's doctrine during those years.

The situation had changed profoundly in 1959. On the one hand, the birth and development of population genetics had reconciled the positions of the Darwinists and the Mutations in a new doctrine that was called the synthetic theory of evolution, or also Neo Darwinism, that had been adopted by almost all biologists.  On the other hand, the observation after the IIWW of the extremes to which social Darwinism could lead, nullified many of the ideas that linked Darwinism and survival of the fittest. But new debates began, if not in the scientific field, yes, at least in the religious and political fields. Media importance was the first and most famous of the trials in the United States against professors who taught the theory of evolution, the so called Scopes judgement, in 1925. This trial, which was more than a trial, because it was discussed, not only the possible violation of the law by the prosecuted but also profound religious, scientific, political and moral, had a remarkable impact throughout the world.

Outside the Western world, in the Soviet Union, the banning of classical or revised Darwinism took place, and the forced implantation of Lamarckism under the leadership of a Russian pseudo-scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, in one of the saddest examples of political interference in the scientific research. This was not an interaction between Darwinism and religion, but between Darwinism and morality, and that provided that the Stalinism of the time is not considered as a religion, which, for many experts, was precisely. But both the Scopes episode, as the reign of Lysenko had fallen behind in 1959, when the new homage to Darwin was celebrated, and the synthetic theory of evolution was firmly established and out of discussion in the scientific world. The homage in question also took place in many countries and cities, especially in England. In Spain several symposiums and conferences were held, publishing several works on evolution. The subject of "Evolution" began to be taught in different Faculties of the country. In some of the scientific meetings, papers were presented, not only of a biological nature but also of a philosophical and even theological nature. Teilhard de Chardin had died a few years ago, and his works were beginning to be published and to be read in Spain. 

Perhaps the most important consequence of this centenary was its effect on the American curriculum. The centenary made it possible to verify the poor teaching of the theory of evolution in many textbooks. This circumstance, combined with the perception of a scientific delay in the United States with respect to the Soviet Union, because of the first Russian victories in the space race, led to a thorough revision of the scientific teaching, to the implantation of the Teaching of the evolution in that country, and the consequent proliferation of the allegations and the lawsuits against this initiative by some religious groups.

The situation in 2009 was completely different. The biological sciences and especially genetics had advanced a lot. The human genome and that of many other species had been completely deciphered, and evolutionary changes had been established, in many cases, from their very molecular base. A new taxonomy was emerging that made many previous evolutionary schemes obsolete. But, above all, divergent views about evolutionary dogma had emerged, from the naturalistic evolution of Kimura to the punctuated equilibrium of Gould and Eldredge. Furthermore, the discovery of the possibility of an influence of the external environment on the genes had Lamarckism not been resurrected, at least some of its aspects were recovered. In short, for many scientists the theory of evolution should be reformulated, surpassing the synthesis of the 30s, in a new theory, a kind of Neo-Darwinism, which nevertheless would maintain the foundations of the original formulation. Faced with this position, other scientists have radicalized the positions of Darwin promoting an ultra-Darwinism in which the elements object of the selection are not individuals but genes.

In the religious aspect the last decades have seen the resurgence of the polemics around Darwinism. For the Western world, these controversies have taken place mainly in the United States, especially through various judicial clashes in which some more or less fundamentalist Christian groups claimed the right to teach creationism On an equal footing with evolutionism in biology classes. For now, all these attempts have failed, but some court cases remain open. In the rest of the world, increasingly integrated because of globalization, the situation is very different, there are countries where the teaching of evolutionism is mandatory and others where it is strictly prohibited. On the other hand, some people, scientists or laymen, have devoted themselves, through popular publications or through the global computer network, to bringing their evolutionary ideas to the public, generally with a strong anti-religious component, and they have done it with great success. As for the Catholic Church, it has revised its positions, and has officially admitted the compatibility between Catholic beliefs and the acceptance of biological evolution. The following two quotes, respectively from John Paul II and Benedict XVI, allow us to confirm this: 


This encyclical (Humani Generis, of Pius XII, 1950) considered the doctrine of evolutionism as a serious hypothesis, worthy of an investigation and a deep reflection, as well as the opposite hypothesis (...). Today, almost half a century after the emergence of the encyclical, new knowledge leads to recognize in the theory of evolution rather than a hypothesis (...). The convergence, unsearched or induced, of the results of the works carried out independently of each other, constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory (John Paul II, message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 23 of 1996).


"This contrast [evolution-direct creation] is absurd, because, on the one hand, there are many scientific evidence in favor of evolution, which is presented as a reality that we must see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such". (Meeting of the Holy Father Benedict XVI with the pastors and priests of the dioceses of Belluno Felte and Treviso. Tuesday, July 24th, 2007).


In 2009, as in previous centenarians, the homages and commemorations of Darwin's life and work have been lavished. Of course, thanks to the existence of the global networks of communication, these celebrations have had a diffusion and a scope that could not be imagined in previous commemorations. Perhaps none of these events has been more significant than the accessibility of all Darwin's works and letters, including those that had remained unpublished until 1965, when his granddaughter, Nora Darwin, made them public. The corresponding Internet page,, has become one of the most visited of the global network, and it is necessary to resort to extend any information provided here.

At first I have alluded to the importance and transcendence of the revolution unleashed by Darwin, a revolution that, of course, reaches the church. Darwin was a good Christian during an important part of his life, and a good person throughout. Believers have to thank him for many things, the most important of which is that he has taught us to see the World and God with other eyes, and has helped us to perceive the beauty and dignity of creation better. Perhaps we could ask ourselves whether the numerous coincidences that led Darwin to the knowledge and development of his theory were not the result of divine design. In this regard I quote a text written by the Spaniard Salvador de Maradiaga in 1926, shortly after the trial of Scopes, and in which he imagined a dialogue between God and Bryant, the prosecutor who represented in the trial the Anti-Darwinian stance. It is known that Bryant died a few days after the trial ended, he was supposed to be demoralized by the sad role he had depicted in it.

On his arrival at Heaven Bryant presented himself to God, saying, "Here I am, Lord, just arrived from the battlefield".

But God did not manifest any enthusiasm. The American could not understand why God was not more pleased with his earthly activities:


"But Darwin, Lord, Darwin..."

"Darwin is my son. I inspired his doctrines".

Madariaga, simulating the forensic strategy of Darrow (the defense counsel at the trial), makes God compel Bryan to admit the need for historical interpretation of the Bible, retelling the story of Abraham and Sara, who, feeling sterile , sent an "Egyptian maiden" to her husband. Next, God asked Bryant. 

"How do you interpret this story? Will you take it literally?"

"Certainly, sir."

"And do you think so? Do you think that, for example, a United States senator would do something like that?"

"Well, sir, these things happen only in the Bible. In addition a United States Senator would not have occasion to receive an Egyptian slave. There are very few Egyptians in our country, because the quota of immigration for people of color is low... "

"Do not go around the bush. I ask you about the literal interpretation of the Bible".

"But I was talking about Darwin and my struggle against his ideas ..."

"You have fought in vain, my son... I have nothing to fear from evolution. Unlike. Without her I would still be a Levantine Yahweh. Thanks to her I am approaching, century by century, towards the Divinity".

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