Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Charles Kingsley, Creation and Evolution

Charles Kingsley was, at various times, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Tutor to the future King Edward VII, Rector of Eversley, Canon of Westminster Abbey and the author of The Water Babies, Hereward the Wake and Westward Ho!. Of his many books, one that is less familiar is Glaucus that pays homage to the burgeoning interest in marine Natural History during the mid Nineteenth Century. It was published in 1855, having first appeared in the North British Review of November 1854, and the main difference in the two versions is the addition of examples of creatures from fresh waters in the book, presaging The Water Babies

Glaucus contains descriptions of a wide range of algae, invertebrates and vertebrates found around the coast of Southern Britain, the result of collecting trips on the rocky, and sandy, shores of Torbay and from dredging expeditions. Fanny, Charles' wife, spent a period of convalescence at Livermead House in Torquay (see above) and Charles stayed with her for several months in the spring of 1854, spending much of his time on his hobby. His passion for Natural History, and for marine biology, was inspired by reading Philip Henry Gosse's books The Aquarium and A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and there are frequent references to these in Glaucus, often with quotations:

The brilliant plates in Mr Gosse's "Aquarium"...

First and foremost [among works on Natural History], certainly, come Mr Gosse's books

Mr Gosse, his delightful and, happily, well-known books has done more for the study of marine zoology than any other living man.

..Mr Gosse, in his charming "Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast"..

It is clear that Kingsley, nine years younger than Gosse, had great admiration for the knowledge, and communication skills, of the older man. Gosse had previously visited Torquay in 1852 [1], and the time spent there, and in Ilfracombe (Kingsley also moved from Torquay to North Devon), resulted in A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. Kingsley not only eulogised Gosse in Glaucus, he also recommended to anyone that would listen that they should take field courses offered by Henry Gosse at the time, such was his significance. It was to Gosse, in London, that Kingsley sent collections that he had made around Torbay and Henry confirmed his identifications.

The two men became good friends and it was not only marine Natural History that they had in common, as they must have discovered early in their conversations. Both came from families that had earlier hit hard times, both loved poetry and both were devout Christians, Gosse being a member of the Brethren and Kingsley a priest in the Church of England. They shared a strong dislike of Roman Catholicism, and High Anglicanism, and this was expressed openly in their writing (although Kingsley did use the term "Hanoverian rats" for brown rats, a term that he may have borrowed from the staunchly Catholic Charles Waterton). Whereas Henry Gosse was to become the leader of his own small group of Brethren, to whom he preached each Sunday, Kingsley was a country rector and ended as a Canon of Westminster Abbey, with many coming to hear his sermons, despite his tendency to stutter [2]. 

Another contrast between the two men was the lack of any wish to become part of the Establishment shown by Gosse, and the pleasure in recognition at Court shown by Kingsley, that included many invitations to meet Queen Victoria and Prince Albert [2]. They also differed in their formal education, Kingsley being a student at Cambridge University while Gosse was largely self educated, having left school to work as a clerk at 16; then being sent to Newfoundland for similar employment when he was just 17 years old [3]. However, one of his aunts was an enthusiastic Naturalist and showed the young Henry many creatures on the shore around Poole in Dorset, just has she had done her own son, Thomas Bell, who trained as a surgeon and whose interest in marine organisms led to his appointment as Professor of Zoology at King's College London. Bell was an important contact for Henry when he was seeking to publish his first book, based on his experiences of the Natural History of Newfoundland and, in time, Henry Gosse, like Bell, was recognised for his scientific achievements in being made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Gosse and Kingsley reacted differently to developing ideas on geological time scales, and evolution, current in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, culminating in Darwin's On the Origin of Species of 1859. Gosse knew that the presence of fossils and rock strata showed that the Earth had been in existence for many millions of years but, as a literalist who believed in the description of Creation in The Holy Bible, then produced a theory that attempted to resolve the two positions. His book, Omphalos, was published in 1857. Put simply, Gosse theorised that Creation took place as described in Genesis, but that all the strata and fossils were prochronic, or before time, being created with the impression of some previous existence. Clearly the idea is preposterous and it was derided by both the scientific and religious communities. 

Taking time to respond after reading Omphalos, Kingsley wrote to Gosse in 1858 [3], stating:

..Nothing can be fairer than the way in which you state the evidence for the microchronology [this is a reference to the first section of Omphalos in which Gosse sets out the evidence for geological time scales – the macrochronology, not microchronology, as Kingsley states [3]]. That at once bound me to listen respectfully to all you had to say after. And, much as I kicked and winced at first, nothing, I find, can be sounder than your parallels and precedents [where Gosse refers to a wide range of organisms that had just been created]. The one case of the coccus-mother (though every conceivable instance goes to prove your argument) would be enough for me, assuming the act of absolute creation. Assuming that – which I have always assumed, as fully as you – shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt it, and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this – that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes a Deus quidam deceptor. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the pandanus trunk, and your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie..

In the letter, Kingsley shows his support for Creation, but clearly not for the theory put forward in Omphalos for prochronic existence. His opposition hinged on his view that Gosse was proposing an idea that appeared to show that God was deceiving us. Even after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Gosse continued to maintain a literal Creationist stance, as did some other noted figures, like the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre [4]. Kingsley didn't feel the theory of evolution to be a threat to his religious beliefs and he was able to shift his views in the light of changing, and developing, opinion. He was still a Creationist, as is clear in his letter to Gosse, but with a looser view; that all organisms were designed by God and could then become subject to change, also under the control of the Creator. In Glaucus, published in 1855, before both Omphalos (1857) and On the Origin of Species (1859), Kingsley had written:

Let us speak freely a few words on this important matter. Geology has disproved the old popular belief that the universe was brought into being, as it now exists, by a single fiat. We know that the work has been gradual: that the earth "In tracts of fluent heat began, The seeming prey of cyclic storms, The home of seeming random forms, Till, at the last, arose the man." And we know, also, that these forms, seeming random as they are, have appeared according to a law, which, as far as we can judge, has been only the whole one of progress, - lower animals (though we cannot say, the lowest) appearing first, and man, the highest mammal, "the roof and crown of things," one of the latest in the series..

..Let us, therefore, say boldly, that there has been a "progress of species," and there may be again, in the true sense of that term: but say, as boldly, that the Transmutation theory is not one of a progress of species at all, which would be a change in the idea of the species, taking place in the Divine Mind, - in plain words, the creation of a new species. What the Transmutationists really mean, if they would express themselves clearly, or carefully analyze their own notions, is, a physical and actual change, not of species, but of individuals, of already existing living beings, created according to one idea, into other living beings, created according to another idea.

It was thus relatively easy for Kingsley to become a proponent of the ideas set out in On the Origin of Species four years later and his support was appreciated by Darwin. In Fraser's magazine [5], Kingsley wrote:

..if any one shall hint to us that we and the birds may have sprung originally from the same type; that the difference between our intellect and theirs is one of degree, and not of kind, we may believe or doubt: but in either case we shall not be greatly moved. So much the better for the birds, we will say, and none the worse for us. You raise the birds towards us, but you do not lower us towards them. What we are, we are by the grace of God. Our own powers and the burden of them we know full well. It does not lessen their dignity or their beauty in our eyes to hear that the birds of the air partake, even a little, of the same gifts of God as we. Of old said St Guthlac in Crowland, as the swallows sat upon his knee, "He who leads his life according to the will of God, to him the wild deer and wild birds draw more near;" and this new theory of yours may prove St Guthlac right. St Francis, too, he called the birds his brothers. Whether he was correct, either theologically or zoologically, he was plainly free from that fear of being mistaken for an ape, which haunts so many in these modern times..

This view, supporting the similarities between living organisms, and thus the possibility of evolution, also provides opposition to the view, held by many literal Creationists, that everything was created for the benefit of humans. As Lynn Barber points out [6]:

..Kingsley exposed the question of usefulness to man for what it was: a red herring. The existence of so many different species in Nature was, he asserted, inexplicable on any anthropocentric basis.. ..There was no need to prove that everything in Nature was created for man's benefit. There was no scriptural authority for suggesting that it was. Kingsley's explanation was sufficient. God had created everything for His own enjoyment.

Given their opposition, it is difficult to imagine that Kingsley and Gosse could ever meet again on close terms although, as with Kingsley's help given to Henry over his son's application for a position at the British Museum Library, respect was not lost between the two men. Conflicts based on differences of opinion on the writings in Holy Books often seem to occur and the Creation debate certainly caused conflicts for some Christian believers in the Nineteenth Century and the debate continues today. It is difficult to sympathise with Henry Gosse on this issue and the flexible approach of Kingsley fits the evidence much better. Such conflicts are confusing when viewed from the outside and I am grateful that I do not believe in the supernatural.

Omphalos intrigues me and I have posted about the book before [7]. We know that Henry Gosse was challenged, it was the time of the painful fatal illness of his first wife, and he was very conscious that the Second Coming was imminent. Even those reasons cannot explain why he came up with the idea of prochronic existence and then be surprised that others didn't go along with it. Unfortunately, Gosse was unable to move his position because he was constrained by the straitjacket of his own religious beliefs.

[1] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[2] Susan Chitty (1974) The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[3] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: the Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[5] Charles Kingsley (1867) A Charm of Birds. Fraser's magazine for town and country 75: 802-810.

[6] Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870. London, Jonathan Cape.

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