I decided that as a Victorianist I should mark Darwin’s birthday by listening to Radio 4’s In Our Time series about Darwin. My knowledge of Darwin is that of most people who studied English Lit – I read large chunks of The Origin of The Species when working on Victorian thought (“Nature red in tooth and claw” and all that) – but this series has certainly filled in some gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t know that Darwin had gone to Cambridge with the intention of entering the priesthood; I was also fascinated to discover that he had the same rooms as Paley, whose Natural Theology I have read (more recently). Like Paley, Darwin saw the natural world as signs of the presence of God; Melvyn Bragg makes it clear – with the help of Darwin experts – that though Darwin is used as the atheists’ weapon, the man himself did not intend his ground-breaking work to be used against God; he saw evolution as God’s intention, and refers to this in the book (in which he carefully does not discuss human evolution – or indeed use the word “evolution”).
Darwin was, it seems to me, one of the Victorian sages along with Carlyle, Arnold and Ruskin – public polymaths that our age rather lacks. I’m reading a biography of Ruskin at the moment, and like Darwin he went to university intending to join the priesthood, but spent his time on other things which were eventually to become his career. For the Evangelical Ruskin, the natural world, from the small (plants and insects which he sketched) to the large (the mountain scenery of Switzerland) were indications of God. Both men’s faith seemed to wane with age, and yet remained a sustaining presence.
We read Darwin now with the accumulated views of the past 150 years; in fact, the debate it sparked for his contemporaries was something of which he seems to have been rather afraid. In his establishment of biology as a subject, his remarkably clear and precise descriptions of natural selection, and his emotional involvement with the subject, particularly in the aftermath of the death of his eldest daughter, his work is still fascinating. The man himself has become a myth, however, and his work is too easily simplified into soundbites for popular culture. Bragg’s programmes go a long way to redress this balance, and I highly recommend listening. They’re online for a few more days here.