Science and Religion in the Era of William James

By Paul Jerome Croce | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Shock of Darwin

Darwin . . . has brought to the discussion a vast amount of well-arranged information, a convincing cogency of argument, and a captivating charm of presentation. His doctrine appealed the more powerfully to the scientific world because he maintained it at first not upon metaphysical ground but upon observation. Indeed it might be said that he treated his subject according to the best scientific methods, had he not frequently overstepped the boundaries of actual knowledge and allowed his imagination to supply the links which science does not furnish.

LOUIS AGASSIZ, 1874

The disagreements between Henry and William James over the nature and purpose of science went much deeper than a family misunderstanding. The conflict that split father and son in the James household also polarized many other popular and elite observers of scientific and religious developments in the mid-nineteenth century. Almost immediately after its publication, Darwin's theory became an object of conversation and controversy. Popular reaction focused on the possibility of the animal origins of human nature. For example, while waiting for a battle in 1863, weary infantry troops in the Confederate Army hotly debated the Origin of Species, but the exchange was cut short by the persuasiveness of one soldier's loyalty to Robert E. Lee: "Well boys, the rest of us may have developed from monkeys; but I tell you none less than God could have made such a man as ' Marse Robert.'" 1

Among intellectuals Darwinism had even more points of controversy. It was the flash point between the generations, between Henry, Sr., and William

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