Mary Boole writes to Charles Darwin

Mary Boole wrote to Charles Darwin on 13 December 1866. This is almost exactly two years after the death of her husband, George Boole. Let us note that Charles Darwin did reply to her letter and reassured Mary that his theory was indeed compatible with her religious faith. Mary had developed a freethinking and inquisitive approach to religion partly though the influence of her father and partly through the influence of George Boole. We give a version of the correspondence below:

1. Mary Boole to Charles Darwin 13 December 1866.
Dear Sir

Will you excuse my venturing to ask you a question to which no one's answer but your own would be quite satisfactory to me.

Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest and most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent, - I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine, - but with the following belief, viz:

That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.

That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.

That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.

And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.

The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been, - not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression, - but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links, - not to say the missing link, - between the facts of Science and the promises of religion. Every year's experience tends to deepen in me that impression.

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious and moral questions, which have perplexed and pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer and wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think, - I cannot know for certain, but I think, - that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse and probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.

At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path and Theology hers, and they will meet when and where and how God pleases, and you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off. If I receive no answer to this letter, I shall infer nothing from your silence except that you felt I had no right to make such inquiries of a stranger.

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours truly, Mary Boole
2. Charles Darwin to Mary Boole 14 December 1866.
Dear Madam,

It would have gratified me much if I could have sent satisfactory answers to your questions, or indeed answers of any kind. But I cannot see how the belief that all organic beings including man have been genetically derived from some simple being, instead of having been separately created bears on your difficulties. - These as it seems to me, can be answered only by widely different evidence from Science, or by the so called "inner consciousness". My opinion is not worth more than that of any other man who has thought on such subjects, and it would be folly in me to give it; I may however remark that it has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain and suffering in this world, as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events, i.e. general laws, rather than from the direct intervention of God though I am aware this is not logical with reference to an omniscient Deity - Your last question seems to resolve itself into the problem of Free Will and Necessity which has been found by most persons insoluble.

I sincerely wish that this note had not been as utterly valueless as it is; I would have sent full answers, though I have little time or strength to spare, had it been in my power.

I have the honour to remain dear Madam, Yours very faithfully, Charles Darwin.

P.S. I am grieved that my views should incidentally have caused trouble to your mind but I thank you for your Judgment and honour you for it, that theology and science should each run its own course and that in the present case I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off.
3. Mary Boole to Charles Darwin 17 December 1866.
Dear Sir,

Thank you sincerely for your kind letter. You have told me all I wanted to know from you. The criticisms to which I referred were such as seemed to take for granted that all such speculations as yours, - in fact, as it seemed to me, all independent un-theological speculations on Creation as we find it, - must be incompatible with any belief in a moral government of the world. I have always taken the liberty of telling the people who brought such criticisms under my notice, that, in my opinion, the authors of them were simply talking about what they had never examined into. But still, when one is studying alone, and so ignorant too as I am, one gets frightened, and loses faith in one's own principles. And I thought, for my own satisfaction, I should like to have your assurance that moral and religious faith are things quite independent of theories about the process of Creation. You have given me that assurance and again I thank you.

With sincere wishes for improvement in your health.

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours truly, Mary Boole

Last Updated May 2018