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Darwin’s Complaint

In response to:

What Was Wrong With Darwin? from the September 15, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin (NYR, September 15), Professor Bartley makes a number of errors—concerning Darwin’s illness, life, and aspects of Darwin scholarship—which I should like to comment on.

Bartley says that, as a possible cure for his illness, Darwin tried mesmerism. In 1851, on the urging of Dr. Gully, Darwin unsuccessfully consulted with a clairvoyant (my book, pp. 44-45). In his letters to his friend Fox he criticized clairvoyants and then mesmerists (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, I, pp. 341-342). He never consulted with a mesmerist.

It is stated that Darwin may have become ill because of “repressed hostility” to his religious wife and his marriage, and that this “psychological line of reasoning is curiously neglected by the writers on Darwin’s diseases.” This “line of reasoning” has not been neglected by myself or others. I first postulate that, early in his marriage, Darwin may have suffered some anxieties because he felt that “the demands of his family were interfering with his scientific work”; and that these, along with other anxieties, contributed to the exacerbation of his illness. I later cite the views of Sir Hedley Atkins and Professor C.D. Darlington—that Mrs. Darwin’s religious beliefs were a cause of her husband’s illness—and I disagree with these views. I hold that, although Darwin clearly feared the religious censure of Victorian Society and of some of his friends, he may have accustomed himself to become unaffected by his wife’s religious position. He knew that she was altruistically devoted to him. (My book, pp. 26-27 and 141.)

It is claimed that Alfred Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection “worked as an almost ideal solution for Darwin’s anxieties” (because Wallace was now shouldering some of the responsibility for a controversial theory), and that “one can almost hear his [Darwin’s] sigh of relief.” One never hears Darwin express a sigh of relief. His main feelings were rivalry with Wallace—the feeling of rivalry was very strong in him—and being “terribly anxious” that Wallace would “forestall” him (he was also anxious because of illness and death in his family). His anxiety was, however, different from his previous anxieties about his theory, and he did not suffer from his usual psychosomatic symptoms. (My book, pp. 65-66 and 143.)

In the course of discussing the development of Darwin’s religious opinions Bartley makes two assertions: that Darwin “during his undergraduate years at Cambridge…had read divinity and was satisfied of ‘the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible’ “; and that illness kept Darwin “from developing his views about religion further.” In 1827 Darwin’s father urged him to become a clergyman. Darwin—then eighteen, and only a nominal Christian—asked his father “for some time to consider.” He carefully read the Reverend John Pearson’s An Exposition of the Creed—a work of two volumes, each of 600 pages, which had just been published in a new edition. In his Autobiography he recollected how he, then, experienced a religious resolve: “as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.” For the next three years he attended Cambridge University as a candidate for ordination in the Church of England. During these years—although he read the theological works of William Paley, and was “charmed and convinced” by Paley’s arguments—his religious resolve waned. He confided to a friend that he was not “inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit” and he could not take Orders. His uncle Josiah Wedgwood observed that he was not absorbed in his religious studies. Only under pressure of approaching examinations did he seriously study Paley and other religious works. At Cambridge he became, again, a nominal Christian. (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1, pages 41, 147, and 173.)

In his maturity Darwin developed anti-Christian views (which he carefully concealed from the public), and he went on developing these views until the end of his life. His cousin, F. Julia Wedgwood, recollects that, in his later day private talks with her, he revealed “a growing hostility” towards religion. (Unpublished letter of F. Julia Wedgwood to Francis Darwin, October 3, 1884, Cambridge University Library, Box 139.)

Bartley claims that Darwin “refused Karl Marx permission to dedicate Das Kapital to him.” This claim—based on an October 12, 1880, Darwin letter presumed to have been written to Marx—was first made by the Soviet scholar, Professor Ernst Kolman, and published in the Russian Communist magazine, Under the Banner of Marxism (Jan.-Feb. 1931); and then, for about 45 years, it was believed by many Darwin scholars throughout the world. In 1975 there was discovered (in the Cambridge University Library) a letter to Darwin, written by Edward Aveling, dated October 11, 1880: this showed that Darwin’s presumed Marx letter was, really, an answer to Aveling. There was, thus, no evidence that Marx desired to dedicate Das Kapital (or any of his works) to Darwin. This was reported on by Lewis Feuer, P. Thomas Carroll, and myself, in “On the Darwin-Marx Correspondence,” Annals of Science 33 (1976), pages 383-394. Soviet scholars were given copy of Aveling’s letter, and a French report was published (Pierre Thuillier, “La Correspondence Darwin-Marx: Une Rectification,” La Recherche, April 1977, pages 394-395).

The primary literature on Darwin is growing, and more will become known about his life and character.

Ralph Colp, Jr.

New York City

III W. W. Bartley replies:

Dr. Colp does the reader a service in calling attention to the Darwin-Aveling correspondence. This discovery, which was published in Annals of Science in July 1976, is still not widely known; certainly I did not know of it when I wrote my review of Colp’s book last May. Readers may be interested to know that the hypothesis that Darwin’s letter of October 12, 1880 was addressed to Edward Aveling rather than to Karl Marx was ventured by Professor Lewis S. Feuer in his article, “Is the ‘Darwin-Marx Correspondence’ Authentic?” published in Annals of Science in January 1975. Feuer’s hypothesis was confirmed by the independent discovery, by P. Thomas Carroll and Dr. Colp, of the Aveling letter to Darwin of October 11, 1880. Thus it was Aveling, and not Marx, who sought to dedicate a book to Darwin; and the book was The Student’s Darwin, not Das Kapital!

Dr. Colp’s other objections are misleading or incorrect, and add nothing to the discussion:

1) The matter of the mesmerist is moot, and is also partly terminological, as “diagnostic clairvoyance,” in the mid-19th century as today, ordinarily uses a hypnotic (mesmeric) trance. I am willing to accept Colp’s preference for “clairvoyant” rather than “mesmerist,” particularly since it conforms closer to Darwin’s own usage.

2) Darwin’s expressed anxiety that family demands might interfere with scientific work, and his conscious concern about Emma’s religious views obviously do not, by themselves, add up to “repressed hostility” toward her. My suggestion that a repressed hostility to Emma Darwin (comparable to the often canvassed repressed hostility to his father) might lie at the root of Darwin’s illness is indeed nowhere considered in Colp’s book.

3) My “third ear” almost heard a sigh of relief from Darwin when Wallace independently discovered natural selection; Colp’s third ear never heard such a sigh. What I hear, or almost hear, explains something; what Colp hears, or fails to hear, does not.

4) Colp’s citations concerning religion are in complete accord with what I say. His interpretations of those citations are very odd. A man who, by his own admission, believes “the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible” is not a nominal Christian! Darwin’s uncertainty at this time (1827) concerned his resolve to take holy orders, not his Biblical belief. His expressed scruples in 1827—which he temporarily overcame by reading Pearson—concerned “declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England.” (Life and Letters, 1, 39.) Far from denying that Darwin’s views later developed, I gave examples to show the radical change that took place.

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