The Greek poet Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog [Darwin], knows one big thing.(1)
Today in 1831, the 22 years old Charles Darwin grandson of Erasmus, set sail in HMS Beagle on a five year voyage of scientific discovery, having been recommended by John Henslow, Darwin’s Cambridge tutor.(2)
Darwin by observing how the beaks of Galapagos finches were adapted to their feeding, and how the shells of giant tortoises varied from island to island, developed his theory of evolution.
As a result of his observations of the geology and natural history of South America and the Pacific, his theories ‘On the Origin of the Species’, were sketched out in 1842, and published in 1859. Their potential explosive impact on Victorian society can only be imagined.
Four months after Darwin’s publication, ‘Essays and Reviews’ came out in March 1860 which was a Broad Church volume of seven essays on Christianity by seven Anglican churchman, reflecting the new thinking.
Darwin never made another voyage ‘but curled hedgehog-like over his harvest of fact, speculation, refining, questioning and testing in enormous depth’. His fellow scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had arrived at similar conclusions, jointly published with Darwin, but ‘voyaged endlessly, restless as a fox involved in wider issues’.(3)
Darwin was preceded by other workers in the same field, building on previous ideas, as the Derby born Herbert Spencer the 19th century social philosopher, who had suggested ‘the survival of the fittest’ for ‘natural selection’. There was also Alexander von Humboldt, whom Darwin called the ‘greatest of naturalists’ for his work in Central and South America.
Then in 1844, an anonymous publication called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ had examined the issue of evolution, later found to have been written by Robert Chambers the Scots’ publisher.
The publication of Darwin’s work was yet another nail in the coffin of a literal interpretation of the Bible and resulted in debate before the British Association, at the new opened Ashmolean Museum Oxford on 30th June 1860. Richard Owen, the zoologist, should have been in the chair, but he never arrived, and was replaced by the Cambridge Professor Henslow.(4)
The two main protagonists were the scientist Thomas Huxley, and ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford who asked: ‘whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that Darwin was descended from an ape’.
Huxley who led the defence of Darwin, was said to have risen white with anger: ‘I should be sorry to demolish so eminent a prelate, but for myself, I would rather be descended from an ape than from a divine who employ authority to stifle the truth’.(5)
Darwin in fact was nearer to the teleological (creationist) arguments, the ‘Watchmaker Analogy’ the Natural Theology of Newton, Paley and others, who argued design from Nature, based on Reason which used experience, and thus opposed Revealed Theology (scriptural and religious experience) and any notions of Transcendentalism.(6)
Darwin died on 19th April 1882 and his statue can be seen outside his old school, now the Shrewsbury Library.
(1) From Aesop’s Tales.
(2a) The Beagle was a 10-gun brig, known as ‘coffins’ owing to a tendency to capsize in heavy weather.
(2b) Henslow was Professor of Mineralogy, a botanist, geologist. He was an absent clergyman of Cholsey cum Milford, Berks (now Oxon), at a time when ‘Oxbridge’ fellows had to be members of the Anglican Church, and many were ordained clergy.
(3) Ref: Cited in Emma Crichton-Miller reviews 24.8.2007, Bones of Controversy by Paul Chambers, Murray.
(4) The Ashmolean had been donated to Oxford University by Elias Ashmole back in 1675, and was the first museum to be opened to the public in 1683.
(5a) Being a scientist didn’t necessarily evoke rational enlightenment, as the great physicists of the 19thc Lord Kelvin and John Ambrose Fleming were not evolutionists.
(5b) Benjamin Disraeli famously said: ‘if it was a choice between apes and angels, he was on the side of the angels’.
(6) The Watchmaker Theory, likens evolution to a wound clock which runs down.
Ref: Reminiscences of Oxford by Rev. W Tuckwell, Smith Elder 1907.
Ref: The hedgehog and the Fox. Stephen Jay Gould.googlebooks.2011/history.
Professor Rowland Williams, one of the most influential theologians of the 19th century, was a supporter of the new Biblical criticism and a pioneer of comparative religious studies in Britain.
After being charged with heresy along with the Editor of ‘Essays and Reviews’, they were acquitted on appeal to the Privy Council. It proved to be a turning point in protecting the liberty and conscience, of those within the Church of England.
Four months after Darwin’s publication on evolution, ‘Essays and Reviews’ was published in March 1860. It was a Broad Church volume of seven essays on Christianity by seven academics and Anglican churchman, reflecting the new theological thinking.
Today in 1862 Professor Rowland Williams, vice-Principal and Professor of Hebrew at St.David’s, Lampeter, Wales, was found guilty along with theologian, Henry Bristow Wilson on 3 out of the 8 Articles brought against them in the dissertation on the ‘National Church’ in the influential ‘ Essays and Reviews’.(1)
They were prosecuted by Walter Kerr Hamilton, Bishop of Salisbury for heterodoxy, three of which were admitted, and cited before The Arches Court of Canterbury. The trial occupied ten days between the 19th and 21st of December 1861, and between the 7th and 16th of January 1862-constituting a cause-celebre at the time.
However the Judgement handed down, sanctioned most positions of Biblical criticism and the relationship of scripture to science. Later hearings dealt with those relating to the three indictments concerning the admitted articles.
The charges related to the ‘Essays and Reviews’ published in February 1860 by seven theologians who had been influenced by the new German Higher Biblical criticism, contributors who included academics such Benjamin Jowett and Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, and Baden-Powell (father of Boy Scouts’ founder.
The early 19th century was the age of the ‘scriptural geologists’ many of them Anglican clergymen, such as Cockburn, Dean of York, and the influential and Evangelistic Rev.Thomas Gisborne who wrote ‘Testimony of Natural Theology to Christianity (1818), and Concerns on the Modern Theories of Geology (1837), which went against the trend of the new scientific geologists whose work on strata was demonstrating processes over millennia, thus conflicting with Biblical accounts.
(1) Williams was in office, at Lampeter, between 1849 and 1862. Bristow was a Fellow of St. John’s, Oxford.
Ref: Rowland Williams/ wikipedia.org/wikipedia/d-n-b
Ref: Essays and Reviews wikipedia.org
Next Post looks at the General who ‘Gott’ Away or ‘Monty’s’ luck.