Why did they bury Darwin in Westminster Abbey?

| October 6, 2006 | 84 Replies

In September, 2005, I traveled to London to attend a conference.  While in London, I visited Westminster Abbey


It is hard to imagine a place more rich in history–there was so much to see.  But I made sure that I took the time to visit the burial site of Charles Darwin.  In comparison with many of the other tombs in the abbey, Darwin’s tomb is simple.  I risked the “no photography” rule of the Abbey to take a (non-flash) photo:

                      Darwin buried.JPG

While walking and meditating at Westminster Abby, I wondered how it came to pass that Darwin was buried there.  Lo and behold, the January/February 2006 edition of Skeptical Inquirer contains an article directly on point: “Why Did They Bury Darwin in Westminster Abbey.” (The article is not available online, but you can see a brief description of it here)

The author of the article, R.G.Weyant, starts out as follows:

Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, April 20 6, 1882, a most improbable event occurred. In a ceremony attended by hundreds of individuals, including members of Parliament, ambassadors from the diplomatic corps, scientific notables, Church of England divines, the Lord Mayor of London, and other assorted dignitaries . . . the earthly remains of Charles Robert Darwin were interred in Westminster Abbey, close to those of such other great English scientists as Sir Isaac Newton.

Some of the information from this article came from a 2002 Darwin biography (Charles Darwin: the Power of Place) written by Janet Browne.  She wrote that “Dying was the most political thing Darwin could’ve done.  As Huxley and others were aware, to bury him in Westminster Abbey would celebrate both the man and the naturalistic, law governed science that he, and each member of the Darwinian circle, had striven, in his way, to establish.”

It turns out that the plan to bury Darwin in the Abbey was engineered by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton and Darwin’s friend, Thomas Huxley.  Through their efforts, a petition persuading church officials to approve the event was signed by various parliamentarians.  “For many people, the ceremony in the abbey signaled not only Darwin’s importance to English society but also a kind of reconciliation between science and religion.”  In fact, within a decade after the 1859 publication of origin of species, “most educated Englishman, including many of the clergy, had accepted the fact of evolution.  More than a few were uneasy about where the evidence and the reason were taking them, but they went nonetheless.”

As elaborated in the Skeptical Inquirer article, by the time Darwin died, most Englishmen considered evolution to be more than a theory because the evidence in favor of evolution was “simply overwhelming.” At the time Darwin died, his ideas had “become the ideas of his time and culture, and it was convenient for both church and state to recognize that fact.” In fact, by the time Darwin died, evolution had become a source of English national pride.

Times have changed, of course.  If Darwin died in the United States today, our government, prodded by fundamentalist churches, would arrange to have his remains unceremoniously thrown in a dumpster somewhere off the beaten path, along with all of those inconvenient fossils documenting the fact that species change over time.


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Category: American Culture, Evolution, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. What Darwin did not know, but you do. | Dangerous Intersection | February 12, 2009
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl indicates once again that he has not spent any significant time at a university:

    "We are not in a university science class, where the prof gets to issue theory and ideology as dogma. Nor where the majority of highly educated respectable scientists only believe such and such."

    The whole point of a university education is to challenge young minds, not to indoctrinate them. When a professor states something as dogma, the correct response is to refute (or possibly support) her position using outside sources and/or direct experimentation. "See for yourself" is the battle cry, not "take my word for it". And I've been to science conferences. They don't all agree, even within one institution.

    If Karl had read much actual science at all, he'd notice that all of it uses a "preponderance of words like, theory, infer, perhaps, might be, could be, hopefully, maybe, the chances, could conclude, belief, some doubt, little doubt, logic, reasoning, affirm, and support." It is the modern popularizations of science where those words are more rare. The distinction was fuzzier 150 years ago when Darwin was persuaded to publish publicly, rather than just to his peers.

    Dawkins resorted to the "extraterrestrial hypothesis" not because he has any doubts about evolution, but in answer to "did life necessarily originate on the Earth?" Whether it started, crossing space from another planet, extrasolar clouds, undersea, or from moistened crystals, it still evolved.

    btw: E=MC<sup>2</sup> "bridges the gap" from material to non-material, from fermions to bosons, from object to field. And it was just a conclusion drawn by applying the principle of relative motion to mid-19th century field theory. Read it aloud: Energy is Matter (modified by a constant conversion factor).

    And the biggest barrier between life and non-life is that we don't have a universal definition of the distinction. Draw the line, and then watch as something is observed to cross it. Same goes for "species".

    And, Karl, I for one appreciate your attempt to bring the thread back to topic. I agree with your concluding several 'graphs.

  2. A closer to home example of parallel but distinct evolution is Australia. Those who know what I'm talking about, know what I'm talking about. Those who don't ought to look it up.

  3. allan says:

    What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but lose his own souL?

  4. LouGanzo says:

    What a typical atheist childish remark to say remains would thrown by evangelicals in a dumpster along with the fossils. Grow up. You people are such a parody of yourselves sometimes.

  5. Ben says:

    S. MacLaren says:
    December 20, 2008 at 11:16 am
    Erich, You say that the US government “prodded by fundamentalist churches, would arrange to have his remains .. thrown in a dumpster somewhere … along with all of those inconvenient fossils documenting the fact that species change over time.” – Well that’s food for thought, perhaps!

    But I would be most interested to know what fossils you think exibit clearly that species change over time. I am not aware of any -if we ensure we stick to the evidence (or lack of it) for any inter-species links. All ‘missing’ links that have popped up from time to time have, sadly, shown no really convincing evidence of the necessary transitional stages that would have to accompany a ‘type change’ of the animal or plant. The fossil evidence alone has never yet show these to have been present. All phyla and genera appear abruptly, and have not been shown to be trasitional with others. For instance, there are truly no convincing animal fossil groups that undisputibly fit the postulated amphibian ancestors of land dwelling animals. Sadly for some we just cannot make that link. Some might say ‘yet’. But there have been millions of fossil finds.

    Archeoraptor was faked, Archeopterix although promising, was lacking evidence that it was anything other than a bird ancestor and not transitional from lizards or dinosaur like creatures. And the contenders for the marine to land animal ancestor have been interesting, but are still clearly specialized forms and quite distictly not land dwelling. Huge conjecture was nevertheless the result.

    Coming to the origin of birds: The bird lung is so utterly different from anything that lizards have or dinosaurs are thought to have had, that it is impossible to see how such a dramatic change in design for the lung could have coome about slowly. It is so different that many have rejected possible links. That has not I admit stopped the majority accepting it.

    Indeed, as an ex biologist I was fascinated by the subject, and tried to find out what exactly we do know about transitional relationships. I was amazed to find that the late Dr Colin Patterson, the British Museum’s senior paleontologist, believed that he had never seem any that he could be sure about. A staggering admission which he made reference to many times both in his book and in public. He appears to have been publically ‘happy’ to share his disillusionment with the absent facts, much to the horror of other believers in the evolutionary model for orgins.

    Together with Stephen J. Gould of Harvard’s admission that transitional forms were rather rare (in fact, disputably absent, as paleontologists cannot agree on what is or is not), the lack of evidence for these desired forms means that the tree of life drawings are, scientically speaking at best simply ideas, postulates, and at worst meaningless. This has created a real feeding frenzy for evidence, whenever any is found, that i believe had resulted in bad science even in respected journals like Nature and New Scientist.

    The evidence for the great age of some fossils is also hard to find. Many fragments still have carbon14 signatures, which absolutely removes them far from their supposed age ranges. Recent evidence of blood vessels surviving in the leg bones of T.Rex (Shweitzer) have clearly shown that proteins in the bone could be shown to be still elastic after extraction and testing. Could these proteins things still be 65 million years old? Many of us feel not.

    I hope that you will reconsider your view when you have examined the fossil evidence. The fossils are a marvellous record, and truly fasinating, but they are are record, in the view of an increasing scientific minority, of one or more water borne catastrphopes that took place on our planet. You just cannot get a whole soft bodied animal to stay in one piece, unless you bury and kil it it suddenly.

    Many thanks for the opportunity of posting these comments.

    S.MacLaren Bsc (Hons)

    Erich Vieth says:
    December 20, 2008 at 3:35 pm
    S. MacLaren: Despite your display of alleged credentials, you would not be able to pass an undergraduate biology class. Don’t waste any more of your words here–go try to tell it to the 99.9% of professional biologists who disagree with you. I’m not at all surprised that you are an “ex-biologist.” nor am I surprised that you haven’t supplied a single link for any of the rubbish you’ve promulgated. There is no evidence that any of the fossils you mentioned were faked. Further, the fact of natural selection doesn’t depend on the fossils. There is a host of corroborating evidence, making fossils icing on the cake (despite what you’ve claimed, there are numerous transitional fossils). Truly, go read a credible book on evolution. Try doing your reading on Sunday mornings instead of spending any further time in that fundamentalist church you must be attending.

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