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Journal of No. 118

February 26th, 2016

Apes, Angels, & Victorians, by William Irvine @ 03:31 pm

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An estate sale find; I couldn't resist the title, which derives from a quote from Disraeli:

What is the question now placed before society with the glib assurance which to me is most astonishing? That question is this: Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence those new fangled theories.

The book is primarily a joint biography of both Charles Darwin & Thomas Henry Huxley. It focuses somewhat less on the actual science, and more on the collegial (sometimes less than collegial) network of thinkers in science, letters, and politics that existed as a community at the time.

It maybe wore out its welcome before I slogged my way to the end, but there were definitely interesting details scattered throughout. Samuel Butler apparently got into what is invariably called a "one-sided feud" with Darwin. He developed a sort of neo-Lamarckian theory of his own, and promoted it, taking potshots at Darwin here and there. Darwin rightly ignored the theory (which vanished into the dustbin of history, apart from leaving a vermiform appendix of sorts in Erewhon), and forbore to get in a literary battle with Butler.

In 1865, there was a political brouhaha precipitated by a riot in Jamaica. The local black population had been free for decades, but living in rather terrible conditions. A protest, led by a black Baptist minister, escalated into a bit of a riot, and then the hammer came down. Martial law was declared, and the governor sent out the troops. Hundreds of people were killed, the minister was hanged, as was a politician who was frogmarched from Kingston to the location where martial law was in place. The legal irregularities caused a bit of furore back in Blighty, and political lines were drawn between those who thought the governor acted swiftly and decisively, and those who though he acted illegally and murderously. Anyway... Jamaica committees were formed on both sides. Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, & Mill were for trying the governor for murder, while the supporters of the governor included assholes like Tennyson and Dickens.

Huxley writing to Darwin on the publication of On the Origin of Species: "I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which, unless I greatly mistaken, is in store for you. ... I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness."

#1: I thought it was particularly apt, since Darwin is still be misrepresented and abused by modern-day creationists.
#2: Huxley was clearly spoiling for a fight. And of course, he finally got his most famous licks in at the Oxford Debate against Soapy Sam Wilberforce.

In a later debate on more theological topics, between the agnostic Huxley and Catholic WG Ward, the organizers "suggested that moral disapprobation should be avoided in debate."

Ward: "While acquiescing in this condition as a general rule, I think it cannot be expected that Christian thinkers shall give no sign of the horror with which they would view the spread of such extreme opinions as those advocated by Mr. Huxley."

Huxley: "As Dr. Ward has spoken, I must in fairness say that it will be very difficult for me to conceal my feeling as to the intellectual degradation which would come of the general acceptance of such views as Dr. Ward holds."


I was interested to hear of Mary Augusta Ward's novel Robert Elsmere, in which an Oxford cleric gets led astray by a sinister squire, reads Hume, loses his faith, and devotes himself to a new life of agnostic philanthropy. It sold a million copies and, to quote Wiki: "Robert Elsmere generated enormous interest from intellectuals and agnostics who saw it as a liberating tool for liberating times and from those of faith who saw it as another step in the advancement of apostasy or heathenism."

Huxley's grave bears a few lines of a poem written by his wife Etty (originally to eulogize Browning). Though she seems to have been conventionally religious, it's clear that spending a life with Huxley had its effect.

And if there be no meeting past the grave,
If all is darkness, silence, yet 'tis rest.
Be not afraid, ye waiting hearts that weep,
For God still giveth his belovèd sleep,
And if an endless sleep he wills, - so best.
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Journal of No. 118