Nature as God, or the God of Nature?
Doesn’t it strike you that, in trying to obviate the need for an intelligent Being’s involvement in the development of life, Darwin ascribes intelligence to Nature itself? In order to replace the Creator he no longer wished to deal with, he had to make Nature itself into a kind of demigod, an intelligent “force” set high upon a throne shrouded with a scientific aura. Whether you accept his claims or not, the result is the same. We have come full circle and are once again left facing the fact that, without intelligent intervention, life in all its beauty, variety, and complexity is impossible!
In his Autobiography, Darwin wrote of his earlier years, “whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, ‘it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.’ I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Yet about his later years he writes, “But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to arise in my mind.”
Charles Darwin in His Latter Years
Nevertheless, scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard were disappointed that, in their view, Darwin’s final months were spent in melancholy and listlessness (Milner, 75). He was unable to stout it out to the end of his days as a contented atheist, with chin held high. In fact, Darwin never did have an easy time maintaining his atheism. As the famous Oxford scholar, C. S. Lewis, has pointed out, being an atheist is quite difficult. “When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most…,” the existence of God (Lewis, 43) Darwin himself had increasing problems with psychosomatic disorders in the years after he published Origin of the Species. In his own words, he suffered from “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting… vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying, dying sensations or half-faint… ringing of ears, treading on air and vision, focus and black dots, air fatigues, specially risky, brings on the Head symptoms, nervousness when E. leaves me.” (Quinn, 16)
E. was Emma Darwin, Darwin’s devout Christian wife. “My own wife ever dear Mammy, I cannot possibly say how beyond [sic] all value your sympathy and affection is to me.—I often fear I must wear you with my unwellness and complaints.” She never ceased to pray for her husband, that he would make his peace with her beloved Jesus. In one letter to her husband, she pleaded with him to at least read Christ’s farewell to his disciples in the Gospel of John: “It is so full of love to them and devotion and every beautiful feeling. It is the part of the New Testament I love best.” As Peter Quinn pointed out in March 2007 in his article, “The Gentle Darwinians,” “Sure as Darwin was that ‘man is more courageous… and energetic than woman,’ it was Emma’s courage and energy that held their family together and provided the stability and support he required to pursue his research and writing… Emma directed the servants, saw to the farm, supervised the children, and was a presence in the lives of her neighbors. Her kindness was legendary… ‘she understood human suffering.'” (Quinn, 16)
Emma’s prayers for her husband seem to have been answered in the last months of Charles Darwin’s life. According to the account of Lady Hope, a friend of the family who was with him during his final days in 1882, Darwin finally found the peace he had long searched for:
Copyright ©2008 Christopher N. White
(Originally published in The Yale Standard, April 2002. Updated for the talk, “Darwin, Evolution, and God,” given at La Universidad de Los Andes,
Bogotá, Colombia, January 24, 2008)