This is Part 16 of a series of approximately sixty posts that outline evidence, support, and explanations for evolution. Receive updates and notification of all posts from dennismitton.com by selecting the Email Membership button on the sidebar of any page. Thanks!
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Copyright Dennis Mitton
Events That Led To Origin
Two different events or movements helped pave the way for the acceptance of Darwin’s publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859. As in all things, the readiness of the culture for these ideas was as important as the publication.
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
One event was the publication of the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. The book, published anonymously, enjoyed fantastic and widespread public approval selling 20,000 copies in its first printing, a fair initial showing even for today. It is reported that Prince Albert And Queen Victoria took time each afternoon to read the volume together. The book, later found to be published by one Robert Chambers, attempted to tie together several then popular ideas about spontaneous creation and transmutation of species. It was so popular that Darwin, ever dipping his toe before moving, considered postponing writing and publication of Origin as a waste of his time. Victorian society, he wondered, just wasn’t ready for something as forward thinking.
The author of Vestiges argued that all things – the universe, plants and animals, and humans all rose spontaneously at various points in time. He recognized a general gradual increase in fossil complexity through time, and argued with clerics that “the scriptural objection quickly vanishes, and the prevalent ideas about the organic creation appear only as a mistaken inference from the text [the Bible], formed at a time when man’s ignorance prevented him from drawing a just conclusion.”
Though hugely popular with general readers, neither scientists nor clergy were happy with the book. In fact, in the early 1840s, it was difficult to differentiate between clergy and scientists. Both, to a large degree, sought to reveal God’s glory through His handiwork of creation. Vestiges took a step away from religiously based special creation.
From our modern vantage, the work was amateurish and poorly executed. I haven’t read the entire work but Wiki reports that the author claimed to have performed or was aware of experiments where insects were spontaneously created using electricity. Problems with science and the book’s amateurish presentation finally relegated it to the back shelves where it has been largely forgotten. In retrospect, though, it was important in that if contrasted the natural world against the Christian scriptures. Maybe for the first time, people read a work that showed the Christian Scriptures to be wrong about nature.
German Higher Criticism
Regarding the publication of Origin, the publication of Vestiges ties directly to what is called German Higher Criticism. This academic method of religious studies increasingly challenged the accuracy and truthfulness of the Bible. It relied heavily on evidence rather than religious fiat and tradition.
Several famous debates took place in the wake of the publication of Origins with popular personalities emerging from many. Most famous was Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Through popular public lectures and debates with equally famous prelates, Huxley made the bold attempt to eviscerate anyone who stood in opposition to evolution. Most famous was the 1860 debate with Samuel Wilberforce, called Soapy Sam at Oxford for his oratory skills. While Wilberforce forcibly dared to demand that science must reach the conclusion dictated by the church, Huxley drove home simple facts and won over crowds. The real and lasting effect of these debates, largely still felt today, was the relegation of the clergy to religious matters. Let scientists do science and let pastors lead the flock.
After the publication of Origins and after evolution had become the de facto scientific explanation for the diversity of species on earth, the term ‘Social Darwinism’ rose in popularity. It was based on the false idea of survival of the fittest, in this context, meaning that leaders would rise who were most fit to rise and lead. Darwin, always prescient, addressed the idea of using this brutish logic regarding the fair treatment of fellow men and urged readers to remember to treat each other with empathy and compassion. Many of the ideas that later fell under the heading of Social Darwinism were presented decades before Darwin published his book. The term is still used today in the perjorative by almost any group who wishes to castigate another. The charge that Darwin gave permission for the successful to trample the oppressed is a favorite of creationists. Biologists counter that evolution is merely a description of how species and varieties emerge and is without any overarching direction or purpose. It is neither good nor bad. It is merely an explanation of what we see every day on nature.
Darwin died on April 19, 1882. He was seventy-three years old. His friend Thomas Huxley, ever the Bulldog, fought hard for him to be buried at Westminster Abbey. Rumors persist in creationist and biblical literalist publications that Darwin recanted evolution, agnosticism, atheism, Hinduism, and any other -ism upon his deathbed and embraced Genesis and Jesus. No evidence whatsoever exists of this conversion. It appears in every way to be a complete fabrication.
Truth be told, though, Darwin never quite quit religion. He recognized the social usefulness of the local parish and supported his throughout his life. He generally eschewed confrontation and felt that there was a wide space for scientists and religionists to live side by side. He believed that one could be both a theist and evolutionist. There is no knowing who Darwin would be today but he left the world an avowed agnostic, never so bold as to say that no god can or might exist but neither embracing any.
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For an interesting read and look into Victorian publishing: