Darwin and the Divine Programmer

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.

The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThis 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.

Visions of Science: Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage Brain
Charles Babbage’s brain in a vat at the Hunterian Museum

When he died, Charles Babbage (1791-1871), English polymath, mathematician, philosopher, engineer, and the “father of the computer,” donated one half of his brain to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it still sits in display today in the Hunterian Museum. The other half resides in the computing galleries of the Science Museum in London.

Fittingly, Babbage is the subject of Secord’s next chapter in Visions of Science (2014), and particularly his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), including his later Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832). With the death of Davy in 1829, “the loss of such a celebrated discoverer led to fears that the momentum achieved early in the century was petering out.” The most well-known, if not notorious, lament came from the pen of Babbage. According to Secord, the Decline of Science “portrayed English science as moribund and corrupt, and looked to the Continent, especially France, for models of scientific reform.”

Charles Babbage Computing Machine
The ‘Calculating Engine’ by Babbage

Known for his magnificent calculating engine, Babbage “believed that machines would ultimately reshape intellectual labor as fully as they were transforming the craft trades and manual work.” The relationship between science and technology was a much contested issue during the early decades of the century. From our own vantage point, science and technology is often represented as inextricably connected, closely intertwined, and coterminous. This is a view presented to us largely by the media and Hollywood. But this commonplace ignores the immense complexity of  a long historical debate. Not only has the historical relationship between science and technology been in constant flux, but historical figures themselves have held conflicting views. Those who argued for a close relationship between science and technology associated both with state funding and the economy. But this is a historically situated argument. During the revolutionary Napoleonic era, for instance, “science” was harnessed for national benefit. But was this knowledge, pursued for the welfare of the state, “science”?

In the early twentieth century, historians of science such as George Sarton, Alexandre Koyré, Herbert Butterfield and others, would have said no. “Science,” Sarton said, “was about the production of truths, not technologies.” Koyré maintained that the great minds of the past, such as Galileo or Newton, were not engineers or craftsmen. Technological improvement was incidental, a mere by-product of the progress of science.

This view, it has been claimed, was a reaction against Marxist histories, which portrayed science as the offspring of economic and technological development. Marxist historians Boris Hessen, Edgar Zilsel and others, argued that the impetus behind modern science was its economic utility. This, in a qualified sense, was none other than Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) view. Indeed, Bacon insisted that natural philosophy should be cultivated and put into the service of the commonwealth. Likewise, the founding of the Royal Society of London fostered a utilitarian view of science.

By the eighteenth century, France in particular sought to harness the technological potency of the sciences. New institutions such as the École Polytechnique, for example, were designed, write Peter J. Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus in a different work, “to deliver an education in natural philosophy (to army cadets in particular) that was fully expected to result in technological and engineering expertise” advantageous to the state.

And here is where Charles Babbage enters the stage. His Decline of Science was an invective against the Royal Society for not pursuing science as the French and Germans had done. There was something “rotten in the [English] system.” Babbage was not alone in his critique, however. A number of newspapers, magazines, reviews, and pamphlets, including the Morning Chronicle, Lancet, and The Times, took note of the mismanagement of the Royal Society. Many saw it as a “bloated monopoly,” and called for the formation of new scientific societies, such as the Astronomical Society and Geological Society, a more “reformed, mathematically refined, and secure version of the subject.”

To this end, Babbage felt justified in naming names. That is, he sought a “public accounting” of the failures of specific members of the Royal Society. For example, in his Decline of Science he attacked specifically astronomer Edward Sabine as a charlatan. He justified his public character assassinations by arguing that “a true philosopher, faced by accusation of corruption and forgery, would remain calm. Only those with something to hid would react badly; openness was a sign of honesty.” This was polemic at its finest.

But Babbage, by attacking the of governance, leadership, and organization of the Royal Society, aimed at something bigger. As Secord writes, “reform of the Royal Society served as a model of what needed to be done more generally in politics and the emerging industrial economy.” Observation is relative. Thus Babbage called for a mechanism that would “calibrate observations.” More importantly, there was the problem of fraud. This included, says Secord, “hoaxes, forging, trimming, and cooking.” How does one ameliorate such a disease? By making science completely open. It must be open to adepts and experts alike. It must be, in short, public. And finally, moral character must be essential. “Freed of human subjectivity and foibles, the pursuit of knowledge would be manly ans secure, a suitable model for political action.”

In his next book, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, Babbage targeted the dirty secrets of the book trade, and, in much the same way he did with members of the Royal Society, he very publicly attacked specific publishers and printers for their moral shortcomings. But all this came at a cost. In 1832 he accepted the nomination as a Whig parliamentary candidate for Finsbury. He lost to the Tories. “Many readers,” writes Secord, “were uncomfortable with the praise Decline heaped on foreign governments that gave honours, money, and status to scientific men.” Men such as William Robert Grove (1811-96), William Whewell (1794-1866), and George Bidell Airy (1801-92) were not as enthusiastic as Babbage was for the Napoleonic regime. Whewell and Airy, for example, saw “no merit in Babbage’s argument that state funding for science was essential to ensure continued technological progress.” Babbage seemed to bestow too much power to the state.

Even more disconcerting, however, Babbage seemed to invoke the trope of conflict between science and religion. As Secord notes, “the promotion of the use of knowledge for human needs, would best be served by secular—not religious—education; for among the unenlightened, even true religion was tinged by ‘superstition’ and developed irrational habits of thought.” Indeed, it seemed that Babbage maintained that science and the state would solve all problems: “Ministers of the state, with minds shaped by reason rather than tradition, would then be in a position to give scientific men the opportunities they needed for the research that would reshape the economy.”

Secord concludes this chapter with some comments that beg further explanation. For example, Babbage seemed to think that although mankind was the masterpiece of “divine power,” “other planets still loftier forms of intelligence will have appeared, the product of the same laws of nature.” For this “Almighty architect” had created the universe by a process akin to a calculating engine. And what “looked to ordinary observers like miracles of creation could be understood by the man of science as the intelligent actions of a divine machine.” Secord says no more than this about Babbage, thus leaving his reader wondering what, then, was Babbage’s religious views?