Myths about Science and Religion: That Galileo was Tortured and Imprisoned for Advocating Copernicanism

galileoThe “Galileo affair” is perhaps the most commonly discussed case of conflict between science and religion. According to widespread popular belief, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a martyr of science; that he was not only tortured, but imprisoned by the Roman Catholic Church. Although this myth may make for good drama, it is seriously deficient as history. As many contemporary historians of science have argued, including Maurice A. Finocchiaro in his article in Galileo goes to Jail, the Church had understandable reasons for refusing to accept Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system: Galileo was unable to produce the proof he needed; the waters were also muddied by Galileo’s academic enemies and by several misunderstandings, basic mistakes, missed opportunities, and complex theological debates that were rooted in the Protestant Reformation. Richard J. Blackwell argues that the Galileo affair is centered on four important issues:

(1) the state of the scientific debate at that time over the comparative merits of the older earth-centered astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (second century AD) and the more recent but conflicting sun-centered theory of Copernicus (1473-1543)

(2) the historical events that led the Catholic Church in 1616 to condemn Copernicanism as false and their rationale

(3) the question of what are the proper exegetical standards to be used in understanding the meaning and the truth of the Bible

(4) and the charges, the legal ground, and the course of events in Galileo’s trail and condemnation in 1633.

The Historical Background

For nearly two thousand years before the Galileo affair, the almost universally accepted view of the heaven in Western culture was the geocentric theory initially proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC) and later considerably refined mathematically by Ptolemy. Heliocentric systems were not unheard of, but they survived in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages merely as curiosities. This universally accepted geocentric system, which came to permeate the medieval scientific and religious tradition, looked upon the earth as spherical, motionless, and fixed in the center of the entire universe. All of the then known observational evidence concerning the heavens was consistent with this astronomical model, especially when it was interpreted in the light of Aristotelian natural philosophy.

However, in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus, a church official and accomplished astronomer from norther Poland, published a book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, in which he took the heliocentric system and defended it as a true description of the universe. Copernicus  modified the earlier view in a major way by locating the sun at the center of the universe and the earth and its moon in motion around the sun. Copernicus had no new evidence to justify his theory; rather, his primary motivation was that he though that his view had more internal coherence and greater explanatory power than Ptolemy’s.

Copernicus’ book was a highly technical astronomical text, dominated by detailed geometrical models for all of the planets. Because his book was highly technical, written for a small audience of mathematically proficient astronomers, it was little known and less read. Contrary to other myths, its publication created no public stir. But the book did secure an audience among astronomers, many of whom employed it for calculating planetary positions, while denying its claim to cosmological truth.

Why was this so? Because the evidence that could be marshaled in the mid-sixteenth century in support of the heliocentric model as physically true was not convincing. No observation, taken by itself, could prove the sun rested and the earth moved. Predictions using the heliocentric system were no more accurate than those offered by the geocentric. If the advantages of the heliocentric system was slim, its disadvantages was greater. First, putting the earth in motion represented a massive violation of everyday common sense. Second, removal of the earth from the center of the cosmos represented a destructive attack on Aristotle’s physics—which was the only comprehensive system of physics in existence—and therefore represented a serious violation of scientific common sense. Third, to put the earth in motion was to put it into the heavens, thereby destroying the dichotomy between the heavens and the earth, which served as a fundamental cosmological premise wherever Aristotelian philosophy prevailed for the previous two millennia. Thus those astronomers and natural philosophers who rejected heliocentrism did so not because of blind conservatism or religious intolerance, but because of their commitment to widely held scientific principles and theories. Copernicus had been talked into publishing his book by various friends, including ecclesiastical officials. He had dedicated the Revolutions to the pope. And almost nobody judged his ideas dangerous.

Another important  historical element to consider is that, in Galileo’s day, Western European culture was undergoing some fundamental and disruptive changes. The Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Counter had occurred during the previous century. Echoes of the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Churches split from Western Christianity, frightened the church authorities in Rome as they witnessed much of norther Europe also breaking away from their control. The Catholic Church responded with the Council of Trent (1545-63). Its main effect on the Galileo affair was it declaration that no individual Christian should interpret the Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the early fathers of the church or contrary to the views of the pope and the bishops, who alone have the power to interpret the Bible. A decree on the interpretation of Scripture that emerged from the council reads:

The Council decrees that, in matter of faith and morals…no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.

This emphatic statement was a repudiation of the Protestant notion that Scripture stands alone as the proper authority for Christian belief and practice, in no way dependent on church tradition. As a result the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century had become unusually defensive, especially in regard to theological and scriptural matters. This attitude still predominated at the time of the Galileo affair. Thus if Copernicus’ book had been published either a century earlier or a century later, the Galileo affair would probably not have happened. But, in fact, it was published in 1543, when the Reformation was in full bloom and the Counter Reformation was just beginning. Hence it was that by 1616 all of the actors and cultural forces were in place for the drama of the Galileo affair to begin.

Galileo and Heliocentrism

Galileo did not begin advocating Copernicanism until 1609. He was acquainted with Copernicus’ work and appreciated its novel and significant argument for the earth’s motion. But Galileo was also acutely aware of the considerable evidence against Copernicanism stemming from direct sense experience, astronomical observation, and traditional physics.

However, Galileo, in 1609, learned from his friend Paolo Sarpi that a Dutch lens grinder, Hans Lipperhy, had developed an optical instrument that made distant objects appear much closer to the observer. Galileo perfected the newly invented telescope, and in the next few years made a series of important astronomical discoveries:  that the surface of the moon contains many craters and mountains (contrary to Aristotle’s  notion that the moon’s surface is a perfectly smooth sphere); that Jupiter has four moons that are invisible to the naked eye; that the surface of the sun displays continually changing dark spots that drift from left to right, which indicate that the sun is changeable and that it rotates on its own axis; and that Venus undergoes changing phases, like the moon, which proves that it revolves around the sun and not the earth (again contrary to Aristotle).

The Starry Messenger and Letters on Sunspots

Galileo’s publication of these and other observations brought him instant fame and controversy. He would describe all of these observations in his Starry Messenger (1610) and Letters on Sunspots (1613). Galileo’s telescopic observations certainly did not demonstrate the truth of the heliocentric model. However, they did, when deployed in his arguments, undermine some of the more powerful objections against heliocentric cosmology—a far cry from proving that heliocentric cosmology is true.

Nevertheless, in 1611 Galileo made a visit to Rome to plead the case for his telescopic discoveries in person. The Jesuits at the Collegio Romano confirmed his observations (but not the heliocentric interpretation that he gave them) and treated him as a celebrity.

Letters to Castelli and the Duchess Christina

But Galileo was not satisfied. Returning to Florence, Galileo attempted to further press his case for heliocentrism. In 1613 the religious orthodoxy of his pro-Copernican views first came under question at a social event at the ducal palace. Galileo responded in a pithy statement, addressed in the form of a letter to his disciple Benedetto Castelli, and in 1615 to the grand duchess dowager Christina. In his Letter to Castelli, Galileo explained his views on how the findings of natural philosophy should be related to Scripture. Galileo argued that the sole purpose of Scripture was to persuade readers “of those articles and propositions which are necessary for salvation” and that they “surpass all human reason.” When the scriptural passages oversteps those limits, addressing matters that are within reach of sensory experience and rational knowledge, God does not expect these God-given capacities to be abandoned. Thus theologians, before committing themselves to an interpretation of such passages, would be well advised to examine the demonstrative arguments of natural philosophers.

The Letter to Castelli was soon widely circulating. In 1615, Galileo considerably expanded his views into a much longer Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Some form of either letter eventually made it into the hand of a Dominican friar, and who quickly filed a written complaint against Galileo with the Inquisition in Rome. Although Galileo was never officially summoned to Rome, in December 1615 he decided to visit Rome of his own accord to defend the Copernican theory. He was so convinced that he had decisive arguments, he naively supposed that such arguments would carry him to victory over the geocentric opposition. A certain Antonio Querengo has left a vivid account of Galileo’s persuasive efforts:

He discourses often amid fifteen or twenty guests who make hot assaults upon him, now in one house, now in another. But he is so well prepared that he laughs them off; and although the novelty of his opinion leaves people unpersuaded, yet he reveals the futility of most of the arguments with which his opponents try to defeat him. Monday…in the house of Federico Ghislieri, he achieved wonderful feats; and what I liked most was that, before answering the opposing arguments, he amplified and strengthened them with new grounds that appeared invincible, so that, in subsequently demolishing them, he made his opponents look all the more ridiculous.

The Florentine ambassador to Rome, whose obligation it was to protect Galileo, was not pleased. Reporting to the grand duke of Tuscany, he wrote that Galileo “is vehement and stubborn and very worked up in this matter; and it is impossible, when he is around, to escape from his hands.” Galileo’s arrogant, impetuous style seems, on balance, to have been more effective in stirring up trouble and making enemies than in calming waters. Galileo received plenty of attention in Rome, but he did not convince the people who counted.

The entire issue reached a climax in the early months of 1616. In Februuary, Pope Paul V requested the opinion of a group of this theologians on the orthodoxy of heliocentrism. They advised him unanimously that Copernicanism was not only false but also formally heretical. The pope agreed with his theologians and publicly announced to the whole church in a decree issued by the Congregation of the Index, dated March 5, 1616, that Copernicanism was condemned as “false and completely constrary to Divine Scripture.” Copernicus’ Revolutions was on the Index of prohibited books. Although the Inquisition censured heliocentrism, Galileo faced no personal danger. He was charged with no offense; he was not declared a heretic. He was simply summoned by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, and informed him that heliocentrism had been declared false and heretical and was not to be held or defended. Galileo agreed and complied.

The Assayer

The decree of 1616 brought Galileo’s public campaign on behalf of Copernicanism to a halt. Toward the end of 1618 three comets passed through the European skies, causing excitement and eliciting a considerable amount of discussion on the nature of comets. Galileo joined in, but was once again drawn into controversy with a Jesuit mathematics professor, Orazio Grassi, who had written on the subject. The two were soon attacking each other. The controversy culminated in Galileo’s publication of a treatise, The Assayer (1623), where he bitterly attacked Grassi, pouring invectives upon invectives, accusing him of rude behavior, fraud, and intellectual theft. This text essentially poisioned the waters between Galileo and the Jesuits, with whom Galileo had managed, until now, to maintain friendly relations.

The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini ascended the papal throne as Pope Urban VIII. Urban was considered an intellectual, a man of vision, and a moderate on the subject of heliocentrisim. Moreover, he was not only a fellow Tuscan, but an admiring personal acquaintance of Galileo. Before ascending the papacy, Urban had written a poem honoring Galileo for some of his telescopic discoveries; and just six weeks before his election, Urban had sent a letter to Galileo assuring him “that you will find in me a very ready disposition to serve you out of respect for what you so merit and for the gratitude I owe you.”

Thus with Urban now pope, Galileo felt freer to discuss heliocentrism. He requested an audience with the pope. In the course of six meetings, the two got around to the subject of cosmology. Urban made clear his belief that humans were, in principle, incapable of achieving certainty regarding cosmological matters.  Nonetheless, from these meetings Galileo came to understand that he was free to write about heliocentrism, so long as he treated it as a mere hypothesis.

Galileo set to work, completing his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1629, which featured three characters engaged in a critical discussion of the cosmological, astronomical, physical, and philosophical aspects of Copernicanism but avoiding the biblical or theological ones. One spokesman, Salviati, vigorously presented the new ideas; another, Simplicio, argued doggedly and in detail for the old tradition; and the third, Sagredo, was the open-minded inquirer who critically assessed the issues from a neutral point of view. At the close of four days of dialogue, after bombarding his readers with arguments in favor of heliocentrism, Galileo had Simplicio essentially repeat much of Urban’s argument to him during their earlier meeting. That Galileo put it into the mouth of a slow-witted Aristotelian laughingstock of the dialogue did not escape Urban’s notice when the Dialogue finally became available in 1632, creating a sensation.

The Trail: Tortured and Imprisoned?

Galileo’s enemies inevitably complained that the book defended heliocentrism and so violated Bellarmino’s warning. What’s more, a new charge emerged: that Galileo violated a special injunction issued in 1616, prohibiting him from discussing the earth’s motion in any way whatever. Thus he was summoned to Rome for trail, which began in April 1633.

During the first hearing Galileo admitted receiving from Bellarmino the warning that heliocentrism could not be held or defended. But he denied receiving any special injunction not to discuss the topic in any way whatever. In his defense he introduced a certificate he had obtained from Bellarmino in 1616, which mentioned only the prohibition to hold or defend.

In light of Bellarmino’s certificate, the Inquisition’s officials tried out-of-court plea-bargaining: they promised not to press the most serious charge if Galileo would plead guilty to a lesser charge, that is, a transgression of the warning not to defend heliocentrism. Galileo agreed.

The trail ended on June 22, 1633. The Inquisition found Galileo guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” He was forced to recite an abjuration retracting these beliefs. There is an extant lengthy sentencing document recounting the proceedings since 1613, summarizing the 1633 charges, and noting Galileo defense and confession. This text was, interestingly enough, publicized by the Holy Office. This unprecedented publicity resulted from the express orders of Pope Urban VIII, who wanted Galileo’s case to serve as a lesson to all Catholics.

The impression that Galileo may have been imprisoned and tortured is primarily found in these documents. Yet there new evidence surfaced in 1774 about the imprisonment from a correspondence in 1633 between Tuscan ambassador to Rome, Francesco Niccolini and Tuscan secretary of state in Florence, and secondarily that to and from Galileo himself. Galileo was important to these Tuscan officials because he was employed as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke of Tuscany.

Finocchiaro provides a helpful summary, and it is worth quoting him at length:

Galileo, having been summoned by the Inquisition, left Florence on January 20 and arrived in Rome February 13. The Inquisition allowed him to lodge at the Tuscan embassy on condition that he remain in seclusion until the proceedings started. On April 12 Galileo went to the Inquisition palace for his first interrogation. He stayed there for the next eighteen days while undergoing further interrogations, but he was put up in the prosecutor’s six-room apartment, together with a servant, who brought him meals twice a day from the Tuscan embassy. On April 30, after his second deposition was recorded and signed, Galileo returned to the embassy, where he remained for fifty-one days, interrupted by a visit to the Inquisition palace on May 10 to give a third deposition. On June 20, he was summoned to appear in court the following day. The next day he underwent “rigorous examination”—and remained at the Inquisition palace until the evening of June 24. It is unclear whether he was held in a prison cell or permitted to use the prosecutor’s apartment. On June 22 he appeared at the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva for sentencing and abjuration. Two days later Galileo moved from the Inquisition palace to Villa Medici in Rome, a sumptuous palace owned by the grand duke of Tuscany. On June 30 the pope granted Galileo permission to travel to Siena to live under house arrest at the residence of the archbishop, a good friend of Galileo’s. The archbishop hosted him for five months. In December 1633 Galileo returned to his own villa in Acreti, near Florence, where he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Finocchiaro argues that with the possible exception of three days, Galileo was never held in prison, either during the trail or afterward. Even for those three days he likely lodged in the prosecutor’s apartment, not in a cell. The disposition, moreover, leaves no doubt that Galileo may have been threatened with torture during the June 21 interrogation, but there is no evidence that he was actually tortured, or that his accusers planned actually to torture him.

According to Finocchiaro, in view of all the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture. Although he remained under house arrest during the 1633 trail and for the subsequent nine years of his life, he never went to prison.


There are important lessons to learn from the Galileo affair, but not the ones customarily drawn. First, the Galileo affair had an enormous human and political dimension. As Lindberg put it, “there were old scores to settle, egos to stroke, and careers to be made.” Galileo’s own personality was undeniably a consistent and important factor: if he had played his cards differently, with more attention to diplomacy, Galileo might well have carried out a significant campaign on behalf of heliocentrism without condemnation.

Second, the outcome of the Galileo affair was powerfully influenced by local circumstances. We need to understand the tense circumstances then prevailing Rome. Europe was mid-way through the Thirty Years’ War; the power of the papacy was threatened by the Spanish, who controlled half of the Italian peninsular; and the pope himself had recently come under heavy criticism for adopting positions of political expediency apparently favorable to the Protestant king Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) of Sweden. At the local level, there were fears, rivalries, ambitions, personalities, political context, and socioeconomic circumstances.

And finally, everyone of the combatants, whether church official or disciple of Galileo, called himself a Christian; and all, without exception, acknowledged the authority of Scripture.

A Prolegomena to A History of Evolution: Taking Biology from Metaphysics

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;Robert Bowler
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas’d at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky,
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But, those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
Th’ increasing prospects tire our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

To the Greeks, drinking from the Pierian Spring brings great knowledge and inspiration. Thus, Pope is explaining how if you only learn a little it can “intoxicate” you in such a way that makes you feel as though you know a great deal. However, when “drinking largely sobers” you, you become aware of how little you truly know.

I was reminded by Pope’s couplet over the weekend, when someone I know very well broached the topic about evolution and the church—particularly his church. He bemoaned his church’s alleged anti-evolutionary stance—although the nature of the conflict was not entirely clear to me. I asked what, exactly, was so troubling. He replied that “the majority of the scientific community hold evolution to be true,” and thus it followed, in his mind, that this church needed some updating. I pressed him to expand on this, but he merely repeated anecdotal “evidence” gleamed from popular accounts, namely newspaper editorials, magazines, television programs, and the like.  Now, this person is highly educated, but neither in the biological sciences nor in the history of ideas. His knowledge on the subject is based on what Neil Postman has called “the news of the day”; that is, the massive flow of “decontextualized” information over a vast medium. But that kind of knowledge is narrative, stories or myths the media (de)constructs for its audiences.

This had me thinking about my own research interests; namely, tracing the genesis, growth, and dissemination of the narratology of the Scientific Revolution in nineteenth-century Europe. The Biological Revolution is a similar narrative, only constructed later, mostly in the twentieth century, and particularly in North America. What this narrative ignores is that evolutionary biologists are constantly involved in some controversy. Despite appearances, there is tremendous disagreement among practicing scientists. Some of Darwin’s staunchest supporters disagreed with him on key issues. For example, T.H. Huxley, Joseph Hooker,  and Alfred Russel Wallace were all strong supporters of evolutionary ideas, and yet all argued with Darwin privately in letters and sometimes in print. More recently few know of the controversies surrounding John Maynard Smith,  Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge. These controversies involve complexities that the media ignore because it is messy. No one likes a messy story. We want black and white. We want to cheer for heroes and condemn the villains.

So this inevitably raises the question, “How could these individuals have supported Darwin if they did not believe in some of his most basic ideas?” Part of the answer becomes clearer when we realize that Darwin’s theory of evolution can be divided into distinct sub-theories, which are, for the most part, independent of one another. German-American biologist Ernst Mayr breaks these sub-theories into five categories:

  1. Evolution as such: This is the idea that evolution takes place.
  2. Common descent: This is the idea that every group or organisms (mammals, e.g.) is descended from a common ancestor, and that all organisms can be traced back to a single origin of life.
  3. Multiplication of species: This is the idea that species multiply. They may do this by splitting into two distinct species at various different times during their evolution.
  4. Gradualism: This is the idea that evolution is an accumulation of small changes. New types do not suddenly appear. That is, there is no saltation.
  5. Natural selection: Evolution comes about because there is an abundance of genetic variation in every generation. Relatively few individuals survive and pass along their favorable genetic characteristic to the next generation.

Some of these are more inclusive than others. But it is possible to break Mayr’s five sub-theories down further. Some authors have even cited eight or more components. At any rate, once this point is understood, it is easy to see how scientists such as Huxley could have counted themselves among Darwin’s supporters when they disagreed with him on major points.

A better answer, as Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton perceptively observe in their The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (1996), is that the revolution in biological sciences blossomed fourth suddenly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in a welter of contrary philosophies and approaches. Biological theories of those centuries jumped from mechanistic to vitalistic, from reductionistic to holistic, from essentialist to transformist, from radical materialism to natural theologians who regarded living things as evidence for belief in God.

The contrasting theories sort themselves out once we realize that biology was nourished by the same streams of thought that dominated the physical sciences in previous generations; namely the Aristotelian, Neo-platonic, and Mechanistic worldviews. Grasp these three worldviews and you have the tools to sort through the rich diversity making up the history of biology and to understand the intellectual commitments motivating individual figures. In other words, advocates of various interpretations of life ultimately borrowed their biology from their metaphysics. Each metaphysical tradition primed its adherents to look for certain kinds of facts and to apply certain interpretations.

For example, the Aristotelian worldview, though discredited in physics and astronomy, remained vigorous in natural history. Its major theme was that organic structures must be understood according to built-in purposes. The Aristotelian approach was particularly popular with anatomists, who were impressed with how perfectly the eye is constructed for seeing and the ear for hearing. Many saw in the wonderful “fit” between structure and function the hand of a wise Creator. In addition, Aristotelian logic was used in the construction of classification systems to organize the vast array of living things. Aristotelians tended toward the descriptive side of biology. They interpreted the order in the organic world as an expression of the divine plan of creation; their reasoning was the logic of categorization; their method was observation in the wild. The explosion of biological information gathered by European explorers made the need for biological classification paramount. Physician William Harvey (1578-1657), botanists John Ray (1627-1705) and Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), and zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) all displayed a remarkable Aristotelian tone in their work.

By contrast, Neo-platonism stressed immanent semi-spiritual “active principles” as formative forces in nature. The nineteenth century witnessed a great revival of Neo-platonism through the romantic movement, especially in Germany where it developed into Naturphilosophie (nature philosophy). The romantic biologists embraced a form of pantheistic vitalism, especially popular among embryologists, who sought an inner Law of Development to explain organic forms.

By drawing an analogy between embryonic development and the development of categories of organisms, romantic biologists were the first to construct theories of evolution. Just as individuals move up through several stages of development, so all of life was presumed to move up the “great chain of being” from simpler forms to humanity. In most cases, this was not evolution as the term is used today but rather as its literal definition suggests—an “unfolding” of a preordained pattern, the gradual realization of an immanent or built-in pattern. Like earlier Neo-platonists (Paracelsus, van Helmont, Leibniz), the romantic biologists often spoke of “seeds” in nature—hidden, latent powers that unfold over time. Each category of organism was regarded as the realization of such a seed.

The romantic biologists also searched for fundamental anatomical patterns for each class of organisms. They referred to these patterns as “archetypes”—a term reminiscent of Plato’s perfect and eternal Ideas. Hence romantic biology is often described as an idealist philosophy of nature; the search for archetypes was labeled Transcendental Anatomy. The romantic biologists interpreted the order in the organic world as a progression up the chain of being, a succession of archetypes; they reasoned by analogy; their method was historical. The astronomer and biologist Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) was one of the first to recognize that a simplistic Newtonian paradigm of “forces and motions” was inadequate for biology.  French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopedic author, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), once he had become acquainted with Leibniz’ work, wrote a multi-volume natural history that became a key influence in the rise of romanticism and Naturphilosophie. A contemporary of Cuvier, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) reacted against what he regarded as the dry systematic approach of the Aristotelian tradition. According to Lamarck, the essence of life is flux, motion, change, and central to his philosophy of nature is the organism as it strives to adapt and develop.

And finally there was the Mechanistic worldview, which came to biology through Descartes, with his proposal that living things (animals and the human body) are automatons, operating solely by physical laws. Mechanistic philosophy appealed particularly to physiologists studying the way the body operates. Early physiologists focused on the mechanical operation of limbs and joints; later they experimented with chemical reactions in the body. Mechanists interpreted the order in the organic world as a result of order in the physical world, in the atoms and chemicals that comprise living things; they reasoned by analysis; they championed the method of controlled experiment. We can distinguish two groups of mechanistic biologists during the period. One group was motivated by political and religious concerns as much as by biological ones. They hoped that a radical materialism would sap the supernatural sanctions of Christianity and in so doing not only shake the dogma of the churches but also undermine the legitimacy of contemporary absolutist princes. This group included figures such as Karl Vogt (1817–1895), Jacob Moleschott (1822–1893), and Ludwig Buchner (1824–1899). They turned their hand to the popularization of science, using it to support materialism. The second group of mechanistic biologists were more moderate, focusing on physiology, not politics. They tended to treat reductionism primarily as a methodology, not an all-embracing philosophy. This group included figures such as Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), Karl Ludwig (1816–1895), and Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894).

The three traditions adumbrated here did not, of course, remain exclusive from one another. Once terms or phrases became common usage in one tradition, they tended to spill over into general discourse. Adherents of other traditions might pick them up and pay them lip service without necessarily accepting their metaphysical context.

On the other hand, there were some who consciously sought to reconcile the different traditions. Richard Owen (1804–1858), a student of Cuvier, was subsequently influenced by romantic biology and worked out a synthesis of the two. Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), the Swiss naturalist who headed the zoology department at Harvard University, likewise combined elements of Aristotelianism with the idealistic progressivism of Naturphilosophie. In Germany Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) grafted Darwin’s materialistic evolution onto the roots of romantic biology and became one of Darwin’s most vigorous popularizers.

Clearly, science is not simply a matter of observing facts. Every scientific theory also expresses a worldview. Philosophical preconceptions determine where facts are sought, how experiments are designed, and which conclusions are drawn from them. It is only by grasping the worldview traditions that have shaped the development of biology that we really understand what motivated a Cuvier, a Buffon, or a Darwin.

But we might wonder whether these worldview traditions discussed here are still alive today. The answer is yes. The most visible is the mechanistic tradition. Mainstream academic biology is adamantly committed to a materialist, reductionist form of mechanism. And as noted in the beginning of this post entry, controversies and conflicts in the biological sciences continue to exist today. According to the noted British geneticist John Maynard Smith, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is “a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with.” Oxford University zoologists Richard Dawkins charges Gould’s view of evolution is based on fundamental misunderstanding. Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett goes further. According to Dennett, Gould is “a would-be revolutionary” who has mounted a series of attacks on conventional Darwinism over the years. Furthermore, Dennett says, as the best-known writer on evolutionary topics, Gould has had an influence that is “immense and distorting.” Gould must have some “hidden agenda,” Dennett speculates.

Gould, on the other hand, brands Maynard Smith, Dawkins, and Dennett as “Darwinian fundamentalists,” who place an emphasis on one component of Charles Darwin’s theory and “push their line with an almost theological fervor.” Maynard Smith, he says, has apparently gotten caught up in an “apocalytpic ultra-Darwinian fervor.” Dennett’s writings, he adds, are characterized by “hint, innuendo, false attribution and error.”

Maynard Smith, Dawkins, Dennett, and Gould are not the only individuals engaged in this controversy. For example, Gould’s colleague, paleontologist Niles Eldredge has also critized Dawkins, Dennett, and Maynard Smith. So have various other scientists, including as H. Allen Orr, Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby. The controversy is ongoing and it is not likely that the argument will end soon. The differences between all these scientists arise not from the scientific data, but their interpretations of it. There are fundamental philosophical differences between them. Dawkins, Maynard Smith, and other orthodox Darwinians are reductionists who see only one important factor in evolution. Gould and Eldregde, on the other hand, describe themselves as pluralists who see evolution as something that is much more complex. Thus the differences in outlook have led not one but a variety of different controversies.

This post entry is merely an introduction to a vastly complex subject. I have recently acquired Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (2009), recognized as a comprehensive and authoritative source on the development and impact of this most controversial of scientific theories. This twentieth anniversary edition is updated with a new preface examining recent scholarship and trends within the study of evolution. For those who are interested in going beyond “the news of the day,” Bowler’s book is a good start.