Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Conversation with Charles Darwin


INTERVIEWER: Thank you for consenting to this interview, Mr. Darwin: First, can you tell us something of the origin of your theory of evolution?

DARWIN: : When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle’, as naturalist I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to throw some light on the origin of species.
On my return home in 1837, it occurred to me that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision

INTERVIEWER: Hardly rushing, was it? Your book, On the Origin of Species, was not published until 1859, 22 years after the conclusion of your voyage. What took so long?

DARWIN: I wanted my book to be as accurate as possible and I wanted to include as much evidence as I could discover from various other sources.

INTERVIEWER: Is there any truth to the rumor that you delayed publication because of your wife’s religious beliefs?

DARWIN: (hesitates) Let’s say that I was aware that my views were at variance with strongly held religious ones.

INTERVIEWER: You have said your theory relies on natural selection. What do you mean by that?

DARWIN: Let me begin with artificial selection, that is, selection of the next generation of a species by men. It has been observed by gardeners that strawberry plants are not always identical. No doubt the strawberry had always varied, but the slight varieties had been neglected. As soon, however, as gardeners picked out individual plants with slightly larger, earlier, or better fruit, and raised seedlings from them, and again picked out the best seedlings and bred from them, then those many admirable varieties of the strawberry appeared which we enjoy today. The same selection process holds for horses and dogs and all domesticated plants and animals.

INTERVIEWER: I see that. But that’s because intelligent human beings brought those changes about. I can also see why some people would believe that if there is no one to do it in nature an intelligent divine designer is necessary. The beak of the humming bird fits so nicely into the flowers that give them sustenance, for example.

DARWIN: Nature is full of these examples but I hold that there is a natural selection process at work. All these exquisite adaptations follow from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, Natural Selection.

INTERVIEWER: You also speak of sexual selection.

DARWIN: Yes. It is very important, especially to the development of some male characteristics.

INTERVIEWER: In what way?

DARWIN: Sexual Selection depends, not on a struggle for existence in relation to other organic beings, or to external conditions, but on a struggle between males for the possession of females. The result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny. But in many cases, victory depends not so much on general vigour, as on having special weapons, confined to the male sex. A hornless stag or spurless cock would have a poor chance of leaving numerous offspring.
Even male insects have been frequently seen fighting for a particular female who sits by, an apparently unconcerned beholder of the struggle, and then retires with the conqueror.

INTERVIEWER: Some people object to your theory on the basis of extraordinarily complex features. Like the eye, for example. If, as you say, variations that are profitable for survival are preserved how would the, not yet functional, parts of the eye be preserved until they were all there to work together? Why would a eye lens be inherited if there was not yet a retina to make a lens useful?

DARWIN: I recognized the difficulties involved. To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light could have been formed by natural selection all at once seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree…
But reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor and if such variations should be useful under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
In the great class of the Articulata, we may start from an optic nerve simply coated with pigment, the latter sometimes forming a sort of pupil, but destitute of a lens or other optical contrivance.
When we reflect on these facts and when we bear in mind how small the number of all living forms must be in comparison with those which have become extinct, the difficulty ceases to be very great in believing that natural selection may have converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve, coated with pigment and invested by transparent membrane, into an eye.

INTERVIEWER: You have made much of the bone structures of various animals. You say there are similarities between a porpoise and a bat. I can’t think of two animal so different.

DARWIN: But when looking at their bone structure they have startling similarities What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions?
Why should the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils, in each flower, though fitted for such distinct purposes, be all constructed on the same pattern? On the theory of natural selection, we can, to a certain extent, answer these questions.
If man can by patience select variations in living things useful to him, why, under changing and complex conditions of life, should not variations useful to nature’s living products often arise, and be preserved or selected? What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinising the whole constitution, structure, and habits of each creature, — favouring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.

INTERVIEWER: How can you be so sure of your ideas?

DARWIN: Many of the views which I have advanced are highly speculative, and some no doubt will prove erroneous; but I have in every case given the reasons which have led me to one view rather than to another. False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science. But false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.

INTERVIEWER: And you maintain, contrary to the Bible, that human beings were not created by God but are the product of this natural selection process.. You maintain that we are not related to angles but to lesser, baser forms of life.

DARWIN: Yes, and that conclusion is now held by many naturalists who are well competent to form a sound judgment. The grounds upon which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, are facts which cannot be disputed. The great principle of evolution stands up clear and firm. All the facts point in the plainest manner to the conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor.

INTERVIEWER: I fear this point of view will only lead you into trouble.

DARWIN: (calmly, with a sigh) I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in my work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious. The main conclusion, that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of naked wild hairy men on the shores of Terra del Fuego will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind —such were our ancestors.

INTERVIEWER: It is not for us to question God’s will. If he chooses to make wild savages he does so for a reason. Maybe to show us how we would be without him. All that exists is part of his grand vision.

DARWIN: I own that I cannot see as plainly as others evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designed the Ichneumonid (ick-nu-mon-id) wasp that lays its eggs within the body of a caterpillar. The larvae grow by eating the caterpillar’s living tissues from within, leaving the heart to be eaten last so as to prolong the victim’s life until the last moment.

INTERVIEWER: But those are only insects. The important thing is to concentrate on the future of human beings. That is what God is concerned with. He has made us with the power to be aware of his presence, to choose the right path and be worthy of him.

DARWIN: We must really acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with all his exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. For me it is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

(grandly) There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

 

Here is the theory of evolution in the words of the originator taken from his writings. The theory has been called "the greatest achievement of modern thought." It resulted in a new view of humanity and a fundamental change in the relationship of humans to nature and to the universe.