The death of Darwin

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Today is the anniversary of Darwin's death in 1882, and I am prompted to post this in response to a peculiar question. "Just read Carl Zimmers Evolution, a triumph of an idea. In it he states that Darwin, on his death bed cried out to god? How could this be if he had denounced religion and god?"

It's quite true that Zimmer does briefly mention the death of Darwin:

...Emma caught him in her arms when he collapsed at Down House. For the next six weeks she cared for him as he cried out to God and coughed up blood and slipped into unconsciousness. On April 19, 1882, he was dead.

The question is very peculiar because it's as if this person had read that one paragraph about his death, and nothing before it. The page and a half before that was all about Darwin's religion, and no, he had not denounced religion. He had renounced Christianity, but on the existence of god he declared himself an agnostic. He refused to write publicly on the subject of religion, and was even reluctant to discuss it in his letters. As we still do today, he pointed out that scientists who believed in evolution could also be devout Christians, mentioning Asa Gray in particular. And most importantly, he kept his doubts quiet out of respect for his wife, who was strongly Christian. When he cried out to God, it was the simple response of a man in great pain, who had been brought up in the Church of England, who had trained to be a parson, and had lived his life in the company of religious men and women with whom he had only affection. Creationists who insist that Darwin had to be a radical atheist who sought to destroy religion are just falsely demonizing the man.

Another biographer who recounted the death of Darwin was Janet Browne.

He died on the afternoon of 19 April 1882, after sinking very low for two or three days beforehand and suffering what Emma called a "fatal attack" at midnight on the 18th. There was no deathbed conversion, no famous last words. "I am not in the least afraid to die," he apparently murmured to Emma. "Remember what a good wife you have been." Allfrey signed the death certificate giving "Angina Pectoris Syncope" as the cause of death, the gradual ceasing of the heart. He was seventy-three.

The most painfully detailed description of Darwin's last days is in Desmond and Moore's biography.

The pain came on just before midnight. It was brutal, gripping him like a vice, tightening by the minute. He woke Emma and begged her to fetch the amyl from the study. She darted from the bedroom and became confused, finally calling Bessy. They took minutes to find the capsules. Charles, in agony, felt that he was dying but unable to cry out. As he slumped unconscious across the bed, Emma and Bessy returned. They rang for a servant and, propping him up, gave the brandy. It trickled through his beard and down the nightdress to the quilt. Struggling, they forced his head back and poured it into him. Emma was distraught, thinking it the end.

Seconds later he spluttered and retched; his eyes flickered open. She pressed close to him, searching his face for some sign of recognition. 'My love, my precious love,' he whispered, barely audible. 'Tell all my children to remember how good they have always been to me.' He choked and grimaced. Emma clasped his hand tightly—it was so awful, words failed her. He started again, fully conscious now, looking into her eyes, 'I am not in the least afraid to die.' He became calm.

She sent for Dr Allfrey, who arrived at two o'clock. He applied mustard plasters to Charles's chest, which gave some relief. Just after seven the servants brought breakfast up and he managed to take a few mouthfuls before falling asleep. Allfrey, finding his pulse stronger, wondered that he had ever regained consciousness. The doctor left at eight.

Immediately Charles started vomiting. It was violent and prolonged. When there was nothing left the nausea kept on in waves, overpowering him. His body heaved and shuddered, as if possessed by an outside force. An hour passed, then two. Still he gagged and retched. 'If I could but die,' he gasped repeatedly, 'if I could but die.' Emma clung to him, trembling, as another spasm started. He was cold, clammy, his skin grey and ghostlike. Blood spewed out, running down his beard. She had never seen such suffering.

Frank returned from London before ten. Bessy sent Jackson for Henrietta, who arrived by one. She ran upstairs to find her father sleeping and Emma about to break down, trying to comfort Frank. Henrietta insisted that she take an opium pill to rest, which she did without a murmur. She had slept less than two hours in twenty-four.

Charles awoke in a daze, and asked to be propped up. He recognized the children and embraced them with tears. Frank spooned soup and brandy for him while Henrietta lightly rubbed his chest. Then the nausea struck and he convulsed him again. 'Oh God,' he cried helplessly, 'oh Lord God,' and began to faint. Henrietta gave him smelling salts, which he sniffed eagerly, falling back exhausted. 'Where is Mammy?' he called in a thin, hollow voice. They said that she was resting. 'I am glad of it,' he sighed. 'You two dears are the best of nurses.' He grew drowsy. It confused him; he thought that he was sinking, and with a 'feeble quivering motion' held out his hands to be lifted. But as Frank raised him, the pain came on. He begged for a little whiskey, remembering that Dr Allfrey had suggested it.

Time stood still for Henrietta. Frank, taking his father's pulse at intervals, knew that the hour was near. At twenty-five minutes past three, while sitting up, Charles groaned 'I feel as if I shd faint.' They called Emma, who came immediately and held him. His face dropped, but after a few teaspoons of whiskey he revived, and she helped him to lie down. But the pain was excruciating in any position. Rising, he began to faint again. The doorbell rang—the doctors. Henrietta raced downstairs to meet them as Charles clutched at Emma. Frank shouted for them to come instantly, and Bessy.

He lost consciousness. They saw it was hopeless. There was only the deep stertorous breathing that precedes death. Emma cradled his head on her breast, swaying gently, her eyes closed. His life ended at four o'clock in the afternoon, Wednesday 19 April, 1882.

He was just a man, a man who died in his old age in the company of his family, after much suffering, like so many others. His last moments were neither a testimonial to Jesus nor a heroic stand for atheism, so let's not use them as a rhetorical bludgeon either way.


Brown J (2002) Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Knopf, NY.

Desmond A, Moore J (1991) Darwin. WW Norton & Company, Inc., NY.

Zimmer C (2001) Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. Harper Collins, NY.

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Proof positive that PZ is actually a vampire. No-one can get by on such little sleep.

I'm also having a hard time believing that PZ can be a professor and spend the whole day blogging.

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

His last moments were neither a testimonial to Jesus nor a heroic stand for atheism

But if Desmond and Moore are accurate, they show him still striving for two of his lifelong goals: to think clearly, and to be kind.

Just a man, but a very great man.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

I suppose (and hope) that these posts, like the many 6:00 sharp ones, are time-delayed automatic posts. (Perhaps the unusual 4:30 am corresponds to the time of Darwin's death?)
PZ, thanks for this dignified commemoration of CD.

Darwin routinely used the conventional expressions of "God", "Lord" and so on, and his expletives never got much beyond "for God's sake!" or "by God!". This he used before his deconversion, and he continued after it. But he most certainly did not at any point return to Christianity. He died a nominal deist.

Amph- I think you're right. This post must be on some sort of time-switch.

So- PZ can never effectively use blogging as an alibi if Columbo comes to investigate.

By Christian Burnham (not verified) on 18 Apr 2007 #permalink

Language is a funny thing. Expletives aren't processed the same way as content words. Plenty of people say "My god!" and "Jesus!" because those are the words they grew up with - whether they are now atheists or have converted to a form of religion which either isn't Christian or is, to the extent that they never swear casually. What one says in extremis is a reflection of one's culture more than one's own inherent beliefs.

I'm no Darwin, but if my last words on Earth are, as they may well be, "Jesus H. Fucking Christ" I hope no-one will interpret it as a deathbed conversion.

I would like to remind any Christians of the sort being criticized above who happen to be reading that today is Thor's Day, named in honor of a pagan god, as you yourself would no doubt proclaim it. Tomorrow you will proclaim the day in honor of Frigg, wife of pagan god Odin (in whose honor you proclaimed yesterday), and the next day you will honor Saturn. Please keep that in mind should you ever feel the desire to say "Gotcha!" when some non-religious person reflexively uses an expletive of religious origins.

Also, every time you say "hello" you are honoring our Dark Lord.

Hello!

Also, every time you say "hello" you are honoring our Dark Lord.

I don't know, it's a long stretch to claim that "hello" comes from Cthulhu.

What people also tend to forget is that Darwin was well regarded by many in the church. In fact, there is a memorial to Darwin on the side of the church in Kent. I have posted a picture of it on Genomicron today.

He was just a man, a man who died in his old age in the company of his family, after much suffering, like so many others. His last moments were neither a testimonial to Jesus nor a heroic stand for atheism, so let's not use them as a rhetorical bludgeon either way.

I was going to say amen, PZ...but I guess 'well said' will suffice.

Well said.

Not to mention that Darwin could have been the most devout Christian ever, and could could even have taken back everything he ever said about evolution, as some of the creationists would claim, and it still would have no effect on the factuality of evolution. I can't believe creationists still try to use this silly argument.

Darwin is the featured article on Wikipedia today. Three cheers for the old guy!

I say "Oh, god" and "Jesus Christ!" and stuff like that all the time without even thinking about it. To me, they're just lazy exclamations of surprise or shock; meaningless, really.

However, lately I've been making an effort to add a little nonsense into my exclamations. I'm a big fan of old chestnuts like "Great Caesar's Ghost!" and "Sweet Fancy Moses!" and the ever-popular "Jiminy Christmas!"

For some reason, 3-word exclamations are more satisfying. I presume that's why many people say "Jesus H. Christ" instead of just "Jesus Christ." I've found that a good 3-word formula to follow is: a simple adjective (like "great" or "happy"), followed by a vaguely amusing "-ing" verb ("dancing" is always a good one, but feel free to use naughty words here too) followed by the name of a biblical or literary figure. For example, "Sweet Shitting Solomon!" See? There you get the added bonus of alliteration! My high-school English teacher would be so proud!

Anyone have some favorites I could add to my repertoire?

I'm thinking of writing a simple web application that automatically generates silly exclamations at the click of a button.

@Steve LaBonne

For some reason that reminds me of the string of French curses spoken by the Merovingian in the second Matrix movie. He says something about how much he loves to curse in French because it's "like wiping your arse with silk."

In French he says "Nom de Dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculé de ta mère!"

Which loosely translates to "Goddamn shit-filthy whorehouse-slut mother-sodomizing bastard!"

Fortunately I don't have extensive experiences, but I know that people can say the most peculiar things when they are slowly dying. Mostly because they are in pain, afraid, or confused, of course.

every time you say "hello" you are honoring our Dark Lord.

:-)

It seems to be a germanic morpheme meaning healthy (related to "whole"). I say "hallå", "hylla" and "hel"; you say "hello", "hail" and "whole"; some said "sieg heil" and wound up in a hole; ...

By Torbjörn Larssona (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

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I have this idea (*) that wherever language lives in the brain, there is a separate, more primitive part nearby that stores expletives, which are the equivalent of canine barks. They don't project meaning so much as they do powerful feeling.

That little prelinguistic register starts out filled with the literal cries of infancy, but later gets reprogrammed to hold things like Ow! Fuck! Shit! Jesus Fucking Christ! Goddamit! Great Caesar's Ghost! Hell! Criminy! Oh my stars and garters! Damn!

What gets programmed into the thing is purely a matter of culture. You can change the contents deliberately, but it takes a conscious effort.

The idea that soldiers in foxholes all become Christians the second they shout "Jesus Christ!" as they dive away from gunfire, or that Darwin might have been recanting as he lay dying, is silly. In each situation of extreme stress, that expletive register was just firing off the emotion-laden sounds it had stored.

Darwin probably seldom had the occasion to use that register in his later life, or to consider the word-barks it contained. In pain and on his deathbed, he projected the words he'd programmed into it as a younger man.

Despite being a rabid atheist, when I hit my finger with a hammer - twice - last fall, I threw the hammer down and said "God! Damn!" and a whole string of other things having nothing to do with religious belief.

As to that soldiers-in-foxholes thing, I'll bet when they're diving out of the way of gunfire, they scream "Fuck!" at least as often as they shout "Jesus!" -- which would match the number of confirmed Jesuschristians in foxholes with an equal number of devout Fuckitarians.

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* I honestly don't know whether this is one of my own wild ideas, or based on something I read. It's early, and I'm only halfway through my morning coffee.

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An atheist myself, I have after a night of too much drinking in my younger days, found myself clutching the toilet and murmuring, "oh god, this sucks." In no way did this mean that I believed in god. It's just an expression of discomfort and pain.

After almost 30 years of military service and experience with men in two wars, I can tell you with certainty that there are atheists in foxholes.

Those who imagine otherwise simply mistake a profanity for a profession.

The Flaming Moderate

Is "ironic" the right word to describe Christians' bitching about "family values", except when it comes to Darwin, in which case they completely ignore his obvious love for his family and instead pay all their attention to a swear he made before dying, trying to distort it into a conversion?

Or is "hypocrite" the right word?

Next I suppose they'll be declaring that, by the oaths they use, every character in a sex scene in the movies or on television must be a God-fearing (-lusting?) Christian.

Wes, I prefer to use the term "Phlaming Pharisee" for such "Christians."
It's so much more euphonious than "hypocrite"

I think Hank Fox is likely on the right track. I've noticed that in the process of remembering embarrassing experiences, I'm often given to exclaiming whatever random thought is going through my head. Since I find the phenomenon interesting and amusing, I've kept track of the stranger things I've said. (Also, being a little outspoken and occasionally oblivious, I've got quite a repertoire of embarrassing incidents in my head.)

Most often I'll say something like "Fuck!" or "Man, I'm an idiot!", but sometimes it'll be a little less connected, like "I'm gonna move to Toronto!" or "I want another cup of coffee!" I get a lot of strange looks from passersby.

I would guess that this phenomenon is similar to the explanation given by Hank Fox.

Any neuroscientists care to weigh in on this?

I think it's Desmond and Moore who give a few details of Darwin's funeral. It was a state funeral, full smells and bells, with hymns written just for the occasion. Somewhere I learned the hymns were based on the Book of Proverbs.

Does anyone know what those hymns were, whether they appear in any commonly-used hymnal, or where else one might bet them these days?

You want a clinician, maybe -- Tourette's Syndrome is a perfect example of the phenomenon. People with that affliction don't bark out recipes for banana cream pie, they shout out very visceral sorts of expletives.

"Anyone have some favorites I could add to my repertoire?"

I am partial to "Great jumping hoptoads!" and "Oh, bananafish!"

By Faithful Reader (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

paul d:

One of my favorites is "Diddly ding dang Hell". Granted, it doesn't fit your formula, but it does help relieve some of my tension. It also gets a bit of a laugh out of those within earshot.

-Berlzebub

PS. I got it from an old Warlord comic.

By Berlzebub (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

This might be helpful on the coprolalia thing: Scientists Explore Basis of Swearing.

I had an acquaintance who used to say "Bunny in a Bucket!" when he was enraged. But he also performed odes to Pikachu, and quite good ones, and owned a chinchilla. So maybe he was just obsessed with glires.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

As a theistic evolutionist, was Asa Gray actually a mild creationist?

Tourette's Syndrome is a perfect example of the phenomenon. People with that affliction don't bark out recipes for banana cream pie, they shout out very visceral sorts of expletives.

Not always. Of course, the coprolalia what Tourette Syndrome is best known for, but many sufferers make other vocalizations (dog barks, growls, just plain strange sounds) or feel compelled to blurt out other words and phrases. Others exhibit motor, rather than vocal tics--stamping feet, facial twitches, etc. The coprolalia is actually fairly uncommon, and the only case of it I've seen personally involved blurting out nasty racial epithets, rather than garden-variety obscenities.

(My brother had several odd vocal tics among his Tourette symptoms... I spent many years of my childhood listening to "merp," "smee" and an uncannily accurate imitation of a rotating irrigation sprinkler. Interestingly, his symptoms have lessened dramatically as he's gotten older, to the point that he doesn't "tic" in a way that those who don't know him would notice--it manifests as a stammer instead unless he's very tired or stressed.)

I think there's a difference between thinking out loud, or blurting out what's in your mind and having Tourette's. I know I'm definitely one of the former. Life is just so much more fun with sound effects. What this has to do with Charles Darwin, I don't rightly know.

Incidentally, I think Hank Fox wins the internet. And, on topic, I am converting to Fuckitarianism, as soon as I can figure out what its tenets are. If they include swearing a lot, I must've converted ages ago and didn't notice.

In French he says "Nom de Dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculé de ta mère!"

Tsss. He forgot to use "espèce de"!

(That's a cool prefix. It turns whatever comes after it into a curse.)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

My grandfather recently had a stroke and for a few days lost the ability to speak, though he could understand others perfectly well. When he was particularly frustrated about his predicament, though, a "God Damn it!" or a "Son of a Bitch!" would slip out, followed by a reflective chuckle.

I tend to agree on Hank Fox winning the internet.
On epithets, I've recently trained myself to use "Oh my Zeus," and in moments of markes incredulity, "Great Mother Tzeentch!" Also, TAIF (Thank Azathoth It's Friday) is a fun one.
Personally, I'd never use French for anything other than cursing, and even then, Mandarin is infinitely more entertaining, and it sounds better. I've been unreasonably prejudiced against French for a very long time, and I suspect it's related to the common image of French as a "Beautiful language." I find it anything but, so I backlash.

Colugo, regarding comment #35:

Only in the sense that Dobzhansky said he was *both* a creationist and an evolutionist.

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

Some people don't realize that "What's the worst part of being an atheist?" "You have no one to talk to when you come" is a joke (apologies if that's been mentioned before).

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Heh. If I've won the internet, I may have to reopen my own blog.

I'm closing in on the finish of my second book, which is about atheism, and also starting to worry about the End of the Money, and the following Fall of the Economic Hammer, both of which come in about six months.

If anyone would like an internet, I may have one here shortly to sell.

(I also have a couple of unique web ideas. Maybe if I get the go-ahead on one or both of them, I can get PZ to give me a drumroll for the kickoff sometime later this year.)

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Scott Hatfield, regarding #41:

I recently learned that Robert Bakker, author of The Dinosaur Heresies (and Jurassic Park consultant), is a Pentecostal preacher.

If Bakker, Asa Gray, Ken Miller et al. are espousing a variant of creationism, then creationism isn't that bad. Either that, or it's not a very apt comparison.
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/04/we_will_not_go_quietly.php

If Bakker, Asa Gray, Ken Miller et al. are espousing a variant of creationism, then creationism isn't that bad.

A virus might only cause some harmless warts. Does it follow that viruses aren't that bad?

And Asa Gray may not be such a good role model for modern TE wannabes as this discussion assumes: "We should advise Mr. Darwin to assume, in the philosophy of his hypothesis, that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines."

An atheist myself, I have after a night of too much drinking in my younger days, found myself clutching the toilet and murmuring, "oh god, this sucks." In no way did this mean that I believed in god. It's just an expression of discomfort and pain.

Posted by: Ric | April 19, 2007 10:53 AM

In Australia, this is called saying hello to God on the big, white telephone.

Paul D: I too like to swear in French (the rare times that I do), despite being an anglophone Quebecer. Mind you, I am still not too good at it ...

Hank Fox: "Oh my stars and garters"? Where the ...

Brendan: Tzeentch? A Warhammer fan, are we?

"He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not see his like again." - as another great Englishman said.

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From Keith Douglas #47:

Hank Fox: "Oh my stars and garters"? Where the ...

Beast, from the X-Men universe, occasionally says this. I think he may have said it in the last X-Men movie. That's where I heard it. However ...

From World Wide Words:

It's a fascinating expression, with a long history. To give you the background, perhaps I should start with its core, the phrase stars and garters. You may be surprised to hear that this refers collectively to honours and awards.

We have some weird ones in the UK, not least those, like OBE and MBE, that mark a person's achievements by raising them to a status in an empire we no longer possess. Perhaps the oddest-sounding is the Order of the Garter, the highest order of English knighthood, which was founded by Edward III around 1344. Since most of the honours of knighthood and the like come with a medal in the shape of a star, the phrase stars and garters appeared in the early eighteenth century as a collective reference to all these medals, honours and decorations and -- by a figurative extension -- to the group of people that hold them.

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My dad was on hospice care for about a week before he died. At one point the nurses were moving him and accidentally yanked on his catheter. He had not spoken or responded to us in days, so we were surprised when he shouted out some expletives.

I like the exclamation, "Oh, for the Saint's panties!"

Nice and ambiguous in English. What's funnier, imagining Saint Alice's knickers or Saint Alfred's? Maybe I'm a bit perverted for finding either funny.

Fortunately I don't have extensive experiences, but I know that people can say the most peculiar things when they are slowly dying. Mostly because they are in pain, afraid, or confused, of course.

every time you say "hello" you are honoring our Dark Lord.

:-)

It seems to be a germanic morpheme meaning healthy (related to "whole"). I say "hallå", "hylla" and "hel"; you say "hello", "hail" and "whole"; some said "sieg heil" and wound up in a hole; ...

By Torbjörn Larssona (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

In French he says "Nom de Dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculé de ta mère!"

Tsss. He forgot to use "espèce de"!

(That's a cool prefix. It turns whatever comes after it into a curse.)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink

It's not alliteration or even clever but the most recent "Oh dear" moment (guardrail on mountain road heading for my passenger car door) went something along these lines:
Shit! Shit! Shit! I don't need this now.
It may still be echoing through that region to this day.
P.S. The shit gods did answer my prayer and the guardrail backed off quietly.