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Natural Science - Year II

Unit 44: Darwin's Defenders and Attackers

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History Weblecture for Unit 44

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History Lecture for Unit 44: Darwin's Defenders and Attackers

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Reactions to Darwin In England and America

Such a radical approach to the origin of life as Darwin proposed in his Evolution of Species and his the Descent of Man provoked both support and antagonism.

Richard Owen

The followers of Cuvier's school of fixed species and catastrophic change objected to Darwinism (Darwin, Darwin's friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, the geologist Charles Lyell, and Thomas Huxley taken together) because it required a long time scale, which they felt the geological evidence did not support. One of Darwin's key opponents from the scientific community was his own friend, the biologist Richard Owen.

Read the brief biography of Richard Owen at the Berkeley paleogeology site.

  • How was Owen educated? Which teachers influenced him most?
  • How was Owen acquainted with Darwin and Cuvier? How did he establish his own scientific reputation?
  • Why did Owen's scientific reputation diminish toward the end of his life?
  • What factors did others use to evaluate Owen's work?

J. H. Gladstone

Another scientist who opposed Darwinism was the chemist and Christian apologist John Hall Gladstone, a professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution and one of the great admirers and biographers of Michael Faraday. Besides his work in chemical affinity, he also explored chromatic aberration and the Frauenhofer spectrum, lines of absorption in the spectrum of the sun. He published and lectured on properties of chemical batteries as well. Gladstone was anxious to mend what he saw as a growing gap between science and religion.


Read J. H. Gladstone's Points of supposed collision between the Scriptures and Natural Science, printed in 1872.

  • What does Gladstone define as the perceived major conflict between science and religion?
  • What is Gladstone's chief objection to evolution theory?
  • How does he limit science?

Samuel Wilberforce

Many others objected to the theory of man's evolution on religious grounds. In England, the Anglican clergy rejected the idea of evolution of humans, and debated openly with supporters of Darwinism. Samuel Wilberforce, a country clergyman who rose to become the Bishop of Oxford, considered himself highly liberal on matters of personal conduct, but a High Church conservative with respect to theological matters. In 1860, he participated in a meeting of the British Association at Oxford University, where he spoke against Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin himself was not present, but Thomas Henry Huxley took on the task of answering Wilberforce's attack. The general consensus was that Huxley had done better in defending his position than Wilberforce had in defending his; the participants were not antagonistic, and in fact they all went off to dinner together after the debate.

Read Samuel Wilberforce's comments On Darwin's Origin of Species, originally written and printed in the Quarterly Review.

  • What distinctions does Wilberforce make between science and revelation?
  • What key problems does he bring up as unanswered by the theory? (Darwin admitted that Wilberforce had determined the major weaknesses of his theory).
  • Have any of Wilberforce's objections been addressed by more recent discoveries?

St. George Mivart

Wilberforce's efforts have become famous largely because of interpretations over the debate in the last century; he himself did not consider the debate crucial and he spent most of his efforts in other areas, encouraging his parishioners to become more active in the social justice issues of his time. The chief British opponent to Darwinism was St. George Jackson Mivart, a prominent Catholic natural philosopher whom Darwin acknowledged as a "distinguished biologist". Mivart was born in London, and raised as an evangelical Christian, but converted to Catholicism while in college. Barred from attending Oxford because of his Catholicism, Mivart studied law but eventually became the lecturer in Zoology at a London Medical school, where he did research into the skeletons of primates. Mivart's opinions in later life brought him into controversy with his Church, but his "Genesis of Species" article was considered a crucial counter-argument to Darwin's position, so much so that in later editions of the Origin of Species, Darwin had to address the specific points Mivart raised.

Read Mivart's Review on the Genesis of the Species, printed in 1871.

  • What does Mivart quote from St. Augustine to conclude (at first) that Christian thinkers might accept an evolutionary explanation for the diversity of life on earth?
  • Does Mivart find any theological objections to evolution? Are there any limitations that he places on the idea as proposed by Darwin?

Study/Discussion Questions:

Further Study/On Your Own