“Octopus amazes scientists for being a very unusual, complex and intelligent creature,” a Christian website cheered a few days ago. While I think we all ought to revel in some octopus love (did you know they have 10,000 more genes than humans? Possess three hearts? Keep most of their neurons in their arms, that is, have smart limbs?), I wouldn’t entirely expect octopus praise to appear on a site featuring religious protest news and “Baptism: Six reasons why it’s just easier to do babies.”

The site’s aim, of course, is to offer proof of intelligent design. The article quotes the creationist think tank Discovery Institute asking, “How could so many unique genes arise by blind neo-Darwinian processes?” Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of the Species in 1859, many have questioned the reconciliation of religious faith with Darwinian evolution. Historical scholarship tends to suggest that 19th-century Christians suffered trauma at the hands of Darwinian evolutionary theory, or rejected it entirely.

David Livingstone is a professor of geography and intellectual history, and he applies those two methodologies to shake up Darwin scholarship in his newest book, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution.

It’s a simple conceit, really: let me show you five different case studies around the world where, in the same religious faith community, responses to Darwinian evolution differed wildly. The cases sit along a spectrum of acquiescence: Scottish Calvinist leaders in Edinburgh and Toronto made fairly obliging deals with Darwinism; leaders in Belfast and Columbia, South Carolina, firmly rejected any reconciliation; those in Princeton straddled the middle.

Livingstone serves up a cast of characters that, while wide-ranging, nevertheless share the same faith tradition (Scottish Calvinism), language (English), social status (educated white men), and time frame (the latter half of the 19th century). And the claim Livingstone repeatedly returns to feels almost too straightforward: different places responded differently to Darwinism.

The approach sounds at first like a statement of the obvious, akin to the claim that On the Origin of the Species influenced Victorian society, or the assertion that the Silk Road encouraged trade, or the thesis of my middle school magnum opus, which went something like, “The reason Epicureanism survived was people.”


Livingstone does all he can to eliminate any variables other than the local context and norms of a particular religious community in determining responses to Darwin.


Needless to say, Livingstone’s strategy far surpasses the logic of a seventh grader. When taken together, the geographical case-study method presents such a varied and clear-cut body of evidence that the conclusion becomes clear: no overarching narrative about evolution and Christianity fits all the data. Even within a single Christian faith, local politics, rhetoric, and context shaped outcomes far more than, say, a Victorian Christian aversion to atheistic Darwinism, or general antagonism between science and religion. Dealing with Darwin innovates by deftly arguing that religious response to Darwinism cannot be generalized and often had more to do with existing societal conflicts and power relations than either science or religion.

So by its premise alone, Dealing with Darwin had me already feeling convinced that reductionism doesn’t cut it when it comes to Darwinism—which, Livingstone quickly clarifies, can be understood as a catch-all for Darwin’s version of natural history and the related accounts that quickly supported and interpreted it. Good news: Livingstone fulfills his promise, not only in terms of thorough global research, but also by replicating his convincing social science methods in miniature within the case studies.

For example, in Belfast, Livingstone does not merely illustrate how John Tyndall’s speech for Darwinism and secular science in 1874 broke norms of civilized discourse in Belfast society and galvanized Free Church leaders to discredit Darwinian evolution aggressively. He also gives examples of Derry and Dublin, other Irish cities where Tyndall had not spoken, where religious leaders accommodated Darwinism in their speeches, and where other factors (such as a desire to distinguish the Free Church from what was seen as oppressive Catholic opposition to science) carried significant weight. Essentially, Livingstone does all he can to eliminate any variables other than the local context and norms of a particular religious community in determining responses to Darwin.

Livingstone applies the compare-and-contrast tactic to great effect in every case study, whether showing that Canada’s scientific community was just as susceptible to the influences of local politics, place, and rhetoric as its Presbyterian scholars in Toronto (the latter being far more ardent supporters of evolutionary thought), or juxtaposing Edinburgh Free Church leaders’ favorable reception of Darwinism with their angry attacks on a different new idea, scriptural criticism.

I should point out another innovation of Dealing with Darwin’s intellectual history project: developing an overarching concept for those all-powerful local contexts and norms. Livingstone calls this concept textual or rhetorical space, which you can think of as a word cloud, rising from the monogrammed letters and yellowed pages of books of the late 19th century in the English-speaking world—a different space for every geographical place. Darwin’s little book (and all the piles of papers that churned up around it) had to enter into an existing written conversation, with its own set of themes, bolded words, and unspoken rules. Hit repeat for every new place where Darwinian evolution got discussed and dissected.


Livingstone often offers examples like this that undermine our current assumptions about evolution and faith, hinting at his larger goal: to strike down the traditional Galileo narrative of religion persecuting science.


In his last case study, Livingstone pulls an Inception-like move and suggests two rhetorical spaces within the single geography of Princeton, New Jersey. Thus, Livingstone argues that not only within one religious community (as in Belfast versus Derry and Dublin), but also within one geographical place, responses to Darwinism drastically differed due to local politics and individual goals.

Perhaps surprisingly to followers of contemporary American Christian responses to evolution (and octopus lovers), many members of the late 19th-century Scottish Calvinist community used Darwinian evolution as a tool to prove intelligent design, rather than using intelligent design as a means to discredit evolution.

Livingstone often offers examples like this that undermine our current assumptions about evolution and faith, hinting at his larger goal: to strike down the traditional Galileo narrative (and Galileo references abound in Dealing with Darwin) of religion persecuting science. The story that Livingstone tells—if one may be so bold as to generalize from a text arguing against generalization—is that religion is not necessarily unenlightened obscurantism seeking to tamp out the unadulterated beacon of science. “Often what looked on the surface like a science-religion fracas, turned out to be about something else,” he writes.[1]

The most stereotypical science-versus-religion case study in the book covers the sacking of Woodrow Wilson’s uncle from Southern Presbyterian Theological Society over his evolutionist views. Livingstone doesn’t do much to counteract James Woodrow’s image as a scientific martyr, even if he does show the roots of the Southern Presbyterian Theological Society’s decision to be deeply local and political. Still, he works hard to illustrate the deep-seated pressures of white confederate cultural identity and North-South geography that prevented the kind of Darwinian deal that was possible in other Presbyterian communities.

At the end of the book, Livingstone gestures at contemporary analysis, pointing out that any questioning of Darwin in the 21st century Western English-speaking world often draws furor. Although he has written a book that illustrates how antagonistic rhetorical spaces can constrain discussion, Livingstone can’t resist making a jab at contemporary advocates of Darwinism: a critique of Darwin’s evolutionary psychology “drew venomous commentary from the ranks of the High Darwinians,” he writes.[2] Livingstone does a less thorough job of highlighting the venom from fundamentalist Christian and other communities, which by his own analytical framework, likely plays a large role in shaping “High Darwinian” rhetoric.

Dealing with Darwin serves as reminder in our own age and milieus not to blame, say, the rise of American Christian opposition to Darwinian evolution on an original war between evolution and faith, between science and religion. That kind of reductionist analysis, which plays out across mainstream America and even sometimes in the scholarship of Darwinism, excuses the actions of some key players.

What Livingstone’s simple (and therefore radical) collection of stories suggests is that we all contribute to the rhetorical space in which an idea like Darwinism is debated. In other words, we all help build the norms, rules, and boundaries of debate in our particular geographies. And whether our words become weapons or somehow manage to harmonize, whether we foster antagonism or concessions, whether we can ultimately deal with one another—the answer rests squarely and perhaps unsettlingly upon our own local predilections and fears.

Julia F. P. Ostmann studies the History of Science at Harvard College, with a focus in Mind/Brain/Behavior and the history of psy-sciences. She is a consciousness enthusiast.


[1] Ibid 198.

[2] Ibid 206.

Image from Flickr via Will Hastings


Leave a Reply

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