A Quintessential Clergyman-Scientist? George Henslow, Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, and Nineteenth-Century Science

By Francis, Keith A. | Anglican and Episcopal History, March 2010 | Go to article overview

A Quintessential Clergyman-Scientist? George Henslow, Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, and Nineteenth-Century Science


Francis, Keith A., Anglican and Episcopal History


In his groundbreaking book on the history of science, John Hedley Brooke argued that the best way to understand stories such as Galileo's supposed run-in with the church was to think of these narratives as "complex." Galileo's difficulties should not be reduced to a science versus religion controversy nor - a more likely but even more egregious case of misrepresentation - a story of progressives versus conservatives and reactionaries. Historians such as James Moore, Ronald Numbers, Jon Roberts, and David Livingstone have further argued that detail, nuance, and context are vital in order to understand better other history of science developments such as the reception of Charles Darwin's ideas, particularly among the Christian churches.2

These admonitions are particularly relevant in anniversary years. The two-hundredth anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species has been recognized and celebrated in academic conferences, exhibitions, new books, television documentaries, and even a feature film. The Times (London) had Darwin in a list of most influential people - not a surprise - and in the trendy London magazine The Short List, the stand-up comedian Robin Ince revealed "the boffins he really rates" and included Darwin as number seven on his list of inspirational scientists. Perhaps Ince's imprimatur is further proof that Darwin deserves his place as one of the faces of the British ten-pound note.J The British zoologist Julian Huxley described the end of the nineteenth century as "the eclipse of Darwinism" with regard to the history of the theory of evolution,6 but historians of the early twenty-first century may have to write about "the triumph of Darwinism."

Given that more Darwin anniversaries are in the not-too-distant future - the 150th anniversary of the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford during which Thomas Huxley had his supposed showdown with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce being the nearest - a reassessment of the reception of Darwin's ideas is a worthwhile exercise. Furthermore, taking the advice to search for complexity or detail, a closer examination of the thinking of the numerous men and women who constituted the first generations of readers of On the Origin of Species reveals something of the process by which a scientific idea such as Darwin's theory of evolution can become orthodoxy in the scientific community and then society at large.

Following such a process is important because anniversaries can occlude rather than reveal. Admiration for the genius of Darwin can result in a forgetting of those scientists and popularizers who were principally responsible for the dissemination of Darwin's ideas. Or, more likely, the significance of Darwin's theory of evolution - best described as descent by modification through natural selection - results in less discussion of the weaknesses and difficulties of Darwin's theory. In fact, as Darwin was fully cognizant of the problems with his theory - and, naturally, did not believe them to be insurmountable - it seems sensible for his future readers to be aware of them also. If there is a reason why a modified version of Darwin's theory of evolution has become, in the twenty-first century, the explanation for the origin of life, there must also be a reason why that theory seemed to be in terminal decline at the end of the nineteenth.

For students of the Church of England's history, the generation of Anglican priests, scientists, and literati who lived and worked in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth is, in one sense, more interesting than "Darwin's generation." First, to steal an idea from the Bible, they were the pharaohs "who knew not Joseph." They were alive during the tempest which surrounded the initial publication of On the Origin of Species but were too young to participate in it as central protagonists. …

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