Chap. XVI           The Scientific Advance



Not till our own explosive times did science enjoy such popularity and honor. The éclat of Newton's discoveries in mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy had raised the heads of scientists everywhere in Europe. Goldsmith, visiting Paris in 1755, reported, "I have seen as bright a circle of beauty at the chemical lectures of Rouelle as gracing the court of Versailles." Fashionable women kept books of science on their dressing tables, and, like Mme. de Pompadour, had their portraits painted with squares and telescopes at their feet. People lost interest in theology, they sloughed off the other world while cherishing their superstitions. Science became the mode and mood of an age that moved in a complex stream of hectic change to its catastrophic end.

Joseph Priestley


2. Priestly

Joseph Priestley for a long time received the credit for the discovery of oxygen. We honor him because he contributed so boldly to British thought on religion and government that a fanatical mob burned down his house in Birmingham. Priestly settled in Birmingham as junior minister of a large Dissenting congregation known as the New Meeting Society. He joined James Watt, Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, and others in a “Lunar Society” that discussed the latest ideas in science. But some of his neighbors questioned his Christianity. In Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) he reduced everything, even the soul, to matter.

. . . that the soul and body, being in reality the same kind of substance, must die together.

He rejected miracles, the Fall, the Atonement, and the Trinity; all these doctrines he considered to be “corruptions” developed in the evolution of Christianity.

All knowledge will be subdivided and extended; and knowledge, as Lord Bacon observes, being power, the human powers will in fact be increased . . .

The crowd moved on to Priestley's house, and joyously burned it down, including his laboratory and instruments, his library and manuscripts. Then for three days it ranged through Birmingham, swearing to kill all "philosophers”; terrified citizens scrawled on their windowpanes, “No philosophers here.”

My Late Townsmen and Neighbors,

After living with you eleven years, in which you had uniform experience of my peaceful behavior in my attention to the quiet duties of mv profession, and those of philosophy, I was far from expecting the injuries which I and my friends have lately received from you. . . Happily the minds of Englishmen have a horror of murder and therefore you did not, I hope, think of that. . . . But what is the value of life when everything is done to make it wretched? . . .

You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments. . . . You have destroyed a library . . . which no money can repurchase except in a long course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I shall never be able to recompose; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined, you any harm.

You are mistaken if you imagine that this conduct of yours has any tendency to serve your cause, or to prejudice ours. . . . Should you destroy myself as well as my house, library, and apparatus, ten more persons, of equal or superior spirit and ability, would instantly spring up. If those ten were destroyed, an hundred would appear. . . .

In this business we are the sheep and you the wolves. We will persevere in our character, and hope you will change yours. At all events, we return you blessings for curses, and pray that you may soon return to that industry, and those sober manners, for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.

I am, your sincere well-wisher,

J. Priestly

V.         Astronomy

5. Laplace

Those sciences have rendered important services to navigation and geography, but their greatest blessing has been to dissipate the fears produced by celestial phenomena, and to destroy the errors born from ignorance of our true relations with nature, errors and fears that will readily be reborn if the torch of science is ever extinguished.


3. Geology

James Hutton added fire to water in explaining the vicissitudes of the earth. He passed from medicine to chemistry to geology, and soon concluded that many times the six thousand years allowed by the theologians would be required for the history of our globe. He noted that wind and water are slowly eroding mountains and depositing them into the plains, and that thousands of rivulets carry off material into rivers, which then carry it into the sea; let this process continue indefinitely, and the grasping figures or raging claws of the oceans could swallow whole continents. Nearly all geological formations might have resulted from such slow natural operations as one might see in any eroding farm or encroaching sea, or any river digging its own bed with patient pertinacity, leaving the record of its falling levels on the strata of rocks and soil. Such gradual changes, Hutton felt, were the basic causes of terrestrial transformations. "In interpreting nature," he held, "no powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle, and no extraordinary events to be alleged in order to explain a common appearance."

Hutton himself hesitated to publish his views, for he knew that they would be opposed by believers in the literal infallibility of the Bible.


1. Linnaeus

Linnaeus found the [botanical] collections of his time in a state of disorder that seriously hampered the scientific study of plants. Linnaeus undertook to classify all known plants first by their class, then by their order, their genus, and their species. As the basis of his classification, he took the presence and character, or the absence, of distinctively reproductive organs.

Some timid souls objected that this emphasis on sex would dangerously influence the imagination of youth. He treated man (whom he trustfully called “homo sapiens”) as part of the animal kingdom.

Buffon criticized the Linnaean classification on the ground that genera and species are not objective things but are merely names for convenient mental divisions of a complex reality in which all classes, at their edges, melt into one another; nothing exists, outside the mind, except individuals.


The effect of science upon religion—or rather upon Christianity—seemed lethal. Doubtless men would continue to form or favor conceptions of the world that would give hope and consolation, meaning and dignity to harassed, fleeting lives; but how could the Christian epos of creation, original sin, and divine redemption stand up in a perspective that reduced the earth to a speck among a million stars? What was man that the God of such a universe should be mindful of him? How could the poetry of Genesis survive the explorations of geology? And what of the dozen or more religions in regions now opened up by geography? Were they clearly inferior to Christianity in their doctrines or their moral codes and results? How could the miracles of Christ, not to mention those widely ascribed to saints and Satan, be reconciled with the apparent reign of universal law? How could the soul or mind of man be immortal when it seemed so dependent upon the nerves and other tissues visibly doomed to decay? What must happen to the religion so challenged by a science daily growing in scope, achievements, and prestige? And what must happen to a civilization based upon a moral code based on that religion?


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