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Monday, November 02, 2009

Charles Darwin's Brave New World: A Dangerous Idea

I watched the first part last night on The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. It was pretty good, although the emphasis on how Darwin was afraid to discuss his ideas got a bit tedious.

I'm also skeptical about the film's claim that evolution caused Darwin to abandon religion. It's worth remembering that his father (Robert) and his grandfather (Erasmus) were well-known skeptics about religion and Darwin's brother, Erasmus, was not religious. Darwin hung out with a lot of people who were questioning religion even though they knew nothing about evolution.


  1. I saw the show as well and had similar thoughts. I don't know if they will get into it, but it would be nice to see something about Darwin's thinking on and addressing the scientific objections that could be made to evolution (at that time!) rather than repetitive concentration on anticipation of religious opposition. I suspect we won't see it, though, because it wouldn't be the kind of 'human drama' producers feel is needed to attract audiences. God forbid viewers might be made to think.

  2. Mike from Ottawa said...

    "God forbid viewers might be made to think."

    Conversely, maybe viewers who think don't watch 'human drama' but do read books written by people like Janet Brown, the author of what Jerry Coyne calls "the magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin."

  3. Actually, it is the considered opinion of many of Darwins' biographers that his loss of religious belief was mostly caused by the death of his daughter from Scarlet Fever.

  4. "the death of his daughter from Scarlet Fever"???

    Darwin had a long slow loss of faith, and it's a matter of debate whether he had stopped attending church before his treasured daughter Annie died – not of scarlet fever, possibly of typhoid.

    As van Whye has shown convincingly, Darwin told plenty of colleagues about his speculating on transmutation and the "species question", including naturalists he'd only met briefly. What he kept to himself, unsurprisingly, was the mechanism of natural selection which he firmly intended to publish as his own discovery and theory.

    The religious fears thing is rather a myth, it would be more accurate to say that he hoped to provide reputable reasoning and good quality evidence to persuade his scientific peers, in particular the professors who had taught him at Cambridge who, like all professors there, were Church of England clergymen. Darwin knew he needed a very well prepared case to win them over, and while Henslow was in the event at least prepared to teach Darwin's ideas as a honest scientific approach, Sedgwick was too tied up in loathing of the social and religious implications of transmutationism to accept the ideas. What was striking was that Darwin was generally given a respectful hearing, even by those who disagreed with him. The obvious exception, Richard Owen, sneered at Darwin and friends in the same review that Owen revealed his belief in a kind of divinely guided evolution.

  5. p.s. Darwin's baby son Charles Waring Darwin died of scarlet fever three days before the joint paper by Darwin and Wallace was read to the Linnean Society, revealing Darwin's theory to a somewhat unresponsive world.