Condolence letters to Darwin’s family released on the 140th anniversary of his death

April 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

April 19 was the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, and the wonderful “Darwin Online” project, which presents virtually everything the man ever wrote, has released a bunch of messages received by the Darwin family after his death.  Kudos to John van Wyhe, who curates this project and sent out a notice that this material has been released.

Below is the site’s introduction to the many letters, of which I reproduce but a few (via links) below:

2022, 04.19

On the occasion of the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, we are providing the Darwin family’s collection of letters and telegrams from his relatives, friends, contemporaries and institutions at home and abroad upon the news of his death in 1882. The messages, addressed to the Darwin family, expressed grief and sorrow, offered condolences, reminiscences and tributes to the scientific figure who had transformed our understanding of the world forever. Over ninety of these letters reveal intimate and personal sentiments felt by the sender. These have been transcribed for the first time, only on Darwin Online.

Click on the link below to access them all.

Here are some notable letters from Darwin’s friends and colleagues, as well as people whom he influenced (with links):

Galton, Francis. 1882.04.20. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7h

Haeckel, Ernst. 1882.04.24. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8a

Huxley Thomas Henry. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10k

Huxley, T. H. 1882.04.22. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.6c

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10i

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.29. Letter to William Erasmus and George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10j

Murray, John. [1882].04.24. Letter to William Erasmus Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10p

Murray was Darwin’s publisher, which included the various editions of On the Origin of Species

Papé, Charlotte. 1882.04.21. Letter to [Francis] Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7k

Romanes, George John. 1882.04.22. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8e

Gray, Asa. 1882.04.23. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10h 

Students, Agricultural Academy in Petrovsky, Moscow. 1882.04.24. Telegram to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.12l

Vries, Hugo de. 1882.04.25. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.9i

Moscow University Geological Department. 1882.04.28. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.11o


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

April 5, 2022 • 6:03 am

Jerry is in transit so his British amanuensis is filling in. Normal service will soon be resumed.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is pondering the fundamental question of cat existence.
A: What are you waiting for?
Hili: I’m thinking whether to go in or out.
Ja: Na co czekasz?
Hili: Zastanawiam się, czy wejść, czy wyjść.


Apart from the horror of the war, the big news of the day is that two of Darwin’s notebooks, including one with the famous ‘I think’ diagram in it, have been mysteriously returned safe and sound to Cambridge University library, together with this enigmatic note:


Here’s Dr Jessica Gardner, one of the librarians, with one of the notebooks:
No one knows who the culprit is. Adam Rutherford denies all knowledge:

On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & 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. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But 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, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

Two books on Darwin

February 12, 2022 • 5:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

For Darwin’s birthday, I thought I’d mention two books about Darwin, both by the noted Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, whom Jerry and I have both had the pleasure of meeting, and who we’ve had occasion to mention here on WEIT a number of times. As anyone with more than a passing interest in Darwin should know, John is the editor of the indispensable Darwin Online.

The first is Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (Andre Deutsch, London, 2018). Although I hadn’t planned it that way, very fittingly I finished reading it this morning. This is a reissue of a book first published in 2008 in anticipation of the Darwin bicentennial. The first issue was published in the US and the UK with different subtitles, and slightly later (2009) in the US.

I can highly recommend this as a very well-illustrated capsule summary of Darwin’s life. It begins with one of the best summaries of the state of knowledge and inquiry into natural history in the early 19th century I’ve ever read, then takes up Darwin’s life from birth, to university, to the four corners of the Earth in the Beagle, then to his return to England. Succeeding sections (there are no numbered chapters) are mostly structured around Darwin’s major works, tracing his life and contributions through a chronological sequence of those works.

The text covers at most half of the pages of this 160 page book, the rest being given over to illustrations. Almost all are contemporary, either illustrations from scientific papers and monographs, or of people and places in Darwin’s life. There are also quite a few reproductions of pages from Darwin’s published works and manuscripts. (Pages 120-123, a reproduction of several pages from the Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society paper of 1858, is labeled, incorrectly, as an extract from one of Darwin’s unpublished MS from 1857.) The illustrations are a great plus. In the original issue of 2008, the selection of illustrations was somewhat different (there were more of them), and they were larger, some being fold out; in the current issue the size may be a bit of a problem in seeing detail in some of them.

My own copy is the UK issue of 2018. A US reissue has a 2022 copyright date, but the UK one of 2018 is available in the US. (The larger format issue of 2008 [2009 in the US] can also still be found.) To learn all about Darwin’s life, read Janet Browne’s 2-volume masterpiece. But until you do, read this book, and have it alongside for the illustrations when you read Browne.

The other book, Darwin: A Companion, by Paul van Helvert and van Wyhe (World Scientific, Singapore, 2021) came out last year. I have not seen it yet, though I have seen the earlier edition (1978) by Robert Freeman on which it is based.

Unlike the previous book, which is a great entry point for the tyro, this book is for the more serious student of Darwin. The Companion is an encyclopedic collection of virtually everything known to be connected to Darwin the man. The new edition is 50% again as large as the first, and has added several dozen illustrations. This is not really a book to be read, but rather consulted or browsed (in the nutritive sense); Darwin completists will need a copy. As Janet Browne wrote in her blurb for the new edition, “There is more here than even Darwin would have known about himself.”

Bob Richards answers Agustin Fuentes

July 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

A few weeks back, Agustín Fuentes, a biological anthropologist and primatologist at Princeton, wrote an op-ed in Science about Darwin’s racism and sexism as Fuentes’s way of “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s pair of books The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. What Fuentes did was treat Darwin as if he were living at the present time, and then indict him for his retrograde Victorian views on different races and on women—though Darwin was far more enlightened than most Victorian gentlemen of the era (he was, for one thing, an active abolitionist). I suspect that Fuentes himself, had he lived in the mid-nineteenth century, would have been at least as “bad” as Darwin in that respect. Or would Fuentes have been the single Wokest person in Victorian England?

But it’s a mistake to call out people for failing to conform to morality that evolved 150 years after their time. That is a Whiggish view of science, and Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing kicked up a bit of a tempest (see here), prompting multiple letters to Science, including one that I signed. The letters are here, and you can see other squabbling by going here.

One letter just appeared from my Chicago colleague Robert Richards, a historian of science with expertise in biology and evolutionary biology. Bob and I organized the 200th anniversary celebration of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin) here at the U of C. He knows a ton about Darwin and evolution (I highly recommend his essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?“), and appears to have been really put off by Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing.

Here’s a letter from Richards that just appeared in Science. I think it’s remarkably level-headed, but of course I agree with him.

The last three sentences are especially good.

Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

June 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.

I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece.  The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.

Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):

What we wrote:

RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on

“The Descent of Man” 150 years on

In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).

Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.

Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1

1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email:

1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).

We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.

Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

May 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

On May 22 I discussed, or rather criticized sharply, a takedown of Darwin published in Science by by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University. This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s two-part book: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. And while there was a good article in the same issue of Science by three other researchers , Fuentes’s short takedown, while it did at least note Darwin’s book had some merit, wound up being a misguided and highly woke critique calling out Darwin for racism, sexism and misogyny. My article pointed out some of Fuentes’s errors; I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Fuentes claimed that Darwin’s view of sexual selection in animals and humans involved female passivity and male choice, ergo it was misogynistic, denying females a role in evolution. (There may, however, indeed be cases where females are passive, as when males compete with each other—e.g., elephant seals or deer—and females are constrained to mate with the winner. Is it really useful to say that male-male competition for females is a misogynistic view? But most theories of sexual selection, including Darwin’s, involve both male traits and behaviors and female preferences for those traits and behaviors, so Fuentes didn’t even get his biology right.

The second involves Fuentes’s ridiculous assertion that Darwin’s views justified genocide and colonialism. As I wrote, quoting Fuentes:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others.

Again, Fuentes didn’t do his homework, for he was eager to convince the world that Darwin, who was far more liberal in his views than most of his Victorian peers (he was, for one thing, an abolitionist), was riddled with moral failings.

Here’s one more beef I had before we move on to Robert Wright’s critique. I wrote this:

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin.

As a friend wrote me:

This kind of anachronistic moralization has been neatly exposed by the philosopher Robbie George – way, way, to the religious right of us, but clever and broad-minded (he’s joined with Cornel West in defending academic freedom). George asked his class whether if they had been antebellum Southerners they would have opposed slavery, and of course all of them—preposterously—claim they would have been abolitionists. A moral version of the Fundamental Attribution Error – people think that people who hold bad beliefs must be bad people.

Likewise, I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?

But I digress. Another person who offers a thorough critique of Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing is author Robert Wright. I have often disagreed with Wright, but I’m with him 100% in this article from his Substack site (click on the screenshot):

Like Fuentes did towards Darwin, Wright offers some tepid praise for Fuentes’s hit job:

There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It’d be stranger if he WASN’T ‘problematic’ by today’s standards.”)

That is, Fuentes’s piece is laudable because one can understand it. Not high praise! Also, Darwin’s views on race and gender have been well known for years to clash with modern sensibilities, so that’s not new.

But then Wright swings his hammer, and his concern is pretty much the same as mine: Darwin’s supposed justification of genocide. Wright correctly sees a logical error here:

Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.

The error:

Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.

So Wright contacted Fuentes and asks for evidence that Darwin justified imperialism and genocide. Fuentes doesn’t respond properly, but just points to a chapter in Darwin’s book. Unfortunately for Fuentes, Wright read that chapter and found that while Darwin explains why races supplant each other, he never justifies it. Wright gives several quotes about how tribes drive each other to extinction, but there is nothing even close to the view that Darwin is “justifying genocide” or approving of mass killing.

Wright then goes on to give the well-known evidence that Darwin was often horrified by the damage and pain wrought by natural selection as it eliminates ill-adapted individuals. And, as we know, that Darwin correctly believed in monogenesis: that all “races” and groups of human descended from a single common ancestor.  Here’s a bit from Wright with a very famous quote from Darwin:

Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.

First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing?

Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.

He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?

On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”

I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”

Indeed!  Fuentes is conflating what Darwin thought was true in nature (and he may have been wrong) with Darwin’s approval of nature. In other words, Fuentes committed the classic “naturalistic fallacy”: equating what happens in the wild with what is good or worthy of approval.

Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:

. . . if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.

Good job, Robert!

Although some of us predicted that the Pecksniffs would eventually come after Darwin, other readers said that wouldn’t happen. Well, it did, and perhaps more is in store. But if the best job that can be done is one like Fuentes’s, it’s not a convincing indictment of Darwin as an immoral racist, sexist, and colonialist.

For sure Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern moral lights. But he was more liberal, and more kind, than most Brits in his position, and why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science? The morality of Victorian days is largely gone, but the science remains.

I’d like to think that, in the future, instead of being known as “The man who took down Darwin,” Fuentes will be known as “The Pecksniff who went after Darwin but failed to score a hit.”  The man’s scholarship is shoddy, and his piece looks like an excuse to flaunt Fuentes’s own moral superiority—or the moral superiority of moderns over Victorians. But if you want to hear about moral improvement without the snark and finger-pointing, it’s better to read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

h/t: Justin

A Pecksniffian anthropologist takes down Darwin for being a man of his time

May 22, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (people often forget that it’s paired with another book, Selection in Relation to Sex), and the journal Science has celebrated the year in two ways. The first is an article pointing out, tiresomely, erroneously, and not for the first time, that Darwin was a sexist, racist, colonialist, and oppressor whose theories supposedly harmed many people. That is the first note below (click on screenshot), written by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece:

The piece isn’t totally bad, but it’s bad enough that I want to register a few plaints. The main ones are that Fuentes is not saying anything that hasn’t been said before: Darwin indeed had some racist, sexist, colonialist, and white-supremacist views that were expressed in his works, especially in The Descent of Man (Fuentes repeatedly confuses the two books, as some of the views he criticizes appear in Selection in Relation to Sex).

To be fair, Fuentes does credit Darwin with his insight and his durable and correct theory of evolution. But as he gives with one hand, he takes with the other:

 But despite these ideal frames and some innovative inferences, “Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin’s day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity.

Yes, the tired old Bucephalus of critical theory: “it’s problematic.”

And then we get the usual litany: Darwin believed that whites were superior to blacks and other non-Europeans; he thought women were inferior to men, opined that eventually the white “race” would supplant other groups, and so on. This much we’ve all known for a long time, and many of us, including me, have taught it to our students.

But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen.  And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).

Now, onto what I see as Fuentes’s missteps. Here’s one about selection and racial differentiation:

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races.

. . . His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

The first part of this is fine, but the second, about how “races” and sexes come to differ from one another morphologically, is not. Darwin saw sexual selection (a subset of natural selection, by the way) as the process whereby different ethnic groups come to differ in appearance. He may well have been right about this. And clearly, there are evolutionary differences between the appearance of ethnic groups. These are certainly genetic, and the morphological homogeneity within groups compared to the palpable differences between groups suggest an evolutionary origin.

What kind of evolution was it? As I said, Darwin’s view was that groups of humans (as well as males versus females) are affected by sexual selection based on either male-male competition or “choice”. The choice, according to Darwin, was made by females preferring arbitrary but aesthetically appealing male traits: song, ornaments, plumage, and so on. (For humans, Darwin sometimes intimated that the “choice” was made by males, but by females in other animal species.) This “beauty matters” hypothesis has its biggest exponent in Richard Prum, and though I am not convinced by his arguments, it’s mainly because we lack data, not because Prum is known to be wrong. Here’s Prum in a paper discussing Darwin’s views:

Darwin was explicit, repeated and adamant in maintaining that the evolution of secondary sexual characters by mate choice was an aesthetic mechanism of evolution. For example, he wrote:

With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex.* The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females … If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit. [, p. 61]; * sentence added in second edition)

On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. [, p. 466]

[Male birds] charm the female by vocal and instrumental music of the most varied kinds. [, p. 466]

It is important to establish what Darwin’s language meant in modern terms. Darwin lacked our modern sensitivity to avoiding anthropomorphizing his subjects. Rather, he was actively engaged in reducing the distinctions between humans and animals. But Darwin was not trying to shock his readers. He used these aesthetic terms as ordinary language without any special semantic or cultural implications. Darwin was specifically proposing that animals (mostly females) were making sensory and cognitive evaluations of display traits, and making mate choices based on those evaluations. Darwin used ‘taste for the beautiful’ to refer to differential behavioural response to a secondary sexual sensory stimulus. While this aspect of Darwin’s opinion was highly controversial at the time [], it is mainstream now. If that were the only issue, there would be no need for us to revive Darwin’s use of aesthetic language. Our contemporary terms cover this meaning.

While I doubt Prum’s views as a general explanation of sexual dimorphism (I’m more inclined to see differences between human ethnic groups as a “beauty matters” issue), he may be right in some cases, and at any rate note that the agency here is exercised by females, not males. In what sense, then, are Fuentes’s females “passive” if they are choosing among males competing for their attentions? Darwin makes the females quite active!

Speaking of stuff that Darwin got wrong, his biggest whopper was his erroneous theory of genetics, in which he thought that hereditary “mutations” were invoked by environmental change, a “Lamarckian” view. We know now that Darwin was wrong, but fortunately his theory didn’t depend on a correct mechanism of genetics, but only on the fact that there was genetic variation in populations that could be passed on, and affected survival and reproduction. The fact that Fuentes omits this biggest whopper in favor of moral indictments shows that he has an explicitly ideological aim, which he reveals in the last paragraph of his article (see below).

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

Finally, Fuentes neglects that Darwin did do some backsliding about the hegemony of natural selection as an explanation for everything. Here’s a quote from The Descent of Man: (h/t Nick Matzke)

. . . . but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nägeli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure. I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work. I may be permitted to say as some excuse, that I had two distinct objects in view, firstly, to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change, though largely aided by the inherited effects of habit, and slightly by the direct action of the surrounding conditions. Nevertheless I was not able to annul the influence of my former belief, then widely prevalent, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacitly assuming that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service. Any one with this assumption in his mind would naturally extend the action of natural selection, either during past or present times, too far.

Yes, Darwin went back and altered the fifth edition of The Origin to reflect this change of views.

In Fuentes’s last paragraph, he reveals his aim: to increase inclusion and diversity (presumably racial and gender diversity) among evolutionists in hope that this will it easier to catch Darwin’s moral errors as well as those of other evolutionary biologists.


Reflecting on “Descent” today one can look to data demonstrating unequivocally that race is not a valid description of human biological variation, that there is no biological coherence to “male” and “female” brains or any simplicity in biological patterns related to gender and sex, and that “survival of the fittest” does not accurately represent the dynamics of evolutionary processes. The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry. In the end, learning from “Descent” illuminates the highest and most interesting problem for human evolutionary studies today: moving toward an evolutionary science of humans instead of “man.”

Re the first part: yes, scientists have long rejected the simplistic view of “races” as easily demarcated groups of people that differ genetically in profound ways, but we still recognize clustered ethnic groupings. As for “no biological coherence to male and female brains”, I believe that this is a matter of debate (see here) and, at any rate, I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap). One example is the male-female difference in sexual behavior, similar to that of many other animals.  This must be coded somehow in the brain. As far as “survival of the fittest” not accurately representing the dynamics of the evolutionary process, well, duhhh. For 30 years I’ve told my classes that “reproduction of the fittER” is a more accurate characterization of how natural selection works, and an even more accurate representation would be that “the genes that become more numerous over evolutionary time are those that leave more copies of themselves.” The latter idea is hard to convey to undergraduates, though!

While I do believe that some of our unrecognized prejudices can be addressed by broadening the types of people we want to attract to evolutionary biology (I think the emphasis on female preference in sexual selection was promoted to some extent by women biologists), I really don’t think that making diversity and inclusion the central focus of “evolutionary inquiry” will lead to profound breakthroughs. This presumes that there are race- or gender-based ways of thinking about evolution, and while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think it’s true to an appreciable or important extent. What we need is to start turning on kids to evolution at a young age; that is, we should “widen the pipeline”, attracting the best thinkers from all groups. It is deeply patronizing to try to hire minorities so they can help us “reject the legacy of of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences.”

To counterbalance the tut-tutting of Fuentes, though, we have a longer article in the same issue which talks about Darwin’s book, shows its contributions, and steers well clear of morality. Click on screenshot to read the article:

And its summary:

Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin’s work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just human biology but also the social sciences, vindicating Darwin’s insights.

The ideology and the “I’m better than Darwin was” attitude can be left for classes in the history and philosophy of science.


h/t: Nick Matzke, Andrew Berry, Brian Charlesworth, and Matthew Cobb for discussion.

What I did for Darwin’s Birthday

February 14, 2020 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As Jerry noted at the time, this past Wednesday was Darwin’s Birthday. My evolutionary biology class met the previous day, Tuesday, and the first slide I showed for the day was the following.

The “click here” in the middle of the slide led to a performance of the Beatles’ song “Birthday”. (For copyright reasons, the video features the Beatles, but the sound is Paul alone in a post-Beatles performance.)

On Darwin Day itself, I watched Creation, a 2009 biopic about Darwin starring Paul Bettany as Charles and Jennifer Connelly as Emma. I did not see it at the time of its release, and it had some difficulty finding a U.S. distributor, ostensibly because Darwin and evolution were too controversial for the American public.

Jerry gathered a few reviews at the time, which were not terribly enthusiastic. I took a look at those reviews, one in the N.Y. Times by A.O. Scott, my favorite film critic, and one by Ryan Jay, another favorite critic. Both were also lukewarm on the film, Jay giving it his middling score of “Rent It”, with Scott being a bit more harsh:

It aims for a liberal-minded balance, at least on the thematic level. But at the same time the film traffics in the pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo that is the standard folk religion of the film biography, and undermines its interest in reason by dabbling in emotive pop occultism. Recoiling from the possibility that ideas themselves might impart tension and interest to this tale, Mr. Amiel [the director] and Mr. Collee [the writer] induce a kind of literary brain fever and reduce Darwin’s work to a symptom of his mental and emotional anguish.

I did not look at the reviews before watching the film, so the following comments are not “pre-influenced”. A

ll in all, I was disappointed. The production values are high, and some filming was even done at Down House. The level of production design accuracy was fairly high (e.g., the washroom with curtain in Darwin’s study). Parts of the dialogue I recognized as being taken from Emma’s and, especially, Charles’ letters. Bettany, as made up, does a fair Darwin impersonation, and I was charmed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s unexpected turn as Hooker. (Cumberbatch was largely unknown, at least to American audiences, at the time, and is buried in the credits.) But Connelly is given almost nothing worthwhile to do, wasting her talents; and Huxley (played by Toby Jones) is written as crankily aggressive, rather than as the erudite explicator he seems from his public writings.

And the plot seems quite muddled. The film centers on Darwin’s relationships with Emma and, even more so, on their daughter Annie, who died in 1851. But most of the action takes place several years later, with frequent flashbacks (some to the Beagle voyage), yet Annie is everywhere (except the Beagle). This may be a case of knowing a little being dangerous, as I kept trying to fit the various scenes into a coherent timeline, and only later realized that Annie is a ghost, or better, a symptom of Darwin’s hallucinations, in many, though not all, of the scenes. I don’t know if a naive viewer would be more or less confused than me by this.

Were I someone not versed in the history of evolutionary biology, I would thus give it a mixed review. But knowing some of the actual history, I found some of the themes of the film suffered from being, at best, misplaced in their emphases. The film shows Darwin as losing (most of) his Christian faith as the result of wrenching inner turmoil, leading to open conflict with Emma, with the death of Annie pushing him towards the edge of madness and final loss of faith. Darwin’s well-known ill health is portrayed as essentially psychosomatic, the result of guilt over Annie’s death and his loss of faith. And, his nagging internal torments delayed his work for many years. While there is a grain of truth in each of these elements, the resulting picture is distorted. Darwin did mourn the death of Annie; he did love Emma dearly, and fretted over their differences with regard to faith (see especially this); he knew that consanguineous marriages could lead to “weakness” in children; and he was ill. But he wasn’t nearly mad; his faith more nearly slipped away; he probably didn’t delay terribly long; and the child whose illness was vexing him at the time was not Annie (long dead), but little Charles (who died shortly after Darwin received Wallace’s letter from Ternate).

I searched for, and found two contemporaneous reviews from a more scientific/historical (as opposed to film criticism) perspective. The first was a review by Janet Browne, Darwin’s most authoritative biographer, and professor of the history of science at Harvard. As do the film critics, she takes a lukewarm view

The movie Creation gives . . . a fictionalized perspective. . .  Once one gets over the mismatch between the known historical record and the sentimental version of Victorian family life that is presented here, the film has some rather good sections. . . . [Darwin’s] love for his nine-year-old daughter Anne excessively dominates the plot. There are some delightful scenes, mostly in flashback again, followed by some stupid ones in which Darwin becomes so deranged by her death that he has nightmares (overly tinged with Henry Fuseli) and continuously hallucinates her presence. About ninety minutes into the film, the storyline goes haywire with Darwin vomiting, weeping, and hallucinating. The death of this daughter is presented as the emotional fulcrum of the film, bringing the religious differences of her parents to the fore and serving as a foil for drawing out Darwin’s doubts about publishing. Perhaps.

The other review was by James Williams, senior lecturer in science education at Sussex. His review is scathing. He notes the confusing chronology, details a number of errors and lapses, and laments that the actual events would have made for a better film. Some excerpts.

It promised so much, yet delivered a turkey! . . .

Granted, the film did give some excellent and accurate portrayals of events, but why deliver them out of sequence and why leave out some important details, yet include others? . . .

The film is set in 1858-59, seven years after Annie’s tragic death. Yet the filmgoer is left firmly with the impression that she is alive in 1858 and dies sometime in 1858/9. . . .

At least Alfred Russel Wallace (my personal hero) did get a mention – but only just. It was the receipt of Wallace’s letter by Darwin that prompted Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker to urge Darwin to write Origin, not a visit by Huxley.

Darwin was distraught by the letter he received from Wallace (accurate in the film), but what put pressure on him was not Annie’s health (she was already dead at this point remember) but the health of his newborn son Charles – who did actually die during the period of his receipt of Wallace’s letter – and the fact that children in the village were sick and dying. Just how Emma could be pregnant with Charles junior, at the same time as worrying about Annie’s health, defies biological understanding.

The film makers were determined to make Annie the focus of Darwin’s angst during the writing of ‘Origin’ and deemed this to be the dramatic ‘device’. When you look at the REAL story of how Darwin was almost forestalled and what was happening in his life during June/July of 1858 and through to the publication of ‘Origin’ in 1859 – there was drama enough without having to destroy historical accuracy.

The film is based (loosely, as Williams insists) on Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great-great grandson, Randal Keynes. I recalled a paper by John van Wyhe debunking the hypothesis that Annie’s death ended Darwin’s faith.  (We have had a number of occasions here at WEIT to comment favorably on van Wyhe’s work, including his editing of Darwin Online, and Jerry was able to meet him on a visit to Singapore, while I did the same when I invited him to speak as part of our Darwin bicentennial celebrations.) The paper was from 2012; Van Wyhe and his coauthor, Mark Pallen, wrote

That Annie’s death caused great distress to her parents and family is beyond dispute. A week after her death Darwin penned a tender memoir of Annie, which was first published (in part) by his son, Francis, in The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887) . . .  Darwin closed the memoir with a cry from the heart: ‘We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:—she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly wedo still and shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.’ However, it must be stressed that nowhere in the millions of written words by Darwin that survive did he ever indicate, directly or indirectly, that Annie’s death had anything to do with his loss of faith. Of course it would be naïve to restrict the evidence only to explicit statements. But first we must acknowledge that there are none. Furthermore, as we shall see, the balance of all surviving evidence that bears on his loss of faith suggests there was no connection with Annie at all. . . .

The suggestion of a sudden death knell for Darwin’s religious belief built on strong emotion stands in stark contrast to his consistent accounts of his loss of faith, which followed from an assessment of the evidence for Christianity and which took place at a‘rate:::so slow that I felt no distress’ (Barlow, 1958, p. 87). Yet Annie’s death was the most distressing event in Darwin’s life. No explanation for this dramatic contradiction has ever been provided. The time has come to bury the Annie hypothesis.

So, in 2009, it was perhaps defensible, or at least popular, to suppose the truth of the so-called “Annie hypothesis”, but van Wyhe and Pallen seem to have laid it to rest.

Another element of the film, though not quite as prominent, is Darwin’s “delay”. Van Wyhe has also addressed this in his paper “Mind the Gap

In this essay it is argued that not only is there no evidence that Darwin avoided publishing his theory for many years, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against that interpretation. By re-examining the historical evidence, without presuming that Darwin avoided publication, it can be shown that there is no reason to introduce such a hypothesis in the first place. If we come to the evidence already believing that Darwin put it off, then vague and ambiguous passages will seem consistent with such a view. . . .

A fresh analysis of Darwin’s manuscripts, letters, publications and the writings of those who knew him intimately shows the story to be quite different from one of a lifetime of avoiding publication. It will be demonstrated that Darwin’s delay is a historiographical theme of quite recent date and unknown not only to Darwin and his contemporaries but also to generations of writers after them. Furthermore, this theme is not the product of the greater knowledge of Darwin produced by modern historical scholarship since the 1960s. Modern writers inherited Darwin’s delay from earlier writers who did not have access to the full manuscript corpus.

In fact, Darwin hardly veered from his original plans for working out and publishing his species theory in due course.

If you are a Darwin completist, you’ll want to see the film, but otherwise you can skip it. Its emphases seems wrong, perhaps to the point of no return; but I did enjoy some parts, and the segment conjoining Annie’s death, and the death of a young orangutan at the London Zoo, moved me near to tears. As Janet Browne concluded, “In my view the juvenile orangutan was outstanding.”

Browne, J. 1995. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 1. Voyaging. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Browne, J. 2002. Charles Darwin: a Biography. Volume 2. The Power of Place. Knopf, New York.

Browne, J. 2010. [Review of ] Darwin’s Darkest Hour [and] Creation. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 84:671-674. gated

Wyhe, J. van. 2007. Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61:177-205. Darwin Online

Wyhe, J. van, and M.J. Pallen. 2012. The ‘Annie hypothesis’: Did the death of his daughter cause Darwin to ‘give up Christianity’? Centaurus 54:105-123. pdf

Feynman memorabilia for auction, including his Nobel Prize! (Also, Darwiniana and Einstein’s palm print)

November 30, 2018 • 10:00 am

This is sad, and I’m not sure why Richard Feynman’s papers and even his Nobel Prize medal are up for auction rather than going to a museum or an archive (does the family need money?). But if you want some Feynmania, Sotheby’s auction house can accommodate you. You have to have a lot of dosh, of course. The auction site is below, and I’ll put up some selected items with their estimates. (The sale, by the way, started at 10 a.m. eastern time in New York, and you can watch live by going to the site):

There’s a lot more, too.

A cool million for the Prize medal!

Some other cool stuff. You want an Enigma machine?

Anything about Einstein with his signature is worth a ton! Especially his BIBLE!


And over here, you can even get Einstein’s handprint! Why isn’t this worth more than his autograph?

Finally, maybe some rich reader would like to give me a Christmas present:


h/t: Amy