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!”


All of this is well known—Darwin’s compromise was to walk his family to church but not to enter, so at least he was trying to uphold the minimal standards of bourgeois respectability. What is not often considered is how much his love for Emma forced him to tone down the implications of his theory of natural selection.


Emma was his first reader, and Darwin knew what she would not tolerate. Heligmam makes it clear that Darwin would have written a very different kind of book had he not been so worried about her reaction. His wife was no fundamentalist, but she expected her husband to write in a tempered tone, drawing the best moral conclusions from his work. She did not want him to turn anyone against God or morality.


One could conclude from this story that Emma influenced only the rhetoric of Darwin’s presentation, not the core of his theory. At the very least, she saved Darwin from writing a ranting, anti-religious tract that few would have taken seriously. Critics of Darwinism, however, have long argued that his theory of evolution is inseparable from its moral and philosophical implications. Even many Darwinians admit that his theory provides the foundation for the modern secular view of the world.


If Darwin had come clean about how radically anti-religious his theory is, its history of reception would have been completely different. As it is, defenders are quick to draw a decisive line between the purity of his scientific theory and the “social Darwinism” that put that theory to all sorts of ugly use. Without Emma, Darwinism’s ugly side would have been more evident from the very beginning.


Social Darwinism is merely Darwinism minus Darwin’s scruples about his wife. By pleasing Emma, Darwin figured out how to market his theory to a wide audience. The Emma’s of the world continue to find in Darwinism what they want, rather than what Darwin says. The wishful fantasy that Darwin conjured to keep his marriage happy continues to guide the marketing of Darwinism to this day. Perhaps it is time to divorce Darwinism from the romanticizing of his wife.

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