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Darwin's Metaphor:
Nature's Place in Victorian Culture

by

Robert M. Young

 

[ Introduction | Preface | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Notes | Bibliography | Index ]

CHAPTER 1

THE IMPACT OF DARWIN ON CONVENTIONAL THOUGHT

The most dramatic confrontation between religion and science occurred in the nineteenth century, and the Christian community remains uneasy about the problem of "man's place in nature" which became so acute in the Darwinian debate. Recent books on evolution and theology spent more time on the opposition to Darwin and on ways of undermining or getting round the theory than on absorbing and interpreting it. This brief account of the nineteenth-century controversy is aimed at broadening the perspective within which the challenge of Victorian science is viewed and at drawing attention to the views of some members of the Victorian intelligentsia. It is true that the effect of scientific naturalism was to engender a conflict, but Christians are supposed to be primarily concerned with motives and intentions, and the scientists whose views most troubled the Victorian orthodoxy were far from wishing to demean God and man.

When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Charles Darwin had recently returned from a six-year, 40,000 mile voyage round the world, puzzled by the question of whether or not species are mutable. In the same year he began a series of notebooks on the species question, which led to the formulation of a theory in 1838, which was not made public for twenty years. Darwin's theory and its reception were part of a much larger debate on evolution itself, and more generally on a naturalistic or scientific approach to the earth, life, man, his mind, and society which cannot be considered even in relative isolation as starting later than the 1790s.

My first point is, therefore, that Darwin and Darwinism have become clichés for a much wider movement which I shall try to

 

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characterize. If we can define its beginning at all, it starts with the publication in 1794-6 of Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia. (Erasmus Darwin was Charles' grandfather, and he put forward a theory of evolution based on David Hartley's psychological theory of associationism in a series of works at the turn of the century.) The image of nature which pervaded his work and that of most naturalists and natural theologians received a heavy blow in 1798 with the appearance of Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of society, with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers, a work which many thought "spread a gloom over the hopes and more sanguine speculations of man" and "cast a slur upon the face of nature." It has been said that Malthus raised a spectre which haunted half the century and that it overshadowed and darkened all English life. Malthus argued that nature's harmony was not perfect; the benevolence of both God and man were called into question. God would not provide food for all the mouths but more than enough mouths for all the food; charity - either private or state - would worsen the lot of the poor. The impact of Malthus' theory was heightened by its apparent mathematical force; in successive generations population could be increased geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128) while in the same time food supplies could only be increased arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). The difference between 128 mouths and food for seven represented a potential gulf between unrestrained population growth and man's efforts to provide food. Not only was nature niggardly, but vice, misery, war, famine, and death were inevitable consequences of nature's laws, unless man could restrain his sexual appetite. The Malthusian spectre was a direct challenge to the harmonious image of nature propagated in William Godwins Political Justice (1793), in William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), and in the encyclopedia of natural theology which Paley's example inspired - the Bridgewater Treatises which appeared in 1833-6, an eleven volume compendium of the wisdom, goodness, and benevolence of God as manifested in the works of creation. Darwin was to see the Malthusian law of population as a natural law about man, while Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, also found that Malthus provided the essential idea which led him to the theory.

The debate which we summarize by the idea of evolution also

 

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embraced the associationist, utilitarian philosophy of the Philosophic Radicals, Bentham, the Mills, and their followers, who would apply natural laws to men and morality and apply sanctions to induce men to act for the greatest good of the greatest number. The pleasures and pains of utilitarian psychological theory became the rewards and punishments of radical reform movements. In effect, Darwin extended this point of view to the ultimate natural sanctions of survival or extinction. One can also say that Darwinism was an extension of laissez-faire economic theory from social science to biology. A similar naturalism was at work in the influence of German historical methodology, which suggested that the Bible should be examined scientifically like any other historical document.

Another manifestation of the wider movement occurred in geology. The belief in divine interference in nature - in miraculous catastrophic interventions in the course of the history of life and the history of earth - was brought into question by the work of Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology (1830-3) argued that it was impossible to get on with the actual practice of geological science if one always had to entertain the possibility that the facts were not to be explained by the laws of nature, but that this case was a miracle or the result of laws of nature which had ceased to act. How, he asked, could science proceed unless the course of nature in the history of the earth was considered to be uniform, without miraculous catastrophic interventions? Lyell's work led to a debate about the principles and findings of geology in which both sides attempted to be on the side of the angels and at the same time to be true to the principles and data of science. For complex reasons, Lyell argued against evolution but said that, even if it was true, to include man in such a scheme would be to "strain analogy beyond all reasonable bounds." The major evolutionary theorists - Darwin, Chambers, Wallace, and Spencer - all drew heavily on Lyell's work, accepting his principles while rejecting some of their applications: they saw both the history of the earth and the history of life as uniform but, unlike Lyell, considered the history of life to be evolving directionally.

As the so-called "uniformitarian-catastrophist" debate in geology was settling down, there appeared an anonymous work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which argued that it was inconsistent for Lyell to apply the concept of uniform natural laws

 

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to the history of the earth and not to the history of life. Similarly, the author drew on another naturalistic tradition about man and animals and argued that phrenology showed that the principle of the uniformity of nature should extend to man and to his mind and brain. Although the name of the author of this work - Robert Chambers - was not made public until 1884 (the speculation attributed it variously to Thackeray, Lady Lovelace, Sir Charles Lyell, George Combe, and Prince Albert), the meaning of his doctrine was quite explicit. Chambers argued that all of nature was under the domain of natural law. He particularly scandalized his readers by saying that man and his mind are governed by natural laws. This was not a novel thesis, but the presentation of the argument for a popular audience caused a great stir.

This same point of view was eloquently expounded in the works of the Professor of Geometry at Oxford, Baden Powell (father of the founder of the Scout Movement), but his works were read only by the intelligentsia. Chambers' Vestiges of Creation, on the other hand, sold over 25,000 copies in Britain before 1860, and the phrenological work of George Combe on which it drew for its views on man sold 50,000 copies between 1835 and 1838 and was selling at the rate of 2,500 copies a year in 1843 - 100,000 by 1865. By comparison Darwin's Origin of Species - a scientific best seller-had sold 16,000 copies by 1876 and 47,000 by 1895. Lyell's Principles went through editions of 2,000 copies each at a relatively leisurely rate. I do not wish to develop this point further except to reiterate that the impact usually associated with Darwin, Spencer, Wallace, Huxley, Essays and Reviews, and John Tyndall, was part of a larger movement embracing a number of naturalistic approaches to the earth, life, and man - in utilitarianism, in population theory, in geology, phrenology, psychology, and in theology itself.

It may be helpful to review the traditional account before examining the intentions of the evolutionists and suggesting a different interpretation of certain aspects of the debate on man's place in nature. The response of conventional belief to Darwin's evolutionism was one which is evoked by the term "impact." Although there had been major controversies over Lyell's geological theory and Chambers' evolutionism, Darwin's scientifically reputable arguement came as a weightier blow. The reaction was shock, followed

 

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by vehement retaliation. It was felt that the whole edifice of traditional social, ethical, and theological values was at stake. "The Origin of Species came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill. Everywhere those rudely awakened from their old comfort and repose swarmed forth angry and confused." It is not the case that all their replies were incoherent: many were eloquent. However, most of them lacked subtlety; they had no fine texture. Evolutionism was seen as a crude doctrine, and many of the replies were themselves crude. It is, of course, very entertaining to recall this aspect of the Victorian controversy. It is so characteristically Victorian and comes across in a way which leads us to feel reassured that we are much more sophisticated and enlightened. After paying due homage to this pastime, however, it may be worthwhile to look elsewhere.

Large claims have been made about the influence of evolutionary theory. Here are three examples from the writings of historians: "I myself have little doubt that in England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation." ". . . no rapprochement was possible between Darwinism as such and protestantism as such. The conceptions of Man were too divergent." "If we may estimate the importance of an idea by the change of thought which it effects, this idea of [evolution by] natural selection is unquestionably the most important that has ever been conceived by the mind of man."

One could indeed tell a chilling tale about the theory of evolution in its various forms as the greatest single blow to man's self-esteem, a tale which rests on the fact that evolution includes mind in the course of natural law. I shall spend some space sketching it, using quotations which convey the quality of the impact. As the theory was put by Robert Chambers (who had the good sense to remain anonymous) in 1844, "It is hardly necessary to say, much less to argue, that mental action, being proved to be under law, passes at once into the category of natural things. Its old metaphysical character vanishes in a moment, and the distinction usually taken between physical and moral is annulled." It was this conclusion which produced apoplectic responses. For example, Adam Sedgwick wrote a scathing review of the book and shows himself even more upset in a letter to Charles Lyell. He wrote of Chambers,

 

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I do from my soul abhor the sentiments [of the book] and I believe I could have crushed the book by proving it base, vulgar in spirit, . . . false, shallow, worthless.... And what shall we say to his morality and his conscience, when he tells us he has "destroyed all distinction between moral and physical"; when he makes sin a mere organic misfortune? ... If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were the works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts! When I read some pages of the foul book, it brought Swift's satire to my mind, and filled me with such inexpressible disgust that I threw it down ...

Not content with an eighty-five page tirade in the Edinburgh Review for 1845, Sedgwick added further remarks to a new edition of a modest pamphlet on the Studies of the University of Cambridge, a work of some ninety-four pages plus notes. Sedgwick added a preface of 450 pages and a supplementary appendix which added a further 150. These contained a sustained attack on Chambers' version of evolution, as the main target, but it was (I think rightly) associated with strong criticisms of the dangerous doctrines of phrenology, German biblical criticism, Tract go, and the utilitarian theory of morals along with its foundations in the philosophy of Locke.

Sedgwick was no crank. Indeed, he was Professor of Geology at Cambridge, and, at various times, President of the Geological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society, President of the British Association in 1833 and of its Geological Section many times. He was thus a respected scientist reacting against an evolutionary theory and its application to man and to mind. His own geological position, however, was at least two removes from more extreme theological opinion. In 1831 Sedgwick had criticized those who had attempted to argue that geological evidence supported a fairly literal reading of Genesis on the Flood. Foremost among those who had tried to find geological evidence for the Mosaic Flood was William Buckland, Professor of Mineralogy and of Geology at Oxford before he became Dean of Westminster. However, Buckland, in turn, was attempting to interpret scripture less literally than others. For example, when the British Association went to York in 1844, William Cockburn, Dean of York, criticized both Sedgwick and Buckland and urged that the whole of the evidence of geology supported the traditional chronology and the

 

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literal interpretation of Genesis. At the beginning of the pamphlet which Cockburn published giving his account of the controversy, he quotes the following lines from Cowper:

Some drill and bore

The solid earth and from the strata there

Extract a register, by which we learn

That He who made it and revealed its date

To Moses, was mistaken in its age.

It is symptomatic of the separation of such views frorn those of informed and Christian scientists that Cockburn's letters to Sedgwick and to the Geological Society were met with polite but unencouraging replies. Cockburn took this to mean that he had won the day and wrote to his flock as the meeting of the British Association broke up, "My dear Fellow-Citizens, The philosophers are going. We may I think congratulate each other that during their much feared visitation among us they have certainly not established any one fact which would weaken our faith in the Sacred historians [of the Bible]." I remind you that Cockburn's opponent, Buckland, was the most nearly literalist of the professional geologists. Even so, Cockburn found his geology too risky and said this of Buckland's work:

Oh Oxford! so long the seat of learning, religion, and orthodoxy - who could have believed that out of thee should come a cherished voice leading the children committed to thy care directly to infidelity and indirectly to atheism?

Taking this same account further, one could point to the effect of Darwin's one modest sentence on man in the Origin of Species. He said, and this was a somewhat reluctant gesture, merely this: "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." This produced a classic confrontation between Samuel Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860. Wilberforce also attacked Darwin in writing in a way which was reminiscent of Sedgwick's attack on Chambers' Vestiges. After noting that Darwin would apply "his scheme of the action of the principle of natural selection to MAN himself, as well as to the animals around him," Wilberforce continues,

Now, we must say at once, and openly, that such a notion is absolutely incompatible not only with single expressions in the word of God on

 

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that subject of natural science with which it is not immediately concerned, but, which in our judgment is of far more importance, with the whole representation of that moral and spiritual condition of man which is its proper subject-matter. Man's derived supremacy over the earth; man's power of articulate speech; man's gift of reason; man's free will and responsibility; man's fall and man's redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit, - all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God, and redeemed by the Eternal Son assuming to himself his nature.

Wilberforce goes on to condemn Darwin's view of the future development of man and to dismiss the claim that the theory of evolution leads to a grander view of the Creator.

A further symptom of the confrontation of the naturalist interpretation of the history of life, of the earth, and of the scriptures themselves, occurred in 186o, when Essays and Reviews defended empirical methods as the legitimate means of investigating anything at all. The Bible was seen as a document written by men, its relevance was moral, it had limitations deriving from the period when it was written, and it was decidedly not about geology or biology. The reaction to Essays and Reviews showed just how much was at stake when naturalist explanations were advocated in sensitive areas. To continue this account along traditional lines, the next stage is John Tyndall's Presidential Address in 1874 to the Meeting of the British Association at Belfast, in which he claims that science has an unrestricted right to investigate all of nature. This provoked a storm of controversy for the usual reasons. Of course, the final and most entertaining confrontation between evolutionism and the scientific method on the one hand and traditional opinion on the other is contained in the brilliant polemical essays of T. H. Huxley, nine volumes of wit and venom all aimed at opposing naturalism to traditional views of nature and man. When the story arrives at Huxley, the futility of pursuing it further becomes apparent, for we have heard it all before. So much is he the subject of incantation that a selection of his writings, arranged by topic, has been published. The scientist and freethinker can now use Huxley handily for any suitable occasion: the thoughts of "Darwin's Bulldog," codified rather like those of Chairman Mao were in the 1960s.

So far I have said that the reinterpretation of man's place in

 

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nature was not primarily due to the work of Darwin but involved a more general debate and that the impact on conventional belief did not involve anything which has not been said many times before. One more thing should be said before turning to the positive side. It is that the objections made sense. The separation of mind and free will from the course of material nature lies at the bottom of our traditional idea of responsibility and of the spiritual aspect of man. Thus it seemed that our systems of morality and of law, as well as of the hopes and punishments of man, were at stake. Similarly, banishing miracles appeared to call into question the divine origin of the earth and of man as well as the Incarnation and Resurrection, i.e. the indispensable underpinnings of the Christian faith. As John Henry Newman once said, it would not pay the Church to break silence on the Mosaic flood, if this question would also lead men to doubt the Incarnation. The extraordinary interest in evolution thus arose naturally from the union which the theory implied between man's spiritual nature and his body, particularly his nervous system (territory over which Huxley and Owen fought in the 1860s). Man's body was his animal nature, and this connection gave him a stake in the question of how animal types came to be: the history of life was invested with theological meaning. If it had occurred through struggle and famine, what of God's concern for the fall of a sparrow? From life one naturally moves to the stage on which it occurs, the Earth. The origin and history of the Earth are thus of theological interest. One does not need to rely on questions about the literal time-scale implied by counting generations from Adam and Eve, to become worried about developments in geology and biology: the issue is much more general. Does the origin of the earth have a higher meaning? Was there a moral covenant between God and man and a later redemption? Few were as simple-minded as Cockburn, but many saw that the exclusion of all non-material causes from nature did not merely eliminate miracles from Genesis. It threatened the status of mind and will and the hope for a moral meaning to life outside of life itself

In what follows I do not wish to imply that I do not think that there is a conflict between the implications of evolution and Christian beliefs. I think that there is a fundamental conflict centring on the relationship of the mind and the brain and that science cannot

 

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sanction a metaphysic which allows any forces or events which transcend the continuity of nature or natural laws. What I want to emphasize, however, is that the idea of opposing theology could not have been further from the minds of the main evolutionists. Their aim was to reconcile nature, God, and man. Putting the issue very crudely, there are three possible ways of characterizing the relationship between science and theology. First, that the traditional natural theology up to the Bridgewater Treatises claims that each new discovery of science is a separate additional proof of the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Deity. Thus science, though separate from revelation, complements it. Second, at the other extreme, is the view that each new discovery of science diminishes the domain of theological interpretation. If the Genesis story is false, the Biblical account of creation and of man's spiritual nature is in doubt. If there have been no geological catastrophes outside the course of natural laws (especially the Mosaic flood), then all miracles are in doubt. If man is an animal, and the brain is the organ of the mind, then free will and responsibility are on shaky ground. The role of non-material causes, whether they be miracles or acts of mental effort, is progressively diminished. The advance of science does not confirm theology, it refutes it. I want to argue that the period from about 1820 to 1875 was one in which science made it clear to enlightened theological opinion that a third interpretation of the relationship between science and theology was necessary. One could argue that this was not a novel synthesis - that this change was really an advance on the part of theology, or that it implied that where science advanced, theology (therefore God) retreated. Advocates of the "new" natural theology said that it involved a grander view of the Creator, while the more literal-minded interpreters, of the scriptures and the more evangelical ministers attempted an increasingly unsuccessful holding action. The natural theology which began to emerge in the 1840s said, quite simply, that one of the traditional tasks of natural theology - theodicy, or the justification of the ways of God to man - could not be undertaken with the assurance and at the level which had prevailed in the works of John Ray, Bishop Butler, or William Paley. As William Whewell, the Lord Chancellor of scientific controversy in this period, put it, theology can gain nothing but lose much by teaching science as the proof of scripture. When

 

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a scientific finding conflicts with a passage in scripture, we must find a new way of understanding the passage in question.

The most nearly consistent exponent of the natural theology of the evolutionists was Baden Powell, who argued that science should not even be juxtaposed with scripture: they were bound to conflict. He went further and reminded his readers that the book of God's works was separate from the book of God's word. So insistent was he that they should not be mingled that he claimed that moral and physical phenomena were completely independent. Powell was the philosopher of almost complete faith in the uniformity of nature (except, note particularly, man's mind), and it is interesting to find him writing his most significant works as a succession of defences, first of Lyell's uniformitarian geology; next of Chambers' theory of evolution - uniform laws applied to the history of life, including man; and just before he died, in his contribution to Essays and Reviews, he said, "a work has now appeared by a naturalist of the most acknowledged authority, Mr. Darwin's masterly volume on The Origin of Species by the law of 'natural selection', - which now substantiates on undeniable grounds the very principle so long denounced by the first naturalists, - the origination of new species by natural causes: a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favor of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature." The positions of Whewell and Powell will be considered further in Chapter 5.

I do not believe that these developments were unconnected with the progressive polarization of the debate. Very roughly speaking, as the period proceeds, one must look to less and less informed and intelligent men for literal interpretations of the Bible. As early as 1819 the Quarterly Review was already ridiculing an overzealous attempt to subordinate geological facts to the Genesis account and to describe the flood as punishment. When the British Association went to York in 1844, Dean Cockburn's attempt to correct Buckland's geology, to include all of geological history within 6,000 years, and to reconcile geological findings with a fairly literal interpretation of the Genesis account, was simply an embarrassment to the President of the Association, the President of the Geological Society, and to Adam Sedgwick. A similar encounter at Oxford in 1860 did no credit to Bishop Wilberforce, nor did his rude and

 

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presumptuously patronizing review of the Origin of Species in the Quarterly Review. Similarly in the later part of the century and beyond, the debate was characterized as completely polarized. There are titles such as The Conflict between Religion and Science , A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, and Landmarks in the Strugglegy, between Science and Religion. The emergence of such works is as unsophisticated a response to the triumph of evolution as the reactions from the earlier period. The only serious study of the reception of evolution makes it apparent that there was no coherent, easily analysable reaction to the theory and its implications. If I am asked about the impact of science and evolutionism on the general public, I find that the reaction was one of unanalytic, total rejection. Darwin was a name to be invoked as a cliché, to be rejected by the faithful, or embraced by the secularists. If, however, I am asked about the impact on the intelligentsia, I find them making a subtle accommodation with the theory and adopting an attendant natural theology which, while it made God more remote from nature, made his rule grander at the same time that it left him much more a personal deity. Finally, I want to reiterate my belief that there is little evidence to show that any of the principal figures in the debate were antitheistic, much less atheistic. By concentrating on Huxley and Tyndall historians have failed to see just how easily the theory of evolution was accommodated by some of the most sophisticated and subtle thinkers of the period.

One can approach this same point another way by arguing that the evolutionary debate was merely a demarcation dispute within natural theology. There is a passage from Sir Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning which helps to make this point. Bacon says,

... let no man, upon a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress, or proficience in both; only let them beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle, or confound these learnings together.

Thus, Bacon advocates the diligent study of both the Bible and Nature but warns against confusing them. The point about Bacon's advice is not that it is transparently good advice but that

 

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everyone thought that he was following it. That is, scriptural geologists in the 1690s made the same point as they happily used biblical passages as a substitute for geological investigation, and this mixing of science and the Bible was later offered as a lesson to Buckland. Yet Buckland had quoted Bacon's advice in making his own case for liberalizing literalist geology and at the same time attempting to prove the reality of the Mosaic Deluge. Charles Lyell quoted it as his manifesto in an early geological review which criticized Buckland's views. Baden Powell's writings can be seen as a series of reiterations of Bacon's maxim, expressed passim in each of his defences of a uniformly naturalistic view of geology and evolution. Adam Sedgwick quoted Bacon as part of his attack on Chambers for evolutionism. Indeed, Darwin quoted it in the frontispiece of the Origin of Species, Each was determined to separate science from theology, but the question was where to draw the line. Many of these people were both Doctors of Divinity and Fellows of the Royal Society. They were trying to reconcile their Genesis with their geology. As Powell put it in 1838,

Scientific and revealed truth are of essentially different natures, and if we attempt to combine and unite them, we are attempting to unite things of a kind which cannot be consolidated, and shall infallibly injure both. In a word, in physical science we must keep strictly to physical induction and demonstration; in religious inquiry, to moral proof, but never confound the two together. When we follow observation and inductive reasoning, our inquiries lead us to science. When we obey the authority of the Divine Word, we are not led to science but to faith. The mistake consists in confounding these two distinct objects together; and imagining that we are pursuing science when we introduce the authority of revelation. They cannot be combined without losing the distinctive character of both.

The problem was not whether or not God governed the universe, but how. And the answer became, increasingly, "in the manner of law, not by meddling." Chambers put this point particularly well. He asked if God really used special miracles to alter a tooth, or a new tubercle or cusp on the third molar, thus distinguishing one species from another. In the seventeenth century, scientists had been warned not to have recourse to God in explaining the origins of particular things, or to miracles to explain particular effects, and

 

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in the mid-nineteenth century geologists and biologists began to see the point.

Looking at the argument this way round, then, the evolutionists were explicitly arguing for a grander view of the Creator. The other two quotations on the frontispiece of the Origin of Species are to the effect that God acted once to establish general laws, not by isolated interpositions of divine power. These same sentiments were expressed (again, with varying degrees of conviction) by Lyell, by Sir John Herschel (who thought separate creations reflected an inadequate conception of the creator), by Charles Babbage (the inventor of the computer - who tried to show that apparent miracles were really higher laws), by A. R. Wallace, and so on. The Origin of Species is littered with phrases like "far higher workmanship," and "the laws impressed on matter by the creator." Lest it be thought that Darwin used such phrases as a gesture towards public opinion, it is worth mentioning that they also occur in the first pencil sketch of his theory, written for his eyes only in 1842. In the conclusion he wrote,

It accords with what we know of the law impressed on matter by the Creator, that the creation and extinction of forms, like the birth and death of individuals, should be the effect of secondary [laws] means. It is derogatory that the Creator of countless systems of worlds should have created each of the myriads of creeping parasites and [slimy] worms which have swarmed each day of life on land and water on [this] one globe.

Belief in the inviolability of natural causes operating continuously throughout nature was indispensable if science was to be possible. The main works of Darwin, Chambers, and Lyell were all arguments in favor of interpreting nature according to fixed laws. They were not merely reports of scientific discoveries. They were concerned with the principles of reasoning, the assumptions, of science. (Indeed, Spencer once claimed that the law of evolution was an inevitable corollary of belief in natural causation.) They argued that the interests of both science and of theology required that their foundations be considered separately. Each could take care of itself and could only suffer from intermingling. The outcome of the demarcation dispute was that all of nature was seen as falling within the domain of law and was the legitimate object of scientific inquiry. This was the burden of John Tyndall's controversial

 

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"Belfast Address" in 1874, and of Huxley's most churchbaiting remarks. At the same time, however, it could be granted that all of nature was within the domain of God's law. Science laid no claim to the faith of the believer. Even Huxley was not an atheist: he coined the term "agnostic." When Sir Charles Lyell was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1875, A. P. Stanley reflected the growing reconciliation in his funeral oration: "The tranquil triumph of Geology, once thought so dangerous, now so quietly accepted by the Church, no less than by the world, is one more proof of the groundlessness of theological panics in the face of the advances of scientific discovery." Seven years later, in 1882, Charles Darwin was also buried in Westminster Abbey, a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. One view of this honour was that it proved that England was no longer a Christian country, while another was expressed by Dean Farrar in his funeral sermon:

This man, on whom for years bigotry and ignorance poured out their scorn, has been called a materialist. I do not see in all his writings one trace of materialism. I read in every line the healthy, noble, well-balanced wonder of a spirit profoundly reverent, kindled into deepest admiration for the works of God.

Two years after that, Frederick Temple's Bampton Lectures on The Relations between Religion and Science included a reassuring chapter on the "Apparent Collision between Religion and the Doctrine of Evolution" which concluded, "..... we cannot find that Science, in teaching Evolution, has yet asserted anything that is inconsistent with Revelation, unless we assume that Revelation was intended not to teach spiritual truth only, but physical truth also." A quarter of a century before writing this Temple (then Headmaster of Rugby) had been one of the subjects of heated controversy which involved two of his co-authors in prosecutions in theological courts, a storm which led to the Privy Council and the Lord Chancellor. He and the other authors of Essays and Reviews were called "septem contra Christum." Twelve years after writing it, Temple became Archbishop of Canterbury.

But what did this leave? Was the whole of the meaning of evolution summed up in one verse?

There was an ape in days that were earlier;

Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;

 

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Centuries more and his thumb gave a twist,

And he was man and a Positivist.

What had happened to the hopes which had been endangered by science?

Having argued that the evolutionary debate produced an adjustment within a basically theistic view of nature rather than a rejection of theism, I now want to go on to say that what evolution took away from man's spiritual hopes by separating science and theology and making God remote from nature's laws, it gave back in the doctrine of material and social and spiritual progress.

Far from justifying the fears of the more conventional objectors to evolution, the authors of the theory were believers in a most compassionate philosophy which absorbed pain and struggle into a sanguine belief in progress which was as optimistic as the most extreme hopes of the faithful. Belief in progress was not new in the nineteenth-century evolutionists, nor did they have a monopoly of it. They yielded to none in their faith, and their version of the doctrine of unlimited progress had the additional support of being guaranteed by the laws of nature. Lyell, an anti-evolutionist until 1869, had said in his first defence of uniformitarian geology, in 1827,

If there be no attribute which more peculiarly characterizes man than his capability of progressive improvement, our estimate of the importance of this progressive power is infinitely enhanced by perceiving what an unlimited field of future observations is unfolded to us by geology, and by its various kindred sciences.

If Lyell could say this on the basis of the new geology, how much more could Spencer say in 1857, on the basis of his own theory of evolution (two years before Darwin's theory was published) that progress was not merely a fact about man. In his essay on "Progress: Its Law and Cause," he said,

It will be seen that as in each phenomenon of to-day, so from the beginning, the decomposition of every expended force into several forces has been perpetually producing a higher complication; that the increase of heterogeneity so brought about is still going on, and must continue to go on; and that thus Progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity.

Is this anti-religious? He goes on to say that this does not imply that the great problems of philosophy are solved. "Let none thus

 

17

deceive themselves. Only such as know not the scope and the limits of Science can fall into so grave an error. After all that has been said, the ultimate mystery of things remains just as it was." Explaining one thing only "brings out into greater clearness the inexplicableness of that which remains behind" . . . "We feel ever more and more certain that fearless inquiry tends continually to give a firmer basis to all true Religion." Absolute knowledge is impossible; under all things lies an impenetrable mystery. Spencer had recovered the eighteenth-century faith that had been rudely challenged by Malthus' attack on the hopes of unlimited perfectibility of Godwin and Condorcet. John Burrow has argued in his excellent work on Evolution and Society that this was the main point of embracing evolution: it provided a guarantee of progress, where the utilitarians had only been able to hope that they could engineer it.

In the Origin of Species, Darwin mixed his belief in various manifestations of progress with scientific prophecy. If we look at the whole book as a plea to view nature in terms of the principle of the uniformity of nature, the last chapter can be read as Darwin's promise of the fruits which will be ours if we will do so. He says, "When the views entertained in this volume on the origin of species, or when analogous views are generally admitted, we can dimly foresee that there will be a considerable revolution in natural history." But Darwin is a naturalist at heart, and the first fruits he promises are that classification and naming will be less difficult for naturalists. He goes on: "A grand and almost untrodden field in enquiry will be opened, on the causes and laws of variation," and other biological questions. He also mentions benefits to breeders, geologists, and others. In the paragraph which provoked the greatest outcry he maintains the same mode of address: "In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." In the next - the penultimate - paragraph he says,

To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations,....... they seem to me to become ennobled.

 

18

"We can," he says,

so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretel that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species . . . . And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

He then lists - rather hopefully - the laws and concludes,

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Stylistically, this is the place to end, but history is not so tidy. There were at least two advocates of progress by evolution who were even more sanguine. Darwin's belief in progress concentrated on natural history. He wrote more on plants than on animals and more on animals than on man. Spencer was particularly concerned with man, and his belief in progress was unequivocal: the basic motive for his life's work was to place this belief on a secure foundation. Out of the belief in progress through struggle there grew the ideology of so-called "Social Darwinism." This provided the intellectual underpinnings for defences of imperialism in Britain and the so-called robber barons in America. This point of view was reflected in Walter Bagehot's Physics and Politics and provides another aspect of the impact of evolution on conventional belief. But much depends on one's conventions, and evolutionism also served as a rationale for very different political and social views. Alfred Russel Wallace's belief in progress increased as the years went on and as he became more concerned with social problems. As early as 1864 (only six years after his co-discovery

 

19

of evolution by means of natural selection he was ceasing to believe in the all-sufficiency of the mechanism of natural selection where man was concerned. He wrote in 1864 that progress is slow,

but it still seems to be progress....... there is undoubtedly an advance - on the whole a steady and permanent one..... ; and as I cannot impute . this in any way to "survival of the fittest," I am forced to conclude that it is due to the inherent progressive power of those glorious qualities which raise us so immeasurably above our fellow animals, and at the same time afford us the surest proof that there are other and higher existences than ourselves, from whom these qualities may have been derived, and towards whom we may ever be tending.

In later years Wallace became almost exclusively absorbed by social problems, and in 1898 he attempted to sum up the successes and failures of The Wonderful Century. The appendix of that book is worth examining. It is entitled "The Remedy for Want in the Midst of Wealth." Wallace begins as follows:

The experience of the whole century, and niore especially of the latter half of it, has fully established the fact that, under our present competitive system of capitalistic production and distribution, the continuous increase of wealth in the possession of the capitalist and landowning classes is not accompanied by any corresponding diminution of the severity and misery and want or in the numbers of those who suffer from extreme poverty, rendered more unendurable by the presence of the most lavish waste and luxury on every side of them.

And he continues,

I have done what I can to prove the utter breakdown of our present state of social disorganization - a state which causes all the advances in science and in our command over the forces of nature to be absolutely powerless to check the growth of poverty in our midst. Every attempt to salve or to hide our social ulcers has failed, and must continue to fail, because those ulcers are the necessary product of Competitive Individualism.

He concludes,

I therefore call upon all earnest and thinking men and women to devote their energies to advocating those more fundamental changes which both theory and experience prove to be needed, and which alone have any chance of success.

 

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For now - though oft mistaken, oft despairing,

At last, methinks, at last I see-the dawn;

At last, though yet a-faint, the awakening nations

Proclaim the passing of the night forlorn;

So shall the long-conceived child of Time

Be born of Progress - soon the morn sublime

Shall burst effulgent through the clouds of Earth,

And light Time's greatest page - 0 Right, thy glorious birth!

Lest this seem an irrelevant polemical plea for socialism, or even slightly so, I ought perhaps to remind you that the movement of thought which produced the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection also produced (if we interpret it very widely indeed), in 1860, the following remark on Darwin's Origin of Species: "although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view." The author of that remark was Karl Marx, writing to his collaborator, Frederick Engels, in 1860. It marked the beginning of a complex and fraught history, wherein not only Marxists but also the proponents of practically every conceivable political position sought to ground it in Darwinism.

But Darwin was himself far from lending his name to such enterprises, whatever their political or religious tendency. When his theory was connected with socialism and later with democratic movements in Germany, he wrote, "What a foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection." An analogous dissociation from publicly controverted issues about beliefs emerges from a letter to Edward Aveling, who lived with Marx's daughter Eleanor and had declared publicly in 1879 that he was an atheist and became a militant political agitator in several antireligious organizations. Aveling asked for Darwin's permission to dedicate to him an exposition of his ideas, The Student's Darwin, to be published by an avowedly antireligious publishing house of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh which bore the subtitle: "International Library of Science and Freethought/II." Darwin politely declined, saying,

Dear Sir, - I thank you for your friendly letter and the enclosure. The publication of your observations on my writings, in whatever form they may appear, really does not need any consent on my part, and it would be

 

21

ridiculous for me to grant my permission for something which does not require it. I should prefer the part of the volume not to be dedicated to me (although I thank you for the intended honour), as that would to a certain extent suggest my approval of the whole work, with which I am not acquainted.

Although I am a keen advocate of freedom of opinion on all questions, it seems to me (rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and Theism hardly have any effect on the public; and that freedom of thought will best be promoted by that gradual enlightening of human understanding which follows the progress of science. I have therefore always avoided writing about religion and have confined myself to science. Possibly I have been too strongly influenced by the thought of the concern it might cause some members of my family if in any way I lent my support to direct attacks on religion.

I am sorry to refuse you any request but I am old and have little strength, and the reading of proofs (as I know from present experience) imposes a heavy strain on me. (Signed) Charles Darwin.

I did not set out to show that the common assumption of a conflict between theology and science is without foundation. I have only tried to suggest that a desire for conflict was not an important motive in the debate. Also, when the advocates of an evolutionary view did encroach on the domain of theism, they provided an alternative view of man and society which was as sanguine and Utopian in its belief in progress as were the views of the afterlife advocated by the most evangelical, antiscientific, scriptural literalist. Marxism is, of course, the most striking example of a Victorian, this-worldly, utopian philosophy, promising inevitable social progress. In the same period, the author of the extremely popular work, A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, also claimed that social advancement is as completely under the control of natural law as is bodily growth.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate my main points. "Darwinism" has been made to stand for a much wider naturalistic movement in psychology, social theory, and science and cannot be fruitfully studied in isolation. The effect of its impact on popular opinion was considerable but was characterized by a lack of subtlety which makes a close study of the theological and social views of the intellectual élite a much more rewarding enterprise than merely invoking conventional homilies. Finally, the evolutionary debate was seen by its participants as occurring within natural theology, with no antitheistic overtones, while those who

 

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used evolution for other purposes were themselves devoted believers in the secular religion of Progress, albeit a different religion, but one which has retained its appeal for the faithful.

POSTSCRIPT

This, the first essay I published on Darwinian issues, has pleasant associations and still feels right. There have been some efforts of late to try to banish theological - especially natural theology - issues from Darwinian scholarship - to put them back in the wings in the way that a blinkered scientific approach would dictate. I remain sure that this is wrong. I also remain convinced that the connections or articulations of Darwinism to theological and social issues have to be kept in good repair. Finally, I am glad to say that there is a growing appreciation of the position that it is too simplistic to represent the relations between Darwinism and religion as ones of straightforward conflict. Darwinism and Anglicanism were able to accommodate to each other rather readily.

Anyone wishing to continue to take a simple view of the relations between Victorian scientific naturalism and the establishment, as represented by the Victorian Anglican hierarchy, has many apparent anomalies to explain. Here are two which I never tire of repeating. Essays and Reviews advocated the treatment of the Bible as a historical text and supported naturalism with respect to the history of life. It was a scandal and was prosecuted in the theological courts. One of the notorious essayists in this book, which caused as great a stir as On the Origin of Species, was Frederick Temple. As I've said above, he went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The second striking fact is also mentioned in this essay: Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey.


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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