20. English Traditionalists 1820-1845

Back in England, the Rev William Buckland’s work (see Post 18, below)  showed examples of animal design throughout the fossil record and he presented in the format of Geoffroy’s grand model. He had been persuaded to accept that extinction was possible and accounted for the many strange large mammals being found in what were still thought to be Superficial Gravels. The very acceptance of the first part of this proposition was an advance from a few decades before when extinction counted as a failure, and God’s failure at that. That was why extinction was so unacceptable. God didn’t do failure, so extinct features were not possible.

th   Mary_Buckland03       Humped_Megalosaurus

Buckland          the Buckland family               Megalosaurus – a M. Jurassic dinosaur

Buckland had found how the major groups of animals showed up in the newly understood sequences of sediments. He listed all the fossil species present in a set of strata, and used that as a kind of check-list to characterise their relative ages. The technique is still used to define particular rock formations and to define particular stages in geological time. Such advances in geology, especially the order in which different rock formations had been laid down, had been enormous since Smith’s breakthrough in 1815. Buckland had a broad overview of all fossils and the extent of modern biodiversity was also becoming well known, but his problem was to try and understand these new data in terms of old language. It was to be for the readers of his work to say whether it was still going to make sense in the nineteenth century. Paley’s popular view that “it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed” was part of the establishment rock of society and it was going to be hard to break down.

The liberal scientists who grew up with the teachings of the Lunar Society wanted parliamentary reform and it was an essential start to demonstrate that the scientific foundations of Paley’s natural theology were false. That meant destroying the myths of diluvial geology and catastrophism that had built up as the Flood had been welded into the scientific evidence from glacial geology. It was what had come from the futile pathway taken by guides such as Priestley, who had been happy that theology could underpin what he was finding from his experiments, science taking over from alchemy and still safe in God’s world.

In Britain there was one final attempt from Paley’s followers to retain their intellectual authority in the face of all the growing opposition. Buckland was one of the old mould of scientists who contributed an article to one of the eight volumes that went to make the Bridgewater Treatises. These sermon-like essays were published from 1833 to 1840 “on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifest in the creation”. Here there was no room for hypothesis or experiment because everything was already explained. So each volume was written the other way round: starting with the conclusion, and fitting as much evidence as possible after it and consequently, Buckland’s contribution went down like a lead balloon. Even some of his fellow-scientists at Oxford called them the “bilgewater treatises”.

So it was left to Buckland’s successor as prime geological spokesman, Charles Lyell, to apply the scientific tests and retain the option of a different way to understand life on earth. For he believed strongly that open-minded scientific enquiry would one day explain all the earthly features of nature such as fossils, mountain chains, glaciers and earthquakes. There was no need for the Flood let alone catastrophes of the kind that Cuvier thought made species extinct. Geology described how the earth changed very gradually over millions of years, with no telling then how many were needed to allow weathering and sedimentation, let alone the evolution of new species. Lyell had some idea of the immensity of time involved from field work with his friend Gideon Mantell across the Weald of southern England and they agreed it was a longer time-scale than anyone had conceived. Without the religious constraints still being imposed by Buckland and a few others, they could have all the time they wanted.

There remained the problem of the numerous extinct mammals such as the elephants and rhinos from the Superficial Gravels, let alone the age of these infamous deposits and how they formed. Most people still regarded them as having been caused by the Flood, that relic of the “scriptural geologists”, that dwindling number who were still fearful of some divine decree to punish men for progressive beliefs, a number nevertheless still favorably received by the Church of England in the 1830s. But a more up-to-date view prevailed in the minds of many geologists and this was left for an eccentric and unknown onlooker to publicise.

Only twelve years older than Charles Darwin, George Scrope (1797-1876) had a strategy to give the alternative populist views an airing. First there was his book called Considerations on Volcanoes which gave the opposite arguments to those of Cuvier’s wonderful revolutions.

th-2  th-1   220px-Vesuvius1822scrope

Instead of having a catastrophe such as the Flood, Scrope argued that geological time had been long enough for most things in nature to happen smoothly and slowly. Scrope agued that just as there was no need for the king to interfere with the natural and intrinsic laws of economics and of society, so there was no need for God to interfere with nature. It was sufficient enough to have been given volcanoes in the first place, no need for God to intervene with uplift and erosion as well. The book was too radical for the Geological Society at that time, and it was dismissed without a hearing. Scrope, who had a private income, reacted by buying himself a seat in Parliament and used it to pursue his scientific campaign to prove that Paley was wrong. But without any proof that monarchy was unnatural and that sovereignty belonged to the people, Scrope and his liberal friends remained relatively powerless.

Undaunted by Scrope’s failure, the young whig lawyer Charles Lyell then tried his hand at destroying the geological foundation of monarchical theory. His influential Principles of Geology comprised three little books published in 1830, 1832 and 1833 that brought the earlier geotheories for life on earth up-to-date and led to a different kind of understanding about earth processes. In turn, this opened the way for a new mechanism of evolution that we still find acceptable. Lyell took a much more subtle line than had Scrope, and in the 100-page introduction to the Principles, he argued not so much that the Flood didn’t happen, as that it was mythological and its continued usage impeded the “progress” of geology. In the first volume he went on at great length concerning the forces of erosion and the effects of volcanic uplift in what was a brilliant avoidance of all evidence of catastrophism. It was just what the more moderate members of the new Geological Society of London were looking for. They rallied around Lyell and elected him first as secretary and then as president.

In 1831 Scrope wrote triumphantly to Lyell: “By espousing you, the conclave have decidedly and irrevocably attached themselves to the liberal side, and sanctioned in the most direct and open manner the principal things advocated. Had they on the contrary made their election of a Mosaic geologist like Buckland or Conybeare, the orthodox would have immediately taken their cue from them, and for a quarter of a century to come, it would have been heresy to deny the excavations of valleys by the deluge, and atheism to talk of anything but chaos had lived before Adam. At the same time I have a malicious satisfaction in seeing the minority of Bigwigs swallow the new doctrine upon compulsion rather than from taste and shall enjoy their wry faces as they find themselves obliged to take it like physics to avoid the peril of worse evils. I feel some satisfaction in this.”

It turned out to be a great change not only for geology but astronomy and natural history, and it became entangled with the Great Reform movement of 1832. They were all part of the far more general shift in world view from paternalism to liberalism, and those involved were well aware of what they were doing.

Another example came in the autumn of 1844 when an anonymously written book was published in Edinburgh that gave Charles Darwin and thousands of others an unexpected fright. The book was called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and argued that evolution progressed up a ladder of complexity but without making God responsible. th   th-2

New habits led to altered structures rather than the other way round. The secret author of Vestiges challenged the creationist view that when the first birds suddenly found themselves with a wing they soon found something to do with it. The Vestiges then went on to suggest that major differentiation from one large group like birds, up to another large group like mammals happened at the embryo stage – all in one sudden jump. The mystery author was praised by the critics for being a very good writer and the book was also expertly marketed. It quickly became a best seller and ten editions were published. The book was extremely critical of the religious establishment and itself perpetrated numerous errors and misunderstandings of nature. This put up the backs of the scientific establishment, most of whom were churchmen anyway. But the book’s popularity reflected the growth of a new middle class and its need for assurance that humans, with the new industrial technology, are in charge of nature.

The main reason why there was so much fuss about Vestiges was its suggestion that progress takes place without God’s design. The implication was that nature evolves of its own accord, though the book didn’t actually say so. This was all too much for one reviewer, the Cambridge geologist the Reverend Adam Sedgwick. The mystery author was some cowardly bungler attacking all his life’s work and belief: “From the bottom of my soul I loathe and detest Vestiges”. In the spirit of the time, Sedgwick dismissed the work as trivial saying that anything so stupid “must have been written by a woman.”

th-5           th-1            chambers Robert Chambers

It was quite common for things to be published without giving the author’s name, and it stimulated extra interest in trying to guess who it was. Among the candidates was the novelist William Makepiece Thackeray, the early feminist write Harriet Martineau, the inventor of a mechanical calculating machine Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and even Prince Albert. The owner of the influential Westminster Review, John Chapman, was in a better position to know than most and in 1848 he assured Richard Owen that “there is now pretty strong evidence to fix the paternity on Chambers”. Robert Chambers was the founder of the Scottish publishing company that specialised in encyclopedias. But Chambers kept silent and covered his tracks, having a pew in two churches so that people seeing him absent from one would assume he was at the other.

But there was strong criticism thrown at Chambers’ Vestiges by the church and conservative academics and that made many scientists, including Charles Darwin, sick at the very mention of “Mr Vestige’s book”. If that’s what they felt about this book, Darwin thought in horror, just think what they’d make of what he was planning to say. For the moment, at least, he had to remain on the defensive. “The geology is bad and his zoology far worse” he wrote to Joseph Hooker at Kew. But his friend gave a different response: “I have been delighted with Vestiges from the multiplicity of facts he brings together [even though] he has lots of errors.” With friends like these Darwin didn’t need to focus his concern on the enemies, so he became even more convinced that his own argument had to be presented unambiguously with very good evidence.