Biology Magazine

Darwin on Religion

By Cris

In keeping with my back to (foundational) basics reading programme, I have naturally been digging around Darwin’s writing on religion. While doing so I came across “David Hume and Charles Darwin” (1972), an article in which William Huntley suggests that Hume had a significant influence on Darwin. Given Darwin’s impressive reading habits, it is not surprising to learn that he read Hume and took him seriously. But the case for significant or direct influence is less than compelling. In fact it’s fairly speculative and tangential, amounting to something like “Hume was in the Victorian intellectual air” and influenced just about everyone (including the polymath biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who wrote a book simply titled Hume).

There is, however, this tantalizing note recorded by Darwin in his 1839 notebook (Darwin MS 126, Notebook “N” at 101):

Hume has section (ix) on the Reason of Animals. Essays vol 2-Sect XV Dialogues on Natural Religion also on origin of religion or polytheism. At p. 424 or II, however, he seems to allow it as an instinct….Hume has written “Natural Hist. of Religion” and its origin in the Human mind.

I have emphasized this last part because it suggests that Darwin was impressed by Hume’s “intellectualist” approach to religion. This particular excerpt, however, is from an 1839 notebook that Darwin never published. We should be wary about reading too much into it or thinking that it represents Darwin’s position.

It was surprising, therefore, to read Matthew Day’s (2008) construction of Darwin’s position on religion in “Godless Savages and Superstitious Dogs: Charles Darwin, Imperial Ethnography, and the Problem of Human Uniqueness.” Day contends that “[r]ather than treating religious devotion as the result of a single impulse or instinct, Darwin viewed it as the by-product of three separate psychological faculties acting in concert.” Day then describes these faculties:

  • “The first cognitive requirement was a basic concept of causality.”
  • “The second key psychological component was a capacity for reason, which Darwin treated as a natural and gradual elaboration of any organism’s primitive ability to choose between two or more options.”
  • “The third and final element needed for religion was a certain measure of innate or acquired curiosity about the world.”

I was immediately suspicious of this characterization. Why? Because it reads too much like some recent evolutionary theorizing on religion which treats it as a by-product of various mental faculties or “modules.”

Did Darwin really say things? All of Day’s supporting citations are to Darwin’s notebooks, including the “N” notebook from 1839. Significantly, Day doesn’t cite to anything that Darwin himself chose to publish on the subject. Relying on unpublished notes to construct Darwin’s position on religion is a perilous and fraught business. It makes Darwin into either an “intellectualist” in the tradition of Hume-Tylor-Frazer, or into an evolutionary psychologist in a more recent tradition.

It is true that Darwin was reflecting on religion, and taking notes, between the late 1830s and 1860s. But he did not publish anything on the subject until 1871. In that year, he broached religion in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. What he has to say there bears only a passing resemblance to Day’s reductive contention that Darwin viewed religion “as the by-product of three separate psychological faculties acting in concert.”

Religion was not, for Darwin, simply the byproduct of various psychological faculties acting in associational concert. While he may have thought this, he didn’t say or publish anything along these precise cognitive lines. Religion for Darwin may have been a mental byproduct but it was also more. In The Descent of Man, Darwin clearly emphasizes the emotional and social-functional aspects of religion and suggests it may have (at least partially) evolved through group level selection. I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post, after I finish my review of everything that Darwin had to say about religion in his published works.

Darwin on Religion


Huntley, William. (1972). David Hume and Charles Darwin. Journal of the History of Ideas, 33 (3), 457-470 DOI: 10.2307/2709046

Day, Matthew. (2008). Godless Savages and Superstitious Dogs: Charles Darwin, Imperial Ethnography, and the Problem of Human Uniqueness. Journal of the History of Ideas, 69 (1), 49-70 DOI: 10.1353/jhi.2008.0006

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