18 December 2011

Darwin’s Other Bulldog: Charles Kingsley and the Popularisation of Evolution in Victorian England

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)
Piers Hale, who blogs at Political Descent, has recently published a fascinating article (pdf here) on "Darwin's Other Bulldog." For those of you who enjoyed The Origin of Species, Voyage of the Beagle, or Descent of Man, Hale's article will provide you with much to contemplate. Here's a teaser:
Kingsley’s efforts to promote Darwin at Cambridge were not confined to rabble-rousing among the undergraduates, however, and he also took pains to foster an environment of intellectual inquiry regarding both the scientific evidence for and the theological implications of evolution. He debated with those he found incredulous of Darwin’s theory, finding, as he later wrote to Darwin, that those who opposed Darwinism most vocally were those who knew the least, including his friends at College, the Lowndean Chair of Astronomy and Geometry, John Couch Adams and Arthur Cayley, who would, from 1863, become the first Sadleirian Professor—both were eminent mathematician-astronomers.  
Hale, moreover, usefully draws our attention to "the hazy nature of the distinction historians have drawn between men of science and popularisers of science in the early years of this period, and of its gradual hardening by the end of Kingsley’s life." He adds:
In the 1860s it was clearly as non-controversial for Kingsley to be instrumental in the foundation of the ‘Thorough Club’ as it was for Sam Wilberforce to be an active participant in the British Association meetings, or indeed, for Darwin to urge Kingsley on to write up his own big book.
It is precisely that hazy nature which defined so much of Victorian psychology, psychiatry, physiology, and neurology as well. However, it is also worth being mindful that the distinction is only apparent to us now. The perhaps most intriguing feature of knowledge in the 19th-century was that it had not become so professionalized that the argots of science made the possibility of science's communication impossible. In that respect, at least, it was a Golden Age. The opportunity to contemplate this issue is one of the best reasons to read Hale's latest essay.

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