Friday, 30 January 2009

Darwin in our time: 200th anniversary

Earlier this month I listened to Melvin Bragg's  Radio 4 programme   Dawin in our time  to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1809. What was fascinating was that he went to Cambridge to train as an Anglican clergyman, but found his vocation in Geology and Botany, becoming  to use the generic term,  a naturalist. 

Darwin's 'Tree of Life'

His big theory of natural selection, grew out of good scientific observation. He was meticulous in recording his observations and went on to try to understand how it all fitted together.    

The 'either/or' of science and faith has been most unhelpful. We are after all encouraged to be seekers of truth.  And Darwin was certainly a seeker after truth, although this ostensibly became less and less connected with the church.


I was fascinated to discover  in the latest SAMS magazine   SHARE  2009/1   page 10/11. Charles Darwin eventually became a keen supporter of their work among Indians in South America.  He was initially  
shocked by the appearance, language (“scarcely deserves to be called articulate”) and customs of the Fuegians, dismissing them in A naturalist’s voyage in these words: “I believe in this extreme part of South America man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world”.
The connection was Sir James Sulivan, a Vice-President of SAMS, was a long-time friend of the naturalist and had sailed with him as second lieutenant on the famous voyage of the Beagle. Sulivan later recalled:
“Mr. Darwin had often expressed to me his conviction that it was utterly useless to send Missionaries to such a set of savages as the Fuegians, probably the very lowest of the human race.

In 1870 Darwin wrote to Sulivan:
“The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms [or shames] me, as I had always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your Committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society”. He later added: “I certainly should have predicted that not all the Missionaries in the world could have done what has been done.”
Robert Young in From Cape Horn to Panama, 1900, wrote:  
“No one was more astonished and gratified … than Charles Darwin, [whose] subscription to the Society’s funds, continued for many years until his lamented death, was, according to the Spectator [of 26 April 1884], ‘about as emphatic an answer to the detractors of missions as can well be imagined’”
Maybe the Fuegians were a case of supernatural selection.


The Church of England website has a helpful article Good religion needs good science by Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs. There are also articles on a brief history of Darwin,   Darwin and the Church and Darwin and Faith.
Darwin has been much maligned and caricatured by the Church, and still is today.  He suggests that 'some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian Faith is needed'   This is his attempt 
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.

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