Monday, July 30, 2007


Betwixt and Between

From David L. Hull's book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (p. 408-15), comes this lesson on the danger of trying to be in two camps at once. St. George Jackson Mivart was an anatomist who studied under both Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley.

Mivart practiced for his conversion to evolution by, at age sixteen, becoming a Catholic, then a very minority and mostly disfavored religion in England. Mivart accepted common descent but argued, like Huxley, that species evolved by saltation or sudden evolutionary leaps, directed by some unknown "internal innate force." At least part of the impetus for his position was a desire to reconcile evolution with his Catholic faith. One punishment for his pains was to be sarcastically lectured on Catholic theology by that arch-agnostic, Huxley. That wasn't the end of it, however. Mivart was eventually excommunicated from the Church and denied burial in consecrated ground. As Hull puts it:

The final break between Mivart and the Darwinians had occurred [in 1874] over a slur on the character of Darwin's son, George. Mivart had great difficulty in distinguishing between a man and his ideas. According to the mores of Victorian society, one could deal as harshly as one wished with a man's views but one had to be extremely careful to avoid personal slurs of any kind. Mivart stepped over this line once too often in alluding to the immoral implications of some of George Darwin's ideas on eugenics. Just as Mivart was being excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of his article on [the possibility of] happiness in hell, he was being excluded from the scientific community by Darwin and his associates. In the end, Mivart's attempts to reconcile science and the Catholic Church led him to be excommunicated from both.
It's not easy being between. The final indignity, though, came from his friends, as described in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia:

After his decease his friends, persuaded that the gravity and nature of the illness from which he suffered offered a complete explanation of the amazing inconsistency of Dr. Mivart's final position with that which he had maintained during the greater part of his life, approached the authorities with a view to securing for him burial in consecrated ground. Sir William Broadbent gave medical testimony as to the nature of his malady [diabetes] amply sufficient to free his late patient from the responsibility of the heterodox opinions which he had put forward and the attitude he had taken with regard to his superiors. His disease, not his will, was the cause of his aberration.
That phrase, "attitude he had taken with regard to his superiors," is a nice euphemism. Just remember that some "friends" will swear you're crazy merely for spitting in a cardinal's eye.


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