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Book Review

The Darwin Legend

Kevin Padian,
University of California,  Berkeley

"Are reports of his deathbed conversion true?" So asks the sub-title on the cover of this valuable little book by James Moore, the Darwin expert who recently authored with Adrian Desmond the much-acclaimed biography of the "troubled evolutionist" (Time Warner Books, 1991). The volume at hand can be seen as a small companion volume that has less to do with Charles Darwin himself than with how he has been treated since his death, at least in a small way.

It seems that in 1915 a story began to surface that Darwin renounced evolution and embraced "Christianity" on his deathbed. The source of the story was a first-hand account by a noblewoman who had visited him at Downe and witnessed his confession that his statements on evolution had been "unformed ideas" that he bitterly regretted, especially because "people made a religion of them." He allegedly urged her to come to preach on Jesus Christ to his servants and neighbors in his summer-house, so that he could hear the hymns through the window. This story has evidently been circulated in tracts and from pulpits ever since. Moore undertook to write the book largely because he could not get away from questions about it every time he was interviewed about Darwin.

The origin and evolution of the story itself would be pretty funny if they were not so pathetic that it has been circulated uncritically for so many years, despite immediate and repeated denials by all members of the Darwin family, and despite no corroborating historical evidence of any kind. The originator of the story, one Lady Hope, appears to have been something of an opportunistic religious crusader dedicated to abolishing the iniquities of drink. Born Elizabeth Cotton, she and her father, General Sir Arthur Cotton, began as religious temperance crusaders in Kent. She eventually married Admiral Sir James Hope, who shared her views, and thus became Lady Hope of Carriden. Through an interesting route she found herself in Downe one summer, preaching to the locals and to the summer migrant hops workers.

Here the story becomes a little murky. Lady Hope seems to have gained entry to the Darwin house on at least one occasion, but more than one is not certain. Darwin's family was houndishly protective of his privacy and frail health; most likely all that gained her admission was his unwillingness to refuse her noble status. Her accounts of their meeting -- which became more elaborate and unlikely with repetition -- contain many accurate particulars of the interior and surroundings of Downe House (but also some obvious inaccuracies); however, no one who has ever studied Darwin in his letters, or accounts by people who knew him well would recognize the actions, statements, or phraseologies of Lady Hope's story. She seems to have brought it to light in 1915 for the express purpose of drawing attention to herself at a religious retreat in Massachusetts. When its repetition eventually reached notorious proportions, thanks to newspapers and magazines, the Darwin family, T.H. Huxley, and others were called upon to address its likelihood. The situation grew so ridiculous that at one point the family had to threaten her to stop misrepresenting Darwin so flagrantly.

Moore's book is excellent scholarship. He begins with Darwin's well-established views on religion, and the conflict into which thisplaced him with his mutually devoted spouse Emma. Moore details some of the pressures and entreaties placed on Darwin to endorse various anti-religious or free-thinking causes and organizations, and Darwin's responses. Darwin had indeed called Christianity a "damnable doctrine," in the context that it demanded that all unbelievers (including Darwin's father and many of his own friends) be eternally punished.

On the other hand, the funeral at Westminster Abbey and the attendant testimonies from scientists, clergy, and statesmen seems evidence enough of some sort of detente in the conflict.

Emma and the family perhaps were unwilling to stir it up again; hence the excision from the Autobiography of all anti-religious statements. Furthermore, family and friends carefully tended and protected his post-mortem image .

Darwin was an agnostic who did not like the arrogance of much of the established religion that he knew. Lady Hope's testimony was self-serving nonsense, easily shredded by historical analysis. Unfortunately, empirical evidence seldom rectifies a long-standing myth, and so Moore's book is engaging and edifying reading.

James Moore's The Darwin Legend is available from NCSE's discount books.

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