Science Talk

Darwin Day Special, Part 3: Origins of Paleontology and the Impact of Religion on the Development of Evolutionary Theory

In part 3 of this special Darwin Day podcast, the Reverend Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches and author of the book Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology, talks about Anning and how religion informed Darwin and the scientists who led to him.

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome back for part 3 of our special three-part Darwin Day edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. I'm Steve Mirsky. We will continue with another presentation from the Darwin event last week sponsored by the New York Society for Ethical Culture. The Reverend Thomas Goodhue is executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches and he is the author of the book Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology.

Goodhue: I am going to be talking mostly about the religious influences on Darwin. We have heard a little about Darwin's influence on religion; now I want to take us back to the precursors of Darwin's theory and how religion was a part of the influence on them. I think I got involved in all of this because of being puzzled by some things. More than 12,000 clergy in fact have signed a joint declaration that says the timeless truths of the Bible and discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist and yet for many Americans—about half of the population, according to the Gallup polls—they still are opposed to the theory of evolution and oppose it being taught in public schools. That's always been a mystery to me since it's, in my whole life practically, been clear to me [that evolution] was without doubt one of the most important scientific theories ever represented. Something that makes it, it's almost impossible to understand the biological ciences—or as we've just heard, half of the other sciences these days—without understanding the theory of evolution and yet people are still against it. I think that there are many reasons for that. One has to be that and without doubt this is the most important reason, which is surely after Darwin presented his theory, it was bastardized into something called social Darwinism. It had almost nothing to do with Darwin's scientific theory, was if anything more of a theological or a religious belief, that if you survived, you're the fittest. It led to a whole series of incredibly racist theories being developed; the whole eugenics movement in America that said people should be sterilized if they were poor to keep them from reproducing. Jim Crow laws across the land were supported by social Darwinism and Christians who were progressive reacted against social Darwinism. People sometimes talk today as if the battle was between Darwin and the fundamentalists. It really wasn't for generations. The battle was between progressive Christians and the social Darwinists. And as is so often the case, movements moved away from their founders, and people forget that in this case, Charles Darwin would have been horrified by things that people were saying in the name of social Darwinism, that his theory was inspired more by an opposition to slavery, perhaps than anything else. But I think too there is opposition to the teaching of evolution still today because far too many secular people, far too many agnostics and atheists, assume that most Christians are going to oppose [them] on the teaching of evolution. For Catholicism and for most mainline Protestants, this really isn't a big issue; and far too many people who believe in the theory of evolution dismiss the possibility that people of faith could believe in theistic evolution and still be good scientists. One other reason I think is too often, not so much scientists as people like me, science buffs, can easily crossover from the methodological agnosticism if this is necessary to do science. You know, you have to presume that you are going to try to come up with an explanation to this natural in order for science to advance. They cross the line from that into making a leap to a belief that is really theological and not scientific, which is to say, because we are only measuring and theorizing about phenomena that we can see and measure and detect that's all there is; and that there is no other reality beyond the one that we can measure. It's also the case too that I think the way too few Christians [k]now that the genetic research pioneer Gregor Mendel was a monk [or that] Charles Darwin was [ordained as] a priest in the church of England. How many of you knew that. I hope you all knew that—at least a few more hands, but it is only half of you. Too few secularists I think know that too, as well too few people of faith and [way] too few people know about the profound contributions that were made very paradoxically to the advancement of science by people who were creationists. I don't mean in this whack[y] notion that we hear [bandied] about [of] intelligent design theory. As my doctor says it was a profound personal faith. The human spine is one of the strongest arguments against intelligent design, and she is right. So, but there is a much more subtle, more paradoxical, more wonderful way in which people's religious beliefs were an important part of the groundwork that was done before Origin of Species was produced and I am going to talk about that [a] little bit today.

For example, Mary Anning she'll be really the focus of this. She touched off the world's first dinosaur [craze] two decades before the word "dinosaur" even had been coined, but until recently her work has been almost completely ignored by historians of science, which is the reason—and it's not your fault—some of you have even heard of it, even though she was arguably the first person on the planet to take up fossil hunting as a full-time career and occupation. She was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England, a little town where Jane Austen set much of the action of her novel Persuasion and the place where John Fowles set his novel and screenplay for the French Lieutenant's Woman. She was raised in an independent chapel in Lyme whose members were beginning to call themselves Congregationalists. The congregation was a strain of dissenters, [or] nonconformists who did not conform to the teaching of the established church, the Church [of England], which was itself not exactly Protestant and not exactly Catholic. She was baptized by [an] officiating visiting pastor because the chapel had just thrown out their pastor when they discovered that he was a [closet] Arian, someone who denied the divinity of Christ, some[what] like [a] modern Unitarian; he was thrown out. The Annings and her family and their friends and worshipers, in other words, were evangelical Christians though that didn't mean the same thing [back then] as some people mean today when they call themselves that. The independent chapel was both the center of social life for her and her family and it was also the only shot she got in[at] an education. Formal education was nonexistent for most people in the whole county of Dorset during these years, but sometime around her eighth birthday she began attending a Sunday school that the dissenters set up at the chapel; which was not really for religious education at all, it was to teach working class kids like her reading and writing; the only schooling she ever got in her whole life. They did this because of their religious belief; because Protestants believed firmly that people should be able to read and interpret The Bible for themselves. That was clearly what impelled them to form a school for working class kids. That's how Mary learned to read and write. But around this time her elder brother Joseph passed on a book to her which their parents have given him a few years earlier. It's [a] really bizarre [gift] to give to an eight-year-old. It was the bound volume of the theological magazine and review the Dissenters published. But in reading this you could get a clue as to what it was that she read as a child what shaped her view of the world and what it was that she heard, because her pastor was a frequent contributor and she heard him preach at least three times most weeks, sometimes three times just on Sundays. She would have read there some stuff that now seems quite strange to us, like a statement that God had created the universe in six literal days, "the authentic account of the creation given to us by the most ancient historian there is, Moses." Mary also read, however, a model curriculum for [a] Dissenter school that said Dissenters should study geology and it is important for them to know that. That we can be sure that she read with a great deal of interest, a long obituary of another girl in Lyme Regis [Martha Locke] who died when she was 16. What's amazing to me about this is that that obituary, which goes on for two and a half pages is much, much longer than the obituary of a universally respected clergyman who died about the same time. The book and the Dissenters, in other words, took the spiritual journey of a teenage girl at least as seriously as they did religious beliefs and struggles of a clergyman. The Dissenters and their faith ended up raising a child like Mary who fully believed that that she had some important work to do in her life, and that made all the difference. She also read that all sort of calls that Christians should oppose social injustice; that they should try to stop capital punishment, which at that time extended to 200 offenses in England, and at the time, she grew up, hanging[s] right outside the doorstep of her home were a frequ


ent public form of entertainment. The book, I think, gave her, as her church did, courage to do what was not expected in her society of young girls, especially working class little-educated ones. Mary Anning needed faith and courage to follow her father into a difficult and dangerous work that heeded as a hobby, which was scrambling up crumbling, chalky cliffs to dig fossils out of the crumbling cliff sides. All the more courage she needed when he died when she was just 10 years old after he fell off of the cliff, [and later died]. Poor with little formal education, Mary found a unique calling. She became the world's first professional fossil hunter. And [she got] that into this location at exactly the time that the new science of geology needed the kind of contribution that she could make. A local historian Jo Draper has said, "She was the right person in the right place at the right time, but she was the wrong sex." Because she was a woman. The scientists who depended upon her discoveries almost never, for decades, gave her any credit in public for having made them. They would profusely thank the rich guy who bought the fossil specimen and never mention her. They would publish long descriptions in the philosophical transactions in the Royal Society and never even sent her a copy of what they had published about her work. But during this time, Anning's faith helped her to do difficult, dangerous work even when she was being [dissed] by the scientists and even when frequent economic downturns made [it] hard to [sell some] of her most spectacular finds. There is a paradox [here] because her faith let her do this dangerous work—and it was dangerous work: She survived several very close calls with death. She did this work because of her faith, and the things that she found upset the faith of millions of people, across the nation and around the world. When she found Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus, for example, [two of] the first marine reptiles to be described, most people did not believe in extinction. They did not believe that the species that had existed once before were really particularly different from what was around today. Many scholars thought that they still lived somewhere. About the time that she went fossil hunting with her father for the first time, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Do you know [what he] hope[d] they would find there? [Mastodons] roaming in the west along with—and I am not making this up—the lost tribes of Israel and Welsh Indians. As she thought prehistoric creatures though, increasingly it became clear that they were completely unlike anything that was around today, and it got people wondering how could one form of life have evolved into another, decades before Darwin really did. In the 1810s and 1820s again, long before Origin of Species, Mary Anning discovered the dolphin-shaped Ichthyosaurus, the first nearly complete skeleton of a prehistoric marine reptile to be accurately described by scientists, before the word "scientist" had even been coined. She found Plesiosaurus, which had a long neck and a short tail, four paddles, and a body shape sort of like a turtle. It was a fossil so strange that the most eminent scholar of the time that examined it, Cuvier, thought that it was a fraud at first, before he saw it with his own eyes. She discovered Dimorphodon, the first flying reptile to be found in the U.K. She found Belemnites that squirted ink around themselves to evade predators. She found the coprolites that were dung stones which revealed what Plesiosaur creatures ate. She found Squaloraja, a strange fish [that had wings] sort of like a manta ray or stingray. Her work also led friendships with budding geologists, including the Reverend William Buckland who discovered Megalasaurus, the first British dinosaur to be described; the Reverend William Daniel Conybeare, another Anglican priest who studied adaptation to environment decades before Darwin; the Reverend John Gleed, who was her pastor in the 1820[s and] who also was a fossil seller; Charles Lyell, the greatest British geologist of the 19th century; and Louis Agassiz, one of the greatest American scientist later [of] the 19th century. [She also formed] strong friendships with female geologists that I am certain [you] have never heard of before, like Mary Buckland and Mary Lyell and Charlotte Murchison, who all did very significant scientific work and whose husbands always got the credit for what they did. By the late 1820s, [belief] was waning among educated Christians that the Earth was young and had been created in [six] days. Mary's discovery of the tiny little coprolites, those dung stones, really put the nail in the coffin of belief that this stuff was, that the Earth was young, and really that everything that had existed once still existed today. You know the first reaction to something that doesn't fit in your [preconceived] notions [is] usually simple denial. And so what a lot of people did at first was they said, "Oh! it may only look like we have"—but we still hear this from some of these young-Earth creationists—"it looks like we have something buried in the Cliffside there and looks like it's millions of years old, but really God made that, you know, 4,000 years ago and buried it there to test our faith, okay?" People actually said that to each other in the 1820s and '30s and a lot of people actually bought the argument. When it became clear what those little coprolites were, you have to wonder what kind of a comedian the Almighty would be to create something that looked exactly like a fossilized turd. The Reverend William Buckland far from being threatened by the beliefs was so excited by Mary's discovery that he had a tabletop made for him with polished inlaid coprolites, little pieces of fossilized feces on top of his table. It's Darwin's legacy that we debate today; how life evolved not whether it evolved, but in the time that Anning was working this was a stunning new idea, [that life evolved], you know, and today we question, "Did life evolve steadily and slowly?" which was sort of what Darwin seems to [have thought], or in a sort of punctuated equilibrium stages as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould suggested. Did evolution happen with or without a nudge from God?, we may debate today, but we don't debate at all whether or not it occurred it all. It is obvious to everyone including most of the youngest creationists that something somewhere changed along time. William Daniel Conybeare who described Mary Anning's discovery of Plesiosaurus, the one [that] looked like a snake [pulled] through a turtle insisted that this fossil offered striking proof of the infinite riches of creative design. Now that's not to say he believed in what passes as intelligent design today, but he did believe that the world had been created by his creator and had been created in a way that he could try to make sense out of. He believed that this divine designer was creating a world that was [discernible] and that had advanced scientists, that push[ed] natural theology and natural science forward rather than holding it back. As the physicist Paul Davies has written very recently, "To be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin." He [adds, too, that] that scientists still have to believe that to do their work today. [They] can't actually prove the axioms of scientific research, but you have to believe that the world is orderly and makes sense, if you're going to try to make sense out of it. Christianity taught that the universe was orderly and purposeful and not chaotic; belief that it was possible to discover the principles underlying an orderly world made it easier for people to see what the patterns of evolution were. Conybeare believed that this creator had guided evolution through a great chain of being [that]it stretched back [from] the times of prehistoric reptiles to our time. Because he expected to find something that fit each of these creatures into their ecological niche, he found the evidence of adaptation to environment that became a keystone of Darwin's theory. Do you see the paradox there? Because he was looking for a creative intelligence to have made it possible for things to fit into the world in someway, he found the adaptation to the environment in the fin of a Plesiosaur for example which Darwin wrote about in his notebook in 1838 when he was first trying to develop the motions of adaptation to environment. And paradoxically and much of he same way as Anning relied upon her faith to do this dangerous work, the discover[ies] she found, helped to fuel a massive religious realignment across the nation in the 1830s. Again Darwin was just beginning to put the pieces of his theory together. Mary's friend Charles Lyell drifted from the Church of England to Unitarianism. Mary and her brother Joseph shifted from the Independent Chapel to the Church of England which they found more accommodating to view points, including those of a scientific nature. The Reverend Charles Darwin became a skeptic and a doubter during this time too. It is easy in our time to think that what was going on back then was a war between science and religion. We will still hear to scribe that way today, but what was happening then and I think what is still happening now is something really quite different. It is a contest of different kinds of religion with one another, and it is a contest, back then it was, of different ways of doing science. [What] finally prevailed as the scientific methodology was just one way of doing science back then. For Mary Anning, for William Daniel Conybeare, for William Buckland and for the Reverend Charles Darwin in 1830s, this was an internal debate too. It was a struggle within their own minds and souls between different religious notions and different scientific notions. People saw a contradiction between geology and the book of Genesis, Conybeare insisted, only because they misunderstood the Bible. They might think that the Earth was created a few thousand years ago but the Bible never claims this. They were not interpreting the bible literally, he insisted—and this was back in 1830s—they were misreading into the Bible, stuff that was never there, which is the [whole gripe] I still have with my fundamentalist colleagues and also, I have to say, with a lot of secularists who seem to assume that biblical interpretation that claims to be literal is literal, in the same way that they seem to assume of a politician [who] claims to be a Christian [that] they actually are. Young-Earth creationists, in other words, as Conybeare insisted, are not more pious and they are not more orthodox than other people of faith. They are not more pious than the people who think that the [world is] billions of years old. Since the age of the Earth is not a religious issue—it is a scientific question, not a religious issue at all—the Bible does not tell us which day the world was created on. Nonetheless, Mary Anning's discoveries were deeply upsetting for many people, because they got at some of the sort of psychological presuppositions [of] their lives. The antiquity of the Earth was disturbing to many people, Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, because it [over]turned assumptions that were cozy, about how humans had always been the crown of creation, the ruling bodies; when, [as he has argued], in most ages, we would have to say [it was] really the age of bacteria: [There were a lot more bacteria [than there were of] us. Extinction was equally threatening, [since] Christians misread the Bible. They misread Genesis [as] saying that every species had [to have] been created in the past at some point, which the Bible never says, but they believed that, and so their belief was shattered when we got evidence that this wasn't true anymore. By the 1830s there was clear evidence that the Earth was not young and that it had been inhabited by now vanished creatures stranger than anything we had ever seen before. Yet as late as 1840, the Reverend George Young, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor could [who had] himself discovered the Ichthyosaur, (unclear 25:14) himself, he was still claiming in 1840, that the Earth was young, that Noah's flood had shaped to the surface of the Earth, and that we were still going to find Ichthyosaurs when we [had] explore[d] the whole Earth. They would still be swimming around somewhere in a region we had not yet discovered. Makes [it] a little easier to understand why Darwin was so afraid of publishing his theory, [when you] imagine that somebody who found a great fossil still believed he was going to find the living Ichthyosaur. It's important to remember too, how much of the world was unknown in the 1830s. In this time, there were reports of some big hairy ape that lived somewhere up in the highlands of Africa, but no one had ever described the gorilla, didn't come until 1847—[the year that Mary Anning died]. Louis Agassiz, [whom] Mary Anning helped in the pioneering research that he developed on prehistoric fish, remained himself a truly scientific creationist. He thought that there was a creator. He thought that God had worked through the stages of creation and evolution. He was really skeptical of Darwin's theory, but he was skeptical for good, solid, scientific reasons. And I think this gets [at] something to that is part of the reason that it is hard to teach evolution in public schools today. It's so easy to forget that people who often raise an objection to a theory can do it in a way that ultimately strengthens the theory, which is precisely what happened in the early years of Darwinian theory. As Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out, [the] criticism[s] that Agassiz made were valid, scientific objections to a theory that was still in the process of being formed. During the last decade of their lives, many of Mary Anning's contempor[aries] were experiencing profound faith crisis, but a diary that she kept reminds us as of how deeply faithful she remained her whole life. It was the faith that sustained her in doing work that shattered the beliefs of many other people, and if we forget the way in which faith contributed to the growth of science it is no wonder [that] people of faith will reject science.

Steve: This concludes our three-part Darwin Day series. For much more, check out the Darwin In-Depth Report at our Web site For Scientific American's Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky, thanks for clicking on us.

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In part 3 of this special Darwin Day podcast, the Reverend Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches and author of the book Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology, talks about Anning and how religion informed Darwin and the scientists who led to him.  


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