For many famous historical figures, a distinction often needs to be made between the man and the myth that surrounds him.  This is no less true for Charles Darwin.  While the mythical features of a man are often later creations by others, in the case of Darwin, he created some of his own myths through his autobiography.  In his book The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, Benjamin Wiker takes a critical look at the historical Darwin: the man, the myth, and his contribution to evolutionary theory.

Wiker documents several myths have arisen regarding Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution:

  1. That Darwin thought up the theory of evolution.  The notion that animals in the present evolved from earlier forms was not a novel idea.  The idea can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Lucretius in the 1st century BC, and it was particularly in vogue among the intelligentsia in Darwin’s day.  In fact, his very famous grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote a widely acclaimed book titled Zoonomia (1794) in which he laid out his own theory of evolution more than 60 years before Charles wrote On the Origin of Species.  In medical school, Darwin studied under a radical evolutionist by the name of Robert Grant.  He also read the works of other evolutionists.  Darwin did not come up with evolution.  He merely popularized the theory by providing a plausible, naturalistic mechanism by which it might work, backed up by some empirical observations.

    Darwin hungered for originality.  He was so eager to present his theory of evolution as his own theory—and the theory of evolution—that he initially failed to credit the many contributions others had made to his thoughts.  For example, it was Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population that gave Darwin the idea that natural selection is driven by a competition for food sources, and that death was the key to creating new life.  Other intellectual influences included James Prichard, William Wells, William Lawrence, Patrick Matthew, Edward Blyth, and Robert Chambers.  Chambers published Vestiges of Creation in 1844, and his ideas differed little from Darwin’s.  Indeed, Darwin was so deflated by the fact that Chambers had scooped his ideas (and that his own friends skewered Chambers’ scientific claims), that he began an intense search for better evidence to support the same basic theory.  And then there is Alfred Wallace, who sent Darwin an essay in which he laid out a theory of evolution that so closely resembled Darwin’s theory that it was as if Darwin had written the essay himself.  Darwin was not about to be scooped again, so when he read Wallace’s essay he finally decided to make his own views about evolution public.  A joint paper authored by Lyell, Hooker, Wallace, and Darwin was presented at the Linnean Society in 1858.  One year later, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was released in print.  The historical evidence is clear that the articulation of Darwin’s theory did not require the existence of Darwin.  Other’s came to the same conclusions at approximately the same time.  Perhaps Darwin’s greatest contribution is that of a popularizer of evolutionary thought.

  2. That Darwin came to his views as a result of his voyage on the Beagle.  Not so.  His father was an atheist who imbibed his views on origins from his own father, Erasmus (who was a self-confessed Deist, but in reality closer to an atheist).  Charles imbibed his views on religion and origins from both his father and grandfather.  Not only is there no good evidence that Charles was a religious believer prior to his voyage on the Beagle, but there is good reason to believe that he was an evolutionist long before then.  Charles read his grandfather’s Zoonomia early in his life, as well as Lamark’s works on evolution.  Darwin’s acceptance of evolution developed first, and the evidence necessary to support it were sought afterward.
  3. That Darwin lost his faith as a result of his study of nature.  Not so.  Indeed, this presupposes that he had a Christian faith prior to his study of nature.  While Charles did enroll in Christ’s College for his undergraduate work in preparation for a divinity degree to become a pastor in the Anglican church, he only did so because he could not succeed at medicine (the profession of his father and grandfather), and did so at his father’s behest.  His father did not want him to become a clergyman because either shared the Christian faith (the only family members who exhibited a religious faith were Charles’ sisters, and they were Unitarians), but because being a clergyman was a semi-respectable job that would pay the bills and allow Charles the free time to do what he loved best: study the natural world.  Becoming a clergyman was a respectable family’s last ditch effort to secure for Charles a stable income and respectable career.
  4. That Darwin’s theory was only rejected by Christian fundamentalists who were ignorant of the science.  Not so.  Darwin’s most vocal critics were fellow scientists and close friends.  Some objected to Darwin’s insistence that evolutionary change be unguided (Asa Gray, George Mivart), while others objected to evolution in general (Henslow, Adam Sedgwick, Richard Owen), and others still to various parts of his theory (Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell, and Alfred Wallace).  In almost all cases, the arguments against Darwinism were scientific in nature, not theological.  And interestingly, many of the same arguments modern anti-Darwinists level at the theory were advanced by scientists in Darwin’s day.  Darwin couldn’t answer those objections in his own day, and not much has changed in 150 years.
  5. That evolution must be godless to be scientific.  Many evolutionists in Darwin’s day were theists who agreed with Darwin regarding the process of evolution, disagreed that it was unguided.  Darwin was even criticized for setting up a false dichotomy: either one believes in an unguided, godless evolution, or in a recent special creation and fixity of the species.  He did not consider the option that evolution was guided by God, or perhaps better said, he would not consider that as an option.  He was bent on providing a mechanism for evolution that made God’s hand unnecessary, and was insistent that one accept both his mechanism and his presumption that the mechanism is unguided by any intelligence.  The great myth of Darwin is that Darwinism is equivalent to evolution and atheism, when in fact, one can be an evolutionist and a theist without being a Darwinist.
  6. That Darwin’s ideas did not serve as the basis for the Nazi Holocaust.  While Darwin himself would not have supported what the Nazi’s did because he thought sympathy should be shown to the unfit races, Darwin’s ideas of natural selection served as the intellectual and scientific foundation for the Holocaust.  Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species was even subtitled The Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Survival.  According to Darwin, racial extermination was the means by which evolutionary progress was to be obtained.  In chapter 6 of his Descent of Man he wrote, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes…will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”  The German intellectuals, and finally Hitler himself, took Darwin’s ideas to their logical conclusion, recognizing (as did Ernst Haeckel long before) that Darwin’s hope for “sympathy” toward the inferior races was at odds with evolutionary advancement.