The immortal Charles Darwin was born on this day, February 12, 1809.
Me, I mark it as a time of pause and reflection on many things. Like many others. His birthday has been observed as something special roughly since his death in 1882. In 1909, on the centenary of his birth, over four hundred scientists and others gathered to mark the day in Cambridge. On this side of the pond, another event took place at the American Museum of Natural History. It included the unveiling of a bronze bust of the master.
Throughout the 20th century, various events celebrated man and his influence on biological science. In 1980, Salem State College started a Darwin Festival, and in 1993 the humanist community in Palo Alto began celebrating Darwin Day, and the same name was used for events in 1997 at the University of Tennessee. Soon after, Darwin Day was celebrated at the University of Georgia.
By 2001, Darwin Day had become widely observed. And it has continued ever since.
Of course, that word “holiday” is a contraction of holy day and it’s hard to miss at least a touch of spiritual excitement in the celebration of Darwin’s Day. At least, I find it so. And, at the very least, it gives me an excuse to ruminate on the spiritual side of Darwin. Which was substantial.
Both sides of his family, the Darwins and the Wedgwoods were all Unitarians. That makes me happy. Of course, there were other schools of thought in the family. His famous grandfather Erasmus was a notorious free thinker. As, it seems, was his father. And there were also Anglicans in the mix.
Darwin was baptized Anglican. Although throughout his childhood he was taken to Unitarian services by his mother. And there was enough discomfort with orthodoxy that he went first to the University of Edinburgh, a popular alternative to Oxbridge for non-conformists. However, as he traveled there to study medicine, it was quickly apparent that the young Darwin had no passion for it.
Thus, when he took a little interest in theology, his father, a practical man but also a free-thinker, bought at auction the subsistence of an Anglican priest. And with that, Charles was sent to Cambridge to prepare for ordination. Again, he proved inconsistent in his interests. Who seem to have been more focused on riding and shooting than reading.
By the time he graduated, he had found his passion and work in the natural sciences. He would remain a nominal Anglican for the rest of his life. His passion for the natural sciences, however, will only deepen.
Spiritually, Darwin moved from theism to deism, and it would seem that he finally settled on agnosticism, the term coined by his associate and friend Thomas Huxley.
Louis Ruprecht, religious studies scholar and director of the field at Georgia State University wrote a wonderful article, in which he tells us:
“Darwin’s journey of faith was complex. His theories lead him ever further in the direction of biblical agnosticism. And though his God may have been a creator, the order that this God created evolves in his own way, with unseemly violence. Cataclysm is the engine of the evolutionary train. Earthquakes can create mountains, but in doing so they destroy many human and other habitations.
“It is therefore telling that, when asked later in life about his most memorable life experiences, Darwin recalled climbing to the top of the Andes…then later complementing this sublime memory with a trip to the Brazilian rainforest. . What he felt there was reverent awe, wonder, a simultaneous sense of nature’s fruitfulness and an all-encompassing embrace; an embrace that we humans might just disappear into.
“But unlike most contemporary evolutionary theorists who emphasize the random and accidental nature of genetic mutation, Darwin felt that natural selection was going somewhere, that it had a goal. That goal was creation. of a more beautiful natural order. This is the catchy conclusion to his 1859 classic [On] The origin of species:
“[F]from nature’s warfare, famine, and death, flows directly the highest object that we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals. There is greatness in this vision of life, with its multiple powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into new forms or into one; and that, while this planet cycled according to the fixed law of gravity, from such a simple beginning infinite forms the most beautiful and wonderful have been and are evolving. [italics Ruprecht’s]”
Certainly Darwin’s agnosticism, and Huxley’s has a fervor about it that I find irresistible. Perhaps even pointing to a living spirituality adapted to our faithless times…
In any case, a worthy moment to stop, and to consider one of the founders of modernity.
And, for me to wish you all a blessed day from Darwin!