Death Of Child May Have Influenced Darwin's Work Charles Darwin was honest with his devout Christian wife that his scientific investigations led him to doubt the existence of heaven. But he feared that publishing his scientific ideas would hurt her deeply. Only after his daughter Annie's death did this change, biographers say.
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Death Of Child May Have Influenced Darwin's Work

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Death Of Child May Have Influenced Darwin's Work

Death Of Child May Have Influenced Darwin's Work

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: that Darwin stayed silent for love.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Before the big white beard, before he was famous, before his life in science, when Charles Darwin was just 28-years old, he wondered if it was time for him to get married. So what does he do?

DEBORAH HEILIGMAN: Well, he makes a list of pros and cons.

KRULWICH: And above the pros and the cons, says author Deborah Heiligman, Darwin wrote a title.

HEILIGMAN: It's called "Marry, Not Marry: This is the Question."


KRULWICH: So on the why I shouldn't get married side, he lists loss of time, quarreling with the wife, anxieties of children.

HEILIGMAN: He'd have to visit relatives.


HEILIGMAN: And what if he didn't like them?

KRULWICH: And on the pro side, what would he get if he did get married?

HEILIGMAN: He would get, you know, a constant companion, and he said very famously that a wife would be better than a dog, anyhow.

KRULWICH: He literally wrote that?

HEILIGMAN: He literally wrote that. And...

KRULWICH: Better than a dog?

HEILIGMAN: Dog. And the thing is he loved dogs.

KRULWICH: So that's a compliment, really. He wanted a wife.

HEILIGMAN: Right, exactly.

KRULWICH: Uh-huh. So...

HEILIGMAN: But there was one big question that he did not put on his list.

KRULWICH: And what was that?



HEILIGMAN: He really was beginning to think that he was having problems with God and with religion in general, and he knew that this was going to be a problem for pretty much every woman who he would want to marry.

KRULWICH: Because every woman he wanted to marry was worried about a guy who had doubts about God. Well, what was the problem?

HEILIGMAN: Well, that your husband was going to go to hell and you would go to heaven, and I think there was a real fear that they would be separated for eternity. And that was painful.

KRULWICH: But even so, when Darwin got interested in the girl he'd known his whole life - his smart-but-religious first cousin Emma Wedgewood - he decided whatever the problems, she's the one. So at some point he says, will you?

HEILIGMAN: Yes. He finally asks her, and she's actually shocked, because she thought...

KRULWICH: She didn't see it coming.

HEILIGMAN: She didn't see it coming. She thought they were first cousins, they were friends. She thought maybe they would go on like for years. But she already knew she wanted to marry him. So even though she shocked, she said yes immediately, which, in turn, shocked him.

KRULWICH: So he gets a headache?

HEILIGMAN: He gets a headache. They're both feeling miserable. They're both completely shocked at what they've done.

KRULWICH: But they go ahead and they get married. And at first, it's a little bit rocky because Darwin tells Emma about his theory of natural selection, which hints that God may not be absolutely necessary.

HEILIGMAN: He did tell her at least some of the doubts that he was having. And she just was really, really worried about it.

KRULWICH: So she wrote him a letter, asking him to try harder to find his faith. And he agonized over that letter. There are actually several letters, but he wrote on the edge of this one, when I am dead, know that many times I've kissed and cried over this.

HEILIGMAN: He kept those letters with him all the time.

KRULWICH: One question all Darwin biographers have to deal with is why did Darwin wait so long, 21 years, to publish his ideas about evolution? Says writer Adam Gopnik...

ADAM GOPNIK: What is it? What causes that 21-year delay? And like all significant things in life, there's no one answer. One of the reasons is is he's collecting evidence. He never puts it aside completely. He's struggling to find evidence to persuade people that his idea is true. But at the same time, I don't think we're wrong to think that knowledge that it would hurt her, it would undermine her, it would pain her for him to publish these ideas is a - is equally powerful.

KRULWICH: So there was this real tension, then, between Darwin's marriage and Darwin's theory. And then Annie came along.

HEILIGMAN: Annie was their second child, their oldest daughter, really the apple of their eyes. I think she was - seemed to be a perfect blend of Charles and Emma. She was spirited. She was kind. she was musical like Emma, but she was orderly like Charles. They were just really, really close to her.

KRULWICH: And then things took an opera-like turn.

HEILIGMAN: Yeah, it is like an opera. She gets sick.

KRULWICH: And the sickness is kind of mysterious.

HEILIGMAN: They couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, and the doctor in London that they went to couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. And she would often cry at night, which was so unlike her.

KRULWICH: So what happened?

HEILIGMAN: Well, Emma - I mean Annie, sorry - Annie just got worse and worse, and she finally died.

KRULWICH: She was 10 years old. Darwin did not go to her burial.

HEILIGMAN: He didn't stay for the funeral. He couldn't bear it.

KRULWICH: But Annie's death, instead of sharpening the deep differences between Emma and Charles - who, after all, felt so differently about the afterlife - strangely, their differences relaxed.

HEILIGMAN: I almost feel like the death of Annie was so much the worst thing that could happen to them, and they survived it. But it was almost like anything else paled in comparison. So it was - Emma went on believing that she would see her loved ones in heaven. Charles pretty much - that was it for him.

KRULWICH: After Annie died, he became more willing to pursue and to proclaim his theories, and Emma turned toward him, not away from him.

HEILIGMAN: Emma wrote to him, you are my prime treasure and always have been.

KRULWICH: If you read Darwin's book, says another biographer, Lyanda Haupt, you can feel Annie's influence on Darwin.

LYANDA HAUPT: He knew so deeply and so personally and viscerally what death was now after Annie's loss. And yet in his writing, you see him affirming over and over this circle, the endless unfolding of life as he expresses it in "Origin."

KRULWICH: On the very last page of "The Origin of Species," says Adam Gopnik, Darwin takes his readers to a very beautiful forest rich with trees and birds singing everywhere. And he reminds us that the beauty that we see every day - the butterflies, the flowers, and especially we humans who can contemplate and love these things - we are all, all of us, products of millions of years of competition, struggle, famine, death. And that struggle will continue, so life will keep evolving new forms and new shapes.

GOPNIK: Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving - namely, the production of the higher animals - directly follows.

KRULWICH: Let me hear that sentence one more time. Thus from...

GOPNIK: ...from the war of nature, from famine and death...

KRULWICH: From famine and death...

GOPNIK: Basically what Darwin is saying is exactly what we now call the existential dilemma. That's what he's stating. He's saying there are two things that are true. One is that everything dies, and things die for no reason and to no apparent end, and their death is painful. And that process of living and dying produces something amazing and beautiful and astonishing.

KRULWICH: And there's a grandeur in that.

GOPNIK: And there's a grandeur in that.

KRULWICH: There is a grandeur, says the final sentence of Darwin's book, in this view of life, that even from death - and even random death - endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.


KRULWICH: Robert KRULWICH, NPR News, in New York.

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