‘If a monkey becomes a man — what may not a man become?’

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After reading the first 100 pages of Janet Browne’s biography of Charles Darwin, I surprised myself by returning the book to the Auburn Public Library.

I will pick it up later, and I will tell you why later, but I will tell you now that I do not have a problem with the theory of evolution. It should be part of our public education.

Darwin’s biography  is a most thoughtful book. Browne is thorough, writes clearly and brings in points I would never have considered. She emphasized that Darwin’s wife (Emma) was an excellent editor, and does not get nearly enough credit for her contribution to Darwin’s publications.

Browne writes that  it was characteristic during the Victorian Era that wives, sisters and daughters were excellent editors who contributed consistently to publications written by the scientists of that day.

Darwin and his wife, Emma, were Unitarians. The author described Darwin as a skeptic.

Browne wrote of Darwin:

“Not surprisingly, his religious position troubled him too. He found his beliefs were increasingly difficult to pin down, sometime starkly uncompromising, sometimes genuinely responsive to the idea of a deity of sorts.

At this time of his life, he said he felt torn both ways. Although he wrote with conviction about a godless universe, he thought that while he was writing the ‘Origin of Species’ he  probably retained some residual faith; enough that he deserved to be called a Theist.

“At least he knew what duty was, he said to Emma. He had no desire to present himself in his book as an out-right atheist. He did not wish to slap some of his oldest friends in the face.

“He worried about Emma’s feelings as well. He sensed that she was concerned about the implications of his views, not so much in the wider cultural sphere, although it seems likely that public strife within the Victorian church perplexed and disappointed her, but much more in the immediate family context. She knew all about his theories.

“For a long time now she had recognized these ideas as an integral part of his existence and accepted  them in much the same way as she accepted … the outlandish sequences of his hobby-horses, barnacles, yew-trees, pigeons and all. They were a part of her married life. They amused her at times. She was apprehensive about them at others. Always she saw how they kept him occupied and fulfilled. …

“Perhaps she prayed for his soul on Sundays — the letters she wrote him soon after their marriage displayed that likelihood in tender detail. Affection carried the day.

“In turn, Darwin knew that he could depend on her good sense, her unflappable kindly nature. He was sure that she would support him, no matter what. But it was precisely because of this that he recoiled from exposing her to the full consequence of his own bleak universe.”

Darwin’s book, “Origin of Species,” sold out the first day it was put on sale in 1859. The initial press run was about  2,000. After reading the response of the academicians, theologians, students, his colleagues and anybody in England who was anybody, I got the impression that if you put Darwin’s book in the context of a media frenzy today, Darwin would be simultaneously on all television networks, cables and major newspapers and magazines.

There is a lot of thought in this book that Janet Browne has written.

It taught me that Charles Darwin had a lot of love for his wife and his family … even while trying to explain the bleakness of the universe.

And there is humor in this book as well. One reviewer wrote:

“If a monkey became a man — what may not a man become.”

 

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgarg7@aol.com

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