Science and religion: A marriage made in Victorian England

Science and religion: A marriage made in Victorian England

By Lisa Earle McLeod

It was an unlikely marriage. He was a scientist and she was a religious studies major. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for a book about evolution. She became a children’s book author, often writing about religious holidays. But it was their pillow talk about Charles Darwin and his devoutly religious wife that prompted her to explore the intimate details of another marriage of science and religion, the marriage of Charles and Emma Darwin. Author Deborah Heiligman’s newest book “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith,” has its roots in the bedtime conversations she had with her husband, Jonathan Weiner, while he was writing his award winning, “The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time.” Weiner shared with Heiligman that Darwin’s wife Emma had been deeply concerned that Charles’ work on evolution was going to sentence him to eternal damnation, and that they would be separated for eternity. As they discussed Charles and Emma’s differing perspectives, it was obvious that the Darwin’s marriage was not unlike their own. Two intelligent people of strong convictions who loved each other, but who looked at the world through different lenses. Science versus religion arguments continue to rage even today, 150 years after Darwin first published the Origin of Species, but Charles and Emma’s differing perspectives didn’t divide them. Quite the contrary; the deeply religious Emma was Charles’ most frequent and helpful editor, and much like Heiligman and Weiner, the Darwin’s marital dialect expanded their partners’ perspective rather than assaulting it. Drawn from first person diaries, family letters and Darwin’s published notebooks, “Charles and Emma” opens shortly after Charles Darwin arrived home from his famous voyage as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, where he collected the data that would later form the basis for his controversial work. As a young man from a prominent 19th century London family, Charles was expected to marry and start a family. However, he felt conflicted. So, ever the researcher, he drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper, on the left side her wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question. The pros ultimately outweighed the cons, and Charles found a soul mate and spouse in his cousin Emma. “Charles and Emma,” (a rousing romantic narrative aimed at young adults but enjoyed immensely by this 40-something reader) provides an intimate glimpse into the Darwin’s marriage and a life different from the stereotypical reserved Victorian household. Charles Darwin was, for the times, a radically involved father playing with, and even bathing his children. He worked right in the middle of their home – Down House – with his children running in and out of his study all day and he frequently involved them in his experiments. He also routinely discussed his work with Emma, whose opinion was of utmost importance to him. His love and respect for his intelligent and deeply devout wife caused Charles to rethink how the world might receive his ideas, prompting him to document his theory of natural selection for decades before publishing it. Heiligman ( says she wrote “Charles and Emma” to demonstrate that “people who have differing opinions can live together and love each other, and keep talking about it.” Science and religion, it was a happily ever after for the Darwins; perhaps the rest of us can make the marriage work as well.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a syndicated columnist, author, keynote speaker and business consultant who specializes in helping individuals and organizations create happiness and success. Her latest book is Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear – For more info – <>

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