I should, perhaps, begin by declaring an interest: I am extremely interested in Charles Darwin. Indeed, I have on many occasions unashamedly declared myself to be ‘a Darwin groupie’. There is no item of Darwinian trivia that does not fascinate me. Did you know that Darwin twisted his ankle coming down from Ilkley Moor in 1859? I do. And, if I didn’t, I would want to know, because it is a fact about Charles Darwin, so, ipso facto, it is extremely interesting.
While I’m at it, I should also, perhaps, declare a second interest: I am an atheist. I first realised that I was an atheist in my early teens, long before I became a Darwin groupie. But I do not see atheism—nor, at a push, agnosticism—as a prerequisite for accepting Darwin’s great idea of evolution by means of Natural Selection. A large number of theists happily accept the fact of biological evolution. I happen to think that people who believe in deities are tragically wrong, but, if they also accept evolution, it shows that they are capable of getting at least some things right.
So, were it to transpire that Charles Darwin happened to believe in one or more deities, I would be surprised, but I would accept it as a fact—and an extremely interesting fact at that (because, as we have already established, all facts about Charles Darwin are extremely interesting). Charles Darwin was wrong about many things: why should believing in one or more deities not be added to the list? It's not as if his being a person of religious persuasion would in any way invalidate his theory of evolution.
Which brings me to this wearisome book. Dr L.R. Croft has set out to show that the long-discredited tale of Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Christianity, as fabricated by one Lady Hope, who claimed to be there, ‘was indeed true’. Far from being the untold story of the book’s subtitle, Lady Hope’s tale has been done to death. Even the creationist website Answers In Genesis advises its followers that the story is unsupportable. But still Lady Hope's lies live on.
‘I am not an advocate of conspiracy theories,’ states Croft in the second sentence of his Preface. By the middle of the next paragraph, however, he is complaining that he has not been taken seriously by the leading scientific journal Nature, and that ‘I believed I had embarked on a search for truth, but in reality I had opened up a can of worms and unleashed the forces of historical distortion’. No conspiracy there, then.
In reality, this entire book is one huge conspiracy theory: poor old Lady Hope was the innocent victim of a ‘character assassination’, who was ‘hounded out of the country by the Darwin family, and their supporters, for giving her account of Darwin’s return to the Christian faith’. And why might the Darwin family want to do that? Well, obviously, because they were ‘intent on promoting their sanctified image of Darwin as a good and noble unbeliever’. And why might the Darwin family want to do that? Croft does not say.
As with many other conspiracy theorists, Croft seems perfectly genuine in his belief. But, like them, his overwhelming desire to believe in the conspiracy is blatant: ‘I cannot believe that the woman who was admired for her integrity by Lord Shaftesbury, and praised by Florence Nightingale for her generous humanitarianism, could be thought of as inventing a story about Darwin to satisfy her own vanity,’ he states. To which, the obvious response is, Really? Can’t you? Croft claims that ‘there is no reason to disbelieve her account of their discussion’. I think I can think of one or two reasons. Croft believes that ‘Lady Hope’s stories [are] perfectly truthful, as one would expect of an evangelical Christian’. Evidently, his research for this book did not encompass the extensive list of scandals involving evangelical Christians published on Wikipedia.
Unlike me, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope, Croft seems to think that accepting evolution as a fact is incompatible with a belief in the Christian deity. For example, he attributes the relatively low level of support for Darwinian theory in 1915 to the supposed fact that ‘[i]n wartime, people are more, not less religious, so Darwinism had not yet been absorbed, to any great extent, by the British population’. Darwinism’s failure to catch on had nothing to do with the mechanism for Darwinian inheritance not being understood at that time, then.
As you will have gathered by now, I don’t think that Croft’s ‘hope [that] I have looked at the evidence objectively and so reached the historical truth’ is particularly well-founded. So, what is his evidence? To be honest, it is hard to follow, as the book rambles somewhat. But Croft does attempt to summarise ‘Six Good Reasons’ for believing Lady Hope. These are as follows:
1. I believe she was a woman of absolute integrity
Croft argues that, because some of the other evangelical stories Lady Hope told are, in all likelihood, true, there is no reason to believe that her tale of Darwin’s deathbed conversion is not also true. This makes about as much sense as claiming that Dr Harold Shipman treated the majority of his patients in an exemplary manner, so there is no reason to believe that he murdered over 250 of them.
2. The denial of the Darwin family is unreliable
Amongst other things, Croft argues that Lady Hope would have been known to the Darwins by her maiden name, Miss Cotton; so it is unsurprising that they denied that a ‘Lady Hope’ ever visited Down House, as they did not know her by that name. This is an ingenious example of special pleading: Lady Hope had married Admiral Sir James Hope four years before her supposed visit to Darwin's deathbed, and had been widowed just four months before then. It is strange that nobody thought to mention her marriage, nor enquire as to the reason for the mourning clothes that she was presumably still wearing at the time of her alleged visit.
3. There is a ‘ring of truth’ about Lady Hope’s story
I would beg to differ. Anyone, like me, who reckons to know Darwin at all well would say that Lady Hope’s story has a distinct whiff of bullshit about it (of which, more later). Croft bases his surprising ring of truth claim on a number of considerations, for example:
- that Lady Hope accurately described the view of woods and cornfields from Darwin’s bedroom
Croft does not, at this point, remind us that he has elsewhere in the book claimed that Lady Hope was in the habit of visiting the Fegan family in Downe, so it would hardly have been surprising had she known that there were woods and cornfields near the village (as, indeed, there would have been in many villages in Kent: the self-styled Garden of England). Nor does Croft point out that 8th November, 1881—the date on which, he claims to have deduced, Lady Hope first visited Darwin (and a date on which, conveniently for his thesis, the rest of the Darwin family were not at home)—would have been a couple of months after harvest time, so cornfields would not have been much in evidence;
- that Lady Hope’s claim that Darwin wore a ‘rich purple’ dressing gown, when his dressing gown was actually reddish-brown, can be explained by allowing that the dressing gown ‘might have appeared purple in the autumn dusk’
No, he really does say that! Obvious nonsense: sunsets are red; red light on a reddish-brown dressing gown is going to make it look, well, slightly more reddish-brown;
- that the distance from Darwin’s bedroom window to the summer-house at the far end of the Sandwalk is such that the singing of hymns in the summer-house would have been audible through the open window
If the singers yelled, and the wind was in the right direction, maybe. Darwin would have known that the summer-house was too far away for him to be able to appreciate such singing from his bedroom, so it is unlikely that, as according to her tale, he would have suggested such a possibility to Lady Hope.
4. She stuck to her story for the rest of her life
So did Dr Harold Shipman.
5. There is independent support for her story
For example, Croft states that ‘Francis Darwin [Charles Darwin’s son] has written that Darwin was reticent in discussing religion with his family’ and, Croft goes on to suggest, ‘it may be that he could reveal his innermost thoughts more easily with a total stranger’. I promise you, I am not making these quotes up! The reason why Darwin was indeed reticent about discussing religion with his family was that his agnosticism was deeply upsetting to his devout wife. Had he suddenly decided to embrace ‘Christ Jesus’, his wife would surely have been the first to know!
6. Darwin’s conversion is not surprising
Because, Croft points out, there are many examples of agnostics and atheists seeing the light: ‘Why should Darwin have been any different?’ Answer: But it is surprising when agnostics and atheists ‘return to the fold’. Why else would Croft be flogging the dead horse that is Lady Hope's tale of Darwin's deathbed conversion after all these years?
How does Croft arrive at 8th November, 1881 as the date of Lady Hope's first visit to Darwin's bedroom? (He states that other visits were to follow.) He bases the date on a note in Emma Darwin's diary, which records a visit to Mrs Fegan the previous day. Croft argues: ‘Mrs. Fegan, was the mother of James Fegan [an acquaintance of Lady Hope], and it is possible that Lady Hope was staying with her at the time of Emma Darwin's visit, so it is likely she received an invitation to visit Charles Darwin at that time, or possibly sometime shortly afterwards from Darwin himself’. Note how Croft bases what he claims is a likelihood on a mere suggested possibility—there is a lot of that sort of thing in this book. He then hones in on a specific date for the supposed visit by referring to weather reports from The Times newspaper, reasoning: ‘This weather being 'very mild and quiet' in the second week of November, would concur with Lady Hope's description, furthermore the glorious sunset she recalled would be more likely at the time of her visits (3 to 4p.m.) than a month or so earlier’. Note how Croft is deducing his date for Lady Hope's claimed visit by matching the weather reports to her story, rather than deducing a date from her story (which would seem to imply a date ‘a month or so earlier’), then comparing the weather reports for that period with the one given in her story. I must have missed the bit where he explains how we know that she visited Darwin between 3 and 4p.m.
And that, pretty much, is about it: that is why we should believe Lady Hope.
Although Croft ‘cannot believe’ that Lady Hope was telling porkies, he skirts the question of why the Darwin family would have denied her story so emphatically. On the one hand, as we have seen, he suggests that they were ‘intent on promoting their sanctified image of Darwin as a good and noble unbeliever’; on the other hand, as we have also seen, he suggests that they had not realised that ‘Lady Hope’ was actually the woman they knew as ‘Miss Cotton’ (whom, presumably, they would happily have accepted did indeed visit Darwin on his deathbed). So which is it to be? Were the Darwins lying, or were they mistaken? And, if they were lying, why would they lie? Darwin’s wife, Emma, would have been utterly delighted, had her husband embraced Christianity before he died. It is inconceivable that he would not have told her, and that she would not have told their children. So why would they later deny his conversion?
Then there is the absence of documentary evidence in Darwin's own hand. It is unlikely that Darwin, that most inveterate of note-makers, would not have committed his new-found theistic inclinations to paper somewhere. Darwin’s way of thinking things through was to write them down. He famously brainstormed the pros and cons of getting married. His evolutionary notebooks and letters are full of his latest thinking. So, where are his brainstormed notes on his acceptance of ‘Christ Jesus’? Perhaps his family destroyed them in order to promote their sanctified image of Darwin as a good and noble unbeliever.
And then there is the preposterous suggestion that Charles Darwin would have allowed ‘a total stranger’—and a female total stranger at that—to visit him in his bedroom, ill or otherwise. That is certainly not the reclusive Charles Darwin that most of us Darwin groupies would recognise!
I began this review by declaring my interests and biases. I think that's the honest thing to do. Croft gives his impressive credentials as ‘a noted academic with an international reputation’ (he was apparently the first person to determine the molecular structure of the lens protein, and some of his other research ‘led to the elucidation of the structures of several new antibiotics’). He also lists a number of his previous books, including, I was intrigued to see, several on apiculture. One of the books he lists is entitled How Life Began, but Croft fails to mention its subtitle: Convincing Evidence of Special Creationism; nor does he mention the book's publisher, the Evangelical Press.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I suspect that Dr Croft might be a creationist. If so, perhaps he should have declared this potential cause for bias up front: creationists, like Lady Hope, have a reputation for publishing unreliable stories about Charles Darwin. The fact that Croft does not declare such an apparent obvious interest makes me doubt his professed hope to have ‘looked at the evidence objectively’.
When Dr Croft originally contacted me with the offer of a review copy of his book, I warned him that I did not expect to be convinced by his thesis. Having now read the book, I can confirm that my sceptical expectations were well and truly met.
I think that might be described as a triumph of expectation over Lady Hope.
This article originally appeared on my Friends of Charles Darwin website on 2nd October, 2012.