Sunday, July 5, 2009

The surprising spread of the Annie hypothesis

As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have been working on a paper on the unsubstantiated claim that his daughter Annie's death led to Darwin's abandonment of Christianity. Once the paper is press, I will present my analysis of just what flimsy evidence the "Annie hypothesis" was based on by its originator, James Moore. But for now, let's just take a look at how far this modern "Darwin myth" has spread and how many people have suckered by it (even Carl Zimmer has been taken in!). 

Note, I use the term "myth" not so much in the sense of "false story" although I do think it is false, or at least unfalsifiable, but more because so many people wish to draw moral lessons from it. Most people seem far more comfortable with the idea that Darwin gave up Christianity only after something as traumatic as the death of a daughter, rather for the mostly dry intellectual reasons he cites in his Autobiography.

Anyhow, here is a draft of a table from the paper, showing quite how far the "Annie hypothesis" has spread. If you know of any additional striking examples of its presentation in print or on screen, please let us know by adding comments.

Table 1 Selected examples of the Annie Hypothesis in print, on screen and online



Quotations and context

In Print



1859 and All That: Remaking the Story of Evolution-and-Religion James R. Moore



"Perhaps it was the "bitter and cruel" death in 1851 of ten-year-old Annie, his favourite child, just a month after he had read the moral challenge to that doctrine in Francis Newman's "excellent" spiritual Autobiography Faith, that prompted Darwin, as he later said, to give up Christianity once and for all."

Of Love and Death: Why Darwin 'gave up Christianity', James Moore


See text of paper for discussion (in preparation).

Darwin, Desmond and Moore


Account of Annie’s illness and death interspersed with interpolations about Darwin’s loss of faith.

Charles Darwin, Voyaging. Janet Browne.


“His sense of God had virtually disappeared along with his daughter Anne.”

Rebecca Stetoff, , Charles Darwin And The Evolution Revolution


"Darwin's own Christianity, never very deeply held, gradually eroded as he worked out his theory of natural selection; the remnants of his faith were wiped out entirely by the suffering and death of his daughter Annie in 1851. Later in life he described himself as an Agnostic--one who questions but does not flatly deny the existence of God. ... [Annie's] death destroyed the last lingering remnants of Darwin's Christianity."

Evolution, The Triumph of an Idea, Carl Zimmer


“He could no longer believe that Anne’s soul was in heaven, that her soul had survived her unjustified death. It was then, 13 years after Darwin discovered natural selection, that he gave up Christianity”

Annie's Box Randal Keynes


"After Annie's death, Charles set the Christian faith firmly behind him."

Emma Darwin, Edna Healey


“The death of Annie confirmed Charles’s loss of faith”

Darwin and the Barnacle, Rebecca Stott


“Perhaps he [Darwin] wanted to say what he was beginning to feel himself… that after death there was nothing—no God waiting to scour Annie’s record book…”

Darwin’s Origin of Species, A Biography, Janet Browne


“Annie’s death may have finally tipped Darwin into disbelief”

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen


“The death of Annie in 1851, following the death of his father three years ealier, marks an important point in Darwin’s long, quiet disengagement from religious belief and spirituality”

Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World, George Levine


“But the hard experience of Annie’s death certainly had larger implications for his attitude toward religion, as James Moore has argued in his essay on this subject.”

“That Anna [sic] died on Shakespeare’s birthday is a coincidence (is “intelligent design” an option?) of which I wish to take advantage, as I return to Darwin’s comment that Shakespeare had come to nauseate him.”

Rebel Giants, David Contosta


“ For Charles, the death of this beautiful, kind, and beloved child was the last blow to any faith he had in God.”

“Call the Black Horses” from The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou


"You can safely put God to bed now/the way you can’t your daughter anymore./Tuck the sheets so tight he cannot move/and lock the bedroom door."

On Screen



The Voyage of Charles Darwin, BBC series


Darwin voiceover on religion over funeral scene

The Devil's Chaplain, BBC documentary


Moore stands over Annie's grave proclaiming that it was here that Darwin lost his Christian faith

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, PBS documentary


Darwin family in black attends church, Darwin stays outside; Moore claims Annie's death destroyed Darwin's Christianity; claim repeated on PBS website

Darwin's Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species BBC documentary


Narrator states that after Annie's death "With his own belief in a Christian God already shaken, Darwin now severed his ties with traditional faith"; Moore links Darwin's statements in the Autobiography about the doctrine of damnation to anger at Annie's death. Moore claims links between Annie's death and "face of Nature" statements in Chapter III of Origin of Species, culminating in declaration "she suffered at Easter that others may live"

Did Darwin kill God? BBC Documentary


Conor Cunningham bizarrely claims Annie died from cholera. Nick Spencer claims Annie's death once and for all finishes Darwin's Christian faith.

Creation (movie)


Director's Statement: "The Darwin we meet in CREATION is a young, vibrant father, husband and friend whose mental and physical health gradually buckles under the weight of guilt and grief for a lost child. Ultimately it is the ghost of Annie, his adored 10 year-old daughter who leads him out of darkness and helps him reconnect with his wife and family."




Wikipedia (accessed in 2009)

"With Annie's death Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile. "



Anonymous said...

From Michael Boulter, Darwin's Garden (London: Constable, 2008), p.55 (last page of Chapter 3):

"Annie didn't get better and the symptoms reminded her father of 'an exaggerated one of my... illnesses. She inherits, I fear with grief, my wretched digestion.' Annie died in the spring of 1851 at the same Malvern clinic where her father had sought a cure for his own gastric illness. The tragedy added to Emma and Charles's woes, taking Emma closer to the Church and Charles to his theory."

dave said...

Blast. Picked the issue up in the Wikipedia articles on Charles Darwin and on Charles Darwin's views on religion, but didn't get round to updating Development of Darwin's theory.

Done now, all three now state that "Darwin's faith in Christianity had already dwindled away and from around 1849 he had stopped going to church." Source: van Wyhe, John (2008), "Darwin: The Story of the Man and His Theories of Evolution."

Your paper sounds interesting, hope it provides more detail helping to explain what we know of these developments.

Mark Pallen said...

Oh dear Dave, I was trying to hold back on releasing the article in dribs and drabs in case the journal gets upset, but with that 1849 quip, you have provoked me now! If you have evidence for it, let's have it! If not, here is what I have written in the current draft of the article:

"[the assertion by Randal Keynes] that Darwin stopped attending church services [after Annie's death] is based on a passage from the 1889 publication Darwin and God (40) by George William Foote (a secularist who was later imprisoned for blasphemy):

"In September 1842 he went to live at Down, where he continued to reside until his death. He helped to found a Friendly Club there, and served as its treasurer for thirty years. He was also treasurer of a Coal Club. The Rev. Brodie Innes says " His conduct towards me and my family was one of unvarying kindness." Darwin was a liberal contributor to the local charities, and " he held that where there was really no important objection, his assistance should be given to the clergyman, who ought to know the circumstances best, and was chiefly responsible."

He did not, however, go through the mockery of attending church. I was informed by the late head constable of Devonport, who was himself an open Atheist, that he had once been on duty for a considerable time at Down. He had often seen Darwin escort his family to church, and enjoyed many a conversation with the great man, who used to enjoy a walk through the country lanes while the devotions were in progress."

Here it is worth stressing that in this passage, there is no date associated with the start of Darwin's non-attendance at church and no link at all to Annie's death. Darwin's non-attendance could have started at any time after his move to Down House, whether in the eight and a half years before Annie's death or in any of the three decades that followed.

In a footnote Keynes suggest that the "late head constable of Devonport" may have been "William Soper, who served at Downe between 1858 and the mid-1860s". No evidence is put forward for this identification, but, if true, it still provides no evidence of a link to Annie's death, which occurred seven years before 1858.

dave said...

I'm afraid you'll have to ask van Wyhe, Mark, but my recollection is that he's equally opposed to the hypothesis. On page 41 of "Darwin: The Story of the Man and His Theories of Evolution" he writes Around 1849 it seems Darwin stopped going to church, though Emma and the children continued to do so... [in 1851 Annie died]... Darwin was devastated but there is no evidence for the claim that her death killed off Darwin's Christianity as it had been declining since his return from the Beagle voyage".

So, not much new there, but van Wyhe is pretty well informed about Darwin. Beautifully produced book, a general introduction with lots of illustrations and pull-out facsimiles rather than a scholarly book, but fun to own.