"Promoting Humanist Values and Critical Thinking on the South Coast"


I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.
Charles Darwin
Mar 01, 2014 at 10:49 AM

Floyd Sandford as Charles Darwin

By Judy Fontana

Floyd Sandford was Darwin for us for over an hour. Darwin in old age, reflecting back on his life. In his old age he cares more about truth than social conventions.

He notes that the New York Times of March 1860 gave his Origin of Species a favorable review. Even though he never visited the US.

His mother died when he was 8 and he was sent to traditional schooling in Latin and Greek. But his real education was going outside and collecting. Once he had a beetle in each hand and saw a third one he wanted. He took one in his mouth and was surprised by a bitter taste it gave.

At age 16 he was sent to university in Edinburgh. He found it dull and left after two years. He went to London and found it smoky and unpleasant. His Uncle Josiah Wedgewood took him to Paris, which was his only trip to the continent. (Wedgewood’s father was founder of the famous Wedgewood pottery industry.)

Darwin’s father sent him to Christ College, Cambridge to study theology. He loved it, but not the idea of being a country parson.

Darwin was friends with botany professor John Henslow. Henslow recommended Darwin to serve as “gentleman companion” to the young captain of the research vessel HMS Beagle. Darwin’s father was against it, but his Uncle Wedgewood convinced his father to let him go.

So, at age 23, Darwin was off on a 3-year voyage of the Beagle which stretched to 5 years. Darwin was delighted that in just one day in Brazil he collected 68 different beetles. He saw frogs, parrots, insects and colossal trees.

The Beagle was to make a short stop in the Galapagos Islands for water and provisions, but they ended up staying a month. Darwin slept alone on shore. He was fascinated by the giant tortoises and how there was a different variety of shell type on each island. Where did they come from on these remote volcanic islands?

And the birds -- 13 different finches, related yet different species with a unique beak size and shape.

All through the Beagle’s travels, Darwin collected specimens and sent them back to England with his careful documentation, which meant that when he returned to England, he was already becoming well known and respected for his discoveries and observations.

He moved to London and read an essay by Malthus on population. He noted how nature created huge numbers of offspring that would explode until checked. Darwin noted that man could breed dogs shaped like sausages. What could nature do?

Darwin felt lonely and considered marriage… by making a list of gains and losses! Perhaps his biggest concern was a loss of time and freedom for his research and writing. But the gains won out and in 1838 he was engaged to his cousin Emma Wedgwood.

Emma was deeply religious, but Darwin claimed there was no friction due to their differences. They were married 43 years and had ten children. One of the saddest parts of Darwin’s life was losing his young daughter Annie, who seemed to share his interests, passions and love of life and nature.

He had become less and less a believer in God and religion, and losing Annie solidified his disbelief. At age 30, he had mostly formed his ideas of natural selection and by 1844, he had written 244 pages in ink. He gave it to Emma to publish if he died.

Joseph Hooker urged him to publish his ideas, but he resisted. Darwin wanted to be absolutely sure he was right. But in June 1858, he was sent an essay by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had been working on the same ideas in Indonesia.

Darwin felt ethically obligated to forward Wallace’s essay for publication. Both Darwin’s 1844 paper and Wallace’s essay were read together at a meeting of the London Linnean Society – with little reaction!

Darwin hurriedly worked on his book while plagued by episodes of intense gastro-intestinal discomfort and other medical ailments. At the same time an epidemic of scarlet fever broke out in Downe village and Darwin's 2-year-old son Charles died from the disease.

In November 1859, The Origin of Species was finally published. He received support from Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley. But he received hateful letters as well, including from two good friends.

His book refers to “descent with modification” rather than “evolution” which already had other meanings. Evolution was tied to progress. There is adaptation, not progress in nature. There is as much adaptation to marvel at in a barnacle or a blind cave fish as in a primate or a human.

The book was debated at Oxford, but Darwin was too ill to attend. Debaters included Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, Robert FitzRoy and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

It is sometimes known as the Huxley-Wilberforce debate because of a heated exchange where Wilberforce asked if Huxley was descended from a monkey on his grandmother's or on his grandfather's side. Wilberforce evidently had not even read the book. Huxley said her was not ashamed to be descended from a monley, but Wilberforce should be ashamed to obscure the truth with his talents. 

Darwin went on to write on other subjects, including one on vegetable mold formation through the action of worms. He laid chalk and measured 7 inches of mold after 28 years. Worms bring 8 tons/acre to the surface each year. He wanted each of us to marvel at nature.

Floyd Sandford as Darwin urged us to read The Origin of Species. I also urge you to read it. Perhaps most interesting and compelling was Darwin’s agonizing over each and every possible objection. Those arguments are as valid today as they were when he wrote them.

Posted in Humanists Update, Rational Thought.