Lost Record

New literary discoveries shed new light on the religious views of a famed scientist.

What if one of the world’s most outspoken skeptics of religion turned out to have written an empic poem about friendship and faith? Here’s the story.

Late in life, Charles Darwin befriended a young scientist named George Romanes—an expert on the nervous system of jellyfish. Influenced in part by Darwin’s writing, Romanes became an outspoken skeptic of religion. But a long-lost manuscript by him, now at SCU, may undo a century of thinking about faith, science, and Darwin’s place in that conversation.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of J. David Pleins in In Praise of Darwin: George Romanes and the Evolution of a Darwinian Believer (Bloomsbury). Pleins is a professor of religious studies, and shaping this book involved a bit of detective work: locating with a London bookseller a manuscript by Romanes, shared with just a few friends in his lifetime, that had disappeared a century ago. Call it a long-lost part of the fossil record.

The manuscript of Memorial Poem (127 poems in 31 sections) shows a thinker grappling with the tension between religious yearnings and scientific endeavors. Its subject: Charles Darwin, a mentor, friend, and hero to Romanes, who was devastated by Darwin’s death in 1882. Romanes sought solace in poetry, grappling with what it meant to bury the man, the joy of their friendship, and the problem of evil. Why is the rediscovery of the manuscript significant? In part, because it shows corrections in Romanes’ own hand, revealing the evolution and revision of his ideas. Pleins argues that the discovery upsets the apple cart for scholars who have long assumed that Romanes remained a lifelong religious skeptic, only reacquiring a (superficial) interest in religion years later, on his own deathbed. Instead, he says, this shows how the “most skeptical of Darwinians moved away from complete skepticism back to theism.”

Pleins and SCU had help in acquiring the manuscript for the library’s Special Collections; that was made possible thanks to a generous donor. Religious studies major Katherine Girlich ’15 collaborated as research assistant, and her work included deciphering holes in erased sections of the manuscript. The acquisition of the manuscript also proved the catalyst for a University symposium on science and religion.

post-image Portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron/ADDC Photos/Art Resource, NY
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