A private letter from Darwin detailing his doubts about God is up for auction — here's what he wrote

  • Years after Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species," he responded to a reader who wanted the biologist to explain whether his theory destroys the argument for an all-creating God.
  • Darwin wrote a three-page letter, citing his own ailing health as one of the reasons he couldn't definitively answer the question. 
  • The letter is being auctioned at Sotheby's on December 12.

When Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" in 1859, many people saw the book as an attack on religion. How could the world have been created in seven days if the evolution of living creatures on Earth took place over hundreds of thousands of years, as Darwin claimed? 

A curious young reader named James Grant wanted to know more about how Darwin thought his theory might change the idea that an omnipotent God was the ultimate creator of all beings.

Grant wrote to Darwin in March 1878, asking the biologist to “in two or three words” explain whether his theory "destroys the evidence of the existence of a God looked at through nature’s phenomena."

Darwin, who was 69 at the time, responded just five days later with "private" note a bit longer than the reply Grant had requested. In his three-page letter, which is going up for auction at Sotheby's in New York on Tuesday, Darwin refused to definitively pit science against religion. 

Instead of providing a yes-or-no answer, Darwin lobbed the question back to his reader, calling it an “insoluble” problem without a simple, universal answer.

The strongest argument for God, Darwin said, is found in the instincts and intuitions of people, who might “feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe.”

Darwin was just four years from his death when he wrote the letter, and was clearly not so sure about his own stance on God, writing that there is inevitably a "doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy."

The scientist's final line to Grant urges the boy not to be afraid of the latest science, regardless of how he feels about God. Darwin wrote that that while he couldn't answer the question of religion, "no man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires."

Here’s the full text of Darwin’s letter: 

March 11, 1878. 

Private.

Dear Sir, 

I should have been very glad to have aided you in any degree if it had been in my power. But to answer your question would require an essay, and for this I have not strength, being much out of health. Nor, indeed, could I have answered it distinctly and satisfactorily with any amount of strength. 

The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me, is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy.

I have touched on one point of difficulty in the two last pages of my “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,” but I am forced to leave the problem insoluble.No man who does his duty has anything to fear, and may hope for whatever he earnestly desires.

Dear Sir,

yours faithfully,

Ch. Darwin.

NOW WATCH: Evolutionary biologists have been misinterpreting a key point in Darwin’s theory for years

RELATED: 10 strangest inheritances

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10 strangest inheritances
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10 strangest inheritances

1. Lucky Dog

Inheritance: $1 million home, six-figure trust fund

When you've lived your life as an extremely successful accountant in New York, a million-dollar home and a trust fund isn't necessarily a strange inheritance to leave behind. It gets a little weirder when that inheritance is meant for a dog, though — a Maltese named Bella Mia, to be exact. Nonetheless, that's the plan for Rose Ann Bolasny of Queens, who's still ticking as of 2017.

Bella regularly eats filet mignon and wears diamond-studded tiaras, and Mrs. Bolasny's sons — who will inherit more than their canine sibling — are fine with the will. Bolasny told the New York Post in 2015 that the money she bequeaths to Bella symbolizes how much dogs benefit people to those who "don't realize just how much dogs give back to the human race."

2. From Anonymous to England

Inheritance: About $465.6 million

In 1928, an anonymous donor left about 500,000 pounds to the British government to be used to pay off the "entire national debt." The problem is, fulfilling the donor's stipulation is difficult, seeing as the national debt now exceeds 1 trillion pounds.

Although the original donation is now worth about 350 million pounds — or roughly $465.6 million — it's only enough to scratch the surface. The current fund managers at Barclays have tried to find some legal grounds to release the funds from the long-deceased good Samaritan to the Treasury, but have not found a solution as of yet.

3. From Zero to Billions

Inheritance: About $5.32 billion

In 2009, Zsolt and Geza Peladi were two homeless brothers living in a cave in Hungary, despite the fact that they were the grandchildren of an extremely wealthy German woman. By German law, when the woman passed away in December 2009, her direct descendants would inherit her estate. Because the grandma's daughter was deceased though, her assets went to her estranged Hungarian grandchildren — plus a sister living in the U.S. With the bulk of an estate valued at roughly $5.32 billion suddenly left to them, the trio surely made out just fine no matter how the money was divided — welcome to the billionaires club, kids.

4. Valme Roche’s Final Insult

Inheritance: About $4.50

When Lady Mayoress and Adelaide socialite Valme Roche died in 2009, she left behind an estate valued at $3.5 million. Given her wealth, the amount wasn't strange, but the (virtually) sole benefactor — a Catholic organization called Knights of the Southern Cross — certainly was.

Mrs. Roche's two daughters and her ex-husband all received, according to the words of Valme's last will and testament, "30 pieces of silver of the lowest denomination of currency." That "blood money due to Judas" comes to about $1.50 each. The daughters managed to seize control of the estate by order of the Australian Supreme Court in late 2012.

5. The Generous Janitor

Inheritance: $6 million

In life, Brattleboro, Vt., native and janitor Ronald Reed tooled around town in his secondhand Toyota and chopped wood for fun. In death, he left a shocking $4.8 million to a local hospital and $1.2 million to Brattleboro's Brooks Memorial Library. The 2015 bequeathment "was like a thunderbolt," as library director Jerry Carbone told Today in 2015.

But how did Reed do it? Smart stock investments added up to about $8 million by the time he passed.

6. Phone Book Heirs

Inheritance: One 12-room apartment in Lisbon and one house in Guimares, Portugal; two motorcycles; one luxury car; and roughly $32,000

Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral de Camara of Portugal died young, drunk and alone. The illegitimate son of a local aristocrat, Luis' material life was secure from birth — but by the time he died in 2007 at age 42, he was unmarried and childless with a sardonic sense of humor.

The executor of the will — Luis Carlos' lawyer — reported that the late motorcycle enthusiast simply picked 70 names from the phone book to inherit his wealth upon passing. Lonely or not, when your death benefits 70 people at random, you will be remembered.

7. No Woman, No Cry

Inheritance: $50,000

If you could apply a feminist barometer like the Bechdel test to the life and will of Iowa lawyer T.M. Zink, he would fail it. Rather than leaving his family a monetary gift upon his passing in 1930, Zink decided to leave behind a whole lot of misogyny — he left $50,000 in a trust for 75 years, requesting that it eventually go the construction of the "no-women-admitted" Zink Womanless Library. Fortunately for the state of Iowa, the remaining Zinks made sure that library remained just a dream of a man who personally claimed an "intense hatred of women."

8. Shakespeare’s Second-Best Bed

Inheritance: One bed

Here's one for the ages — in 1616, the last will and testament of William Shakespeare only mentioned his wife, Anne Hathaway, once. The will stated that Hathaway was to receive the "second best bed with the furniture," meaning it included the valance, linens and accessories.

For over 400 years, this seemingly scandalous slight added fuel to the fiery rumors of Shakespeare's affair — but in 2016, "Shakespeare's Marriage" author Lena Cowen Orlin helped douse the drama. Orlin noted that, at the time, "second-best" was just a common descriptor to differentiate one object from another and wouldn't have been seen as offensive to Anne at the time. The fact that this is her only mention in the will still seems a little strange, though, especially given that Shakespeare left 10 pounds to the poor of Stratford — that's about $2,319 in today's money.

9. Dad Knows Best

Inheritance: $37 million

As a millionaire real estate mogul, it wasn't too odd for New Yorker Maurice Laboz to leave each of his daughters about $10 million when he died in 2015. The stipulations tied to that inheritance money, however, were more than a little esoteric. The two youngest Laboz daughters won't get their cut until they turn 35, but that's not all — they each also have to attend an accredited university and write an essay about the inheritance; marry well-positioned men who legally swear not to touch said inheritance money; stay gainfully employed; and not have any children out of wedlock.

If the girls are holding down decent jobs by 2020, they get a yearly payout equal to three times their income. No word on whether their father is still trying to figure out how to impose a curfew on his daughters from beyond the grave.

10. Bad Feng Shui for Nina Wang

Inheritance: About $10.6 billion

At the time of her death in 2007, property developer and Chinachem owner Nina Wang was the richest woman in Asia. Per her will, Wang's multibillion-dollar fortune went to charity — but her feng shui consultant, Tony Chan, had other plans.

Upon Ms. Wang's death, he miraculously produced another document that bequeathed her entire estate to him. In 2013, Hong Kong courts found Chan guilty of forging the will and slapped him with 12 years behind bars. Apparently, Chan didn't like the feng shui in prison — he began the appeals process in 2015.

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