Bacon’s Bequest

Dealing With DarwinA number of weeks ago I introduced a new book by David N. Livingstone Dealing With Darwin. In this book Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast, explores the importance of location and local context on the way Darwinian evolution was received, embraced, or rejected. His chapter on the reaction to Darwin in Canada, specifically among Presbyterians primarily in Toronto, looks in particular at the role a pragmatic Baconian view of science played. The overall reaction was mixed, with some making peace with Darwin and others reacting against his theories – but both approaches reflected this pragmatism and empiricism. Science is primarily, so the reasoning goes, an inductive process of collecting facts and using these facts, not a fanciful theory driven endeavor. Darwin’s theory of evolution departed from this path. Speculative hypothesizing isn’t real science.

John William Dawson – a geologist and a Presbyterian born in Canada, educated in Edinburgh, and settled at McGill in Montreal was explicit, and decidedly negative about Darwin. His complaints were grounded in scientific method, philosophy, and anthropology. First, he considered Darwin’s methodology to be bad – “one that sacrificed the “careful induction” of hard facts to “wild and fanciful” speculation” (p. 92)

Darwin had violated the sound principles of Baconian induction and had too whole-heartedly joined forces with that breed of scientific “adventurers” who, like mythical suicidal lemmings, rushed headlong “into an unknown and fathomless abyss.” (p. 93)

On the philosophical side he found the idea that natural selection, struggle, toil, and survival of the fittest were responsible for the diversity of life appalling. “Nature was not so cruel, so ruthless, so tyrannical; beauty and harmony, not pitiless brutality were her distinguishing hallmarks.” (p. 92) As a geologist Dawson was comfortable with the idea of an ancient earth – he read the days of Genesis 1 as ages or epochs of creation. He was also comfortable with some limited transformation – what today might be called microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. But he was adamantly opposed to the absence of purpose in Darwin’s theory, “he insisted that nature should be read teleologically” and “that evolution was unacceptable because “it removes from the study of nature the ideas of final cause and purpose.”” (p. 96)

He was also deeply concerned about the ethical and moral implications of the evolution of mankind.

As for applying the survival principle to human origins, that maneuver was “nothing less than the basest and most horrible superstition”; the horror was to great to bear for it made humanity “not merely carnal, but devilish” by reducing the crown of creation to the “lowest appetites” and ugliest impulses. (p. 93)

Dawson, however, represented one extreme in Canada. Most of the response was more measured. Canadians participated very little in the vigorous debate found in Britain or in the US. Others, like Daniel Wilson, Dawson’s friend and president of the University of Toronto, found much to question in Darwin’s theory, but approached it with more equanimity. Wilson had doubts about the theory, but his primary objection was the implication for the nature of the human species. He loathed racial hierarchy and “exempt[ed] human consciousness from the operations of reductionist natural law.” (p. 101)

Wilson was certain that humanity’s moral and cognitive faculties were fundamentally different from mechanical animal instinct, and thus he repudiated “the monstrous notion” that any form of evolutionary psychology could “account for the origin of the intellect and living soul on man by development.” To think that natural selection could explain human consciousness was to get things the wrong way round; it was rather that human “intellectual power” explained why “man … has triumphed over all other animals.” (p. 101-102)

For Wilson, as for Dawson, Darwin’s theory was too speculative. Edward John Chapman, the professor of mineralogy and geology at the University of Toronto was of the same opinion, evolution by natural selection was a fragile theory. “At the bottom of this was Chapman’s concern: Darwinism represented the triumph of theory over evidence, of supposition over information, of fancy over fact.” (p. 103)

In Canada the scientists reaction against Darwin wasn’t religious, although most were religious men. The reaction was grounded in a distrust of too much theorizing. Mostly Darwin’s theory was ignored. According to Livingstone:

In large part this stance was born of the Canadian love affair with a Scottish tradition that valorized the Baconian ideal. When Canadian naturalists felt the need to make explicit the philosophical foundations on which their enterprise was built, they routinely resorted to Bacon’s insistence that genuine understanding was bound up with the “patient accumulation of detail, not with deductions from supposedly universal principles.” In practice, this meant that the bulk of the scientific endeavor rotated around the collecting of information about plants and animals and the amassing of samples and specimens. (p. 106)

When theology did come into play, it was not opposed to the Darwinian theories in and of themselves. Knox College, with Scottish Presbyterian roots, is a case in point. The Knox College Monthly amply demonstrates that the emphasis was on the reading of purpose and design into Darwinian evolution.

The issue of design routinely surfaced in the magazine, often with the aim of teleologizing Darwin … and evolutionizing Paley. Tackling the subject of “Evolution and the Church,” a Knox College alumnus, William Hunter, argued that evolutionary teleology far outstripped its Paleyite counterpart. Design by wholesale, as it were, was grander than design by retail! Having reviewed the standard argument that discovering a watch on the heath could reasonably lead to the conclusion that it had a watchmaker designer – he went on:

But suppose, instead, the man was taken to the factory and saw watches made by machinery … If it be an argument from design that a man can make a watch, is it not a sublimer argument that there is a man who can create a factory which turns out thousands of watches? If it be evidence of design that God adapted one animal to its place and function, is it not greater evidence of design if there be a system of such adaptions going on from the beginning? Is not the creator of a system a more sublime designer than the creation of any single article? (p. 109)

William Dewar argues that evolution was purely a scientific question, and science would determine with truth or falsity. It posed no theological conundrum. He wrote “if evolution be true, it is a law, a method of operation, and accordingly it itself becomes the embodiment of design.” (p. 110)

LivingstoneEvolution met with opposition in Toronto, but little of it came from the religious world, or directly as an argument for a literal reading of scripture (apparently the Baptists were an exception, however, from a comment in one of Wilson’s journals). By and large the scientific opposition to evolution by natural selection, when it existed, stemmed from a Baconian ideal of inductive science. The theological objection, when it existed, was grounded in an understanding of the nature of humankind.

Livingstone concludes:

Toronto Presbyterians embraced, albeit in an teleological form, evolutionary rhetoric for both scientific and theological ends. Darwinian evolution suited their doemstic agenda, and in using it for their own purposes, they steered their own course between those who repudiated it for religious reasons and those who championed it for naturalistic ends. (p. 116)

On of the views put to rest by the history and geography of religious engagements with evolution is the naive view that there has been only one faithful response. Everyone everywhere did not find it at odds with Christian faith. Nor were the argument against evolution generally grounded in biblical inerrancy when they were made. The engagement is far more complex.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Bacon’s Bequest at Jesus Creed.

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