Sermons and Reviews: Darwin’s The Descent of Man in America
Sermons and Reviews:
Darwin’s The Descent of Man in America
The extraordinary collection of works by and about Charles Darwin donated to the American Philosophical Society by James Valentine contains no fewer than three hundred and twenty-eight copies on Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in various languages and editions, excluding duplicates. Counting duplicates there are four hundred and sixty-seven editions published in America alone. The Society already had twenty-one copies; coupled with the Society’s extensive collections of printed works and manuscript archives, these together create a unique resource, unparalleled in the United States, for the study of Darwin’s work. As with Darwin’s other books, equally well represented in this amazing trove, the editions of The Descent of Man offer a unique opportunity to study the composition of the book, its arguments, and the way it was presented to non-English audiences. The object of this essay, however, is to discuss the opportunity that the combined Valentine and APS collections offer for study of Darwin’s work in its rich societal context, and particularly with regard to religion.
A great deal has been written about the reception of Darwinism in America, including a compilation of primary texts by George Daniels (1968) and a book by Ronald Numbers (1998) that share the same title: Darwinism Comes to America. Most of what has been written by scientists and non-scientists concerns the reception of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). [VAL 575.8 D25o] It was widely reviewed favorably in American journals like the American Journal of Science and Atlantic Monthly and even more prolifically commented on negatively from the pulpit.
In On the Origin of Species Darwin very carefully – strategically -- avoided addressing the subject of human origins and evolution, which made it easier for a range of scholars to accept, at least tentatively, his new theory. Darwin’s The Descent of Man (first published in 1871, [VAL 575 D25d 1871] second edition 1872) was no less important a book than On the Origin of Species, and contained much new science (including the theory of sexual selection) that amplified and extended his earlier work. It was also far more controversial, presenting an even more direct challenge to conventional religious thought by taking on the issue of human origins and giving a scientific explanation of the evolution of humans that was totally at odds with the account in Genesis. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that many potential supporters in the United States shied away from public discussion of The Descent of Man; it required one too obviously to make choices and its conclusions were not so easily diluted with religious overtones as was On the Origin of Species. (And discussing sex openly was not easy in Victorian times, either.)
The leading proponent of Darwinism in America in the 1860s was Asa Gray, professor of Botany at Harvard. He wrote many favorable reviews of On the Origin of Species, and collected them in the book Darwiniana (first published in 1876). [575 G79D] But he avoided reviewing The Descent of Man altogether. He wrote to Darwin on April 14, 1871, first deflecting the difficult issues of the book with humour: “You have such a way of putting things, and you write in such a captivating way. One can only say: Almost thou persuadest me to have been ‘a hairy quadruped, of arboreal habits, furnished with a tail and pointed ears’ etc….” Gray then made an excuse: “I have been besought to write notices of the book. But I decline. You don’t know how distracted I am these days…”1
“Almost” -- in other words, he was not fully persuaded. Like many reviewers in Britain, scientists or not, he evidently found Darwin’s arguments too much to take. Darwin had both strayed too close to home and ventured too far away. On the one hand, a human origin from apes, long implicit, was now brought uncomfortably close to an unavoidable reality. At the same time, he lost many readers by beginning his argument by tracing human humans continuously back almost to the beginning of time in the form of the newly discovered tadpole stage of ascidians (sea tunicates) development.2 Humans were both apes and worms. As one reviewer put it, “The theory fully stated is no less than this: that ‘Man the wonder and glory of the universe,’ has directly descended from a form of jellyfish … Thus, Mr. Darwin concludes, ‘we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length but not, it may be said, of noble quality.’”3
For a deeply religious man like Gray, Darwin’s presentation of natural selection in On the Origin of Species would have been anathema if it had not left room for compromise. The mechanism of natural selection had three components: the natural variation of animals and plants in nature, the heritability of at least some part of that variation, and the struggle for existence driven by the capacity of all organisms for over-production of offspring; the result was selection. And Darwin used as a telling analogy the changes wrought by plant and animal breeders with their highly effective “artificial selection.” Responding enthusiastically to On the Origin of Species, Asa Gray, among many others, found a convenient compromise between his scientific and religious selves by arguing that variation was not randomly generated as Darwin stated but divinely directed. The mechanism of natural selection was then simply a part of God’s law-driven universe (Gray: Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology, 1861). [575 Pam. no. 150] That way, one could have one’s cake and still honestly take also the communion wafer. It was not until the discovery of modern genetics that Darwinian evolution became truly grounded in science alone.
Lacking such information, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin had (naturally enough) been unsure about the causes of the all-important variation in animals and plants and hinted at a range of non-genetic causes. In the preface to the second edition (1874) of On the Descent of Man Darwin yielded to contemporary opinion and opened the door wide for the possibility that variation was caused in part by use-and-misuse, otherwise a Lamarckian concept (first promoted by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin). He did the same in later editions of On the Origin of Species. Herbert Spencer was the most prominent English scholar to layer a full neo-Lamarckianism onto Darwin’s ideas. In America, this possibility was taken up strongly by Edward Drinker Cope, the influential Philadelphian paleontologist (while Darwinism was strongly supported by Cope’s rival, Othniel Charles Marsh, at Yale). In Cope’s view the exertion of the will was the major causal factor in evolution: “intelligent choice, taking advantage of the successive evolution of physical conditions, may be regarded as the originator of the fittest.”4 This theory singularly failed to consider that plants evolved too.
One of the strongest proponents of a religiously oriented view of Darwinism was James McCosh, president of Princeton University who, following in the path of the older writers on Natural Theology like William Paley, stressed the centrality of the equivalence of “progress” in the fossil record and evolution with “divine purpose.” Such re-interpretations of Darwinism and evolution to fit a religious approach both diluted the impact of On the Origin of Species among scientists and expanded the potential for its acceptance among the religious public.
However, Darwin’s conclusion in The Descent of Man that humans had evolved from non-human, ape ancestors directly contradicted the Biblical story of the creation of Adam and the general religious view of human exceptionalism – an exceptionalism due entirely to the direct hand of God in human origins. He not only accounted for the uniqueness of human anatomy in his evolutionary scheme but also theorized on an evolutionary origin of morals and behaviour. He argued that the moral sense, and even a religious sense, were not a gift from God but had evolved with man from his simian ancestors. This left little or no room for a compromise like Gray’s. So, while people had already had their say over natural selection in the 1860s, after 1871 not so many, it seemed, were ready to take on human origins and God himself.
While there was a reluctance on the part of Gray and other American scientists fully to enlist on Darwin’s side in the matter of human evolution, no matter how much they thought natural selection might operate at lower scales of nature, there were few hesitations in the extensive body of negative commentary on The Descent of Man in the form of contemporary pamphlets, tracts and sermons. Some were American in origin; some were reprinted from English sources. Some, like James Bradbridge Hunter’s 1871 essay in the wonderfully named American Journal of Insanity (later American Journal of Psychiatry) were simply polemical; some like William Penman Lyon’s mock trial of Darwin “Homo versus Darwin,” (1871) are both entertaining and insightful.5
Despite its shocking aspects (to some), Darwinism did not suddenly appear without precedent; among the well-known contributors to earlier evolutionary idea whose writings were well-known in America were Erasmus Darwin and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. Robert Chambers (then anonymous), whose quasi-Lamarckian Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [575 C35v] had created a storm of interest in 1844 and continued to be very popular even after Darwin. And right from the beginning there was a strong religious context to the discussion.
Moses and Geology
Ironically, theology helped open the door for evolution. Well before Darwin began thinking about evolutionary theory (around 1836), developments in eighteenth and nineteenth century research in philology and the continental (French and German) Biblical criticism had convincingly shown Genesis to be a composite of sacred fables, by multiple authors, rather than the direct revelation of God to Moses. From this it followed that, as the Reverend Thomas Chalmers declared in Edinburgh in 1807, “The writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe.” (This catchy sentence was taken up to good effect fifty years later by Hugh Miller in his highly popular Testimony of the Rocks.) Without the constraints inherent in a literal interpretation of Genesis, geologists were freed to find scientific explanations of the origins and age of the earth. An ancient earth was essential for Darwin’s gradual processes of natural selection to have had enough time to have produced humans from “worms.”
Among those working to find a new account of the origin and early history of the earth, Benjamin Silliman at Yale, in 1833, published an interpretation of Genesis in which there was a vastly long period (the “gap”) of earth history before “Creation” and in which the “days” of creation were each long periods of time. Silliman’s views were first contained, as a summary of his lectures at Yale, in an appendix to a (British) geological text book by Robert Bakewell and then in revised form in 1839 as a small book, Suggestions relative to the philosophy of geology as deduced from the facts & to the consistency of both the facts & theory of this science with sacred history. [550 L98A] Silliman was bitterly attacked by those who maintained the authenticity of a Mosaic account of creation. Among those was his fellow Yale graduate, the aptly named Moses Stuart (a Hebrew scholar).6 At the same time, the same issue of translating the words “made” and “created” in Genesis Chapter One allowed the Rev. E. B. Pusey (Professor of Hebrew at Oxford) to endorse a similar view to Silliman’s in William Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise volume of 1836.
The broad-church-Anglican church manifesto Essays and Reviews (published in England in 1860) brought the continental view of Genesis to a very wide audience (the book sold far more copies than On the Origin of Species). There, Charles Wycliffe Goodwin captured the contradictions of the time when he wrote: “The school-books of the present day, while they teach the child that the earth moves, yet assure him that it is a little less than six thousand years old, and that it was made in six days. On the other hand, geologists of all creeds are agreed that the earth has existed for an immense series of years, -- to be counted by the millions rather than by the thousands.” And in the same volume, the Reverend Baden Powell (Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford) even endorsed Darwin’s theory of natural selection, just as he had earlier endorsed the evolutionary ideas of Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation (1844). He termed On the Origin of Species “a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.”
In a famous 1878 sermon at Oxford University, the Reverend Pusey was willing to concede to science both an origin of the earth far distant in time and even some changes due to evolution.8 “To Theology creation is equally magnificent, whether the earth started into existence at once at the command of God … or whether God created matter, in countless molecules, to be attracted together through a property which He imparted to them ...Theology looks with equal impartiality on all geological theories .. provided that it was created … and that it was at His will, that it passed through whatever transformations it underwent ... To Theology all explanations of the details of the six days of creation are indifferent.” But Pusey refused to concede any ground on two fundamental points: the active hand of the Creator at the origin of life itself and the exceptional status of humans, who had been independently created by God “If it had pleased God in His omnipotence, that in those thousands of years ago, an intelligent being should be born of an unintelligent animal, it would have been a surpassing miracle, such as He had not proposed to our faith.”
In the face of all the European wavering on Genesis, most American clerics stood firm with, for example, Rev. Samuel Harrison Thomson (no relation) who had said in an address at Hanover College in 1857, “when you desire to know what God had revealed to us by his Spirit, to look to the oracles of God, Look not to nature or to science. They are, indeed, full of truth; and that, too, which is God’s truth with which you cannot too carefully store your minds. But they are not the truths of revelation, and can never infallibly direct you to them, nor take their place.”9 And, of all American observers on evolution, few can have been more intransigently opposed to Darwinism than Charles Hodge (a Princeton colleague of McCosh) who took up this theme in works such as What is Darwinism?(1874) that directly attacked The Descent of Man.
Both of the books by Darwin considered here obviously had deep religious implications and cast a new light, a dangerously bright light, on a whole range of religious beliefs. Interestingly, in notes to the published version of his 1878 sermon at Oxford, Pusey accused Darwin of having written On the Origin of Species as a quasi-theological work -- because it attempted to argue an alternative account of “Creation.” This charge stung Darwin, who protested that both The Origin and The Descent of Man were entirely scientific works. But, in fact, a constant theme and purpose throughout Darwin’s books had been refutation of the religious theory that explained the diversity of life on earth as the result of multiple, independent, episodes of creation. As Darwin said in Descent of Man ,” if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations.”10
The issue of special creation was centrally important to both sides of the debate. If animals and plants had evolved, that would explain the patterns of similarity and difference (the “relationships”) that had been revealed in classifications since at least the time of Aristotle. But this raised a simple scientific question: if they had not, then the vast diversity of life on earth, including humans, must have arisen through an equally vast number of special creations directed by God and any patterns in the resulting diversity must represent the “mind” of God. And special creations were indistinguishable from “spontaneous generation” and miracles. As Darwin had pointed out in On the Origin of Species: ‘Several eminent naturalists … seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues?’11 By 1871, spontaneous generation was a dead issue in scientific terms.12
These sketchy examples are meant to illustrate how, for the historian of science, discussion of Darwin’s scientific writings and their reception by scientists and the public alike is inextricably linked with the subject of contemporary religion. Disentangling aspects of science from religion in the case of evolution, especially human origins, was not simple in 1871 nor is it today. The addition of the Valentine collection brings to the American Philosophical Society not only a magnificent collection of every edition of Darwin’s work, but also a number of the contemporary commentaries. As this essay attempts to show, they are amply complemented by the Society’s own extensive collections of books in science and religion generally and Darwinism in particular. They create an unrivalled resource for the study of Darwin in his own time and ours.
1 Asa Gray to Charles Darwin, April 14, 1871, Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter 7683, Cambridge University Press.
2 The discovery of vertebrate affinities of the ascidian “tadpole” larva by the Russian zoologist Kovalevsky in 1866 was an event of major scientific importance as it linked the vertebrate animals to the invertebrates. The adult stage of tunicates (sea squirts) is a sessile, apparently formless, blob of tissue (of course it is really intricate to the close inspection). The larvae is an actively swimming stage and possess what authorities agree is a rudiment of the notochord (the earliest kind of “backbone” and swimming muscles in pairs along the tail. It is indeed a kind of tadpole.
3 Anonymous. “Mr.Darwin On the Descent of Man,” The Times (London), April 8, 1871 (issue 27032)
4 E.D. Cope, Origin of the Fittest: Essays on Evolution, (New York, Appleton, 1887).
5 James Bradbridge Hunter, “A review of Darwin’s theory of the origin and development of man,” American Journal of Insanity, (reprinted Philadelphia, Appleton, 1871.) William Penman Lyon, Homo versus Darwin: a Judicial Examination of Statements Recently published. (Philadelphia, Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1872).
6 Moses Stuart, “A Critical Examination of Some Passages in Gen.1; with Remarks on Difficulties that Attend some of the Present Modes of Geological Reasoning.” American Biblical Repository, volume 7, 46-106, 1836. See, John H. Giltner, Moses Stuart, the Father of Biblical Science in America, (Atlanta, Scholar Press, 1988).
7 C.W. Goodwin, “On the Mosaic Cosmogony,” in Anon. Essays and Reviews, (London, John Parker, 1860), p. 210.
8 E.B. Pusey Un-science, not science, adverse to faith: a sermon preached before the University, (Oxford, James Parker, 1878).
9 Samuel Harrison Thomson, “Geology as an Interpreter of Scripture,”1857. APS pamphlet collections
10 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, first edition, (London, John Murray, 1871), p. 153
11Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, first edition, (London, John Murray, 1859), pp. 483-484.
12Louis Agassiz at Harvard was the most ardent supporter of “special creation” in Darwin’s time. He believed that the human races were independently created separate species. But most American scientists, including Asa Gray and the Philadelphian Joseph Leidy had already rejected spontaneous generation by 1859. Both were well-prepared, therefore to accept Darwin’s theory. See Joseph Leidy, “A Flora and Fauna within Living Animals,” Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vo.l. 44, art.4 (1853) and Lecture Introductory to the Course of Anatomy, in the University of Pennsylvania (1859) (APS pamphlet collections).