Theological policeman? Some history of the Darwins

May 27, 2019 • 11:00 am

Here’s some interesting material on the history of evolutionary biology, posted with permission of Dr. Browne.

Last night I had dinner with several people associated with Harvard, among them Janet Browne, a renowed historian of science and a professor at the University. Janet is the author, among other things, of the definitive biography of Charles Darwin, a two-volume set that is both historically rigorous and dazzlingly readable (the Amazon sites for the books are here and here).

As I departed, I had one question that I wanted to ask her, which went something like this: “Tell me, Janet, in all your researches on Charles Darwin, delving deeply into every aspect of his life and times, what do you think was the most surprising or novel revelation you uncovered.”

She said, “Do you mind if it’s not Charles but Emma?” (Emma Wedgwood was Darwin’s wife.)

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

Janet said that Emma is classically characterized as deeply religious, with her faith being often cited as a major constraint on Darwin’s scientific career. For example, there has been speculation that Darwin delayed publishing his thoughts on evolution for fear of upsetting Emma with his “heresy.”  This theory speculates that he would have published his theory more than a decade before The Origin finally appeared in 1859 had he not been sensitive to his wife’s concerns.

In fact, Darwin’s theory was more or less complete by 1844, when he put together an essay outlining his ideas.  The delay would have been even longer had not he received, in 1858, a letter from A. R. Wallace laying out the same ideas—Darwin now had to publish to establish his precedence.

Janet said that while Darwin’s sensitivity to Emma’s beliefs may have played a role in delaying publication, this is a gross mischaracterization of Emma and religion. Emma was indeed devout and churchgoing, but of course this was in Victorian Britain, where it was the universal practice to attend church. But in reality, said Janet, Emma’s faith was less doctrinaire than supposed, and waned as she got older. (Darwin died 1882, while Emma lived on until 1896.)

Andrew teaches the history of science with Janet, and relates that, in class, Janet says that, contrary to widely held views of Emma as a dogmatic “theological policeman,” jealously guarding her husband’s eternal soul from scientific heresy, she was in fact much more liberal and enlightened. A measure of Emma’s sophistication can be seen from the fact that, before marrying Charles, she toured Europe and even took piano lessons from Chopin. To characterize her as a bible-thumping simpleton is to do her a serious injustice.  Darwin wrote that, “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather been unsaid.”

Emma Darwin

h/t: Andrew Berry


29 thoughts on “Theological policeman? Some history of the Darwins

  1. Darwin wrote that, “She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather been unsaid.”

    Well, would that we should all find someone who thinks of us like this! Very romantic.

    1. I like the buttoned-up intensity of it. I like the way Victorian romantics spoke about love in general. The deep, tidal rips of emotion under the surface, and the very considered, carefully constructed sentences, where each word is chosen for a reason.

      Talking openly about love, shouting ‘I love you’ at the top of your voice, was more difficult back then, so they presumably had to put more care into their expressions of affection, had to really work at conveying how they felt. Sometimes you can almost feel the longing vibrating from the page.

  2. In reading about her she never came across as bible-thumping dogmatist or a theological police(wo)man.

    She always seemed like she believed very strongly in god, and heaven, and was worried about her husband, genuinely worried about him ending up in the bad place, but she also seemed exceedingly liberal, kind, gentle.

    Besides, the idea that someone like Darwin, who was himself pretty liberal and gentle, would end up with a bible-thumping dogmatist is slightly silly on the face of it.

    An unpleasant intersection between the religious/reactionary right and uber-progressive far-left-wingers is their shared habit of smearing Darwin by cherry-picking certain phrases, or heaping the responsibility for eugenics and racism onto his shoulders – he seems to have been one of the most tolerant, thoughtful, gentle people in Victorian England, Emma Darwin too.

    1. Besides, the idea that someone like Darwin, who was himself pretty liberal and gentle, would end up with a bible-thumping dogmatist is slightly silly on the face of it.

      They were related (first cousins, or second? I never did see the need to learn the intricacies of genealogical terminology when family trees are so much less confusing. does that mean they had a grandparents in common, or great grandparents? Or one generation back?) and both were from scientifically-minded families with Emma’s family including the developer of industrial ceramics, Josiah Wedgwood while Darwin’s phylogeny included the evolutionary philosopher and physician, Erasmus Darwin.
      It’s pretty unlikely that tub-thumbing hellfire and brimstone bullshitters would have lasted long in such an environment.

      1. I remember starting but not finishing a book about Darwin’s anti-slavery stance. I wasn’t convinced that he was a major figure in the story of anti-slavery but he did seem to be a genuinely enlightened guy. Barring the odd reference to ‘lower races’, as everyone called them back then.

        1. I think it was one of his aunts who was fervently anti-slavery, but Charles -albeit indeed not a major figure there- himself was also opposed, as can be read in his travels with the Beagle, where he clearly deplores the slavery in Brazil.

      2. First cousins, they shared the first Josiah Wedgwood and Sarah (or Sally) Wedgwood as common grandparents. Charles’s sister Caroline had already married Emma’s brother Josiah (the third with that name) before Charles and Emma married. Emma’s fahter (and Charle’s uncle), Josiah (the second of that name), had also persuaded Charle’s father to allow Charles to travel on the Beagle. Charles’ brother, Erasmus, may also have had an affair with Emma’s brother’s wife, Frances (husband Hensleigh), while Charles was on the Beagle.

        1. “Oh what tangled phylogenies arise /
          When first we practice to decieve.”
          I’m mangling someone, but I’m not sure who.

    1. Just checked out the story on young Darwin in the Guardian. The results of less park cleanup makes some sense to me. While Kelowna BC CDA is not the country for the nightingale our parks people have deliberately begun leaving our parks in many locations less groomed. More wild growth, decay and tangle – not garbage. The result over about a decade has been noticeable – there are many more animals and birds living along our creeks and in city parkland.

  3. Fascinating story. Emma was clearly very important to Charles during his career. Perhaps we owe her thanks for helping with his success.
    The story about Darwin I find very touching is when his daughter, Annie, “died shortly after her 10th birthday; he was too overcome with grief to attend her funeral.” I’m sure Emma was strongly affected too. Emma probably was comforted to think Annie would ascend to heaven, while Charles must have been less hopeful.

    1. It does give the lie to the idea that all Victorian parents treated their kids as expendable, that they used nannies and such as proxies for themselves and never showed children any emotion for fear they’d join the circus or turn French. Maybe a lot of them were like that, but less than we think.

      A good deal of the stereotypes we have come from the ‘parents’ guide-books’ from that time, the really brutal ones that told the parents not to touch their baby when they cried, etc. But they only survived and became famous because they were so extreme. Ditto Baden-Powell’s Scouting For Boys talking about bee colonies being the perfect society because they ‘protect the queen and kill their unemployed’. The less insane examples of Victorian adult behaviour don’t survive because they’re not as interesting.

  4. One correction is that is impossible for Emma to have taken lessons from Chopin while traveling in Europe; they were never in the same place at the same time. She may have met him much later when he came to England. The story however was recorded by at least one of her children after her death (I suspect some misremembering of what they were actually told). She was considered to be a good pianist.

    She was raised unitarian and remained so though attending the local parish church. Her son, Francis, recalls that in church she made the family (her and the children, her husband didn’t go) turn around in silence when a creed (all three of which are trinitarian) was recited.

    Like other well-educated women of her time she was taught some modern languages (young men such as Charles were taught Latin and Greek) and knew German well enough to handle translating letters from her husband’s German correspondents. She also knew French and Italian.

  5. Well it sounds like there’s two more books to put on my wish list. I admit that I have begun to shy away from purchasing yet another biographical book about Darwin, as it seems they have little that is new to share. I will certainly make the exception in this case.

  6. I have, and read Charles Darwin.Voyaging by Janet Browne. I am better informed of his life and of the times of one of my heroes. A “story of former times with almost a living tongue”

  7. From what I have read about her, I’ve never thought it plausible that Darwin delayed publishing Origin because of Emma. Which leaves the question “Why was Darwin procrastinating?”

    1. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore make a convincing (to me, at any rate) case that Darwin was troubled by why neighbouring peoples such as tha San and Xhosa retained their very obvious physical differences. Part of his opposition to slavery was his view that all human beings were the same species, in which case, why were they not more homogeneous? It took a long time, but he eventually came up with the concept of sexual selection, and was only then prepared to go into print on the evolutionary origins of people.

      1. I read that too. I can’t say I was convinced by their premise but I definitely came away with an appreciation for the man’s overall decency.

  8. Not to detract from the point of this post, but another interesting dimension to Darwin – similar to this – can be glimpsed by reading about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams- for example the biography by Ursula Vaughn Williams – because he was Charles Darwin’s nephew.

    Salient to the post at hand, The most interesting quote is from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ mother, who wrote (the biography draws heavily on letters) :

    After this Ralph asked his mother about The Origin of Species, and what it meant. She answered:
    ‘The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.’

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