A Humanist view of Charles Darwin

By | 13 Feb 2007

Charles Darwin Charles Darwin - portrait by George Richmond, 1840. CD, English scientist: 12 February 1809– 19 April 1882. GR, English painter: 28 March 1809 – 19 March 1896.The following is a transcript of the lecture delivered by Rosslyn Ives to the Melbourne Atheist Society on 13 February 2007.


The little we know is filtered and evaluated from a culturally acquired perspective. In my case, I have a background in the biological sciences. I am a long time atheist/humanist, an environmentalist and a feminist. Therefore what I’m going to say tonight will be filtered through these perspectives. We are all, as American sociologist Donna Haraway would say, ‘situated knowers’.


We are living through a long period of change, extending over hundreds of years, from a predominately religious world-view to, hopefully, a predominately secular humanist world-view. Life and death issues like voluntary euthanasia, stem cell research, same sex relationships, and abortion, represent the tip of an iceberg of deep differences in views; with secular humanists being broadly accepting and supportive of legalising these practices, and with the most fanatical opponents belonging to the more fundamentalist religions. This means that since the late 1800s an emerging, humanistic view of life has been in tension with the long established Judeo-Christian absolutist, religious perspective.

One person whose highly significant contribution underpins the secular humanist world-view, is Charles Darwin. This has led we humanists, along with other secularists to mark the importance of his contribution by celebrating his birthday, on the 12 February, as Darwin Day. As he was born in 1809, it will be the two hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2009, just two years away. Darwin and those who followed in his footsteps have given us a fact based scientific framework within which to understand life’s great diversity and our place in the scheme of things. We can therefore talk about a pre-Darwin world-view and a post-Darwin world-view. The rest of my talk will cover these, along with Darwin’s contribution.

The pre-Darwinian world-view

The pre-Darwin, western world-view, firmly in place until the late 1800s, was based on some of the following very widely held ideas/beliefs:

  • A creator god who made all living things, and – so the bible goes – all the myriad of different life forms or species. Each were created fully formed and unchangeable – hence concept of fixed or immutable species.
  • Man was god’s special creation and all the other creatures were given by god for man’s use.
  • The Earth and presence of life was no older than implied by the biblical account. Therefore calculated as a mere few thousand, rather than many millions of years old.
  • The concept of the Great Chain of Being. An idea that there is a hierarchy of beings from the highest – god the creator, the angels, then Man, then the animal kingdom – from higher animals such as birds & mammals to lower down to creepy crawlies. Where to place creatures on the Great Chain of Being was much discussed.
  • Humans, who were deemed a superior life form, were the sole possessor of a soul.
  • How to lead one’s life was laid down by god as interpreted by religious authority figures. To violate their rulings was to sin!
  • Because life was god-given and sacred, in theory there should be no killing or taking of life. Murder and suicide were considered seriously sinful and immoral, and this was reflected in the law.
  • Human death was believed to be transcended by passage into an afterlife, of a heaven or a hell. It was therefore desirous that individual lives conform to the dictates of the Christian ideal. The duty of man is to please god!
  • The concept of hierarchy, as conceived in the idea of the Great Chain of Being, lent substance to socially stratified practices such as:
      1. certain individuals and their family members were of a higher status, e.g. nobility, lords and ladies, and the divine right of kings, being off shoots of this social practice. While by Darwin’s time the people understood society to be also divided into classes.
      2. men being superior to women, deemed the weaker sex.
      3. white races were superior to coloured races. Generally the darker the colour, the lower down the Great Chain of Being.
  • These views were held as certain and true. Morals rules were supposed to be god-given. Ethical principles were considered absolute.
  • These views were associated with religious rituals, ceremonies and practices that many found deeply satisfying. Most people participated in church-going, and rites of passage. To not do so, often incurred social ostracism and exclusion from full participation in society
  • These views were pervaded with a sense that the god-given account was the One and Only True Account of How Things Really Are!

This brief summary covers some of the main beliefs of a western, world view, well in place by around 400 CE (Common Era, a secular substitute for AD), when Christianity had succeeded in pushing all alternative views to the cultural margins. While this world view remained dominant into Darwin’s lifetime, 1809-1882, it had begun to be undermined, more inadvertently than deliberately from around 1400. Beginning with the Renaissance period 1400-1600 CE, when the discovery of ancient texts from Greek and Roman times, kick started a great growth in learning, and a renewed sense of Man’s creative capabilities. A little later this was followed by the scientific revolution, along with great advances in technology, leading to the industrial revolution. Around 1700-1780 was the turmoil of social upheaval of the Enlightenment period, when the use of reason, got legs as an idea. By the late 1700s, with the great expansion of the natural sciences and accumulation of new knowledge, increasing numbers of people began thinking for themselves. Some questioned the veracity of religion and declared themselves, deists (at the weak-end) and atheists, freethinkers, secularists and rationalists (at the stronger end of a rather broad spectrum of beliefs). The ideas of the Enlightenment sparked other social changes, just pre-dating Darwin, namely the American and French revolutions with their emphasis on the ‘rights of man’ – Thomas Paine, a deist, being an important contributor with his works on Rights of Man (1791), and Age of Reason (1794-95). This type of thinking also gave rise to the British Chartist movement and others groups agitating for the right of all men to vote during Darwin’s lifetime.

2. Darwin’s contribution

While Darwin’s name, in the popular imagination, is synonymous with evolution, his famous contribution was to offer a mechanism, ‘natural selection’, not the idea itself, which had been around for about two thousand years. What it had lacked, until Darwin and Alfred Wallace, was a plausible mechanism of how species might change and evolve, one into another.

From a young boy, Darwin had an interest in nature. As he grew older he read widely about nature and when in his mid-twenties, was fortuitously offered the chance to be a ‘gentlemen companion’ to Capt Robert Fitzroy [an example of importance of social stratification], who had been contracted by the British navy to survey the coast of South America and other parts of the world. The 5-year voyage on the HMS Beagle enabled Darwin to add a phenomenal amount of first-hand observations of the diverse animals and plant species, and South American fossils to his existing knowledge. Once back in England, he had a mountain of observational material and preserved specimens to reflect upon. Much of this he converted into a travel book and scientific monographs. But alongside this typical work of a naturalist, Darwin began to ponder a possible explanation for how closely related species seemed to have diverged from one another, due to living in differing environments. Not long after his return to the UK his thoughts turned to how this could be explained in a natural, scientific, rather than supernatural way. Thus he started to put together his ideas on ‘natural selection’ in the 1840s, but he delayed publishing both because he was aware of how controversial an idea it was, and in deference to his wife’s strong religious convictions. [Recent material suggests he may have simply placed a greater priority on completing other work first.] Whatever the reason for the delay, he continually reworked his ideas on natural selection, revealing them to only a few close colleagues (Dr Joseph Hooker of Royal Botanic Gardens and geologist, Sir Charles Lyell).

During this period when Darwin was working through his version of natural selection, an anonymous publication in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, had caused a publishing sensation. It was widely read, commented upon, and discussed most especially throughout the UK. The scientific community, i.e., Darwin’s close colleagues, opposed many of the ideas set out in Vestiges including those on evolution, while it was the atheists and freethinkers who most vigorously embraced them. Darwin’s problem was that he was working on a similar idea to that in Vestiges that had been roundly dismissed by his colleagues. He therefore knew he had to put the case for species changing (hence evolving, though he didn’t use this word) from one into another, in a way that convinced his science peers, or at least a good proportion of them.

What spurred Darwin to go public with his ideas was the unexpected arrival via the post in 1858 of a short paper on exactly Darwin’s ideas on natural selection by a fellow collector and naturalist, Alfred Wallace. [This is one of those examples of the time being right – if enough knowledge accumulates then often several prepared minds come to the same idea, independently. Also even others who hadn’t had the idea themselves can readily see that it has merit, e.g., Thomas Huxley known as Darwin’s bulldog for example.] This led to papers by both Darwin and Wallace being read to a meeting of the Linnean Society in London on 1 July, in 1858 [neither of the authors were actually present]. Urged by his friends and possibly wanting to establish his prior claim to the idea of natural selection, Darwin reworked his material further and on 24 November, 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published. This was followed in subsequent years by much public debate including well-known role of T. H. Huxley and Bishop ‘soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, and even his old traveling companion, Robert Fitzroy, as a passionate Christian and strong opponent of evolution.

Darwin’s genius was to argue by analogy. He compared something everyone was familiar with, namely ‘artificial selection’, with his new idea and mechanism for species changing and therefore life evolving which he called ‘natural selection’. Both involve similar steps:

  • Individuals within each species vary, e.g., colour, size. etc
  • More offspring are produced than survive
  • Only selected offspring survive and reproduce because they possess better ‘adapted’ features. These increase in the population, while less well adapted features decrease.
  • Over time each species accumulates features that suit it to its particular environment, or human fancies. Given enough time more significant changes can accumulate. [If natural populations spread into differing environments, or the environment changes, they will accumulate different features, or die off.]

When Darwin finally published his major treatise on this topic in 1859, The Origin of Species, as it is now known, his arguments were well-honed. The evidence he put to readers was how artificial selection operated and by analogy natural selection, plus evidence of evolution – the similarities between what seemed to be related species, fossil remains and their similarities to existing species, and similarities in embryological developmental. Such was his concern to put the case for natural selection in the best way he continually rewrote sections of The Origins in all subsequent editions up until 1872. When he died in 1882 such was his fame he was buried in Westminster Abbey, even though he was no longer a practising Christian.

3. The post Darwinian world view

Like all radical ideas, evolution took decades to be widely understood and accepted. And even today, religious fundamentalists are still fighting a rear-guard action by promoting creationism and more recently intelligent design. Such campaigns lack substance, as science has continued to accumulate more and more evidence for evolution. And once the study of genetics was added to the repertoire, evolution has become a key theory underpinning modern biology. Acceptance of the idea of evolution has changed more than biology. Its implications have impacted on philosophical ideas as well. They can be summed as, if humans are naturally evolved beings doing their best to survive and thrive, using tools or capabilities at their disposal, then the idea of absolutes, and there being a real Truth with a capital ‘T’ don’t make as much sense any more. Unencumbered by the old religious overlay, philosophers informed by Darwin’s ideas have proposed a much more pragmatic approach to ideas, morals, and ethics. These include Fredrick Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, John Paul Sartre, John Dewey, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, A. C. Grayling and Peter Singer, to name a few.

Crucial for the post-Darwin world view, the 1700-1800 saw a huge growth in natural philosophy or what was by mid-1800s called science. The methods of science – careful observation, hypothesizing, well conducted experiments, and peer review. – were building up an impressive body of knowledge, particularly in physics, chemistry, geology. Other disciplines, influenced by a scientific approach were also developing into modern forms e.g. history, the social sciences [Marx and Engels, and later Freud, among others working away. Marx even sent a copy of Das Capital to Darwin seeking an endorsing forward – Darwin didn’t respond.], archaeology and biblical scholarship.

The post-Darwinian, science-based, world view widely held in the west, particularly by humanists, other secularists, the majority of scientists and many other educated people. Some key elements of it include:

  • Knowledge is evidence-based, not revelatory.
  • The Earth has formed naturally and is very old. We now think about around 15 billion years.
  • Life forms have been created via natural evolutionary processes, beginning around 3 to 4 billion years ago.
  • Humans have also been formed by the same evolutionary processes.
  • Dying and death are an inevitable consequence of life. By dying bodily material can be decomposed and recycled to sustain other life forms. Life after death implausible.
  • Humans are on our own. We are therefore free to lead our lives as autonomous beings who can make up our own minds about what to do as we pursue a range of pleasures that do no harm to others.
  • Religions are man-made.
  • There is no one true account, just what is the best fit for the information and theories available. There is no certainty.

Generally for most thinking people of the Post-Darwinian era:

  • The idea of a god creator tends to be seen as a redundant hypothesis; therefore the Great Chain of Being loses its head and starts to look dodgy.
  • Humans are better seen as diverse rather than part of some divinely ordered hierarchy. Plurality spreads horizontally rather than hierarchical, with an above and a below, or superior and inferior.
  • Moral absolutes were not handed down from on high, instead, doing the ‘right’ thing is more or less commonsense practice for most individuals and social groups.
  • Doing unto to others what you’d like done to you – forms a simple summing up of good behaviour. Children learn from an early age that they are expected to behave in certain ways that contribute to peace and harmony in the home or at school with their friends, peers, cousins, siblings.

But some of some pre-Darwinian ideas lingered:

  • Hierarchies, for example. Are some races superior to others? Are men superior to women? We know quite a few scientists have certainly pursued research with these ideas in mind. As a feminist and humanist I’d argue that holding such pre-Darwinian views is just an example of cultural drag. An established idea that has appeal continues to be maintained, promoted and supported.
  • Are other living things for man’s use? Or do they have an intrinsic right to exist independent of our interest in them? As an environmentalist with a great fondness of other living creatures likewise another example of cultural drag. Urgent rethink needed. [See the contribution of Peter Singer on animal liberation.]
  • There seems to be a real tension inside the secular/humanist movement, with those adamant supporters of science and rationality, who see any re-evaluation or criticism of these as an outright attack. Feminists who point out that science has a male bias, get roundly chastised by sciences ‘true believers’. Yet the evidence is there for all to see. Science is naturally welcoming to males in a way that it is not so for many women – though this is changing.
  • Then there is the overemphasis on rationality, as though reason alone can always provide the answer to every problem. Thankfully, many have critiqued the overemphasis on rationality; John Ralston Saul to name a high profile person. We all do many things for emotional reasons, then we rationalise why we acted in a particular way.

If we take the Darwinian view that we humans are just clever animals doing our best with what ‘tools’ we have available to us to make sense of or world and manipulate it to satisfy our needs, then ‘Truth’ is just what seem to work and make the most sense for us under current circumstances? i.e. what we agree is the truth? And a lot of that is closely aligned with how we apply language. We know that scientific knowledge is just varying degrees of probability, not some final answer. If we settle for that and jettison notions of ‘the Truth’, the wheels don’t fall off how we go about things. In fact we are just being more realistic. Some people have trouble with this and will still insist science equal Truth in an absolute sense.

Unresolved areas within humanism

  • How much emphasis do we put on rationality was discussed above.
  • To what extent do we accept moderate religion and only condemn the extremists? Or do we attack all religion as being the product of deluded thinking? Can humanists, etc., work with moderate religious people on important campaigns for human rights, better treatment for refugees, climate change, and peace?
  • What about the role of ceremonies in our daily life? Do we see these as too aligned to religion and so reject them, or do we embrace ceremonies but make them humanist and fitting to our needs? Humanist are clearly divided over these matters. Many see embracing ceremonies as a weakness, while some advocate ceremonies as having deep emotional value, e.g., civil celebrant, Dally Messenger, and author Dick Gross.
  • And spirituality? Is it too aligned with a religious view to be useful to secular humanists? Probably it is too attached to religion to be useful in a post-religious life philosophy. However, some people in a post-Darwin world do appreciate that what is called spirituality can contribute to life’s experiences


If the pre-Darwinian world view I’ve just outlined sounds a bit of a mess, that’s partly my fault for not spending enough time getting my thinking straight, BUT it is also because it’s still being developed, we’re living in the middle of it. And maybe if enough people don’t actively back the secular humanist life philosophy, the alternative – A One True Account Religious version will re-emerge just as happened when the Roman Empire crumbled. Good secular life philosophies abounded in Rome, but all went under as the Christian appeal to certainty won the day. When a society is under stress people look for certainties.

I began by citing some examples of where the clash between the old religious outlook and the modern secular humanist world view clash. Because we’re living in the middle of a sea of conflicting ideas only sometimes can we see the differences starkly. And these hot button issues are where most people can grasp and even act to defend their basic life view. If society seems to be going to pieces they often blame these issues as central to the causes, but of course that is not so.

Underpinning most of what I’ve said tonight is a belief that secular humanism is the most recognised ethical alternative life philosophy – world view – to religion. However, it’s still a work in progress, in this Post-Darwinian period, yet its advantages are that it links the best human achievements and qualities from Ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to today’s modern secular humanist thinking and places what we do, and try to do, firmly in the realm of the natural world of clever animals doing our best.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2007 Rosslyn Ives