His view of life

Charles Darwin set great store in modesty. In September, 1845, he wrote to his great friend Joseph Dalton Hooker:

I have never perceived but one fault in you, & that you have grievously, viz modesty;—you form an exception to Sydney Smith's aphorism, that merit & modesty have no other connexion, except in their first letter

A classic example of the pot praising the kettle for its blackness, if ever I heard one. Throughout his correspondence, Darwin is quick to chastise himself for being immodest when deriving pleasure from favourable comments about his work. He seems positively embarrassed even to refer to them. It's a particularly British and particularly Victorian trait—and, in Darwin's case, it was totally genuine. He frequently downplayed the revolutionary nature of his Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection, and the amount of work that had gone into it. A couple of years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, he wrote to his American friend Asa Gray:

I thank you for your impression on my views. Every criticism from a good man is of value to me. What you hint at generally is very very true, that my work will be grievously hypothetical & large parts by no means worthy of being called inductive; my commonest error being probably induction from too few facts.

Grievously hypothetical? Too few facts? Darwin had spend the preceding 20 years amassing thousands of facts in support of his theory.

Darwin's modesty was still going strong (with his detractors being given the benefit of the doubt) towards the end of his life when he wrote in his autobiography:

My views have often been grossly misrepresented, bitterly opposed and ridiculed, but this has been generally done, as I believe, in good faith. On the whole I do not doubt that my works have been over and over again greatly overpraised.

All of which makes the oft-quoted, wonderful first eight words of the closing sentence of 'On the Origin of Species' so remarkable:

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Finally Darwin allows himself a moment's pride! His view of life has grandeur: a word meaning both magnificence and nobility. There is nothing shameful about evolution; it is something capable of inspiring awe. In more modern parlance, Darwin might have said:

My theory is awesome…

And he would be right. Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection was—and remains to this day—totally awesome. Every creature on this planet, every animal, plant, fungus and bacterium, living or dead, is descended from a common, ancient ancestor. There is nothing special about mankind; we are just one fascinating species amongst the millions of other equally fascinating species that have evolved over billions of years on Planet Earth. We are not above Nature; we are part of Nature.

Happy 200th birthday, Mr Darwin. Thanks for all your hard work. And thanks for putting us in our rightful place.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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