HERETICAL THOUGHTS ON LIFE’S GRANDEUR.
‘Earth’s Creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by man alone.’
‘Every genus is natural, created as such in the beginning, hence not to be rashly split up or stuck together by whim according to anyone’s theory.’
‘If we consider the generation of Animals, we find that each produces an off-spring after its own kind … and that from each proceeds a germ of the same nature with its parent; so that all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves form one ‘chain of Universal Being’, from the beginning to the end of the world; in this sense truly may it be said that there is nothing new under the sun.’ – Carl Linnaeus. ‘Systems Naturae,’
In the beginning…
Before science there was the Bible in which The Book of Genesis describes the mysteries of creation. In the beginning, on the first day, ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ On the following five days God created the vaulted sky and two great lights to give day and night and He created the plants, bearing seeds ‘according to their kind,’ the creatures that swim, fly and move along the ground ‘according to their kind,’ and then God created man and woman in his image to rule over them.
This was the received truth. Earth was created as the centre of the universe. Each living species came into being separate and invioliate, and according to biblical scholars, this all took place not quite 6,000 years ago.
As science developed in medieval Europe, via rediscovery of early Greek philosophers and Byzantine and Islamic scholars who sought non-supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, many areas not directly challenging to the Bible’s teachings began to be explored. Reverence for biblical teachings, however, impeded any bold, systematic investigation into areas that involved church doctrine. Those few open-minded scientists who did question received truth were quickly censured by the church. In a scientific revolution that began when Nicolaus Copernicus launched his heliocentric theory on the world, there were only five men, Copernicus, Galileo, then two centuries later, James Hutton, publishing his theory of earth’s antiquity, and Charles Darwin, co-publishing with Alfred Wallace, a theory of evolution of species, who had the intellectual courage to publish heretical theories that shattered the biblically rooted picture of the creation and separated science from theology.
Sea-change rich and strange…
In the second half of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, three expeditions by sea, two of them long voyages into the South Pacific, the other a brief excursion by rowboat off the east coast of Scotland, were to have heretical consequences as challenging to the creation story, as Copernicus and Galileo’s earlier challenge.
The first of these was Lieutenant James Cook’s voyage to the South Seas in 1767 to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. The Royal Society played a significant role in promoting the expedition, its largest maritime venture to date. Since its foundation in 1660, The Royal Society had placed a high value upon the empirical observations to be gained from ships’ logs and the journals of travelers on long voyages. To ensure that these potentially valuable records to science should be accurate and comprehensive, the Society included ‘Directions for Seamen, bound for far voyages’ in the first volume of its ‘Philosophical Treatise’.
Apart from observing the transit of Venus, Cook’s own instructions were to carefully observe of lands visited in the south seas, ‘the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty,’ and ‘specimens of the Seeds of Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary, that We may cause proper examination and Experiments to be made of them.’
It was widely considered by naturalists of the period, that scientists like Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on the 1768 voyage in the good ship Endeavour, would help complete the Genesis picture of the universe as a vast, ordered chain of being described above by Carl Linnaeus, the most influential naturalist of the eighteenth century… Well that’s what they thought, but despite the baggage in the hold, Cook’s first Pacific voyage, with three trained observers on board, naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, botanist Dr Daniel Solander and draughtsman Sydney Parkinson, some of that baggage got lost at sea.
Art historian Bernard Smith’s classic book, ‘European Vision and the South Pacific’ is a study of Captain Cook’s three voyages and other scientific expeditions that followed and also of the new settlement in 1788 at Port Jackson, (Australia,) and an account of the challenges that careful observation of flora and fauna presented to natural science, and careful observation of people and vegetation had on prevalent romanticized perceptions of ‘noble savages’ and ‘idealized landscape painting.’ Below are some of these challenges documented in Bernard Smith’s book…
‘Accuracy of drawing seems to be a principle recommendation to Sir Joseph.’ The artists Joseph Banks associated with were men whose work was notable for its analytical precision, like draughtsman, Sydney Parkinson. A great deal of Parkinson’s work on the voyage consisted of drawing specimens collected by the naturalists Banks and Solander who described all the new plants collected and attempted to classify them. The vast amount of new, and strange plant specimens presented major problems in classification, however, Solander’s notebooks ‘abound in erasures and cancellations of specific and generic names first allotted to the specimens collected.’ (Bernard Smith p18)
Later scientific expeditions into the South Pacific adopted the empirical practices of this first voyage, employing skilled botanists, zoologists and artists, for example, botanist Robert Brown and draughtsman Ferdinand Bauer accompanying Matthew Flinders on expedition mapping the Australian coast-line, and Frenchmen, zoologist Francois Peron and artist, Charles Lesuer, who all experienced difficulties like those of Solander.
Confronted with problems presented by the multiformities of nature in the South Pacific, naturalists were finding it difficult to classify their materials according to presuppositions of a great chain of being. Ferdinand Bauer’s plant drawings and Charles Lesuer’s animal drawings show how scientific scrutiny was leading towards depiction of structure, and ‘hence to graphic penetration beyond the surface of things.’(Bernard Smith, p190,) Bauer examined scientific structure using a magnifying glass and drawing not only leaf and flower, but sections of buds, pods and plant roots. Lesueur’s drawings of fish and phosphorescent animals included anatomical sections.
In Darwin’s cabin when he embarked on his famous voyage on the Beagle in 1831, was a library of 400 books which he read on the long journey. 36% on travel/ voyages and 33% on natural history and including detailed wood cut prints and engravings of plants and animals of the South Pacific. In this library were Captain Cook’s accounts of three South Pacific voyages, Matthew Flinders ‘Voyage to Terra Australis,’ and the ‘Voyage de Decouvertes aux Terres Australies’ of Francois Peron and Charles Lesueur.
On land and at sea.
While Captain Cook was on his first Pacific voyage opening the way to heretical questioning of the creation story, someone else was similarly engaged in Scotland in the city of heretics, Edinburgh. Returning to Edinburgh, his place of birth, in 1767 to advise on the building of the Forth-Clyde Canal, James Hutton was soon doing more than that with his discoveries regarding the earth’s antiquity and the processes of its formation.
No dearth of heretical thoughts or theories in eighteenth century Edinburgh in that mid-century flowering of critical enquiry known as The Scottish Enlightenment. Surprising, considering that just four decades prior, an eighteen year old theology student, Thomas Aikenhead, who made a flippant joke about Hell, was sentenced to death for blasphemy, a sentence carried out in January 1697. Who could have seen, for this impoverished but literate society, that the next century would mark the end of their culturally and materially constrained way of life and the beginning of a new age which would generate basic institutions, habits of mind and ideas that had effects impacting far beyond their native land.
A short list of those heretical actors of the Scottish Enlightenment includes William Robertson, one of the founders of modern historical research, David Hume, whose Treatise on Human Nature influenced views of human rationality up until today, including having an impact on the founding fathers of the United States. Then there’s Adam Smith, beginning the study of economics with his Wealth of Nations, and chemist Joseph Black, who discovered that earth’s atmosphere is made up of a mixture of gases including carbon dioxide, and employed for a time in Joseph Black’s laboratory, there’s James Watt who invented the practical steam engine. Perhaps the most heretical of them all was Joseph Black’s friend, James Hutton, the father of modern geology.
By the 1760’s, Hutton was already arguing that the earth was ancient. While learning farming methods in Norfolk in 1752, and later practicing innovative farming methods on his own farm in The Borders, Scotland, Hutton travelled extensively, studying farming and also geology. In a letter that Hutton wrote to his friend John Hall, while Hutton was in Norfolk, he tells Hall that on his hikes he found himself ‘examining the surface of the earth and looking into every pit, ditch or river bed that fell in his path.’( In ‘The Man Who Found Time.’ Jack Repcheck. Ch 5.)
When Hutton returned to Edinburgh, he was already one of Scotland’s leading mineralogists and had begun forming his theory of the earth’s formation as a recycling process of erosion. In Edinburg, Hutton was introduced to Joseph Black, who became his close friend and supporter. While exploring the phenomenon of latent heat, Joseph Black had come to understand the role that pressure played on heated substances, an insight important to Hutton’s thinking. With this insight, Hutton would take his early experiences from farming and field trips and turn them into a powerful, original theory.
…Three men in a row boat.
Hutton was soon a member of the Edinburgh Scottish Enlightenment, introduced to Adam Smith and others by Joseph Black. Hutton, Black and Smith founded a club known as the Oyster Club, one of the literati clubs that were a feature of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment and when the Royal Society of Edinburgh was founded by royal charter in 1783 Hutton, Black and Smith were three of its first members. Sometime in 1784 Hutton was invited to present two lectures to the Royal Society on his theory of the earth.
No records were kept of these two events, the first, on Hutton’s theory of stratified rock, delivered by Joseph Black because Hutton was ill, the second, by Hutton himself on the elevation of new strata by the power of heat. What the audience thought of these lectures is not recorded, all that is known for sure is that Hutton soon afterwards set off on a series of excursions to provide stronger evidence for his theory regarding the mineralizing process caused by heat. His first expedition, accompanied by Sir John Clerk, also a mineralogist, was to find an exposure of granite in stratified rock, where shape and direction of the veins demonstrated that it came from underground. In the fast running Tilt River on the estate of the Duke of Athol in the Grampians, they found what Hutton was looking for, a formation, that ‘most clearly demonstrates the violence with which the granite veins were injected among the schistus.’ (J.Repcheck P 157.)
Two more successful field trips, to Galway and Arran provided additional evidence of Hutton’s theory. Then the eureka discovery, the boat trip to Siccar Point and evidence that the earth’s formation is a cyclical event!
On a sunny afternoon in June, 1788, three gentlemen from Edinburgh, with several farm hands as crew, boarded a boat in the North Sea, east of Edinburgh, in search of a rock outcrop on the rugged cliffs along the coast that would support James Hutton’s theorized cycle of land renewal over long periods of time. The three gentlemen in the boat were Hutton and two friends, professor of mathematics, John Playfair, considered one of the cleverest men in Scotland, and a younger man, Sir James Hall, in his twenties already an accomplished Scientist.
Hutton had chosen this coastline to investigate because of its two distinct types of surface, a grey shale that was considered a younger rock, and an older, red sandstone strata. Sailing along the jagged cliffs, mild weather and low tide allowed them to come close to shore and the afternoon sun gave maximum exposure to the cliffs on shore. The boat traveled south, passing first one headland and then another and on to the next headland on their course, Siccar Point. And there they saw what they were looking for! At the foot of the cliffs a grey coloured shistus, its layers no longer vertical but standing in pillars, straight up, like books on a shelf. And above them, two feet thick, fragments of the shistus, and above that another exposure of layered rock, its these layers horizontal and of the distinct hue of red sandstone…
John Playfair wrote later of this moment:
‘We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of a superincumbent ocean. An epoch still more remote presented itself, when even the most remote of the rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea. and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which has burst asunder the solid pavement of the earth’ J.Repcheck P 23.)
Hutton, an animated man, was elated. Here was incontrovertible proof of his theory. Playfair was less sanguine. As a former Presbyterian minister, he knew how vigorously the church, and scholars who supported it, would protect judgements on which it held a position. The battle for truth was just beginning.
Reviews of Hutton’s paper, published in 1788 by the Royal Society, were mostly dismissive of Hutton’s findings, the most hurtful to Hutton by Robert Kirwan, a respected scientist who as a young man trained as a Jesuit priest. Kirwan criticized Hutton for proposing cycles that were contrary to reason and accused him of blasphemy. Hutton responded by starting work on a two volume book, though he was seriously ill at the time. His ‘Theory of the Earth’ was published in 1795 and Hutton died soon afterwards. The book was not well written and criticisms of Hutton’s theory continued, particularly attacks by a young man from Edinburgh, Robert Jamieson, who published prolifically, applying a viewpoint to Scottish geology promoted by Frederic Werner, a professor from a famous German university. Werner argued that a universal ocean, once covered the earth, creating the chaotic formations of the earth that now existed, a theory more acceptable to established religion by its reference to Noah’s flood than Hutton’s theory.
Hutton’s theory was being dismissed, who would begin a counter attack? Joseph Black and John Clerk no longer had the energy. Playfair and Hall took up the challenge. Playfair rewrote the book with distillations of Hutton’s theory and notes and case studies and published it in 1802. Hall carried out over 500 experiments refuting Werner’s argument that basalt when heated always cools as glass. Hall showed that when cooled slowly basalt re-forms as crystals.
Despite these efforts Jamieson’s publications were winning out, but then, after the death of Playfair, Hutton’s leading expositor, in 1824 the now elderly James Hall invited Charles Lyell, a young geologist, to Hall’s estate and took him to Siccar Point.
Siccar Point worked its magic. Charles Lyell became converted to Hutton’s theory and began carrying out his own field investigations. In 1830 Lyell published the first volume of his ‘Principles of Geology,’ followed by two more volumes in the next three years. Lyell’s book, in which he acknowledged his debt to Hutton, was to become the standard reference for geology students for the next hundred years.
Darwin took a copy of Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’ with him on his voyage on the Beagle. A week or so after Darwin started reading Lyell’s work, The Beagle dropped anchor at its first port of call, Porto Praya on the volcanic island of St Jago, where Darwin discovered a white stratum of fossilized shells and coral on a hill thirty feet above sea level. (‘The Voyage of the Beagle.’ Ch1.) From that that day on Darwin viewed the world by a different time perspective.
Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle.
When Darwin set of on his five year voyage in 1831, Lyell’s book and the library on the Beagle influenced Darwin’s research from the start. Having the library now available online reveals the sources and inspirations that Darwin read day after day as he swung in his hammock during long sea crossings or as he worked on his specimens at the chart table or under his microscope. Before the Beagle reached a new location, Darwin was able to read the reports of earlier visitors. The scientific questions he found answered and indeed left unanswered in the library were useful to his own encounters as a naturalist.
From St Jago Island, continuing its circumnavigation of the globe, the Beagle visited Brazil, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, sailing through the Straits of Magellan and on to Chile. In Chile, Darwin crossed the Andes into Argentina, From the west coast of South America the Beagle then journeyed to the Galapagos Islands, those fateful islands, and then across the Pacific Ocean to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, land of that marsupial oddity, the kangaroo, before returning to England in October, 1836. At each port of call Darwin would collect bags full of specimens, animals, insects, plants and minerals and send them on to England to be analysed.
Curiouser ‘n curiouser…
What to make of that great chain of being? On a beach in Bahia Blanca, Darwin comes across the remains of nine fossil quadrupeds and many detached bones embedded on the beach within the space of 200 yards square.
‘First, parts of three heads and other bones of the Megatherium, the huge dimensions of which are expressed by its name. Secondly the Megalonyx, a great allied animal.Thirdly, the Scelidotherium, also an allied animal, of which I obtained a nearly perfect skeleton. It must have been as large as a rhinoceros: in the structure of its head it comes, according to Mr Owen, nearest to the Cape Anteater, but in some other respects it approaches to the armadillos.’ (The Voyage of the Beagle.Ch 5.)
Two of the other fossils Darwin lists are ‘an extinct kind of horse.’ and ‘one of the strangest animals ever discovered,’ a Toxodon, in size as large as an elephant, but the structure of its teeth revealed ‘that it was intimately related to the Gnawers, the order which, at the present day includes most of the smallest quadrupeds.’ (Ch 5.)
Probably the most significant discoveries made by Darwin were in the Galapagos Islands where Darwin saw those finches and those strange diving lizards, but especially the finches with their odd beaks, of which he observed:
‘Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.’ (The Voyage of the Beagle. Ch 17.)
Back in England it did not take long for these small birds to start a scientific revolution. As he did with all his collected specimens, Darwin sent his finches to an expert for formal analysis. In March 1837, expert ornithologist, John Gould, informed Darwin that the birds were not a different variety of finch but a different species of finch. Now Darwin would became aware, that animals, perhaps all life, experiencing slow but constant change and separated from others of its species over a long period of time, as the Galapagos finches were separated, could evolve into distinct species. In July of the same year, Darwin began a new notebook with the heading ‘The Transmutation of Species.’
Finches – Gould
To suggest a driver for the process of species transmutation entailed Darwin’s late reading of a forty year old essay by The Reverend Thomas Malthus,’ ‘Essay on the Principle of Population,’ describing the pressures on living things of overpopulation and competition for scarce resources, ergo if a variation like a longer beak gave a competitive advantage, its owner would likely have a better chance to reproduce and pass on the beneficial variation to its offspring.
The rest is high drama, Darwin’s twenty page letter from Alfred Wallace with whom Darwin had been corresponding for several years, detailing Wallace’s own theory, almost identical to Darwin’s, the urgent completion of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,’ Charles Lyell acting as Darwin’s literary agent, the agreement to publish Wallace’s Paper along with Darwin’s book, allowing joint credit for discovery, Darwin’s anxiety and concern about the book’s reception …well the road to heresy is never easy.
And it wasn’t easy for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. There’s that religious indignation for a theory that claims human’s evolved, not as direct descendants of the first Adam, but via a common ancestor we share with monkeys and apes. And there’s the problem of those ‘organs of extreme perfection and complication’ as Darwin describes organs like the intricate human eye and the even more powerful eagle eye. Surely, creationists argued, eyes must be an example of creative design.
Ape Man – Well!
The claim of shared ancestry in Darwin’s Origin of Species provoked furor from orthodox Christians of all denominations and gave cartoonists a field day. The historic Oxford Debate, ‘Evolution versus Creationism,’ between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, Darwin was ill and unable to attend, in which both Huxley and Wilberforce claimed victory, was a theatrical event. Wilberforce, nicknamed ‘Soapy’ Wilberforce, criticized Darwin’s theory, its assumptions, and its moral implications, concluding with a sarcastic question, asking Huxley, nicknamed ‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ if he considered himself descended from an ape through his grandmother or grandfather?
According to reports, Huxley replied that while man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather, if there were an ancestor whom Huxley should feel shame in recalling, it would be the man of intellect who distracts his audience from a real argument by aimless rhetoric and appeals to religious prejudice… In short, Huxley preferred the disgrace of the ape to the ignorance of his opponent. At this dramatic juncture, a lady in the audience is said to have fainted and was carried out of the lecture hall.
Surprisingly, when Darwin published, in 1871, his follow-up book, ‘The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex,’ the book quickly ran out of print, and was received, considering Adam’s fall from grace, with not too much controversy. Darwin expressed surprise. Within three weeks of publication a reprint had been ordered, and 4,500 copies were in print by the end of March 1871. ‘Everybody is talking about it without being shocked,’ said Darwin, which he thought ‘proof of the increasing liberality of England.’
Less controversy today regarding man’s descent. Scientists have now sequenced the genes of the chimpanzee and found the human genome is 96 percent similar to the great ape species.
‘Why has man not a microscopic eye?’ … Questions, questions.
‘Why hast man not a microscopic eye? / For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly,’ says Alexander Pope. Ask not why man’s eye is what it is, as Pope asked in ‘An Essay on Man,’ but ask instead how it came to be what it is. Writing to a colleague in 1860, Darwin confided that there was a time when thinking about the evolution of the complex eye, made him ‘cold all over.’ Darwin devotes a chapter, in ‘The Origin of Species’ to the difficulties of descent with modification of those organs of extreme perfection like the intricate human eye.
Responding to the creationist argument that the human eye could not develop in a linear process, Darwin argued that while this might appear to be the case, he had reason to think otherwise:
‘To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree…[yet] reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.’
From examples in nature, Darwin demonstrated that over a long period, a complex human eye can evolve from the simple-light sensitive nerves of the lowest organisms, to a basic eye, consisting of an optic nerve surrounded by pigment cells and covered with translucent skin and on to more sophisticated vision. Darwin also argued that a complex organ, like the human eye, can even evolve by adaptation of an organ from one purpose to another, as the floatation swim bladder of fish converted to lungs for respiration.
More of this anon…So much fascinating stuff written about the evolution of the eye, but too much for this essay, so I think I’ll do a follow up post on it instead.
A little Deux Ex Machina.
Before I offer Darwin’s concluding words in The Origin of Species, some serf thoughts, deux ex machina, on heretical thought.
Seems that the birth of science, like Darwin’s theory itself, is a complex evolution involving sea journeys that challenged old certainties, and a rediscovery of the thoughts of philosophers of the Greek Revolution. ‘All things are made of water,’ said Thales of Miletus, and so began philosophy and science… There’s Pythagoras’ school that gave rise to a mathematical tradition and Aristarchus of Samos proposing a heliocentric theory pre Copernicus. A marginal entry of the name of Aristarchus on one of Copernicus’ manuscripts shows that Copernicus has resuscitated this theory.
And there’s the Church’s part in the above. After the destruction of the Roman Empire by northern invaders, literacy and the study of mathematics in the West came to be almost exclusively maintained by the Catholic Church. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, it was the clerics copying the manuscripts of Greek and Middle Eastern scholars who kept learning alive. Arising out of the Christian Church, even with its adherence to dogma and its Inquisition, you get an attachment to reason and consequent breakthroughs in understanding natural phenomena by church clerics like Copernicus and by devout members of Christian communities… there’s Galileo, Isaac Newton, who spent much of his time in bible studies, James Hutton and his supporter, chemist Joseph Black, a Presbyterian Minister, not infidels or atheists but Christians.
Don’t know if Darwin believed in a divinity acting behind the scenes. Some of us serfs are doubtful regarding a creator, but we do stand in awe of the grandeur of nature, ‘the wild cataract leaps in glory,’ well, you know… Maybe Darwin was agnostic but we really don’t know.
Herewith Darwin’s concluding words in The Origin of Species:
‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of liattemptinfe, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’