This piece is part of David Livingstone’s exploration of the contexts of Darwinian and religious thought, first given as the 2015 Dudleian Lecture at Harvard Divinity School.

Thoughts travel. But as they journey around the world, they don’t move effortlessly from place to place. In different venues they mean, and are made to mean, different things. This is because the circulation of ideas isn’t simply about transference; it’s about transformation. It’s not just about dissemination; it’s about appropriation. Edward Said called attention to this very phenomenon, in a simple but profound way: as theory travels it changes. The movement of any theory into a new space, he observed, “necessarily involves processes of representation and institutionalization different from those at the point of origin.” And this “complicates any account of the transplantation, transference, circulation, and commerce of theories and ideas.”

Charles Darwin’s theory has moved around the world, and different communities have had different dealings with it. My task today is to track down something of what Darwin’s theory was seen to signify in a number of different settings in the decades around 1900, particularly among communities sharing the same confessional heritage. Religious encounters with evolution varied drastically even among individual religious denominations. To appreciate the reasons for these differences, however, it helps to begin with a look at how Darwin’s theories were received within the scientific and natural history communities.

It’s clear that in different places, individuals read different meanings into and out of Darwin’s theory. In each case, local circumstances had a critical role to play in the manufacturing of Darwinian meaning. Cultural politics, race relations, sectarian rivalry, educational policy, local scientific expertise, public theater, textual criticism—these all shaped the encounters. What one could say and hear about evolution in different localities was therefore very different.


To McCrady, Darwin’s theory of species transmutation was nothing less than a subversive threat to southern racial culture.


Consider the Charleston Museum of Natural History in South Carolina during the years immediately following the appearance of Darwin’s Origin. Among the naturalists who congregated there was the marine invertebrate naturalist John McCrady (1831-1881). McCrady remained a life-long opponent of Darwin’s theory. Why? The answer to that question takes us to the very core of McCrady’s politics.

Always concerned with keeping nature and culture in tandem, McCrady readily took to mobilizing his scientific work in the interests of an independent South. He called on geological metaphor to naturalize geopolitical disruption: the “separation of this Union will be a convulsion…” he announced in 1861, “but, like those vast convulsions of geological times, it will be a convulsion of development…a grand and majestic step in advance.” Here political and natural history were one for, as McCrady insisted, “if this be the course of our development, then is it in perfect harmony with all other great developments in nature.” But Darwin’s science was a different matter. His theories about human origins and species transmutation were profoundly troubling. McCrady was dedicated to the idea of racial superiority and closely followed his teacher Louis Agassiz in insisting that the different races constituted different human species. To McCrady, Darwin’s theory of species transmutation was nothing less than a subversive threat to southern racial culture. That was the meaning McCrady discerned in the Origin of the Species.

McCrady’s reading of Darwin was shaped by the cultural politics of his interpretive community at the Charleston Museum. There, Edmund Ravenel, John Holbrook, Lewis Gibbes, and Francis Holmes cultivated a distinctively southern style of science. Nowhere was this clearer than in their efforts to seek in natural history justification for their ideas about social hierarchy and racial superiority. Ravenel, for example, declared that abolitionists could not obliterate the laws of. This was the textual space into which Darwin’s work was cast. The meanings attributed to his theory were shaped by what his readers understood as the theory’s implications for race politics, post-bellum anxieties about the fragmentation of southern culture, and attitudes towards the liberalizing politics of reconstruction.


In this context, the idea of struggle as an irresistible primal force became the hermeneutic key to delivering a Darwinian apologia for pakeha (white-settler) politics.


Things were very different half a world away in New Zealand. So were the polemics: here Darwinian evolution was welcomed as endorsing the runaway triumphs of white colonial settlement. A set of public lectures presented at the Colonial Museum introduced listeners to Darwin’s theory in 1868-69. The speaker was the New Zealand politician, William Travers (1819-1903)—an Irishman from Limerick, botanist, lawyer, and correspondent of Darwin. In the Origin of Species, he perceived a theory with immediate implications for colonial history. Just as the European rat, goat, and other invader species had displaced their New Zealand counterparts, so the “vigorous races of Europe” were wiping out the Maori. It was an iron law of nature. In the struggle for existence, Travers insisted, whenever a “white race comes into contact with an indigenous dark race on ground suitable to the former, the latter must disappear in a few generations.” Not that one should lament this state of affairs; to the contrary, it was to be embraced. Whatever the temporary moral disquiet attending the prospect of a culture’s annihilation, Travers was sure that the historic successes of European culture meant that “even the most sensitive philanthropist may learn to look with resignation, if not with complacency, on the extinction of a people which, in the past had accomplished so imperfectly every object of man’s being.” Travers’s encounter with Darwin’s theory was molded by the contingencies of settler-Maori politics and the desire to enlist enlightened science in the service of domestic colonial policy.

Travers wasn’t alone. Other members of the Wellington scientific fraternity, no less schooled in the rhetoric of naturalized imperialism, happily confirmed this reading of Darwinism. Walter Buller FRS (1838-1906), a magistrate and ornithologist, for example, used the occasion of his 1884 presidential address to the Wellington Philosophical Society to declare that aboriginal peoples must recede in the face of civilization. Just as “the Norwegian had destroyed the native rat” he mused, “…so surely would the Maori disappear before the pakeha.” It was simply “one of the inscrutable laws of Nature.” In this context, the idea of struggle as an irresistible primal force became the hermeneutic key to delivering a Darwinian apologia for pakeha (white-settler) politics.

The very principle that made Darwin’s theory attractive to these audiences—struggle—was precisely what perturbed the circle that gathered at the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists in late nineteenth century Russia. Of central importance here were the interventions of the zoologist Karl Kessler (1815-1881). In 1879, he scrutinized Darwin’s theory in an essay tellingly entitled “On the Law of Mutual Aid.” Drawing on his research on the ichthyology of the Aralo-Caspian region, he condemned “the cruel, so-called law of the struggle for existence.” The Darwinians, he believed, had ignored “the law of mutual aid, which…is if anything more important than the law of the struggle for existence.” He reported that he himself had witnessed the survival value of reciprocated care and cooperation among bees, spiders, reptiles, and a host of other creatures.

Kessler’s reading of Darwin did not remain an isolated textual event. It inaugurated a reading history that steered St. Petersburg engagements with evolutionary theory, most notably in the writings of the anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). Like his St. Petersburg associates, Kropotkin advocated Darwinism with its Malthusian teeth extracted. Reflecting on his zoo-geographical inquiries with Polyakoff in Siberia he recalled: “we witnessed numbers of facts of mutual support…The same impression appears in the work of most Russian zoologists, and it probably explains why Kessler’s ideas were so welcomed by the Russian Darwinists, while like ideas are not in vogue amidst the followers of Darwin in Western Europe.” Kropotkin put his finger on the nub of the issue in a later letter to Marie Goldsmith when he noted: “Kessler, Severtsov, Menzbir, Brandt…and finally myself…stand against the Darwinist exaggeration of struggle within a species. We see a great deal of mutual aid, where Darwin and Wallace see only struggle.”

Place, politics, and polemics played central roles in scientific engagements with Darwin: conceptions of race and social order, among other things, influenced how scholars understood and applied Darwin’s writings The self-same conditions etched themselves just as deeply into the fabric of religious encounters with the theory. Keeping a clear eye on local particularities, I think, opens up new dimensions of a subject too commonly buried beneath a veneer of presumption. By understanding how religious figures, like the scientists examined above, read and received Darwin in context, we can get a firmer grasp on the diversity and nuance of religious reactions to evolution.

At the opening of the 1874 academic year, Robert Rainy, recently appointed Principal of New College Edinburgh, chose as the subject of his inaugural address, “Evolution and Theology”. Here he announced: “Evolution is continually going on before our eyes…I should not regard the question, whether man’s animal constitution could conceivably be developed from lower form, as one of any great theological interest.”

To much of the secular press, the ability of the New College Principal to fudge issues had earned him the title of “Dr. Misty” as well as Dr. Rainy. To be sure, Rainy’s forté was ecclesiastical polity. But what is significant is that, because he was so sensitive to his denominational constituency, his endorsement of evolution at New College in 1874 indicates a general lack of panic about the subject among Scottish Presbyterians as the final quarter of the nineteenth century dawned. This represents one of the many ways in which different religious communities in different contexts responded to Darwin’s work. The reaction was far from uniform and differed even within denomination, in this case, Presbyterians.

Rainy’s unconcern hadn’t always been the case, of course. The visit of Thomas Henry Huxley to lecture Edinburgh’s working classes on Darwinism in 1862 had had the Free Church venting its spleen. Before a packed audience, Huxley attacked the biblical account of creation and declared that humans were descended from the same stock as apes.That threw the Free Church’s newspaper into a right spasm. For his part, Huxley was mightily pleased, reveling in what he called the “large & liberal cursing” he had received from the Free Church coterie. He wasn’t fazed; in a letter to Dyster, he crowed: “Life has its joys, my son, if we earn them!”


If the new scientific priesthood was to mount an assault on the old clerical guardians of revelation and respectability, what better venue could there be for a call to arms than Belfast?


But now as the century wore on more and more theological voices joined in support of evolution. Robert Flint, a clergyman who took up professorships at St. Andrews and Edinburgh, worked hard to develop an evolutionary natural theology. Accordingly he urged that the “law of heredity,” the “tendency to definite variation,” and the “law of natural selection” could all be read as expressions of Divine purpose. Or take the case of the United Presbyterian clergyman, Henry Calderwood. A supporter of the evangelistic activities of Dwight Moody and an enthusiast of the Scottish philosophy of common sense, he assumed the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh in 1868. Calderwood welcomed evolution as a bona fide scientific theory. In his Evolution and Man’s Place in Nature, he declared: “Evolution stands before us as an impressive reality in the history of Nature.”

This accommodation to Darwin’s proposals is marked. But to understand it, we need to set it alongside other matters that were testing the patience of Scottish Presbyterian culture at the time. During the 1870s and 1880s the Darwin issue paled into insignificance beside the protracted heresy trial of William Robertson Smith, an event which made headline news. Things had come to a head in 1876 when litigation began, and it would end in Smith’s dismissal from his chair at the Free Church College in Aberdeen. What had sparked off the row was Smith’s entries for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: they revealed his acceptance of German higher criticism.

Later, he would produce an immensely influential historical anthropology, The Religion of the Semites (1889). Here he urged that a primitive sense of communal unity found expression in a ceremonial meal—the precursor of the Christian Eucharist. But this meal was different: the items on the menu were obtained through ritual cannibalism. The tribe revitalized its sense of belonging —as George Davie pungently expresses it—through “eating the gobbets of throbbing flesh, newly-killed, of their fellow-tribesmen.” In his novel application of totem worship to the Hebrew Bible, Smith drew on the research of his old friend J. F. Maclennan who, in Primitive Marriage (1865), had argued for the matriarchal and polyandric origins of civilization, both of which were rooted in the unintended consequences of female infanticide. Plainly, there was more than enough sex and violence among Scots Presbyterians to satisfy even Freud! Indeed, they were too much even for Freud, who, though he acknowledged his own profound indebtedness to Smith, found the cannibalistic nostalgia just a bit too much! Smith’s application of this theory to the Old Testament—not surprisingly—shocked the Free Church to its core. In these circumstances, if the orthodox mind was to take up arms, biblical criticism, conjectural prehistory, and speculative anthropology were the arenas in which engagement was required. They were infinitely more threatening than the idea of species transformation.

The same winter, when Rainy was opening his arms to evolutionary possibilities, across the Irish Sea J.L. Porter, Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Presbyterian College in Belfast, delivered his opening address. He stood “prepared to show that not a single scientific fact has ever been established,” he told his listeners, from which the deadly dogmas of Huxley and Tyndall could be “logically deduced.”

As Porter’s evaluations suggest, Darwin’s fate amongst Belfast Presbyterians was markedly different from his reception by their Edinburgh counterparts. Why? On Wednesday, 19 August 1874, the Northern Whig enthusiastically announced the coming of the “Parliament of Science”—the British Association—to Belfast. The meeting was welcomed to the city as a temporary respite from “spinning and weaving, and Orange riots, and ecclesiastical squabbles.” Nevertheless, the paper predicted “some hot discussions in the biological section.” The Belfast meeting was to be an X-club jamboree with Huxley, Hooker, Lubbock, and Tyndall all speechifying. If the new scientific priesthood was to mount an assault on the old clerical guardians of revelation and respectability, what better venue could there be for a call to arms than Belfast? That year’s President was the pugnacious Irish physicist John Tyndall. His truculent performance didn’t fall short of expectations; all “religious theories, schemes and systems,” he thundered, “must…submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.” The gauntlet had been thrown down.

So began Belfast’s winter of discontent. Events moved quickly. The next Sunday, Tyndall’s presidential address was the subject of a fractious attack by Robert Watts. Watts, the Professor of Systematic Theology, was already spitting blood since the Association had turned down his offer of a paper congenially calling for “peace and cooperation between Science and Theology.” Tyndall’s mention of Epicurus galled him even more; Watts baulked at the moral implications of adopting Epicurean values. To him, it was a system that had “wrought the ruin of the communities and individuals who have acted out its principles in the past; and if the people of Belfast…practise its degrading dogmas, the moral destiny of the metropolis of Ulster may easily be forecast”. The full details of his address appeared the next week in the newspaper, The Witness, and a pamphlet, which sold 5,000 copies within a month, soon followed.

At the next meeting of the Belfast Presbytery, Rev. William Johnson recalled how through its presidential address and its bigoted rejection of Professor Watts’s peace offering, the British Association had made itself “a party to a one-sided attack on Christianity.” Johnson was determined not to let the matter lie dormant in the minute book, and so he met with several fellow clergy to lay plans for a course of winter lectures on science and religion at Rosemary Street Church. They would gather the lectures together into a book, with an introduction by Johnson himself. Eight Presbyterian theologians and one scientist (David Moore of the Glasnevin Botanical Gardens in Dublin) took part. William Todd Martin, for example, was troubled by the social implications of evolutionary materialism. A Darwinian society would anaesthetize conscience, consign morality to a mere survival strategy, and open the door to all sorts of scary eugenic experiments. Henry Wallace, recalling the hare that Tyndall had started running over testing the effectiveness of prayer back in 1872, repudiated the impulse to reduce prayer to the language of energy. Wallace was unwilling to stand by and allow devotion to be buried under a pile of comparative statistics.


He worked hard to cast Darwinism and Catholicism as twin allies against the inductive truths of science and the revealed truths of scripture.


The winter lecture series on “Science and Revelation” was nothing less than a concerted effort to set the terms in which one had to conduct conversation about evolution in Ulster. And the polemics made it well-nigh impossible for mediating voices to be heard.

But there’s still more to this story. Just over a year before the BA turned up in Belfast, the Catholic serial, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, had also castigated Darwinism, not least for its distasteful moral implications. As for the latest clash in Belfast, the Catholic hierarchy issued a pastoral letter that November in which they repudiated the “blasphemy upon this Catholic nation” that had recently been uttered by the “professors of Materialism…under the name of Science.” To give up ecclesiastical control of education in such circumstances, they insisted, would be blind folly.

The similarity between these evaluations and those of the Presbyterian commentators we have considered is certainly considerable. But Watts didn’t go in for cultivating ecumenical relations. In fact, he worked hard to cast Darwinism and Catholicism as twin allies against the inductive truths of science and the revealed truths of scripture. It thus became possible to conflate as a single object of reproach an old enemy—popery—and a new one—evolution. To Watts these were indeed the enemies of God…and of Ulster. In 1890, poised between Gladstone’s two Home Rule Bills, he denounced the Free Church of Scotland for supporting Gladstone’s Irish policy.

By now, Watts had grown entirely disillusioned with the Edinburgh New College network. As he put it in a letter to one of Princeton Seminary’s faculty: “I dread the influence of the Scotch Theological Halls.” He had in mind figures like Marcus Dods, A.B. Bruce, and, of course, Robertson Smith, whose critical scholarship he found outrageous. Dods, for his part, quipped that Watts was “one of those unhappily constituted men who cannot write unless they are angry.”

In different settings, Presbyterians reacted very differently to the evolutionary proposals emanating from the pen of Charles Darwin and his disciples. In Edinburgh, they embraced the possibilities of evolution in order to mitigate greater fears. In Belfast, they rejected Darwin’s thought with exceptional vehemence. Despite their shared confessional heritage, their reading of Darwin shifted according to the particulars of the settings in which they conducted their rendezvous with evolution.

David N. Livingstone is professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen’s University, Belfast. This piece is an excerpt from his book Dealing With Darwin: Place, Politics and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution, reprinted here with permission from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Image from Flickr via Ghislain Mary


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *