Charles Darwin on the Evolution of Religious Belief

Portrait of Charles Darwin by Oscar Rejlander, ca. 1871

From Darwin’s “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (Chapter III, “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower
Animals” – 2nd Ed., Revised,  A. L. Burt, New York, 1890(?))

[NB:  This book, published in 1871, – like nearly all books on sociology and anthropology written in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries – contains terminology that is very harsh to modern ears.  Darwin was not a racist; he considered all human beings on the planet to be part of the human race, regardless of skin color or stage of cultural development.  Neither did he look down upon what he and other scientists of his time called “savage” or “barbarian” tribes of human beings.  Still, he was a man of his times, and he represents a stage in the evolution of anti-racist thought; for example,  as enlightened as he was for a man of his time on the subject of race, he thought nothing of drawing a direct comparison between the thought processes of human beings living in a state of  “savagery” and the thought processes of his dog.    At the same time he, like many others – particularly pioneering American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) – understood that the ancestors of all “civilized” people in the more advanced “civilized” nations had lived for a long time in a state of “savagery” characterized by very rudimentary development of culture compared to the modern nation-states.  They saw in the primitive cultures of “savage” tribes a vision of what their own ancestors must have lived like.  Morgan, in his excellent book “Ancient Society: Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization” (1877) –  developed a theory that all modern human civilizations had passed through a series of evolutionary stages (as the subtitle of the book states quite clearly).  That there were tribes in existence in 1870 which reflected all of these stages of development was a profound scientific discovery and provided a powerful proof of the evolution of human society.  Today, modern sociologists and anthropologists recognize the truth of Morgan’s analysis of the evolution of human civilization, but use terms that are less politically loaded with what many people – incorrectly, in the cases of Morgan and Darwin – perceive to be a blatant racism on the part of the scientists who originated the older terminology.  Used in the proper purely scientific manner of Morgan and Darwin “savage” “barbarian” and “civilized” are seen in their correct light as stages of development of the human race which make no assertion as to the intellectual superiority or inferiority of the human beings found at any stage of this evolutionary ladder.  Morgan’s pioneering work deeply influenced both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels;  his book “Ancient Society” was among the principal works which inspired Marx to prepare notes for what would eventually become, after Marx’s death, Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, which quotes Morgan’s work extensively.  Darwin’s major works deeply influenced Marx and Engels from the time of their initial publication: “Only 1,250 copies of the first edition of On the Origin of Species were printed, and they all sold in one day. One of those who obtained a copy was Friedrich Engels.”(1)  Everything written by Marx and Engels after the publication of “Origin of Species” in 1859 was thoroughly influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution.  When Marx finished “Capital” in 1867 he sent Darwin an inscribed copy of the first edition(1); Darwin’s work is referenced (sometimes extensively) in “The Part Played by Labour In The Transition From Ape to Man” (1876), “Anti-Duhring” (1877), “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” (1880), “Dialectics of Nature” (1883) and the aforementioned “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (1884).

[UPDATE: Thanks to the Internet, we’ve been able to locate almost every journal article and book Darwin cites in his footnotes to this article.  Since we found two errors in his citations which might well have made it extremely difficult for researchers and historians of science to locate these works, it is even possible that we are the first researchers to have found at least these two previously misidentified sources.

– IWPCHI]

NOTES:  (1)  “Marx, Engels… and Darwin?” by Ian Angus, International Socialist Review (November 2010)

Excerpt from “Descent of Man”, Chapter III, “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals”:

Belief in God – Religion. — There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travelers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed, and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their
languages to express such an idea.(1) The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by some of the highest intellects that have ever existed.
If, however, we include under the term “religion” the belief in unseen or
spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilized races.  Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it
arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.  As Mr. M’Lennan (2) has remarked, ” Some explanation of the phenomena of life, a man must feign for himself, and to judge from the universality of it, the simplest hypothesis, and the first to occur to men, seems to have been that natural phenomena are ascribable to the presence in animals, plants, and things, and in the forces of nature, of such spirits prompting to action as men are conscious they themselves possess.” It is also probable, as Mr. Tylor has shown, that dreams may have first given rise to the notion of spirits; for savages do not readily distinguish between subjective and objective impressions. When a savage dreams, the figures which appear before him are believed to have come from a distance, and to stand over him; or “the soul of the dreamer goes out on its travels, and comes home with a remembrance of what it has seen.”(3)  But until the faculties of imagination, curiosity, reason, etc., had been fairly well developed in the mind of man, his dreams would not have led him to believe in spirits, any more than in the case of a dog.
The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences, is perhaps illustrated by a little fact which I once noticed: my dog, a full-grown and very sensible animal, was lying
on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved the dog growled fiercely and barked.  He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner that movement without
any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and that no stranger had a right to be on his territory.
The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods. For savages would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves feel.

“Fuegian Wigwams at Hope Harbour in the Magdalen Channel”  Illustration from King, P. P. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the first expedition, 1826-30, under the command of Captain P. Parker King, R.N., F.R.S. London: Henry Colburn.

The Fuegians appear to be in this respect in an intermediate condition, for when the surgeon on board the “Beagle” shot some young ducklings as specimens York Minster declared in the most solemn manner: ” Oh, Mr. Bynoe, much rain, much snow, blow much;” and this was evidently a retributive punishment for wasting human food.  So again he related how, when his brother killed a ” wild man,” storms long raged, much rain and snow fell.  Yet we could never discover that the Fuegians believed in what we should call a God or practiced any religious rites; and Jemmy Button, with justifiable pride, stoutly maintained that there was no devil in his land.  This latter assertion is the more remarkable, as with savages the belief in bad spirits is far more common than that in good ones.

FUEGIA BASKET, 1833. JEMMY’S WIFE, 1834. JEMMY IN 1834. JEMMY BUTTON IN 1833. YORK MINSTER IN 1832. YORK IN 1833. From FitzRoy, R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. London: Henry Colburn.

FUEGIA BASKET, 1833. JEMMY’S WIFE, 1834.
JEMMY IN 1834. JEMMY BUTTON IN 1833.
YORK MINSTER IN 1832. YORK IN 1833. From FitzRoy, R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. London: Henry Colburn.

The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of dependence(4), fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements.  No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level. Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings.  The behavior of a dog when returning to his master after
an absence, and, as I may add, of a monkey to his beloved keeper, is widely different from that toward their fellows.  In the latter case the transports of joy appear to be somewhat less, and the sense of equality is shown in every action. Prof. Braubach goes so far as to maintain that a dog looks on his master as on a god.(5)
The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen
spiritual agencies, then in fetichism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs.  Many of these are terrible to think of — such as the sacrifice of human beings to a blood-loving god; the trial of innocent persons by the ordeal of poison or fire, witchcraft, etc.
— yet it is well occasionally to reflect on these superstitions, for they show us what an infinite debt of gratitude we owe to the improvement of our reason, to science, and to our accumulated knowledge.  As Sir J. Lubbock(6)  has well observed, ” it is not too much to say that the horrible dread of unknown evil hangs like a thick cloud over savage life and embitters every pleasure.”  These miserable and indirect consequences of our highest faculties may be compared with the incidental and occasional mistakes of the instincts of the lower animals.

NOTES:

(1) See an excellent article on this subject by the Rev. F. W. Farrar,
in the “Anthropological Review,” Aug., 1864, p. 217. [Note by IWPCHI: this part of this footnote is inaccurate: the actual publication this appeared in was “The Journal of the Anthropological Society of London”, Vol. 2 (1864), pp. ccxvii-ccxxii, “On the Universality of Belief in God, and in a Future State”];  For further facts see Sir J. Lubbock, “Prehistoric Times, “.3d edit., 1869, p. 564; and especially the chapters on Religion in his ” Origin of Civilization,” 1870.
(2) “The Worship of Animals and Plants”,” in the ” Fortnightly Review,” Oct. 1, 1869, p. 422.
(3)  Tylor, “Early History of Mankind,” 1865, p. 6. See also the three striking chapters on the Development of Religion, in Lubbock’s “Origin of Civilization,” 1870. In a like manner Mr. Herbert Spencer, in his ingenious essay in the “Fortnightly Review ” (May 1, 1870, p. 535), accounts for the earliest forms of religious belief throughout the world, by man being led through dreams, shadows, and other causes, to look at himself as a double essence, corporeal
and spiritual. As the spiritual being is supposed to exist after death and to be powerful, it is propitiated by various gifts and ceremonies, and its aid invoked. He then further shows that names or nicknames given from some animal or other object, to the early progenitors or founders of a tribe, are supposed after a long interval to represent the real progenitor of the tribe; and such animal or object is
then naturally believed still to exist as a spirit, is held sacred, and worshiped as a god. Nevertheless I cannot but suspect that there is a still earlier and ruder stage, when anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own.

(4) See an able article on the “Physical Elements of Religion,” by Mr. L. Owen Pike, in ” Anthropolog. Review,” April, 1870, p. 63. [Note by IWPCHI: another error in this footnote: the journal is actually “”The Journal of the Anthropological Society of London” and the actual title is “On the Psychical Elements of Religion” ]

(5) “Religion, Moral, etc., der Darwin’schen Art-Lehre,” 1869, s.53. It is said
(Dr. W. Lauder Lindsay, “Journal of Mental Science,” 1871, p. 43), that Bacon long ago, and the poet Burns, held the same notion.
(6)  “Prehistoric Times,” 2d. edit., p. 571. In this work (p. 571) there will be found an excellent account of the many strange and capricious customs of savages.

 

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