Yesterday Calvin College professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith published a review of Peter Harrison latest groundbreaking book, Territories of Science and Religion (2015). I think Smith’s reading of Harrison is apt and his critique even more perceptive. He writes, “it’s hard to deny that the staid intellectual historian is penning his own account of ‘true’ religion, one that valorizes a more ancient, more ‘original,’ rendition of Christianity that focuses in an inward faith and piety, a kind of pre-theological faith that is only corrupted and distorted by its ‘externalization.'” Perhaps it is true that the “way of life” of the early church was more internal, more contemplative. But as Smith I think correctly observes, “why describe a ‘way of life’ as ‘internal’? Isn’t such an expression of faith necessarily public, communal, shared, and hence ‘external’ in important ways?” Smith calls this story as a Protestantism haunted by Kieregaardian ghosts.
Harrison recognizes this problem in his own narrative. In Territories he writes that the general understanding of religion as an inner disposition was coupled with doctrinal statements, and that “clearly doctrines have played some role in both philosophy and Christianity, and particularly the latter.” We have, of course, the Rule of Faith, subsequent creeds and symbols, and the creedal statements of a number of councils. These are propositions to believe in, and thus may appear as the “externalization” of such inner dispositions. However, according to Harrison, the Church Fathers associated heterodox belief with improper worship, immortality, disloyalty, and sedition, thus giving a “strong indication of the fact that religious belief was not a discreet variable of some notion of ‘religion.'” Moreover, the history of the term “creed” or credo (in Greek pisteuō) denoted something “both more or less than the giving of assent to propositions.” Pistis, for example, meant something like “confidence” or “trust,” and in English is typically translated as “faith” or “to believe.”
At any rate, Harrison’s analysis is a little more nuanced than Smith allows us to believe. But I still think his main critique is relevant for another reason. In recent years many historians have attempted to rehabilitate the “conflict thesis.” Both Ron Numbers and Geoffrey Cantor offer “mid-scale generalizations” and the growing “autonomy of professional science” as possible reasons for conflict in Thomas Dixon et al.’s Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2011). Harrison himself has done this in a recent article he published on BioLogos: “Is Science-Religion Conflict Always a Bad Thing?”
But in a very important way, I think, these historians of science are returning to, and taking up, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White’s original thesis. Both Draper and White decried the “theologization” of Christianity. Draper said that the politicization and the growth of theology within Christianity was the doom of true religion. Both Draper and White sought a more pristine, true, and original Christianity, a True Religion from the True Church. Their religion was very much an “internal” one.
Many have attempted to explain the inspiration and origins of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. One recent attempt comes from Dominic Klyve in his 2014 article “Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection,” published in Journal of the History of Biology. While Darwin was undoubtedly inspired by Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus’ own ideas about geometric population growth derived from the work of German Protestant pastor and demographer Johann Peter Süssmilch (1707-67) and Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-83). According to Klyve, it is here, in the work of Süssmilch and Euler, where we find the “ultimate” origins of Malthus’ geometric theory, and therefore Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Interestingly enough, both Süssmilch and Euler were strong physico-theologians. Süssmilch, for example, believed the purpose of demography was the “study of the laws (that is, the ‘divine order’) which manifest themselves in mortality, fecundity, and the propagation of the human species, and which can be analyzed using the statistics of deaths, marriages, births, etc.” As Klyve puts it, Süssmilch “believed that population across Europe and the world was slowly increasing, and that this was due to the handiwork of God.” Euler too believed population growth was an example of “divine order.”
According to Klyve, Darwin needed three things to rightly conceptualize his theory of natural selection: time, rapid population growth, and stability. While the old age of the earth was demonstrated by Lyell’s work, the other two pieces come from Süssmilch and Euler.
While Klyve may have secured a spot for Euler in the intellectual history of Darwin’s work, I am more convinced that another mathematician may have played a similar, if not greater, role in Darwin’s ideas: Charles Babbage.
This past week I have been reading Laura J. Snyder’s engrossing tale of the Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World (2011). The Philosophical Breakfast Club was the creation of four Cambridge men, William Whewell (1794-1866), Charles Babbage (1791-1871), John Herschel (1792-1871), and Richard Jones (1790-1855). These four Cambridge friends met together on Sunday mornings after chapel to discuss Francis Bacon, reforms in knowledge, society, and science. All four would become central to the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1831.
In Chapter 8 of this book, “A Divine Programmer,” Snyder gives a fascinating account of Darwin attending one of Babbage’s popular Saturday evening soirées. It was Lyell who had invited Darwin to Babbage’s dinner party, which were, as Darwin later put it in a letter to his sister “the best in the way of literary people in London—and that there is a good mixture of pretty women!”
These parties were also something of a gastronomic affair (much like the BAAS meetings were). According to Snyder, a “table would be laid with punch, cordials, wine, and Madeira; tarts; fruits both fresh and dried; nuts, cakes, cookies, and finger sandwiches…oysters, salads, croquettes, cold salmon, and various fowls.” There was also dancing, music, and literary, artistic, and scientific amusements. But most important of all was Babbage’s demonstration of his Difference Engine.
On this particular evening, with Darwin present in the audience, Babbage, according to Snyder, gave something of a sermon. In describing his machine, Babbage related God as a divine programmer:
“In like manner does God impress His creation with laws, laws that have built into them future alterations in their patterns. God’s omnipotence entails that He can foretell what causes will be needed to bring about the effects He desires; God does not need to intervene each and every time some new cause is required…God, then, is like the inventor of a complex, powerful calculating engine.”
Ignoring for the moment Babbage’s own god-complex, his image of God as programmer, who had, as Snyder puts it, “preset his Creation to run according to natural law, requiring no further intervention,” would lead to a remarkably different view of the relationship between science and religion in the nineteenth century—one that would dramatically alter Darwin’s own view of God’s agency in the natural world.
Babbage’s own view emerged from a confrontation he had with his Cambridge friend Whewell and his Bridgewater treatise, to which Babbage would later add his own, unauthorized work to the series. Indeed, as Snyder observes, Babbage constructed his engine with the purpose to “counter Whewell’s view of miracles as interventions of God outside natural law.”
But Snyder’s most salient point in this chapter is that before attending Babbage’s Dorset Street soirée, Darwin was already struggling with the species question. In fact, Darwin had just returned from his voyage on the Beagle when he was invited to Babbage’s party. “At the very moment he was introduced to Babbage and his machine,” she writes, “Darwin was questioning the fixity of species and the prevalent notion of special creation.”
Just as Babbage anticipated changes and modifications in his machine, he imagined God as a programer and inventor, who would have anticipated changes in creation. Darwin, Snyder suggests, “would have seen how Babbage’s view of a divine programmer gave him a way to reconcile his beliefs in God with his growing sense that new species arose from old ones in a purely natural, evolutionary process.” But in time, however, Darwin and many others would come to think that nature did not need a divine programmer at all.
I causally opened John Tyndall’s New Fragments (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896) this morning on the desktop and was pleasantly surprised by its first entry, “The Sabbath,” a Presidential Address delivered before the Glasgow Sunday Society in October, 1880, which was then quickly published in The Nineteenth Century the following month, and subsequently as a pamphlet in December.
I say “surprised” because I knew that Draper and White had made much use of the then emerging comparative religious studies in their work, including new studies on higher criticism of the Bible. But did Tyndall? Indeed he did, and this short essay demonstrates this physicist’s wide reading in the new emerging field.
He begins by observing that the present age desires “to connect itself organically with proceeding ages.” This “developmental” view has been set forth, he says, by scientific naturalists Darwin and Spencer, but also by religious scholars Renan and Müller. In particular, Tyndall finds a kindred spirit in Scottish theologian John Caird (1820-98). According to Tyndall, Caird maintained in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1880) that “throughout the ages he discerns a purpose and growth, wherein the earlier and more imperfect religious constitute the natural and necessary precursors of the later and more perfect ones.”
This leads Tyndall to suggest that changes or “transmutations” (his word) in the mind, and especially in religion, are “often accompanied by conflict and suffering.” We see this, he says, with the transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, from “Jewish Christianity” to “Gentile Christianity,” from Peter to Paul. Tyndall derives this narrative from Renan’s L’Eglise Chrétienne, or The Christian Church (1879). But “men at length began to yearn for peace and unity,” he writes, “and out of the embroilment was slowly consolidated that great organisation the Church of Rome.”
Thus each “transmutation,” each period of growth, required some struggle, “in which the fittest survive.” In short, even the errors, conflicts, and sufferings of bygone times “may have been necessary factors in the education of the world.” This background leads Tyndall to the main point of the essay: namely, the “Sabbath question.” He sees the issue of keeping the Sabbath as a problem of dogmatic theology and not religion, however. Following the anti-Sabbatarian works of Scottish lawyer and phrenologist Robert Cox (1810-72), including his massive Sabbath Laws and Sabbath Duties (1853), his two volume The Literature on the Sabbath Question (1865), and others, Tyndall offers a number of proof-texts showing that adherence to dogma “oppressed almost to suffocation” human civilization. According to Tyndall, Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath, crowning his “protest against a sterile formalism by the enunciation of a principle which applies to us to-day as much as to the world in the time of Christ”—namely, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
What is particularly interesting in this essay is Tyndall’s concern about potential visitors to the British Museum. That is, he is targeting those who “object to the opening of the museums on religious [sic] grounds.” In an ironic twist taken from the natural theological tradition, Tyndall asks “Do they who thus stand between them and the public really believe those treasures to be the work of God? Do they or do they not hold, with Paul, that ‘the eternal power and Godhead’ may be clearly seen from ‘the things that are made’? If they do—and they dare not affirm that they do not—I fear that Paul, with his customary plainness of language, would pronounce their conduct to be ‘without excuse.'” He then lists Luther, Melanchthon, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, and others, who, in his view, “emphatically asserted the freedom of Christian from Sabbatical bonds.” These reformers, in short, followed a “higher symbolism.”
At the same time, Tyndall could not help himself to a little military language, retelling the tale of the flat earth myth, the tyrannical power of the Catholic Church, and the “booming of the bigger guns” and the “incessant clatter of small arms” in his own day. He subsequently discusses the human nature of the Old Testament and his amazement that “learned men are still found willing to devote their time and energy to these writings under the assumption that they are not human but divine.”
Though this might seem a “liberal,” perhaps “radical” position, Tyndall claims he is truly a “Conservative.” He says that “madness or folly can demolish: it requires wisdom to conserve”! In his estimation, a conservative has foresight, looks ahead and prepares for the inevitable, and thus knows when the true spiritual nature of man will be bound up with his material condition. “Wholesome food, pure air, cleanliness—hard work if you will, but also fair rest and recreation—these are necessary not only to physical but to spiritual well-being.” This doctrine, he says, is the “true Gospel.” Indeed, a “most blessed influence would also be shed upon the clergy if they were enabled from time to time to change their ‘sloth urbane’ for action on heath or mountain.”
Taking a line from English poet, author, and humorist Thomas Hood (1799-1845), Tyndall reveals that his house of worship is not built by any human hands:
That bid you baulk
A Sunday walk,
And shun God’s work as you should shun your own
Calling all sermons contrabands, In that great Temple that’s not made with hands.
In examining John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), it is important to recall that it belonged to D. Appleton and Co.’s popular International Scientific Series (ISS), which was, as Roy M. MacLeod put it in his seminal essay, “Evolutionism, Internationalism and Commercial Enterprise in Science: The International Scientific Series 1871-1910″ (1980), the Victorian attempt at “codifying and popularizing scientific knowledge in a systematic fashion to a wide reading public.” Indeed, MacLeod’s essay was perhaps one of the earliest examples of what Adrian Johns would later call the “history of the book.” In MacLeod’s case, it was a series of books published under the entrepreneurial ambitions of American science popularizer Edward Livingstone Youmans.
Little work has been done on the ISS. MacLeod is a helpful starting point. In his essay he describes how Youmans traveled throughout Europe to secure authors and publishers for the series, including many of the leading scientific naturalists of England, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and many others. It is also worth pointing out that Youmans was the first editor of Popular Science Monthly, which he used “as a vehicle for communicating the findings and ideas of scientists to the educated American public,” as William E, Leverette has aptly observed. Thus in order to ascertain the diffusion of scientific naturalism and, more important, Draper’s History of Conflict, Youmans’ publishing motivations and ambitions are critical. MacLeod also provides a useful Appendix at the end of his essay listing the English editions of the ISS, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.
A decade later Leslie Howsam published an essay on “Sustained Literary Ventures: The Series in Victorian Book Publishing” (1992), where she examines in some detail the publishing houses of Charles Kegan Paul, Henry S. King and his successors at Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. More recently, Howsam focuses on the ISS itself, in “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series” (2000). Here she argues that a “close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”
But perhaps the most helpful introduction to the ISS is Bernie Lightman’s recent essay, “The International Scientific Series and the Communication of Darwinism” (2010). A common theme that often emerges in Lightman’s work is the loss of control. That is, Huxley loses control of his “agnosticism,” the “scientific naturalists” lose control of “evolutionary naturalism,” and so on. Here Lightman argues that by “the early 1880’s a new course had been set when the original founders of the series were no longer in control.”
According to Lightman, the ISS was “based on diffusing Spencerian evolution beyond America to the world at large.” Youmans was obsessed with Spencer’s work. Indeed, his Popular Science Monthly promoted the idea of evolution and evolutionary philosophy not of Darwin but of Spencer. As Leverette has pointed out, Spencer’s ideas were frequently defended in the Popular Science Monthly. Besides Spencer, however, Youmans had formed a “British Committee” for the ISS that included Huxley and Tyndall. With this trio secured, Youmans added Henry S. King as the British publisher of the series. The series enjoyed great success, particularly the works published by Spencer and Draper, which both through more than 20 editions.
Dramatic changes occurred in the series during the late 1870s, however. King became ill and eventually died in 1878. Youmans, whose health was also failing, left the series by 1880. Charles Kegan Paul had purchased H.S. King and Co. and took it over by 1877. According to Lightman, Kegan Paul was a Broad Churchman who later abandoned his faith in 1874 because he could no longer “adhere to the teachings of the Church of England.” He became attracted to Positivism, but by 1890 converted to Catholicism. His return to the Church is retold in a number of remarkable essays and books, in his Faith and Unfaith and Other Essays (1891), Confessio Viatoris (1891), and Memories (1899). In his confession, for example, Paul writes
Day by day the Mystery of the Altar seems greater, the unseen world nearer, God more a Father, our Lady more tender, the great company of the saints more friendly, if I dare use the word, my guardian angel close to my side. All human relationships become holier, all human friends dearer, because they are explained and sanctified by the relationships and friendships of another life. Sorrows have come to me in abundance since God gave me grace to enter His Church, but I can bear them better than of old, and the blessing He has given me outweighs them all. May He forgive me that I so long resisted Him, and lead those I love unto the fair land wherein He has brought me to dwell! It will be said, and said with truth, that I am very confident. My experience is like that of the blind man in the Gospel who also was sure. He was still ignorant of much, nor could he fully explain how Jesus opened his eyes, but this he could say with unfaltering certainty, “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.
And as Lightman points out, when Kegan Paul took over the series, “he did not feel bound by the contract that Tyndall, Spencer, and Huxley had signed with King.” For one, he no longer selected authors who wished to disseminate evolutionary naturalism. All three would eventually resign from the Committee. In their absence, Kegan Paul would bring in new authors who embraced new versions of natural theology. However, the series was never as successful as it was with Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer at the helm. By 1911, the series came to a close.
Michael Hunter, the leading expert and custodian of Robert Boyle’s (1627-91) legacy, delivered a paper last night at a seminar here at the University, entitled “‘Physica Peregrinans': Robert Boyle, His Informants and the Role of the Exotic in Late Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy.” Hunter examined Boyle’s records of interviews he conducted with travelers returning from exotic locations throughout the world. Boyle intended to publish these interviews in a book, Physica Peregrinans, or “The Traveling Naturalist: Containing Answers given to Severall Questions propunded by the Author to Navigators & other Travellers in remote Countreys .” During the Q&A, it became apparent that Boyle rejected the scholastic, Aristotelian approach to common experience. According to Hunter, for Boyle “nature was in fact often surprising and exciting in its fecundity and variety, and people’s conception of what was possible needed to be expanded accordingly.” Equally noteworthy, it seems that Boyle used empirical investigation in support of the supernatural in nature—that is, he offered “a natural history of the supernatural,” as Peter Harrison put it during the discussion following the paper.
My knowledge of Hunter’s work on Boyle is limited. I have read Hunter’s “The Social Basis and Changing Fortunes of an Early Scientific Institution: An Analysis of the Membership of the Royal Society, 1660-1685,” a lengthy essay published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London in 1976. Hunter would go on to greatly expand this piece into his well-known The Royal Society and its Fellows, 1660-1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution (1982). The only other work of Hunter’s I’ve perused was his 2007 article in the British Journal for the History of Science, “Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society: A Reciprocal Exchange in the Making of Baconian Science.”
So after the talk I paid a visit to the University library and found Hunter’s more recent work on the great English scientist, Robert Boyle: Between God and Science (2009). Boyle, who ranks with Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin as a seminal figure in the history of science, was also a deeply, and resolutely, religious man. As Hunter wrote in his article on Boyle in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), “The central fact of Boyle’s life from his adolescence onwards was his deep piety, and it is impossible to understand him without doing justice to this.”
In his Robert Boyle: Between God and Science, Hunter aims to bring this fact out. As a natural philosopher, Boyle not only dabbled in all branches of physics, he also experimented in alchemy, anatomy, botany, biology, medicine, and mathematics. He wrote on epistemology and moral philosophy, on scientific method and scientific theory, and just as vigorously labored with biblical exegesis and theology. Indeed, his first two published books were Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659) and New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660). Natural philosopher and religious apologist, Boyle sought to justify the ways of God to men.
Like most men, however, Boyle did have doubts. Richard S. Westfall, in his Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (1958), had made much of these doubts. In answering hypothetical atheists, he argues, Boyle attempted to satisfy his own doubts about the implications of the new science. But as Hunter points out, doubt had a positive role in Boyle’s faith. Boyle once wrote, for instance, that those “whose Fayth hath never had any Doubts, hath some cause to Doubt whether he hath ever had any Fayth.”
Boyle was so committed to his faith that, upon the urging of Archbishop Ussher, he learned Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic in order to read the Bible in its original languages. Hunter even suggests that Boyle’s interest in natural philosophy and experimentation was largely spurred by his concern to combat the rise of atheism and materialism.
Boyle’s religion was central to his vocation and vision of science. “For Boyle,” Hunter writes, “science and theology were truly complementary.” But as with Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and other seminal figures in early modern science, Boyle’s “successors found it easy to adopt his methodological prescriptions and his mechanistic worldview in conjunction with only a vestigial form of his passionate theism.” But that is not the real Robert Boyle. He was, as Stephen D. Snobelen puts it in his clever summary of Hunter’s book, the
Seventh son, gentleman, wealthy landowner, Etonian, visitor to the Continent, Protestant educated, multilinguist, moralist, alchemical adept, forerunner of modern chemistry, champion of experimental philosophy, popularizer of the air-pump, promoter of natural philosophy, early Fellow of the Royal Society, formulator of what came to be called ‘Boyle’s law’, proliﬁc author, citizen of the Republic of Letters, a director of the East India Company, principled lifelong celibate, medical reformer and practitioner, hypochondriac, man of tender conscience, man of charity, pious believer, Bible reader, lay theologian, apologist for reasonable Christianity, high priest of nature, advocate of natural theology, founder of the eponymous lectureship in defence of the faith, backer of foreign Bible translations, supporter of overseas missions and governor of the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England—Boyle was all of these things and more.
In the latest issue of Zygon, Thomas Aechtner, Lecturer in History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland, decisively demonstrates the historical bankruptcy of postsecondary textbooks and reference materials in anthropology publications. He argues that these publications continue to “present the conflict model’s narrative as the historical account of religion and science interactions.” Thus it continues to thrive not “merely as a popular artifact, but also as a conspicuous historical narrative in modern university-level pedagogical and reference materials.”
Publishers such as AltMira, McGraw-Hill, Peason, Routledge, Sage, and Wadsworth (and surely others), persist in publishing textbooks and reference guides that use the “conflict thesis” as an organizing narrative. Aechtner lists several recent textbooks, including Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts (2000), Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2006, 2008), The Tapestry of Culture: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (2009), 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook (2010), Anthropology: A Global Perspective (2012), and others still, which all continue to reduce the complex interactions between science and religion into caricatures. Discussions of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, Heliocentrism, Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, Darwin and evolutionary theory, science and secularization, merely preserve the narratives of Draper and White without ever questioning their accuracy or legitimacy. As Aechtner writes, “the cumulative picture of historical science-religion interactions sketched by many introductory anthropology materials is unquestionably one of conflict.”
Aechtner wonders why, despite the abundance of revisionist historiography, do these textbooks continue to use the conflict model for history. Perhaps, he muses, it is “due to genre constraints and publication limitations associated with such works.” That may indeed be true. However, as he goes on to point out, there are cases where authors of these textbooks deliberately misrepresent science-religion relations. For example, both Anthropology: A Global Perspective and Cultural Anthropology: A Global Perspective cite John Henry’s excellent work, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002). But whereas Henry is careful to note that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, the authors of these textbooks completely ignore such measured and important qualifications. “This demonstrates,” writes Aechtner, that such textbooks “seem to disregard and even contradict a fundamental message about science and religion contained so forcefully within the very pages of their cited source.” In short, the conflict narrative “persists within university-level pedagogical and reference books used to teach the uninitiated on contemporary postsecondary campuses.”