What did Darwin Regret? An “enfeebled” moral and emotional character

Hi Folks,

This my unexpected first post here takes its direction from another current thread. In it, the issue came up about how “heroic” Charles Darwin was, in comparison with the “heroic history” seen in the naming of Protestant Christian churches or communities (denominations) according to their founders, i.e. Calvin, Luther, Menno Siemens, Sun Myung Moon.

One might also find value in comparing Darwin to Patrick Matthew, who coined the phrase “natural process of selection” in 1831, to see who acted more “heroically” given the surrounding political circumstances both men faced in their respective locations when putting forward their same novel idea. Matthew was not widely credited with having come up with the idea of natural selection by evolution, but was instead superseded by the rhetoric of the “Darwinists” (both pro- and contra-) creating a “heroic history”, along with the undeniable “cult of personality” that has become associated with Darwin, at least in the past 30-60 years.

This raises a question of what is part of “Darwinism” (the ideology based around Darwin’s ideas) and what is not. The “regret” expressed near the end of his life by Darwin below should be seen as a legitimate “dark side” to or at least as a different look at Darwin’s legacy than is currently taught in schools, as he notes the damage in pursuing natural science the way that he did (read: his particular ideology/worldview) ended up causing to himself. On this topic, no one speaks authoritatively for Darwin except for Darwin himself. Thus, it would not be much of a surprise to find collective agreement here that we today should learn from this, so as to help turn away from and not follow Darwin’s example.

Curious to hear your thoughts about how it (if in any way) impacts your interpretation of Darwin’s legacy, including but not limited to his contribution to natural science, as well as philosophical anthropology. We typically don’t discuss “theological anthropology” by invoking Darwin’s name because he was neither a theologian nor personally a religious theist. This is where we have to “push off from Darwin” to really find our way out into deeper intellectual and spiritual waters, which Darwin himself dared not try to navigate.

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. . . . But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. …

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher esthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” – Charles Darwin (Autobiography, 1881)

One writer in Psychology Today responded to this quote from Darwin, noting from her husband’s reaction to her work, that when the “head is full, [but] the heart is empty. That’s when I feel the sting of Darwin’s regret all too well.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/positivity/200905/darwins-regret

Thus, I wonder how those who seem to want to advertise a “great heart” in the person of Charles Darwin, respond to others, like this psychologist, who rather see what appears as a kind of “iron cage of rationality” (Weber) in what he wrote above? Doesn’t taking a realistic view of Darwin’s contribution to natural science and cultural history at least allow us to gain by avoiding his excesses and regrets?

While I do have solid appreciation for what Darwin contributed in several fields of natural sciences, it has been long obvious to me that when thinking about what it means to be a human person, we must learn to move beyond Darwin’s contribution in the 21st century. Lynn Margulis already put a name on this decades ago writing about post-Darwinian thinking. Otherwise we could get stuck in a “new social Darwinism” (https://thisviewoflife.com/toward-a-new-social-darwinism/) that treats “religion” as it is treated by atheists and agnostics in the sub-field called “evolutionary religious studies”, as entirely “natural” in origin and inspiration. This move beyond Darwin should be made so that we don’t come to regret, like Darwin did, a loss of “higher esthetic tastes”, happiness, and moral character.

This, along with his questionable conflict-oriented “struggle” philosophy based on Malthus’ population theory and bolstered by Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” language alongside of Darwin’s, and his refusal to discuss religion or theology in public, while embracing the newly coined irreligious label “agnostic”, is why it makes little sense for a site like BioLogos to engage in “heroic history” involved with Darwin’s considerable, but ultimately limited legacy moving forward.

This is why I responded to such a claim as made about Darwin, in light of Calvin, Luther, Menno Siemens and Sun Myung Moon. Of Darwin, suggested Klax, “He’s the only hero in that eponymous list. His followers are just rational in following his clear, giant, courageous, brilliant, heroic footsteps.”

Yet, in hindsight I realize that Klax was joking, and that I just didn’t catch his sense of humour at the time. :joy: Now that I do, it is indeed funny what he suggested, as if heroic science and heroic religion that congregates around peoples’ names and legacies, isn’t actually required. Thankfully it spurred this post, in response to @NickolaosPappas, who inquired about what was indeed Darwin’s regret for us to learn from.

Does what Darwin wrote above count as something (legitimate) to “regret” in the eyes of most reading this?

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Well, sure Darwin had struggles in much of his life. He lost his young daughter, for one, which would tend to send parents careening through dark times. There is an entire world of real-life humanity that lives between “great heart” and “dark heart”.

…and we have. Or so we can hope - that nearly everyone has moved way beyond Social Darwinism.

What is it, specifically, that you think Darwin should (or did) regret? …I mean - yes, I read where he laments his loss of the higher aesthetic tastes for this or that great literature. But does Darwin (or do you) attribute that loss to something about his evolutionary theories? I don’t see that anywhere in the text you quoted. I think it is possible that people can begin to orbit a hyper-rationalistic world-view that might perhaps send some of them away from some of the finer arts or humanities. I could see that.

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Yeah tell that to the hardcore atheists who they had 0 debates in their life and wait for thw chance to make fun at religious people.

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LOL lazy much?

In short, your “hero” in jest has some “regrets”. In two paragraphs, read his own words & report back if you doubt it or him. Can you put his “regrets” into your own words & suggest why what happened to Darwin happened?

Quote him, with a link, or get off the pot.

There was a report saying he actually became christian at his deathbed but ws later found out by his daughter that he died agnostic. So that ws dismissed

He’s quoted in the OP. Why so combative?

No, he did not recant or become Christian on his deathbed. This is a “creationist” tall tale.

Yeah as i said it was dismissed

If it didn’t happen, why even raise it then?

Well it was a rumor . That itself raises the question about the “hero” figure. What else was true or false about him

Ah, ok. So then please don’t spread rumours that aren’t true. Jordan Peterson is the most recent to counsel: “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie”. Not bad advice, right?

Yes, I think I see what you mean regarding concern about what was “true or false” regarding Darwin as “hero” figure.

The “regret” here is difficult for only a small niche of Darwin supporters, a hard core who almost worship the man. Most people are able to talk about these 2 paragraphs and openly explore what they think contributed to the regret Darwin expressed. Surely his regret has something to do with his “naturalism”, his “practice of being a naturalist”, his lifelong occupation, at the very least.

To dismiss entirely the regret Darwin expressed, as a small few might, would reveal a lot about the person reading Darwin’s autobiography with certain blinders on, and whether or not they show willingness to accept truth that goes against their cherished vision of the man. I’m speaking about no person in particular here, just as a general observation about how some people deal with “heroes of science”. They simply give them the benefit of the doubt and portray a “no regrets” attitude of response even for an example such as this, with Darwin’s own words showing otherwise.

I’m fully aware of his regret about not enough poetry and music. Opportunity cost. For being the greatest biologist. What’s your point? You make odd claims about his dark heart. Why?

There is no ideology called Darwinism. There is a scientific theory based on Darwin’s ideas, but not an ideology.

Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. Friends of Darwin found out that Wallace was about to publish his work on evolution, and they also knew that Wallace’s findings were very close to Darwin’s ideas. This pushed Darwin to publish alongside Wallace. The reason we associate the theory of evolution with Darwin is that “Origin of Species by Natural Selection” was better written, more complete, and better argued than Wallace’s papers.

Social Darwinism isn’t Darwinism, nor is it science. You might as well throw people off of buildings so they can fall, and call it Social Newtonism. Darwinism is no more a religion, philosophy, or ideology than Newton’s laws of gravity. Natural selection is just what happens in nature.


“Social Darwinism isn’t Darwinism, nor is it science. Social Darwinism isn’t Darwinism, nor is it science.”

Social Darwinism is (to follow declarative with declarative) a variant of Darwinism, obviously, following the standard rules of English language. How could you not agree? They share the same name, after all, and signify the same person, who lived in England.

I agree with you, however, that “social Darwinism is not science”. That’s a nice agreement! We then need to face the reality that nowadays, crazy and deluded as they may be to “you and I and all other sane people”, nevertheless, a few scientists actually say it is science and is validated by science (and we’ve heard this one before: e.g. a few scientists say ID theory is science"). Don’t we thus need to face that and them with due diligence like we do defending science and theology from the ideology of IDism via IDists too? Social Darwinists are every bit as fanatical as IDists are, whether they are emeritus at Binghampton State University of New York, or author at the Biologic Institute.

If you agree, could you please help out, @T_aquaticus, by pointing to the best critique(s) you’ve found of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s “new social Darwinism” and “evolutionary universalist” approach? Please note preferably an academic paper rather than a newspaper or magazine article, just as you would in the field in which you work. There must be papers supporting your view that ‘social Darwinism is not science’. In short, are you just generalizing your “anti-social Darwinism” or can you give more specifics?

My issue is more broadly with Wilson’s promotion of the idea of “cultural evolution” along with other evolutionary biologists, like Kevin Laland. But I would be quite pleased if you could work together in a collaborative way to back up what you’re saying about “social Darwinism” as pronounced by evolutionary biologists.

The classic article in this field, ironically to your example, is a paper published by Boris Hessen in 1931, after the 2nd international conference in the history of science, which was titled “The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”. This is not what biologists study or learn about, but it is what historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science might focus on, for example, to understand both how and why taking a “materialist” (see Bukharin delegation) approach to history, science, and human existence biases our view of reality. I’m against people suggesting “science has no view about materialism”, when obviously it does and can in order to protect itself from materialism.

Darwin didn’t want to come across as an atheist because he wasn’t an atheist in his own words. He was confused about religion and theology, after having studied to join the ministry as a young man. Not perhaps so different from what happened to Francisco Ayala in the current era, the abandoned faith of the natural scientist, who somehow “lost the higher tastes” in which an “evolutionary religious studies” view of religion eventually overcame his former religious worldview. Darwin was not trying to attack religion, even though others have used his work to try to do that. It’s an understatement, of course, but I think it’s quite clear that Darwin regretted being misunderstood.

I’m afraid I’m having great difficulty making anything of this paragraph. Let me explain my problems…

That question presupposes an answer to another question, which is whether there is a coherent entity, the ideology of Darwinism, that can have a well-defined content. Given the wide range of ways in which ‘Darwinism’ has been used, this strikes me as unlikely on the face of it.

You are making an assertion here about how I should view Darwin’s regret. I see no reason to accept the truth of that assertion. (Note: ‘dark side’ carries a connotation of malevolence or evil that is quite inappropriate to the quotation from Darwin.)

Why would I read his statement about how he pursued science – which he explicitly frames as a failure of practice, i.e. a failure to read poetry as he might well have done, rather than as a failure of worldview – as a statement about his ideology/worldview? The two seem to have only the most tangential connection.

I quite agree with him and in fact follow his words and not his example. Which is to say, I listen to music and I read poetry, neither of which has anything to do with how I do science (although they do modestly affect the amount of science I do).

It deepens my appreciation of him as a thoughtful, self-reflective, and self-deprecating person, and it has no effect at all on my interpretation of his contribution to natural science, since the latter is independent of his fondness or lack thereof for Shakespeare.


There is something very odd about this list. Moon is not the founder of a Protestant Christian Denomination. He is the founder of syncretistic religion mixing Christianity with Korean shamanism (by their own admission to their own members), and it fails to fit the Nicea 325 AD definition of Christianity because they have an have an adoptionist Christology. At most Sun Myung Moon would be in a list with Charles Russel and Joseph Smith and that would be rather kind and a heavy compliment considering the relative numbers: LDS 16.6 million, JW 8.7 million, Unification church (or HSAUWC or FFWPU) 1-2 million. While LDS and JW likewise each have a Christology incompatible with Nicea 325 AD, they are not mixes with other religions and thus it can be argued that the unification church might even be a better fit with a list of other syncretistic religions like the Bahai 7 million, Seicho-no-le 1.8 million, and Malbars 180,000.

For comparison the membership in Mennonite churches is 79,000, Calvinist churches is 75 million and Lutheran churches is 77 million. But the comparison with Calvin and Luther is not really all that fair since both have had a widespread influence on many Protestant denominations that would not call themselves either Calvinist nor Lutheran.

In fact the only logical connection I can see in the OP is the fact that like Gregory, Sun Myung Moon has said some disparaging things about Charles Darwin.

My own view of Charles Darwin was that he was an honest scientist who was very worried about the impact of his scientific work on religion and philosophy. His work is the foundation of theoretical biology and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of his scientific contribution. For me, a great scientist rates considerably higher than heroes, which frankly fill our graveyards far beyond our ability to remember them individually. And the value of religious leaders is generally too subjective. To be sure there are great persons in religion who I have a greater admiration for than Darwin (and other scientists), but not very many (Jesus and Paul to be sure, and perhaps even Buddha).


I see two aspects: that of biology and the current paradigm, and that of the influence of Darwin’s work on a wider audience, particularly materialism. The context however, is complex, as there were (pseudo)religious ideas on man and creation that were either contrary to Darwinian evolution, or sought to synthesize something that incorporated evolution within such theology. I think the latter is far more worthy of debate, as biology has sought to move on.

I find it curious that terms such as TE and EC are bandied about, when some try to compare evolution with, for example Newtonian physics etc. I have not come across Theistic Newtonianism of anything like it? Yet poor theology continues to be incorporated with biology to maintain a side of a continuous debate.

“I see two aspects: that of biology and the current paradigm, and that of the influence of Darwin’s work on a wider audience, particularly materialism. The context however, is complex, as there were (pseudo)religious ideas on man and creation that were either contrary to Darwinian evolution, or sought to synthesize something that incorporated evolution within such theology. I think the latter is far more worthy of debate, as biology has sought to move on.”

Yes, this makes sense. At least biology & ideology (materialism) are both at play. The absence of talk about “ideology” is cruicial to understanding what people are actually proposing “between the lines” sometimes. This is likewise how the quotation from Darwin above must be read regarding his “regret”.

Incorporating evolutionary biology (strictly “natural” topic) within Christian theology has proven more difficult than many people imagined, partly because of the incongruity between being “naturalist” and a “theist” that Darwin experienced in his own life, but also because the term “evolution” has a way of sneaking “out of bounds” too often to enter moral, political, social, cultural, and even religious thinking.

“I have not come across Theistic Newtonianism of anything like it? Yet poor theology continues to be incorporated with biology to maintain a side of a continuous debate.”

Yes, this has long been a critique. Stacy Trasancos did a fine job here, which was already linked here at BioLogos (nice to see another Catholic getting airtime here).

Frankly, I cannot think of a single “theologian” who has written a “Darwinian” tract on theology that carries any value to the theological tradition and teachings of the Abrahamic religions. I can think of multiple examples, including one unfortunate scholar-minister I met and spoke with, whose writings on “evolutionary theology” and “evolutionary theologizing” reek of heresy. This “poor theology” that “continues to be incorporated with biology” though, isn’t the main focus on my radar, so I’ll be thankful to hear more from you in pointing it out when it is visible.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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