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The Evolution debate through the RCS England Library

18 Jul 2023

Maria Christodoulou

The Library holds various published materials that bear witness to the evolution debate of the second half of the 19th century. Some of the protagonists of this mental and moral battle were fellows, while the College constituted a focal point for scientific and intellectual circles.

The idea of the transmutation of species was already circulating among naturalists and biologists, causing heated debates and controversy. For many, it was understood as subverting religious orthodoxy and traditional social order. While the general theory was present in scientific circles, there was scepticism due to the lack of a proposed evolutionary mechanism. The missing link arrived with the publication of On the Origin of Species and its exposition of natural selection.

The original book was first published on 24th November 1859. It pioneered a scientific theory written in a way that aimed to be more accessible to the public, while at the same time heavily undermining the creationist argument. The second edition, already edited and updated by Darwin to respond to feedback and criticism, was published in 1860. The Library holds copies of several publications of the book starting in 1859, followed by editions in 1869, 1878, 1967, 2006 and 2008, as well as translations in Italian and Russian.

Darwin’s theory of the evolutionary mechanism not only disturbed the scientific community but also reverberated across society. Conservative thinkers saw a threat to established social order while radicals welcomed Darwin’s theory seeking to democratise society and overturn aristocratic hierarchy. Darwin himself saw no good reason why the views given in his Origin of Species volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone, also since he was not the first to conceive of the idea. Alfred Russel Wallace is best known for originally conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. His 1858 paper on the subject was published with added extracts from Darwin's earlier writings on the topic. It spurred Darwin to set aside another project he was drafting, and work on his 1859 seminal book.

Earlier in 1844, the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in England, had a strong impact on the evolutionary debate across the continent. This work of speculative natural history and philosophy, later attributed to Robert Chambers, brought together, in an accessible way, various ideas of the time on evolution and the transmutation of species.

After a famous debate at the Oxford University Museum in 1860, evolution became a very popular and contested topic. The danger of using transmutation to explain species progression did not escape less progressive scientists that saw a moral crisis in the “bestialisation of man”, the idea thus, that humans originated from apes in a progressionist interpretation of the history of life on earth.

Richard Owen (KCB, MRCS, FRCS, FRS), conservator of the Hunterian Museum and one of the original 300 Fellows of the college, was a transcendental scientist, believing, like Charles Lyell, that morals were not the better part of brute instinct, and that man was not a transformed ape having instead a unique status in creation.

Rd Owen. F.R.S. &c. Hunterian Professor, Royal College of Surgeons of London.

Above: “Sir Richard Owen.” Line engraving. Wellcome Library. Public domain.

On the other side of the argument stood Thomas Henry Huxley (MRCS, FRCS, MB Lond, FRS, President RS). Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1863-1869 and, simultaneously between 1863 and 1867, Fullerian Professor at the Royal Institution, he elaborated the “Theory of the Vertebrate Skull” on the comparative anatomy of vertebrates and specifically on the relationship between apes and humans, largely based upon specimens in the Collections of the College. Huxley’s work passionately favoured evolution and Darwin, as well as championing scientific education for the public.

Copyright: Elliott & Fry. 55, Baker St, Portman Square.

Above: “Thomas Henry Huxley.’ by Elliott & Fry. National Portrait Gallery. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Some scientists did not necessarily see the debate as unavoidable and saw no threat to religious belief from Darwin’s theory. Such was the viewpoint of distinguished RCS fellow, Sir William Henry Flower KCB FRS FRCS FRAI (30 November 1831 – 1 July 1899). He was an English surgeon, curator of the Hunterian Museum and comparative anatomist, who became a leading authority on mammals.

In the evolution debate, regarding the central problem of the fixity or the mutability of species, he was among those who saw no threat to religious belief in accepting the theory, approaching it instead as a contribution to metaphysics. As he writes in 1873, if we are led to the conclusion “that the world we live in is a world of gradual growth and progress, and orderly evolution, what grander view of the Creation and the history of that world can we have opened to us?”

Sir William Flower, K.C.B. Sir William Henry Flower, K.C.B. A Personal Memoir.

Above left: “William Henry Flower.” Portrait image from Cornish, C. J. (1904). Sir William Henry Flower. A personal memoir. London: Macmillan and Co. Above right: The cover of Cornish, C. J. (1904). Sir William Henry Flower. A personal memoir.

In 1883 he expounded his view in an address to the Church Congress, held in Reading, on the bearing of recent scientific advances on the Christian faith. Under the title “Recent Advances in Natural Science in their relation to the Christian Faith” he argues for the natural laws of evolution as established knowledge:

It may be stated as certain that there is no rational and educated person, whatever his religious beliefs or philosophical views, who is not convinced that every individual animal or plant, sufficiently highly organised to deserve such distinctive appellation, now existing upon the world, has been produced from pre-existing parents by the operation of a series of processes of the order to which the term natural is commonly applied; processes also fundamentally the same throughout the whole range of living beings, however much modified in detail to suit the various manifestations under which those beings are presented to us.

(Flower, 1883, p. 1.)

Such modern knowledge however hadn’t served “to shake in the slightest degree his profound belief in all the essential truths of the faith of his forefathers” (Lydekker, 1906, p. 171). As he eloquently illustrated, he approached the divine project and his Christian faith as belonging to a separate plane than that of science:

The wonder and mystery of Creation remains as wonderful and mysterious as before. Of the origin of the whole, science tells us nothing. It is still as impossible as ever to conceive that such a world, governed by laws, the operations of which have led to such mighty results, and are attended by such future promise, could have originated without the intervention of some power external to itself. If the succession of small miracles, formerly supposed to regulate the operations of nature, no longer satisfies us have we not substituted for them one of immeasurable greatness and grandeur?

(Flower, 1883, p. 8.)

This viewpoint was also argued for by American botanist and devout Christian Asa Gray, one of Darwin’s leading supporters in America with an important contribution to the debates on the perennial issue of design in nature and the relation between science and theism. Darwin corresponded extensively with Gray and the two men cultivated a warm friendship. The American botanist made several trips to Europe which allowed the opportunity for the friends to meet in person. They had a common friend in botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. The three had eased into a three-sided correspondence about botanical geography, plant anatomy and classification. On one of his trips, Gray along with Hooker went to visit Richard Owen at the Hunterian Museum.

Hunterian Museum

Above: “The Hunterian Museum.” Image from the RCS England Archives.

In his essay “Natural Selection not inconsistent with Natural Theology. A free examination of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species and of its American reviewers.” he recognises the revolutionary potential of the theory and attempts to converge it with his religious beliefs. He reiterates, with somewhat less optimism on the moral and intellectual implications of modern scientific discovery, that “foreseeing yet deprecating, the coming time of trouble”, he still hoped that, “with some repairs and make-shifts, the old views might last out our days. Apres nous le deluge.” (Gray, 1861, pp. 3-4.) He did not find however that Darwin’s theory jeopardised the foundations of Christian faith (Gray, 1861, pp. 3-4. Keith, 1955).

Gray believed that natural selection could only preserve that which was already formed or designed by a higher power. He supported however the Darwinian understanding of variation in nature through random selection and the implicit “struggle for existence” while understanding their socio-political implications (Gardiner, 1991). He expresses concepts and social theories prevalent in his time:

A principle which we experimentally know to be true and cogent, bringing the comfortable assurance, that man, even upon Leviathan, Hobbes’s theory of society, is no worse than the rest of creation, since all Nature is at war, one species with another, and the nearer kindred the more internecine, bringing in thousand-fold confirmation and extension of the Malthusian doctrine, that population tends far to outrun the means of subsistence throughout the animal and vegetable world, and has to be kept down by sharp preventive checks, so that not more than one of a hundred or a thousand of the individuals whose existence is so wonderfully and so sedulously provided for ever comes to anything under ordinary circumstances; so the lucky and the strong must prevail, and the weaker and ill-favored must perish;

(Gray, 1861, p. 4.)

The immediate transference of scientific ideas into the social arena was also the concern of Lawson Tait (MRCS, FRCS, LRCP LRCS Edin), one of the fathers of gynaecology. In his 1869 essay “Has the law of natural selection by survival of the fittest failed in the case of man?”, Tait discusses the impact of the law of natural selection on the social arena:

In our complicated modern communities, a race is being run between moral and mental enlightenment, and the deterioration of the physical constitution through the defeasance of the law of natural selection; and on the issues of that race the destinies of humanity depend.

(Tait, 1869, p. 3.)

He argues that when we examine calmly, all prejudice apart, the difference between man and all other animals is constituted principally by his greater powers of comparison and combination. Thus, natural selection cannot have the same effect on humans as in the rest of nature, because human possess rational and social tools. The civilising process, the development of intellect and morality, has suspended the natural and arbitrary laws of the struggle for existence.

Lawson Tait in 1885

Above: “Lawson Tait in 1885, Photographic portrait.” Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

However, despite the human ability of intervening into nature, Tait believes that equality is a physical impossibility: “since men not only differ amongst each other generally, but age and sex occasion most important variations in physical force, mental acuteness, and manual dexterity. When forces are thus unequal, equality of power cannot exist.” (Tait, 1869, p. 8.) Since equality is understood as an impossibility it transpires that the struggle for existence remains a reality in nature and in society.

In the above brief account of a complex and multifaceted debate, we aimed to bring to the forefront how fellows and scientists close to the College viewed these issues. The evolution debate, as we have seen, was more than a scientific disagreement. It was a moral fight across a wide spectrum of opinions, that mirrored the changes scientific discoveries were bringing upon society. As a centre for scientific research and practice and a forum for intellectual thought and engagement, the College was at the heart of these discussions. The Library’s heritage collections testify precisely to that effect.

Maria Christodoulou, Information Assistant

Bibliography available at the RCS England Library in digital and/or physical form:

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