Is Christianity At War With Science? (15/20)

The following is a continuing list of Christians down through the centuries who, far from being constantly at war with science (commonly called ‘natural philosophy’ in previous times), took an active interest in seeking to understand how the universe worked. The first page in this list is here.

1822-1884: Gregor Mendel: Called the ‘father of genetics’, Mendel was an Austrian priest of the Augustinian order whose revolutionary insights into genetics were not fully understood and appreciated until the 20th century, years after his death.

His 1865 paper ‘Experiments On Plant Hybridization’ received much criticism when it was first presented to the scientific community and was largely ignored subsequently as a result, yet that same paper is now recognised as the defining work of modern genetics. Gene theory in Mendel’s day. It is ironic that at the same time the deeply religious Mendel was establishing the foundation of modern genetics, Darwin’s work was relying on the incorrect ‘pangenes’ theory of inheritance.

In fact, Mendel had read Darwin’s ‘Origin Of The Species’ prior to publishing his own work (though after he had already completed it). There is evidence in Mendel’s paper that he was influenced by some of Darwin’s ideas on biological inheritance, though not by his theory of the origin of the human species.

It was unfortunate that Mendel’s work would have to wait for over 35 years to be appreciated. Although his experiments with growing peas proved that his theories of genetic inheritance were correct, the Darwinian theory of inheritance proved more popular, and Mendel’s work was set aside as a result:

‘As the Darwinians won the battle for the minds in the 19th century, there was no space left in the next decades for the acceptance of the true scientific laws of heredity discovered by Mendel and further genetical work was continued mainly by Darwin’s critics among the scientists. In agreement with de Vries, Tschermak-Seysenegg, Johannsen, Nilsson, et al., Bateson stated (1909, pp. 2/3):

“With the triumph of the evolutionary idea, curiosity as to the significance of specific differences was satisfied. The Origin was published in 1859. During the following decade, while the new views were on trial, the experimental breeders continued their work, but before 1870 the field was practically abandoned.

In all that concerns the species the next thirty years are marked by the apathy characteristic of an age of faith. Evolution became the exercising- ground of essayists. The number indeed of naturalists increased tenfold, but their activities were directed elsewhere. Darwin’s achievement so far exceeded anything that was thought possible before, that what should have been hailed as a long-expected beginning was taken for the completed work. I well remember receiving from one of the most earnest of my seniors the friendly warning that it was waste of time to study variation, for “Darwin had swept the field”” (emphasis added).

The general acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his ideas regarding variation and the inheritance of acquired characters are, in fact, the main reasons for the neglect of Mendel’s work, which – in clear opposition to Darwin – pointed to an entirely different understanding of the questions involved (see above).’

Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, ‘Johann Gregor Mendel: Why his discoveries were ignored for 35 (72) years’, 2001

It was not until 1900 that Mendel’s work was reconsidered – indeed, some say ‘rediscovered’, so long had it been dismissed. It is highly ironic that the scientifically accurate work of the Christian was effectively suppressed by the greater popularity of the scientifically inaccurate work of the non-Christian evolutionist.

1810-1888: Philip Gosse: A somewhat tragic figure, whose scientific contribution was for a time eclipsed by his theological speculations, Gosse contributed significantly to the knowledge of marine zoology, and helped popularize natural science and history. He is credited with the world’s first salt water aquarium, as well as studies in microscopy.

Unfortunately, although the scientific contribution Gosse left is still appreciated, he is more commonly known for his highly original attempt to reconcile ‘Young Earth Creationism’ with geological facts. Although Gosse intended his well meaning attempt to strengthen the faith of Christians against contemporary atheist and sceptical attacks on the Biblical record, it is arguable that his now infamous work caused more harm to the Christian cause than Darwin’s ‘The Origin Of Species’, which was published two years later.

Unlike other 19th century theologians and Bible students, who found a very old earth entirely compatible with the Scriptural record (such as Thomas Chalmers, George Faber, John Pye Smith, Robert Bakewell, Lord Kelvin, John Thomas and Robert Roberts), Gosse took a radically different approach to harmonization, wishing to retain a belief in an earth created no more than 6,000 years prior. He published his work with the title ‘Omphalos: An Attempt To Untie The Geological Knot’ (1857), though it is known today simply by the more memorable ‘Omphalos’.

The key word in the title (‘omphalos’), was the Greek word for the navel, and a reference to the centuries old theological dispute over whether or not Adam and Eve were created with navels. Sir Thomas Browne had argued that they did not, in his famous work ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ (1646-1672), but theologians had taken both sides over the ages, and religious paintings in the Middle Ages and Renaissance era sometimes displayed Adam and Eve with navels, but sometimes without (Michelangelo’s famous painting of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicts Adam with a navel).

The issue of whether or not Adam and Eve were created with a navel represented the fundamental question of whether or not it was rational that the creation was made with the appearance of an age it did not yet possess, and thus Gosse alluded to it in the title of his work.

Gosse did not deny that the earth appeared to be very old. Nor did he attempt to argue that the geological techniques used to date the earth were flawed. Instead, he argued that the earth only had the appearance of age, but was in fact very young. He explained the apparent age of the earth by arguing that anything God created necessarily had to have a matured form in order for the earths’ ecosystems to have functioned from the moment of creation. Thus when God created fish, they had to be already fully formed fish, not simply spawn, trees had to be fully grown trees, not seeds, animals had to be fully matured beasts, not embryos. He applied this also to the climactic cycles, pointing out that rivers had to be already flowing, clouds had to already exist, winds had already to be moving across the earth.

There was an appealing logic about Gosse’s argument which seemed compelling. Certainly it could not be denied that if God created a working ecosystem in just three days, everything within it necessarily had to be in a matured state. The fact that Adam and Eve were clearly created as mature adults, not as foetuses or babies, lent an apparent strength to the case, for no one could deny that Adam and Eve would have appeared to the casual observer as if they had already lived at least a couple of decades, though they had in fact been newly formed.

Unfortunately, though the argument appeared sound when applied to ecosystems and Adam and Eve, it not only failed to explain why God would create geological formations with the appearance of age, but would embed thousands of fossils in those geological formations, at various different depths, all over the world. These fossils could not be explained by ecological necessity. Certainly it was unnecessary for the ecological sustainability of the planet to plant fossilized animals hundreds of metres deep into the earth. Even more difficult was the fossilized remains of animal excrement (coprolites), and body fragments, neither of which had any obviously necessary ecological function.

Gosse anticipated this objection, but failed to do more than dismiss it with a non-sequitur:

‘It may be objected that to assume the world to have been created with fossil skeletons in its crust – skeletons of animals that never really existed – is to charge the Creator with forming objects whose sole purpose was to deceive us. The reply is obvious. Were the concentric timber-rings of a created tree formed merely to deceive? Were the growth lines of a created shall intended to deceive? Was the navel of the created Man intended to deceive him into the persuasion that he had a parent?’

The difference is, of course, that whilst the created tree needed tree rings (they actually form part of the internal structure of the tree, by which it remains upright), and the ecology required fully grown trees, there was no ecological necessity for Adam and Eve to have navels, nor any necessity at all. Nor did this explain at all the necessity for fossils and coprolites.

This counter-argument offered by Gosse was merely aimed at defending God against the accusation of deception, without actually providing any rational explanation as to why He would wish to scatter fossils throughout the geological record, especially if (as Gosse insisted), He did not wish to deceive.

Gosse’s work sadly met with widespread rejection by both Christians and non-Christians alike. It was ridiculed mercilessly, and constituted a significant public relations disaster for 19th century Christianity. It did not even meet with approval from Gosse’s own son, who later described in painful detail the manner in which ‘Omphalos’ failed its author’s expectations:

‘…never was a book cast upon the waters with greater anticipations of success than, was this curious, this obstinate, this fanatical volume. My Father lived in a fever of suspense, waiting for the tremendous issue. This “Omphalos” of his, he thought, was to bring all the turmoil of scientific speculation to a close, fling geology into the arms of Scripture, and make the lion eat grass with the lamb.

It as not surprising, he admitted, that there had been experienced an ever-increasing discord between the facts which geology brings to light and the direct statements of the early chapters of ”Genesis.” Nobody was to blame for that. My Father, and my Father alone, possessed the secret of the enigma; he alone held the key to open the lock of geological mystery.

He offered it, with a glowing gesture, to atheists and Christians alike. This was to be the universal panacea; this the system of intellectual therapeutics which could not but heal all the maladies of the age.

But, alas! atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.’

Frederick R. Ross, ‘Philip Gosse’s Omphalos, Edmond Gosse’s Fatherand Son, and Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection’ Isis (1977) ‘V’-68, pages 85-96, as quoted by David J Krause, ‘Apparent Age And Its Reception In The 19th Century’, Journal Of The American Science Affiliation, volume 32, September 1980, pages 146-150

Charles Kingsley (famous author of ‘The Waterbabies’), was approached by Gosse (a personal friend), who asked him to review the work, probably with the hope that a favourable review from a well respected author and social reformer might contribute helpfully to the book’s reception by the public.

Unfortunately for Gosse, Kingsley refused to write such a review after having read the book, and explained in painfully direct terms exactly why:

‘Shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt, and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this – that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes a Deus quidam deceptor. [a ‘God who is sometimes a deceiver’]

I do not mean merely in the case fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead annuals, but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the paudanus trunk, and your newly created Adam’s navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason but my conscience which revolts here.’

I would not for a thousand pounds put your book into my children’s hands…’

Charles Kingsley, as quoted by David J Krause, ‘Apparent Age And Its Reception In The 19th Century’, Journal Of The American Science Affiliation, volume 32, September 1980, pages 146-150

Gosse was terribly crushed by the overwhelmingly negative reception of his work, and suffered from depression as a result. He chose to abstain from apologetic writing from this point. His experience is a sad warning of the destructive results of dogmatism in the face of scientific fact.

1810-1888: Asa Gray: An outstanding botanist, his book ‘Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, from New England to Wisconsin and South to Ohio and Pennsylvania Inclusive’ had already run to six editions by 1890. It became a standard botanical work and remains so today, known simply as ‘Gray’s Manual’.

Aside from his remarkable contribution to botany, Gray became significant in 19th century discourse between theology and science as a result of his extensive correspondence with Charles Darwin. It may be said that he was one of the greatest Christian influences in Darwin’s life, and that if Darwin had allowed himself to be convinced by some of Gray’s arguments, the conclusions he drew from his scientific studies may have been very different to what we read today.

Gray found a number of Darwin’s theories on the diversity of species explained various problems in botany, and was prepared to give support to some of his views, though not uncritically:

‘Gray was never an uncritical supporter, and there are many evidences in the correspondence between these two scientists that Gray was willing to challenge Darwin and disagree with some of his conclusions.’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

An important challenge identified by Gray was the relationship between Darwin’s emerging theories and the religious convictions of the day:

‘He did, however, raise a concern that would be the source of much future discussion. He wondered about Darwin’s “carry[ing] out this view to its ultimate and legitimate results,–how [do] you connect the philosophy of religion with the philosophy of your science.” He added: “I should feel uneasy if I could not connect them into a consistent whole–i.e., fundamental principles of science should not be in conflict.”’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Gray believed that good science would not be in contradiction with the Bible, and that good Biblical interpretation would agree with good science. His concern was how Darwin’s theories could be consistent with sound Biblical interpretation.

Darwin eventually published ‘The Origin Of The Species’, and Gray provided a supportive review, though anticipating theological criticism:

‘Aware of mounting religious opposition, he ended his review by arguing that whereas one could use Darwin’s theory in support of an atheistic view of Nature, one could use any scientific theory in that way.

He wrote: “The theory of gravitation and … the nebular hypothesis assume a universal and ultimate physical cause, from which the effects in nature must necessarily have resulted.”5

He did not see the physicists and astronomers who adopted Newton’s theories as atheists or pantheists, though Leibnitz earlier had raised such reservations. And a similar situation existed with the origin of species by natural selection. Darwin, Gray continued: “merely takes up a particular, proximate cause, or set of such causes, from which, it is argued, the present diversity of species has or may have contingently resulted. The author does not say necessarily resulted.”6 This far Gray could go with Darwin.’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Gray’s comparison of Darwin’s work with Newton’s was appropriate, as it was indeed true that some theologians had considered Newton’s scientific conclusions to be dangerously inclined towards atheism. Today we would rightly think it absurd that any of Newton’s scientific work would lead to atheism, and yet this was a concern which Leibniz and other highly intelligent and professional men took seriously.

Similarly, Gray understood that Darwin’s theories posed a threat to traditional Christian understanding, and wished to explore the extent to which this was true. In his initial response he argued that just as Newton’s discovery of certain universal laws did not disprove that God was involved in the universe, so Darwin’s theories regarding the origin of the species did not necessarily remove God from the process of creation.

However, having said that Gray was also very clear on the fact that he could agree with Darwin only to a limited extent:

But there was a point at which he parted company, and that was the fortuitous randomness of the process that Darwin’s theory seemed to imply.

As all good historians of science and of Christian thought know, evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century were generally not biblical literalists, nor did they believe in a young earth.

In other words, the religious opposition to Darwin did not arise from perceived problems between Darwin’s theory and a literal reading of Genesis. Rather, following the publication of Origin of Species, it centered on what seemed to be the randomness of natural selection, the appearance of new organisms by chance, and therefore the exclusion of divine purpose or design in Nature.7 It was the teleological question that Gray addressed in his review and about which he and Darwin corresponded over many years.’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

The question was whether or not Darwin’s work was reconcilable with design. For Darwin, the ‘random’ process of selection and the ‘blind’ forces of nature were the cause of the species, whereas Gray was convinced that God was the guiding hand behind the creation.

Darwin was greatly impressed with Gray’s understanding and assessment of his work, despite recognising that Gray could not support him completely :

‘Darwin’s response to Gray’s review, a copy of which he received prior to its publication, was very positive. Darwin even hoped that it could become a preface in a second American edition of On the Origin of Species on which Gray worked. In a letter later in the year to James Dwight Dana, Darwin said: “No one person understands my views & has defended them so well as A. Gray;–though he does not by any means go all the way with me.”’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Despite their differences however, Gray and Darwin were able to maintain an amicable relationship which led to much useful correspondence between them.

This correspondence between Gray and Darwin helpfully identified the fact that Darwin’s objection to God as creator was not scientific, but was in fact theological. Darwin found it difficult to reconcile the apparent cruelty of what he called ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ with an all wise and benevolent being. This theological preconception influenced and guided the conclusions he drew from his scientific research, as he acknowledges in this letter to Gray:

‘With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.–I am bewildered.–I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.’

Charles Darwin, as quoted by Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Yet despite this reservation, Darwin also acknowledged that the concept of a world without design was equally strange to him. He admitted that the universe had every appearance of design, but that his theological preconception on the subject of evil hindered him from admitting it:

‘On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me …. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.’

Charles Darwin, as quoted by Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

‘His difficulty centered on what might best be referred to as issues surrounding theodicy, i.e., are natural selection and its results consistent with design by a benevolent God or do they imply that, if designed, God is capable of malevolent intent.’

What Darwin wanted was Design without suffering, teleology without agony, purpose without pain.’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Simply put, Darwin wanted the crown without the cross, and his explicit acknowledgement of this demonstrates the extent to which his scientific views were directed by his theological preconceptions. He had difficulty understanding how a benevolent creator could design a world filled with such suffering, and so interpreted his scientific studies in a manner less advantageous to Christianity, and more favourably to atheism. Had his theology been in better order, the conclusions he drew from his scientific studies would have been very different.

Darwin’s double mindedness on this issue clearly caused him much confusion and perplexity, and Gray did his best to lead the scientist gently forward to a more Scriptural point of view.
Intent on addressing Darwin’s struggle between natural selection and the benevolence of God, Gray included in his1876 book ‘Darwinia’ (a book examining Darwin’s theories and conclusions), a chapter entitled ‘Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology’.

Though not fully convinced by Gray’s arguments, Darwin acknowledged that they had force, and ceased to contest the issue, admitting his double mindedness:

‘Finally, in December, Darwin sent up the white flag, conceding that “[i]f anything is designed, certainly Man must be; one’s ‘inner consciousness’ (though a false guide) tells one so; yet I cannot admit that man’s rudimentary mammae … & pug-nose were designed …. I am in thick mud;–the orthodox would say in fetid abominable mud.”’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Darwin continued to waver back and forth on the issue over the years, with Gray’s correspondence repeatedly bringing Darwin back to a serious consideration of the design question. But the theological stumblingblock of evil still remained:

‘However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief that “variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.”’

Charles Darwin, as quoted by Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

‘Imbedded in this refusal to follow Gray is the question of theodicy to which I referred earlier. How could an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God set up a process that led to “injurious deviations of structure”? How could such a Being design a struggle for existence, a survival of the fittest– war for all and death for some? For Darwin, a doctrine of design that included evil and suffering was not worth embracing.’

Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Gray continued his efforts to reconcile the problem for Darwin, and emphasized the fact that the key issue in Darwin’s work was the issue of design, rather than atheism.

Darwin was extremely pleased with the comments Gray made on his work in an article in 1874, and

‘Darwin’s response showed pleasure. He wrote: “What you say about Teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else has ever noticed the point. I have always said you were the man to hit the nail on the head.”’

Charles Darwin, as quoted by Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

Although Gray was unable to convince Darwin to accept a reconciliation of natural selection with a benevolent God, he did succeed in keeping the question open, to the extent that Darwin was unable to abandon completely his conviction in a designed universe:

‘And near the end of his life, Darwin wrote to his friend T. H. Farrer these words: “[I]f we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance–that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble, ….”’

Charles Darwin, as quoted by Sarah Joan Miles, ‘Charles Darwin and Asa Gray Discuss Teleology and Design’, Perspectives In Science And The Christian Faith, volume 53 (September 2001), pages 196-201

It is instructive to realise that the insolubility of Darwin’s perplexity was due to his struggle with the fundamental theological difficulty of evil, his inability to reconcile belief in a benevolent God with the pain and suffering resulting from the process of natural selection. Few people realise that the conclusions he drew from his scientific studies could have been radically different if only he had overcome this theological difficulty.

Gray was undoubtedly held in suspicion by those of his colleagues who considered him too close to Darwin, and apparently too eager to reconcile Darwin’s studies with traditional Christian teaching. But Gray, though conciliatory, was never compromising, and Darwin always acknowledged that Gray refused to accept the ultimate conclusions Darwin himself drew regarding the origin and diversity of the species.

1826-1900: David Armand: French Catholic priest who worked as a missionary in China for years. An experienced naturalist, he catalogued hundreds of animal and plant species, many of which had been previously unknown. He is recognised as having contributed to zoology, botany, and animal geography. A number of animal and plant species have been named after him.

1819-1903: George Stokes: One of the most important mathematician and physicists of the 19th century, Stokes produced a massive collection of writings on mathematics, and contributed a huge body of knowledge to both mathematics and physics. A number of scientific principles or laws have been named after various of Stokes’ accomplishments in various fields:

  • Stokes’ law (fluid dynamics)
  • Stokes radius (biochemistry)
  • Stokes’ theorem (differential geometry)
  • Stokes line (wavelengths in electromagnetic fields)
  • Stokes relations (light and optics)
  • Stokes shift (fluorescence)
  • Navier-Stokes equations (fluid dynamics)
  • Stokes (unit of viscosity)
  • Stokes parameters and Stokes vector (electromagnetic waves)
  • Campbell-Stokes recorder (an improved model of a common sunlight recording instrument, still used today)

An early sign that his skill would surpass existing texts was seen by his mathematics teach in school, who commented that he noted Stokes ‘working out for himself new ways of doing sums, better than the book’. His mathematics tutor at university said that Stokes ‘did many of the propositions of Euclid as problems, without looking at the book’. It is therefore hardly surprising that today Stokes’ many contributions fill standard textbooks in a range of subjects, including engineering, physics, and mathematics.

Stokes was a devout Christian, who was dedicated to his faith and whose enquiring mind was both willing and eager to explore the relationship between science and religion. Between 1886 and 1903 he was president of the Victoria Institute, established ‘To examine, from the point of view of science, such questions as may have arisen from an apparent conflict between scientific results and religious truths; to enquire whether the scientific results are or are not well founded’.

Stokes gave a number of lectures promoting Christianity and its harmony with science, contributing to the Burnet Lectures between 1883 and 1185, and to the Gifford Lectures (the purpose of which was to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God’), between 1891 and 1893.

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