How Darwin’s Wife Saved his Theory
May 29, 2009, 9:00 AM
Stephen H. Webb
Critics of orthodox Darwinism often argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution drains nature of purpose while projecting onto nature a ruthless view of the world. In response, Darwinian apologists are fond of telling stories about how kind and gentle Darwin was, as if his personal virtues mitigate the starkness of his theory. What if Darwin had not put the most positive spin on his ideas? What if he had drawn savage conclusions from his theory and framed it in terms of an explicit nihilism about the possibility of meaning after evolution?
Deborah Heiligman’s new book, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, credits the charming Emma Wedgwood with checking Darwin’s slide into religious doubt and pessimism. Darwin loved his wife and wanted to keep the peace in his household, which meant that he had at least to pay lip service to Christian ideals. As Heiligmam writes, “Most women were believers and wanted their husbands to be believers, too.” Emma was especially devoted to the belief in an afterlife, and she wanted more than anything to be assured that she would be reunited with her husband after death. Charles took his father’s advice: “Conceal your doubts!”