Humanist Hero: Charles Darwin by Elaine Morgan
Writer of several books on evolutionary anthropology Elaine Morgan naturally selects a kind and brave Charles Darwin as her humanist hero.
I would like to put the case for Charles Darwin as a humanist hero.
He was not overtly anti-religious, although he strongly advocated “free thought on all subjects.” He gratefully adapted Huxley’s coinage of “agnostic” to describe his own standpoint. It is also true that in his old age he preferred not to have Edward Aveling’s collected articles dedicated to him, and arguably that is not the stuff that heroes are made of.
But all the oft-recycled myths of his “deathbed conversion” are pure invention on the part of the creationists. He made it clear in his autobiography that he had “no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward.”
If Darwin had a fatal flaw in his character it was certainly not cowardice. From an early stage in his researches into the origin of species, he knew perfectly well where they were leading him, and how they would be received – not only by the bishops, but also by friends and mentors whom he respected and admired. He could foresee only too clearly the wrath and scorn of established scientists, and the howls of joyous satire from the cartoonists and the music hall comedians – and it all came to pass.
The flaw in his character was accurately pinpointed by Stephen Jay Gould, who described Darwin as “kind, to a fault”. It was not only friends that would be deeply hurt and dismayed by the implications of his theory. His wife Emma, unable to engage in face-to-face arguments on the issue, once wrote him a letter explaining her anguished fears that they would spend eternity apart because of his unbelief. Darwin scribbled at the bottom of that letter: “When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cryed over this.”
Only one thing kept him on track. Not contemplating whether his ideas would win or lose him friends or fame, bring comfort or despair to individuals or to mankind. He was interested in whether or not they were true. Dedication to that criterion doesn’t always come cheap, and in Darwin’s case I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to call it heroic.
You can find out more at www.humanism.org.uk/humanism/humanist-tradition/heroes