SPCK, 2009, 160 pp.

ISBN: 978-0281060825

Reviewed by Howard Jones


For a man who eschewed religious controversy, Darwin has probably had more impact on religious thinking than anyone else born in the last 200 years. So opens a section of the Introduction that tells us why this book was written. It is not about the biological details of evolution. It explores specifically Darwin’s personal relationship with his God, how this changed over his lifetime and the emotional anxiety that his scientific discoveries caused him because of the impact he knew these ideas would have on religious belief, especially as his wife was a devout Christian.

Many books on Darwin and religion claim that the two world-views are mutually incompatible – you either believe in Darwinian evolution or in a religious account of creation, but you cannot believe both. This book shows how Darwin came to an uneasy compromise that allowed him to continue his belief in God while convinced of the truth of his theory of evolution.

Darwin initially considered a career in medicine (which he rejected as too gruesome!) and then in the ministry, but did not consider his faith strong enough to guide others. William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle, especially in his book Natural Theology (1802), saw the world as an essentially happy place designed by a benevolent God. Darwin saw too much predatory activity in nature and experienced too much anguish in his personal life through the suffering and death of three of his ten children to support this attitude of Paley’s. His own health was far from robust.

It was during the voyage of the Beagle, which lasted from 1831 to 1836, that Darwin’s already shaky Christian faith wavered further. Nature’s total indifference to the value of human life was brought home to Darwin spectacularly by seeing first-hand the devastation caused first by a volcanic eruption and then by an earthquake and tsunami along the Chilean coast.

On his return, in September 1838, Darwin began to read Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population that claimed that the growth in human population ‘is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’. Would a beneficent God have created humankind in such a parlous state? In 1844, publisher Robert Chambers published, anonymously at first, his book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation which suggested ongoing evolution of the universe, the earth, plants, animals and man – this was no seven-day event! So Darwin’s The Origin of Species was by no means the only or even the first book to raise serious questions about the role of God as related in the Bible.

Darwin believed his evidence showed that species had not been continually created so as to occupy certain God-given environmental niches but rather were determined by natural selection. He thought the idea of the deist God who had created and planned the whole course of Earth’s history from the outset was a much grander vision than that of a continually tinkering deity. In Notebook B Darwin says that the elegance of natural laws acting on creation would glorify rather than diminish God. Darwin saw the concept of God and human morality as evolving along with biological structures. This suggested that a man might change his lot in life, which was a threat to the established social order and another contentious idea. So the perceived dangers in The Origin of Species were practical and sociological as well as theological.

Darwin wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace in Dec 1855 asking for some data that would help with his research. In 1858 Wallace wrote to Darwin with a paper entitled ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type’, and this spurred Darwin on to finish his own thesis. Darwin sent Wallace’s paper on to the Linnean Society together with one of his own, ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’. Both were presented at a meeting of the Society on 1 July 1858 but their reception was lukewarm. Apparently, the Fellows completely missed the huge significance of these papers!

Darwin got into the Intelligent Design argument, reluctantly, with his friends and supporters Asa Gray and Charles Lyell: the argument ranged over issues other than God’s interference in the day-to-day running of the world moving into metaphysical subjects like free will and predestination, morality and the perennial controversy over the existence of evil. Darwin did not believe that God had anything to do with the course of events involved in evolution, his last words on the subject appearing in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1869: either God had to control all the minutiae of the natural world or not be involved at all – Darwin chose the latter option.

This excellent book by Nick Spencer gives a rare insight into some of the emotional turmoil this great man so obviously experienced as he contemplated the religious significance of the discoveries he was making and the ideas that held the facts together. Spencer adds his own insights but the story is told largely through Darwin’s own words. This is a very readable, fascinating and thoroughly recommendable book.