Someone gave me a copy of this sermon by our mid-20th century minister, Rev. Dr. W. Waldemar W. Argow. I thought it would be especially interesting to post it on Darwin's birthday.
“Our Debt to Charles Darwin”
A sermon by Rev. W. Waldemar W. Argow, Th.D.
When one thinks about Charles Darwin and his contributions to our common life, it is inevitable that the words of Victor Hugo should come to mind. Said he, “The most irresistible power in all the world is an idea whose hour has struck.”
This is the centennial year of Charles Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species through the Method of Natural Selection.” As I contemplated the coming of the centennial, I have felt for some time that I wanted to speak about Darwin’s contribution, made through this book, to the understanding of our common life and ourselves. Also, by this small token of gratitude, I shall pay tribute to Charles Darwin for what, through “The Origin of Species” and his other great book, “The Descent of Men,” he meant to me personally in those Babylonian years when I was struggling for a rational, reasonable and sensible interpretation of this life of ours, It is, therefore, out of a sense of profound gratitude that I speak this morning.
So stupendous was the effect of Darwin’s writings that it shattered man’s intellectual world, scattering pieces into every nook and cranny of civilization. So revolutionary was it and so overwhelmingly that it produces an entirely different intellectual, moral, social and spiritual climate in which men from there on were bound to live.
It is my opinion that Charles Darwin ranks among the four great men in our Western culture. The first was Copernicus who added vast new areas to our lives. The second was Sir Isaac Newton who gave us an altogether new understanding and concept of this universe of which we are all a part. And lastly there was Sigmund Freud who likewise gave us a revolutionary new understanding, not only of ourselves, but also of our identity with our human past.
And so it is as we contemplate Charles Darwin and his revolutionary contributions this morning that I want to place him in his proper niche in man’s unfolding story.
Perhaps it might be well for just a moment to try to understand who he was and how he came to make his historic contributions. First of all, he was born on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809, in the little village of Shrewsbury, England. His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, and his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, were men of profound intellectual power. Both of then were physicians.
Early in life young Charles showed a propensity for inquiry into the mysteries of life all about him. Everything fascinated him. By the age of ten he had already amassed a collection of many hundreds of different insects and flowers. Not only had he collected them, but he had also classified them and he knew wherein they varied from one another.
Understandably, it was the father’s wish that Charles should follow in the family profession of physicians, but the boy was too much interested in the mystery of life all about him. As a consequence, when Charles was in his late teens, his father sent him to Cambridge in the hope that the influence of the intellectual climate there might change his viewpoint. But—fortunately, as things turned out—the boy fell under the influence of some outstanding naturalists.
When I use the word “naturalist” this morning, you must bear in mind that there were only two types of intellectual discipline in Darwin’s time, One was the so-called classical, and the other was the so-called natural. There was no such thing as science, in our modern sense of the term, and anyone who was a philosopher might conceivably also be a naturalist if he were interested in the natural phenomena about him.
While he was there at Cambridge, young Darwin’s soul was electrified by the consideration and interest shown him. His father hoped that if he did not go into medicine, Charles might become a clergyman. This was not in the cards for Charles, however, for the study of theology interested him not at all.
(I often reflect upon the fact that if you fail to make good at everything else, or if you aren’t interested in anything else, people will want to make a preacher out of you! The story is told of the father who, as was the custom in an earlier generation, selected and elected the professions and vocations of his sons. Said he to his wife, “My dear, this oldest boy of ours has a very fine analytical mind; I’m sure we can make a lawyer our of him. Our second son has a sympathetic feeling for people; I’m convinced we can make a doctor of him. But our youngest son—. Well. He’s something of a dullard, as you know. So it must be that he will be our preacher!”
Too often this has been the case. And usually the implication has been that if you can’t succeed at anything else, at least you can putter around in the ministry.)
By the end of his Cambridge career Charles had become more interested than ever in the vast array of facts and bits of information about the natural world that were beginning to pile up everywhere. So in separation he went to his uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, to ask him to intercede with his father.
Now it just so happened that at this particular time the British Crown announced that the Royal Navy was to send a ship around the world for the study of natural phenomenon and to gather all the information it could for the benefit of the navy. Charles was overwhelmed with joy at the possibility that he night be appointed official naturalist for the voyage.
Finally his father consented; and on December 22, 1836, HMS Beagle set sail on her historic five-year long voyage. Perhaps no other voyage, with the exception of Columbus’ first one, has accomplished as much for civilization as the long, long cruise of Her Majesty’s Ship, Beagle.
Month after month, Beagle slowly circled the earth, avoiding the North and South Poles, of course, but sailing into almost every other area of the earth’s surface. Every time the ship dropped anchor, Charles would go ashore, with to the mainland or to some island, and, driven by his insatiable curiosity, would collect seeds, flowers, rocks, bits of stone, fossils, insects and animals that he might bring them back to the shop.
Then, during the night or when the vessel was under way again he would study and analyze and correlate until at last a tremendous amount of facts and information began to take shape which gave him an insight into many new things new and mysterious. Darwin himself did not quite know what he was looking for, but somehow he felt that he was in the midst of a great mystery that was gradually unraveling.
During this time he acquainted himself as much as possible with breeders of plants, animals, fowl, cattle and horses so that he might learn how breeds and new species came into being. After five eventful years, he returned to his home base.
An omnivorous reader, Darwin became acquainted with the work of Jean Lamarck, the French naturalist; Carolus Linneaus, the Swedish naturalist; and Sir James Hooker, the English geologist. Ideas were everywhere in the air. An intellectual hunger was manifesting itself. And Charles was constantly seeking, seeking, seeking for answers.
Now then, what was the marvelous thing that was happening, and why did it come about? In the first place, what Charles Darwin did with his discoveries and his correlation of facts was nothing less than to shatter man’s existing concept of creation! Up until Darwin’s time it had been universally believed and universally taught that on the Day of Creation, which had occurred only 6,000 years previously, God had created every blade of grass, every plant, every tree, every insect, every fish, every bird, every animal, every living organism exactly as it was. There had been absolutely no change whatsoever. People believed in what was known as the immutability of the species. That is to say, everything that exists today is merely a continuation, a reproduction of something that God originally created. There has been no variation, no change.
When fossils were found, particularly the fossilized remains of the great prehistoric animals, men did not believe that these ancient creatures were no longer living. Instead, they maintained that the animals must still be alive—the skeleton remains were those of contemporary creatures—even thought no one had seen them. The world was still a big place with unexplored hinterlands in many directions, and men believed that if only they ventured far enough into the undiscovered regions, and men believed that if only they ventured far enough into the undiscovered regions, they would find these fabulous creatures still alive. The basic concept, you see, was that there had been no change whatsoever in any way in any existing living thing.
The first thing Darwin did was to build a stairway down into the past, and, instead of being 6,000 years long, the path of the stairs was proving to be millions of years long. Down and down and down it went into a post that was utterly different from anything man had dreamed of before.
This was the way in which Darwin built up his conception of the past: in all of his studies, during all of his voyages, he had seen the rise of volcanoes and the disappearances of land masses. He had seen sedimentary rocks, and in the3wse rocks he had seen the skeletons and fossilized remains of animals which no longer existed upon this earth. He looked and looked and found that there was a total dissimilarity with everything that lived today.
Another thing that was startling was the fact that a species of plant or animal which he found in one place was very different from the same species found in another place. He first discovered this phenomenon in the Cape Verde Islands where he found that the birds, the flora, and even the animals on the Cape Verde group were completely different from those in the Galapagos group. Also he found that the mice on the East side of the Andes were significantly different from those on the West side.
All these discrepancies caused Darwin to ask questions. During the Beagle’s long voyage had kept a detailed account of everything he saw and found. In his notebooks he made voluminous notes indicating exactly what he had found in this insect, this fossil, that plant. He noted the soil, the moisture content, sun, winds, rocks, and the chemistry of anything that could give him any clue. And still he had no answer as to why this was different from that.
But now he was convinced that there was a power at work somewhere in the nature of things, an orderly power that apparently worked according to some definite law which, as yet, he was unable to put his finger on.
In addition, he became an astute and careful student of anatomy, not only human, but anatomy of all skeletal substance. By a process of comparison, he discovered that the hand of a man, the paw of a mole, the flipper of a seal, the wing of a bid, and the hoof of a horse were similar in function and must have a common origin.
All this anatomical similarity began to persuade him back, back, back down the long corridors of time, life had suffered certain changes n form, and that one fragment of life must have grown out of another fragment of life. As yet there was no real science, certainly not of genetics and very little of biology, and all that he did had to be done by the long tortuous method of induction.
One day he came across Thomas Malthus’ famous book on the problem of human population. In this book Malthus had written that population, be it of plants, or animals, or insects, or men, increases or decreases according to environmental factors, such as food supplies of enemies. As a consequence, Malthus contended that the force behind these various population problems was basically the same: it was a struggle for existence. When this struggle for existence is intense and powerful, the weak are pushed aside and the strong survive.
At long last Darwin had found the clue he was looking for. What happens, he maintained, is that the fit mate with the fit and the unfit with the unfit, and sometimes either way, but in the end it is the fit who are able to survive in the struggle for existence. So here, finally, was his answer to the mysterious something he had sensed at work in life, and he defined it by calling it the survival of the fit by the process of natural selection.
Now just at this point there occurred one of the most remarkable episodes of which I know so far as humility and deference of one mind to another were concerned. Way over on the other side of the world in Australia lived a naturalist buy the name of Alfred Russel Wallace who independently had been doing a lot of research very similar to Darwin’s. The two men had corresponded, but only in a vague and desultory way.
Darwin’s friends had been trying to persuade him to publish his conclusions. Said they, “You should now gather all the information you have, out it into book, and give it to the world.”
Darwin was about to do this when one day he opened a letter from his friend Wallace in which considerable length Wallace presented a theory which was almost identical with Darwin’s theory. Darwin gasped in amazement! To think that another human being, without any interchange of ideas or information, could come to the same conclusion!
And yet, instead of being angry, instead of brushing aside Wallace’s letter and trying to ignore it, Darwin went to his friends and said, “I am not entitled to publish my book because if is really Alfred Russel Wallace who has made this great discovery, and he is entitled to the credit.”
Wallace, it turned out, was a man of equally fine character. After some further correspondence, he urged Darwin to go ahead and publish, which Darwin did.
When the book was published, a veritable earthquake took place in the intellectual life of England. The abuse that was heaped upon Darwin’s head was almost beyond belief. He was called a God-smasher, a man whose insane desire was to disrobe and dethrone God. Leader of the attack upon Darwin was Bishop Wilberforce of the established Church of England. Speaking out in behalf of Darwin was—as you might guess—a Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Charles Kingsley. Said he, “Let God smite men dumb not with ignorance, but with understanding! If this be denied, let the truth be told.”
Darwin’s staunchest defender at this time was the great Thomas Huxley whose grandsons we know today by their writings. Huxley published a long, approving article on the book in “The London Times,” and when Thomas Huxley put his stamp of approval on what Darwin had discovered, or at least on his theories, the climate of opinion began to change and it became respectable now at least to inquire into Darwin’s concept.
What was that historic concept? What contribution has Charles Darwin made to our understanding of ourselves? It is almost impossible to give it to you in any categorical fashion, for you need to disabuse and empty your minds of such concepts as we have today and try to think yourselves back a hundred years to the time when Darwin’s book was published.
In essence, here is what he gave us: first of all, this is a living and growing universe. Such a position is commonplace today, of course, but you remember that Darwin pioneered it. Ours, said he, is a living universe in which all life has had a common origin. Furthermore, it is an infinite universe in which life, not biological life, exactly, but life substance in its mysteriousness is triumphant and universal. Still further, said he, by the change from the simple to the complex, all human beings share in the common life stream and we are all related part and parcel to all other living things and pulsating things. And, finally, it means that all life carries within itself the best qualities of its own past.
It remained for Sigmund Freud to make us aware of how immediate the past is in every one of us; that the past is not dead and that we belong to a great, unbroken human stream; and that therefore we carry a kind of immortality within us.
Take, for example, your own personal case. You are the child of two people, and these two people are the children of four people, and then sixteen, and then thirty-two, and so on, and so on, and so on. And after you get through the human stream, you go to the prehuman stream, and after that you go on back and back and back with ever an unbroken line. There has never been a moment in that long, mysterious record of billions of years in which there was one single break between you and the origin of life. If there had been such a break, you wouldn’t be here! All of this means that we carry within ourselves an immortality that goes back to the very heart of things.
Still another thing Darwin gave us is this: in the evolution of man, with the emergence of reason and intellect—first instinct, then reason, and then the spiritual qualities of love—it is as if the Creator had said: “now I am finished with the evolution of man. I am turning the process over and placing it in your hands. With instinct, reason and live you now have the power either to destroy yourselves, and all other life too, or you can go forth and create a world more nearly to the heart’s desire.”
The last thing to come out of Darwin’s revolution is some realization of the supreme dignity, majesty, and awful responsibility of man. Do you suppose we could get this concept across to people? This feeling of identity? This sense of intimacy with the greater cosmic stream of life? If only we could get this across to people—particularly our political. Military and other leaders—would any of them still tinker or flirt with the possibility of destroying life upon this earth with the atomic or hydrogen bomb? What tremendous moral responsibility rests upon us of this generation! For all we have it in our power to destroy all life from the face of the earth, every last vestige of living protoplasm, until only a burned out cinder is left.
Now I am willing to grant that perhaps we have a right to destroy ourselves; maybe our own little lives do belong to us to do with what we will. But do we have the right, the moral right, to destroy all other living substance which shares the common quality of livingness with us? Certainly it is a madness that has possessed us, something only an insane man would tolerate—much less conceive.
What does all this mean for our day and generation? Assuredly it means this: that traditional religion must face up to the facts of evolution as Charles Darwin gave them to us: that all life is one; that we have all sprung from the great universal heart of life, and that we all have a moral responsibility to one another and to life in general. I say, unless traditional religion accepts these foundation facts in place of its childlike image of a magical creation in a mythical Garden of Eden, it is morally derelict to its great responsibility and it needs desperately to be awakened to the facts of life.
In the year 1882 there came one day a lovely Spring morning when the earth was being re-carpeted with its perennial green velvet, blossoms were bursting forth our of the darksome earth, and birds were relearning their almost forgotten, throaty songs; and on this day—it was Aprul1 17th—the magnificent heart and mind of Charles Darwin returned to the great world soul which he had learned to revere and so splendidly honor.
In a few days Darwin’s body was carried from the manor house where he had lived, taken to Westminster Abbey, and there placed alongside the remains of another great man who had also added much to the realm of human knowledge—Sir Isaac Newton.
How true of Charles Darwin are the words of James Russell Lowell when he said:
“Great truths are portions of the souls of men;
Great souls are portions of eternity.”
Darwin, I thank you for what you have contributed to our understanding of the greatness, grandeur, and magnificent glory of life!