Books on Science and Religion #16: The Evolution of English Evolution

Books on Science and Religion #16: The Evolution of English Evolution

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Sept 21, 2014

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century is one of those wide-ranging and fascinating books of history that British writers do particularly well. Its author – Peter Watson – tells us that The modern mindevolution is not only one of the dominant topics of modern thought, but that it gives us the needed framework for understanding that thought:

Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science … various fields of inquiry [physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology, paleontology, archaeology, psychology, mathematics, anthropology, history, genetics, and linguistics] are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world.This story, as we shall see, includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races, with their different civilisations.

Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution. As late as 1996 Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher, was still describing Darwin’s notion of evolution as “the best idea, ever.”

It shouldn’t surprise Baha’is to note that evolution – cultural evolution, material evolution, and spiritual evolution – also provides a framework for understanding the Baha’i Faith’s fundamental aims and goals. Consider, for example, the principle of the oneness of humanity. At its core is a vision of the evolution of humanity:

The lotus templeThe principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. … It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

It represents the consummation of human evolution – an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.

The last stage of the process of human evolution are those we must address now:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 43)

vestigesBut how did this view of evolution, now dominant in all departments of modern life, come about? In France, Germany, England, and through the world, a static, non-evolutionary view of the world reigned with little or no challenge before the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. But afterward, that static view gave way to a much more dynamic and powerful view of change and growth. That view – known now as evolution – is the subject of this blog.

The Evolution of English Evolution

In the following, we look at the early evolution of evolutionary thinking in 19th century France, Germany, and England. We are following Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism called Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Long before Darwin published his speculations, evolutionary theory had become very influential, not only because of the of Jean-Baptise Lamarck, but also because of the widely-read 1844 book anonymously published as the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and because of the evolutionary emphasis in the works of Herbert Spencer.

Here is how Olson summarizes the views he presents:

[The chapter] begins by arguing that by mid century, increasing numbers of British liberal and conservative intellectuals alike had become dissatisfied with the guidance that classical and neoclassical political economy, utilitarian political theory, or the Anglican Church offered for humane public policies. It suggests that many influential thinkers turned to the historically oriented elements of both Comte’s Positivism and German thought and began to view the patterns of progressive change seen in theories of Earth history and biological evolution as models for thinking about society.

buffonAfter reviewing developments in French evolutionary biology from George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88) Georges Cuvier (1769–1832)) and J. B. Lamarck (1744-1’829), Olson considers the Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation and concludes by reviewing “Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) widely admired scientistic attempt to fashion a compelling and comprehensive social theory out of elements of Positivism, Lamarckian evolutionary doctrines, and the newly emerging science of Energetics.”

Leclerc, Cuvier, and Lamarck

During the European Enlightenment and before the French revolution,  scientific perspectives tended towards the static. Newton law’s, it seemed, illustrated a universe that was eternal, unchanging, and ever obedient to nature’s supreme law. The Linnaean taxonomy described a biological hierarchy that also seemed unchanging – species were created once and changed little or not at all. However, the genius of George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, started to change that point of view. The UC Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website puts it this way:

Jean-Baptiste_de_LamarckBuffon realized that to interpret the world, he had to understand its history. …  He proposed that a comet striking the sun had broken off debris that became the planets of the solar system [and that] initially, the Earth was scorching, but gradually it cooled until molten rock turned to dry land and clouds rained down to form oceans. Buffon estimated the entire process took over 70,000 years.

Buffon argued that life, just like Earth, had a history. Like many other Enlightenment thinkers, he thought that it could be generated spontaneously under the right conditions.

Leclerc’s protege – Jean Baptiste Lamarck – took this approach much further and proposed a full theory of evolution in the first decade of the 19th century. Like Leclerc, he held that life could arise spontaneously. But he further argued, in Olson’s words, that

…new and completely unanticipated properties emerge in connection with highly organized material entities.  For Lamarck, the property of progressive self-organization emerged with life. That is, from the beginning, living beings had achieved a level of complexity sufficient that they contained within themselves a capacity not only to reproduce themselves, but also to generate increasingly complex life-forms with ever more specialized organs.

488px-Georges_Cuvier_3But Lamarck used non-standard ideas of chemistry to animate his theory and it, and his famous view that an organism could pass on acquired traits directly to its offspring delayed acceptance of his point of view.

Georges Cuvier, although opposed to the evolutionary theories of Leclerc and Lamarck, contributed an essential piece of the puzzle – the destruction of entire population of species as illustrated in the fossil record.  Taken together, and exported to Britain along with the historicism of Comte (and of Hegel), specifically British forms of evolutionary thinking started to develop.

Chambers, Mills, and Spencer

It is true that Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, anticipated some of the ideas of Lamarck, helping setting the stage for an eventually positive reception for evolution in England. But it was a work of grand philosophical and metaphysical speculation – the Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation published in 1844 by the Scottish geologist and publisher Robert Chambers (1802-1871) – that brought evolution into focus for the British public. Here is how the UC Berkeley Evolution Website describes the event:

Robert_Chambers,_publisher,_ca1863In October of 1844, a small bomb went off in the world of British science. The bomb took the form of a 400-page book with the grand title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, presenting a comprehensive account of the history of the Earth, from the formation of the Solar System through the development of plant and animal life, up to the origins of humankind. Strangely, there was no author’s name on the cover.

The book sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade, making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley and Adam Sedgwick, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill.

Critical responses ran the gamut from enthusiasm to damnation. “Like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory,” said the politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet. Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.”

What this meant is both that thinkers were well aware of ideas about evolution, but also were very wary about both religious and scientific opposition to its themes in the middle of the 19th century in Britain.

Philosophers were becoming aware of its charms as well.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), according to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, was “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”, and is influential still. He is known for his defense of liberal political views of society and his support for utilitarianism, the view that society must aim to maximize happiness for the individual and for the many.

589px-Herbert_Spencer_5Close to Auguste Comte and friendly to Comte’s positivism, Mill came to the view that we need to uncover the laws by which society changes and improves, and this necessarily involves the study of historical processes. We need to understand, using modern terminology, the evolution of societies. This is one way that the evolution entered British thinking.

But it was the most celebrated thinker of the day – Herbert Spencer – who made evolution the centerpiece of British intellectual thought. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Spencer thus:

British philosopher and sociologist, Herbert Spencer was a major figure in the intellectual life of the Victorian era. He was one of the principal proponents of evolutionary theory in the mid nineteenth century, and his reputation at the time rivaled that of Charles Darwin. Spencer was initially best known for developing and applying evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society — what he called his “synthetic philosophy”

 And he beat Darwin to publication, putting most of his ideas about evolution into his first book in 1851 (Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness) and fully articulating his evolutionary perspectives in “Progress: Its Law and Cause” published in 1857. He published a full exposition of his views in First Principles of a New System of Philosophy in (1862).

What this meant is that by the time that Charles Darwin published his thoughts on evolution in 1859, the topic was already a central and ongoing part of British intellectual and popular discussion quite apart from the scientific creditability that Darwin would give it. The idea – regardless of what Daniel Dennett might believe – wasn’t Darwin’s.

Next Blog

Next week, we discuss Darwin and Darwinism..

What Darwin accomplished was to make evolution respectable from a scientific and biological point of view in a society that already accepted many, if not all, of its implication. But, it also open the floodgates to a wide range of systems of thought that used Darwinism – sometimes even Darwin – to claim scientific validation for what were basically ideologies. And those ideologies could be progressive, liberal, speculative, materialistic, political, racist, oppressive, quasi-religious, and sometimes downright bad.

For example, when intense concerns about de-evolution and regression – i.e., the processes of evolution running backwards – started affecting thinkers weaned on the positive glories of evolution, it led to the fearful, retrograde, and highly unjust systems of quasi-scientific ideology known as social Darwinism. Those came to play a dominate role in late 19th and early 20th century European thought and are the root causes of creationism and the modern fight against evolution.


This is the 16th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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