The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Cretinism or Evilution? No. 3
Edited by E.T. Babinski
A "Devilish" Quotation




A "Devilish" Quotation

Before discussing some of the quotations in The Revised Quote Book, I'd like to alert readers to a "devilish" statement in one of Darwin's letters that creationists are milking for all its "unholy" worth. The quotation has appeared in a number of creationist magazines and at least one book (Robert T. Clark and James D. Bales' creationist book, Why Scientists Accept Evolution, Baker Book Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1966, p. 64). The version that I recently ran across, appears below:

On August 8, 1860 ... in a letter to T. H. Huxley, who was one of Darwin's two outspoken champions in England, Darwin referred to Huxley as: 'My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel, i.e., the devil's gospel.' No doubt Darwin meant to be humorous with this analogy, but nevertheless, it bespoke his having an evangelistic, cosmic view toward his own work. (Lester J. McCann, "Darwin's Impact," Watchmaker, v. 2, no. 6, June 1995, p. 27)

Tom Scharle on TALK.ORIGINS mentioned another version in an [unnamed] creationist periodical:

Charles Darwin in the closing words of a letter to Thomas Huxley, the ferocious "bulldog" for evolution, said this, "To my good and kind agent for the propagation of the gospel, i.e., the devil's gospel." Darwin and many evolutionists seem to have a better grasp on the importance and implications of origins than many in the church. Unfortunately they do not believe the truth of God's word.

This "devilish" quotation from one of Darwin's letters appears below in its original context:

...Have you seen Agassiz's weak metaphysical and theological attack on the 'Origin' in the last 'Silliman'? [The 'American Journal of Science and Arts' was commonly called 'Silliman's Journal.'] I would send it you, but apprehend it would be less trouble for you to look at it in London than return it to me. R. Wagner has sent me a German pamphlet, giving an abstract of Agassiz's 'Essay on Classification,' 'mit Rucksicht auf Darwins Ansichten,' &c. &c. He won't go very 'dangerous lengths,' but thinks the truth lies half-way between Agassiz and the 'Origin.' As he goes thus far he will, nolens volens [=willing or not willing], have to go further. He says he is going to review me in [his] yearly Report. My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel -i.e., the devil's gospel. Ever Yours, Charles Darwin. (Darwin to T. H. Huxley Aug. 8, 1860 [in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by his son Francis Darwin, Vol. 11, pp. 123-4, 1959])

Note that according to the letter, Darwin may just as well have been speaking of "Mr. R. Wagner," rather than "Huxley," as "My good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel - i.e., the devil's gospel." Wagner was the one who sent Darwin a German pamphlet, and Wagner said he was going to publish a review of the 'Origin' thus "propagating the Gospel" (in Germany?! which at that time rejected the theory of evolution). Wagner also expressed fears that Darwin's theory went to very "dangerous lengths," very "dangerous" being practically synonymous with "devilish." Thus Darwin could just as well have been referring to the "propagation of the devil's Gospel" that Wagner was accomplishing.

Tom Scharle on TALK.ORIGINS wrote: "It is Wagner who is said to be 'propagating the devil's gospel,' not Huxley. Darwin is crowing how the weaknesses of his opponents' arguments (particularly Agassiz's) is winning people like Wagner over to Darwin's side. I think it is a legitimate figure of speech to say that someone is 'propagating the devil's gospel' if he is propagating something which he (in this case Wagner) doesn't intend to propagate ('nolens volens' = 'willing or not willing'). Is this a common expression?"

After searching through several authoritative dictionaries of common expressions and phrases, found that "propagating the devil's gospel" was not mentioned in any of them.

However, in Darwin's youth, when he was attending university, there was a freethinking Anglican minister who attracted a lot of attention and who was severely censured. This minister, the Rev. Robert Taylor (author of Diegesis, a biting attack on Christianity bared on comparative mythology, which he wrote while serving time in prison for blasphemy), was dubbed "The Devil's Chaplain" for his heterodox opinions.

This phrase was recalled much later by Darwin for he used it in a letter he wrote to J. Hooker (July 13, 1856): "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature." It is therefore hardly surprising that Darwin might employ a similar phrase four years later in a letter to another close friend, Thomas Huxley.

Also, in Darwin's day at least some irate reviewers of the Origin, of which Darwin had many, must have compared his work to the "devil's."

Darwin typically let such criticisms slide off his back. In his letter to Huxley he is obviously making a joke about such "devilish" comments that others had made about his work.

So, even if the phrase did refer to Huxley (who is mentioned after it) or to R. Wagner (who is mentioned before it), it is such a trifling phrase that it can hardly "prove" anything to anyone, except to creationists, who would like to see nothing but the "devil" in "Darwinism." Of course, Darwin's use of the phrase, "propagating the devil's gospel" is no more incriminating than if he had mentioned "playing the devil's advocate," or if he had mentioned enjoying "Devil's food cake."

Another expression that Darwin used in a letter to Huxley written about three months later can be seen below:

If you have any important suggestions or criticisms to make on any part of the 'Origin,' I should, of course, be very grateful for [them]. For I mean to correct as far as I can, but not enlarge. How you must be wearied with and hate the subject [since Darwin kept bringing it up in the numerous letters he wrote Huxley. - ED.], and it is God's blessing if you do not get to hate me. (Darwin to T. H. Huxley Nov. 22, 1860)

Obviously, since Darwin employed the expression, "God's blessing," it "proves" that Darwin was really working for "God" and not the "devil." Of course such reasoning proves nothing at all, except perhaps that creationists are the ones exhibiting "devilish" behavior by their undue emphasis on a casual phrase spoken in jest, and by their questionable assumption that the phrase must have referred to "Huxley" rather than Wagner.

As I said, phrases employing the word "devil" were used to denounce people like Rev. Taylor years before Darwin. Similar phrases ran also probably be traced to a few of Darwin's irate creationist reviewers. Darwin slightly modified their phrases and sentiments to joke about how "devilish" his scientific theory was.

There's an early Christian version of a similar kind of jest made at the expense of one's self that might help Christians put Darwin's jest in perspective. The story dates back to 300 A.D., and involves a Christian exorcist and a possessed man. The demon in the man told the exorcist that he wouldn't "leave" until the exorcist answered one question, "According to the Gospel parable, who are the 'sheep' that shall enter eternal bliss, and who are the 'goats' who are worthy of eternal perdition?" The Christian replied, "The goats? That's me! The sheep? God alone knows who they are." At which point the demon replied, "Because of your humility, I will come out."

Darwin was such a genuinely humble and gentle person. For instance, he delayed publishing his theory for quite a few years because he knew his creationist wife would take offense. After his theory was published he replied even to his most vociferous critics with remarkable calmness. He was against slavery (though his close minister friend was in favor of it), and he was against "vivisection" (i.e., cutting up live cats and dogs for scientific experimentation). He wrote compassionately about the pain of animals. And he repudiated the "Social Darwinistic" interpretations of his views when they first arose. -For other aspects of Darwin's humble and gentle nature (very UNdevilish), see Issue No. 1 of Cretinism or Evilution?

Now, back to analyzing some quotations in The Revised Quote Book!





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