Charles Darwin: Writing Origin 'like confessing a murder'
By Rowan Hooper Death is no barrier to New Scientist. 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, we have obtained an interview with its author.* What was it like, coming up with the idea that changed the world? Like confessing a murder. The emotional and physical struggle you went through must have taken its toll. I have suffered from almost incessant vomiting for nine months, & that has so weakened my brain, that any excitement brings on whizzing & fainting feelings. You would clearly rather I didn’t excite you further, but I must say that when I grasped your idea that life has been changing, evolving, for billions of years, I was captivated. You cannot imagine how pleased I am that the notion of Natural Selection has acted as a purgative on your bowels of immutability. Whenever naturalists can look at species changing as certain, what a magnificent field will be open. Quite so. Now I must put to you the question that authors are inevitably asked: how did you get your ideas? It seemed to me probable that allied species were descended from a common parent. But for some years I could not conceive how each form became so excellently adapted to its habits of life. I then began systematically to study domestic productions, & after a time saw clearly that man’s selective power was the most important agent. I was prepared from having studied the habits of animals to appreciate the struggle for existence, & my work in geology gave me some idea of the lapse of past time. Therefore when I happened to read “Malthus on population” the idea of Natural selection flashed on me. The “greatest idea anyone has ever had” just flashed on you! Your modesty and rigorous experimental approach are an inspiration to us all. But what would you say to young scientists starting out now? When I joined the “Beagle” as Naturalist I knew extremely little about Natural History, but I worked hard. You have been one of the most influential scientists of all time, yet your work continues to generate controversy, especially among those of a religious persuasion. You famously said there was grandeur in evolution, but does an atheist outlook help you get through the day? It has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain & suffering in this world, as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events, i.e. general laws, rather than from the direct intervention of God. Would you describe yourself as an atheist? In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind. What about the perceived conflict between religious beliefs and your theories? It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. Some of your bulldogs would deny that. They are sometimes accused of overdoing the fight against those who deny evolution. I feel sure that our good friend Huxley, though he has much influence, would have had far more if he had been more moderate & less frequent in his attacks. Your daughter Annie died when she was 10 years old, and this tragic event is said to have influenced you greatly. Can you explain your feelings about this? Thank God she suffered hardly at all, & expired as tranquilly as a little angel. – Our only consolation is, that she passed a short, though joyous life. – She was my favourite child; her cordiality, openness, buoyant joyousness & strong affection made her most loveable. Poor dear little soul. Well it is all over. You are sometimes accused – unfairly, it seems to me – of racism. What are your views on slavery, which was still very widespread when you were on the Beagle? I have seen enough of Slavery & the dispositions of the negros, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies and nonsense one hears on the subject in England… Great God how I shd like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished. Have these views had an effect on your politics? I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian Nations, Slavery. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us. I daresay you will say that I am an odious plague. Not at all. It has been an honour. *All of Darwin’s quotes are taken from his vast correspondence, collected online at the Darwin Correspondence Project. The words attributed to Darwin are as he wrote them. The questions have been framed to conform as far as possible to the context in which Darwin was writing. Hyperlinks lead to the letters from which they are taken. More on these topics: