Saturday, December 13, 2008

Annie Darwin and Darwin's loss of faith: it ain't necessarily so!

I have just read this article from the Independent by Darwin's great-great-grand-daughter, Ruth Padel. I look forward to Ruth's forthcoming book of poems, but I am distressed to see her repeating the commonly expressed, but undocumented, claims that Charles Darwin's loss of faith was attributable to the death of his daughter Annie just across the road from where I sit in Malvern.

Let me put this plainly: there is no direct documentary evidence for this claim from anything Darwin himself ever wrote. This is an inference (as is TB as a cause of Annie's death) that has somehow hardened into a "fact" in the last decade or so, starting with the "rediscovery" of Annie's grave in Malvern by Jim Moore and amplified by Randal Keynes' book Annie's Box.

Now, in case you missed my point there: there is NO evidence for the idea that Darwin's abandonment of Christianity was influenced by the death of his daughter or that this event precipitated an agonising crisis of faith. If anyone of you out there have some, then let's have it. But I cannot find a single jot. If this really were the case, wouldn't Darwin have said so somewhere? His life is among the best-documented of all scientists, but there is nothing there to support this claim! Take a look at what he says on this topic in his Autobiography:

"Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

No mention of Annie's death there!

So, please let's pull back from continually asserting as fact something that is mere supposition. It is entirely possible that Annie's death had an impact on Darwin's religious beliefs, but there is no documentary evidence for this! I remain an Annie-sceptic! If you disagree, show us your evidence!


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jt said...

Mark--I saw the press release for you book mnetions a film on annie yet i don't see that noted in the book and can't find info on it. Any help?

Mark Pallen said...

This is the film:
They are using Bradford on Avon as a proxy for Malvern and have someone down to play the Malvern water cure doctor, Dr Gully, so I am expecting a full infestation of the Annie Darwin myth :-(

See also:

Allen Esterson said...

Mark: I note that over on, in the comments related to Madeline Bunting's article on Darwin, you write that:

>For a first-hand report (albeit potentially partisan) on Darwin's views on religion and on the difference between being called an atheist and an agnostic, see also this pamphlet by Aveling.<

I'm glad to see that you express a caveat about Aveling's report of his conversation with Darwin (and others) when so many others (including Dawkins at read it uncritically. This is a hearsay report, and as such one that should be treated with caution. In fact Darwin's son Francis, who was present at the dinner, wrote that readers of Aveling's account "may be misled into seeing more resemblance than really existed between the positions of my father and Dr. Aveling… Dr. Aveling seems (p. 5) to regard the absence of aggressiveness in my father's views as distinguishing them in an unessential manner from his own. But, in my judgment, it is precisely differences of this kind which distinguish him so completely from the class of thinkers to which Dr. Aveling belongs." (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Darwin, F. 1887, p. 317)

In a letter to the sceptic John Fordyce, Darwin wrote (7 May 1879):

"In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

To add to the confusion, it is also worth noting in this context that early in his report on the conversation at Down House, Aveling wrote (p. 4): "That the misunderstanding of the word Atheist is far-reaching is shown by the fact that even he [Darwin] held the opinion that the Atheist was a denier of god."