Monday, July 24, 2006


The Power of Voyaging

Janet Browne, author of the two part biography of Charles Darwin (Voyaging and The Power of Place) that remain the best retelling of his life and work, has an extract from Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography, part of a series called Books That Shook the World published by Atlantic Books, in the Guardian now.

This piece focuses on the forces that fueled the public controversy. Perhaps surprising to people today and despite the famous, if overblown, "humiliation" of Bishop Samuel ("Soapy Sam") Wilberforce by Thomas Henry Huxley (known as Darwin's Bulldog), there was, as Browne notes, "little sustained opposition to Darwin's book on the grounds that it directly challenged the account of creation in Genesis." In England the Christian churches had, by that time and for the most part, ceded the great age of the Earth and recognized that there had been no global flood. At the same time, Higher Criticism of the Bible had convinced many that the Bible was mostly human in origin. The situation in America was more complex but Darwin's theory, while always controversial among conservative Christians, did receive considerable support among both religious thinkers and religious institutions of higher learning.

Other factors were at work too:

Scholars agree that the course of the Origin controversy was unique in several respects. The book's wide and immediate impact in Britain was greatly enhanced by a growing publishing industry and new review journals. It was greatly enhanced, too, by mid-century peace and prosperity, political stability and imperial expansion. The audience for science was the largest and most appreciative it had ever been, its appetite whetted by the development of local scientific societies, lending libraries, public lectures and exciting practical demonstrations, and reinforced by the broadening availability of manufactured goods and achievements in roads, railways, bridges, ships and canals. Writings such as Chambers's Vestiges and Tennyson's In Memoriam already helped readers explore the big issues of human existence, questions of origin, meaning and purpose.

Nor can the role of Darwin's four great friends and champions: Huxley, Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray (Darwin's champion in America) be stated too strongly. Overall, it is a most enlightening article.

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