Darwin’s mystery illness
Charles Darwin suffered extreme ill-health for most of his working life. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica says, ‘Some of the symptoms—painful flatulence, vomiting, insomnia, palpitations—appeared in force as soon as he began his first transmutation notebook, in 1837. [This is the year after he returned to England from his five-year voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle.] Although he was exposed to insects in South America and could possibly have caught Chagas’ or some other tropical disease, a careful analysis of the attacks in the context of his activities points to psychogenic origins.’1 (Psychogenic means originating in the mind or in mental condition.) Other symptoms included ‘nausea, headache … sensitive stomach, spells of faintness, twitching muscles, spinning head, spots before the eyes.’2 Today we would call this an anxiety-caused psychoneurosis.3
So then, what caused this condition of extreme stress in Darwin? What was he so worried about? And how is it relevant to us today?
Rejection of religious influences
Charles’s thinking and writing on the subject of evolution and natural selection caused him to reject all the religious influences in his life. One of these was William Paley.
In his early twenties Charles was willing to become an Anglican clergyman. As part of his theological studies at Cambridge he read William Paley’s book Natural Theology,4 which begins with the famous ‘watch’ argument for creation (a watch requires a watchmaker and so design requires a Designer), about which Charles said, ‘I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology. I could almost formerly have said it by heart.’5
Another religious influence was his wife Emma, whom he married in 1839, and who used to read the Bible to their children. As Charles developed his theory of natural selection, these influences diminished. His son Francis recalled him as saying, ‘I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age.’6 And the death of his eldest daughter Annie from fever at this period of his life hammered the final nail in the coffin of his Christianity.
More than all this however, Darwin knew that his theory was sheer atheistic materialism—a bombshell which when released on Victorian society would undermine people’s faith in God, the Bible, and the Church. In effect, he was shaking his fist at Almighty God. Professor Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge, the foremost geologist of his day and a creationist, recognized this as soon as he read the Origin, about 1861. He wrote, ‘From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up…And why is this done? For no other reason, I am sure, except to make us independent of a Creator.’7
Darwin’s chief proponent was the most prominent unbeliever, hater of religion, and arch-enemy of the Church of his day—Thomas Henry Huxley, nicknamed ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. Sir Julian Huxley, Thomas’s grandson, who gave the keynote address at the centenary celebration of the publishing of the Origin, held in Chicago in 1959, said, ‘Darwin’s real achievement was to remove the whole idea of God as the creator of organisms from the sphere of rational discussion.’8,9
Psychologically there can be little doubt that Charles Darwin suffered from feelings of guilt. These undoubtedly arose from his desire to escape from God and from the force of Paley’s arguments about design in his Natural Theology. That is, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was his attempt to explain design without the need for an intelligent Designer. Professor Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University concurs; he believes that ‘Darwin constructed the theory of natural selection in large measure as a direct refutation of the argument from design’.10,11
However, there is more to it than that. Natural selection to Darwin was not something progressive, as many modern writers portray it, much less a process that God used to create, as theistic evolutionists proclaim it; rather it was something which was utterly planless and purposeless—Gould refers to it as ‘the naturalism of purposelessness’.12 Darwin knew that this was an idea which could and would destroy the faith of millions of believers—and he was the one who was about to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. But what if he was wrong? How could he accept the responsibility for what it would do to others? It is little wonder that he ‘broke out in boils’ (see below), referred to the Origin as ‘my accursed book’13 and seems to have thought of himself as a ‘Devil’s Chaplain’.14
Publication of On the Origin of Species
The result was that Darwin put off publishing his work for 20 years. It was only the fact that in June 1858 he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace (a naturalist working in the Malay Archipelago) with a manuscript that perfectly summarized the theory of natural selection which Charles had for so long been contemplating that finally galvanized him into action. As a result, he abandoned his plans to write a multi-volume epic and instead produced a single-volume ‘Abstract’, as he described it several times in the Introduction. This ‘Abstract’ was published on November 24, 1859, with the title, On the Origin of Species.15
There was considerable trauma associated with this. In the year leading up to publication he was rarely able to write for more than 20 minutes at a time without stomach pains, and he finished the proofs on October 1, 1859, in between fits of vomiting.
Ten days before the proofs were bound he wrote to his friend J.D. Hooker, ‘I have been very bad lately; having had an awful "crisis" one leg swelled like elephantiasis—eyes almost closed up—covered with a rash & fiery Boils: but they tell me it will surely do me much good.—it was like living in Hell.’16,17 His modern biographers talk of his ‘self-doubt, his nagging, gnawing fear that "I … have devoted my life to a phantasy"’.18
He was too sick to be on hand in London when the first copies were sold, or to attend the debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce held at Oxford on June 30, 1860, or to attend the Royal Society of London meeting that awarded him its Copley Medal in November 1864.19,20 The same year he wrote to Hooker, ‘I shd [sic] suppose few human beings had vomited so often during the last 5 months.’21
What Darwin did not know
We now know that if Darwin could have foreseen coming scientific developments, he would have had good reason to be concerned that his theory might one day be proved wrong.
In particular, Gregor Mendel had not yet established and published his work on the laws of heredity and genetics, which said that the characteristics of offspring are passed on from parents according to precise mathematical ratios and do not derive from chance random processes in what Darwin called ‘blending inheritance’.
James Joule, R.J.E. Clausius, and Lord Kelvin were only just developing the concepts of thermodynamics, the first law of which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed (so the present universe could not have created itself), and the second law of which says that the universe is proceeding in a downward degenerating direction of increasing disorganization (so things overall do not of themselves become more organized with time).
Louis Pasteur was just beginning his famous experiments which showed that life (even microbial life) comes from life, not from non-life. The mathematical laws of probability, which show that the odds of life’s occurring by chance are effectively zero, had not yet been applied to the theory of evolution. Molecular biology, with its revelation that the cell is so enormously complex that it could not possibly have been formed by chance, had not yet commenced.
The fossil record had not yet been investigated sufficiently for palaeontologists to be able to say, as they now do, that chains of intermediate ‘links’ do not exist. Any one of these concepts or laws, if known to Charles Darwin at the time he was writing his Origin (1856–59), would have been enough to torpedo his ideas; taken all together they kill the theory of evolution stone dead!
Today all these counters to the theory of evolution are known and, as such, form a compelling case against evolution. In short, they indicate that evolution could not have taken place, while the fossil record shows that evolution did not take place. The incredible thing is that otherwise rational scientists continue to cling to the concept of evolution, modifying it in any way they can to get around the proofs against it, regardless of the destructive moral and social effects that evolutionary theory has on society. As Michael Denton says, ‘… today it is perhaps the Darwinian view of nature more than any other that is responsible for the agnostic and sceptical outlook of the twentieth century.’22 Darwin did well to be anxious about the long-term effects of his theory!
But why has this happened? Why has the theory become so much more important than the evidence necessary to sustain it?
Answer: Because of what the alternative involves. If the biblical account of creation is true, then there will be a Day of Judgment, for God the Creator has said that He has ‘appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained [namely Jesus]; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He raised Him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31).
References and notes
- The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1992, Vol. 16, p. 980. Return to text.
- Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Chatto and Windus, London, 1959, pp. 108–9. Return to text.
- Sir George Pickering, the renowned English clinical researcher and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, described in Chambers Biographical Dictionary as ‘a key figure in medical education in Britain from the 1950s’, wrote concerning Darwin, ‘The case for a psychoneurosis is first that the symptoms suggest it, and, taken in their entirety, they fit nothing else. Second, there is no evidence that any physical signs were ever found as they should have been after forty years of organic disease, and Darwin consulted the best physicians of his day….Third, the circumstances precipitating the attacks are right. Fourth, the illness got better towards the end of his life, which is quite unlike organic disease. Lastly, no other diagnosis that has been proposed, or that I can think of, fits all the facts.’—George Pickering, Creative Malady, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1974, p. 142. Return to text.
- William Paley, The Works of William Paley, Vol. 4, ‘Natural Theology’, William Baynes and Son, London, 1825, p. 1ff. Return to text.
- Cited from William R. Fix, The Bone Peddlers, Macmillan, New York, 1984, p. 178. Return to text.
- Cited from Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1991, p. 658. Return to text.
- Cited from Ronald Clark, The Survival of Charles Darwin, Random House, New York, 1984, p. 139. Return to text.
- Cited from Ref. 5, p. 213. Return to text.
- English psychiatrist Dr Rankine Good links Darwin’s health symptoms with his feelings of resentment towards his tyrannical father and says, ‘Thus, if Darwin did not slay his father in the flesh, then he certainly slew the Heavenly Father in the realm of natural history.’ Cited from Ralph Colp, To Be An Invalid, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 123. Return to text.
- Transcript of a talk given by Prof. Stephen Gould on June 6, 1990, at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, entitled ‘The Darwinian Revolution of Thought’. See Carl Wieland, ‘Darwin’s real message: have you missed it?’, Creation magazine, Vol. 14 No. 4, (September–November 1992), pp. 16–18. See also Darwin’s comments on ‘design in Nature, as given by Paley’ in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Edited by Francis Darwin, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1911, Vol. 1, pp. 278–79. Return to text.
- It is true that in the second edition of the Origin (1860) Darwin added ‘by the Creator’ after the word ‘breathed’ in the last sentence of his book, which read in the first edition, ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one…’. However, as this concept is totally foreign to the entire ethos of the Origin, the addition would appear to have been ‘a sop to mollify the Christian community’—Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, TFE Publishing, Toronto, 1984, p. 463, n.9. Return to text.
- Ref. 10. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 475. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 449. Return to text.
- The full title of the first five editions was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In the sixth edition Darwin dropped the word ‘On’. We shall refer to it as the Origin. Return to text.
- Cited from Ref. 6, p. 476. Return to text.
- These symptoms suggest a physical cause, but it is well known that extreme psychological stress makes physical illness more likely. Return to text.
- Cited from Ref. 6. p.477. Return to text.
- Sir George Pickering wrote, ‘The symptoms of psychoneurosis are the patient’s own answer to his otherwise intolerable conflict.’—Ref. 3, p. 33. Return to text.
- In further support of this thesis it should be noted that, ‘Throughout the next decades Darwin’s maladies waxed and waned. But during the last decade of his life, when he concentrated on botanical research and no longer speculated about evolution, he experienced the best health since his years at Cambridge.’—Ref. 1, p. 980. Return to text.
- Cited from Ref. 9, p. 77. Return to text.
- Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Adler and Adler, Maryland, 1986, p. 358. Return to text.
I am so pleased to see this article includes my five "P"s: Peas, Physics, Pasteur, Probability & Paleontology.
I made them up for a story I was writing, about fifteen years ago, even though I hadn't read the article. (I think it came out during the time my subscription had lapsed.)
Obviously, I was cleverer than I realised.
I find the speculation around his illness interesting but it could be equally true of godly people also in different measures (not being a doctor etc.)
It is amazing the number of people ready to put Darwin up on a pedestal without realising the ramifications let alone the contradictions & failings of his ideas that have become gospel for many.
Secular science is quickly becoming a religion with a crusade of sorts, so called answers & solutions & ground to be won as they battle on with faith & equivocation.
The media dare not to get into the nitty gritty failings of evolution or the big bang & any time controversy arises regarding the Gospel of Christ the Messiah they are quick to jump on the bandwagon. Extraordinary bias.
But has it ever been any different. The big concern however is that it seems to be growing in intensity & enmity. And in this the Bible speaks too as real love grows cold.