Littell's Living Age/Volume 176/Issue 2280/Charles Darwin and Agnosticism

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“Insula quem triquetris terrarum gessit in oris, ...
quae cum magna modis multis miranda videtur
gentibus humanis regio visendaque fertur,
nil tamen hoc habuisse viro praeclarius in se
nec sanctum magis et mirum carumque videtur.”


We cannot doubt upon what man in our own day the Roman iconoclast would have bestowed this famous eulogy. We cannot doubt as to whom he would have ranked as the most “wonderful and beloved” of all men and things within the shores of our “three-cornered isle.” Richer than Empedocles praeclara reperta, more potent than Epicurus as a deliverer from vain doctrine and superstitious fear, Charles Darwin would have seemed to the ardent Lucretius as vix humana stirpe crealus. But the strange thing is that in this single instance Lucretius and the Pontifical College should, so to say, have been at one; that the sanctuary of the prophet of an old ideal should have been opened to the prophet of a new, and that Darwin should be laid in the shrine of Peter.

His reception therein was deeply and honorably significant — significant of a resolute national candor which, when the case is proved and the first shock over, will set no dogma higher than truth. And it was significant also of the continuity between the two ideals, of the fact that virtue and duty are in essentials the same to the man who treats this life as all as to the man “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” For the personal character of the great innovator largely influenced the reception of his teaching by the mass of mankind. Insensibly that character, in spite of all his retirement, had stolen upon the world, through letters, through interviews, even through the tone of his scientific treatises, and from the “Life and Letters,” now before us, we do but fill the details into an outline which was already known. For the biographer’s task one thing was needful — a deep hereditary congruity of temper, an attitude towards Darwin such as was Darwin's towards nature, the unobtrusive and sagacious interpretation of an object of reverence and love. As it has here been told, the life unfolds itself like a pure process of growth and fruitage, and needs defence or eulogy no more than a tree or a flower.

Besides the picture of Darwin’s private life and the mass of letters illustrative of the development of his ideas, the book contains a few pages which briefly answer the question which many have wished to ask, namely, what was Darwin’s own view of the light thrown by the evolution theory and by his own work therein upon the old problems of the soul and Providence, the intimate nature and the ultimate destiny of man. His weighty words afford material for much thought; and the few reflections which here follow are not intended either to defend or to assail the agnostic position which he takes up, but rather to indicate certain channels into which the time-honored controversies at present tend to flow.

Four points may be briefly touched upon: firstly, the weakening effect of Darwinism on the argument for Providence drawn from the consensus of mankind; secondly, its weakening effect on a similar argument drawn from the sense of sin and forgiveness; thirdly, its apparent incompatibility with the creationist theory of the genesis of the human soul; and fourthly, the still more urgent question whether, if agnosticism, in default of fresh evidence to an unseen world, becomes the prevalent attitude of men’s minds, we may suppose that our posterity will acquiesce with Darwin’s cheerfulness in the abandonment of the ancient hope.

"(1) In my Journal [says Darwin in 1876, Life, I. 311] I wrote that whilst standing in the midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, “it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind.” I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. But now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind. It may be truly said that I am like a man who has become color-blind, and the universal belief by men of the existence of redness makes my present loss of perception of not the least value as evidence. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. [And again, I. 313] Then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? … Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

It will be seen that the difficulty is twofold. In the first place, if we are compelled to recognize our ancestors as lower beings than ourselves, the tradition of antiquity becomes, so to say, worse than nothing; and in the second place, however greatly we may have advanced upon our ancestors, if nevertheless all our beliefs and emotions have been derived from theirs by slow continuous development, we cannot well have acquired a new and direct knowledge as to a matter to which our senses bear no evidence. Mr. Wallace, as is well known, conjectures that some influence, resembling that of man on the domestic animals, may have been brought to bear upon primitive man “during that strange intermediate period during which he was passing from brute to man,” and that some power of spiritual communion, differentiating man from the lower races, may have been thus originated. This view has not found many adherents; yet I cannot discover what is the actual hypothesis generally framed by those who hold that there is in fact “some difference in kind and in spiritual nature between man and brute.” The evolution theory, however, almost compels us to make our notions on this point in some way definite, if we are to attribute more weight to the religious instincts of saints and sages than to “the convictions of a monkey’s mind.”

(2) Our next topic is the change which the evolution theory — especially as expounded in chapter iii. of “The Descent of Man” — has introduced into our conception of sin. In the old view, the sense of sin involved a sense of relationship with a Power above ourselves whom we had offended, but who might also forgive us. Too often, in earlier ages, the sinner conceived his offence to be unpardonable, and was “thrust,” as Article XVII. has it, “either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.” Here, then, especially might Lucretius have hailed Darwin as a liberator of mankind. For on the theory of descent, our sense of sin is a sense of relation, not to a higher power, but to our own remote and savage progenitors. If I commit a selfish or violent act, this is because the impulse to immediate enjoyment, or to self-defence, which I inherit from half-human ancestors, is temporarily stronger than the impulse to self-control or to forgiveness, which my more recent ancestors have slowly acquired and imperfectly transmitted. The remorse which follows on my action is due to the fact that the impulse which I have outraged is permanent in my breast, whilst the impulse which I have gratified was a fleeting one, and has expired with its gratification. My sin, then, so far as it went, was a case of reversion, of arrested development; it does not justify “desperation,” or suggest the infinite anger of offended Deity. Yet, on the other hand, in losing the sense of divine offence we lose the sense of divine aid, of divine forgiveness. If we feel that there is no access by which spiritual strength may be borne upon the soul, and if we are. at the same time conscious of helpless weakness, our new state is surely a bondage rather than a liberation — a bondage to the inexorable laws of heredity, which have determined at our birth that we shall be able to struggle thus far, and no farther, along the upward way.

Or shall we say that while the young child is praised or blamed by its mother for every act, a school is chosen for the boy, and he is sent there to shift for himself till the holidays come? “I cannot, anyhow, be contented,” says Darwin, in 1860 (II. 312), “to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”

Shall we suppose, then, that in the sight of some higher power our battles in this small world are not, after all, very tremendous, and that we are all the better for being left to fight them out by ourselves? Or shall we ever learn more of some transcendent communication? of influences falling upon our spirit from behind the veil of visible things?

(3) Passing from these problems drawn from our actual earthly descent to the realm of philosophical, or perhaps I should rather say theological, speculation, it seems worth observing that the whole evolution theory, and Darwin’s work in particular, has given to one among several theories of the genesis of the soul a certain analogical advantage over its ancient rivals. Those thinkers who have assumed that man possesses a soul, in the sense of some individualized vital principle surviving the death of the body, have naturally speculated as to the soul’s origin, and the mode in which it joins connection with the body. Creationists have supposed that a soul was created by a fresh act of God for each new body. Traducianists have maintained that the soul was engendered by the parents, and transmitted like the bodily characteristics. Infusionists have held that the soul pre-existed elsewhere? but was infused into the body at some given moment. And transmigrationists, developing this last doctrine, have held that the soul, thus infused into man, had previously inhabited the bodies of other men or animals.

These speculations, which occupied many great minds in the past, have now an air of fantastic unreality. Yet the unfamiliarity of the ordinary church-goer with such hypotheses by no means necessarily implies that he has risen above them. Very probably he is content with a crude form of the creationist hypothesis, without much regard either to the difficulties which old theology found in it, or to those which modern science suggests. Its main difficulty in the schoolmen’s eyes (and this traducianism strove to meet) lay in the existence of “original sin.” It was hard to believe that a soul so imperfect as ours came fresh from the hand of the Creator. And the scientific objection would be of a parallel kind. Just as it is impossible to suppose that our bodies, with their rudimentary organs and their embryonic history, can be the results of a single creative impulse, even of a single creative impulse communicated to the race to which they belong, so also is it impossible to suppose that the similarly complex, similarly imperfect psychical element in us, if veritably separable from the corporeal, can be the result of one isolated creative impulse, given at some definite moment for each individual.

Yet, surely, if we are to talk about the soul at all, we dare not altogether decline to search for some conceivable hypothesis of its origination. Is traducianism conceivable? Can we give any meaning to the notion of direct psychical progeniture from father to son? Are we not driven back on some form of transmigrationism? some notion at least so far parallel with evolutionary theory as to allow us to think of the soul as in some way pre-existent — as having in some way undergone a progressive development analogous to the hereditary development which has made our bodies what they are? And may we not still see some reason in Plato’s method, in his attempt to throw light on the soul’s present and her future by collecting what seemed to him the traces of her existence in the past? His doctrine of reminiscence may have been but a rough scaffolding for such inquiry, yet was he not after all well inspired in thus looking for what we should now call the intellectual or emotional rudiments of a life passed under other conditions than ours, or, say, indications of descent from some winged creature which our “larval characters” do not wholly hide?

(4) This last speculation, though showing to what distant fields of thought the influence of the evolution theory extends, is, I need hardly say, nowhere noticed by Darwin himself. Absolutely open to every kind of definite evidence, his mind refuses to dwell for long on shadowy possibilities. Where testimony seems to him inadequate, and not capable of fresh reinforcement, it insensibly fades from his view. In a characteristic passage [I.308] he describes the mode in which he underwent that gradual loss of Christian belief which has come to many minds with such storms of emotion, such unreasoning alternations of hope and fear.

I was very unwilling to give up my belief. I feel sure of this, for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere, which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.

Darwin, it will be seen, began with what would be called quite a healthy and normal instinct of reverence and faith. Then gradually this disappears without a struggle; it is not ejected from the system (as, say, with Mr. Froude); it is not encysted (as, say, with J. S. Mill); it is simply atrophied, and dissolves painlessly away; and the loss seems to leave no sense as of a void encompassing. He does not (to vary the metaphor) make his own definite facts stand out from a dusky background of the Absolute and the Unknowable, but when anywhere he finds evidence failing him he simply says, “We cannot tell.”

Again, while he is quite ready to publish unpopular opinions, if candor requires it (as in the case of “The Descent of Man “), his agnosticism is far too modest and gentle-hearted to allow him to feel the mere joy of combat, the impulse which makes a man willing to admit that he knows nothing himself for the pleasure of proving to men who think they know more, that they know, in fact, if possible, less. it has been fortunate for the intellectual interest of life that the peace-loving Darwin and the self-effacing Wallace should have had a coadjutor more vividly touched with earthly fire, like the mortal charger which, champing more fiercely in the battle’s fray, kept pace with the two undying steeds of Achilles. But we must remember that Professor Huxley’s trenchant polemic has cast a kind of glory about the mere fact of man’s ignorance which cannot possibly be kept up for long. Battles there will always be; but never again, perhaps, such a plunging through half-armed foemen, such an ύριοτεία of the agnostic as we associate with that brilliant name.

Once more; it is characteristic of Darwin’s sobriety of mind that, although he does not pretend personally to regret old faiths, he does not throw the slightest optimistic coloring around his novel conceptions. A tone of triumph comes readily to a man who feels that he is upsetting error and preaching truth; and this tone is sometimes taken when it is strangely inappropriate to the actual bearing of the message thus proclaimed. If there be no God, and we perish forever, it may be right to say so and to face the facts as best one can; but one must indeed be optimistic to find much to be pleased at. This optimistic illusion, which Mr. Frederic Harrison, for instance, so eloquently maintains, seems to spring partly from the mere joy of battle, already spoken of, and partly from an instinct, lingering on from the ages of faith, that, be it what it may, the order of the universe must be good. “Why good? Why better than the very worst?” the gathering hand of pessimists call from every side; and Darwin [I. 309] goes perhaps as far as wary science will allow, when he points out that the mere influence of natural selection guarantees a certain amount of happiness in the races that survive, inasmuch as “if all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this has ever, or at least often, occurred.”

This much for the present; while as to the future of mankind some words of Darwin’s are here given [I. 312], which, considering his cautious temper, are perhaps as noteworthy as any which ever fell from his pen. For he deals here with the very remotest events which we have any definite warrant for predicting, with the eschatology with which science has replaced the second advent and the millennial reign.

With respect to immortality, nothing shows me so clearly how strong and almost instinctive a belief it is, as the consideration of the view now held by most physicists, namely, that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun, and thus gives it fresh life. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.

Amidst the calm advance of Darwin’s armies of scientific facts against the old creeds of men, this expression of “an intolerable thought” comes to us like the cry of Scipio Aemilianus over burning Carthage, when the ruin which his own legions had wrought suggested to him that Rome herself must some day fall.

ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ' ἄν ποτ' ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐϋμμελίω Πριάμοιο

On the whole, therefore, in reviewing Darwin’s life, we find neither any prejudice which warps his reception of evidence of any kind, nor any emotional pre-occupation which interferes with steady and fruitful labor upon the facts before him. In the old phrase of Sir T. Browne, he swims smoothly in the stream of his nature, and lives but one man.” He seems, as already said, to be the exemplar of a new ideal, a man as well adapted to human life, on the hypothesis that this earth is all that we can know, as a John or a Paul were adapted to human life on the hypothesis that our citizenship is in heaven.

How, then, we ask ourselves, does the new ideal bear comparison with the old as regards the virtue or the happiness which that old ideal aimed at securing?

On the moral side there is certainly no perceptible decline. Never, perhaps, did a biography give such an unmixedly pleasing impression both of its hero and of his friends. In these hundreds of unstudied letters there is not a sentence which we could wish otherwise written; nor are the surrounding group of correspondents unworthy of the central figure. In this respect their various theoretical opinions seem to make little difference; but we soon feel that it is not from a chosen company of men such as these that we can argue as to the ultimate influence of any belief or disbelief upon the mass of mankind. Ignorant and prejudiced critics are the only villains in the tale, and even their howling comes to us faint as the wolfish sounds which Æneas heard across the waters as he steered safe by Circe’s isle. How different from the restless bitterness of Carlyle, who makes us feel that he is struggling alone to retain reason and humanity among the crowding bears and swine I — from the sad resolve of George Eliot, who seems ever to be encountering the enchantress with the sprig of moly, herself half doubtful of its power!

And linked with this peace of conscience there is a boyish yet a steadfast happiness; a total freedom from our self-questioning complexities — from the Welt-Schmerz which, in one form or other has paralyzed or saddened so many of the best lives of our time. Can we get nearer to the sources of this tranquillity? Can we detect the prophylactic which kept the melancholy infection at bay?

It is again in Darwin’s own lucid analysis of his intellectual life (I. 100) that we find the answer to our question.

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even, as a schoolboy I took great delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. … The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Here, surely, is the solution of the problem. The faculties of observation and reasoning were stimulated to the utmost; the domestic affections were kept keen and strong; but the atrophy of the religious instincts, of which we have already spoken, extended yet farther — over the whole range of æsthetic emotion, of mystic sentiment — over all in us which “looks before and after, and pines for what is not.” And although Darwin himself suggests that his intellectual or moral nature may thus have been injured, we may perhaps, on the agnostic hypothesis, more truly say that his intellect was thus fruitfully constrained and his moral nature saved from shock and storm; nay, we may go on to argue that for all of us such limitation would be best, and that the poets should be crowned with flowers and led out forever from the agnostic city; and that art altogether — not only its lower forms, tinged with a human passion, but its higher forms, tinged with a divine — must needs produce on the whole more of pain than of pleasure, more of yearning than of fruition, in a race whose aspirations are forever withering “at the touch of Eld and Death.”

In Darwin these vague emotions could have found no root of baser passion round which to twine. Yet even for him there must have been moments which, if too thrillingly repeated, would have jeopardized his inward peace; as when sitting (I. 49), like Milton, in the dim religious light that falls from the storied windows of King’s College Chapel he heard the organ pealing of those ineffable things which, if they may not make man’s happiness, must make man’s woe.

And while the limitations of his nature in one direction secured his tranquillity, its extraordinary vigor in another direction — his strength of scientific curiosity, his passion for the discovery of new truth — gave the impulse which carried him cheerfully across bodily sufferings so prolonged and weary that for most men they would have darkened the whole track of life. Now, looking at Darwin’s nature as offering us the best agnostic pattern, we see at once that, even assuming that we can imitate its restrictions, we cannot imitate its activity. We cannot hope to rival his inventiveness, his scientific power. If we, too, are to live contented with scientific progress, this means that most of us must find our happiness in the mere contemplation of the work of others, that the exhilarating sense of men’s ever-widening outlook must compensate the paltriness of our individual lots.

This is a great reduction, but this is not yet all. For even here a doubt steals in, a doubt at which one smiles at first, as Mill learnt to smile at his (quite reasonable) fear that musical combinations would in time be exhausted, but which recurs irresistibly so soon as we try to give distinctness to the popular or optimist view of the future of science. It is taken for granted in popular writings that the present rush of scientific progress is to go on indefinitely; that in proportion as the skill and energy devoted to research increase, the discoveries made will be ever more numerous and exciting. But in truth if (as is commonly assumed) our discoveries are confined to the physical side of things, there is no ground whatever for this sanguine hope. Admitting that the visible universe is, in relation to our present faculties, practically infinite, it by no means follows that our means of scrutinizing it are capable of indefinite improvement. And in fact we find the true pioneers of science greatly more cautious in their prognostic. We begin to hear that telescopy and microscopy (which in their brief existence have suggested so many more problems than they have solved) are already approaching ominously near to their theoretic limit. We begin to recognize in the length of the light-wave an irreducible bar to that scrutiny of the “infinitely little" which we most urgently need. We begin to feel that the sensitiveness of the retina, the percipient power of the brain, however supplemented by sensitive apparatus, must always be inadequate to the more delicate tasks which we would fain assign to them; and in short that the human body, developed for quite other purposes, must always be a rude and clumsy instrument for the apprehension of abstract truth. And more than this. Vast as is the visible universe, infinite as may have been the intelligence which went to its evolution, yet, while viewed in the external way in which alone we can view it, while seen as a product and not as a plan, it cannot possibly suggest to us an indefinite number of universal laws. Such cosmic generalizations as gravitation, evolution, correlation of forces, conservation of energy, though assuredly as yet unexhausted, cannot in the nature of things be even approximately inexhaustible.

Man’s history, in short, is as yet in its first chapter, and science has lived as yet but a moment in the brief history of man; yet already, and, so to say, with the first glance out of our prison-windows, we have seen enough to make it tolerably certain that after a few more centuries the number of first-rate discoveries must constantly lessen, while the number of men equipped and eager for discovery will constantly increase. Unless, indeed, some insight is gained into the psychical side of things, some communication realized with intelligences outside our own, some light thrown upon a more than corporeal descent and destiny of man,[1] it would seem that the shells to be picked up on the shore of the ocean of truth will become ever scantier, and the agnostics of the future will gaze forth ever more hopelessly on that gloomy and unvoyageable sea.

Such men will look back to Darwin as half-hearted Christians of to-day look back to those who expected themselves to witness the glorious consummation of all. “In this man’s life,” they will say, “we see the happy moment, the best that fate could do for humankind. She wrought him without a flaw; she left in him not one secret sting of restless egotism, of unlawful desire. She gave intellectual vigor, innocent affections, the dignity of pains bravely borne. To all this we, too, might aspire. But she gave him also the one thing needful: the joy in which we can never share. For she inspired him with a majestic conception; she set him on the track of truths so great and new that they seemed to fill the whole horizon, and transfigured life with their glow. Our knowledge is a hundredfold greater than his. But its ardor, its illusions, are no more. For we know at last that nothing which we shall ever discover can be to us of any true concern. What profit, if we are to gaze upon the cosmos forever from outside? to pass and leave the giant forces playing, with a purport (if any purport) which is forever hid from men? What gain, to watch for an hour the inscrutable pageant? to be summoned out of nothingness into illusion, and evolved but to aspire and to decay!”


  1. “This is an experiment after my own heart,” says Darwin (II. 57) of one of his trials to make an unlikely seed germinate, “with chances 1,000 to against its success.” The human race will have to try many experiments not less unpromising, if they do not choose to resign themselves to looking at the world front without, instead of from within.