Henry David Thoreau’s Debt to Darwin Led to Loss of Belief in God
The effects of Darwinism go far beyond biology. On the bicentenary of Henry David Thoreau, a historian traces his fall from grace into Darwinian materialism.
by Dr Jerry Bergman
Novels and literature can be critically important avenues for changing Western culture. Most surveys find that more people read fiction and stories in general, such as historical fiction and romance, than nonfiction of all types. Fiction has a huge impact on our beliefs for this and other reasons.
In Concord, Massachusetts this year, on July 11, a bicentennial celebration will be held for Henry David Thoreau, a giant American literary figure known for advocating the romantic ideal of a simple life surrounded by the beauty of nature. In an article in Nature, Randall Fuller traces Thoreau’s debt to Darwin after Walden, watching him fall from the grace of nature’s sublime design to a material world of chance.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was one of the most important American writers. He is best known today for his book Walden, that stressed the benefits of simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Civil Disobedience, an argument for disobeying unjust actions of government. He was a prolific author whose works have been a staple of American education from high school to college for decades. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott), Thoreau and his circle of friends were writers with wide influence. But another writer would come to heavily influence them all: Charles Darwin.[i]
For example, up to this time Thoreau accepted transcendentalism, the view that asserts the primacy of the spiritual and transcendental over the material. But then, his reading of Darwin’s Origin began to severely challenge this worldview for which he was best known, Fuller says.[ii] Many other leading early American writers and clergy, after they understood “Darwin’s theory of natural selection … discover[ed] that it also posed enormous threats to their other beliefs, including their faith in God and their trust that America was a country divinely chosen for the regeneration of the world.”[iii] Thoreau had to face these issues head on just five years after he had published Walden in 1854. (He died of tuberculosis in 1862 at age 45, three years after Darwin’s Origin had arrived in America.)
This process can be wrenching; it leaves people trapped between two ways of thinking and believing, stranded between two existences.
Due to the influence of Darwin, Thoreau moved “close to Darwin’s position. He assumed the universe was governed by laws, but he also believed that the products of those laws occurred in a more or less random way. He hovered between design and chance, between idealism and materialism.”[iv] In the end, Thoreau rejected the transcendentalism for which he had been famous, and placed the mystery and wonder of life within the worldview of materialism. Nonetheless, Thoreau realized that empirical knowledge is finite, and after
we have exhausted its limits, we are still left with speculation, supposition, and hypotheses. And those are invariably influenced by belief in some ordering principle. For many people, that principle involves a divinity inherited from four thousand years of tradition.[v]
He was speaking, of course, of the influence of the Bible as the “ordering principle” that influenced “many people”. But for himself? He was raising questions and having doubts. Even Darwin had faced similar doubts as he discussed the implications of his theory with a close friend. For example, in an early draft of his Origin of Species, Darwin wrote
that nature was composed of “laws ordained by God to govern the universe.” Soon after sending his book to Asa Gray, he wrote, “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.” (Within a year or so he would abandon the idea of design entirely; it was unnecessary, he realized, for his theory.).[vi]
Darwin’s dangerous idea led to the two camps still existing today, namely those who advocate Intelligent Design and creationism, and the other camp that has chosen Darwinism as the explanation for all living things, and thus dispenses with any need for design or guiding intelligence to explain the origin and development of life.
Fuller says that Darwin’s theory of natural selection maintains that all life evolves largely as a result of the environment, “thriving or dying as a result of their ability to adapt. This process can be wrenching; it leaves people trapped between two ways of thinking and believing, stranded between two existences.”[vii] He concludes that, in the end, Darwin’s theory has “remade the world” from the Christian era to the Post-Christian world.[viii]
Darwinism had a major influence on America not only through his own writings, but through other influential writers like Thoreau who converted to Darwinism after reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. Because Darwin had raised fundamental questions about the nature of life, his influence permeated novels and other works of literature, converting the man best known for transcendentalism and the sublimity of nature into a materialist seeing his formerly-sublime world as the product of mindless chance.
In summary, Darwin’s 1859 book was “the single most important idea of the nineteenth century,” Fuller says. “It is also an account of issues and concerns that are still very much with us, including racism, one of the most intractable problems in American life, and the enduring conflict between science and religion.” [ix] And that was the very book that turned Thoreau into a Darwin disciple. Thereafter, his tainted pen helped spread Darwinism to the masses.
For more on Randall Fuller’s research into Darwin’s influence on Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, see Evolution News & Science Today.
[i] Randall Fuller “Thoreau’s Debt to Darwin.” Nature. June 15, 2017. 546:349-350.
[ii] Randall Fuller “Thoreau’s Debt to Darwin.” Nature. June 15, 2017. p. 349.
[iii] The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, by Randall Fuller, New York: Viking. 2017. p. x.
[iv] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. pp. 193-194.
[v] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. pp. 193-194.
[vi] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. pp. 193-194.
[vii] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. p. x.
[viii] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. p. x.
[ix] Fuller. The Book That Changed America. p. x.
Dr Jerry Bergman, professor, scientist, author and speaker, is a frequent contributor to Creation-Evolution Headlines. For more of his writings, see his Author Profile.
For a thoroughly-documented yet disturbing tableau of the pernicious effects of Darwinian thinking on all aspects of society, we recommend one of Dr Bergman’s most recent books, How Darwinism Corrodes Morality (2017).