|Atheists and Agnostics Compendium|
Conversation with Charles Darwin
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
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 wifes religious beliefs?
DARWIN: (hesitates) Lets 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 thats 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.
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
INTERVIEWER: You have made much of the bone structures of various animals. You say there are similarities between a porpoise and a bat. I cant 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
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 Gods 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 caterpillars living tissues from within, leaving the heart to be eaten last so as to prolong the victims 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 powersMan 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.