Darwin’s Long Regret

Since we’ve been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing new under the sun. As long as there’s been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity’s greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here’s one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase “by the Creator” was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can’t help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he’d left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin’s writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people’s preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, however, it’s that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that’s still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn’t modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It’s better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don’t worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    “Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe . . . He later called this his biggest blunder . . . ”

    Actually, with the discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, it looks like Einstein was right the first time :)

  • gamba

    Lovely! This is really intelligent, isn’t it?

  • Dark Jaguar

    It’s pretty interesting. Dawkin’s biggest regret was an act of accommodation to religious people that didn’t help to begin with, but at the very least didn’t affect his theory. The cosmological constant of Einstein, I’d argue, is the bigger blunder because that’s something he worked into the theory itself.

    That said, the blunder is his motivation for adding it. As was pointed out, it was “rediscovered” as the accelerated expansion of the universe, sometimes called “dark energy”. It now serves to explain the universe as being not stable, not eternal and fixed, which is funny.

  • lpetrich

    Darwin had compared the problem of the origin of life to that of the origin of matter. But in the nearly 150 years since, we’ve made remarkable progress in solving the latter problem.

    Most of the chemical elements have been produced in the cores of stars and then spewed out in processes ranging from stellar winds to supernova explosions.

    The lightest of them were made very early in the Universe’s history. All but the very lightest were made at a Universe age of 3 to 20 minutes from free protons and neutrons; the excess protons then made hydrogen, of course.

    There are still some unsolved problems, of course, like why the Universe has an excess of ordinary matter over its mirror image, antimatter. For every billion or so cosmic microwave background photons, there is one electron and a bit more than one nucleon (proton or neutron). But before 1 second, there were about as many electrons as CMB photons — and a nearly identical number of their antiparticles, positrons. But after 1 second, the Universe became too cold to make more electron-positron pairs, but their annihilation was still able to continue, and all the positrons and all but a billionth of the electrons were soon gone. Likewise, after a microsecond, all the antiprotons and antineutrons and all but a billionth of the protons and neutrons were gone.

    So there must have been some effect before that which made this asymmetry, but it’s been difficult to get details.

    There are other such conundrums, like the nature of “dark matter” and “dark energy”, and the origin of primordial fluctuations and our Universe itself, but I won’t get into those.

  • LindaJoy

    I am currently finishing up the second volume of Janet Browne’s excellent biography of Darwin. It is obvious that he moved from being a theist to a strong non-theist during his lifetime. He held a lot of that to himself, however, in an attempt to respect his wife’s strong beliefs. Her repayment for that respect, unfortunately, was to edit out some of his language in his autobiography section on religious belief. His grand-daughter Nora Barlow published an update in 1958 that restored Darwin’s original language on morality and on his view that condemnation to hell was a “damnable doctrine”. So while Darwin made the mistake of bowing to pressures and adding the word “creator” to his book, his wife went even further and dishonestly edited out some key thoughts in his autobiography.

    Also, this is a bit of an aside, but related to science/religion connections. I’m quite upset with NASA allowing the Pope to call the space station and perform a prayer/blessing for ALL the astronauts. I think it was another example of the Vatican trying to co-opt science through a publicity stunt, and even possibly a violation of church/state. It really galled me to see superstitious ceremony intrude on the realm of science.

  • Eurekus

    ‘With that in mind, shouldn’t modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else?’

    This and a mass education campaign is vital to show how science comes to its conclusions. Without these religion will take advantage of people’s ignorance and the pathetic cycle of religious manipulation of the facts will continue. 150 years of creationist untruths are a testament to this.

  • RipleyP

    I think a scientist in reporting findings or in formulating a theory should stick to the empirical. A theory (or more likely a hypothesis) I would assume is based on empirical data and any prediction would be empirically based.

    As I have yet to see empirical proof of superstition such as religion then no pandering to religion is required and on a different tack to ensure the independence of science I is also not desired.

    It would be interesting to know Wallace’s views on this subject. Alas I am too lazy atm to go and look


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