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: John Herschel

In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), Charles Babbage ushered in the authority of astronomer John F.W. Herschel (1792-1871) as testimony that science in England was in decline. In a footnote to his article on “Sound” in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817-45), Herschel lamented about the “crude and undigested scientific matter” found in English scientific journals. He complained that there were “whole branches of continental discovery” that remained “unstudied, and indeed almost unknown, even by name” among English scientists. Babbage had sent a draft manuscript to Herschel of his Decline of Science in 1830. And although he agreed with Babbage’s reforming goals, he nevertheless recommended that he “burn it, or rewrite it.” According to Secord, Babbage had “blazoned” Herschel’s footnote, “as testimony that science was in a bad way.” But Herschel so deeply regretted this association to the declinist position that, after reading the draft, he told Babbage that “if I were near you and could do it without hurting your and thought you would not return it with interest I would give you a good slap in the face.”

John Herschel
A wild-eyed John Herschel late in life

John Herschel is the next key figure in Secord’s Visions of Science (2014). Herschel wanted to see science reformed just as much as Babbage did, “but feared the execution in Decline a disaster from which it would be difficult for science to recover any shred of reputation.” This was not simply because he hated public controversy; rather, he saw science as a “conduct to everyday life.” In this sense, Babbage’s polemical writing lacked the qualities and character of the true man of science.

Secord begins by pointing out that Herschel’s most well-known work, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) was unlike any other philosophical treatise published at the time. “Given its low price and large sales,” he says, “readers of the Preliminary Discourse were far more likely to have used it as a conduct manual” (my emphasis). According to Secord, “conduct manuals gave instructions, not only about table etiquette and topics for conservation, but also about good character and appropriate mode of thinking.” As Herschel and many others saw it, “science was pervasively bound up with defining and maintaining canons of behaviour, from cultivating appropriate modes for discussion to encouraging the avoidance of outright fraud.” Indeed, science could “now provide a foundation for good character across the social spectrum.”

The book’s “material form,” as Secord puts it, supports his claim. The Preliminary Discourse was published by Longman for Dionysius Lardner’s “Cabinet Cyclopaedia,” and modeled from other encyclopedic “preliminary discourses,” such as Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s (1717-83) Encyclopédie of the eighteenth century, the Britannica (1771), Ree’s Cyclopaedia (1802), the Edinburg Encyclopaedia (1808), and the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1817). Further, it was a small book: machine printed, on lower quality paper, with stereotyping, bounded with glazed pink calico cloth over boards made of card, and sold for six shillings. Further still, Herschel modestly presented himself on the title pages as simply “John Frederick William Herschel, Esp., A.M., Late Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, &c. &C &c,” without, as Secord aptly puts it, “an ‘ostentatious parade’ of honours and societies trailing in its wake.” The Preliminary Discourse sold well and was translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Russian.

Secord argues that the Preliminary Discourse emerged from the debates surrounding the decline of science, particularly in regards to the Royal Society. For Herschel conduct was central. “If Decline, with its polemical tone and political edge, was an example of how not to behave, the Preliminary Discourse could offer a model for the actions of the ideal seeker of after truth.” Indeed, as Secord perceptively points out, Herschel had accepted Lardner’s commission in February 1830; Babbage sent his daft manuscript in March 1830; and Herschel wrote most of the book in the summer of 1830, “immediately after the clashes over Babbage’s book.” In short, the Preliminary Discourse was a “quietly utopian vision of science and its public uses.”

The Preliminary Discourse wasn’t simply a philosophical treatise on observation, experiment, and induction. Because of its unimposing style, ordered structure, and humble tone, readers found it inclusive. It gave readers the impression, writes Secord, “that in understanding the Preliminary Discourse, they are engaged in the first steps of scientific study.” The text is grounded in the belief that “reading has the power to transform the human condition.” In reading, one can “vicariously” live through the scientist in “the act of discovery and an appreciation of natural truth.” As a result, humanity is “brought to the frontiers of human knowledge and ‘nearer to their Creator.'”

Indeed, this was Herschel’s chief aim in the Preliminary Discourse: to develop these “habits of the mind.” He wanted to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths. In mathematics we have what is necessary. The properties of a circle or square remain the same whether we are in broad daylight or the darkness of a cell. But the senses can be “tricksters or magicians.” Because we are often misled by our senses, “nature and its laws” are always contingent. Science, in short, must be modest.

This modesty in science has great moral and practical benefits. What Herschel offered was “a wider rational foundation for how to behave in everyday life.” As Secord notes, Herschel drew on a “tradition of the scientific pastoral, in which the contemplation of nature leads to an inner repose and the erasure of selfish, individual feelings.” Science would not only revitalize political life, it would ultimately lead us to “appreciate the need for a higher power, and avoid the brazen certainty of unbelief.”

Herschel’s book became so popular that newspapers, magazines, journals, and pamphlets mined it for quotations, “becoming set-pieces to be learned by heart.” And this “serial anthologizing,” particularly in cheap weeklies, afforded readers who could not afford to read Preliminary Discourse, whether for economic reasons or time constraints, to learn from its sagacious author. Scientific thinking was presented as a higher calling that almost anyone could now pursue.