Friday, January 29, 2010

The development of science

Above is a picture of the great geologist, Sir Charles Lyell. Darwin took his Principles of Geology with him on his voyage on the Beagle.

Before Darwin
In the early 19th century science was widely considered to be a branch of philosophy. William Paley’s Natural History argued that a divine providence had created the universe and presided over human affairs. There was no conflict between science and the Bible. But during the century some scientists mounted a cultural war against religion.

As early as the 1830s the view that science and religion were compatible was challenged by the Frenchman, Auguste Comte’s creed of positivism. He argued that human development followed three states: (1) a ‘theological’ state where human beings interpret natural forces through animist beliefs, gods or a single divinity, (2) a ‘metaphysical’ state in which people explain the world through abstractions like nature or progress, (3) a ‘scientific’ or ‘positive’ state in which humans simply try to discover the immediate causes of phenomena and the scientific laws which govern them through the application of reason and observation. In positivist thought, science would become the ultimate bases for the reorganization of society and provide human ethics with its moral basis. These ideas were to be enormously influential at the end of the nineteenth century.

Paley’s views also came under attack from the findings of geology, notably in Britain and France. Following James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795) and the foundation of the Geological Society in 1807, geology became ‘the science of the day’ between 1820 and 1840. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831 with the twofold purpose of increasing public interest in useful knowledge and inspiring scientific discovery.

The pioneer of the new approach to interpreting fossils was the Frenchman, Georges, Baron Cuvier (1769-1832), who had served in the Revolutionary army. It was he who identified the mammoth and the mastodon. His studies suggested that entire species had been wiped off the face of the earth by catastrophes. This opened the problem of why and how extinction had occurred.

In 1811 and 1812 two Dorset children, Joseph and Mary Anning discovered on the beach at Lyme Regis the skeleton of a huge unknown creature, later named Ichthyosaurus by the Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum. Mary Anning was to become one of the most celebrated dinosaur collectors.

Another child, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), while exploring the South Downs uncovered ammonites ‘like the fabled form of Jupiter Ammon’. He later trained as a doctor and in his spare time carried on with his geological studies. The most remarkable feature of his studies was the sheer size of the beasts that apparently once roamed the earth. In 1824 Mantell was admitted to the Royal Society. He had identified a new herbivorous lizard and the new species was named Iguanodon.

Geology was beginning to reveal vistas of time directly at odds with Archbishop Ussher’s calculations. However some of the most eminent of the early English geologists were not only Christians but clergymen: the Rev. Adam Sedgwick held the chair of Geology at Cambridge, where he taught Darwin, and in 1818 the very eccentric Rev. William Buckland was made Reader in Geology at Oxford and Director of the Ashmolean Museum. In the same year he met Cuvier, who was greeted as a hero on his visit to England. Initially, Buckland refused to speculate about the gigantic bones of an unknown creature that had been in the Ashmolean since the 17th century. Though it was carefully labelled it had become almost invisible because no-one knew how to classify it.

Buckland knew that one of the reasons for his appointment had been to produce proof of the biblical Flood. In 1819 in his inaugural lecture, he declared that geology should be the handmaid of religion. He believed that pebble deposits in the Midlands proved the flood. In seeking his proof he and his colleagues identified and named various geological strata: Devonian, Carboniferous Limestone, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous.

In France there was less pressure to prove the flood but still puzzlement about why the mammoth and the mastadon had disappeared from the earth. At the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, Cuvier’s colleague, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), had developed in his Philosophie Zoologique a radically different theory: species were not necessarily extinct at all; they had developed by transmutation into other forms of life. Organs could change permanently by frequent use or habits allowing for the progression of animal forms into ever more complex types without any special creation from God. Lamarckism opened up the disturbing possibility that human attributes were not God given, that nature was autonomous and could automatically develop higher forms of life.

Cuvier’s alternative explanation was the ‘Doctrine of Catastrophes’ was welcomed when it was translated into English because it was assumed (wrongly) that it supported the biblical Flood.

In 1821 Gideon Mantell met Charles Lyell (1797-1875), a young Scotsman with a keen interest in geology. In 1828 he explored the volcanic region of the Auvergne, and then went to Mount Etna to gather supporting evidence for a theory of development he was developing and which he expounded in his popular and controversial Principles of Geology (1830-33). Uniformitarian theory stated that such as volcanic activity or the weathering effects of the sea, wind, or rain never change in intensity. This view excluded the idea that there might have been some intensely active epochs long ago when mountain ranges were built or continents rose up out of the sea; everything had happened gradually, and there was no room for an inexplicable catastrophe such as the Flood. The importance of Lyell’s work is that it effectually brought the whole realm of nature under the conception of developmental law. This development had no need for a theological underpinning. The earth was forever on the move but these moves were not necessarily going anywhere. Darwin was to say that Lyell’s book taught him to think about nature.

However Lyell believed in man’s uniqueness and the immutability of species (and attacked Lamarck ferociously for arguing for evolution) but he had come to the conclusion that the Mosaic chronology was ‘an incubus on our science’. In his presidential address to the Geological Society in 1831 Sedgwick put forward a compromise position – the flood was not a literal truth.

These scientific debates reached an even more popular audience when the journalist Robert Chambers published anonymously Vestiges of Creation (1844). He argued that organic forms had not been created in fixed groups at the beginning of the world but had chronologically progressed:
‘man, considered zoologically, and without regard to the distinct character assigned to him by theology, simply takes his place as the type of all types in the animal kingdom’.
This conclusion was fiercely attacked by the clergyman- scientists. Sedgwick: Chambers had ‘annulled all distinction between physical and moral’.

But the great lizards, named dinosaurs by the anatomist, Richard Owen (1804-92) in 1842 (from the Homeric word deinos, terrible, and sauros), had entered the popular imagination and Owen (undeservedly) became a hero. In 1850 he was presented to Prince Albert and served on the Great Exhibition Committee. When the Great Exhibition was relocated at Sydenham models of dinosaurs were displayed. At this stage many people believed that the dinosaurs must have been exterminated in the Flood - there was great reluctance to consider that they were much more ancient.