Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/July 1876/Bigotry in Scientific Controversy


MANY edifying commonplaces might doubtless be written on the intellectual fermentation, if it may not rather be called confusion of the age. Nor can it be denied that tendencies supposed to have been long ago slain and sepulchred have risen again, and are asserting themselves with a hardihood which our fathers would have deemed impossible. When we find a scientific work—at any rate: work written by an eminent scientific man, and devoted to the discussion of scientific questions—formally dedicated to a dignitary of the Catholic Church as a vindicator of the rights of conscience (!), we may well ask, not jeeringly but sadly, "What is truth?" We have witnessed of late brilliant progress in various departments of science; but we have also seen attacks made upon the very foundations of science. These onslaughts are increasing in frequency and in boldness. Metaphysicians and ecclesiastics are calling in question the inductive method, impugning the independence of Science, and seeking to reassert over her the authority of "the Church." The battles of the sixteenth century seem about to be repeated. And some, who might claim to be the heirs of Galileo, think it no ignominy to wear the livery of Bellarmin and Caccini.

When we first opened the book which has suggested our present article we fully expected to find an intellectual treat of the highest order: its subject is one on which a most valuable work might well be written, and few living men, indeed, are better qualified to undertake such a task than is Mr. Mivart. Anti-Darwinian polemics we awaited, but such criticism, if conducted on legitimate—that is, on purely scientific—principles, we should be among the first to welcome, well knowing that in any issue Science must be the gainer. Although believing in Evolution, we have never given to the hypothesis commonly known as "Darwinism" more than a qualified and provisional adhesion. While admitting that it has thrown a flood of light over some of the most difficult questions in natural history, and has brought into vital connection a previously incoherent mob of facts, and that it is still a powerful and valuable instrument in the hands of the inquirer, we cannot forget that it has its difficulties. Some of these we have, on former occasions, endeavored to point out. Hence we should cordially recognize any theory which should either supplement the doctrines of "Natural Selection" and "Sexual Selection," or modify them so as to get rid of their drawbacks and shortcomings. Nay, we should be well pleased to find them superseded altogether by a new hypothesis, adapted at once to the phenomena they have explained and the residues and anomalies which they have hitherto left unsolved. Such an hypothesis we thought Mr. Mivart might have produced, or at least have attempted; and the very attempt could scarcely be made, from a legitimate point of view, without leading to valuable results. Never were we more signally disappointed, although in these days the title of a book is often intended to conceal, rather than to reveal, its nature and object. The strange dedication was, in truth, but too ominous of the contents. The work we found was not constructive, but destructive. It consists of a series of attacks upon a number of men who have done good service in different branches of science, such as Darwin, Wallace, Huxley, Tyndall, Galton, Lubbock, Helmholtz, Oscar Schmidt—or who have dealt with methodology, such as Comte, Mill, Spencer, Lewes, etc. The doctrines of natural selection and sexual selection are indeed discussed, and a desperate effort is made to resuscitate the fast-fading notion of a "great gulf" between man and the lower animals. It is a curious fact that in the old natural history man is supposed to hold, in relation to other animals, a place very similar to that assigned by the Lavoisierian chemistry to oxygen in relation to the remaining elements. Unfortunately, in biology, passion, prejudice, and sophistry, play a more important part than they do in chemistry and physics. The discussion is based upon false principles. We all know the passage in which Mr. Wallace specifies the kind of controversy which alone can be recognized: "As his hypothesis is one which claims acceptance solely as explaining and connecting facts which exist in Nature, he expects facts alone to be brought to disprove it."[2] This method of discussion finds here comparatively little favor. Theories are tested by their supposed moral or religious bearings, or by their agreement with the author's a priori views. If we bring facts to prove the existence of reason in animals, we are told that we do not know what reason is; if we find in them evidences of moral life, it is said that we have "not even the faintest conception of what a moral nature is." If we show that they possess language, there follows the ready quirk that we confound emotional language with intellectual. That Mr. Mivart's own views of moral nature and of reason must be correct, no one, of course, is supposed to doubt; nor is the spirit of the argument sounder than its method. The author speaks, not as a judge calmly weighing the arguments on either side, and anxious merely that the truth should be ascertained, but as a passionate and eager prosecuting counsel, or rather as a procureur du roi (king's attorney), skillfully bringing forward every circumstance, every point—actual or inferred, relevant or irrelevant—which may in any wise damage the defendants, and with equal dexterity concealing whatsoever might tell in their favor. Deep personal hatred toward the "Agnostics" and their doctrines—the odium theologicum in its most malignant form—pervades the entire book. Mr. Mivart may doubtless be able to meet Mr. Darwin, Mr. Lewes, Mr. Spencer, or Dr. Huxley, on neutral ground or in private life, on terms of ordinary courtesy; but it is because the man is better and greater than his book. We find here nothing of that fine manly spirit expressed in the old adage, "Plato is my friend, but truth is more my friend." On the contrary, there is one passage in which Mr. Mivart almost seems to apologize for having, on some former occasion, spoken of Mr. Darwin with too much courtesy. For this he has now atoned to an extent almost ludicrous. We should not have felt in the least surprised had we found it proved—of course by strictly metaphysical arguments—that the author of the "Origin of Species" is the veritable transgressor who—

"Filled the butchers' shops with large blue flies,"

or who—

"With foul earthquakes ravaged the Caracas,
And raised the price of sugars and tobaccos."

Suppose, in all sober sadness, an inquirer knowing nothing more of Darwin than what he might learn out of "Lessons from Nature." Would he not go away with the impression that our great English naturalist had done little beyond launching a "puerile hypothesis," and had played a very unimportant—and, if anything, rather injurious—part in the development of biological science? Yet every candid critic must admit that, were the theory of natural selection superseded to-morrow, to Darwin would still belong the merit of effecting in natural history a transformation as signal as that wrought in astronomy by Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler, or in chemistry by Lavoisier; of bestowing upon zoölogy and botany a definite purpose and a direction for research such as before were wanting. His works would still remain a treasury of observations and of suggestions, and the impulse he has given to the science would never die away. In England, Germany, America, naturalists have sprung up as if by magic in obedience to his spell, and Mr. Mivart himself can hardly be excluded from their number.

We need scarcely add that a critic unjust to persons will not be much more trustworthy as regards their discoveries and their doctrines. The evidence in favor of natural selection—and indeed of evolution altogether—is strictly cumulative, and as such, whatever weight it may carry to the patient and dispassionate inquirer, it is peculiarly open to the attacks of an opponent at one skillful and unscrupulous. We do not, of course, mean to accuse Mr. Mivart of deliberate unscrupulousness. We all know the words—in themselves literally reeking with hypocrisy—in which "the Church" pronounced sentence of death on Giordano Bruno: "Ut quam clementissime et citra sanguinis effusionem puniretur" (Let him be punished as leniently as may be, and without shedding blood). Yet even on that occasion we should be reluctant to declare that the judges were sinning against better light and knowledge. Just so here: Mr. Mivart doubtless believes and feels what he says, and considers his own line of criticism fair and honorable. We know that man is an adept in self-delusion, and of all men the metaphysician who has cultivated the art s'égarer avec méthode (of going astray methodically) is most likely to go unconsciously astray.

We come now to a most painful subject, which, indeed, we would gladly pass over were not its consideration absolutely imperative. Mr. Mivart complains that in one particular instance Mr. Darwin departs from his ordinary courtesy to opponents. We are therefore justified in assuming that he regards courtesy to opponents as a duty—at least in others. Bearing in mind this circumstance, we turn to page 144, and read: "It is in one respect a calamity of our time and country that unbelievers, instead of, as in France, honestly avowing their sentiments, disguise them by studious reticence—as Mr. Darwin at first studiously disguised his views as to the bestiality (!) of man, and as the late Mr. Mill silently allowed himself to be represented to the public as a thorough believer in God." Along with this passage we take the remarks on "Mr. Winwood Reade, a friend and ardent disciple of Mr. Darwin," and on the teachings of "our English physical expositors" (pp. 393−395), and then ask whether the author is not, by implication at least, charging Mr. Darwin with atheism? This is the more probable, as we can find no saving clause or limitation guarding against such a construction being put upon these passages. Still, in a charge so grave the accused is entitled to the benefit of the faintest doubt, and Mr. Mivart may therefore claim a verdict of "Not proven." It is time, however, that we came to a full understanding about the foul practice of introducing charges of atheism in scientific controversy. On this subject we beg to offer the following considerations:

1. Charges of "heresy," "infidelity," or "atheism," are beside the question. If a theory in astronomy, in geology, in physics, chemistry, or biology, is in doubt, let it be judged on its own evidence; that is, let it be compared respectively with astronomical, geological, physical, chemical, or biological facts, and, according as it is able or unable to account for and to harmonize such, let it stand or fall. The man who is unable or unwilling to do this convicts himself, from an intellectual point of view, either of impotence or perversity, and should leave controversy to others.

2. Such charges, further, are delusive. Not to speak of the thoroughly-trained scholar, even many of the "half-educated" know that almost every important discovery in science has been denounced by the "parti prêtre" (clerical party) as impious, heretical, and atheistic. A yearly volume of the Quarterly Journal of Science would not contain the abuse uttered by ecclesiastics against the Copernican theory of the solar system, against the doctrine of a plurality of worlds, the Newtonian view of the universe, the nebular hypothesis, the chronology of modern geologists, etc. Yet all these views, and many more which might be mentioned, were found—when passion had cooled and sober judgment had time to decide—perfectly compatible, not with theism merely, but with Christian revelation. What "the Church" has cursed in one generation, she "assimilates" in the next. What educated man, then, after reviewing the past, can dare to set aside modern theories in such a manner?

3. Such charges are, further, distinctly immoral, and even criminal. All civilized countries brand with ignominy the suitor or the advocate who suborns false witnesses, forges or destroys documents, or corrupts judges and juries. But the controversialist who charges his opponent with atheism stands in a precisely similar position. He well knows that, although the public might not admit, totidem verbis (in so many words), that "whatever an atheist advances must be false," or that "every theory once pronounced atheistic must be erroneous," yet it will practically act as if such propositions were established. Hence by making such charges he fraudulently attempts to steal from the public, through an appeal to their passions, a verdict which he has no hope of obtaining from their reason. Knowing and trading on the extreme animosity with which the heretic, the skeptic, and the atheist are—rightly or wrongly—regarded, he seeks to deprive his opponents of a fair hearing by applying to them these dreaded names. A meaner, a more infamous stratagem can scarcely be conceived. Yet more: it is not the man conscious of the goodness of his cause who fights with such weapons. He who knows that his views are in harmony with facts has nothing to gain by foul play; but if he feels inward misgivings concerning the doctrines which he advocates, or doubts at least the possibility of bringing forward valid arguments in their defense, he may readily, if dishonest enough, seek to blacken the character of an opponent.

We may, therefore, safely and fairly conclude that whosoever in scientific controversy introduces accusations of atheism is, if not knowingly and willfully, still decidedly in the wrong. We are consequently fully justified in shutting his book, and giving judgment against him.

But there is another consideration which here forces itself upon our attention. All writings calculated to bring a man into general "ridicule, hatred, or contempt," are by the law declared to be libelous. Now, it is very questionable if, in England, any accusation is so much calculated to bring a man into "hatred and contempt" as a charge of atheism or "materialism," however ill-founded it may be. Surely therefore such charges, whether brought directly or by implication, are libelous, and as such they are more fitted to be dealt with by a criminal court than by reviewers. We should like to see such a case decided, and we believe that the result would be a great improvement in the tone of scientific and semi-scientific controversy.

But even if such accusations should be pronounced not libelous, and if those who resort to them have no legal penalties to dread, there is another tribunal which might interfere. Why should not scientific men, scientific societies, and scientific journals, agree that whosoever in a scientific controversy attempts to get rid of an opponent by raising the cry of atheism should be held to be ipso facto an outlaw, and to be no longer entitled to the treatment of a gentleman and a scholar? Nay, why should not other charges affecting the personal character of an opponent be dealt with in a similar manner? We do not, of course, seek to screen the man who can be proved to have suppressed documents, cooked results, or claimed as his own discoveries those which he well knew belonged to another. We refer to those random charges of dishonesty and mendacity, and those sweeping ascriptions of motive which are unfortunately so common. Thus we have often heard and seen it asserted that the authors of some particular theory were actuated by a desire to disprove the existence of a God, to subvert the Christian religion or some particular form of it, or to injure public morals. To such assertors we would reply: "Prove your charge by evidence, such as would satisfy an impartial court of justice, or take the consequences, which will not be pleasant!" We are here reminded that in the very passage in Mr. Mivart's book (p. 144), in which he comes unpleasantly near charging Mr. Darwin with atheism, he brings forward against the same gentleman something very like an accusation of dishonesty. It is perfectly true that in the "Origin of Species" Mr. Darwin does not pronounce as to whether mankind had or had not been gradually evolved from some lower form of animal life. But reticence is very different from dishonesty. A thinker is not absolutely bound to bring his speculations to light at all; for keeping them back, while he is accumulating and weighing the evidence for and against them, he deserves praise rather than censure. Nay, even for introducing doctrines gradually, as the public are able to bear them, there is certainly authority which Mr. Mivart cannot consistently impugn. Nor must we forget that Mr. Darwin has, from the first, nowise courted publicity for his views. But for the fact that Mr. Wallace was known to be preparing a work of a somewhat similar nature, even the "Origin of Species" might never have seen the light.

There may be persons who will be aggrieved at this expression of our views on the subject of scientific controversies; but if they feel themselves guiltless they may cheerfully exclaim, "Let the galled jade wince." As for those who have actually made the kind of charges we protest against, they have no claim to lenity or forbearance.

Controversies on theories in the various inorganic sciences have been carried on with no little acrimony. But charges of atheism are, at least, banished. Why may not this reform be extended to biology and psychology? Those who cannot treat these subjects from a purely scientific point of view may serve to test the patience of unfortunate reviewers, but they cannot lead us to the truth.—Extract from Article in the Quarterly Journal of Science.

  1. "Lessons from Nature. By St. George Mivart, F. R. S." New York: D. Appleton & Co.
  2. "Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection," p. 13.