Faith in step with march of progress

The Watch on the Heath
December 9, 2005

The subtitle of this book promises a history of the interrelations between science and religion, covering the period from perhaps the Scientific Revolution to the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species . Although drawing on a rather limited range of historical sources, Keith Thomson's book consists of a series of thematic explorations of the development of science, in which William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) provides the recurrent focus. Thomson is principally concerned with the progress of scientific ideas on topics such as the nature of fossils and the age of the earth, and with the ways religion was deployed in responding to scientific innovations, particularly theories of evolution.

Thomson is right to insist that there is far more to Paley's Natural Theology than the famous watch analogy evoked in this book's main title. He draws attention to Paley's later chapters, in which the "personality" of God is discussed and in which Paley responded to the attacks on natural theology by critics such as David Hume. Moreover, at many points in the book, comparisons and contrasts are interestingly drawn between Paley's views and those of Darwin. The decline of natural theology after Darwin provides the theme for the final chapter: here Thomson does not analyse the factors that produced this alleged decline, instead providing a careful analysis of the famous T. H. Huxley-Samuel Wilberforce encounter in 1860.

Some of the earlier chapters, however, range more broadly across the centuries. It is disconcerting for the historian to find 17th-century writers such as Robert Boyle or Ralph Cudworth cheek by jowl with Paley or Darwin or - even more problematic - the theory of plate tectonics.

Underpinning several of the chapters is a commitment to the progressive march of science. While that may be unproblematic in some contexts, it gives rise here to a Whig understanding of history. For Thomson, the history of science is about the (generally) linear steps leading to present-day scientific knowledge. Central to this progressivist view is the development of a firm empirical base to such sciences as geology and biology, and the framing of theories that account for the evidence.

Yet Thomson is clearly impatient with those historical figures who were prone to speculation. Thus he applauds Robert Hooke and Nicolas Steno because some of their geological work seems approximate to the views of modern scientists, but he is critical of Thomas Burnet, William Whiston and John Woodward because they sought a "compromise" between geology and a biblically sanctioned history of the earth. Thus, perhaps surprisingly for a work on the history of science and religion, this book fails to appreciate the historical contexts of these 17th and 18th-century writers who creatively sought to advance understanding of history by illuminating the Mosaic account of the Creation with innovative ideas drawn from contemporary science.

While Thomson portrays Mosaic science as a dead end, he is also critical of attempts to develop natural theology (a term that he uses far too loosely). He is certainly right to point out the many empirical and conceptual problems in Paley's book. However, if I understand him correctly, Thomson's main aim is to demonstrate the failings of natural theology and thus to celebrate the mid-19th century divorce between science and theology. But in doing so he chooses to ignore the extensive literature on natural theology produced since Darwin's time, some of which is intellectually impressive.

Thomson also fails to illuminate pertinent aspects of the history of the period from John Ray to Darwin. While he offers thoughtful readings of specific texts, his presentist perspective leads him to pay insufficient attention to historical context, resulting in a number of misunderstandings about what the authors were trying to achieve and how their works were interrelated. Yet all the main topics that Thomson covers have been closely analysed by historians, especially historians of science, during the past 50 years. He might have made better use of this extensive and robust literature.

This book is unsatisfactory in other ways. For example, the bibliography lacks consistency in the capitalisation of nouns and adjectives, and the index omits the names of some of the authors cited in the text, such as Baron d'Holbach (who is given the unusual spelling d'Holback) and Julien Offray de La Mettrie. More seriously, quotations are not adequately sourced, thus preventing the reader from easily tracing the original.

Frustrated by this lack of references, I sought the source of one two-paragraph quotation from Paley's Natural Theology . The quotation appeared problematic since neither paragraph seems to refer to Cartesianism, as Thomson claims in the accompanying text. Moreover, the argument in the second paragraph does not follow naturally from the first.

Much to my consternation I found that the first paragraph was taken from the 23rd chapter of Paley's book, and the second was excerpted from chapter five. I could thus make no sense of the full quotation, which was rendered all the more imprecise by a significant transcription error.

Geoffrey Cantor is professor of the history of science, Leeds University.

The Watch on the Heath: Science and Religion before Darwin

Author - Keith Thomson
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 314
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 00 713313 8

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