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Darwin’s Still Small Voice

November 24, 2016


As Charles Darwin began defining Natural Selection, his revelatory insight creating the theory of evolution, he lost his religious faith – a faith he had to the point of going to seminary before he became fascinated with biology. Despite apocryphal stories of a death bed reconnection back to faith, Darwin by all factual accounts was at best a firm agnostic, and definitely not a Christian, which he called “a damnable doctrine” – despite firm belief by the rest of his family.

For atheists, Darwin is a true hero: someone that manifests the mind triumphing over the delusions of myth, the victory of Truth confronting the cowardice of his era’s overwhelming religious judgment. Or so say many of my close friends who are at best firm agnostics – some of whom go to church or synagogue as a cultural expression, confident that what they know is sufficient to preclude any Faith beyond what is known. Darwin is the perfect St. Paul for atheists: a Believer who saw the light and ended up providing the tools for conversion from the Folly of Faith to the Truth of Fact.

But, like Jesus, Darwin was just a man. As with any human, tragedies do happen, despite any level of fact-centered living. Charles Darwin’s daughter, Anne died in 1851, at the age of 10 – of either Scarlet Fever or Tuberculosis – despite efforts at the then best science: “Gully’s Water Cure”. Anne was the Darwins’ first born, and exquisitely loved by her dad. Darwin had lost religious faith around the time of her birth. But upon her death, Darwin wrote a gut wrenching letter ending with these words:

“We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:— she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her.—“


“Blessings on her.”

To a dead person. From who? what? where?

In his poignant missive, Charles Darwin cries out in pain at the natural selection of the loss of his beloved daughter – finding no solace or explanation in her death besides the love he had for her – and yet – he wishes, as any of us would, “Blessings on her”. What are these “Blessings”? – Did Darwin think there was some distinct bestower of blessings that could ameliorate her loss in his life?  Or an afterlife emollient to vitiate the pain of her untimely death, salving, if not saving, her soul?

I think the reason for Darwin’s sad wish for his dead child is far less coherent than any reasoned reconstruction. God simply could not exist in parallel with Darwin’s belief in natural selection – but upon tragedy his heart clearly felt something his mind could not rationalize.

When the power goes out on our assumptions, when the grid fails and we lose distractions, when the batteries are at 0% on our “Rationalization App”, when the dead of night renders the photovoltaics of reason juiceless, when we are without the capacity for logical selection of what we want to be, and we are confronted only with the inevitable “natural” end, as all things end in nature, we are left alone. But not alone.

For me, knowledge alone ultimately fails to comfort, because some things are inexplicable. Humans opt to find pattern in the overwhelmingly random aspects of reality. We read our horoscope. We selectively celebrate some birthdays (30, 50 etc) simply because we naturally want a reality beyond knowledge. We connect victories by the Cubs, Trump and Yale.

Darwin explicitly rejected an inbred genetic predilection for Faith – he believed we learned to believe. His life was based on learning, so thats a natural way to see the world. As I am an architect I can be accused of seeing design in everything and thus a Designer for everything. But neither my Cradle Episcopalian status, nor 40 years designing stuff compels my Faith. That’s because my Faith is not based in reason, education or really anything in the temporal world I can defend or promote – despite going to church each week.

Perhaps, despite Darwin’s dismissal, it’s just a hard-wired need for connections that make for Faith. For me, its found in the Old Testament “Still Small Voice”- which is both unreasonable and unavoidable. I have not selected it. It is not factually natural. But it is present. I think hero scientist Charles Darwin was pleading for supernatural “Blessings” for his dead child to that Voice – despite his objective rejection of any source, method or place to send them.

Neither he nor I selected that Voice: it’s just there…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Hanna permalink
    November 24, 2016 10:57 am


    I am thankful, today and ALL days for YOU.
    Love from a particularly cozy house in Lawrence, LI.
    Nancy Hanna

  2. fernandezacma permalink
    November 24, 2016 7:13 pm

    The Old Testament contains a lot of material that is odious and offensive. The death of Darwin’s daughter WAS the result of natural causes, not the result of a monster God who puts children to death because he “works in mysterious ways.” And I would appreciate if the author gave some hint of an open mind. We do not know what is myth and what is reality in the New Testament. And we DO know that the story of the Flood was just midrash commentary on the Babylonian legend. We don’t know all there is to know just yet.


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