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by William H. Benson

November 12, 2009

     Charles Darwin decided at the age of 29 he should marry, and he arrived at that decision in his methodical manner—by listing the pros and cons on a piece of paper. Listed among the advantages, he wrote, are “Children (if it please God)—constant companion (& friend in old age)—charms of music & female chit-chat.” Among the disadvantages, he wrote, are “Terrible loss of time, if many children, forced to gain one’s bread, fighting about [with] no society.”

     He then ended his jottings with the words “Marry, marry, marry. QED.” Quod erat demonstrandum: meaning, thus it is proved. He had decided.

     He did marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood, but not before he had had a discussion with her about his commitment to scientific inquiry over that of religious belief. But Emma, Charles learned, was open-minded: “she would not insist on word-for-word biblical belief, she told Charles, just an openness to the love of God.” And to that Charles agreed. Theirs was a happy marriage into which ten children were born.

     In November of 1959, 150 years ago this month, Charles Darwin published his major work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and Darwin was catapulted into international fame.

     A new book by Deborah Heiligman entitled Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith was published in May of this year, and in it Heiligman pointed out that the religious difference between them did not distract from their marriage. “In today’s climate of division between religion and science, it’s instructive to read about a marriage in which the two cultures improved each for exposure to the other.”

    “Had Charles spent more time with free-thinking, liberal intellectuals and less time sitting on the sofa with Emma, perhaps then he would not have been quite so conciliatory and conservative in his writing of the book.” The division between science and religion ran lengthwise, down the center of the Darwin’s kitchen table every morning.

     Armistice Day is also this week. At 11:00a.m., on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, fighting in Europe’s Great War ceased, after tens of millions had been slaughtered and wounded, most often in No Man’s land between the trenches. The division between the Allied and the Central Powers ran roughly along the national border that separated France from Germany.

     On Thursday evening, November 9, 1989, Gunther Schabowski, a Communist Party leader in East Germany, announced that a simple visa procedure would allow East Germans to visit West Germany, immediately. Alison Smale, an American reporter for the Associated Press, happened to be in East Berlin that evening, and she and an East Berlin citizen, Angelika Wachs, both 34 years old, crossed Checkpoint Charlie together, two of the first to do so.

     The next day, the two walls, separated by a No Man’s land of mines and barbed wire, came crashing down to shouts of jubilation. “Unglaublich,”—unbelieveable, Wachs had shouted as the Communist guards had looked the other way. The division between communism and capitalism, between East and the West, had divided the city of Berlin.

     Science vs. religion; the Allies vs. the Central Powers; communism vs. capitalism; East vs. West; the Soviet Union vs. the United States; liberal vs. conservative; Democrat vs. Republican; and on go the deep divisions that disrupt human thought and potential.

     Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, died two weeks ago, nearly 101 years old. “As he saw it, the human mind tends to organize thought and culture around binary opposites, and then try to resolve the resulting tension through mythmaking.”

     In other words, people congregate around a political, religious, or cultural belief system, and then they look for reasons to justify their position, at the same time that they are scornful of others with a differing opinion—mythmaking. Divisions and fractures appear. Wars break out; walls go up, but people can stop the wars and tear down walls.

     In a leap of faith, Charles had married Emma, and with tolerance and a respect for the other, they had overcome the divisive issue of science and religion that his book had initiated. The Allies and the Central Powers agreed to cease their fighting, and the Berlin Wall was torn down.