Undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in human history, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was an English naturalist and geologist best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, pursuant to which he argued that all species of life descended from common ancestors and that this evolutionary pattern resulted from a process that he called “natural selection.” He published his theory in the monumental On the Origin of Species (1859), one of the most seminal scientific works of all time, which even to date is the unifying theory of the life sciences.
After Darwin published Origin of Species, many translators and publishers vied to capitalize on his growing fame. Darwin favored Swiss zoologist and paleontologist Charles Forsyth Major (1843-1923) to translate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, but Major was apparently playing hard to get with respect to the assignment.
Pictured with this column is the February 11, 1873 correspondence to Major, Darwin essentially threatens to award the translation project to (gasp!) a Jew:
I am very much obligated for your note, and I am sorry that you had so much trouble and have given up the intention of bringing out a translation. I will write by this post to the Jewish gentleman and inquire whether he still wishes to translate my book.
Expression of Emotion (1872), which continued Darwin’s attempt to address questions of human origins and human psychology using his theory of evolution by natural selection, was his groundbreaking work on how animals and humans express emotions using the muscles, tissues, and bone provided by nature. Even today it still provides the point of departure for research on the theory of emotion and expression.
While it is not the purpose of this article to present a dissertation on the Torah’s views on evolution, suffice it to say this is a very controversial topic and that strong arguments exist on both sides.
With the advent of Darwin’s theories, the Jewish community found itself engaged in controversy regarding the apparent dissonance between Jewish theology and modern science. Although many believe evolution is wholly inconsistent with belief in a Creator and is contrary to the Genesis creation narrative, important Jewish authorities, including the Netziv, have maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with fundamental Jewish belief and that traditional Jewish texts are reconcilable with modern scientific findings concerning evolution.
Thus, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, while carefully noting that he did not personally agree with Darwin’s theory and that it had never been empirically proven, wrote that evolution through natural selection presents no challenge to Jewish theology because it would mean only that Hashem, rather than creating a multiplicity of species, had instead brought the incredible diversity of life into existence through the creation of a singular life-form accompanied by a divine law of adaptation.
Some evidence exists that Darwin received direct support from Jewish leaders emphasizing that his theory of evolution is entirely consistent with scripture. In one of the few recorded incidents evidencing Darwin’s contact with Jews, Naphtali Lewy (or “Halevi”), a noted writer, sent him a cover letter and his book, Toldot Adam, in which he argued that the subtleties of Hebrew vocabulary and the choice of particular Hebrew words in the Torah favored evolution, as did some passages in the Midrash Rabbah and the Talmud. As Darwin could not read Hebrew, he arranged for its translation and the letter, translated by an unknown “learned rabbi,” is in the Darwin collection at the Cambridge University library. In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Darwin boasted that that “even an essay in Hebrew has appeared on it, showing that the theory is contained in the Old Testament” and, though he did not specifically cite the essay, he may well have been referring to Toldot Adam.