Ronald L Numbers and John Stenhouse (eds), Disseminating Darwinism. The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001 (1999) [0521 01105 1], Australian RRP $49.95 (pbk).
This collection of essays explores the reception of the Darwinian story of origins in the English speaking world—Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and North America—and the ways in which geography, race, religion and gender played or did not play a role in influencing the development of debates about the theory. It is a book for scholars and students of modern history, but it has value as a reference for people interested in the relations between theology and science or in race and gender issues.
It has long been accepted by historians that there was no warfare between science and religion, in opposition to popular and influential late nineteenth-century histories. That myth dispelled, the field has been opened up to closer attention to the finer details of the varied responses and interactions between theologians, believers and the practitioners of science. Thus in Australia, Barry Butcher shows in his contribution to this volume, there was no warfare, there were no ‘sides’, simply a variety of opinions across the spectrum.
There is a chapter on ‘Roman Catholic responses to evolution, 1875-1925’ which emphasises the vigour of debate within Catholicism. The study concentrates on the Church in the United States, but similar lively and intense debates were taking place in other parts, especially in England and France. Towards the end of the century the debate throughout the Catholic world became linked with the so-called modernist crisis. Civiltà Cattolica led the charge with strident opposition to all transformism, or evolution theory and, as I have argued elsewhere (British Journal of the History of Science, 2001, 34, 81-95), the Jesuits who published Civiltà Cattolica exerted undue influence in changing the official Church position from one of wary tolerance to practical, though not public, condemnation.
In the United States theories of evolution were linked with social movements which favoured the preservation of Anglo-Saxon privilege (‘nativism’), and supported social engineering, but as a rule evolution theory was not much favoured by racists. There is little evidence that either African American intellectuals or New Zealand Maoris linked the racial discrimination from which they suffered with evolution theory. Usually racists, being ultra-conservatives, were anti-evolutionists. This is something to be kept in mind when we are reflecting later this year on the 2003 Social Justice Statement which will focus on Racism and Multiculturalism. Racism does not seek much scientific justification.
Women intellectuals, by contrast, were active and vocal in challenging Darwin’s ‘findings’ on the differences between the sexes, his assumptions about women’s physical and mental inferiority, and his virtual defence of Victorian gender roles. Women fought back with research into the ‘evidence’ for intellectual differences between the sexes (which they found mostly wanting), and established empirical standards for testing the differences which enabled them to challenge Darwin’s views on ‘woman’s nature’.
This is a book that would be a valuable addition to every theological library.