We have previously seen Charles Darwin’s youth was steeped in evolutionary philosophy and that he was at one point destined for the comfortable country life of an Anglican clergyman. However, he also was passionate about science and was enabled to take a geologist and naturalist position on a ship circumnavigating the globe. When he returned to England after five years, he was immediately elevated into the elite scientific community. However, his newly conceived ideas were still in his mind, and they would eventually shake the scientific consensus of the time.
Darwin returned to England in 1836 to an enthusiastic welcome. He quickly met both Charles Lyell and Richard Owen, the man who would coin the term dinosaur. Lyell convinced Darwin to present a paper on his observations of geology from the trip and Owen began to examine the fossils and stuffed creatures that Darwin had sent back. Owen’s work revealed dozens of previously unknown creatures. It also revealed Darwin had misclassified the birds he discovered on the Galapagos. They were all finches, not the variety of things Darwin had called them. Lyell immediately seized on Owen’s account of Darwin’s fossil finds to promote uniformitarianism.
By this point, Darwin was already talking about the ability of species to change. However, he still lacked a mechanism. He discarded the ideas his grandfather had fostered, opting for a single, universal evolutionary tree of life instead of the independent evolving branches of Lamarckian evolution. However, his scientific work took a back seat as his health began to break down from overwork. Exactly what illness afflicted him is still unknown but it would plague him periodically for the rest of his life. However, he recovered in time to get married in 1939. By this time, he was convinced that there was a link between ancestry and selective breeding.
Darwin, as with all scientists, did not exist in a vacuum. He exchanged hundreds, if not thousands of letters with other scientists. having become fascinated with artificial selection, it was somewhat natural that he would begin to correspond with a fellow speciation enthusiast named Edward Blyth. When exactly the two began exchanging letters is unclear but it was long before the publication of Darwin’s seminal work. Blyth was creationist and had already published a concept of the idea of natural selection as early as 1835. While Blyth did not coin the phrase “natural selection” he was undoubtedly influential in influencing Darwin in his use of the term. However, unlike Darwin, Blyth clearly recognized a creator in the vast majority of his writings until his mental health deteriorated in his later life.
By 1842, likely with some help from Blyth and perhaps Alfred Russel Wallace, who was Darwin’s friend and competitor, Darwin was beginning to formulate his idea of natural selection. It was not a popular idea with many people, who had accepted that species were fixed. Darwin told his best friend, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, that speaking of his idea was “like confessing to a murder.” While working on the theory, he continued to publish geological books. He also extensively studied marine barnacles, becoming something of an expert in them. His scientific knowledge was growing and his theory was taking on shape. However, publishing his seminal work would have to wait.
In 1851, tragedy struck the Darwin household. Darwin’s daughter Annie, who he dearly loved, became very ill and eventually died. She was ten years old. This loss broke Darwin. His letter in memoriam of her cries out in the anguish of a brokenhearted parent. It is difficult to read it without tears. Even as late as 1885 when his autobiography was published, Darwin’s heart clearly still ached at her loss. He wrote of her in the kindest, most loving terms possible, but in a very brief, abbreviated paragraph. His son later wrote that Darwin never, to his knowledge, spoke of Annie after her death.
Understandably, the pain of losing what Darwin himself acknowledged as his favorite child in a letter to a friend caused Darwin a lot of pain. However, he reacted by rejecting the only possible comfort he could have gained. Darwin completely walked away from any possibility of a God after Annie’s death. Though he maintained the polite Victorian facade, Darwin’s mind was made up. God could not have created a world so full of pain and suffering.
Darwin came to this point by rejecting what the Bible said. If he had read Genesis, he would have recognized that God did not create the pain and suffering. Man did by choosing to sin. God made everything “very good” in the beginning. Many atheists, like Darwin, come to this same conclusion, either by lack of knowledge or by a rejection of what the Bible says. However, as painful as losing a child, a spouse, a parent must be, only Christ offers hope to ease that pain. Darwin never got over the loss of Annie because he did not have the hope that Christ offers. His pain led him to reject God entirely, resulting in a devastating ripple for society.