What Did Darwin Know and When Did He Know It?

What Did Darwin Know and When Did He Know It?

Those of us old enough to remember well recall the Watergate hearings in 1973 when Senator Howard Baker asked, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” That question first focused attention directly upon Richard Nixon himself and it eventually unraveled his presidency.

What happens when the same is asked of Charles Darwin? My recent book, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism, posits this question because to understand Alfred Russel Wallace–co-discoverer of natural selection–requires some context for how Darwin developed his own theory.

Actually, Darwin attempted a preemptive answer in his Autobiography. “I worked on true Baconian [scientific] principles,” he claimed, “and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale … .”1 Working diligently, accumulating facts, assiduously sifting those facts, and from those facts developing a coherent theory without preconception or prejudice—that is what Darwin would have us believe.

The “authorized” account runs as follows: Darwin started as a devoted creationist, even quoting Scripture to admonish the salty seamen with whom he resided on HMS Beagle during the five-year voyage that would make him famous. While he kept voluminous notes on his travels, only upon his return did he begin reviewing his accumulated data. He systematized his thoughts into notebooks and developed them into a coherent theory of evolution based upon progressive processes obtained solely through methodological naturalism. Darwin’s theory was radically new, challenging natural theologians like William Paley who argued for special creation. Common descent, random mutation, and natural selection explained the diversity of life; a deity of any kind was irrelevant. In 1859 On the Origin of Species was published, and henceforth all life on earth could be explained by the blind forces of species struggle. Darwin claimed, “disbelief [in Christianity] crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.”2 Darwin’s religious faith was crushed under the weight of Nature’s unguided hand.3

It sounds plausible, but does this scenario hold up? Did Darwin develop his evolutionary theory without preconception, drawing only upon empirical observations of nature while on the Beagle? Did his disbelief flow from those observations and develop only after the implications of his theory became clear? Answers to these questions are revealing.

A good beginning is found in the research of Howard E. Gruber. Gruber was one of the first to fully examine Darwin and his theory in light of notebooks written from 1837 to 1844. “Insofar as he said anything publicly on the subject of method,” Gruber explains, “Darwin presented himself in ways that are not supported by the notebooks.”4 Gruber adds that considerable misunderstanding arises from “Darwin’s desire to defend his unpopular views by suggesting that he had been driven to them by a mass of unassailable evidence, rather than the less acceptable reality that much of his evidence had indeed been patiently assembled, but only after his views were quite well developed.”5 Because Darwin was always concerned with maintaining his status in respectable Victorian society, presenting his theory in as favorable a light as possible was essential. His method of investigation and discovery was sanitized in the Autobiography, first to his family and friends and later posthumously presented to the world by his son Francis who recognized its public relations value.

Janet Browne, the reigning dean of Darwin biographers, agrees. Going back to Darwin’s teenage days at the University of Edinburgh during his brief and abortive brush with medical education, she notes the profound influence of the elder naturalist Robert Edmond Grant, an unapologetic Lamarckian and thoroughgoing materialist. Darwin became Grant’s young walking companion. At one point Darwin recalled his surprise at Grant’s impassioned exposition of Lamarckism, a very radical notion in the British Isles of the 1820s. Darwin insisted that he received this “without any effect on my mind,”6 a claim even Browne finds “far too disingenuous” to be believed. Charles had made a careful study of his grandfather Erasmus’s views on transmutation in Zoonomia (1794). “Young Darwin, it now turns out,” Browne adds, “was well aware of evolutionary views and perfectly capable of grasping the full implication of what Grant had to say.”7

Even more revealing is the analysis of Adrian Desmond and James Moore. They, perhaps more than any other biographers, have located Darwin’s formative influences in his membership with an Edinburgh student group devoted to discussing a wide range of philosophical and scientific topics (some quite radical) called the Plinian Society Elected to the group on November 28, 1826, as duly recorded by Secretary Grant, Darwin attended all but one of its meetings through April of 1827. Darwin had been proposed for the Society by a militant materialist and recent Edinburgh graduate, William A. F. Browne “had no time for souls and saints,” write Desmond and Moore, and his paper on mind as little more than brain matter was considered so inflammatory that it was struck from the Plinian minute book.8 Gruber also notes this incident, calling it an important example of “Darwin’s early exposure to a materialist philosophy of mind and a strong antagonistic reaction to it”9 that would not be lost upon him in later years. That’s not all, however. Another Plinian, William Greg, just as iconoclastic as Browne, insisted that there was no difference between animals and humans. He invited his audience to conclude that “the lower animals possess every faculty & propensity of the human mind.”10 Desmond and Moore admit the impact this must have had on Darwin and recently emphasized its influence by saying, “it [the Edinburgh years and especially the Plinian Society] likely helped condition his life’s work on the deepest social–and scientific–issues.”11

So, what did Darwin know and when did he know it? Despite Darwin’s “Baconian” claims, it now seems that he did not approach evolution as a tabula rasa. At least from the age of seventeen Darwin was exposed to the most radical materialism of his day. Historians have noted this influence but missed its full import because they have tended to examine the question–”what did Darwin know?–only through the lens of his evolutionary theory. Cast in those terms the focus logically defaults to his five-year voyage on the Beagle and his subsequent notebooks. But this is the wrong “what.” The proper focus should not be on his evolutionary theory but rather on his metaphysic (philosophy); the implications of this shift are profound. Viewed in this light, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Darwin was exposed to philosophical materialism of the most radical stripe as a teenager in Edinburgh through his involvement with the Plinian Society.
  • Many of the topics he heard as a society member–man and beast as one, mind as matter, renunciation of natural theology, scientific positivism, philosophical materialism–turn up as themes in his later works.
  • Based upon these facts, it seems likely that Darwin, perhaps initially unwittingly, filtered his observations through this Plinian worldview.
  • Support for this paradigm shift is bolstered by his notebooks, which give frequent evidence of materialism along with substantial interest in skeptical–even atheistic–writers such as David Hume and Auguste Comte.
  • Darwin’s efforts to downplay these influences in his autobiography now make obvious sense: If the above is true his theory of evolution would be merely a materialistic metaphysic driven by a series of biological speculations, hardly the exacting science he would have the public believe. In short, Darwin came to his “science” by way of his metaphysic and not the other way around.

Historian/philosopher of science Stanley Jaki understood better than most when he wrote, “The publication in full of Darwin’s Early Notebooks forces one to conclude that in writing his Autobiography Darwin consciously lied when he claimed that he slowly, unconsciously slipped into agnosticism. He tried to protect his own family as well as the Victorian public from the shock of discovering that his Notebooks resounded with militant materialism. The chief target of the Notebooks is man’s mind, the ‘citadel,’ in Darwin’s words, which was to be conquered by his evolutionary theory if its materialism were to be victorious.”12 This is why Darwin withheld any talk of man in his Origin. Only after the theological and scientific dust had settled and his “bulldog defender” Thomas Henry Huxley was well-positioned with his cadre of party faithful (the X Club) did the reputed “Down House sage” address the subject in The Descent of Man (1871).

We now know what Darwin concealed; namely, that he was intimately familiar with radical materialism long before he stepped afoot the Beagle. We cannot say precisely when Darwin became a full convert, but a change was evident in his early notebooks well before his preliminary 35-page sketch of the theory in 1842.

Once the influences bearing upon Darwin’s thought processes are understood it is not unreasonable to conclude that his evolutionary theory is much less science and much more a metaphysic wrapped in science. Today Darwin’s faithful insist that only his brand of evolution is “true” science. But is it science at all? History suggests that Darwin’s science was determined by his metaphysic. In the next installment we’ll see how Alfred Russel Wallace’s metaphysic was determined by his science.

Michael A. Flannery

Mr. Michael Flannery received his Master of Science in library science degree from the University of Kentucky in 1989 and his Master of Arts in history at California State University at Dominguez Hills in 1994.

  1. All of Darwin’s writings are available full-text on the Web: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. His major works are also readily available in print. To encourage further reading rather than cherry-picked prospecting so easy with keyword searching, print citations are included. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1893; reprinted, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 42.

  2. Ibid., 62.

  3. Darwin, always concerned to protect his theory from charges of atheism, was often equivocal on the implications of his theory for religion. But by 1868, with four editions of Origin in wildly successful print, he began to show his materialistic hand in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication: “For brevity sake I sometimes speak of natural selection as an intelligent power;–in the same way as astronomers speak of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets, or as agriculturists speak of man making domestic races by his power of selection. In the one case, as in the other, selection does nothing without variability, and this depends in some manner on the action of the surrounding circumstances on the organism. I have, also, often personified the word Nature; for I have found it difficult to avoid this ambiguity; but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws,–and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events” (6).

  4. See Howard E. Gruber, Darwin on Man: A Psychological Study of Scientific Creativity (London: Wildwood, 1974), 122. The complete notebooks are available in Paul H. Barrett, David Kohn, Sydney Smith et al., eds., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks , 1836-1844 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; British Museum, 1987).

  5. Gruber, 122.

  6. Darwin, Autobiography, 13.

  7. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 83.

  8. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 38.

  9. Gruber, 39.

  10. Quoted in Desmond and Moore, 32.

  11. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 17. Desmond and Moore admit to this influence but claim that his belief in common descent translated into “brotherhood science” demonstrated in his opposition to slavery. If, as they claim, this was his “moral anchor,” it was a weak one, for in the end even they admit, “racial genocide [in Victorian society] was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ‘superior’ races. Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of his society. After shunning talk of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in his youthful evolution books, he had ceased to be unique or interesting on the subject” (318). Of course Darwin’s early rejection of “high” and “low” in his notebooks had little to do with “brotherhood” and much more to do with removing distinctions between man and animal; that may indeed have been “unique” and “interesting” in its own right but it could hardly be called humanitarian. It was metaphysical materialism.

  12. Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1988), 126.