Michael Flannery’s Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution (Erasmus, 2009) focuses on Wallace, Darwin’s co-theorist, whom he sees as a pioneer of design theory. Flannery, a University of Alabama medical historian, has no time for the usual Darwin hagiography. Assessing Darwin candidly in relation to Wallace, he calls the official history a “calculated imposture”:
Historians have slowly begun to catch on as more and more primary materials have surfaced. Admitting that Darwin often played dumb and was hardly the figure that Victorians made of him, [sympathetic biographer Janet] Browne correctly observes that his autobiography led the way in throwing up a smokescreen “almost as effective as if no records had been left behind at all.”
For example, late in life, Darwin informed visiting atheists, “I never gave up Christianity until I was forty years of age.” This was false, and he knew it. He had been drawn to materialist atheism in university, as a member of the Plinian Society freethinkers’ circle. At 29, he was making materialist statements in his notebooks, like “Why is thought, being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves. . . .”
So, Flannery explains, by 1838, Darwin was a thoroughgoing materialist: “That was four years before his rough 30-page sketch on transmutation and six years before the first 230-page draft of his general theory—he had even sketched its main application to man 33 years before [publication of] his Descent [ of Man].” Thus, far from embracing materialism on account of the implications of his theory, Darwin developed a theory to support the materialism he already believed in. Darwin encouraged the legend that he lost his faith when he beheld animal suffering.