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science to wrest control of the scientific establishment itself from men they regarded as old-fashioned in view, outdated in methods and ignorant in the dazzling light of Charles Darwin’s theories.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

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