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Emma and Charles – A Love Story

Rolland Carlson
October 20th, 2013


We human beings have always treasured our “specialness.” After all, we were taught that we were specifically formed in God’s image and therefore must be superior. Of course, some feel we formed God in our image. In either case, many are convinced we are the pinnacle of evolution, or creation. Threaten our notion of “specialness” and a major fuss erupts. Charles Darwin certainly was aware of this, which may be one reason he labored twenty years before publishing the “Origin of Species.” After all, his theory cast doubt on the notion of a God ordained ladder with European white males at the top. But, why would a studious, and private, traditional English gentleman, take the risk of pushing such an unpopular view? Especially since his deeply religious wife Emma was worried because she wasn’t at all sure they would be together in the afterlife. Their families’ histories as Unitarians and religious free thinkers give us some insights into this question.
Charles was not the first to propose the idea of evolution. This is a short poem written by his grandfather, Erasmus, in 1789, twenty years before Charles was born.
ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass; These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume; Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

Erasmus proposed, “that the strongest and most active animals should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.” These are the very ideas that would later be elaborated by his famous grandson. Erasmus was intellectually curious and one of the more amazing geniuses in English history. He correctly identified sugars as the byproducts of plant metabolism. He deduced that plant leaves must have tiny pores, now called stomata. He predicted the eventual development of flying machines with motors and was the first to figure out how clouds form.
Erasmus was a corpulent, well-liked man, with an enormous appetite for food, and women, but not exercise. A semi-circle was cut in the dining room table so he could comfortably eat. He was a successful doctor with many wealthy clients, but he treated the poor for free. He turned down a commission to be the King’s personal physician. He didn’t like the King’s politics! He was also a poet and his epic poem, The Botanic Garden, a Poem in Two Parts, was regarded as one of the great works of British poetry.

He gained much from a circle of brilliant friends who met for years and called their group the Lunar Society, because they convened once a month on the night of the full moon. This was not mysticism; it just gave them light to find their way home. Erasmus was a religious skeptic and deist. Josiah Wedgwood, one of his closest friends in the group, was a devoted Unitarian and potter. Josiah became wealthy when he formed the famous Wedgwood China firm. Both men had strong abolitionist views. Josiah had a seal designed showing a kneeling African in chains, lifting his hands and asking, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” He put this image on books, leaflets, and snuffboxes, and this may have been the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause. Another important friend in the group was Joseph Priestly, the well-known Unitarian minister and religious dissenter.
In 1796 the Darwin and Wedgwood families joined. Josiah had died a year earlier and left 25,000 pounds (About $125,000) to his favorite daughter, Susannah. Robert Darwin, one of the sons of Erasmus, married Susannah. Their last child was Charles. Charles mother raised him as a Unitarian until her death, when he was eight. Charles then attended boarding school and, at sixteen, his father enrolled him in the University of Edinburg to become a physician like himself. This did not work out well. Charles had a morbid fear of the sight of blood. Later in life his children quickly learned to go to mom if they got a cut or scrape as their father, in the vernacular of today, would freak out.

When Edinburg didn’t work out, Charles’ father recommended that he go to Cambridge and study for the Anglican ministry. He liked the idea that the state would pay Charles’ salary. Charles’ father thought he was a lazy student “who cared for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching.” While at Cambridge, Charles continued to pursue his passion for nature and collecting. He wrote, “One day, when tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so I popped the one that I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas, it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue, so I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.” That man was destined to be a biologist.
In 1831 Charles received a letter inviting him to be the ship’s naturalist on a survey ship, the Beagle, on a voyage around much of the world. This voyage changed history and Charles’ life. The trip lasted five years instead of the planned two and Darwin was seasick almost the whole time the ship was at sea. He took every opportunity to get off the boat and explore, amassing a considerable animal and fossil collection.
In September 1832, the Beagle anchored in a bay about 400 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. Hunters brought back game, including some armadillos, which made up part of their dinner that evening. The local gauchos often grilled the armadillos in their shells. A month later, further south, he found many mammal fossils, including large scutes, the armored scales that cover the back of an armadillo. They must have belonged to an enormous Armadillo, now gone, and very different from living species. He also collected the skull of a giant ground sloth, also now gone. He wondered about the differences between living and fossil animals and began to ponder; is it possible that animals change over time?

At the end of the voyage Charles settled in London, never to leave England again. In 1839 he published his first book, “The voyage of the Beagle.” His reputation, and income, began to grow. He was elected to the Royal Society, a prestigious learned group devoted to science. He worked on his collection, still thinking about sloths and armadillos. He studied finches he had collected in the Galapagos Islands, which seemed similar, but their beaks and sizes varied from island to island. Gradually the idea of transmutation, or evolution grew in his mind. He shared his growing ideas with some close friends in the society.
He also began spending considerable time with his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, whom he had known since childhood. She was the grand daughter of Josiah, and well read. She had studied the piano in Paris with the famous composer, Fredric Chopin. She was also known as “Little Miss Slip-slop” because neatness was not her strongest point. Charles was smitten, and contemplated asking for her hand in marriage, but was unsure. He wrote down arguments for and against marriage in his notebook. Some of these read, “Children – (if it please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved & 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.

He had a long talk with his father, who strongly approved. He and Emma’s father set the couple up so they could live comfortably and never have to worry about money. Charles discussed with his father his developing ideas about evolution and was warned, “Don’t tell Emma.” Charles, however, was too honest to keep this from her. She still wanted to marry him. Emma’s faith was very important to her, particularly since the death of her older sister Fanny, a few years earlier. With only a two-year difference in age, the two were very close and Emma comforted herself with the thought that they would eventually be reunited in the hereafter.
She wrote to Charles about their differences. “My reason tells me that honest and conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain. It is perhaps foolish of me to say this much but my own dear Charley we now belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you. Will you do me a favour? Yes, I am sure you will, it is to read our Savior’s farewell discourse to his disciples, which begins at the end of the 13th Chap of John. It is so full of love to them & devotion & every beautiful feeling. It is the part of the New Testament I love best. This is a whim of mine, it would give me great pleasure though I can hardly tell why I don’t wish you to give me your opinion about it.”

Since Emma was a Unitarian, her views regarding salvation may come as a bit of a surprise to contemporary Unitarian-Universalists. But, in her day, the Unitarian Church was more Biblically conservative. In America, one of our most famous Unitarians, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was criticized for using biblical texts to illustrate his sermons, instead of preaching directly from those texts. Although well liked, he did not stay in the ministry very long. So, it was not unusual for Unitarians like Emma, to believe in an afterlife for those of faith and the “other place” for the rest.

They settled into a comfortable life in a country home, the Down House, sixteen miles from London. Charles worked constantly on his research, which covered many topics including pigeons, barnacles, and worms. They doted over their ten children. The Darwin’s were not strict disciplinarians. In their household the Victorian edict that “children should be seen and not heard” was ignored. Charles loved to tell the story about Lenny when he was six and sitting on his father’s lap. The boy looked up at him and said, “Well, you old ass.” Quickly Lenny reconsidered; “Really, I did not mean to spurt that out.” Charles enjoyed having Emma read to him and play the piano in the evening. Despite their differing religious beliefs they were a devoted and loving couple. She knew all his thoughts, as she was his editor, correcting his spelling and grammar.

Their greatest tragedy was in 1851. Their beloved Annie, age 10, died after a long illness. Her death was a horrible blow to the Darwin’s. Charles was in such deep remorse he couldn’t even go to her funeral. Deborah Heiligman, who wrote the wonderful book, “The Darwin’s Leap of Faith,” says that this was the worst thing that could happen to them, but they survived and grew closer although they both continued to hold their own views. The only church available to Emma in their village was the Anglican Church. She and the children would often attend Sunday services while Charles took a long walk. True to her heritage, as the Trinity was recited, she and her children would rise and stand in silence, with their backs to the podium, in protest. Unitarians had always rejected the Trinity because it is not Biblical.

Charles continued to seek the truth as he saw it. His family background; freethinking Unitarians and Darwinian skeptics; must have contributed to this mind-set. He criticized Christianity, as it taught that men who do not believe, “including his father, brother, and almost all his friends,” would be eternally punished.” He said, “This is a damnable doctrine.” His view matched the Unitarian view going back to the Socinians in the 1570’s.
Charles wrote and rewrote the “Origin of Species.” Some of his friends in the Society repeatedly urged him to publish, but he resisted. Then, in 1858, he received a devastating letter from a young naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, proposing the same ideas Charles had worked on for so long. Wallace asked Charles to send it on to the Society. His integrity demanded that he do so. Darwin’s friends in the Society communicated with Wallace, explaining that Charles had been working on the idea of natural selection for years. In 1858, both men’s papers were read to the Society. Charles did not attend because of the death of his youngest son, one and a half, from scarlet fever. No controversy erupted as the papers were met with a collective yawn.
Charles went on to finish the “Origin of Species.” He explained his theory writing, “As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, andthus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.” This was a very simple idea. Thomas Huxley, a brilliant friend of Charles said, “Why didn’t I think of that!”

The Origin of Species was published on November 24, 1859. All 1250 copies of the first edition sold out in one day. Then came the uproar. Charles tried to avoid the fray, but Huxley loved a fight, and became such an ardent defender of Charles he earned the nickname, “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Huxley’s most famous defense was a debate with Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford. In front of an audience of 700 people, Wilberforce tried to shame Huxley, asking if he was descended from an ape on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Huxley replied, “I would rather be related to an ape than a bishop.
Proponents of racial bias embraced Darwin’s ideas on evolution. Borrowing from natural selection, they argued that it was normal and natural that the strongest or fittest people should survive at the expense of the weak and unfit. This came to be known as “Social Darwinism,” and was used to justify colonialism and racism because of the assumption that people of color were weaker and more unfit. So, it was okay to seize their land and resources. The term, “survival of the fittest” was coined, not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer, who was associated with social Darwinism. Darwin had observed and abhorred slavery in Tierra Del Fuego and condemned these ideas as a perversion of his theory.
Charles and Emma were decent, honest, well-liked people. They never reached a final agreement about the existence of God but their love endured. During their entire marriage Charles had suffered from ill health and finally began to fail in 1882. There are stories that Charles recanted his beliefs on his deathbed but this is not true. Charles’ last words were to tell Emma what a wonderful wife she had been. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Alfred Wallace was one of the pallbearers.

126 years after his death, the Church of England apologized saying “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.”