Thursday, September 30, 2010

Natural Theology and Evolutionary Theory in the Nineteenth Century – Summary Paper 2

After reading Module 7, I reviewed briefly a paper Professor Clarke cited, which I had found while doing research for an earlier module:  Frank M. Turner.  “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension”, Isis, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Sep., 1978): 356-376.  This helped to refresh in my mind the dynamic environment of the mid-nineteenth century, establishing a proper context for the emerging ascendancy of science as profession. 
Following this, I turned to another paper cited by Dr. Clarke:  Joseph L. Altholz.  "A Tale of Two Controversies:  Darwinism in the Debate over Essays and Reviews", Church History 63 (1994):  50-59.  Altholz’s work helped to demonstrate the struggle within religious institutions, highlighting the Broad Church in particular- where liberal theologians expressed ideas concurrent with, and parallel to the Theory of Natural Evolution.  The author verbalizes this trend towards a new, anthropological view of religion:  “Throughout the book runs an unplanned common theme of development in religion, cognate to evolution in biology” (Ibid, p. 51).  Of note is Altholz’s thesis that critics of Essays and Reviews did not use direct scientific rebuttals to that work, but only claimed to do so while referring to the comments of “anti-rationalist” authors, whose own ideas, when examined, proved to be mainly mere opinion.  What is made clear in this paper is that, despite the threat of censure, more and more men of religion (in addition to men of science) were voicing dissent to orthodoxy, a shift which may be properly characterized as being part of the Victorian crisis of faith.
In order to gain more familiarity with said crisis, I turned to the following paper:  D. H. Meyer.  “American Intellectuals and the Victorian Crisis of Faith”, American Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 5, Special Issue: Victorian Culture in America (Dec., 1975): 585-603.  Meyer posits that William James rightly characterized the struggle of the age as being more than simply a matter of domestic harmony- rather it was an inward struggle, one “within one’s own mind”.  And, Meyer says, though the struggle in the late nineteenth century was mostly limited to intellectuals, it prefaced a wider crisis within society in general which was to follow decades later.  The author examines the crisis within the American context, considering a range of thought from positivism and agnosticism to “uncritical faith”.  One delightful quote Meyer shares is from Robert Ingersoll, an American sympathetic to Huxley:  “The agnostic does not simply say ‘I do not know’.  He goes another step, and he says with great emphasis that you do not know...”, making doubt “a badge of intellectual honesty” for some (Ibid, p. 589) but a matter of existential angst for others.  Meyer’s is an engaging narrative which moves from wider themes (such as the American desire for cognitive unity) to the particulars of individual thinkers (e.g., James, Fiske, Bowne) who formed the milieu of the crisis and filled the niches of the varied shades of opinion therein.
After reading Module 8, I was intrigued by the figure of Asa Gray, and found the following article helpful as a primer to the life and thought of that great man:  Sara Joan Miles, “Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53 (September 2001): 196-201.  Describing Gray as “Darwin’s dove”, Miles gives account of the American botanist’s legacy and demonstrates the connection between his thought and that of Darwin.  She highlights the fact that while Gray considered himself a Christian, he was not a biblical literalist; rather the dialogue pertained more properly to teleology.  Miles’s article provides some depth to the conversation between the two thinkers, noting where the two agreed, on the nature of a mechanism, yet diverged on the question of design.
Following this, I chose to read an article cited by Professor Clarke:  Paul Jerome Croce.  "Probabilistic Darwinism:  Louis Agassiz v. Asa Gray on Science, Religion and Certainty", Journal of Religious History 22 (1998):  35-58.  In this paper, Croce plays on the nuances in American opinion towards Darwin’s theories, showing how Asa Gray’s tolerance of uncertainty separated him from his contemporary, Agassiz.  This, Croce points out, was a difficult methodological move given the desire for absolutes which had characterized intellectual thought in the preceding centuries.  The author aptly describes the social and intellectual contexts in which the two men taught.  He notes that while Agassiz rightly discovered the action of glaciers on the topography of the land, his adherence to religious orthodoxy did not permit him to admit to the (general) mutability of species.  Gray appears in this struggle as the defender of induction against Agassiz’s “unscientific” idealism, while maintaining a role for God as the shaper of ends.  Croce’s thesis is a useful lens for understanding the general nature of the religious-scientific dialogue taking place at centers of higher learning in America at the time.
Having read so much about Asa Gray, and finding his thought entirely reasonable as a middle ground in the debate, I thought it worthwhile to read some of his own work, and decided on the first chapter of the following:  Asa Gray.  Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology, a Free Examination of Darwin’s Treatise on the Origin of Species, and of Its American Reviewers.  London: Trubner & Co., 1861.  One phrase in particular shows Gray’s retention of an idea of design:  “Variation and natural selection may play their part, and so may specific creation also. Why not?... The beginning of things must needs lie in obscurity, beyond the bounds of proof...”  (Ibid, p. 7)  As to the place of man, Dr. Gray states that without evidence to the contrary: “We must needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it may have been with the lower animals and wild plants” (Ibid, p. 6).  While natural selection provides for Gray an adequate model for the gradual formation of humans from a primordial being, for the sake of his more religious audience, he adds that this need not be so, only that it may be so, without negating the role of God as the Prime Mover.  In defence of Darwin, Gray reminds us astutely that the reductionist principles discovered by men such as Galileo, whom he refers to as “the great pioneer of inductive research”, formulated in physical laws, were not well-received at first, likening them to “a (hard-fitting) new pair of breeches” (Ibid, p. 3).  Gray’s engaging style and open-mindedness make this an interesting foray into source material.
After reading Module 9, I read an article cited by Dr. Clarke:  William R. Patterson.  "The Greatest Good for the Most Fit?  John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Social Darwinism", Journal of Social Philosophy 36 (2005):  72-84.  Patterson’s consideration of the extension of the principles of evolution into Social Darwinism is fascinating, and he adequately defends Mill against Huxley’s charges of selfish pursuit as a goal of utilitarianism, pointing out that proper utilitarian thinking holds of highest value not the baser pleasures of the flesh, but those of the mind, the esthetic.  Huxley attempted, Patterson shows, to prevent Darwin’s ideas from degenerating into an ethical system which would justify the mistreatment of particular segments of society.  Mill’s theory is guarded from Huxley’s projections when Patterson points out that Mill would have wanted a consideration of the pleasure of the greatest number of persons, not just of the individual, thus elevating the utilitarian ethic to a consideration of other.  This paper served the purpose of separating Mill from Social Darwinism and established that Huxley had been mistaken to confound the two, due to his misunderstanding of Mill.
Pursuing the idea of Social Darwinism, I found the following article helpful:  James Allen Rogers. “Darwinism and Social Darwinism”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, No. 2, (Apr. - Jun., 1972): 265-280.  Rogers examines the connection between Darwin and Social Darwinism, showing that while Darwin may not be held directly responsible for the ideas which followed his own, his use of “highly metaphorical concepts” related to Malthus and Spencer permitted the exploitation.  Nonetheless, Rogers leads on, in the Descent of Man (1871), Darwin makes comments which might give one pause:  “Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”  The author goes on to investigate how Darwin and Malthus wrongly assumed demographic calculations which might underwrite a program of Social Darwinism.  After exploring Darwin’s association with Spencer, Rogers concludes by offering a cautioning remark:  “For those who could not distinguish between biological and social evolution, Darwin's theory offered the public authority of science by which they could attempt to legitimatize their private vision of human progress.”
In response to a fellow classmate’s question on Social Darwinism in Germany, I read portions of the following:  Richard Weikart.  “The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany, 1859-1895”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 54, No. 3, (Jul., 1993): 469-488.  Weikart explores in one place David Strauss, considered to have been a major advocate for aristocracy and bourgeoisie in Germany during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Weikart shows how Strauss formed part of a conservative shift among liberal intellectuals, his 1872 The Old Faith and the New reflecting a materialist paradigm linked with Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection.  Strauss, though trained in theology, is shown to take a stand for inequality of resources and the legitimization of war as a progressive force in the struggle to ascendancy.  With regards to the question of faith, it appeared that Strauss, in this work, published after the Origin, was attempting to replace Christianity with the tenets of scientific materialism.  Weikart’s paper appears to cover a range of ideas which merit further consideration.
I might offer that Modules 7-9 both carry the ideas presented earlier forward and provide a depth of historical investigation which cause much anticipation for events yet to be examined, such as the Scopes Trial, among others.

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