Although it may seem surprising that myths should arise around someone as devoted to science and reason as Charles Darwin, it is not completely unexpected. An investigation into these stories, however, show them to be devoid of truth.
Myth-making takes many forms. While it often has an element of dishonesty to it, that, as we shall see, is not always so. Myths usually involve persons, particularly religious figures, but that is again not a fixed rule. Sometimes myths simply spring up around famous (or infamous) people. Even in totalitarian countries, intentional myth-making has been known to occur. An interesting example of the latter sort is North Korea where propagandists of the ruling Worker’s Party have created a supernatural myth regarding the birth of the second dictator of the country Kim Jong-il, the so-called “Dear Leader”. Kim was allegedly born on Mount Paekdu, believed to be the highest and most sacred mountain in the country where Korea is said to have come into existence 5,000 years ago. “As he came into the world a new star appeared in the sky, a double rainbow appeared, an iceberg on a nearby lake cracked, strange lights filled the sky and a swallow passed by overhead to pass on to the world the news of his birth. Kim, as a baby, remained by his father’s side until the Japanese were defeated and expelled from Korea and Pyongyang liberated.” (Paul French North Korea State of Paranoia P.86) The same type of stories were spread by the State controlled media regarding the death of the Dear Leader in 2011 when, according to them, “…a fierce snowstorm paused and the sky glowed red above the sacred Mount Paekdu. The ice on a famous lake cracked so loud, that it seemed to shake the heavens and the earth.” (French P.381). One is tempted to call this Communist mythology but North Korea ceased to be a Communist state in 2009 when all references to the ideology was removed from it’s constitution.
It is of course easy to create myths in a totalitarian state to extol a dictator. But what about distinguished scientists, particularly pre-eminent ones who are deceased? Surely, as exponents of reason, they should be exempt from irrational claims made about them? But it is precisely because of their pre-eminence that they become subject to myth-making. Employing the scientists’ fame for their own advantage or those of the organizations to which they belong, many people create bogus quotations and attribute them to the deceased scientists. Others again, simply love telling dubious stories about such great men and women. It is accordingly not strange that a number of myths involving Charles Darwin, the nineteenth century biologist and discoverer of the principles of natural selection, have taken root over the years. Few people are as famous as Darwin who is, after all, one of the greatest scientist who ever lived.
The myth-making started soon after the death of Darwin. Although he was known to be an unbeliever, stories regarding a last minute religious conversion by him were soon spread. A certain professor of divinity called John Eadie claimed that Darwin had written to him to tell him that he “looked with confidence to Calvary”. An investigation, however, showed that Darwin had never corresponded with Eadie and that the story was simply an invention. Then, in 1907 (25 years after Darwin’s death), a certain Sir Robert Anderson claimed that an unspecified friend of his had told him that he had visited Darwin during his last days and that Darwin had expressed the greatest reverence for the Scriptures. Not only was the story hearsay, but it could not be verified and was consequently dismissed as unsubstantiated.
Many Christians, however, believed an account that was published in an American Baptist newspaper in 1915. An evangelist, Lady Hope, maintained that she had visited Darwin on his deathbed seven months before he actually died. He was bedridden at the time and confessed that his theory of evolution was a mistake. According to her he told her that he had, as a young man, merely thrown out some ideas and these had caught on like wildfire. He sat with a Bible when she entered his room and, upon inquiry, expressed his faith in Jesus Christ and his salvation. She said that he had also stated that he was “eagerly savouring the heavenly anticipation of bliss”.(The Survival of Charles Darwin by Ronald W. Clark P. 199). This must have come as quite a shock to those who knew that the great man had given up his religious faith as a result of the scientific evidence that he was accumulating. Only a few years before his death he had written in his autobiography that he rejected Christianity and it’s claims of an afterlife. As he put it “…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.” He also said that “I can … hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (Clark P.58).
As might be expected, the assertions made by Lady Hope do not withstand scrutiny. One searches in vain in her account for an explanation why she waited 33 years before making the earth-shattering disclosure. Further, Darwin was not, as she claimed, bedridden seven months before his death. Her contention that Darwin had made his ideas known as a young man is also contrary to the known facts. The truth is, he kept his views on evolution to himself and only when he was forced to do so, published The Origin of Species at the age of 50. Darwin’s family too disputed Hope’s allegations. Both his daughter, Henrietta, and his son Francis denied that he had ever converted to Christianity before his death. (His wife Emma was deceased by that time but she, like Henrietta, was a devout Christian and would have rejoiced if her husband had converted. She would have made it known immediately.) Henrietta, moreover, said that although she had been present during his father’s illness, Hope had never been there during any illness that her father had. (Clark P.199). It appears as if Hope concocted the lie to portray her religion in a favourable light. Although her false story of Darwin’s deathbed conversion was subsequently repeated in a number of newspapers, only a few Christians are still prepared to defend it.
More credible was the Communist inspired myth that was created in 1931 when the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow announced that it had come into possession of a letter sent to Marx by Darwin. According to the Institute the letter shows that Karl Marx was so impressed by The Origin of Species when it was published in 1859, that he he intended to dedicate his own magnum opus Das Kapital to Darwin. When he wrote a letter to Darwin informing him of his intention, the latter was opposed to the proposal and, fearing the consequences that may flow from it, politely declined the honour. Many people assumed after reading Darwin’s letter that he had already suffered enough abuse at the hands of the establishment and did not want to compound his problems by being associated with leftist politics. Be it as it may, the story of the dedication was an attractive one to many Marxists and was subsequently repeated by various leftist authors over the years. They knew that it would demonstrate an intellectual affinity between Marx and Darwin and confer scientific status on the ideas of Marx. But there were facts (conveniently ignored by proponents) that were in conflict with the announcement of the Institute. Volume 1 of Das Kapital had already been dedicated to Marx’s friend, Wilhelm Wolff while his other friend, Friedrich Engels, had written in the preface of vol. 2 of Das Kapital that Marx had stated repeatedly that he wanted to dedicate it and vol. 3 to his wife. (Leslie R. Page Marx and Darwin The Unveiling of a Myth P.2).
Furthermore, certain anomalies in Darwin’s letter of refusal, dating from 1880, caused the distinguished American sociologist Lewis S. Feuer to investigate the claim. (See his article The Case of the ‘Marx-Darwin’ Letter in the October 1978 issue of Encounter at pages 62-77). One particular problem was that Darwin’s remarks in his letter clearly indicated that the book intended for dedication also involved freethought and criticism of Christianity and theism. Das Kapital, of course, does not deal with these matters. On the contrary, Marx detested the Freethought movement and called the reasoning of it’s leader, Charles Bradlaugh, “shallow”. Darwin’s remarks did, however, fit another book published at the time which had been authored by Marx’s son-in-law Edward Aveling who was a zoologist and a freethinker. His book, The Student’s Darwin,was to be published in 1880 under the imprint of the Freethought Publishing Company. This clue eventually led to the discovery of Aveling’s letter to Darwin (dated 12 October 1880) among the Darwin Papers at Cambridge University. It confirmed what Feuer had suspected; Aveling had indeed requested Darwin’s consent for the dedication of The Student’s Darwin to him. A similar letter from Marx to Darwin regarding Das Kapital, on the other hand, simply did not exist.
A similar investigation by the Marx-Engels Institute would have uncovered the true state of affairs and spared them embarrassment. While it is true that they had received all the correspondence of Marx from the German Social Democratic Party where his letters had been mixed up those of Aveling, it is hardly a valid excuse. The fiasco can best be described as a case of wishful thinking combined with incompetence on the part of the Soviet authorities.
It is in both these instances possible to identify the person or institution responsible for creating the myths. Both also had a motive for disseminating a falsehood – in the one instance to portray Christianity in a favourable light and in the other to strengthen the belief in Communism. There is, however, a third myth relating to Darwin that I wish to discuss – one whose origin is unknown and does not benefit a third party but ostensibly merely seeks to demonstrate Darwin’s greatness. It concerns the eminent biologist Thomas Henry Huxley who was a friend of Darwin and a defender of Darwinian evolution. Huxley was a self-made man; an excellent writer and devastatingly effective speaker. As a result of his oratory skills and combativeness in defending Darwin’s ideas, he was soon called “Darwin’s Bulldog”. In this regard Huxley was the opposite of Darwin who preferred to stay in the background and wanted to avoid confrontation at all cost.
One often reads that Huxley was a great admirer of The Origin of Species. There is, prima facie, no reason to doubt this claim. This is after all what one expects from a man who known as Darwin’s Bulldog; someone who was willing to wage battle on behalf of his friend. One often comes across a quotation of Huxley that creates the impression that he was surprised and envious when he discovered the principles of natural selection in Darwin’s Origin. This one finds in books of authors who have no axe to grind and who come from diverse backgrounds. It occurs for instance in the freethinker Jim Herrick’s book on the conflict between religious dogma and free inquiry entitled Against the Faith where a chapter is devoted to Huxley. Huxley was, after all, a religious sceptic who became famous for coining the word “agnosticism”. We are told on page 185 that when Huxley read his copy of the Origin he declared: “How exceedingly stupid not to have thought of that.” A similar quotation is found on page xvi of the geneticist Steve Jones’ 1999 book Almost Like A Whale with the subtitle The Origin of Species Updated. There it is stated that Huxley’s exclaimed upon reading the Origin: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” Although the two quotations do not say so, it is clear that the words “of me” should be read into the sentence after the word “stupid”. What is, however, worrying, is that although both quotations are in inverted commas their wording differ, the one says Huxley used the word “exceedingly” the other the word “extremely”. None of them, furthermore, refer to the source of the quotation.
But instead of trying to resolve these difficulties, the question should rather be asked whether the quotation can possibly be correct. A completely different perspective on the matter is given in Adrian Desmond’s comprehensive 820 page biography Huxley. He makes it abundantly clear that the ideas in the Origin could not have been a surprise to Huxley. As noted earlier, for more than 20 years Darwin delayed in making his views on evolution known for fear of the religious repercussions that it would have. It was only when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a brief note setting out similar views on the mechanism of evolution that Darwin’s hand was forced. To claim his priority in discovering natural selection, he had to make all his written records available to a committee that had to decide the matter. According to Desmond (P.245), Huxley was one of those who had to vet the documents. That was his first acquaintance with Darwinian evolution. Although he loved the naturalistic approach, he disliked the emphasis on micro-adaptations and the relentless struggle.
Subsequently, while Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he sent Huxley portions of the manuscript. Huxley in turn, furnished Darwin with his critical comments. It was only after the publication of the book that Huxley was able to study it in it’s entirety. It is of course in particular in this portion of Desmond’s book where one would expect to find the quotation in question. He does not, however, refer to it at all. Instead, he writes that Huxley was extremely critical towards the concept of natural selection. He compared it in a letter to a third party to an “…intellectual pemmican – a mass of facts crushed and pounded into shape, rather than held together by the ordinary medium of an obvious logical bond”. The only charitable thing that Huxley could say about Darwin was that there was a “marvellous dumb sagacity” about him (P.259). Around the same time Huxley wrote to Charles Lyell (author of The Principles of Geology) to express his views on the book and evolution in general. “I by no means suppose that the transmutation hypothesis is proved or anything like it, (he opined) but I view it as a powerful instrument of research. Follow it out and it will lead us somewhere…”(Quoted in The Heyday of Natural History by Lynn Barber P.272).
However, since Huxley did not want to offend Darwin, he disguised his views and pretended the contrary. In an article he wrote for Macmillan’s Magazine not long after the publication of the Origin he praised Darwin and referred to his “singularly original and well-stored mind.” (Desmond P.260). Even so, Darwin came to suspect that all is not as it should be. For instance, he was baffled by a lecture that Huxley gave on 10 February 1860 at the Royal Institution on the subject of the Origin. “He gave no just idea of natural selection”, he complained afterwards. (P.270) But perhaps he should have foreseen Huxley’s unwillingness to accept natural selection unreservedly. Huxley, as Desmond explains, experienced great hardship when he was younger and he was not prepared to to concede that nature is brutal and callous. It was for this reason that he always softened natural selection even when he championed evolution.
It is accordingly clear that Huxley did accept evolution but not the Darwinian version. That raises an interesting question. What was Huxley’s own conception of evolution? An answer is furnished by Ernst Mayr in his monumental bookThe Growth of Biological Thought (P.510 – 511). According to Mayr Huxley thought of evolution in terms of one of the field in which he specialized: embryology. In his view evolution proceeds like the development of a chicken embryo inside it’s egg. He also rejected Darwin’s view that life evolved gradually. In his view nature brings about change by means of major saltations or jumps. These, he thought, would be far more effective than the gradual evolutionary change of natural selection.
Enough has been said to show that the quotation attributed to Huxley, although it may have been done with the best of intentions, is simply not true. Who the original myth-maker is, we shall probably never know, but I think that one reason the myth was invented was to explain Huxley’s willingness to defend Darwinian evolution against attacks. However, that, we now know, has nothing to do with his support for the idea but has everything to do with his personality. Huxley was someone who simply thrived on confrontation. In his book Desmond calls him a “savage controversialist”. Even before the publication of the Origin, Huxley wrote to Darwin to offer his services against the “considerable abuse” which would be in store for him. “You must recollect (he said) that some of your friends…are endowed with a combativeness which may stand you in good stead. I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.”(Quoted in Barber P.270).
Huxley’s willingness to engage in debate with opponents of evolution not only aided it’s acceptability, but also delighted Darwin and provided a great deal of entertainment to the public. His favourite targets were clergymen. As Barber (P.272) says: “Huxley could never resist the chance to eat a bishop, and the greater the theological opposition to Darwinism, the more eager his own defence of it grew.” His most famous encounter was with ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford who was so named because whenever he scored a point in a debate, he used to rub his hands together. Wilberforce opened the debate, forcefully attacking and ridiculing evolution while talking a great deal of nonsense in the process. At the conclusion of his speech and while gleefully polishing his hands, Wilberforce addressed Huxley directly, asking him whether he is related to an ape on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Not one to be trifled with, Huxley thoroughly demolished Wilberforce’s arguments then turned to the last point made by him and said: “If … the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” (Desmond P. 279, Barber P.274-5).
I wish I could say that these skirmishes clinched the matter in favour of science and reason. But it was not to be. They turned out instead to be only the opening salvos in the still ongoing war between fundamentalism and evolution.