Every so often, somebody makes the case that “Darwinism”, “Darwinist” and “Darwinian”, being the generic noun, the individual term, and the adjective of Darwin’s name and therefore (supposedly) theory, are dead terms that cause nothing but harm (see Scott and Branch 2009). Larry Moran has just made this very argument, refusing to be called a “Darwinist” in the face of the fluffy-lapdog-bite challenge of the Intelligent Designists who want to put every one into the white hat/black hat category. We can ignore them here.

Larry’s argument is roughly this: modern evolutionary theory includes a host of ideas that do not rely upon the ubiquity of natural selection. “Darwinism” and cognates is basically a focus upon natural selection (and hence adaptationist views of biology). Ergo, modern evolutionary theory is not “Darwinian” in the main. I would say both of these premises are correct (of course – Larry is a very clever and erudite man), but that the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Scientific theories are not like, to pick a random example out of my hat,* a religious doctrine or philosophical idea, which remains constant and is defined clearly.** A theory is not a body of ideas; it is a research program as Imre Lakatos called it. It is lines of investigation, based on ideas that are continually refined and revised, often without anyone being aware that is what is happening. And it is a formalisation, usually in mathematics and techniques of analysis, of what start out as verbal formulations.

Consider modern physics. It began with some rough and ready ideas of Galileo on how bodies move, together with some mathematical formulations by Kepler of planetary orbits. When Newton came along and gave a general mathematical account of physics in the Principia, physics did not stop there. In fact, Laplace solved some puzzles (why orbits are stable) as much as 90 years later. And of course, Newton’s work, and the cumulative work of all the physicists in between, like Euler, Lagrange, and many others, occurred before Mach and Einstein came up with our present theories.

It would be hard to “define” Newtonian physics, although there would be some constant simple equations. Likewise, when Darwin proposed “my theory” as he called it, there were many elements to it, some of which did not survive Darwin himself for long (his theory of pangenesis, a theory of inheritance, was effectively dead in the water by 1910, 20 years or so after his death). It is clear that natural selection was one of his major theories, along with sexual selection, but the real novelty of his views was common descent, or as he called it, descent with modification. Natural selection was a refined version of ideas of elimination of the unfit that had a century long history before his own book. Darwin’s novelty was to include natural variation in populations, so that variations that happened to confer some advantage to their bearers would come to predominate the population, ratcheting up the fitness of the group overall.

This idea was not formalised until William Castle in the 1900s combined Mendelian inheritance with selection formally. Later, R. A. Fisher published The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930. Almost immediately, Sewall Wright introduced the notion of “genetic drift”, whereby populations would “wander” around the “adaptive landscape” due to what he called “sampling error”, where genes could be represented unequally in subsequent populations because of population size and the statistical vagaries of mating. In the 1960s and 1970s, this was further developed as “neutral theory”, whereby most mutations would be “silent” concerning fitness, and through drift could come to be dominant in a population.

All this is often subsumed under the general umbrella of “population genetics”, which was the main evolutionary research program in the 20th century. It culminated in the theoretical work of many, such as Sergey Gavrilets, showing that based on what we know about genetics, genes can evolve just as Darwin saw in nature.

So let’s ask, what counts as “Darwinism”? Sure, a great many philosophically inclined thinkers, like Dawkins, Mayr and others have treated natural selection as the be-all and end-all of “Darwinism”, but in fact the field has always been wider than that. In the 1980s, this got recast as a battle between followers of Dawkins (and indirectly, John Maynard Smith) and Gould (and indirectly, Richard Lewontin), or between “adaptationists” (Gould’s term) and “contingency theorists” (my term).

The point though, is that this is an internecine debate within evolutionary biology, and even more, that both sides claim to be “Darwinians”. I think that from the outside, it appears that evolutionary biology (which certainly derives from Darwin) is like a religion, in that these schisms and schools are all Darwinian. Just as Christianity has a slew of sects, so too does Darwinian biology. The difference is that in the end, biology is determined by empirical evidence, whereas in religion the battles are won by the use of the sword or gun, or more rarely, persuasion based on rhetorical skill.

We might take a term of religion here: “Darwinism” is a big tent. It can include these “non-Darwinian” or “post-Darwinian” ideas because that is exactly how science proceeds. Just as Newtonian physics came to include ideas very unlike what Newton himself had held, so too has Darwinian biology.

Given that Larry is a constant advocate for processes and ideas other than natural selection in evolutionary biology, he might well be seen as not Darwinian in the manner that the adaptationists (whether they think that only natural selection matters, or simply ignore or run roughshod over other processes) are, but historically, he is well within the Darwinian research program, and I suspect he would agree to this. The broad version of “Darwinism”, not the simplistic version of popular science. Larry is Darwinian.

A large part of the problem lies in the way some (for example, Daniel Dennett) have made natural selection the only thing that matters, in any arena let alone biology. Natural selection certainly does matter, but so too do the other implications of a population genetical approach to biology, drift and neutral evolution. Gavrilets has even shown how populations under strong selection can “drift” in high dimensional fitness landscapes of thousands of genes. All this is coming together in ways nobody had thought possible decades before. “Darwinism” is evolving. I take Larry to be a Darwinist, Darwinian in his ideas, and promoting the broad sense of “Darwinism”.

As to the ID folk, basically they do no science, and think very simply. We should ignore what they say as warmed over creationism (creationism also evolves, in this case into ID).

* Not.

** In fact, neither are religious doctrines or philosophical positions, if you ever actually read any history of these fields. Ideas are protean and, dare I say it, evolve.


Castle, William E. 1903. “The laws of Galton and Mendel and some laws governing race improvement by selection.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 39:233–242.

Castle, William E. 1910. “The effect of selection upon Mendelian characters manifested in one sex only.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 8 (2):185-192.

Castle, William E. 1911. Heredity: In Relation to Evolution and Animal Breeding. New York, London: D. Appleton and Company

Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fisher, Ronald Aylmer. 1930. The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, (rev. ed. Dover, New York, 1958).

Gavrilets, Sergey. 1997. “Evolution and speciation on holey adaptive landscapes.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 12 (8):307-312.

Gavrilets, Sergey. 2004. Fitness landscapes and the origin of species, Monographs in population biology; v. 41. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford, England: Princeton University Press.

Lakatos, Imre. 1970. “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes.” In Criticism and the growth of knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 91-196. London: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, Eugenie C., and Glenn Branch. 2009. “Don’t Call it “Darwinism”.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 2 (1):90-94.

Wright, Sewall. 1931. “Evolution in Mendelian populations.” Genetics 16 (2):97-159.

Wright, Sewall. 1932. “The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in evolution.” In Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics, edited by Donald F. Jones, 356-366. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


Carolus Linnaeus

One of the fundamental aspects of evolution is speciation. This is the process by which more species come into being, and there are many different definitions and mechanisms that have been proposed by biologists in the last couple of centuries. I aim to write an occasional series on what it is supposed to be at various times in the history of biology, as well as the theoretical and, if I get to it, professional aspects.

For there to be speciation, however, there needs to be the possibility of new species. The common view is that this requires a theory of evolution, but in fact, biologists from Linnaeus onwards have posited the generation of new species, even in the absence of anything resembling evolution. For example, during the middle ages, it was commonplace to think new species arose by spontaneous generation (that was the main method that writers about the Ark proposed, along with hybridisation). As I have argued, the notion of “species” itself arose from consideration of the Ark story, as more and more species were reported by travellers and colonisers.

Linnaeus was a creationist, as were nearly all naturalists during the 18th century. He held that varieties within species, and possibly even some species themselves, were but local forms caused by the action of soil, climate and weather. However, he allowed, later in his life, for a kind of speciation by hybridisation. First of all is the famous comment of the species Thalictrum lucidum:

Is the plant sufficiently distinct from T. flavum? It seems to me a daughter of time. [Species plantarum]

What he meant by this is unclear. It is not enough to base a speciation theory on. But he then described four species of Scorpiurus and says

It is beyond all doubt, that all these formerly arose from a single species, and the alteration in the environment is not sufficient for their creation: what commingling has then given rise to the constant plants?

He repeats this about species of GeraniumCalendulaSonchus, and Campanula and the suggestion is they formed by hybridism. As Ramsbottom (1938) from whom I get this, says:

Five varieties of Solanum nigrum appear to be the offspring of hybrids. … he states that the varieties between Fumaria spicata and F. capreolata, judging from their flowers, might be considered as F. oficinalis and queries whether they are hybrids.

Perhaps equally striking is the treatment of varieties in ‘Species Plantarum’ when we bear in mind the definitions repeated two years previously. Far from being merely variations in non-essential characters, they are treated in the same way as species,and as may be seen from some of the quotations already given it is sometimes queried whether what is described as a species is only a variety or vice versa.

Rowbottom doesn’t think Linnaeus has changed his mind from the earlier Philosophica botanica. Instead he thinks this is something Linnaeus had always allowed. Linnaeus’ student Daniel Rudberg in 1744 had discussed the possibility of hybrids forming. And in 1746, another student, Johannes Gustavus Wahlbom, had discussed hybridisation in tulips. He explained it as degeneration: related species were a degradation of the original species, a view Rowbottom ascribes to Aristotle’s student Theophrastus. A modern botanist would assign this to plesiomorphic (underived) developmental systems, which is not so far removed. In  1751, his student Johannes J. Haartman described a hundred species thought to be hybrids on taxonomic grounds. Several other students made similar comments, quoted by Ramsbottom.

Although Linnaeus famously supposed that a genus, Peloria, was the result of hybridism between a flower of Linaria and some unknown plant, which he published in 1744 after Gmelin had responded to a letter from Linnaeus with news that he had found some hybrids too (Gardiner 2001) [1], he finally made his views explicit in a tract, Disquisition on the sex of plants, in 1760, in which he wrote:

There can be no doubt that these are all new species produced by hybrid generation. And hence we learn, that a mule offspring is the exact image of its mother in its medullary substance, internal nature, or fructification, but resembles its father in leaves. This is a foundation upon which naturalists may build much. For it seems probable that many plants, which now appear different species of the same genus, may in the beginning have been but one plant, having arisen merely from hybrid generation. … these Geraniums, I say, would almost induce a botanist to believe, that the species of one genus in vegetables are only so many different plants as there have been different associations with the flowers of one species, and consequently a genus is nothing else than a number of plants sprung from the same mother by different fathers. But whether all these species be the offspring of time; whether, in the beginning of all things, the Creator limited the number of future species, I dare not presume to determine. I am, however, convinced, this mode of multiplying plants does not interfere with the system or general scheme of nature

So Linnaeus held that from an initial plant with a variety of possible forms and parts, hybrids could generate some, but not an open-ended number, of new species. In a tract published two years after this, his student Johannes Mart. Gråberg wrote:

We imagine that the Creator at the actual time of creation made only one single species for each natural order of plants, this species being different in habit and fructification from all the rest. That he made these mutually fertile, whence out of their progeny, fructification having been somewhat changed, Genera of natural classes have arisen as many in number as the different parents, and since this is not carried further, we regard this also as having been done by His Omnipotent hand directly in the beginning; thus all Genera were primeval and consisted of a single Species. That as many Genera having arisen as there were individuals in the beginning, these plants in course of time become fertilized by others of different sort and thus arose Species until so many were produced as now exist. … That also some Genera multiplied into very numerous Species…. That these Species were sometimes fertilized out of congeners, that is other Species of the same Genus, whence have arisen Varieties.

Todays genera are the original creations of God. Ramsbottom says

The same theory of progress from simple to compound, from few to many (e simplice progressus ad composita; e paucis ad plura!) was repeated in the sixth edition of ‘Genera Plantarum’, 1764.

Linnaeus fixism was widely adopted, although it was in part based upon an artificial system, by Linnaeus’ own admission. He wanted a natural system – one that explained the underlying causal relationships between plants – but never was able to produce it. As late as 1830, John Lindley was calling Linnaeus’ system “natural”, remarking

Nature herself, who creates species only (Lindley 1830, xvi).

The genera were God’s creation here, too. Linnaeus’ ideas that species were generated was a commonplace. His ideas of the diversification of species by hybridism, however, while it was not used as the foundation for much research, became part of the botanist’s mental toolkit. This is not surprising, though, as naturalists had used hybridism as an explanation of new and deviant species since Aristotle had written about it for animals in the Historia Animalium, and Theophrastus in his Enquiry into plants. Later, hybridism was the foundation of Mendel’s researches, to which we shall return.


Gardiner, Brian G. 2001. “Linneaus’ species concept and his views on evolution.” The Linnean 17 (1):24–36.

Lindley, John. 1830. An introduction to the natural system of botany: or, A systematic view of the organisation, natural affinities, and geographical distribution, of the whole vegetable kingdom: together with the uses of the most important species in medicine, the arts, and rural or domestic economy. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.

Ramsbottom, John. 1938. “Linnaeus and the species concept.” Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London 150 (192-220)


1. It was not. It is an epigenetic mutation, neither concept of which was available to Linnaeus.

As I do some research on the history of speciation theories, I came across this, which is perhaps the original coining of the term:

Evolution is a process of organic change and development, universal and continuous, and due to causes resident in species. Speciation, to give the other process a name, is the origination or multiplication of species by subdivision, usually, if not always, as a result of environmental incidents. Speciation is thus an occasional phenomenon which does not cause evolution, and is not caused by evolution. One procession of organisms may be divided into two, but it does not appear that the new groups will travel in any different manner than before, nor that they will go any faster or any farther than if they had not been separated. The subdivision enables the two parts to follow different roads and to arrive at different destinations, but it does not assist the evolutionary locomotion nor give us any clue as to how it is accomplished. The evolutionary interest of isolation is that each case affords additional evidence of continuous, progressive change as the normal evolutionary condition of all groups of interbreeding organisms. The isolation of a new group is an interesting biological event, a crisis, as it were, in speciation, but it gives us no special opportunities of studying the causes of evolution. [Cook 1906:506]

By 1939, a Society for the Study of Speciation had been set up, although it lasted only a few years (Cain 2000). The 35 years following Cook’s paper were a frenzy of studies, theories and arguments.

Cain, Joe. 2000. “Towards a ‘Greater Degree of Integration’: The Society for the Study of Speciation, 1939-41.” The British Journal for the History of Science 33 (1):85-108.

Cook, O. F. 1906. “Factors of Species-Formation.” Science 23 (587):506-507.

2014 03 16 13 26 55

Outside the State Parliament in Spring Street Melbourne.

I attended the March in March protest against the current government of Australia yesterday. My legs still hurt. I’m sure that demonstrations were not so arduous thirty years ago.

I noticed that this was a privative demonstration. It was not about something so much as against something, and the something it was against varied by protestor. Some did the standard anti-government protests of thirty years ago – I’m looking at you, Socialist Alliance – but the range of signs was rather disconcerting. Some were against adoption, some against laws restricting abortion. Some held that the problem was the man Tony Abbott, our very conservative prime minister. Others that all political parties were the problem. One even attacked democracy, making full use of their democratic rights, such as they still are. A lot of people compared Tony Abbott and his ministers to Nazis.

There were the usual suspects, of course, but there were also many people who looked out of place, chanting and raising their fists. Elderly people, suburban people and people with kids and dogs. While I would not go so far as to say this was a sign of general disenchantment in Australia society, it clearly indicated a level of disenchantment that is, in my view unsustainable in a democratic society.

These particular protests, held around Australia and ignored of course by the mass media, were a sign of something, but what? And what is the solution?

Had I been asked by the absent media why I was marching (well, hobbling, really. Next time I take a walking stick), my answer would have been this: For thirty years we have been carefully crafting a fascist state, only without the overt symbols of the 1920s. Not a Nazi state, but definitely a fascist state. It all began, in my view, when we made The Economy the single most important aspect of our social fabric, under the neoliberal agenda adopted by the notional progressive, Paul Keating.

This statistical abstraction became more important than our environmental well being, than the rights of individuals, than the democratic order itself, so that now we think, in a country which had a welfare system that worked well and a health system that was the envy of the world, that the well being of financial institutions and companies, and of mining interests, is so important we will take away support for those who cannot find work in an internationalised labor market. We will take away health care in favour of a mixture of health insurance for the rich and the long waiting lists for the poor.

In 2012, I tore a ligament in my leg that connects the quadriceps muscle to the patella. As a result, my quadriceps cramped up in a knot in my upper leg. I was unemployed and had no health insurance. It too six months to get a doctor to examine me, because the emergency doctor, without examining me, wrongly diagnosed an anterior curate ligament tear. No doctor would even look at my leg while I was in excruciating pain and walking around at home on my backside because I couldn’t navigate the steps there.

I was put on a waiting list for “elective surgery” despite my constant complaints and requests. I was dropped from that list because, it appears, one way to trim the waiting lists is to see if people complain. Eventuallly, in the operating theatre where I was scheduled for an arthroscopy, the surgeon took one look at my leg and saw that it was not an elective nuisance, but a serious and urgent survey, and he did it then. Bless him.

My point is that this only happened because of the deliberate bastardry of the neoliberal view of government, with its user-pays principle, and deliberate defunding of the system to below a sustainable level (and then you claim that the system as broken is unsustainable, and defund it some more). Likewise, welfare support, not just for the young, nor for the unemployed, but for single mothers, the elderly and the disabled, has been deliberately dropped below a liveable amount. You simply cannot live on what the government provides you when you are most vulnerable.

And if you have mental health issues, then the system is designed to drive you away, with five hour waiting queues in the Centrelink offices, repetitive annoying “public service announcements” you cannot turn off, and a general level of low level nastiness from many staff, who treat welfare recipients as probably criminals. The system is designed to make you wait five hours each time, send you away with bad information, like that you must log online, except that you cannot because you first have to see someone to do X, where X is something nobody had mentioned, online or off.

I know one young person who has literally no money for food. She will not get any payments until she goes to an appointment they have set two months after she first applied for benefits. She spent six months before that living on her own money as she did not want to be a burden on the state. When she asked how she could live, they gave her a list of churches that hand out food. When I asked the same question last year, when it looked like I would lose my home, I was told to contact mens’ halfway houses; when I did they were all full. I got to the point where I was physically looking at bridges to live under, as I would have had to sell my car (my only possession after forty years of work).

This is not a civil society, and it has been deliberately engineered. The old commonwealth of Australia has become a plutocracy of Australia, where a decreasing percentage of the nation is able to access the resources needed to live, let alone live well. And the only beneficiaries are the already-wealthy; those who run and own financial institutions and property. Follow the money, and you will see who Australia is now run on behalf of.

The issue of refugees is another one of the hot button topics at the rally. Once upon a time, Australia was a country where genuine refugees could make a new life; much of the country was constructed by them. In 1992, a supposedly progressive minister in Keating’s Labor government, Gerry Hand, instituted “mandatory detention” for refugees who had arrived in the country. In effect, not a quarantine (which would have made sense) nor a processing of credentials, but punishment for those who managed to make it here. When PM John Howard said in 2001 that “we” decided who came here, the racism was unleashed and uncontrolled. Nearly all “debate” in the media and political forums about refugees is a racist dog whistle and appeal to fear of the others. We have institutionalised racism. That a few score thousand people around the nation still care enough to protest that is a sign that we still have some common decency left in Australia.

Now, let me sum up what the protests were against:

  • The predominance of The Economy
  • The beneficiaries are corporations and the rich
  • A nationalistic racism
  • The valuing of the State over the citizenry
  • A failure of care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unfortunate

If that doesn’t look like fascism to you, then you do not know much history.

Back in the supposedly radical 70s I used to ignore or mock those who said we were heading into a fascist society, and at that time I do not think we were, but the radicals scared a lot of people, worldwide, and vested interests began to fund opposing movements. These ranged from the obvious (tobacco public relations) to the subtle (founding of “think tanks” that legitimised points of view). But notice that this kind of fascism is bi-partisan. Both sides adopt the same strategies. Much of the damage to the common weal was done by the Labor party. Once done, the conservatives built upon it, because the convention that government has a duty of care had been disrupted by the “progressives”.

And this is why most Australians are fed up with the present political alternatives. They know, either intuitively or explicitly, that a choice between two corporatist quasi fascist parties that merely serve different forms of corporate interests (unions, big business, financial institutions, the military*) is not a democratic choice. That is why that group wanted to “fuck democracy” – only they did not see that what they rejected wasn’t even close to democracy. It was careful management of the populace. It is fascism.

Political parties are clearly not the solution, but it is not clear what is. We cannot disrupt the political constitution of the country any further, because further disruption since the conventions that made it work were destroyed will only have even worse effects. We cannot therefore expect that violent revolution, even if it were something Australians would engage in, will resolve this. Nor can we “work from within” because the system that exists in practice now is self-sustaining, and merely ramps up the expectations to the pout that genuine reformers will not survive from long “within”.

And we cannot “opt-out”; in order to even have money these days, you must have a bank account, and that means you have “opted in” to the financial system, the oppressive degree of licenses and qualifications and identification that fifty years ago would have been seen as what we had fought against in the second world war.

So what? All I can think of, and I have a poor imagination for these things, is civil noncompliance, the kind that Saul Alinsky pioneered.

Go to the voting booths, but return blank votes. Do as little of what you are asked as possible; fill out the forms to the minimum, make the services offered to you do as much work as you can force them to. Show no enthusiasm for anything except what you value. Drown “the system” in apathy. But do not let it be taken advantage of. If they start relying upon apathy, become activists. Make the system, or rather those who the system now benefits, take the back foot. Insist upon all your rights, as a worker, as a citizen, as a parent or partner. Set things up so that the best solution for those in control is to give us what we should have in a decent society.

And then take away their power to give us rights. We should have rights because the entire society assigns them, not because the rich and powerful give in or make them available at their whim. If most Australians want equality of marriage laws, and they surely do, there is no justification for the political parties, the churches that represent less than a quarter of the population or the media that is run by people who dislike homosexuality, to withhold it from us. If they can to this sort of bastardry to one group of Australians, they can do it to everybody, and the evidence is they will.

As Aldous Huxley said

All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings. [“Pacifism and Philosophy” (1936)]

The word “war” is no longer necessary. Here is a longer quote from Huxley, in 1958, shortly before Eisenhower wanted against the “military industrial complex” we now see as reality about us in every western and developed nation:

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
… In “Brave New World” non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in their calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those would manipulate and control it.” [p43]


This Power Elite directly employs several millions of the country´s working force in its factories, offices and stores, controls many millions more by lending them the money to buy its products, and, through its ownership of the media of mass communication, influences the thoughts, the feelings and the actions of virtually everybody. To parody the words of W. Churchill, never have so many been manipulated so much by few. [p26]
[Brave New World Revisited]

The first novel I ever read was Brave New World, when I was eight. I did not expect that we would ignore these warnings and enthusiastically set up the dystopias described in this and similar books. I was wrong.

*Australia is building up its military at a time when we face no threats. Why?

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

Some religions have no real view of history, while others hold to some kind of eternal cycle, but the western religions have a narrative with a beginning middle and end. And in the best known version of this – Christianity, what else? – history is given as a very short amount of time. And it is directional (does not cycle). And it is soteriological, which is a technical term to indicate that for Christians, history was all about salvation after a fall from grace.

Geology is perhaps more than any other science the most Christian of sciences. It was developed by Christians, and in particular by clergy, to begin with, as I have discussed before. And the growing interest in the amount of time the earth had existed since it was created led to more and more precise, and eventually even accurate, estimates of the age of the earth, and then the universe.

The first attempts to give numbers to the age of the earth began in the time of the Reformation, when the Bible was being promoted as the source of all knowledge by the Reformers. It had to do with the Ark. And ironically, it was not a protestant who started the trend. It was, instead, a Catholic Abbot, Jean Borrel (1492–c1564), better known under his Latin name, Johannes Buteo. Buteo was a polymath of some repute, and among his many mathematical and logical writings (he criticised attempts to square the circle, for example) he wrote a logistical tract about the size, dimensions and practicalities of Noah’s Ark, De Arca Noë in 1554.

Recall that the period of the Reformation came off the back of the first great exploratory and colonial period of Europe after the Crusades, and a great many new species were being found. This meant that if Noah’s Ark was to be thought of as a real historical event, then some calculations had to be done to accommodate these new species. Mostly it was done by way of lumping similar things into one genus and declaring that a genus was formed out of local varieties from a single species created by God due to climatic and geographic adaptation.

This then raised another problem, noticed by people since the earliest times, of the bones and shells of organisms that were no longer found. Dragons and cyclops were imagined from the skulls of dinosaurs and extinct megafauna, like mammoths (Mayor 2001). But the idea that there might be extinction was seriously a problem for theology, which held that God created the world perfect in all detail, and that must include all species that he wanted to exist would exist. Moreover, since God superintended nature, nothing could go extinct, which is why the proven extinction of the dodo in the late sixteenth century came as such a shock.

Buteo’s tract came to the attention of one of the more prolific of polymaths of all time: Father Athanasius Kircher (c1601–1680). Taking Buteo’s calculations as a starting point, he computed how big the Ark’s stalls and storage had to be for a set number of species (c310 quadrupeds and several score bird species, plus lizards and snakes), with all the rest forming by hybridisation after the Flood (Allen 1949; Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006)

So it became rather critical to work out how long it had been since the Flood, in order to work out how rapidly modern kinds (Latin: species) had formed from the original stock. And while you were at it, why not calculate the age of the earth too? Neither Buteo nor Kircher, so far as I know, did this, but of course, many did, including Newton and Joseph Justus Scaliger, and one of the more famous or infamous was Bishop Ussher (1581–1656), a Calvinist prelate in the Church of Ireland. He computed, using known historical dates (or what was thought to be known) from the classical world, and biblical narratives and ages of the patriarchs, that the world came into being on 23 October 4004 BC. It is not true that he gave the time of day as 9am (see Wyse Jackson 2006 for the story).

According to my Pearl Teacher’s edition of the King James Bible, Ussher put the flood in BC 2349, which meant that the living kinds on the Ark had diversified rapidly from a few hundred basic kinds to a massive number of kinds today, in just 4,000 years or so. So much for a static creationism.

But interest in the age of the earth had been piqued, and nearly all those who engaged in the study of it until the nineteenth century were clergy, largely because they were the ones with the time and resources to engage in field work. One character of great interest is Danish bishop Nicholas Steno (1638–1686). Steno was born a Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism at the age of 37, after which he focussed mainly on theological matters, but prior to that he had a real interest in natural history. He worked in anatomy, palaeontology, and crystallography, but he is chiefly remembered for his geological principles, called the laws of stratigraphy. The law of superposition that when formed the material that form rocks was fluid, and overlay older rocks; the principle of original horizontality that since it was fluid, it formed as horizontal layers, and so strata that were not horizontal had been moved in some way; and the principle of crosscutting strata: that if a stratum (a layer of rock) cut through another stratum, it must be younger than the stratum it cuts (Cutler 2003).

Steno’s principles, be it noted, were secular: they relied upon no biblical interpretation, and could be applied by any natural historian no matter their religion. They laid the foundation for subsequent geology, so to speak. But the age of the earth was as yet not given any absolute date – all Steno’s laws were relative rather than absolute. They might tell you which stratum formed before which, but not when, nor how long it took to do so.

With these rather clear principles, geology was slowly invented as a science, alongside palaeontology, which was seen as a part of geology for a long time. In the eighteenth century, however, something began to happen which challenged Ussherian chronologies of the Bible. They discovered the depth of the age of the earth. So far from being a very young planet and universe, it now looked like it was much older; perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands of years old.

Now as these views sprang up in the scientific community, religious believers had to adapt as best they could. They had three alternatives: one was to deny that the Bible actually made any scientific claims; one was to deny that science actually showed the earth was old; and the third was to try to reconcile the scripture with the science. All three were, and are, tried. As noted in the introduction, as late as 1851, Ruskin was finding the results of geology to be a hurdle to his faith. But this is after the seminal event that led geologists to an old earth: the visit to Siccar Point in Scotland by James Hutton, with his friends James Hall and John Playfair, in 1788. Here, and at other places, Hutton saw what came to be known as “Hutton’s unconformity”, where sedimentary rock layers (strata) were tilted, deformed, and lay in distinct and separate formations to the layers they abutted (that is, they did not conform to each other).

Hutton noted that there were at least three events of deposition, which is to say, the laying down of strata in a watery medium. First the lowest layer had to be formed, and then raised, and tilted. Then there had to be a period of erosion, and that formation had to sink below the sea. Then, a new formation of strata, also then raised above the sea, tilted again, and then eroded. This had to take a very long time, leading Hutton to declare that the rocks provided “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Deep time had been uncovered. So long as you applied Steno’s principles, this was the only conclusion to draw. We were talking many hundreds of thousands of years.

Hutton was not a member of the clergy, but a medical doctor who took over his father’s farm and became interested in rocks and weather. He eventually was accepted into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but held no academic position. He thought that the processes that formed rocks in the past were the same as those now in operation: deposition of sediments, erosion, and compression of sediments into rock. This view was later called uniformitarianism, and popularised by Charles Lyell in the 1830s and afterwards.

In the period leading up to Hutton’s publication, others had based their geology upon the Bible. Thomas Burnet (c1635–1710) had calculated that there was not enough water for the flood unless the earth had almost no mountains or valleys, and in his Sacred Theory of the Earth (Telluris Theoria Sacra, 1681, Eng. 1684) he offered a purely law-driven account of natural phenomena. When Newton, who admired Burnet’s work, suggested that God had changed the length of the day, Burnet rejected it for not being scientific enough an explanation.

About the same time, there were attempts by physicists, or as they were then called, natural philosophers, to estimate the age of the earth. One of the first was done by Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, known as Buffon to friends and foe alike. A wealthy member of the aristocracy, Buffon determined to find out how old the earth was, based on the theory of Newton’s that the earth was slowly cooling, and he set out to cast iron spheres from a half inch to five inches, and record how long it took them to cool down from the molten state. Scaling this up to the earth, he estimated that the earth was no less than 75 thousand years old. Buffon got some criticism from the theologians at the Sorbonne, however. First, in 1749 he suggested that the earth was caused when a comet hit the sun and threw off the material that then coalesced into a sphere and cooled. In later volumes of his series Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), he apologised for this to the theologians, but when he published his results on the cooling of the earth in 1778 they again attacked him for impiety (or at any rate, some did; others defended him). However, this time the influence of the faculty of theology on public opinion was almost inconsequential, and it had no effect upon Buffon’s popularity with either the general populace or the the intellectuals, and his books sold for another century.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, geology became a profession, although many of the early professionals were men who had degrees in other fields, such as Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873), William Buckland (1784–1856) and Charles Lyell (1795–1875). Sedgwick was trained in mathematics and theology, and became a fellow of Trinity at Cambridge, where he was appointed as professor of geology in 1818. Buckland was a theologian who became dean of Westminster. In 1822, he entered Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire where he found a cave with fossil remains of a hyena den, which he interpreted as antediluvian (prior to the flood). He held the idea that prior to the creation of humans, there were long epochs of previous fauna. And Lyell, who is famous for his influence upon Darwin, is also known for establishing as official methodology that geology rests upon the presumption that as it was in the past so it is in the present, and we can infer the past from the way things occur now, called “uniformitarianism” by his contemporary Whewell. He was trained as a lawyer. Darwin was told by his mentor Henslow to read Lyell but “on no account accept the views therein advocated”.

By the end of the nineteenth century, geologists were professionals, with geology degrees and industry support from mining. And the age of the earth had risen, somewhat. Several developments had occurred. One was that the epochs or eras had been named and mapped, and using Steno’s rules, given relative ages: the Silurian was older than the Devonian, and the Cambrian older than both. It had also been discovered that the fossils that are found in one epoch were the same ones around the world (especially shellfish and trilobites for older epochs), and so the presence of these fossils was an index marker of the age of a rock bed.

The other development occurred in physics. A theoretical model known as “thermodynamics” had been worked out in the context of the steam age, and such ideas as latent heat, radiation of heat, and so on were being quantified. This led to the British physicist, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) estimating that had the earth been cooling at the rate it was seen to today, the earth was between 20 and 400 million years old, later refined to between 20 and 40 million years old, the upper bound being set by the age of the sun being heated from gravitational collapse. However, in 1903, radioactive decay was discovered, and in 1930, nuclear fusion in the sun and other stars greatly increased the ages of the stars, the sun, and therefore the earth.

Thompson was very religious, and may have worked on this to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution, which seemed to required much longer than even 40 million years, and we’ll get back to that, but his method was quite secular. Even Darwin’s own son, George, worked under Thompson on these calculations. Thompson was a devout Presbyterian until the end of his life, but he did his science in a secular manner, no matter what his motivations.

Now the history of geology shows most clearly the complex nature of the relationship between religion and science. It shows that this science more than most is in conflict with some cherished theological ideas about the world, which although not derived from science were scientific ideas in the end. And as scientific ideas, they conflicted and dismissed the religious ideas. But that is not the end of it. Each time the religious ideas were challenged by religious people, more often than not themselves members of the clergy. However, that is not enough to support the idea that religion is a benefit to science, since clergy were often the only ones before the professionalisation of scientific disciplines like geology who had the time and resources to undertake them.

But one thing does stand out: the secular nature of the methodology and explanations from Steno to Kelvin. The use of these methods and the aiming for these goals in no way relied upon prior religious commitments. It may be that religious thinkers were motivated one way or the other based upon their doctrinal commitments, but in the end they applied these methods without regard for religious sensitivities, whether they were orthodox like Lyell, or heterodox like Newton, or borderline atheists like Buffon.

So despite Ruskin’s lament, we can safely say that there is little evidence of religion impeding or retarding geology. Next we will look at geology’s child, biology, and in particular evolution.


Allen, D. C. (1949). The Legend of Noah. Renaissance rationalism in art, science and letters. Urbana, University of Illinois.

Breidbach, O. and M. T. Ghiselin (2006). “Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) on Noah’s Ark: Baroque “Intelligent Design” Theory.” Proceedings of the California Academy of Science 57(36): 991-1002.

Cutler, A. (2003). The seashell on the mountaintop: A story of science, sainthood, and the humble genius who discovered a new history of the earth. London, Heinemann.

Mayor, A. (2001). The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Wyse Jackson, P. (2006). The chronologers’ quest: episodes in the search for the age of the earth. Cambridge, UK; New York, Cambridge University Press.

If science and religion do conflict, what are the points of conflict that have occurred? These tend to have arisen in historical contexts as the science evolved. I shall consider five sciences and how religion has responded to them: astronomy, or cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology and biology in general, medicine, and psychology. There are many other fields in which sciences have made claims that some religious traditions have found objectionable, though, so this is not an exhaustive list by any means.

For example, many human sciences have caused religious objections, such as archeology (especially archeology that deals with the Ancient Near East, but also archeological work done on Indian and American pasts, which Hindus and Mormons have found contrary to their sacred texts), history (which is arguably a science) and sociology (which often applies theoretical explanations to religious institutions that contradict the narratives of the religions themselves). However, the human sciences tend to involve both proponents and critics of theoretical views giving differing interpretations of events and even of the gathering of data, so in the interests of clarity, we will leave these aside.

Astronomy and religion

Once upon a time, as the fairytales begin, we believed that the world was flat, and then along came the scientists who showed that it was round. Religion, especially in the Bible, told us the world was flat, and sometime around the beginnings of modern science we learned that religion was wrong. Or so the fairytale goes. But it is, actually, a fairytale.

There is no doubt that ancient near eastern traditions of around 1000 BCE casually described the world as flat, and that these expressions found their way into the biblical sources. But in cosmopolitan societies, this was not what the educated thought. The world was known to be round by the Greeks, one of whom even calculated the circumference to a high degree of accuracy. Through Aristotle, the Arabs and the Europeans knew of the sphericity of the earth, and no sensible religious authority challenged this, apart from Lactantius (tutor to Constantine’s children) around the fourth century CE, Bishop Isidore of Seville, in the late sixth and early seventh century, and Indicopleustes, a monk in the seventh century, and they had little to no influence on later thinkers.

The really influential thinkers were the sphericists, as we might call them. Following Eudoxus, a student of Plato’s, another of Plato’s intellectual progeny, Aristotle wrote of a “two sphere” universe: where the earth was placed in the centre of a space enclosed by the outer sphere that the stars were placed upon. A second century Greek writer in Egypt, Ptolemy, developed a complicated model (a mathematical one, used for calculating the positions of the planets, sun and moon in the sky) which reign supreme in the western world until the sixteenth century, when it was challenged by Copernicus.

Although Aristotle’s model and Ptolemy’s were inconsistent, throughout this period few made much of the lack of consistency between it and Aristotle’s “four element” theory of physics – fire and air, which naturally moved up, and earth and water which naturally moved down, relative to the centre of the universe. The heavens were made of different stuff, which came to be known as the quintessence (fifth element, sometimes called the aither or ether), which was eternal and unchanging, and tended to move in the only motion which could be eternal and unchanging, in circles.

Ptolemy suggested that instead of circular motion around the centre of the universe, as Aristotle required, there had to be circles moving in circles in the heavens. He needed these to explain why planets moved the way they did (which we now know to be caused by irregular elliptical orbits). Ptolemy’s mathematics was widely accepted even as Aristotle’s physics were also, even though the two were not entirely compatible. Ptolemy was treated as a “computational technique” rather than a physical explanation, right up until the beginnings of the renaissance.

Aristotle’s physics was, for its time, relatively well elaborated and made sense of observational data. Its fourfold structure was extended to medicine (the four humours), to alchemy, and to conceptual schemes for recording and recalling information. It became, as it were, the groundwork on which all other science was done.

However, in the twelfth century, some thinkers (theologians like Oresme and Occam) started to challenge Aristotle’s physics. According to Aristotle, nothing moved except in “natural” ways (up and down) unless it was forced to by something acting on it. This raised the problem of the arrow. Arrows move up and down, and horizontally (in what was called “rectilinear motion”). According to Aristotle’s physics, to move up when they should move down, and to move horizontally, there had to be a moving force, and there was none. Aristotle explained this by the air moving behind the arrow to fill up the space left (because vacuums are impossible, according to Aristotle) imparted a force that kept it moving.

This was rather a forced explanation, and few were happy with it. Oresme and Occam (who is famous for his Razor) noted that barges would continue to move in water after being pushed, and came up with the idea of a conserved force they called “impetus” instead. Here is a case of religion and science in conflict. As theologians, Oresme and Occam (and other theologians of the time) felt it was their duty to revise and correct ideas about the natural world, especially those that came from pagan sources. And yet, their correction was more correct than Aristotle’s ideas were; in short, they advanced science.

Later, another theologian and priest, Nicholas Copernicus, proposed the idea that the earth revolved (in our terms, orbited; “rotation” applies to the earth’s daily rotation around the polar axis, while “revolution” applies to the movement of one heavenly body around another) around the sun (heliocentrism). Again, this is a case of a theological conflict with the science. Philosophically, Copernicus was somewhat influenced by neo-Platonic ideas in which physical things reflected a transcendental order, and the sun, being the source of light, must therefore represent the light of knowledge (Kuhn 1959). It is unclear how influenced Copernicus was (Rosen 1983), but that there was some influence is, I think, likely.

So we come to Galileo. The idea of a sun-centred universe is often called, following Kuhn, the “Copernican Revolution” (this being a historian’s double entendre), but as revolutions go, it was as slow as that of Saturn. Copernicus published in 1543, and Galileo in 1632, and by his death in 1642, 99 years after Copernicus’ own death, many but not all astronomers had adopted heliocentrism. Political revolutions that take so long are called reform movements; I suggest we should think that this is also a reform movement in astronomy.

As I noted, Galileo’s error lay in not realising that the usual Catholic theological tradition of reinterpreting scripture to cope with science was something he could not employ. Instead he had to get the Church to employ that. He made the mistake of telling theologians how to interpret scripture. Let me make one thing clear, though; he was not censured because he said the earth went around the sun. He was censured because he taught that the Church was wrong about how to read scripture, at a time when that was the bone of contention between the Church and the Protestants. In short, Galileo fell afoul of internal Church politics in a theological dispute about what the magisterium of the Church was.

However, the heliocentric theory was widely adopted and extended in Catholic as well as Protestant countries, and within another century had taken over, with little to no criticism by the Church.* However, some bemoaned the loss of the old certainties, such as John Donne in his poem “An Anatomy of the World” in 1611:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation; [lines 205-214]

All coherence was gone now, with this new science (“philosophy”) that dissected phenomena. This has more to do with the aesthetics of intellectual systems than religion as such. In any case, the conflict between religion (the Church) and science (astronomers) was not greatly effective in halting science here, nor would a lack of opposition made much difference in the advancement of heliocentrism, in my opinion.

Newton, another well-known religious enthusiast, although he was a unitarian or Arian rather than an orthodox Trinitarian, cemented the heliocentric theory – and extended it way beyond what either Copernicus or Galileo might have expected – and established a new physics that would completely replace the old four-elements two-sphere universe of Aristotle. Coherence was achieved again. But notice that it was achieved in 1687, a full 144 years after Copernicus’s death and publication. In each step, and I have left out a good many which can be found in such histories as Koestler’s (1964) or Toulmin and Goodfield’s (1962), religion was not always or even often a scientific inhibitor or barrier.

In subsequent developments, Napoleon famously asked his old teacher, Laplace, where God was in his book on astronomy, to which Laplace famously replied “I have no need of that hypothesis, sire”. The context changes it slightly from the usual interpretation, however. Newton could not explain why the solar system was stable, and he imposed God’s action, possibly via angels, to make sure the system did not collapse over time. Napoleon, who had studied physics and astronomy with Pierre Laplace, knew this, and when Laplace worked out that such a system could be stable without intervention, he dropped God’s intervention. It was this that Napoleon picked up on. Laplace was not rejecting God, so much as pointing out that God was a hypothesis of last resort.

In each of these episodes we see that the issue is not really religion against science, but either religion against other religion or old science against new science. Religions, unlike sciences, however, have a strong conservative aspect, and so once a view has been given a red light by a religious tradition, it can take a very long time for the religion to adapt to the new science it once objected to.

The religious views of the scientists involved do not seem to have had much if any real impact on the science itself. Newton did not present an Arian view of the solar system; Galileo did not contrast his religious beliefs with Protestant astronomy. In fact, quite the opposite: religious differences played almost no role in these debates unless they were religious issues being debated. Science, it seems, has always been secular even in the most contentious periods of religion in the west.


Koestler, A. (1964). The sleepwalkers: a history of man’s changing vision of the universe. Harmondsworth, Penguin by arrangement with Hutchinson.

Kuhn, T. S. (1959). The Copernican revolution: planetary astronomy in the development of Western thought. New York, Vintage Books.

Rosen, E. (1983). “Was Copernicus A Neoplatonist?” Journal of the History of Ideas 44(4): 667-669.

Toulmin, S. and J. Goodfield (1962). The Fabric of the Heavens: the development of astronomy and dynamics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

* The Church issued prohibitions until 1664, but by 1758 had dropped heliocentrism from the Index. Rabbinic opposition took about the same delay to abate.