- Courtesy Sotheby’s
- Years after Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” he responded to a reader who wanted the biologist to explain whether his theory destroys the argument for an all-creating God.
- Darwin wrote a three-page letter, citing his own ailing health as one of the reasons he couldn’t definitively answer the question.
- The letter was auctioned off at Sotheby’s on December 12 for $125,000 to a private American collector, the auction house said. The winning bid was more than double the estimated $40,000-$60,000 the letter was expected to fetch.
When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, many people saw the book as an attack on religion. How could the world have been created in seven days if the evolution of living creatures on Earth took place over hundreds of thousands of years, as Darwin claimed?
A curious young reader named James Grant wanted to know more about how Darwin thought his theory might change the idea that an omnipotent God was the ultimate creator of all beings.
Grant wrote to Darwin in March 1878, asking the biologist to “in two or three words” explain whether his theory “destroys the evidence of the existence of a God looked at through nature’s phenomena.”
Darwin, who was 69 at the time, responded just five days later with a “private” note a bit longer than the reply Grant had requested. In his three-page letter, which was auctioned off for $125,000 at Sotheby’s in New York on Tuesday, Darwin refused to definitively pit science against religion.
Instead of providing a yes-or-no answer, Darwin lobbed the question back to his reader, calling it an “insoluble” problem without a simple, universal answer.
The strongest argument for God, Darwin said, is found in the instincts and intuitions of people, who might “feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe.”
Darwin was just four years from his death when he wrote the letter, and was clearly not so sure about his own stance on God, writing that there is inevitably a “doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy.”
The scientist’s final line to Grant urges the boy not to be afraid of the latest science, regardless of how he feels about God. Darwin wrote that that while he couldn’t answer the question of religion, “no man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires.”
Here’s the full text of Darwin’s letter:
March 11, 1878.
- Courtesy Sotheby’s
I should have been very glad to have aided you in any degree if it had been in my power. But to answer your question would require an essay, and for this I have not strength, being much out of health. Nor, indeed, could I have answered it distinctly and satisfactorily with any amount of strength.
The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me, is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy.
I have touched on one point of difficulty in the two last pages of my “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,” but I am forced to leave the problem insoluble. No man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires.