In this series some of our literary collaborators will be giving suggestions for lockdown reading, books of all kinds to enlighten us and raise our spirits. This week: Christopher Moriarty on Charles Darwin’s fundamental belief in a Creator as expressed in his epoch making study The Origin of Species (1859)
Millions of Christians to this day believe that the creation story in the Bible is a true account of the facts about the origin and development of the world. They are a small minority amongst the Faithful – but their view in 1859 would have been that of the mainstream.
That was the year in which a weighty book was published with the two-pronged title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Its author Charles Darwin described it as an ‘abstract’ of his ideas. Abstracts are usually a few hundred words rather than that many pages in length, but this was no ordinary work. Challenging the literal truth of the Bible, it rapidly took its place amongst the most revolutionary and thought-changing books ever published.
The first edition of 1,100 copies sold out immediately. The second, with alterations, appeared two months later. The Origin went through six editions in the author’s lifetime and he added to each one of them to make corrections or explanations or respond to the many challenges that were made.
You can buy a paperback on-line for less than €10 and you will never regret it. In the midst of the controversy he aroused, the fact that Darwin was a first-rate writer and a brilliant populariser of natural history is often overlooked. This is a book to read and enjoy, either to dip into or read from cover to cover in the sedentary time that we are exposed to these days.
Darwin’s plan for his life before he went on the voyage of the Beagle on which so many of his ideas emerged, was to marry Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin, and to become an Anglican clergyman, a rural vicar no doubt.
However, some high-profile atheists have taken to the worship of their concept of Darwin and his meaning. So it comes as a surprise to read his words in the very last paragraph of the work: “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.”
This paragraph was one of the many that he altered and the change is remarkable. In the first edition exactly the same words are used, but with no mention of the Creator. The concept was introduced in the second edition and it stayed in the book for the remainder of Darwin’s long life.