- Published: 17 March 2017 17 March 2017
Looking beyond the obvious
Astute readers will sometimes complain that something has been taken out of context, particularly—but not exclusively—in newspapers. It can be the result of a misunderstanding or it can be done to mislead people.
It is not just a modern phenomenon because when researching 19th century reaction to Charles Darwin, a snippet from 1884 is worth considering. It read:
Intellectual evolution of Darwin’s disciples
Darwin’s disciples, in accordance with a very general law of intellectual evolution, have far out-darwined Darwin by accounting without hesitation for all the peculiarities of structure and habit in plants and animals by the inheritance of freely invented ancestral habits.
A dog wags his tail without obtaining thereby any present material benefit; therefore, the development of the wagging muscles and the wagging habits must be the survival of a habit whereby his ancestors obtained some advantage over their rivals in the struggle for existence.
If the explanation only fits the facts the theory is regarded, like the imaginary others and inter-molecular atmospheres of the ultra-physical mathematician, as demanding no direct evidence of its reality.-Gentleman’s Magazine for March.
A couple of things stand out in these musings but need to be understood in the full context of the original article in The Gentleman’s Magazine.
The newspaper only quoted an excerpt from an article written by W.Mathieu Williams who was discussing a two-volume 1839 pre-Darwin book by Henry Lord Brougham called Dissertations on Subjects of Science Connected with Natural Theology.
The full text of his article follows:
TURNING over some of my old books I came upon one that was given to me by a kind friend when I was a good boy.
It is one of the good books of the period, entitled “Dissertations on Subjects of Science connected with Natural Theology,” by Henry Lord Brougham, F.R.S.; in two volumes. (Published in 1839 in connection with the Bridgewater Treatises: “Science diluted with Bridgewater.”)
The student of modem science who is impressed with the deeper reverence that such study inspires may, in spite of the Bridgewater, read Brougham’s dissertations without any shock to his veneration, such as he so continually encounters in the writings and discourses of professional theologians, who patronise their Creator by praising Him for the excellent manner in which He has fitted together the bones of the skeleton, and for His perfect workmanship in the general structure of the Universe ; who kindly take the Deity under their protection, and zealously defend Him against the assaults of His enemies.
The first volume, devoted to the subject of Instinct, supplies much interesting, and I think instructive, reading to present-day students of biological science. Being pro-Darwinian it is, of course, free from the special and blundering polemics of Darwin’s assailants, but, at the same lime, offers, I think, a sound corrective to some of Darwin’s disciples who, in accordance with a very general law of intellectual evolution, have far out-darwined Darwin by accounting without hesitation for all the peculiarities of structure and habit in plants and animals by the inheritance of freely invented ancestral habits.
A dog wags his tail without obtaining thereby any present material benefit; therefore, the development of the wagging muscles and the wagging habits must be the survival of a habit whereby his ancestors obtained some advantage over their rivals in the struggle for existence. If the explanation only fits the facts, the theory is regarded, like the imaginary ethers and inter-molecular atmospheres of the ultra-physical mathematician, as demanding no direct evidence of its reality. As it is just possible to carry these speculations a little too far, Brougham’s dialogues presenting other views of the subject supply some wholesome reading.
When space permits, I will return to some other interesting features of these dissertations, but, in the meantime, I cannot refrain from expressing my conviction that the scientific attainments and scientific work of the great man who wrote them are not sufficiently appreciated at the present time. His more popular reputation as a lawyer, orator, and statesman seems to have so much dazzled his admirers as to render them unable to see his scientific merits. The subjects in the second volume are: “The Origin of Evil,” “The Doctrine of Ubiquity,” “Note upon the Resurrection,” “Note on the Vis Medicatrix,” “Cuvier’s Researches on Fossil Osteology,” “The Labours of Cuvier’s Successors,” and “Popular Abstract of Newton’s Principia.”
Outside of these volumes I may name the many admirable, yet almost forgotten, contributions of Lord Brougham to the “Library of Useful Knowledge” and the “Library of Entertaining Knowledge.” If I am not mistaken, “The Penny Cyclopaedia” and “Penny Magazine” contain several minor products of his versatile pen. All of them are models of literary composition.
Source: W. Mathieu Williams, pp 308-309, The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1884.
However the newspaper intended their readers to understand the published excerpt, when considered in its full context, it is much more interesting and has hard lessons for both pro- and anti-Darwinists.
To me, W. Mathieu Williams took a far more mature journalistic overview of the debate than is the case nowadays.
Henry Lord Brougham’s life is documented on Wikipedia and his scientific and political life was interesting as he was Britain’s Lord Chancellor for several years. He also had a carriage (the horse-drawn type) built to his specification which came to be known as a Brougham.
As an aside, Wikipedia is sometimes a widely inaccurate source of information and great care should be taken when researching, particularly when it involves Darwin and evolutionary concepts. In Lord Brougham’s case, the Wikipedia entry discards his writings as unimportant which is always a red flag because it is dismissive and unhelpful. If you want to know more, dig deeper and always beware of Wikipedia on all things.