Was Charles Darwin Psychotic? A Study of His Mental Health by Jerry Bergman,
A Study of His Mental Health
Darwin's many lifelong and serious illnesses have been the subject of much
speculation and study for over a century. Darwin stated that his health
problems began as early as 1825 when he was only sixteen years old, and
became incapacitating around age 28 (Barloon and Noyes, 1997, p. 138). Horan
(1979, p. ix) concluded that Darwin was "ill and reclusively confined to his
home in Kent for forty years." Darwinian scholar Michael Ruse even concluded
that "Darwin himself was an invalid from the age of 30" (2003, p. 1523). And
medical doctor George Pickering, in an extensive study of Darwin's illness,
concluded that in his early thirties, Darwin became an "invalid recluse"
(1974, p. 34). UCLA School of Medicine Professor Dr. Robert Pasnau (1990, p.
123) noted that Darwin also "remained ill almost continually" for the entire
five years that he was on his HMS Beagle trip.
Dozens of scholarly articles and at least three books have been penned on
the question of Darwin's illness. The current conclusion is that Darwin
suffered from several serious and incapacitating psychiatric disorders,
including agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is characterized by fear of panic attacks
(or actual panic attacks) when not in a psychologically safe environment,
such as at home. Darwin, as is common among agoraphobiacs, also developed
many additional phobias-being in crowds, being alone, or leaving home unless
accompanied by his wife (Kaplan and Sadock, 1990, pp. 958-959).
Agoraphobia is also frequently associated with depersonalization (a feeling
of being detached from, and outside of, one's own body), a malady that
Darwin also suffered (Barloon and Noyes, 1997, p. 138). A study of Darwin's
mental condition by Barloon and Noyes concluded that Darwin suffered from
anxiety disorders that so severely impaired his functioning that it limited
his ability to leave his home, even just to meet with colleagues or other
friends. This diagnosis likely explains his very secluded, hermit-like
lifestyle (1997, p. 138). It also helps to explain the title of Desmond and
Moore's 1991 biography of Darwin: Darwin: The Life of a Tormented
Evolutionist. Other Psychiatric and Medical Problems
Colp (1977, p. 97) concluded that "much of Darwin's daily life was lived on
a rack which consisted of fluctuating degrees of pain" that was sometimes so
severe that Darwin called it "distressingly great." Darwin's many
psychological or psychologically influenced physical health symptoms
included severe depression, insomnia, hysterical crying, dying sensations,
shaking, fainting spells, muscle twitches, shortness of breath, trembling,
nausea, vomiting, severe anxiety, depersonalization, seeing spots, treading
on air and vision, and other visual hallucinations (Barloon and Noyes, 1997,
p. 139; Picover, 1998, p. 290; Colp, 1977, p. 97; Bean, 1978, p. 573). The
physical symptoms included headaches, cardiac palpitations, ringing in ears
(possibly tinnitus), painful flatulence, and gastric upsets-all of which
commonly have a psychological origin (Pasnau, 1990). Colp noted that "behind
these symptoms there was always a core of anxiety and depression" (1977, p.
97). Some speculate that part of Darwin's mental problems were due to his
nagging, gnawing fear that he had devoted his "life to a fantasy"-and a
"dangerous one" at that (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 477). This fear was
that his theory was false and there was, in fact, a divine Creator.
Darwin's behavior also indicates that he suffered from a mental disorder.
Although devoted to his wife and daughters, he "treated them as children"
even after his daughters were fully grown (Picover, 1998, p. 289). Some of
Darwin's statements to others also cast doubt on his mental stability. For
example, in 1875 he wrote the following words to fellow scientist Robert
You ask about my book, & all that I can say is that I am ready to commit
suicide: I thought it was decently written, but find so much wants
rewriting. . . . I begin to think that every one who publishes a book is a
fool (quoted in Colp, 1977, p. 228).
Colp noted that Darwin's son Leonard claimed that his father's illness even
interfered with his feelings for his children. For example, Leonard once
As a young lad I went up to my father when strolling about the lawn, and he
. . . turned away as if quite incapable of carrying on any conversation.
Then there suddenly shot through my mind the conviction that he wished he
was no longer alive (quoted in Colp, 1977, p. 100).
Darwin's mental problems were considered so severe that Picover (1998, p.
289) included Darwin in his collection of historical persons that he calls
"strange brains . . . eccentric scientists, and madmen." That Darwin
suffered from several severely disabling maladies is not debated; the only
debate is what caused them (Pasnau, 1990, p. 121). Other Possible Causes of
Others, including Darwin's own wife, argued that his mental problem stemmed
from guilt over his life's goal to refute the argument for God from design
(Bean, 1978, p. 574; p. 28; Pasnau, 1990, p. 126). Most of the
psychoanalytic studies have argued that his problems were a result of his
repressed anger toward his tyrannical father and "the slaying of his
heavenly father" by his theory (Pasnau, 1990, p. 122).
Diagnosis of the cause of Darwin's mental and physical disorders include
parasitic disease (Chaga's disease-caused by an insect common in South
America), arsenic poisoning, and possibly even an inner ear disorder
(Picover, 1998, p. 290; Pasnau, 1990). All of these causes have largely been
refuted. Many persons conclude he had a classic, essential mental
disturbance bordering on psychosis (a severe, incapacitating mental
disorder). Regardless of the diagnosis, Darwin's condition was clearly
incapacitating, often for months at a time, and rendered him an invalid for
much of his life, especially in the prime of his life.
Arnold Sorsby concluded that Darwin was also an obsessive-compulsive and
gives the following evidence:
If Chagas's disease did not cause Darwin's symptoms what did? My personal
diagnosis would be an anxiety state with obsessive features and
psychosomatic manifestations. Anxiety clearly precipitated much of his
physical trouble, and regarding the obsessive component there are several
important points. . . .
Darwin exhibited the obsessional's trait of having everything "just so"; he
kept meticulous records of his health and symptoms like many obsessional
hypochondriacs. Everything had to be in its place; he even had a special
drawer for the sponge which he used in bathing . . . Then there is the
health diary he kept. Days and nights were given a score according to how
good they were; the score was added up at the end of each week, and there is
evidence of frequent changing of mind in deciding whether a night was very
good or just good (1974, p. 228). Darwin's Own Words about His Condition
In addition to the diary on his health problems and complaints (Colp, 1977,
p. 136), he frequently discussed his health problems in his letters and his
autobiography. Darwin's own description of his condition included the
following: "I am forced to live, . . . very quietly and am able to see
scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations"
(quoted in Bowlby, 1990, p. 240). Darwin once complained that speaking for
only "a few minutes" to the Linnean Society "brought on 24 hours vomiting"
(Darwin, 1994, pp. 98-99). At another time, Darwin had a "house full of
guests" and after he visited the parish church for a christening, he was
"back to square one" and his good health "had vanished `like a flash of
lightning'" and sickness (including the vomiting) returned (Desmond and
Moore, 1991, p. 456). The suddenness of his illness, as illustrated by these
incidents, indicates that his incapacitating episodes were psychological in
Another side of Darwin revealed his sadistic impulses. His own words taken
from his autobiography give a vivid example:
In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting,
and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most
holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my
first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in
reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands. This taste long continued
and I became a very good shot (1958, p. 44).
The fact that he loved killing so much that killing his first bird caused
him to tremble with excitement could certainly indicate a sadistic streak in
Darwin. His passion for killing birds is well known. One wonders if this
"passion" for killing may have, in part, motivated his ruthless "survival of
the fittest" tooth and claw theory of natural selection. Conclusions
Darwin was clearly a very troubled man and suffered from severe emotional
problems for most of his adult life, especially when he was in the prime of
life. The exact cause of his mental and many physical problems has been much
debated and may never be known for certain. Since Darwin wrote extensively
about his mental and physical problems, we have much material on which to
base a reasonable conclusion about this area of his life. The diagnosis of
the cause of his mental and physical problems includes a variety of
debilitating conditions, but agoraphobia with the addition of psychoneurosis
is most probably correct.
Unfortunately, most writers have shied away from this topic, partly because
Darwin is now idolized by many scientists and others. Often listed as one of
the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, if not the greatest
scientist that ever lived, Darwin is one of the few scientists known to most
Americans. To understand Darwin as a person and his motivations, one must
consider his mental condition and how it affected his work and conclusions.
Barloon, Thomas and Russell Noyes, Jr. 1997. "Charles Darwin and Panic
Disorder." JAMA 277(2):138-141.
Barlow, Nora, ed. 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. NY:
Bean, W. B. 1978. "The Illness of Charles Darwin." The American Journal of
Bowlby, John. 1990. Charles Darwin: A New Life. NY: Norton.
Colp, Ralph Jr. 1977. To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
Darwin, Charles. 1994. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University. Vol. 9.
Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented
Evolutionist. NY: Warner Books.
Grigg, Russell. 1995. "Darwin's Mystery Illness." Creation Ex Nihilo
Horan, Patricia G. 1979. Foreword to The Origin of Species. NY: Gramercy
Kaplan, Harold I. and Benjamin J. Sadock, ed. 1990. Comprehensive Textbook
of Psychiatry/V. Volume 1 Fifth Edition. NY: Williams and Wilkins.
Pasnau, R. O. 1990. "Darwin's Illness: A Biopsychosocial Perspective."
Pickering, George. 1974. Creative Malady. NY: Oxford University Press.
Picover, Clifford A. 1998. Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of
Eccentric Scientists and Madmen. NY: Quill William Morrow.
Ruse, Michael. 2003. "Is Evolution a Secular Religion?" Science
Sorsby, Arnold, ed. 1974. Tenements of Clay. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons.
*Dr. Bergman is on the Biology faculty at Northwest State College in Ohio.
"Al Klein" <***@pern.invalid> wrote in message
> On Sun, 10 Jun 2007 13:32:02 -0300, John Manning
> <***@terra.com.br> wrote:
>>> On Sat, 09 Jun 2007 23:59:49 -0700, Art Bulla wrote:
>>>> 5 And he had hope to shake me from the faith, notwithstanding the many
>>>> revelations and the many things which I had seen concerning these
>>>> for I truly had seen angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also,
>>>> had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from
>>>> time to
>>>> time; wherefore, I could not be shaken.
>>>> EVIDENCE AND A PROPHECY
>>> <snip mindless drivel>
>>> Dude, the psych center called. You are WAY overdue for your
>>> therapy. They are waiting to hear from you.
>>Art Bulla has admitted that he escaped from a court ordered involuntary
> He forgot to mention that he escaped from sanity?