Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review of Charles and Emma: Darwins' Leap of Faith

I learned a few things from this young adult book about the life of Charles Darwin after his adventures on the H.M.S. Beagle.  The book is based on his and his wife’s diary entries and because Charles was the more prolific writer we have more of his insights than Emma’s.  The quoted material is more of a sprinkling than a basis for the book so it is mostly the author’s interpretation than their actual words.

Charles was agnostic from the start.  His father was a wealthy physician whose money bankrolled Charles’s scientific career and lavish home life (which turned out to be a very good investment).  He was a Unitarian, which the author describes as “a lenient Christian faith” though most other Christians would not agree; they would be more in line with Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus, who said it was a “featherbed to catch a falling Christian.”

Charles studied theology at Cambridge because everyone studied theology that went to university in those days; University College London, the first “godless” institution, didn’t open until 1826.  Charles did not do well, though he steeped himself in the Natural Philosophy of the day—the notion that the beauty of nature proved God’s existence.  This very popular philosophy during Darwin’s time is what was so threatened by his hypothesis of Natural Selection because, in Darwin's mind, the process of Evolution developed the beauty of creatures and not God.  When someone like Charles has been raised without a clear theology and tends to take up the current philosophical fad of the day (he later followed Francis Newman for awhile until he disagreed with him, too,) we are not surprised by his eventual atheism.  Charles, however, did not have the animosity towards people of faith as many of the atheists of today have.

Overall, Charles was a highly reserved man who did not want to offend anyone.  (In fact he likely suffered from panic disorder and agoraphobia.) He was incapable of even disciplining his own children, though he had nannies to take care of that.  Ultimately it was this extreme Victorian reserve that held him back from publishing his thoughts on the very controversial topic of Natural Selection until he could have complete proof that he was right, perhaps the same level of proof he sought after in his search for God.  While he never took the leap of faith required of a Christian believer, he did publish his theory without iron-clad proof ultimately because someone else was going to beat him to it.  He received a letter from Alfred Wallace who conceived the very same theory, and even then he needed some coaxing from his friends, who also testified that Charles came up with it first.

Emma Wedgwood, from the family of pottery fame, was Charles’s affluent cousin.  According to the book “Charles’s Wedgwood cousins had been brought up with few, if any, rules and the encouragement to think freely.”  She is often stated to be “deeply religious” though after reading this book I question people’s definition of that term.  After suffering the tragic loss of Emma’s sister, Fanny, Emma’s faith was then derived mostly from a desire to see a loved one in the afterlife rather than on any deep personal belief.  This theme is emphasized by the author throughout the book.  I am not surprised she was unable to convince her loving husband of the existence of God.  She, too, picked and chose what she wanted to believe. She turned away from the altar during mention of the Trinity, and their daughter Elizabeth decided not to be confirmed because she also did not believe in the Trinity.  The frequent mention of “free thinking” in the book seemed a nod to modern rationalism.  (Freethinkers, ironically, can only form opinions based on logic and science without philosophy or theology, which seems hypocritical to me.)

Though the book is based on the writings of Charles and Emma, the author does give us a good dose of her own filter.  The most telling words in this regard are:

For his part, Charles admitted that Emma had been right when she said that his looking at the world in a scientific way probably precluded him from looking at it in a religious way.  Perhaps to do the great science he did, he had to focus entirely that way—to let religion in would have diluted his effort.  That did not mean he would deny Emma—or anyone—their beliefs.  But for him, science was the way to get answers. (p. 213)

Emma must not have been familiar with the long and important history of scientific discovery brought about by people of faith that continues today.  This false generalization is the result of ignorance given her social circles, though it is a stereotype that the author willingly perpetuates.

The enjoyment of the book came through the loving and devoted relationship between Charles and Emma throughout their lives and tragedies.  We learn about living a privileged life in Victorian England.  They had 10 children, one who died at less than a month, another at age 10, and their last at age 2.  Charles himself was plagued with sickness throughout his life (though the book does not mention panic disorder as the likely cause).  Emma mothered him and he was willingly a child around her.  She gave great comfort to Charles as well as the children during their times of illness.  We really don’t get much of a scientific history; the book is primarily the personal life of Charles and Emma Darwin.   One tidbit I found interesting is how different their painted portraits looked from their photographs; I would not have thought them to be of the same subjects.

The book brings to light so much of the religious confusion in 19th century England.  Unfortunately the author’s anti-religious filter stifles the potential for it to enlighten the reader regarding this turbulent time so well reflected by the Darwin family.  In the end the religious story is a tragic one for the Darwin clan, deteriorating into the birth of the Eugenics movement through Charles’s cousin Francis Galton that was endorsed by Charles himself (also not mentioned in the book).

I am disappointed to find a modern trend in children’s book awards to select titles with anti-religious themes, this book being no exception.  Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith has received the YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction award, was a National Book Award finalist, and is an honor book of the ALA’s Printz Award.

This review is also available on


L a u r a said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough review of this book, Kris. It's greatly appreciated since I always learn such wonderful tidbits --of science and beyond--from your writing!

Elizabeth C. said...

Hi Kris,

I am so pleased that you reviewed this book. We, my 12 year old and I, picked it up a few weeks ago to read together. Two very respected book lovers recommended it to us after hearing my daughter speak of Intelligent Design vs single cell evolution theories.

We haven't finished yet...slow at the reading right now. But, your imputs are greatly appreciated.


School for Us said...

I read this book a few months ago and had been meaning to write a review about it. But, you did it a lot better than I would have! And, you had more insight. Thanks for the review! (And, I did enjoy the book and seeing the relationship, through the authors eyes, of the Darwins.)

Cindy K. said...

Thanks for writing up this insightful review. Now I know that we can pass this one up - my boys would not be as interested in the personal side of Charles and his wife as they would be of the science side of him. ;)