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The Relationship between Science and Religion in Britain, 1830–1870

  • Michael Ruse (a1)


It is almost a truism that when Charles Darwin's Origin of Species first appeared, in 1859, many people found its evolutionism to be unacceptable for religious reasons. They thought the theory of natural selection working by random variations conflicted with long-held and cherished beliefs about God and His relationship with man and the world. But although the general fact of the religious opposition to Darwinism is well-known, precise questions about the nature of the opposition—if indeed there was total opposition—have yet to be answered fully The present article seeks to go some way towards the asking and answering of such questions, although the discussion will keep to relatively sophisticated thinkers who took both science and religion seriously, and who were therefore concerned to achieve some harmony between the two. It will not deal with those who cared only for either science or religion.



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1. The best analysis is in Ellegârd, A., Darwin and the General Reader (Göteborg: Göteborgs Universitets Arsskrift, 1958). See also Hull, D. L., Darwin and His Critics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973); Gruber, H. E. and Barrett, P. H., Darwin on Man (New York: Dutton, 1974).

2. Gillespie, C. C., Genesis and Geology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951); Millhauser, M., “The Scriptural Geologists. An Episode in the History of Opinion,” Osiris 11 (1954): 6586; Rudwick, M. J. S., The Meaning of Fossils (London: Macdonald, 1972).

3. Cannon, W. F., “Scientists and Broad Churchmen: an Early Victorian Intellectual Network,” Journal of British Studies 4 (1964): 6588, gives very full details of these men, their work and their relationships. See also Whately, E. W., Personal and Family Glimpses of Remarkable People (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889).

4. A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1831).

5. History of the Inductive Sciences, 3 vols. (London: Parker, 1837); Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 2 vols. (London: Parker, 1840).

6. 3 vols., London: Murray, 1830–1833.

7. Vindiciae Geologicae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1820); Reliquiae Diluvianae (London: Murray, 1823).

8. Lyell, , Principles, 1, chs. 24. But see also, Bartholomew, M., “Lyell and Evolution: An Account of Lyell's Response to the Prospect of an Evolutionary Ancestry for Man,” British Journal for the History of Science 6 (1973): 261303, esp. p. 267.

9. Oxford: Parker, 1833.

10. Powell, Baden, Revelation, p. 35; quoting Herschel, , Discourse, p. 9.

11. Sedgwick, A., “Address to the Geological Society,” Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 1 (1831): 281316;Whewell, , Philosophy, 2:137157.Buckland himself took back his claims about evidence for the Flood (in a footnote!), Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (Bridgewater Treatise, 6) (London: Pickering, 1836), 1:94n95n.

12. Whewell, W., “Principles of Geology … by Charles Lyell … Vol. 1. …,” British Critio 9 (1831): 180206, esp. p. 206.

13. Whewell, , History, 3:602.

14. Whewell, , Philosophy, 2:145.

15. Sedgwick, A., Discourse on the Studies of the University (Cambridge: University Press, 1833); Whewell, W., Astronomy and General Physics (Bridgewater Treatise 3) (London:Pickering, 1833). The Bridgewater Treatises (1833–1836) were eight commissioned works on natural theology.

16. Whewell, , Philosophy, 2:83; quoting p. 348 of Owen, R., “On the Generation of the Marsupial Animals, with a Description of the Impregnated Uterus of the Kangaroo,” Philosophical Transactions (1834), pp. 333364.

17. Whewell, , Astronomy, pp. 293303.

18. See Bartholomew, , Lyell, esp. pp. 285286; Herschel, , Discourse, p. 4.

19. Babbage, Charles, Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment, 2d ed. (London: Murray, 1838), pp. 3049.

20. Powell, Baden, The Connexion of Natural and Divine Truth (London: Parker, 1838) pp. 113204.

20. Powell, Baden, The Connexion of Natural and Divine Truth (London: Parker, 1838) pp. 113204.

21. Herschel, , Discourse, p. 98.

22. Whewell spoke of “physical” or “causal” laws, and “formal” or “phenomenal” laws.

23. Herschel, , Discourse, p. 144.

24. Whewell, Philosophy; “On the Nature of the Truth of the Laws of Motion,” Transactions of the Cambridge PhilosophicaL Society 5 (1834): 149172.

25. Cannon, W. F., “The Problem of Miracles in the 1830's,” Victorian Studies 4 (1960): 532.

26. Cannon, W. F., “The Impact of Uniformitarianism, Two Letters from John Herschel to Charles Lyell, 1836–1837,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105 (1961): 301314, esp. p. 308.

27. Cannon, , “Impact,” p. 305. This passage was reprinted with endorsement by Babbage, Treatise, p. 226. See also Powell, Baden, Connexion, p. 151.

28. Lyell, , Principles, 2:183.

29. Babbage, , Treatise, pp. 3049.

30. Whewell, , History, 3:588589.

31. Lyell, , Principles, 2:135.

32. Whewell, W., “Principles of Geology … By Charles Lyell … Vol II …,” Quarterly Review 47 (1832): 103132, esp. p. 125. See also Sedgwick, , “Address.,” p. 305; “… an adjusting power altogether different from what we commonly understand by the laws of nature…”

33. Whewell, , Philosophy, 2:116; Whewell, , History, 3:574.

34. “Objections to Mr. Darwin's Theory of the Origin of Species,” The Spectator (1860), p. 285; reprinted in Hull, , Darwin, p. 161.

35. Whewell, , History, 3:574.

36. Sedgwick, , “Address,” p. 306.

37. For example, Babbage, , Treatise, pp. 4546Whewell, , History, 3:580588.

38. Bartholomew, , “Lyell,” p. 286.

39. Lvell, , Principles, 1:162.

40. Millhausër, “Scriptural Geologists,” is very good on the less sophisticated positions on the sciene-religion relationship.

41. 1st ed., London: Churchill, 1844. See also Millhauser, M., Just Before Darwin: Robert Chambers and “Festiges”. (Middleton. Conn.: Weslevan University Press; 1959): Hodge, M. J. S., “The Universal Gestation of Nature: Chsitnbers' Vestiges and Explanations,” Journal of the History of Biology 5 (1972): 127151.

42. Chambers, , Vestiges, pp. 387390.

43. Ibid., p. 325. Whewell and Buckland, it will be remembered, had contributed to the Bridgewater Treatises.

44. Chambers, , Vestiges, pp. 359360.

45. Herschel, J. F. W., “Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1845,” reprinted in Herschel, J. F. W., Essays (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1857), pp. 634682, esp. p. 675.

46. Essays on Inductive Philosophy (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855), pp. 315481. Although this essay (titled “On the Philosophy of Creation”) did not appear until 1855, Baden Powell did respond favorably to Chambers' ideas in the 1840s. The exact date of Baden Powell's initial support for Chambersian ideas does not really matter— it happened before the Origin.

47. Powell, Baden, Essays, p. 76 and p. 466.

48. Sedgwick, A., “Vestiges …,” Edinburgh Review 82 (1845): 185; Discourse, 5th ed., (1850); Whewell, W., Indications of the Creator (London: Parker, 1845, 2d ed., 1846).

49. Sedgwick, , “Vestiges,” p. 3.

50. Ibid., and p. 12.

51. Sedgwick, Discourse (5th ed.), p. xix; see also, for example, Sedgwick, , “Vestiges,” pp. 1112.

52. Sedgwick, , “Vestiges,” p. 32 and p. 43.

53. Whewell, , Indications (2d ed.), pp. 1216. The same kind of argument was always invoked when the question of man arose. Although it was religion which made men desperately keen not to have to include man's origin in the natural course of events, scientific or pseudo-scientific reasons were advanced for the impossibility of such a natural origin. Man has a moral sense, reasoning power, and so on, all things which supposedly preclude origination through blind law.

54. Ibid., p. 13.

55. Ibid.

56. Owen, R., On the Archetype and Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton (London: Taybr, 1848); On the Nature of Limbs (London: Royal Institution, 1849). See also Rudwick, , Fossils. pp. 207214; and Macleod, R. M., “Evolutionism and Richard Owen, 1830- 1868,” Isis 56 (1965): 259280. Whewell and Sedgwick actually consulted Owen before responding to Vestiges. See Owen, R., Life of Richard Owen, 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1894), 1:252255.

57. Baden Powell. conversely, liked Owen's position precisely because of the appeal to law. Essays, pp. 400–401.

58. Owen, , Limbs, p. 86.

59. Whewell papers, Trinity College, Add Ms. a. 21069 dated Feb. 14, 1844. This letter is pretty harsh on Vestines, in contrast to the friendly letter Owen wrote to Chambers, in Owen, , Life, 1:249252.

60. Bartholomew, “Lvell,” argues convincingly that Lvell was so concerned about man that he deliberately advocated a non-progressionist reading of the fossil-record, for he feared (despite Sedgwiek) that a progressionist reading could well support evolutionism and hence threaten man's uniqueness.

61. [Whewell, W.], Plurality (London: Parker, 1853, 3rd ed. 1854). Everyone knew that Whewell was the author.

62. See Todhunter, I., William Whewell, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1876), 1: 184210, which lists and discusses many of the responses.

63. Wilson, L., ed., Sir Charles Lyell's Scientific Journals on the Species Question (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), for example, pp. 99, 156. Darwin also read the Plurality and knew Whewell to be the author. (Information front an unpublished readinglist, Darwin Collection, University Library, Cambridge.)

64. Whewell, , Treatise, p. 208. Few of the critics of Plurality missed the opportunity of suggesting that the anon ens author might consult this work with profit.

65. Todhunter, , Whewell, 2:292, 294.

66. Whewell, , Plurality, 3d ed., pp. 283288.

67. Ibid. p. 44.

68. Ibid., pp. 342–343.

69. Ibid., pp. 376–377.

70. Powell, , Essays, p. 239.

71. Ibid., p. 231.

72. London: Murray, 1854.

73. The Origin of Species (London: Murray, 1859).

74. Darwin, , Origin, p. 488. This reference to man was deliberate. Darwin thought it dishonest entirely to conceal his views. See Darwin, F., ed., Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols. (London: Murray, 1887), 1:94; 2:263–264.

75. Darwin, , Origin, p. 453.

76. Mandelbaum, M., “Darwin's Religious Views,” Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958): 363378, is most valuable on this subject.

77. Three Essays on Religion (New York: Holt, 1874), p. 174.

78. Darwin himself, towards the end of his life, seems to have swung this way. See Barlow, N., ed., Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Norton, 1969), esp. p. 87.

79. Hull, Darwin; Vorzimmer, P., Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1970).

80. “Agnostic” in this context may be slightly anachronistic, for the word was invented by Huxley (Collected Essays [London: Macmillan, 1901], 9:134).

81. This appears in his contribution, “On the study of the Evidences of Christianitv,” to Essays and Reviews (London: Longman. Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860); p. 139.

82. See Sedgwick's letter to Darwin in Clark, J. H. and Hughes, T. M., Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, 2 vols. (Cambridge: University Press, 1890), 2:356359; his review of the Origin is reprinted in Hull. Darwin, pp. 159–166, and his final, unchanged 1872 views on man, in Clark and Hughes. Life and Letters, 2:468–469. Whewell criticized Darwin's theory to a correspondent, Todhunter, , Whewell, 2:433435; and hē raised again the question of final causes, suggesting natural selection's inadequacies, in a new prefaee to the seventh edition of his Bridgewater Treatise, (1863).

83. Wilberforce, S., “On the Origin of Species …,” Quarterly Review 108 (1860): 225264.

84. Huxley, L., ed., Life and Letters of Thomas H. Huxley (New York: Appleton, 1900), 1:192204.

85. Wilberforce, , “Origin,” pp. 256260.

86. Darwin, , Life, 2:241.

87. Herschel, J. F. W., Physical Geography (Edinburgh: Black, 1861), p. 12n.

88. Wilson, , Lyell's Journals, pp. 123, 246.

89. Ibid., p. 382.

90. Lyell, , Principles, 10th ed. (1868), pp. 491492.

91. Vorzimmer, Darwin; Gruber, J., A Conscience in Conflict: The Life of St. George Jackson Mivart (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1960).

92. Genesis of Species (London: Macmillan, 1870).

93. “It [Genesis] is a book that I think will please Sir Charles Lyell.” Letter from A. R. Wallace to Miss A. Buckley, February 2, 1871, in Marchant, J., Alfred Russell Wallace, Letters and Reminiscences (London: Cassell, 1916), p. 288.

94. Genesis, 2d ed., pp. 325–326.

95. Kingsley, F. E., Charles Kingsley (London: King, 1877), p. 386, expresses support for Hugh Miller, a miracle-advocate, although p. 377 suggests that Kingsley may have had a slightly weaker notion of miracle than, say, Sedgwick.

96. Kingsley, C. K., “The Natural Theology of the Future,” Macmillan's Magazine 23 (1871): 369378.

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