Man is a social animal goes a famous saying. This statement highlights the fact that man is distinct from animals around him in that he has tendencies to socialize. It would mean that society has an impact on him and his thinking. The culture around us certainly shapes the way we think. Charles Darwin was no exception to this. To understand why some theories gained wide acceptance at a particular time, one needs to examine the economic, social and political context in which they flourished. Science, or what is claimed as science is a product of culture – like any other human activity. What seems in hindsight as intelligent and sensible could have been the object of ridicule in its own times. What is now seen as absurd or naive could have seemed reasonable in its era. The social and cultural scene prevalent in England and more broadly, in Europe is described in this article, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the times in which Darwin was born and lived his life.

The scene in England

An Objective Scientist

England was undergoing a metamorphosis in the 19th century. A lot of important changes happened during this time. England became the world’s first industrial society during this time. It also became the first urban society. Living in the cities meant leaving one’s family and culture behind and adopting the competition-based city culture.

The telegraph was invented in 1837. A cable was laid across the Channel in 1851 and after 1866 it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic. Technology was slowly becoming the norm in England. However, this did not solve problems of living.

Many people emigrated to North America and Australia to escape poverty. About 15 million people left Britain between 1815 and 1914. Divorce was made legal in 1857 but it was very rare in the 19th century. This meant that the sacred bond of marriage was also open to change and dissolution in modern England.

In the early 19th century a group of Evangelical Christians called the Clapham Sect were active in politics. They campaigned for an end to slavery and cruel sports.

According to a survey conducted in 1851, only 40% of the population attended a church or a chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason, it meant that half the population did not go to church. A similar survey in 1881 increased the number of church-absentees further to only about 1/3rd of the population. These facts indicate that religion was already on the decline. People were already saying farewell to God in England.

The Scene in Europe

France had seen a major upheaval in its political and social structure in the form of the French Revolution in the late 18th century (1789–1799). French history was rewritten post this era. The absolute monarchy guided by Catholic clergy was overthrown and a new system was implemented highlighting principles of citizenship, based on the principles of Enlightenment. The revolution snatched absolute power from the Roman Catholic Church and transferred it to the state. Under the old system, the Church had been the biggest landowner in the country. New laws put into force in 1790 changed the Church’s fate. The Church could no longer levy a tax (called dime) on the crops. Special privileges for the clergy (the priestly class) were abolished and the Church property was confiscated.

An Objective Scientist

In addition to this, there was a big program for the dechristianisation of society by destroying first Catholicism, and eventually all other forms of Christianity.

This included:

1. Removal of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship

2. Destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship

3. The institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the “Cult of Reason” and subsequently the “Cult of the Supreme Being.”

4. The enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making non-obeying priests and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.

5. Under threat of death and imprisonment, military conscription or loss of income, about 20,000 constitutional priests were forced to abdicate or hand over their letters of ordination and 6,000 – 9,000 were coerced to marry, many ceasing their ministerial duties. Some of those who abdicated covertly ministered to the people. By the end of the decade, approximately 30,000 priests were forced to leave France, and thousands who did not leave were executed. Most of France was left without the services of a priest.

6. The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess “Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November, 1793.

Thus, the dechristianization campaign in France was the implementation of materialistic philosophy which did not see the necessity of nor permit religion in the social structure. Indeed, it sought to completely eliminate any form of religion from the scene, as is evident from the above facts.

The Age of Enlightenment

An Objective Scientist

The Age of Enlightenment is a time roughly calculated from the start of the eighteenth century to approximately the end of the French Revolution. Some consider the start of the Napoleonic wars as the time when this period ended.  This term represents the time when western philosophy underwent a major shift and highlighted intellect or reason as the main basis for authority. Thus, all previous conceptions that alluded in any way to any form of religion were erased during this time.

The phase in time does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Everything that was based on traditional authority was questioned and a new authority based on human rationality was established.

Post this period, the primary belief was that society could progress socially and culturally by intellectual progress alone. People believed in their own efforts and sought to improve the social state of humankind by this method.

The Family Picture

Shaped by the constant urge to think rationally, excluding all possible traditional explanations, many thinkers argued that one should expect to find such a progressive upward rise in the world of nature. From the most simple to the most complex, ending ultimately with humankind. One such early progressionist was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the British physician Erasmus Darwin. He was forthright in seeing upward trends in the organic world, ones we today would label “evolutionary.” Erasmus Darwin was a freethinker and had a Lunar Society formed in London. This society had rich capitalists, among others as its members. In the 1790’s Erasmus wrote Zoonomia, in which he argued that all life came from a common ancestor and developed through the laws of nature alone. In 1802, he wrote a poem Temple of Nature, in which he described the evolution of life from ordinary forms to the diversity found today.

Thus, it is clear that Darwin was born at a time that was ripe with atheism and rejection of God. Any theory that rejected God from the picture would be welcome in such times. Any explanation that was exclusive of God would be accepted in an environment like that. He was raised in a family environment of influential people that were already inclined to radical thinking. Previous philosophers had already laid ground for an explanation to propose a common ancestor for all species. Many think that Charles Darwin was an objective scientist. They think he formulated his theory based on his observations aboard HMS Beagle. He did that but whether those observations were objective or not demands reconsideration.

Recent Understanding

An Objective Scientist

Darwin’s newest biographers, Adrian Desmond and James Moore have highlighted a very different and radical aspect to explain Darwin’s theory of evolution. In their book titled ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution,’ they argue that Darwin had a natural aversion to slavery. In those days, with England as ruler of many parts of the world, there was abundance of slavery.

His published journal of the Beagle voyage in 1845 listed the iniquities in gory detail. “I thank God,” he wrote, “I shall never again visit a slave-country.”

This aversion must have shaped his theory of evolution too. A theory resting on the assumption of “common descent,” or converging bloodlines, by which any two races or species share an ancestor eliminates the chance for one race dominating another as slaves. Evolution surprisingly seems to have had humanitarian roots.

Research reveals that Wedgwood women (a group that included Darwin’s mother and wife) were the philanthropic backbone of the family. Sarah Wedgwood, Darwin’s aunt, gave more to anti-slavery charities than any woman in Britain. His grandfather, the pottery patriarch Josiah Wedgwood, depicted a slave imploring “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

Darwin too shared in this concern. He hated medicine, but he didn’t mind sitting with an ex-slave from Guyana for a whole term to learn about bird preservation. The “blackamoor” became his “intimate” friend.

Where white masters denigrated blacks as another, for Darwin the great moral truth was “one blood” for all peoples: the black slave as a “Man and Brother.” In a notebook, he castigated slave-masters for their separate-species lie; he unquestioningly accepted a common racial parentage. Since races eventually became species, these too must also have a joint ancestry: All life must therefore be connected by billions of common descents back to a first parent in a grand genealogical “tree.” Still, Darwin was apprehensive about publishing his theories. Even then, in 1857, just before starting On the Origin of Species, he suddenly decided to exclude humans from its analysis, partly because the subject was “so surrounded with prejudices.” He treated this matter separately in his book “Descent of Man,” released in 1871.

Nanda Dulala Dasa has a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He is a part of the editorial team of Indian English BTG. He stays at ISKCON Mumbai where he teaches Kåsna consciousness to college students.