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 Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C

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Tim of Aclea
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PostSubject: Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C   Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C EmptyThu 23 Aug 2012, 09:15

There does not seem to be a section concerned with the history of science and so i thought I would put this post here.

As part of my rather mixed combined science first degree i did a module on the history of astronomy. Our lecturer commented that following the publication of O'n the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection' there was a conflict between evolutionists and astronomers. Evolutionists recognised that they needed a long time for evolution to have occured, although even then they did not realise how long they needed, but according to astronomers they did not have enough time. The problem was concerning the Sun and how it produced energy. If the sun was burning hydrogen then it would have lasted around 6,000 years (fits in nicely with Bishop Usher's 4004BC start of creation). The best that astronomers could come up with, in the absence of Einstein, was that the sun produced energy by gravitational contraction but this gave a maximum age of 17 million years for its age - too short for evolution. Evolutionists had to revert that astronomers had been wrong in the past (true) and they were wrong again and there must be some unknown method by which the sun was producing energy. Obviously the evolutionist were correct but arguing for some unknown means it not really the best argument.

I wondered if, in the famous Oxford debate, that Bishop Soapy Sam had, instead of being totally overconfident, concentrated on the time factor as a problem that Huxley would not have had such an easy time dismissing the bishop.

Tim

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Vizzer
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PostSubject: Re: Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C   Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C EmptySun 17 Nov 2019, 23:43

I suppose that as neither geology nor astronomy were Samuel Wilberforce’s forte then he felt more confident debating on his own ground – i.e. theology. Among those present at the debate, however, was physicist David Brewster who wrote a critique of Darwin’s theory which was published 2 years later. In it Brewster cited the work of contemporary French astronomer Jacques Basinet on the age of the solar system to back up his position.
 
During the debate Brewster’s pretty, young wife Jane is said to have fainted at the point when Soapy Sam (Wilberforce) asked biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (a proponent of Darwin’s theory) which of his grandparents he thought was descended from a monkey. This has gone down is history as evidence of Victorian shock and melodrama at discussion of the subject. I suspect, however, that her fainting had more to do with wearing tight-fitting 1860s corsetry combined with possible oxygen deprivation in the carbon dioxide heavy atmosphere of the room. It’s also likely that she may simply have been trying to laugh herself at that point.
 
Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C David_brewster_group

(Sir David and Lady Brewster and guests c.1863)

The fact that no transcript of the exchanges exists (there were no minutes taken) has resulted in the debate being subject to varying interpretations (including alleged fabrications) ever since. Even the name ‘the Oxford evolution debate’ is misleading. Any casual reader or listener of that phrase could be forgiven for thinking that it was a formal debate on the topic organised by the Oxford Union or some such body. It was nothing of the sort. The event was part of the annual meeting of the British Science Association (BSA) and the ‘debate’ was a somewhat off-topic discussion following the presentation by photo-chemist John William Draper of his paper A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe. As the name suggests it was an ambitious study covering a wide range of topics. Part of it, however, touched on the ‘origin, variation and extinction of species’ and it was almost certainly this section which was picked up on by Huxley and Wilberforce et al. Draper wrote:
     
'How shall we separate the history of the individual from the history of the whole? Do not the fortunes and way of progress of the one follow the fortunes and way of progress of the other? If, in a transitory manner, these forms are assumed in the individual, equally in a transitory manner are they assumed by the race. Nor would it be philosophical to suppose that the management in the one instance differs from the management in the other. If the one is demonstrably the issue of a law in action, so must the other be too. It does not matter that the entire cycle is passed through by the individual in the course of a few months, while in the race it demands ages. The standard of time that ought to be applied is the respective duration of life. In man it is much if he attains to threescore years and ten; but the entire period of human record, embracing several thousand years, offers not a single instance of the birth, maturity, and death of a species. They, therefore, who think they find in the successive species that have in an orderly manner replaced each other in the life of the earth the sure proof of Divine intervention, would do well to determine at what point the production of such forms by law ceases, and at what point their production by the immediate act of God begins. Their task will be as hard as to tell where one color in the rainbow ends and where the next commences. They will also do well to remember that, in great mundane events, the scale of time is ample, and that there may be no essential difference between a course that is run over in a few days and one that requires for its completion thousands of centuries.'

There is more than hint of a pro-Darwinian position on the part of Draper there. That said, when his paper was later published, Draper did mentioned in its preface that it had first been presented to the BSA but he made no mention of the accompanying kerfuffle other than to say that the question of the origin of species had ‘recently attracted public attention so strongly’. 

Away from Darwinian-theory-versus-1860s-astronomy-and-geology, it’s worth noting just how advanced the technology of astronomy had become at that time. For instance, across the Irish Sea and located almost in the middle of Ireland stood the Leviathan of Parsonstown. This was a giant telescope (the largest in the world) commissioned in 1845 by William Parsons, Lord Rosse and which stood in the grounds of Birr Castle his home in Kings County (Offaly). It would remain the world’s most powerful telescope for over 70 years. One early visitor was lawyer Thomas Lefroy (who in his youth had been the object of Jane Austen’s flirtation in the 1790s). He wrote enthusiastically:

'The planet Jupiter, which through an ordinary glass is no larger than a good star, is seen twice as large as the moon appears to the naked eye... But the genius displayed in all the contrivances for wielding this mighty monster even surpasses the design and execution of it. The telescope weighs sixteen tons, and yet Lord Rosse raised it single-handed off its resting place, and two men with ease raised it to any height.'
  
That genius was in fact Dublin-based optical engineer Thomas Grubb (a somewhat unsung hero in the history of technology) who designed and built the telescope as well as several others around the world including the Great Melbourne Telescope in Australia which acted as the Antipodean equivalent of the Parsonstown Leviathan.
 
Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C A1S7_1_20180620669057536

A postcard impression of the new Melbourne telescope before its arrival in 1868. It was subsequently relocated to Canberra in the 1940s before sadly burning down during a bushfire in 2003.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C   Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C EmptyMon 18 Nov 2019, 09:59

Good point Vizzer about the relative advancement at that precise moment in time between what was to become evolutionary theory and what was already a very well established science of astronomy which, by the middle of the 19th century, had already yielded several serious propositions regarding the age and nature of the universe, some elements of which (but not all) would also contribute to accepted scientific theory in the future.

However it is important to remember that at the precise time of the much publicised debate neither astronomy nor the nascent study of natural selection had come close to establishing anything by way of scientific theory regarding the age of anything. It is true that Tim's example of disparate time scales suggested by contemporary observations of the sun and of special differentiation were irreconcilable, but in fact there were other proposals within both astronomy and natural history at that time that led to even more disparate estimates but which were still regarded within academia as proposals of at least equal worth to the two named above.

A good example is the proposal of saltation as a primary evolutionary principle - something that Darwin had in fact referenced directly in his "On The Origins" and discounted outright. However for the next thirty years this proposal - that species always mutated in sudden jumps (saltus = "leap" in Latin) - was by far the more popular proposal, even though adherence to it meant effectively that it was therefore impossible to infer any good estimate of how long it had taken life and special differentiation to evolve to the status as observed in the late 19th century. With time however, and as new data came in from biologists, palaeontologists and others, and especially when the chemical basis of genetics was finally well understood, it turned out that while saltation indeed exists as a phenomenon, it has only ever been within quite specific circumstances governing speciation, and certainly not as the driving force behind "evolution" as its proponents had believed. In a way Darwin had been proven correct for having dismissed it, but even he in 1860 would have had huge difficulty in refuting it based on actual data, and by 1890 it had in fact become the dominant proposal by far in his field and eventually had to be disproved unequivocally before most of those researching natural selection admitted its inferiority to what Darwin's "hunch" had indicated (which itself was only "proven" when the study of genetics got down to the DNA level in the second half of the 20th century).

Likewise astronomy at that point in the 1860s had its own problems too - thermodynamics and the entropy it insinuates, both of which constituted a fundamental part of astronomic theory at the time (and still survive as such today), failed completely to explain therefore the actual observable status of the universe, let alone its age (the existence of visible stars alone enough to seemingly contradict it). It wouldn't be until Einstein that actual data conforming to observable phenomena could at last be proven to exist, make sense, and form the basis of a theory in its own right. Until then however there was no end of speculation, and whereas evolutionary theory was still struggling to reconcile four or five contradictory proposals to form a basis of thought worthy of the scientific name "theory", astronomy and astronomical physics were struggling with dozens, if not hundreds, of such proposals and essentially getting nowhere.

Which is the perspective in which one should then judge the debate - and indeed almost all scientific discussion of both disciplines well into the 20th century (religious fundamentalists in particular might be rather amazed at how long it was before evolution was accepted as valid scientific theory at all - their refusal to understand what the word "theory" means in science being a huge stumbling block to intelligent appreciation of the concept).

However this was a perspective also well understood within the Royal Society, which frequently promoted discourse and debate within both spheres, and was well aware of the contradictory implications which thermodynamics and evolution proposed regarding the age of the earth (among several other equally disparate conclusions arising from equally valid conjectures within other disciplines). However the RS, being a body of people for whom scientific method and theory were the overarching principles by which such conjecture should be judged, never adjudicated - officially or unofficially - in these matters in a manner that suggested that one approach therefore "invalidated" the other. Instead, being the intelligent scientists that they were, they recognised that disparity simply suggested missing data in both disciplines preventing reconcilable conclusion and saw its role primarily as the accommodator and encourager of the collection of such data, using ever improving techniques, over time.

About the only significant disparity which did emerge from the so-called Oxford Debate however was that between theological assertion and scientific investigation - one that is still with us even today. Regardless of where one stood as a scientist regarding which potential evolutionary principle most deserved elevation to theoretical status, it was obvious that no intelligent investigation of any of these approaches could be conducted while retaining belief in religious assertions such as had been voiced by Wilberforce (and others) at the time.
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PostSubject: Re: Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C   Evolution and astronomy at odds in the 19th C EmptyTue 19 Nov 2019, 18:18

That pretty much echoes my own views nord.

It also has to be appreciated that at the time within academia (despite being well over 150 years into the Age of Enlightenment) there still existed a hierarchy whereby a doctor of divinity such as the Bishop of Oxford was considered top-dog. And within the scientific disciplines there was (and to some extent still is) a hierarchy whereby pure mathematicians are at the top, followed by applied mathematicians and physicists and then chemists and finally biologists at the bottom. It’s not that surprising therefore that during the debate Soapy Sam (divine) would come across as condescending (if not arrogant) while Huxley (biologist) would play the put-upon underdog. They were essentially playing their pre-ordained roles (in Wilberforce’s case quite literally).

I would tend to side with those who reject the view that the debate was a seminal episode of mid-Victorian melodrama but rather that it was a good-natured rumpus whereby both Wilberforce and Huxley relished the opportunity to put forward and test their respective points of view and spar with the opposition. A parallel in our own era, perhaps, would be the 1979 television debate between, (on the one side) Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, against (on the other side) comedians John Cleese and Michael Palin on the merits of the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In other words it wasn’t so much about winners or losers but more about debating skills, banter, intellectual gymnastics and even entertainment. Viewed this way, therefore, then it could be said that in 1860 it was Soapy Sam who won the debate while Huxley and Joseph Hooker etc won the argument.

Returning to the issue of academic hierarchy, then David Brewster is a case in point. As one who had begun his academic career studying theology and then progressed through mathematics to optics and astronomy he would have been considered a true heavyweight. His attack upon Darwin was arguably much more cutting then anything Soapy had said to Huxley. For instance Brewster wrote of Darwin:

Trained in a less severe school than that of geometry and physics, his reasonings are almost always loose and inconclusive.

Ouch!
 
It was the era when the practical applications of scientific knowledge were becoming much more impressive and meaningful to the general public then the knowledge itself. Ironically Brewster in his work on optics was at the forefront of this and along with the likes of the telescopes designed by Thomas Grubb would see others devise cosmological theories directly at odds with those which Brewster held in the 1860s.
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