Morning Tea with Mr. Darwin: A journey through Darwin’s experience with religion

 Professor Kenneth Noll from UConn's Molecular and Cell Biology Department portrays Mr. Charles Darwin through his religious faith and its influence in his studies in science. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

Professor Kenneth Noll from UConn's Molecular and Cell Biology Department portrays Mr. Charles Darwin through his religious faith and its influence in his studies in science. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

Saturday morning, when most college students lay fast asleep in their beds casually sleeping off their hangovers, professor Kenneth Noll slipped into a suit, a bowler hat and his long fake grey beard, and dove straight into character. He was no longer a professor from UConn’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, but Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution. Darwin held a lecture on “his” relationship with religion, as a host to a tea party for a room full of faculty and students.

To truly set the mood, Darwin came equipped with props. He lectured from an old wooden rocking chair, next to an elegant end table covered in an ornate kettle, a china teacup full of fresh tea that he would occasionally sip from and a gold-framed black-and-white picture of a woman. Behind him, a slideshow of images from the 19th century helped to depict what he was talking about.

To start, Darwin discussed the different Church faiths from the 19th century, pointing out that he, as well as his parents, wife and children, were all Unitarians. Throughout his lifetime, different acts were introduced that tried to suppress dissenting faiths, and Darwin related each acts’ introduction to a certain moment in his life and how they affected him.

“So I knew Darwin grew up in a time where the church was pretty prevalent, but I didn’t realize he… I thought he sort of mediated the religious part of him and the scientific part of him, but it turns out he really didn’t and he wasn’t rejecting religion, but he had a lot of contentions with it and that was interesting to see pop up throughout his life,” Megana Varma, a second-semester physiology and neurobiology major, said. “And a lot of his family and his wife even were… they weren’t against him going with the scientific part of his nature. That was interesting to learn about.”

He spent most of the lecture on how his book, “On the Origins of Species” was received by the Church. Since the theory of evolution is in direct conflict with the concept of creationism, it was greeted with anger by many members of the religious communities. While not everyone shunned the theory, in fact many could see its genius and the book was widely esteemed, it met with a large amount of debate.

“I think the history of science and religion are very intertwined just because religion is usually, in the historical context, where all the money is and where all the time to sort of do these scientific endeavors,” Toni Vella, a second-semester physiology and neurobiology major, said. “But it’s interesting to see how, as we get to a point where science wants to release itself from religion, how religion will actually sort of inhibit that progress and actively try to keep sort of statistical data and objective facts from being told.”

The draw to this lecture may have not been completely scientific at first for those like Varma:

“We saw tea and cookies and we thought that would be cute, so we came to this lecture for that.”

But everyone who attended ended up learning a lot about Charles Darwin’s life, and came out of the room with more knowledge than when they had first entered. Noll’s lecture was incredibly interesting and fun. His historical jokes and costume helped to keep the audience engaged throughout his talk. If either science or history is your cup of tea, then make sure to keep your eyes peeled for his next lecture.


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.maher@uconn.edu.