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Darwin's Illness

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Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin's work set off a firestorm of controversy and Darwin closely watched the public's response to his ideas while his allies Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker advocated his ideas within the scientific community.

The Voyage and Sickness

Darwin while upon the HMS Beagle read a book on geology by Charles Lyell which advocated a uniformitarian geology of long ages. This was likely the period when his thinking started to change. Darwin's belief in the Bible drifted away slowly and then eventually died according to Darwin biographer James Moore (Darwin eventually publicly stated he was a agnostic). Darwin's faith was nowhere to be tangible by the time of his beloved daughter Anne's death in 1851. Darwin wrote at the time, "Our only consolation is that she passed a short, though joyous life."

In 1859, Darwin wrote that he was a "strong" believer in the "general truth" of his evolutionary ideas in a letter to Charles Lyell. Yet even then Darwin may have had some emotional doubts as will be documented subsequently. For a combination of reasons including knowing the likely opposition he would face, Darwin was likely in emotional turmoil around the time he published his Origin of the Species in 1859. Darwin biographers Desmond and Moore wrote,

Charles finished the proofs amid fits of vomiting. During that whole time he had rarely been able to write free of stomach pains for more than twenty minutes at a stretch. The next day, in torrential rain, he took himself off to Ilkley... bracing himself against the elements, Darwin felt a cold shudder surge through him once more. The howling wind was as nothing to the storm of self-doubt, his nagging, gnawing fear that I have devoted my life to a fantasy' and a dangerous one...' God knows what the public will think. (Desmond & Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, p.476-477)

Desmond and Moore are referring to this 1859 letter to Asa Gray,

For myself, also, I rejoice profoundly; for, thinking of so many cases of men pursuing an illusion for years, often and often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to a fantasy. Now I look at it as morally impossible that investigators of truth, like you and Hooker, can be wholly wrong, and therefore I rest in peace.


According to the article "The Illness of Charles Darwin" by William B. Bean in the September 1978 publication of the American Journal of Medicine rarely did a day go by where Darwin did not have in "many degrees of severity and many combinations" the following medical symptoms: nausea, severe vomiting, flatulence, alimentary canal pain, various forms of eruption of the skin, and nervous exhaustion.

Dr. Bean also noted the following symptoms obtained from a Darwin letter: "My nervous system began to be so affected so that my hands trembled and my head was often swimming."

Dr. Bean quotes from another Darwin letter the following symptoms: "involuntary twitching of the muscle...fainting feeling - black spots before the eyes."

Dr. Bean wrote in his article that Darwin suffered from "psychoneurosis provoked and exaggerated by his evolutionary ideas". Dr. Bean also wrote that his Darwin's wife, Emma, greatly disapproved of his evolutionist ideas and, "This, facsimile of public reaction, must have kept lively his anxiety and torment."

Lastly, some have claimed that Darwin got Chagas disease in South America. Dr. Bean dismisses the diagnosis of Chagas disease for Darwin's illness which has been attributed for Darwin's illness and due to the following reasons: no other member of the Beagle crew had symptoms of Chagas disease, "infection with T cruzi occurs not from a bite but contamination of a bite with excreta" and Darwin had "numerous partial exacerbations and remissions that would be unusual in the case of Chagas disease".

Psychic causation

The Royal Society is the independent scientific academy of the UK. It should be noted that in the abstract for the January 1997 article, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, D. A. B. Young, "Darwin's illness and systemic lupus erythematosus" (for the full article see: Notes Rec R Soc Lond. 1997 Jan;51(1):77-86) it states that today the psychogenic view of Darwin's sickness "holds the field" . Also, the abstract stated that D. A. B. Young noted subsequent to AW Woodruff's work showing that Darwin did not likely have chagas disease, the chagas view finds little support. Even the leading proponent of Chagas disease, Dr. Saul Adler, stated that Darwin may have suffered both from chagas disease and from "an innate or acquired neurosis" (see subsequent discussion of Chagas disease).

In the article "Charles Darwin and Panic Disorder" by Thomas J. Barloon, MD and Russel Noyes, Jr. MD published in the January 8, 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association the following maladies of Darwin which by in large were not mentioned above were given and they occurred as sudden and discrete attacks: "palpitations, shortness of breathe ("air fatigues" ), lightheadedness ("head swimming" ), trembling, crying, dying sensations, abdominal distress, and depersonalization ("treading on air and vision")". These attacks were many and Darwin in a letter wrote that "Constant attacks....makes life and intolerable bother and stops all work". Dr. Barloon and Dr. Noye conclude that Darwin's medical symptoms point to panic disorder and agoraphobia. One of the reasons given for a psychiatric diagnosis was that "variable intensity of symptoms and chronic, prolonged course without physical deterioration also indicate that his illness was psychiatric."

However, Ralph Colp Jr. MD, a physcian and psychiatrist, a who studied the matter Darwin's sickness for 18 years and authored the book "To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin" and is definitely one of leading experts of Darwin's sickness, if not the leading expert, due to his medical and psychological training and exhaustive research doesn't believe in the above diagnosis of agoraphobia (Dr. Bean cited above describes Dr. Colp's book in the following manner, "His painstaking work in seeking out every possible source comes close to yielding the complete biography of an invalid's illness") .

In a letter to the editor published in the April 23/30 1997 edition of JAMA entitled Ralph Colp Jr. MD, noted that "It has been observed that when Darwin "was a member of the Council of the Royal Society in 1855-1856, he attended meetings on 16 occasions," and that he away from home about 2000 days" between 1842 and his death in 1882." Dr. Colp stated that the above behavior shows that Darwin was merely balancing work and leisure and the diagnosis of agoraphobia does not fit diagnosis of agoraphobia for Darwin.

Dr. Colp also noted that "it is possible" that Darwin gastrointestinal symptoms were caused contracting Chagas disease. Dr. Colp states regarding the possible Chagas disease, "The disorder was first active and then became inactive, permanently injuring the parasympathetic nerves of his stomach and making it more sensitive to sympathetic stimulation and hence more sensitive to the "psychosomatic impact of his anxieties." An organic impairment best explains the lifelong chronicity of many of his abdominal complaints"

Dr. Colp concludes his letter by saying, "In summary, I believe that Darwin's illness consisted of panic disorder (without agoraphobia), psychosomatic skin disorder, and possibly Chagas disease of the stomach."

It should be noted earlier Dr. Colp noted that Darwin had facial eczema that often was caused by controversies over his evolutionist ideas. Dr. Colp also wrote that as far as he can determine "skin afflictions are not among the many somatic complaints that comprise panic disorder."

Dr. A. W. Woodruff, a British expert on tropical tropical diseases dismissed the chagas hypothesis for Darwin's illness.

I cite the following paper from Carolyn Douglas at Purdue University entitled "Changing Theories of Darwin's Illness":

Dr. A. W. Woodruff, a British expert on tropical diseases, questioned Adler's diagnosis. He pointed out that many of Darwin's symptoms (heart palpitations, undue fatigue, and trembling fingers) appeared before Darwin sailed on the Beagle, and that when they recurred after his return, they were associated not with physical strain (as would have been expected with Chagas disease) but with "mental stress." He also pointed out that no other member of the Beagle crew suffered from Chagas's symptoms, and he questioned the accuracy of Professor Adler's statistics about the high rate of infection with Chagas disease in the province of Mendoza, where Darwin was attacked by the "black bug" (745- 50). Woodruff's diagnosis of Darwin's illness was "an anxiety state with obsessive features and psychosomatic manifestations" (749). After reading Woodruff's article, Professor Adler continued to believe in the theory of Chaga disease, but he pointed out the possibility that Darwin suffered both from it and from "an innate or acquired neurosis" (Journal 1250). The "black bug" theory therefore lies in limbo, and even its chief proponent did not argue that it excluded psychological causation of some of Darwin's symptoms."

Panic disorder and agoraphobia

According to Barloon and Noyes as a young man, Darwin had "episodes of abdominal distress, especially in stressful situations". In addition, Barloon and Noyes stated that like many people with panic disorder, he had a "premorbid vulnerability" which in his youth was referred to as "sensitivity to stress of criticism in his youth." According to the American Psychology Association, panic disorder usually appears in the teens or in early adulthood and there does seem to be association with potentially stressful life transitions. It should be also noted that panic disorder has been noticed in clinical setting that the histories of panic disorder patients often include some type of separation from a person who is emotionally important to them. This may be significant as Darwin's mother died at the age of eight and he then boarded at Shrewsbury Grammar School. On the other hand, it has been said that Darwin had a happy childhood overall and was encouraged by his siblings. Bowlby noted that separation anxiety may help cause the development panic disorder in adulthood. Psychoanalyst Dr. Rankine Good and Edward J. Rempf described Darwin's father as tyrannical and it will be subsequently discussed as to why this description of Darwin's father was given. This may be important because Bowlby suggested, due to clinical observation, that agoraphobic patients frequently describe parents as dominant, controlling, critical, frightening, rejecting, or overprotective (However, not every element of his observations were subsequently confirmed in studies). Several authors found that parents of agoraphobic and panic patients often provided less emotional warmth and tend to be more rejecting.

Also, in regards to the cause of panic disorder it is currently thought to be psycho-biological in origin. For example, historically panic disorder was often triggered in war time. It is well known that Darwin was not the aggressive/assertive type and that Huxley was "Darwin's bulldog". This may related to a study by Chambless and Mason saying that regardless of gender, the less masculine in trait a person afflicted with panic disorder is, the more likely they are to use avoidance (social withdrawal) as a coping mechanism . Individuals who have a more masculine traits often turn to external coping strategies (for example, alcohol). Dr. Bean wrote that while Darwin had great confidence, at the same time he was: neurotic, became nervous when his routine was altered, and was upset by a holiday, trip, or unexpected visitor. Barloon and Noyes cite Darwin remarking "we [Darwin and his Emma] have up all parties, for they agree with neither of us".

It is important to note that one of the reasons given by authors Barloon and Noye for their diagnosis panic disorder and agoraphobia was that "variable intensity of symptoms and chronic, prolonged course without physical deterioration also indicate that his illness was psychiatric." However, Ralph Colp Jr., an American physician and psychiatrist, who studied the matter of Darwin's sickness for 18 years and authored the book To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin doesn't believe in a diagnosis of agoraphobia, because, despite that fact that Darwin loathed meetings, when Darwin was a member of the Council of the Royal Society from 1855-1856, he dutifully attended meetings on 16 occasions, and was away from home about 2,000 days between 1842 and his death in 1882. At the same time, Barloon and Noyes state that only infrequently did Darwin leave home and usually accompanied by his wife. Barloon and Noyes then cite a letter declining a invitation and Darwin saying "I have long found it impossible to visit anywhere; the novelty and excitement would annihilate me". Perhaps, the best solution to Colp and Barloon and Noyes differing analysis is that Darwin merely became less socially active. However, perhaps Darwin's possible social withdrawal was due to his sickness being physically debilitating.

Psychoanalysis diagnosis

Psychoanalyst Edward J. Rempf believed that Darwin's "complete submission" to a tyrannical father prevented Darwin from expressing anger towards his father and then subsequently toward others. Also, Dr. Rempf believed that Darwin's illness was "an expression of repressed anger towards his father".

Darwin wrote in his autobiography regarding his father: "... [he] was a little unjust to me when I was young, but afterwards I am thankful to think that I became a prime favourite with him."

An example of one of Darwin's fathers more strict comments to Darwin was: "... you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family!"

Andrew J. Bradbury in his work on Darwin quotes J. Huxley and H.B.D. Kettlew as saying the following: "The predisposing cause of any psychoneurosis which Charles Darwin displayed seems to have been the conflict and emotional tension springing from his ambivalent relations with his father ... whom he both revered and subconsciously resented."

Bradbury also cites John Chancellor analysis of Darwin:

"... [Darwin's] obsessive desire to work and achieve something was prompted by hatred and resentment of his father, who had called him an idler and good-for-nothing during his youth."

Overall, perhaps Darwin's relationship to his father wasn't horrendous as can be seen in Darwin's own words because he did become a prime favorite with him and it was fairly common for Victorian fathers to be more authoritarian. Also, while Darwin's father may have had some harsh things to say about Darwin perhaps this was more than balanced out by constructive things Darwin's father did and said for him which is common in many father and son relationships and this helps explains why Darwin is said to revere his father. And as noted earlier Darwin is said to have had a happy childhood so his father obviously did a few things right. Also, the tendency in medicine and psychology to "blame things on your father/mother" is certainly controversial and there is certainly nothing wrong with honoring your father and mother.

English psychiatrist Dr Rankine Good believed Darwin's health symptoms with feelings of resentment towards a tyrannical father and stated, "Thus, if Darwin did not slay his father in the flesh, then he certainly slew the Heavenly Father in the realm of natural history." Good believed Darwin, like Oedipus, suffered greatly for his "unconscious patricide" and that it accounted for "almost forty years of severe and crippling neurotic suffering."

Sir Gavin de Beer, obviously a great fan of Darwin, embraced a physical causation view of Darwin's illness and took great offense to Dr. Good's psychoanalysis of Darwin. Carolyn Douglas in her paper on Darwin, points out that De Beer in his biography of Darwin saw Dr. Good's analysis of Darwin as a accusation of weakness. According to Ms. Douglas, De Beer points out how MANLY Darwin was by pointing out that Darwin braved the seas for 5 years, "roughed it" in the wilderness, and caught venomous snakes.

Of course, as in all forensic diagnosis, a weakness of the Oedipal complex hypothesis is there is no way of definitively empirically test it validity because Charles Darwin is no longer available for a personal analysis. Lastly, Freudian ideas in regards to psychology such as the Oedipal complex and psychoanalysis are controversial ideas in regards to their usefulness.

Darwin's nervousness of being left alone

In regards to his husband/wife relationship giving insight to Darwin's psyche Peter Brent in his "Darwin: A Man of Enlarged Curiosity" writes of Darwin's relationship with his wife: "Their ties to each other were linked to childhood and the very beginnings of memory. They had a common history, a joint tradition. It is hard to think their relationship a passionate one, but it was happy, and the happiness had deep roots. (p. 316)"

On the other hand, Bradbury states according Peter Brent's biography that in Darwin and Emma's letters, Emma was "always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father." In later years Darwin was to give his wife the nickname "mammy" and here is a sample of what Peter Brent referred to from Darwin's letters according to Bradbury:

"My dearest old Mammy ... Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe."

Bradbury cites Brent as stating that it is difficult to see that that this is a thirty-nine year old man writing to his wife and not a young child writing to his mother. Obviously, Brent's comments are subjective and each person will have to read Darwin's letters for themselves and decide whether "Emma was always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father" in their correspondence. Barloon and Noyes interpret Darwin's behavior as a fear of being alone associated with his panic disorder. According to Barloon and Noyes, Darwin expressed to Dr. Chapman "nervousness when Emma leaves me".


It is also widely known that Darwin has some very zealous admirers. Bradbury cites Professor Stephen Jay Gould as saying the following: "... all theories [of natural selection] cite God in their support, and ... Darwin comes close to this status among evolutionary biologists ..." Similarly Bradbury cites Stephen White as saying the following: "Of course today, for biologists, Darwin is second only to God, and for many he may rank still higher." Given the noticeable symptoms of the psychological aspects of Darwin's likely psycho-biological illness (panic disorder, etc. ) noticed by medical researchers Colp, Barloon and Noye, Bean, and others and only the recent prominence of this diagnosis, it could be plausibly argued that Darwin's admirers were slow to recognize these factors given the social stigma of psychologically related illnesses. On the other hand, I think creationists when speaking about Darwin's illness should not underestimate the possible physically caused aspects. And of course, Darwin and his ideas are separate. There are certainly many people with psychoneurotic or psycho-biological problems who have made contributions to humanity. There are many compelling pieces of evidence in regards to creationism being true and the macroevolutionary position being invalid and creationist should not use the psychological aspects of Darwin's illness as an excuse to reject his errant ideas.

Related References

See Also