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Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature

Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature

by Keith Stewart Thomson

For 200 years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, findings in the sciences of the earth and of nature threatened religious belief based on the literal truth of the Bible. This book traces out the multiple conflicts and accommodations within religion and the new sciences through the writings of such heroes of the English


For 200 years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, findings in the sciences of the earth and of nature threatened religious belief based on the literal truth of the Bible. This book traces out the multiple conflicts and accommodations within religion and the new sciences through the writings of such heroes of the English Enlightenment as David Hume, Robert Hooke, John Ray, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather), Thomas Burnet, and William Whiston.
Keith Thomson brings us back to a time when many powerful clerics were also noted scientific scholars and leading scientists were often believers. He celebrates the force and elegance of their prose along with the inventiveness of their arguments, their certitude, and their not infrequent humility and caution. Placing Charles Darwin’s work in the context of earlier writers on evolutionary theory, Thomson finds surprising and direct connections between the anti-evolutionary writings of natural theologians like William Paley and the arguments that Darwin employed to turn anti-evolutionist ideas upside-down. This is an illuminating chronicle of an important period in the history of ideas and one that casts interesting light on the anti-evolution/creationist controversies of our own time.

Editorial Reviews

John Polkinghorne

"Keith Thomson gives a lively and detailed account of the two centuries of vigorous arguments about science and religion that preceded the publication of Darwin’s ideas in 1859. This account is one that anyone interested in the controversy of natural theology will wish to read."—John Polkinghorne, author of Belief in God in an Age of Science

Rebecca Stott

"Lively, enthusiastic and beautifully written, Before Darwin fired my imagination and robustly challenged and broadened my understanding of the history of natural philosophy. A fine read and an important contribution to the history of science."—Professor Rebecca Stott, Anglia Polytechnic University, and author of Darwin and the Barnacle

Publishers Weekly
When aspiring naturalist and onetime divinity student Charles Darwin departed on HMS Beagle in 1831, tensions between religious and scientific accounts of the origins of life had already been building for at least two centuries. Thomson, emeritus professor of natural history at Oxford, sketches these tensions along with various attempts, ranging from conventional through ingenious to eccentric, to resolve them. Focusing on William Paley's Natural Theology, one of the young Darwin's favorite books, Thomson shows how conundrums about the age of the earth, nature's dark side and social ferment in Britain had complicated the search for divine design in nature even before Darwin's voyage began. Thomson's strong point is not philosophical analysis but historical scope, especially in discussing the British roots of historical geography and evolutionary theory. This volume includes not just the usual suspects-Hooke, Hume, Malthus and Lamarck-but also lesser known figures such as physico-theologians Thomas Burnet and John Woodward; pioneering naturalists John Ray, Gilbert White and James Hutton; and proto-evolutionist Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. The book's most engaging chapter relates the lively 17th-century controversy over the "enigma" of fossils: were they the remains of real creatures, or "figured stones" bearing only "a coincidental resemblance to real organisms"? Although Thomson is generally a clear writer, his habit of switching between thematic and chronological organization can be disorienting at times. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Yale University Press
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Reconciling God and Nature
By Keith Thomson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Keith Thomson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-10793-5

Chapter One

Charles Darwin and William Paley

'The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, but not how the heavens go.' Galileo Galilei, letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615 (quoting Cardinal Caesar Baronius)

'As it more recommends the Skill of an Engineer to contrive an elaborate Engine so as that there should need nothing to reach his ends in it but the contrivance of parts devoid of understanding ... so it more sets off the Wisdom of God ... that he can make so vast a machine [the universe] perform all these many things.' Robert Boyle, Free Enquiry into the Nature of Things, 1688

One enters Christ's College, Cambridge, through a richly carved sixteenth-century gateway and under a pair of painted heraldic beasts, all contrasting markedly with the sober courtyard of grey buildings within. Across the immaculate lawn, on the right-hand side of First Court, is the doorway to Staircase G with, on the first floor, the pair of rooms occupied by the shy young Charles Darwin when, between 1828 and 1831, he studied to become a Church of England cleric.

Much of Darwin's early life, his ambitions and the sources of his inspiration, remain a mystery. He had originally started to train for medicine at Edinburgh but neither the subject nor the intellectual climate of the city suited him and in 1828 he entered Cambridge to prepare for a life as a clergyman instead. With his driving passion for natural history, he may have had in mind a career as a country parson-naturalist in the long tradition that had produced such luminaries as the Reverend John Ray (known as 'the father of natural history') in the seventeenth century and the Reverend Gilbert White, revered chronicler of English country life in the eighteenth. (Darwin's cousin William Darwin Fox was also at Cambridge planning just such a career and soon achieved it, although his scholarly contributions from his quiet country parish were minor.) He may even have aspired to become a university don like his teachers in Edinburgh (Robert Jameson and Robert Grant) or his eventual Cambridge mentor the Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow, a cleric, a brilliant teacher and a leading botanist and geologist. But if he were to take the route of training for the clergy, there was first the issue of faith.

Darwin had been brought up in the Midlands Unitarianism of his mother (the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood) while his father had long since taken the fashionable road to the Church of England. There is no question of Darwin having had a special 'calling' to be a clergyman. Indeed, when his father insisted that if he would not continue with medicine he must enter the Church, the eighteen-year-old had privately questioned whether he was sufficient of a believer honestly to start down that path, let alone to give witness to his belief in the pulpit. But he needed a respectable profession. Therefore, in the summer of 1827, in his calm, preternaturally rational way, he set out on a research programme to discover whether he could go through with it. Darwin carefully studied the Reverend John Pearson's Exposition of the Creed (1659) with one question in mind, and 'as I did not in the least way doubt the strict and literal truth of any word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted'. Satisfied at a minimal level that he was not being personally or intellectually dishonest, Darwin entered Cambridge.

Darwin failed to complete his clerical training, just as he earlier failed to complete his medical studies. In 1831, armed with a passing degree and financially secure from his mother's estate, he went off for five years' adventuring and discovery on HMS Beagle. His religious beliefs then were still quite conventional: 'I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (although themselves orthodox) by quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.' By the time he returned his career had taken a different direction, one in which the ceaseless questioning of science gradually replaced the sureties of revealed religion. But from very early on Darwin thought seriously about the developing conflicts between science and religion. As a student preparing to take holy orders, he knew of the challenges posed by early theories of evolution - particularly since one of them was the brainchild of his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Later he would be only too aware that his own theory of natural selection, which he began to formulate as early as 1838, would inevitably contribute to the growing crisis caused by scholars who discovered, behind the apparent miracles of nature, the operation of scientifically definable laws and processes. And the situation was the more personal after his marriage in 1839 to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, who for her whole life was a staunchly believing Christian. At the time of writing On the Origin of Species, Darwin had lost his faith as a Christian and thought himself a deist; he died an agnostic and, while we cannot be sure exactly when Darwin first faced the challenges presented to conventional faith by contemporary science, we know that he was well aware of the issues in 1831, because we know what books he read.

In the spring of 1831, the tall, shy, aspiring cleric, a paradoxical mixture of bookish intellectual and outdoorsman with a passion for field sports, found himself with some time on his hands. Although he had achieved a respectable tenth place among students not competing for honours, he would not technically be eligible to graduate. He had to complete his required period of residency before entering the final year of study that would complete his formal preparation for ordination and a career in the Church. There was no question of his joining the 'fast set' at Cambridge and wasting his time with gambling and women. Typically, his mentor the Reverend Henslow prescribed a programme of reading: as a prospective ordinand in the Church of England, the young man of course read theology; as a keen naturalist and collector, especially of beetles, he read in travel and natural science. In his autobiography, written some fifty years later, Darwin singled out books from this period that had been most influential on his intellectual development. These included John Herschel's Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, a book on the scientific method and the nature of scientific 'proof', and Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative of scientific exploration in South America. He also read the Reverend William Paley's Natural Theology, a treatise on the use of science to prove the existence, and demonstrate the attributes, of God. These three books, although very different from each other in subject matter, each dealt in their own way with the logic, philosophy and methodology of discovery and proof. Humboldt, whose work on the variation of climate with altitude Darwin had read at Edinburgh, helped fire his passion for exploration and discovery, and showed how the natural world could be explained in terms of natural laws. Herschel outlined the essential elements of a rigorous Baconian scientific explanation for any phenomenon, and it has been argued that the structure of Darwin's own On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was composed following Herschel's rules exactly. In Natural Theology William Paley applied rigorous logic and a broad knowledge of philosophy to a wide range of contemporary scientific data in order to attempt nothing less than a final proof of the nature of God. This was a work intended to bridge two worlds that had long been threatening to pull apart. It would resolve the conflict that we find still unresolved today between, on the one hand, the world of scientific explanation expressed in definable, measurable, physical properties and natural laws and, on the other, belief in a God who transcends the material world.

William Paley's theological works were well known to all students at Cambridge, where the syllabus included formal study of two of his books. Darwin, who had a particular appreciation for finely argued logic and reason, was examined on Paley in 1830 and said,

I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences [Paley's A View of the Evidences of Christianity, 1794] with perfect correctness ... the logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was the most use to me in the education of my mind.

Paley's last book, Natural Theology, was not a set book for Cambridge examinations. It aimed for a broader audience than theologians alone and has come to occupy a special place in the history of science and religion. The basic premise of the larger movement of the same name was that the glories and complexities of living nature were to be seen as prima facie evidence of the power of God's creative hand. From this viewpoint, which owes its origins among others to the Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas, there could be no more pious endeavour than to study nature. All the patterns, symmetries and laws of nature were simply the reflection of God's mind. Therefore to study nature was to approach closer to God. Indeed, the deepest study of nature would provide confirmation of God's very existence. Natural science and theology were not at odds, therefore, but complementary. In particular, any kind of evolutionary theory of the kind that had been growing for the previous hundred years - in which the study of nature pointed to different, material causes of life in all its magnificent diversity than the hand of God - would be negated. At the time the young Darwin studied for the Church at Cambridge, as for a hundred years before, natural theology offered a rationale for the reconciliation of what might have seemed to be opposed: the diverse worlds of science and of religion.

This argument has a strong following today among those who would oppose, or are agnostic about the theory of evolutionary change. But, curiously, a direct connection can be traced between Paley's arguments against any kind of evolutionary theories (of which there were many, termed 'transmutation', or 'development' theories, long before Charles Darwin was even born) and the origins of modern scientific thinking in favour of evolutionary theory. Darwin's reading of Natural Theology in 1831 therefore has a particular resonance for anyone today who is interested in the question of how the apparently separate subjects of science and religion can be made one and, indeed, anyone interested in the historical precedents and intellectual origins of modern evolution.

Although many of the driving intellects of the age were continental - and this particular version of the battle between science and religion was being fought out elsewhere than Britain - this is a story about a peculiarly English part of the phenomenon, set squarely within a long English tradition. Its Englishness was due in large part to the long tradition of the English cleric-naturalists whose science was based in empiricism: from their rural parishes they observed nature and tried to read the word of God in it. They belonged straightforwardly to the new critical age and applied its rules and procedures to their thinking in God's service. With many Church of England livings conveniently tied to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, they had security and access to nature on the one hand, and on the other were a direct arm of the intellectual work of learning and teaching. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, they preached, they taught, they observed, and they considered it all. William Paley's summation of the arguments of natural theology comes at the end of a great period of learning and adventure, with its freedom to entertain heretical ideas and no little reactionary conservatism, in which the evidence of nature as revealed by science was used to argue for the existence and nature of God.

Naturally, not everyone in the mainstream Church or its many dissenting offshoots approved of natural theology and attempts to prove God through science. The traditional route to discovery of God was through the authority of the Bible, divine revelation and the life of Christ. It was built upon the constancy of faith rather than the shifting ground of science. The paradox and the strength of faith is that it is not susceptible to cold-eyed analysis. No one knows if his faith is the same as another's; almost by definition it cannot be. At the heart of Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible reveals to us - individually or through the exegesis of its spiritual leaders - all that we need to know about God. It tells us that God is the Creator, all-wise and all-good, and is full of internal proofs, one of the greatest being that written in Isaiah 7:10-14: 'Moreover the Lord spake unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.' Then God promised the ultimate evidence: 'The Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.' For evidence, there were the miracles, both the biblical miracles - especially those wrought by Jesus, healing the sick, raising the dead, as he prophesied in the name of God - and those performed by God through his saints on earth. And the most dramatic demonstration of God's existence and power would have to be the resurrection of Jesus, who in turn gave another real proof when he allowed the doubting Thomas, after the resurrection, to fit his hand into the spear wound in his side. No other authority than these was needed and an unguarded or naive person attempting to find God through the objective evidences of science might risk challenging traditional modes of authority and even be seduced by material explanations of phenomena to an opposite, atheistical position.


Excerpted from BEFORE DARWIN by Keith Thomson Copyright © 2005 by Keith Thomson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history, University of Oxford; senior research fellow, American Philosophical Society; and research associate, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

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