Grade I-listed dinosaurs in the grounds of Crystal Palace

Big beasts versus the Bible

Darwin sidelined the Creator by documenting the slow mechanisms of evolution


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Crystal Palace dinosaurs are still one of the glories of South London. When the Great Exhibition building was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham and repurposed as a museum, its promoters stocked its gardens with giant Iguanodons and plesiosaurs, bringing prehistory to the public.

For Michael Taylor, these now-quaint monsters were combatants in a “culture war” of science with religion. He argues that public discussion of dinosaurs from the 1820s liberated Britons from their “implacable” belief in the literal truth of the Bible, opening a space in which doubt about the authority of Christianity flourished. If faith could hardly be said to have vanished by the end of the century, then it at least became optional in a society whose scientists could now explain the genesis of life itself.

Taylor fleshes out his bold claim by knitting together the biographies of three kinds of people. First come the dinosaur-hunters themselves. Taylor recounts the familiar careers of Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell, the discoverers of the Ichthyosaurus and the Iguanodon, with great brio and a political historian’s eye for social context.

Impossible Monsters: Dinosaurs, Darwin and the War Between Science and Religion, Michael Taylor (Bodley Head, £20)

As Anning was a penurious coastal cottager and Mantell a prosperous but insecure dissenter, their relations with the Oxbridge gentlemen who capitalised on their finds were awkward. Taylor, an accountant by day, shrewdly conveys the economic constraints on their curiosity. The “crocodile” Anning found in 1811 was a godsend as it sold for £23 (around £2,000 today), keeping her family in food.

The find was startling, but did not have to be unsettling. The most fluent explainers of palaeontology were patriotic members of the still-dominant Church of England. The Reverend William Buckland, who introduced Londoners to the Megalosaurus in 1824, had persuaded the government to endow his Oxford lectureship by promising to prevent geology from being “perverted” by freethinkers. He was driven by a determination to validate the chronology of Noah’s flood, even though he soon realised the prehistoric creatures he found must have lived much longer ago than a literal reading of the Bible allowed.

Both Richard Owen, who coined the word “dinosaur”, and the Reverend William Whewell, who did the same for “scientist”, were Tories who fiercely maintained the fixity of species and their authorship by a monarchical Deity. The chronology of the Old Testament did not seem to give Anglican impresarios of dinosaurs much wriggle room. The printing in bibles of Archbishop Ussher’s early-modern calculation that the world began on the evening of 22 October 4004 BC made it tantamount to orthodoxy.

Taylor, who had that date impressed upon him during his school days in Ulster’s bible belt, sees it as a roadblock to scientific progress. Yet it was sidestepped in practice. Though some clerics preached a literalist “scriptural geology”, most geologists smoothly took the days of creation to be metaphorical and elastic units of time, or suggested a vanished epoch had preceded the Genesis account. John Ruskin might have heard the geologists’ hammers at the end of every bible verse, but he was atypical, having been brought up in an atmosphere of suburban evangelical neurosis.

To revive the “tension” between dinosaurs and faith, Taylor turns to his second cast: the crusading men of science who talked up a “war” on theology. The church historian Owen Chadwick liked to quote the Victorian schoolboy who said “Darwin had killed God”. Taylor’s claim is softer: Darwin sidelined the Creator by documenting the slow mechanisms of evolution. The transmutation of life forms began as a subversive thesis: the gentlemanly Darwin cast it as a sober recognition of facts gathered in his adventurous voyages.

Although Darwin shied away from confrontation, the same did not go for his bulldog Thomas Huxley or the pugnacious physicist John Tyndall. In popularising agnosticism, Huxley distanced himself from open atheism but still asserted that scientific inquiry did not need and could not prove the existence of God.

Taylor echoes a generation of pioneering historians of science in arguing that the power bases these men created to foster their disciplines mattered as much as their ideas. Huxley’s Science Schools in South Kensington were the counterweight to Owen’s faintly ecclesiastical Natural History Museum.

The tale of how evolution became a dominant paradigm is rousing, but it often takes us far from the dinosaurs. Darwin’s theory of natural selection appealed to the hobbyist breeding of pigeons and orchids, but he was reticent on the fossil record, which seemed too fragmentary to support his thesis. Huxley later made grateful use of American and German fossils to trace the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. But this is to make dinosaurs the mascots of an intellectual revolution then nearing completion, rather than its initiators.

Darwin would have nothing to do with Bradlaugh’s campaigns to legalise birth control

Taylor does not present much evidence that many felt the authority of science to be a grave religious problem. Perhaps Darwin’s 1882 burial in Westminster Abbey did mark the fall of a clerical “bastion” to science, but it was the muted triumph of a distinctively English secularism, pious even when unbelieving. If there was an overt crisis of faith, it was the doing of Taylor’s third group: the doubters and rebels who have become canonical figures in histories of Victorian Britain.

Yet the quarrels of scandalous novelist James Anthony Froude or the heretical Bishop Colenso with the churches were moral and political rather than scientific. The freethinking MP Charles Bradlaugh refused to swear an oath on the Bible because it failed to meet his ethical standards, which were no less puritan for being godless. Darwin for his part would have nothing to do with Bradlaugh’s campaigns to legalise birth control, which he thought would destroy chastity.

Taylor’s book breathes new life into its dons and explorers. The writing is crisp, the handling of the scholarship graceful and precise. Its shortcomings merely reflect its ambitions: Taylor wants to combine all the people and texts which fascinate him into a single process, which we could term secularisation by subtraction. Doubts herd together and chip away at the simple trust of Britons in the Bible, leaving behind an attenuated and fragile religiosity.

Yet Victorian faith was more tenacious and mysterious than this account allows. As Taylor sometimes concedes, the churches kept advancing on some fronts, such as the Christianisation of everyday life, even as their intellectual authority wavered. Sharp disputes over the meaning and authority of the Scriptures did more to stoke the fervour of a fractious Christian public than to attenuate it. Papal infallibility or the Athanasian Creed were objects of greater anxiety than the Diplodocus. In this now lost world, dinosaurs were not so much impossible as overrated monsters.

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