Huxley’s Church & Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science, by Matthew Stanley

Simon Underdown on the complicated process by which science replaced religion as means of explaining the world

February 5, 2015

It’s easy to think about the scientific endeavours of the past as less sophisticated than those of today. We can look back with a wry smile at numerous examples of religion being used to “solve” scientific problems: Bishop Ussher setting a date of 4004BC for Creation, and Noah’s flood being held responsible for the fossil record of extinct “monsters”, spring to mind. But to understand how scientific thought has evolved over time it is important to reflect on changes in attitudes and methods, and arguably no period saw more rapid and profound shifts than the 19th century. Isaac Newton’s oft-quoted (indeed, arguably over-quoted) comment about “standing on the shoulders of giants” neatly encapsulates the “ratchet” effect that allows humans to build on past discoveries and evolve culturally at a rate that far outstrips our ability to adapt biologically.

Here, Matthew Stanley sets out to explore the battle between the two major forces of 19th-century science: theistic science, which essentially allowed for the role of a divine creator in all things, and naturalistic science, based on the purity of the scientific method and coalescing around the focus of Darwinian evolution. The central plank of Stanley’s argument is that the process that replaced religion with science as the grand narrative explanation of the world was not a simple one. He quite rightly characterises it as complicated, nuanced and protracted.

In order to develop what might otherwise be a rather diffuse argument, Stanley focuses on two key players: Thomas Huxley, the superlative naturalistic scientist and combative self-proclaimed defender of nascent Darwinism; and James Clerk Maxwell, the physicist and devout Christian. The choice of these two diametrically opposed figures is a good one, and serves to guide the reader through a meticulous, impressively researched text that remains readable, even where in less able hands it might have been rather dry. What emerges is the story of an adroit campaign by “modern” men of natural science to wrest control of the scientific establishment itself from men they regarded as old-fashioned in view, outdated in methods and ignorant in the dazzling light of Charles Darwin’s theories.

While it should come as no great surprise that such a process was complex and subtle rather than straightforward, it serves as a reminder of the need for a detailed reflection on the historical development of ideas. Just as when looking at the evolution of humans it is tempting to view the events that led to us as inevitable, it is vital to remember that looking back after the event affords a radically different perspective to that available to the people experiencing the process in real time.

It is tempting to conclude that the Huxley camp won the war and that modern, rational science can characterise this period as bringing its greatest victory over theistic explanations. But given both current levels of support for the theistic pseudo-science of intelligent design and widespread full-blown adherence to biblical and Koranic creation narratives, we might well ask if Huxley’s triumph was only temporary.

Huxley’s Church & Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science

By Matthew Stanley
University of Chicago Press, 336pp, £31.50
ISBN 9780226164878 and 4908 (e-book)
Published 22 December 2014

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Research Assistant LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE
Lecturer in University Study Skills UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN
Lecturer in English Language UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest