The Clare Spark Blog

April 14, 2011

Darwin and the climate change debate: the Greens have it

Paul Bettany as Darwin

It is obvious that Charles Darwin (the mid-Victorian fellow with the monkey tail) remains at the center of the warfare between science and religion, but less so clear that he has been recruited (as negative example) to the blazing controversy over man-made “climate change” by at least one or possibly two would-be biographers.

First, I saw Jon Amiel’s Creation (2009, written by John Collee), that purported to show Darwin’s illnesses and other crises that preceded the publication of his world-shattering book, The Origin of Species (1859). The main drama of the film centered around the agonized relationship between the materialist Charles and his religious, disapproving wife Emma. In the film, he can’t make up his mind whether or not to make so drastic a leap into darkness, so gives the ms. to Emma to either repress or to send off to his publisher. Emma, the tolerant [moderate], sends the ms. to the publisher, yet Charles will be buried with full honors in Westminster Abbey, for the filmmaker, obviously a sign of some reconciliation with religion. This is what “moderates” do. And the title (Creation) hardly suggests affinity with Darwin’s beliefs, which were entirely materialistic and did not require multiple creations to account for the fossil record, etc.

I had never read a Darwin biography, so did not know about his long bouts with possibly severe psychogenic illness, so picked up a popular biography by Cyril Aydon, also a resident of the U.K. (Charles Darwin, Constable, 2002) There are mammoth deviations between this biography and the film, but both have designs on the reader. In Aydon’s version, Charles, an “obsessive” that reminds me of Captain Ahab characterizations, is an autodidact, a country gentleman living off the largesse of his father, and without inner turmoil regarding the outcry  likely to ensue as he lays out a minutely documented argument that species have gradually evolved over time through natural selection, and were not specially created by God to adapt to particular environments.  Indeed, Aydon emphasizes, Darwin wrote a will before the ms. was publishable, specifying in no uncertain terms that it was to be published after his expected early death.  Emma was not an actor in this drama of supposed ambivalence, except at the very end when, inexplicably,  she does not attend his funeral. (WHAT?!)*

But what caught my eye were two details. One was the supposed approval of the Christian Socialist leader Charles Kingsley, a major figure in the march toward British social democracy (and hence a “moderate” who wisely kept religion and science in separate spheres of experience). The other point comes out near the end of Aydon’s book, where he corrects Darwin’s gradualism, suggesting a compromise between the reigning catastrophism (apocalyptic changes in the earth’s history) and Darwin’s incremental transformations of species through competition for scarce resources. Aydon actually mentions “climate change.” And to emphasize the general Gaia orientation of this book, the author insists that Darwin titled his third installment of the great trilogy that began with Origin, The Descent of Man, in order to undercut humanity’s hubris in putting its own interests above that of the no longer “lower” species.

(For more on Charles Kingsley, see his anonymously published Alton Locke, the story of a dying tailor who repents of his prior associations with working-class radicals. I excerpted juicy portions in chapter five of my book on the Melville Revival, especially as the book was a sensation and was probably read by Melville. For a detailed account of Alton Locke, see

* Darwin is portrayed throughout as not only oblivious to the poor, but as a raving sexist and pre-eugenicist, refusing contraception because the middle class needed to increase its fertility (He was a cousin of Francis Galton too!). But the best part is the lengthy quote from a note he wrote to himself in two columns, one headed “Marry”, the other “Not Marry”:

“Marry: Children–(if it please God)–Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interest in one,–object to be beloved and played with.–better than a dog anyhow.–Home, & someone to take care of house–Charms of music & female chit-chat. These things good for one’s health.–but terrible loss of time.– My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.–No, no  won’t do. Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.–Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire & books & music perhaps–Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’s St.

“Not Marry: Freedom to go where one liked –choice of Society & little of it.–Conversation of clever men in clubs –Not forced to visit relatives. & to bend in every trifle. –to have the expense and anxiety of children perhaps quarreling —Loss of time. –cannot read in the Evenings –fatness and idleness–Anxiety and responsibility –less money for books & c –if many children forced to gain one’s bread.–(But then it is very bad for one’s health to work too much)  Perhaps my wife wont like London: then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent idle fool. (p. 135. Aydon may have added the italics. The quote is undated but is probably circa 1838)

Blog at