The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 99 of 188

Charles Darwin to Miss Julia Wedgwood.

July 11 [1861].

Some one has sent us ‘Macmillan’; and I must tell you how much I admire your Article; though at the same time I must confess that I could not clearly follow you in some parts, which probably is in main part due to my not being at all accustomed to metaphysical trains of thought. I think that you understand my book (The ‘Origin of Species.’) perfectly, and that I find a very rare event with my critics. The ideas in the last page have several times vaguely crossed my mind. Owing to several correspondents I have been led lately to think, or rather to try to think over some of the chief points discussed by you. But the result has been with me a maze– something like thinking on the origin of evil, to which you allude. The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where one would most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design. Asa Gray and some others look at each variation, or at least at each beneficial variation (which A. Gray would compare with the rain drops (Dr. Gray’s rain-drop metaphor occurs in the Essay ‘Darwin and his Reviewers’ (‘Darwiniana,’ page 157): “The whole animate life of a country depends absolutely upon the vegetation, the vegetation upon the rain. The moisture is furnished by the ocean, is raised by the sun’s heat from the ocean’s surface, and is wafted inland by the winds. But what multitudes of rain-drops fall back into the ocean–are as much without a final cause as the incipient varieties which come to nothing! Does it therefore follow that the rains which are bestowed upon the soil with such rule and average regularity were not designed to support vegetable and animal life?”) which do not fall on the sea, but on to the land to fertilize it) as having been providentially designed. Yet when I ask him whether he looks at each variation in the rock-pigeon, by which man has made by accumulation a pouter or fantail pigeon, as providentially designed for man’s amusement, he does not know what to answer; and if he, or any one, admits [that] these variations are accidental, as far as purpose is concerned (of course not accidental as to their cause or origin); then I can see no reason why he should rank the accumulated variations by which the beautifully adapted woodpecker has been formed, as providentially designed. For it would be easy to imagine the enlarged crop of the pouter, or tail of the fantail, as of some use to birds, in a state of nature, having peculiar habits of life. These are the considerations which perplex me about design; but whether you will care to hear them, I know not.

[On the subject of design, he wrote (July 1860) to Dr. Gray:

“One word more on ‘designed laws’ and ‘undesigned results.’ I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed.”]

Charles Darwin to W. Graham.

Down, July 3rd, 1881.

Dear Sir,

I hope that you will not think it intrusive on my part to thank you heartily for the pleasure which I have derived from reading your admirably written ‘Creed of Science,’ though I have not yet quite finished it, as now that I am old I read very slowly. It is a very long time since any other book has interested me so much. The work must have cost you several years and much hard labour with full leisure for work. You would not probably expect any one fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. Not to mention that many expect that the several great laws will some day be found to follow inevitably from some one single law, yet taking the laws as we now know them, and look at the moon, where the law of gravitation–and no doubt of the conservation of energy–of the atomic theory, etc. etc., hold good, and I cannot see that there is then necessarily any purpose. Would there be purpose if the lowest organisms alone, destitute of consciousness existed in the moon? But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning, and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. (The Duke of Argyll (‘Good Words,’ Ap. 1885, page 244) has recorded a few words on this subject, spoken by my father in the last year of his life. “…in the course of that conversation I said to Mr. Darwin, with reference to some of his own remarkable works on the ‘Fertilization of Orchids,’ and upon ‘The Earthworms,’ and various other observations he made of the wonderful contrivances for certain purposes in nature–I said it was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and the expression of mind. I shall never forget Mr. Darwin’s answer. He looked at me very hard and said, ‘Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,’ and he shook his head vaguely, adding, ‘it seems to go away.’”) But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? Secondly, I think that I could make somewhat of a case against the enormous importance which you attribute to our greatest men; I have been accustomed to think, second, third, and fourth rate men of very high importance, at least in the case of Science. Lastly, I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world. But I will write no more, and not even mention the many points in your work which have much interested me. I have indeed cause to apologise for troubling you with my impressions, and my sole excuse is the excitement in my mind which your book has aroused.

I beg leave to remain,
Dear Sir,
Yours faithfully and obliged,
Charles Darwin.

[My father spoke little on these subjects, and I can contribute nothing from my own recollection of his conversation which can add to the impression here given of his attitude towards Religion. Some further idea of his views may, however, be gathered from occasional remarks in his letters.] (Dr. Aveling has published an account of a conversation with my father. I think that the readers of this pamphlet (‘The Religious Views of Charles Darwin,’ Free Thought Publishing Company, 1883) may be misled into seeing more resemblance than really existed between the positions of my father and Dr. Aveling: and I say this in spite of my conviction that Dr. Aveling gives quite fairly his impressions of my father’s views. Dr. Aveling tried to show that the terms “Agnostic” and “Atheist” were practically equivalent–that an atheist is one who, without denying the existence of God, is without God, inasmuch as he is unconvinced of the existence of a Deity. My father’s replies implied his preference for the unaggressive attitude of an Agnostic. Dr. Aveling seems (page 5) to regard the absence of aggressiveness in my father’s views as distinguishing them in an unessential manner from his own. But, in my judgment, it is precisely differences of this kind which distinguish him so completely from the class of thinkers to which Dr. Aveling belongs.)

Chapter 1.IX. Life At Down.


“My life goes on like clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.”

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