Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Politics of Biology

A thought:

In England and Scotland, the Biblical text had long been used to guide what eventually became professional geological inquiry. Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth (Burnet 1691) attempted to show that Noah's flood, which he took to result from a collapse of the earth's crust into "the waters below," was responsible for the present, chaotic state of the earth. While denying Burnet's postulation of an originally homogeneous and featureless earth, [John] Ray, in his Three Physico-theological Discourses, appealed to the same "waters below" to explain how marine fossils (which he acknowledged to be organic) had been transported through hidden springs to the tops of mountains (Ray 1693). Later, once the massive extent of these annihilations had been acknowledged, Ray used the Biblical approach to explain extinctions. In the light of Cuvier's work, however, the illustrious [William] Buckland was now forced to acknowledge that

the large preponderance of extinct species among the animals we find in the [Pliocene] caves and in superficial deposits of diluvium, and the non-discovery of human bones among them, afford ... strong reasons for referring these species to a period anterior to the creation of man.

- Buckland 1836, p. 81
The clear implication was that the Biblical flood, which took place after the creation of humankind -- it was supposed to be punishment for human wickedness -- was not the cause of the sudden break that marked the end of the Tertiary, and that, contrary to the cosmic importance ascribed to it by Scripture, Noah's deluge must have been, as Buckland himself conceded it was, "gradual and of short duration" (Buckland 1836, p. 81), since it did not result in any increase of extinct species after the end of the Tertiary.

Growing scientific consensus about these matters soon fused with anxiety about their implications for the rather cozy view of the world that the British had entertained throughout the eighteenth century. The British establishment, Tory and Whig, repudiated both the would-be political absolutism of the Stuarts and the religious "enthusiasm" of the Puritans. They did so by combining respect for science (on terms laid down by the Royal Society) with a religious view of the world that was to be kept self-consciously moderate by the demand that revealed religion, with its potentially fanatical, even regicidal, appeal to faith, must be built upon and constrained by natural religion. Natural religion -- the religion that all decent, reasonable human beings were presumed to be capable of arriving at and cultivating, even in the absence of revelation -- was backed in turn by the argument for the existence of a creator God from the design of the natural world. Except among a narrow band of heterodox deists, accordingly, the design argument was generally taken in Britain not as a philosopher's replacement for irrational faith, but as an inducement to accept a moderate version of revealed, providential religion - and the moderate political order that it backed.

- Marjorie Grene and David Depew, The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History

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