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This article is from the In-Depth Report Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin

Darwin Speaks: "How faithlessness stalked me"

An "interview" with Charles Darwin in which he describes how he became a student of nature, his initiation into the theory of evolution, and his religious scruples. It seemed he knew the trouble he was getting into



The Illustrated Origin of Species

Editor's Note: This article, translated from German, originally appeared in Spektrum. We are publishing it as part of our tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday.

Mr. Darwin, there is hardly any other book that has polarized society to such an extent as your On the Origin of Species. Do you think you have been given a fair treatment in the public debate?
My views have often been grossly distorted, attacked with bitterness and made to sound silly. But this has been done, as I believe, in most cases in good faith. In this context I must mention, though, that Ihave almost always been handled decently by my critics, and I would ignore those among them without any scientific knowledge as not worthy of mention

Did your talent for science show up early in life?
When I left school, I was neither too far ahead or behind in relation to my age, and I believe all my teachers thought I was a very ordinary boy, rather below the intellectual grade. To my utter disappointment, my father once told me: "You have no other interests apart from shooting, catching rats and dogs, and you are going to bring shame upon yourself and your whole family." Since I was not able to do anything dazzling in school, my father very wisely pulled me out of school at a far earlier age than was customary and sent my with my brother to Edinburgh University.

Where you started to study medicine…
The course consisted exclusively of lectures, and these were insufferably boring. It was one of the most unfortunate circumstances of my life that I was not required to perform dissections, because I would have overcome my aversion soon enough, and the practice would have been inestimably important for all my future activities.

And then you met the zoologist Robert Grant…
One day, as we were walking together, he burst out in great admiration for Lamarck and his views on evolution. I listened in silent amazement, without being affected in any way emotionally. I had read my grandfather's zoonomy earlier, and it had contained similar views. Nevertheless, it is quite probable that the fact that I was exposed at an early age to such views and heard them being praised made it easier for me to uphold the same ideas in a different form in my Origin of Species.

From Edinburgh you went to the University of Cambridge. Why?
After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived, or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.

The father of evolution theory as a priest?
Accordingly, I read with care Pearson on the creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible. I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say, "credo quia incredibile" ["I believe because it is incredible"]. If I think of how vehemently I have been attacked by the orthodoxy, it is very amusing to think that I had once entertained intentions of becoming a priest.

In Cambridge you met the botanist John Henslow who was instrumental in getting you a place on the "HMS Beagle" after your studies. Was this the definitive turning point in your life?
The journey on the Beagle has been the most significant in my life by far, and shaped my whole career. I always felt that I owed to this trip the first real cultivation or education of my mind; this journey led me to take a deep interest in several branches of natural science. My powers of observation were honed through it.

Of far greater significance was the study of the geological conditions of the places we visited, because this is where judgment and inference were brought to bear.

Did you have doubts about the content of truth in the Holy Scriptures even while you were on the Beagle?
On board the Beagle I was completely orthodox, and I recall how several officers laughed at heartily when I quoted the Bible as an irrefutable source on some point of morality. But during the period from 1836 to 1839, I had slowly come to understand that the Old Testament, with its evidently wrong history of the world, its Tower of Babel, its rainbow as a sign, and tendency of ascribing to God the sentiments of a revengeful tyrant, were no more worthy of credence than the holy scriptures of the Hindus or the beliefs of a savage. Despite all my powers of deluding myself, it became more and more difficult to find proof enough to satisfy me.

And that is how faithlessness stalked me and took hold over me slowly, till I became totally disbelieving.

So you are an atheist?
I think it would be more and more appropriate to call me an agnostic, in general and as age advances.

Do you see your lack of faith as a loss, then?
Disbelief crept in on me so slowly that I did not feel any discomfort, and since then, never have a doubted for even a single second the correctness of my conclusions. And I cannot really understand, either, how anyone might want to believe that Christianity were true, because if it were, then, in the plain terms of the text, it is said that people who do not believe would be punished for eternity, and that would include my father, my brother and almost all my best friends. And that is a terrible doctrine!

The questions in this fictitious interview were posed by Christoph Marty. The answers are original quotes from Charles Darwin from a variety of sources, including The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, who died in 1882.

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