Thursday, July 19, 2007


Sound Sense of an Eastern Potentate

A few days after Christmas in 1862, just three years after Origin of Species introduced the theory of evolution to the world, Charles Darwin wrote, as he often did, to his friend and ally, Thomas Huxley.

Darwin's letter continued a discussion the two were having over a technical issue about the degree of sterility to expect in recently formed varieties.

Darwin also told Huxley that a book containing a series of lectures on evolution Huxley delivered to working men couldn't "fail to do good the wider it is circulated," and he somewhat tartly remarked that not "a dunce exists, who could not understand it; & that is a bold saying after the extent to which I have been misunderstood."

Along with his letter, Darwin returned a note from the English novelist and clergyman, Charles Kingsley, that Huxley sent him, and thanked Huxley for letting him "see the sound sense of an Eastern potentate."

Not long before, Kingsley had sent Huxley a little story to show how Darwin's theory of evolution had affected his own natural theology. Here's Kingsley's story from Letter 3878 of the Online Darwin Correspondence Project.

Once on a time, in Tartary, there was a jolly old heathen miscreant of a Khan, who was given to worshipping a horse's scull, & other devotions of a rudimentary nature.

And there came to him two bronzes, Moollahs, or other sort of missionaries, animated with a pious desire of converting him to their faith; but as they worshipped two different Deities, they hated each other accordingly, as in duty bound, & each believed the other was going to Gehanna.

Well. The old Kahn was frank enough with them. He confest that he had no great respect for his horse's scull; that he had totally failed in obtaining from it any rational answer, several times, when he was at a great pinch; & that on the whole, he was ready to take up with any other deity, provided the said deity was wise enough. He demanded therefore of the two Moollahs, wh[ich] of their deities was the cleverest.

Then the first Moollah said, "Oh Khan, worship my God. He is so wise, that he made all things.''

"Wah!" said the Khan "him a great sultan. He is a wise builder. But what can thy God do, oh Moollah number two?"

Then said the second Moollah, "Oh Khan, it is a light thing for a God to make all things. A God who could not do that would not be good enough for a Samoiede who eats blubber, or a Tom-goose who digs mammoth bones. May their mothers graves be defiled! But, Oh Kahn, my God is a God indeed; For he is so wise, that he makes all things make themselves.''

"Wah Wah!" said the Kahn. "He is the Sultan of all sultans; He is the wisest of all Master-builders. He is the God for me henceforth, if he be wise enough to make things make themselves.''

Kingley's story, perhaps a bit too Kiplingesque for modern ears, reflects the enthusiasm many clergymen had for Darwin's explanation of the mechanisms of evolution. Like Darwin, they wanted to replace the old God, who was forced to tinker constantly with with his less than perfect creation, with a new God who, having set the world in motion stepped back and allowed it to operate through natural law.

In the "Sermon V. The Deaf and Dumb," part of a series of sermons he delivered at Westminster Abbey and the Chapels Royal (available from Project Gutenberg) Kingsley observed, "[t]he man of science finds a deeper and more awful charm in contemplating the results of law; in watching, not what seem to be occasional failures in nature: but what is a perpetual and calm success."

Opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution came not just from churchmen, as the old warfare between science and religion template would have it, but from scientists as well. Even Darwin's friend and mentor, Charles Lyell, it should be remembered, couldn't quite bring himself to accept natural selection. And of course, men of the cloth were far from united in opposition. A number of influential clergymen embraced evolution and, like Kingsley, became firm supporters.

Darwin's theory of evolution would not have recieved the wide acceptance it did during his lifeime without their help.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?