Thursday, September 30, 2010

Natural Theology and Evolutionary Theory in the Nineteenth Century – Summary 1

After reading Module 1, I was prompted to do some background reading on the people and especially the ideas presented in this opening ‘lecture’.  While some have expressed publicly their disdain for Wikipedia, I suspect the majority of students find it a valuable and accessible source for basic information.  Nonetheless, after brief surfing through its well-linked pages, I navigated to a more ‘reputable’ source: MacDONALD, SCOTT (1998). Natural theology. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.  This article was very basic, and did not convey specific information relating to issues surrounding the nineteenth century.
I also read two of the articles cited by Dr. Clarke:  Wells (1967) and Wilkie (1956).  In Wells’ article, Goethe is shown to have elucidated, or at least highlighted, the concept of morphology as relates to “unity in diversity” in the study of nature- an idea likely related to Plato’s forms.  The reliance on classical ideas during this period is suggested with Wells’ mention of Lovejoy’s ‘chain of being’, or scala naturae, which prompted further study on the topic.
A search for this term on the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy pointed to Buffon, providing some basic groundwork for later reading on this thinker.  Here it was suggested that while Buffon did not subscribe to a broad vision of transmutability whereby inferior or primitive species could lead to more and more complex ones, he had a kind of pre-Darwinian thought that the environment could exert an influence on an organism, allowing for variations within the ‘archetype’.  Wilkie’s article on Buffon showed how difficult it was for natural philosophers in those days to write about their innovative ideas in a climate ridden with orthodox religious hostility.  Familiarity with the French language proved useful as the author quotes extensively from the original works of Buffon.
One scientist’s name in particular piqued my interest in this module, familiar as he was to me through high school physics – Sir Isaac Newton.  The following article provided some insight into Newton’s natural philosophy:  J. E. McGuire.  “Newton's ‘Principles of Philosophy’: An Intended Preface for the 1704 ‘Opticks’ and a Related Draft Fragment”, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1970), pp. 178-186.  McGuire notes that in Principles Newton was responding to a need he perceived to address the philosophical implications of his innovations in cosmology.  He further establishes Newton as a leader in the application of a posteriori reasoning.  Religious scepticism as expressed by natural philosophers in the age to follow is not shown by the one who has ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ -  McGuire quotes Newton as having espoused a view very much akin to Intelligent Design:  “ first formation of every species of creatures must be ascribed to an intelligent being...”
After reading Module 2, I decided to look up biographical information on Paley from Wikipedia.  Their article was useful for a quick overview of Paley’s thought and relevance during and after his time.  I also found a good article at:  BROWN, CHARLOTTE R. (1998). Paley, William. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.  Here, besides presenting good biographical data, Paley’s natural theology is viewed in the context of his contemporaries, including Hume.  Paley’s utilitarian ideas are also given consideration, and it is shown that though the force of his thought was in defence, to a large part, of conservatism and the establishment, Paley nonetheless gave evidence to a deeper philosophy in that he desired to see slavery abolished.
I also read the article by Eddy (2004).  I found the style easy and Eddy’s consideration of Paley’s socio-historical context valuable.  His exposition of Paley’s rhetorical devices reminded me of Plato’s critique of sophistry in the Republic and of Augustine’s in the Confessions.  Eddy shows disdain for Paley’s approach to establishing his Argument from Design by appealing to the emotions, and seats the archdeacon’s popularity within the context of soothing “the fears of those who stood to lose the most if ‘Old Boney’ successfully crossed the English Channel.”  The praise-and-blame format of Paley’s rhetoric is shown be an effective minister of his teleological designs, and a somewhat enduring reference point for others who followed in this line in the nineteenth century.
My final reading related to this module was:  Wilson Smith.  “William Paley's Theological Utilitarianism in America.”  The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 11, No. 3, 402-424. Jul., 1954.  Smith, a (former) lecturer from Princeton, examines the scope of Paley’s teachings on morality in America from the nineteenth century and onwards.  According to Smith, the utility of Paley’s social science (rudimentary as it was) was proportional to the needs of evangelical professors in the Atlantic to promote good Christian values amongst students.  Bentham’s ‘raw’ secularized approach to utilitarianism found little place in the pews of the new nation, as eager as it was for clarion moral leadership, the author says.  Smith advocates that the simplicity of Paley’s style further appealed to Americans, suggesting that his audience of laymen and students could not latch onto more sophisticated thinkers like Bishops Law and Butler.  Paley’s pleasure-pain ethic seems to underlay the pragmatic American pursuit of ‘life, liberty and (especially) happiness’.  Smith goes on to show that the individualism of Paley’s utilitarianism struck a chord with America - it was not a morality that needed to be legislated, as with Bentham, but one which relied on ‘Reason’ being ‘seated on the throne’ of every man’s heart.  The author points out that Locke’s influence on Paley’s writings gave pause to educators in America during the 1830’s but his natural theology, especially his watchmaker analogy, ensured that he would continue to be read for decades.  Smith’s article considers Paley’s influence from many views - theological, academic and especially historical, making it a useful source of insight for the researcher.

After reading Module 3, I checked Wikipedia for an explanation of ‘uniformitarianism’, and it was mentioned that although this idea was expounded on by Hutton and Lyell, Avicenna had written about it as early as 1027.  Far more detailed was the article at:  LAUDAN, RACHEL (1998). Geology, philosophy of. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.  In this piece, the theory of uniformitarianism is shown to have developed out of the methodological foundation laid down by Newton through his rules of reasoning in the Principia Mathematica.  Dialogue with the competing theory of catastrophism is characterized in this article as being one that still goes on today.
As well, I read the piece by Porter (1976), in which the author shows how Lyell overcame historical obstacles to the advancement of geology, such as the church, classical philosophy and anthropocentrism.  One idea of Porter’s which I found appealing was that he does not a priori dismiss the church as being a dead weight to scientific inquiry, rather he successfully identifies the ongoing dialogue and interdependency of science with the other institutions of society.
In response to a fellow classmate’s question on the definition of ‘system-building’, I found an article which mentions it briefly:  Elisha Greifer.  Joseph de Maistre and the Reaction Against the Eighteenth Century.  The American Political Science Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1961), pp. 591-598.   Using some undergrad philosophy, I explained how rationalism and empiricism differ in the epistemological context.

After reading Module 4, I ‘googled’ Vestiges and found a decent Wikipedia article, which explained the history of its publication, general theory, reception and criticism (e.g., Darwin).  Following this, I read Hough (1947), in which he describes Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a synthesis of Lyell’s geology, Coleridge’s influence and Tennyson’s own mysticism.  The poem is remarkable in that Queen Victoria is said to have considered it her greatest consolation (after the Bible) during her mourning for Prince Albert, according to a Wikipedia article.
Through various discussions online for the course, I was led to examine an online article at:, entitled “Nietzsche, Darwin & Evolution” by James Birx, a visiting professor at Harvard.  Birx asserts that Nietzsche desired to take Darwin’s theories to their theological and philosophical limits.  He shows that the assumed collapse of all traditional value systems based on a belief in God required, for Nietzsche, a reformulation of humanity’s freedoms and purposes.  This led the German philosopher, Birx says,  to formulate a vitalist ‘will to power’, a quasi-anarchist automotivational energy for the emergence of the ‘noble overman’.  Birx’s consideration of Darwin’s ideas as seen in Nietzsche makes this a valuable way to gauge the profound effect the ‘creator’ of evolutionary theory was to have in non-biological spheres of inquiry.
In response to a fellow student’s question on parson-naturalists, I also read:  Frank M. Turner.  The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension.  Isis, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pp. 356-376.  Turner traces the shift in authority in Europe from the religious to the naturalistic, underscoring that the apprehension many researchers felt in the shadow of tradition remained problematic for a time.  Then a reversal of sorts began to make itself felt, Turner relates, as parson-naturalists found themselves displaced by the institutions of professional men of science, such as the Royal Society, whose progressive ideas successfully delivered material prosperity to the nation.

After reading Module 5, which I found useful for tying together and making relevant a lot of the ideas presented in previous modules, I looked up Malthus on Wikipedia, which helped explain his theory of population and the influence he would exert, including the response of his critics (e.g., Marx).  I could not find an entry on Malthus in any of the following:  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which seems odd, given that his theories had such a profound impact on later thinkers, including Darwin.  A very brief description was given of Malthus in:  "Malthus, Thomas Robert"  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
From Dr. Clarke’s list, I read Elliot (2003), where I was satisfied to acquire some fundamentals on Spencer and Erasmus Darwin, as well as the socio-historical context which helped produce the later Darwin’s ideas.  Elliot highlights E. Darwin’s concept of competition and places it within a framework of Enlightenment progress, allowing for Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’.  Interestingly, the article also seems to provide, through the ideas of C. Darwin’s forerunners, an answer to the problem of evil in deistic scaffolding – namely, that of the economy of nature.
Also of note was the article:  Robert M. Young. "Malthus on Man – In Animals no Moral Restraint.”  Clio Medica/The Wellcome Series in the History of Medicine, “Malthus, Medicine, & Morality", edited by Brian Dolan , pp. 73-91(19).  Rodopi.  Young does an excellent job of covering the basics – historical context, critiques, and especially touching on Malthus’ influence on Darwin.  The author goes on to expose ‘straw men’ in the writing of people like Dawkins and Wolpert, who set up false dichotomies like ‘science – arts’, ‘mechanism – purpose’ and ‘rational – emotional’ (I was tickled a little when he called the philistines).  In the main, Young provides an excellent bridge between Malthus and Darwin.
Module 6 made for a kind of a gala affair, the main course, as it were, after so many savoury appetizers.  I began by reading Lennox (1993) who does a fair job at drawing out the teleology in Darwin, emphasizing that it was of a sort that did not fit into variants found in his own day.  It is not God, Lennox shows, but the good of each individual, that proves teleological in the Origin.  Not that a particular morphological end predestines its selection, the author shows Darwin to believe, but that conscious design need no longer underwrite what plain utility finds out from interplay with chance.  This article made for an interesting read, and pointed out that the controversy Darwin began is still far from ending.
In response to a fellow student’s question on Mendel’s obscurity, I read:  Elizabeth B. Gasking.  “Why was Mendel's Work Ignored?”  Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 60-84.  While Mendel's purpose was to elicit knowledge about inheritance of traits, Gaskin says, his choice of subjects (e.g., hybrids) made it difficult for evolutionists at the time to make use of his work.  Namely, the problem with hybrids was that they were not considered 'true' species; they were not wild, having been produced through artificial 'meddling', and could shed little light on 'natural' processes.  Gaskin also suggests that Darwin's publication itself obscured work in horticulture, as scientists were drawn away immensely by his work, leading to a 'general re-orientation' of scientific endeavour.  An interesting thought on the likelihood of dialogue between the two thinkers follows: "it would perhaps have been embarrassing at this period for Mendel, a monk, to start up a correspondence with the notorious Darwin."  Here, Gaskin is pointing out that alignments had been established to some degree, characterizing Darwin as an enemy of religious orthodoxy.  Gaskin ends her analysis by pointing out that Mendel's work could only more properly be applied to the general theory of evolution with advances in cytology and the understanding of cell division which took place in the 1880's and 1890's. 
My final reading was of:  Michael Ruse.  “The Origin of Life: Philosophical Perspectives”.  Journal of Theoretical Biology.  Volume 187, Issue 4, 21 August 1997, Pages 473-482.  Ruse, a Canadian researcher from Guelph, sets out to examine the topic of origins over the last 100 years.  He begins by pointing out that Darwin downplayed the possibility of spontaneous generation, in part due to Pasteur’s work.  Working around the publication of the Origins, Ruse provides a good general overview of the progression in ideas, from the Great Chain of Being, through the Enlightenment desire for progress, tempered as it was by a belief in Providence, past German Idealism, pausing briefly at Haeckel and his consideration of crystals, on to the 20th century with thinkers such as Haldane and Oparin.  Referring back to Darwin’s ‘warm little pond’, Ruse shows how these more modern evolutionary biologists held to an idea of inorganics organizing into complex chains of organic molecules, a fact established in the light of the Miller-Urey experiments.  The author also considers the context in which these men wrote, noting especially how the Russian Oparin was forced to view biology through the communistic lens of Marx’s dialectic (inherited from Hegel).  Ruse shows how the Great Depression caused a shift in the emotional framework of science, making it more pessimistic about the human equation and its potential than the progressive optimism which had characterized Victorian endeavour.  He ends by showing that Darwin’s ideas occur not just at the macro, but also at the micro, molecular level.

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