International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Reconciling Science and Religion: The Debate in Early Twentieth-Century Brtain (Science and its Conceptual Foundations)

by Peter J. Bowler

Introductory Essay by Sam Berry

The discovery in 1900 of Mendel’s results and the consequent development of genetics led to problems for Darwinian evolution. The new science rapidly discovered the physical basis of heredity but laboratory data on variation seemed to conflict with the sort of small variants assumed to be needed for the action of natural selection. By the time of the jubilee celebrations of the publication of the Origin of Species in 1909, natural selection was commonly rejected as the mechanism of evolutionary change. An explosion of speculation resulted, seeking a replacement. It was led by Henri Bergson’s L’Evolution Créatrice (1907, English translation 1911), who was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer, and supplemented over the next generation by ideas from embryologists and palaeontologists, all implying some sort of progression, driven by an hypothetical élan vital. This period of confusion lasted until the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s. Unfortunately three histories of biology were written towards the end of this disordered period and are still quoted, perpetuating the assumption that Darwinism has been tried and found wanting.

Peter Bowler is a historian of evolution, and this volume is one of his most thorough and important contributions. He details how scientists in the immediate post-Origin period believed they could detect progress in evolution and how their ideas were taken up by Modernist theologians , most recently by Teilhard de Chardin. The theologians saw evolution as the unfolding of a divine plan. This could be justified as theistic, but it introduced a new layer of difficulty, since it undermined the traditional notion of the Fall and the need for redemption.

In the early twentieth century, assumption of some sort of direction in evolution seemed to have support from science. The most eminent of the scientists involved was J.S.Haldane, Professor of Physiology in Oxford, who extrapolated his work on the regulation of bodily functions to the functioning of society, recalling the mediaeval analogy of the parallel of microcosm to macrocosm. Similar non-mechanistic approaches were adopted by other biologists: Arthur Thomson, an indefatigable populariser, by J.H. Woodger and by D’Arcy Thompson. Doubts about Darwinism were expressed by a few who cleaved to Lamarckian ideas, most notably E.W. MacBride, an embryologist, and an anatomist Frederic Wood Jones. Cosmic purpose and progress were advocated by the physicist Oliver Lodge (influenced by spiritualism) and the cosmologists Arthur Eddington and James Jeans. A pervading influence in the period was the process philosophy being developed by Alfred North Whitehead. It is easy to see why such scientists impressed theologians seeking backing for the notion of a powerful and benevolent Creator. It is only in retrospect that the scientific support can be seen as being a collection of blind alleys without a coherent whole. It is not that the scientists concerned were deliberately misleading, but as repeatedly happens, they demonstrated the important lesson that all science is tentative and subject to revision.

Bowler sees the failure of communication between science and theology as leading to an increasing isolation of the Modernist theologians; he interprets the decay of progressive evolutionary theology as due to its perceived ineffectiveness rather than conscious rejection. “The Modernists saw themselves marginalized not by the new science, of which many remained unaware, but by changing values within the churches, which brought back a sense of human sinfulness and alienation from God incompatible with the idea of progress” (p.417). One can have some sympathy with the theologians. It took the scientists a long time to reach an evolutionary synthesis, but this does not excuse the persistent and uncritical use of dicredited science by the theologians.