The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister


A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull For Evolution Sunday

First Parish Unitarian Universalist
Cohasset, MA
March 22, 2009

What did you do on your summer vacation? It’s a question that conjures up the first day of school, a blank page, and a blank stare back at the page. It’s a question which I’m hoping to answer this autumn with at least one book title—The Origin of Species, published 150 years ago this coming November, authored by Charles Darwin born 200 years ago as of this year’s February 12. I’ve enjoyed barely an appetizer portion of the grand feast served up by the writings of and about this man, who transformed our understanding of how we—the whole interdependent we—came to be through the most extraordinary acts of adaptation across the millennia. My appetite has been whetted.

This morning I offer a belated Happy Birthday to Charles, belated because over his birthday I was engaged with my own particular adaptation to life recovering from surgery. I trust you’ll forgive me, Charles, and accept this modest tribute to your life and work in the frame of a worship service in a faith in full partnership with your relentless search for truth and meaning. I’m so looking forward to stretching out on Minot Beach come the summer, after a dive into waters holding more forms of life than I can imagine, and plumbing the pages of your magnum opus from which we humans are still drawing epiphanies of knowledge and wonder. What better place to read The Origin of Species but a beach, where I can close my eyes and breathe in the salt scent inhaled by creatures billions of years ago, where I can swim and imagine that I haven’t yet lost the gills of my sea-siblings—ancestors all.

What a remarkable man was Charles Darwin. What a remarkable life and legacy we inherit. While his theories of natural selection and sexual selection—the two theories for which he is most noted—were not original with Darwin, choice and circumstance and a highly inquisitive mind conspired toward Darwin writing and publishing 19 books, each a facet of his kaleidoscopic powers of observation and reflection. Darwin heeded what I understand as the most compelling though implicit invitation greeting each of us upon birth: “Notice!”

Born on February 12, 2009 in Shrewsbury, England to Dr. Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin, Charles was a middle child. His older brother, Erasmus, was named for their paternal grandfather, a physician and naturalist who preceded Charles in writing on the likelihood of natural selection as an explanation for the variability of creatures over time. Charles had three older sisters—Marianne, Caroline, and Susan—and a younger sister, Catharine. Altogether there were six children in this household parented by Robert and Susannah. Their maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, renowned for his pottery. Dr. Robert Waring Darwin was a physician, well-loved by his family and neighbors and patients. Susannah was known for her gentle and compassionate nature.

At the outset of what Charles Darwin refers to as a “sketch of my life,” begun in May, 1876, he recounts his earliest memory, “when I was a few months over four years old, when we went to near Abergele for sea-bathing, and I recollect some events and places there with some little distinctness.” Of course this bolsters my intent to read The Origin of Species on the beach.

Barely eight years old, Charles was sent off to day-school in Shrewsbury. Just a few months later, his mother, Susannah, would succumb to what was most likely tuberculosis, the disease that took so many lives on both sides of the Atlantic during this time. Curiously enough, he admits, his memory of his mother focused on her deathbed, what she wore, and the table where she had worked. Even as the young Darwin grieved the loss of his mother, his attention to detail is notable.

By this time, he recounts, “my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals.” Darwin also admits to a reputation for mischief, albeit mischief with conscience, since the incident I recount troubled him greatly afterwards.

“I told another little boy (I believe it was Leighton, who afterwards became a well-known lichenologist and botanist), that I could produce variously coloured polyanthuses and primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids, which of course was a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me.”

The young boy became the young student became the young man. He entertained the idea of becoming a physician—briefly. He even entertained the idea of becoming a clergyman—briefly. Darwin studied at Edinburgh and then at Cambridge. His was a mind that could have sauntered off in any of innumerable directions; but while at Cambridge, he sought the acquaintance of John Stevens Henslow, a professor passionate in his regard for the sciences. Young Charles was drawn to Henslow’s capacity to form “conclusions from long-continued minute observations.” Henslow served as mentor and muse, and it was he who alerted Charles to the opportunity to set sail aboard the Beagle as a cabin-mate to Captain Robert Fitz-Roy. Darwin was invited aboard as the Beagle’s resident naturalist. I can almost hear his response—a rousing high-decibel “Yes!”

The HMS Beagle set sail on the 27th of December 1831 for a round-the-world voyage that would last five years.

“The voyage of the Beagle,” wrote Darwin decades later, “has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career….I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

Darwin observed; he collected; he documented; he thought; he reflected. He noticed. He wondered. His gaze fell on creatures of the sea and sky and land never imagined by him. His attention was drawn magnet like to sea shells found inland and coral reefs and atolls whose origins he theorized with inspiration from his Grandfather Erasmus, who had boldly declared “Everything from shells.” (Milner, 19) Off the coast of Chile in 1835 he witnessed a volcanic eruption and related it to the work of geologist Charles Lyell, who had theorized that with sufficient time, natural forces at play in the present explain the formation of such geological phenomena. (Milner, 20)

It was in the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, where they arrived in the spring of 1836, that Darwin actually observed the coral reefs and atolls and formulated his theory of their formation over millennia atop sinking volcanoes. A few months later, the HMS Beagle docked in England. Laden with specimens and documentation and journals, Darwin’s primary sources were in hand. Soon after, he met with Lyell, who shared the excitement over Darwin’s theory of reef formation, though it varied from his own. Regarding the prospect of public credibility, Lyell’s words to Darwin, penned in a letter to his friend, rang as prophetic as they did enthusiastic:

“I could think of nothing for days after your lesson on coral reefs, but of the tops of submerged continents. It is all true, but do not flatter yourself that you will be believed, till you are growing bald, like me, with hard work & vexation at the incredulity in the world.” (Milner, 21)

Darwin began to distill his theory of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution as early as 1838, just six years after returning to England; but it would be twenty years before he published an account of it. It wasn’t that he didn’t publish. Eight of his 19 published works were issued before The Origin. Darwin was anxious over how it would be received.

Feelings and thoughts called for time to simmer. He had just become familiar with the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who posed the dilemma of human procreation outpacing the food supply, with starvation as the solution. While Malthus’s ideas were understandably unpopular, Darwin respected the dilemma that he was addressing, as indicated in his own reflections years later:

“….being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.” (Autobiography, 48)

And so he did not, though his developing theory remained not quite on the back burner of his attention. He would write and publish on related topics, before occasion rose for the deep breath that told him it was time to make public his theory of natural selection. Weighing the pros and cons of what to say and when, he applied a similar methodology to his decision to marry.

Emma Wedgwood was his cousin, and surely not enough was known, even by Darwin, about the possible consequences of marrying one’s cousin, to pose a clear deterrent. The deterrents were recorded in Darwin’s vacillation about marrying at all. Yes, he made a pro and con list, with reasons for and reasons against. Among the “cons” were: “freedom to go where one liked—choice of Society & little of it…..Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.—to have the expense & anxiety of children.” On the “pro” side he listed: “Children…—Constant companion, (& friend in old age)” and most markedly, tongue in cheek I hope, “better than a dog anyhow.” Whether Emma ever saw the list is a matter of speculation, but if so, Charles surely had some explaining to do or he would find that it was not quite a lowly canine who belonged in a doghouse.

The couple exchanged many letters before and during their engagement. Charles poured forth his hopes and his confidence that he harbored a theory about where we all came from and how, along with doubts that stirred in him with regard to a divine force behind creation. Emma was forthright in declaring how painful it would be to her if he held to his theory and certainly if he made it public, and a plaintive opinion that it would prevent their being together in eternity. Emma came from a perspective of Unitarianism, and held firmly to her belief in God the Creator and the promise of an afterlife. Even then, it seems, Unitarians didn’t need “to think alike to love alike,” in the spirit of the 16th century Unitarian martyr Francis David.

Love won out, and Emma and Charles married in January, 1839. Residing for a few years in London, Darwin completed books on his voyage aboard the Beagle and his theory of the formation of coral reefs. The first two of their ten children were born there, including his beloved daughter, Annie. In 1842, the young family moved to the country into what would be their home for many years, “Down.” Emma would give birth to eight more children, though two died in infancy. By all accounts, Emma and Charles adored each other, and they adored their children. Affection was pervasive. Emma was warm and gracious; Charles was playful and indulged his children’s mischief making as if in appreciation for his own early pranks.

As prodigious in his work of observation and documentation and reflection, so was he prodigiously loving as a father. His was a parenting of full heart, and his heart was broken when Annie became ill, very ill, in April of 1851. On April 23 they lost ten-year-old Annie. Darwin poured his grief onto the page:

“We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age. She must have known how we loved her. Oh, that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly, we do still and shall ever love her dear joyous face! Blessings on her!” (Autobiography, 102)

It was in an article in The Boston Globe just four years ago that Randal Keynes, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, spoke in defense of his forebear’s theories and empathy with those who find them difficult to understand. Keynes further illumined the story of Annie. In the late 1990s, he had found in his parents’ bureau memorabilia of Charles Darwin which they had inherited. Among this historic treasure was a box with memos by Darwin about Annie. A few years later, Keynes authored: Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution. While Darwin ceased to believe in a beneficent divinity, according to Keynes,

“…what he realized is that he just went on caring for Annie. He just couldn’t stop caring for her, even though she was dead, and year after year he found he still cared for her as much as he did when she was alive. He realized how fundamentally important the affections are between parent and child and how—to use a modern phrase— it must be a kind of hardwired part of our makeup. He went on to develop a view on our moral sense.”

A theory of natural selection in no way undermines love or the affections or conscience or gratitude or wonder or grief or humor. If we notice, if we deeply behold and reflect on what we witness, and if we bring to bear “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we will collide with convention, we will unwrap the gifts of truth—hard truth and luminous truth, we will take to heart and mind what our sense of reason and soul reveal, and we will continue to search and to question.

Darwin worked with no knowledge of tectonic plate shifts, with no knowledge of genetics or DNA, with no firm proof that a coral reef is, as Adam Gopnik describes it, “just a funeral wreath around the tip of a defunct mountain.” Darwin’s work was girded by intentional observation and thoughtful reflection over time. “That the details have changed,” notes journalist Verlyn Klinkenborg, “does not invalidate his accomplishment. If anything, it enhances it. His writings were not intended to be scriptural. They were meant to be tested.”

Darwin was a man of insatiable curiosity and relentless observation. He was also a man of conscience, affection, humor, and peace. A contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and born on the same day, he was attuned to the anguish experienced by Lincoln over the threat to the Union and the moral quagmire of slavery whose abolition would seem to come only at the cost of civil war. In 1862, the second year of the carnage, Darwin’s friend, Asa Gray, had sent him a newspaper article on the war. Darwin responded to Gray:

“…we read [it] aloud in Family Conclave. Our verdict was, that the N. was fully justified in going to war with the S.; but that as soon as it was plain that there was no majority in the S. for ReUnion, you ought, after your victories in Kentucky & Tennessee, to have made peace & agreed to a divorce.” (Gopnik, 119)

What, I wonder, would Darwin have said on this day that we belatedly celebrate his life and legacy and mark also the sixth year of this nation’s war in Iraq? Surely resistance to the oppression of slavery and preservation of the Union outweigh any rationale yet in play for the current conflict that enters its seventh year. Darwin’s response resonates for our own day. Might we not paraphrase his words and heed his counsel that we ought, after whatever victories are claimed or disclaimed, to make peace and agree to a divorce?

Life is complex. Life is precious. How it began and how we began is not entirely a mystery, though still subject to fierce debate and inviting deeper knowledge. Reverence, that core religious stance, comes alive not through static belief, but through observation and wonder. Hear the final words of The Origin of Species:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Life is precious, wonderful, and amazing. How can we hold back from immersing ourselves in the whole glorious interdependent web of it? How can we resist the invitation of a lifetime: “Notice! Notice!”



“The Clergy Letter Project,” Michael Zimmerman.

“The Clergy Letter – from Unitarian Universalist Clergy – An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science,”.

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Introduction by Brian Regal, originally published in 1887, The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading, New York, 2005.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, with an Introduction and Notes by George Levine, originally published in 1859, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 2004.

Charles Darwin, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Anthony David, illustration by Alicia Buelow, “Our Inner Ape How deeply rooted is our Unitarian Universalist belief in peace and justice for all?” UU World, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Spring 2009, 30-32.

Cornelia Dean, “Seeing the Risks of Humanity’s Hand in Species Evolution,” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D4.

Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009.

Olivia Judson, “The Origin of Darwin,” The New York Times Op-Ed, Thursday, February 12, 2009.

Carol Kaesukyoon, “Genes Offer New Clues in Old Debate on Species’ Origins,” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D5.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Editorial Observer, “Darwin at 200: The Ongoing Force of His Unconventional Idea,” The New York Times, Thursday, February 12, 2009.

Jennifer A. Lane, “A Brief History of Reef Science,” Natural History, February 2009, 22.

Richard Milner, “Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason: A rediscovered painting celebrates Charles Darwin’s view of life,” Natural History, February 2009, 18-23.

William R. Murry, illustrated by Alicia Buelow, “Natural Faith: How Darwinian evolution has transformed liberal religion,” UU World, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Spring 2009, 26-29.

Tatsha Robertson, “Darwin descendant defends evolution theory,” The Boston Globe, November 19, 2005.

Carl Safina, “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live,” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D3.

John Tierney, “Darwin the Comedian. Now That’s Entertainment!” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D2.

“The Voyage of the Beagle”.

Nicholas Wade, “A Mind Still Prescient After All These Years,” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D1, 4.

Carl Zimmer, “Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life,” The New York Times Science Times, Tuesday, February 10, 2009, D1, 3.


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