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In the latter half of the nineteenth century science came to be seen as providing the model for seeking truth. This led to a reorganization of all of the disciplines, including theology. We have also come to see the nineteenth century as a period in which a new set of assumptions about science and religion was introduced that continues to shape how we currently view their relationship. The appearance of Draper’s History of the Conflict between Science and Religion in 1874, in which the conflict thesis is fully developed for the first time, is no coincidence. One of the things that historians can do is open up current discussions by showing the paths not taken that were live options at one point, before new assumptions constrained and narrowed thinking. This chapter examines how scientific naturalists like T. H. Huxley attempted to constrain thinking about science and religion, how those constraints began to shape debates, and how major Christian theologians of the period responded to this development, whether through resistance or conformity.
In 1879, Darwin wrote to John Fordyce, a Scottish-born congregationalist minister and author, who had asked about the state of the evolutionist’s religious beliefs. Darwin wrote that his judgement often fluctuated. ‘In my most extreme fluctuations’, Darwin told Fordyce, ‘I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind’ (Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 12041). Since this was just three years before Darwin’s death, this can be taken as a fairly definitive statement of his mature views. Darwin, and many of the Darwinians who supported his evolutionary theory, depicted themselves as agnostics. But both critics on their right and on their left accused them of trying to use agnosticism as a disguise for their true position: materialistic atheism.
A gigantic historicizing of all thought took place during the nineteenth century. The unlikely driver of the historicizing of nineteenth century thought was evolutionary science. The unexpected agents of this historicizing process were the evolutionary naturalists, men like Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and John Tyndall. They were responsible for transforming a static notion of nature into a dynamic one, where the history of living things became important for the first time. And then they argued that this notion of nature should be used to understand the development of the human world. There men were deeply indebted to German Romanticism. As young men, they learned about the German Romantics through British intermediaries like Carlyle or Coleridge. From them they all learned the value of organic and teleological modes of thought. They also learned that the quest to find transcendental meaning in nature, sometimes best expressed in poetic terms, was not necessarily in opposition to adopting empiricist and materialistic methods in science. As aggressive proponents of a somewhat teleological view of evolution, they played a major role in pushing the science of their age towards historicist modes of thought.
Physicist John Tyndall and his contemporaries were at the forefront of developing the cosmology of scientific naturalism during the Victorian period. They rejected all but physical laws as having any impact on the operations of human life and the universe. Contributors focus on the way Tyndall and his correspondents developed their ideas through letters, periodicals and scientific journals and challenge previously held assumptions about who gained authority, and how they attained and defended their position within the scientific community.
Located on the east side of London's Leicester Square, the Sablonière Hotel provided the setting for a well-attended meeting on the evening of 4 February 1851. The chairman declared that the purpose of the meeting was to consider what should be done with the square, which had become a public nuisance. James Wyld, a cartographer and geographical publisher, then rose and laid out an ambitious proposal for the construction of a colossal globe in the centre of the square for ‘the purpose of exhibition’. Wyld unveiled a ‘well-executed model of his monster globe, with plans, sections, and diagrams of the several compartments’. The unique building would nearly fill the large enclosure at the centre of the square. It would contain a globe-shaped representation of the earth sixty feet in diameter and adjoining rooms that would exhibit geographical and ethnographical specimens, including minerals and costumes. Wyld estimated that the total cost of the exhibition would be £21,000. He reported that he had purchased the freehold of the site of the enclosure from the Tulke family for £3,000. A proviso was built into the agreement: if, at the expiration of ten years, he chose to discontinue the exhibition, he would return the ground to the inhabitants of the square ‘in a neat and ornamental order’. Similarly, if the venture was unsuccessful and he was forced to close at an earlier period, he promised to restore the ground in an improved state.
In 1877 William Allingham, a poet with connections to the Pre-Raphaelite school of painters and writers, then editor of Fraser's Magazine, wrote a piece for his own journal under the pseudonym of Unus de Multis that blasted the‘Creed of the Future’ as promulgated by ‘Modern Prophets’. Though this new creed had ‘not yet been put into any formal shape’, Allingham believed that it would be tantamount to atheistic materialism. Science, Allingham complained, was sweeping away all religious faith. For the modern prophets, among whom he included scientists such as T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall and W. K. Clifford, grounded their obnoxious creed on the assumption that ‘physical science is competent to deal with the total contents of human experience; the truth being that these our Prophets translate every experience into materialistic formulae’. In the past, atheism could only be found ‘skulking’ in a ‘cheap newspaper and dingy discussion hall’. For the first time in the history of modern civilization, Allingham warned, ‘ATHEISM is publicly and authoritatively inculcated’ in ‘schools, classes, lectures to working-men, lectures to the fashionable world, Sunday afternoon discourses, “lay-sermons” of all sorts, books and periodicals addressed to people of every rank and every degree of culture’. But what bothered Allingham even more than the unprecedented public expression of atheism was the lack of any strong reaction against it.
In this collection of essays from leading scholars, the dynamic interplay between evolution and Victorian culture is explored for the first time, mapping new relationships between the arts and sciences. Rather than focusing simply on evolution and literature or art, this volume brings together essays exploring the impact of evolutionary ideas on a wide range of cultural activities including painting, sculpture, dance, music, fiction, poetry, cinema, architecture, theatre, photography, museums, exhibitions and popular culture. Broad-ranging, rather than narrowly specialized, each chapter provides a brief introduction to key scholarship, a central section exploring original insights drawn from primary source material, and a conclusion offering overarching principles and a projection towards further areas of research. Each chapter covers the work of significant individuals and groups applying evolutionary theory to their particular art, both as theorists and practitioners. This comprehensive examination of topics sheds light on larger and previously unknown Victorian cultural patterns.