Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Charles Kingsley, Creation and Evolution

Charles Kingsley was, at various times, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, Tutor to the future King Edward VII, Rector of Eversley, Canon of Westminster Abbey and the author of The Water Babies, Hereward the Wake and Westward Ho!. Of his many books, one that is less familiar is Glaucus that pays homage to the burgeoning interest in marine Natural History during the mid Nineteenth Century. It was published in 1855, having first appeared in the North British Review of November 1854, and the main difference in the two versions is the addition of examples of creatures from fresh waters in the book, presaging The Water Babies

Glaucus contains descriptions of a wide range of algae, invertebrates and vertebrates found around the coast of Southern Britain, the result of collecting trips on the rocky, and sandy, shores of Torbay and from dredging expeditions. Fanny, Charles' wife, spent a period of convalescence at Livermead House in Torquay (see above) and Charles stayed with her for several months in the spring of 1854, spending much of his time on his hobby. His passion for Natural History, and for marine biology, was inspired by reading Philip Henry Gosse's books The Aquarium and A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast and there are frequent references to these in Glaucus, often with quotations:

The brilliant plates in Mr Gosse's "Aquarium"...

First and foremost [among works on Natural History], certainly, come Mr Gosse's books

Mr Gosse, his delightful and, happily, well-known books has done more for the study of marine zoology than any other living man.

..Mr Gosse, in his charming "Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast"..

It is clear that Kingsley, nine years younger than Gosse, had great admiration for the knowledge, and communication skills, of the older man. Gosse had previously visited Torquay in 1852 [1], and the time spent there, and in Ilfracombe (Kingsley also moved from Torquay to North Devon), resulted in A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. Kingsley not only eulogised Gosse in Glaucus, he also recommended to anyone that would listen that they should take field courses offered by Henry Gosse at the time, such was his significance. It was to Gosse, in London, that Kingsley sent collections that he had made around Torbay and Henry confirmed his identifications.

The two men became good friends and it was not only marine Natural History that they had in common, as they must have discovered early in their conversations. Both came from families that had earlier hit hard times, both loved poetry and both were devout Christians, Gosse being a member of the Brethren and Kingsley a priest in the Church of England. They shared a strong dislike of Roman Catholicism, and High Anglicanism, and this was expressed openly in their writing (although Kingsley did use the term "Hanoverian rats" for brown rats, a term that he may have borrowed from the staunchly Catholic Charles Waterton). Whereas Henry Gosse was to become the leader of his own small group of Brethren, to whom he preached each Sunday, Kingsley was a country rector and ended as a Canon of Westminster Abbey, with many coming to hear his sermons, despite his tendency to stutter [2]. 

Another contrast between the two men was the lack of any wish to become part of the Establishment shown by Gosse, and the pleasure in recognition at Court shown by Kingsley, that included many invitations to meet Queen Victoria and Prince Albert [2]. They also differed in their formal education, Kingsley being a student at Cambridge University while Gosse was largely self educated, having left school to work as a clerk at 16; then being sent to Newfoundland for similar employment when he was just 17 years old [3]. However, one of his aunts was an enthusiastic Naturalist and showed the young Henry many creatures on the shore around Poole in Dorset, just has she had done her own son, Thomas Bell, who trained as a surgeon and whose interest in marine organisms led to his appointment as Professor of Zoology at King's College London. Bell was an important contact for Henry when he was seeking to publish his first book, based on his experiences of the Natural History of Newfoundland and, in time, Henry Gosse, like Bell, was recognised for his scientific achievements in being made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Gosse and Kingsley reacted differently to developing ideas on geological time scales, and evolution, current in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, culminating in Darwin's On the Origin of Species of 1859. Gosse knew that the presence of fossils and rock strata showed that the Earth had been in existence for many millions of years but, as a literalist who believed in the description of Creation in The Holy Bible, then produced a theory that attempted to resolve the two positions. His book, Omphalos, was published in 1857. Put simply, Gosse theorised that Creation took place as described in Genesis, but that all the strata and fossils were prochronic, or before time, being created with the impression of some previous existence. Clearly the idea is preposterous and it was derided by both the scientific and religious communities. 

Taking time to respond after reading Omphalos, Kingsley wrote to Gosse in 1858 [3], stating:

..Nothing can be fairer than the way in which you state the evidence for the microchronology [this is a reference to the first section of Omphalos in which Gosse sets out the evidence for geological time scales – the macrochronology, not microchronology, as Kingsley states [3]]. That at once bound me to listen respectfully to all you had to say after. And, much as I kicked and winced at first, nothing, I find, can be sounder than your parallels and precedents [where Gosse refers to a wide range of organisms that had just been created]. The one case of the coccus-mother (though every conceivable instance goes to prove your argument) would be enough for me, assuming the act of absolute creation. Assuming that – which I have always assumed, as fully as you – shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt it, and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this – that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes a Deus quidam deceptor. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the pandanus trunk, and your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie..

In the letter, Kingsley shows his support for Creation, but clearly not for the theory put forward in Omphalos for prochronic existence. His opposition hinged on his view that Gosse was proposing an idea that appeared to show that God was deceiving us. Even after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Gosse continued to maintain a literal Creationist stance, as did some other noted figures, like the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre [4]. Kingsley didn't feel the theory of evolution to be a threat to his religious beliefs and he was able to shift his views in the light of changing, and developing, opinion. He was still a Creationist, as is clear in his letter to Gosse, but with a looser view; that all organisms were designed by God and could then become subject to change, also under the control of the Creator. In Glaucus, published in 1855, before both Omphalos (1857) and On the Origin of Species (1859), Kingsley had written:

Let us speak freely a few words on this important matter. Geology has disproved the old popular belief that the universe was brought into being, as it now exists, by a single fiat. We know that the work has been gradual: that the earth "In tracts of fluent heat began, The seeming prey of cyclic storms, The home of seeming random forms, Till, at the last, arose the man." And we know, also, that these forms, seeming random as they are, have appeared according to a law, which, as far as we can judge, has been only the whole one of progress, - lower animals (though we cannot say, the lowest) appearing first, and man, the highest mammal, "the roof and crown of things," one of the latest in the series..

..Let us, therefore, say boldly, that there has been a "progress of species," and there may be again, in the true sense of that term: but say, as boldly, that the Transmutation theory is not one of a progress of species at all, which would be a change in the idea of the species, taking place in the Divine Mind, - in plain words, the creation of a new species. What the Transmutationists really mean, if they would express themselves clearly, or carefully analyze their own notions, is, a physical and actual change, not of species, but of individuals, of already existing living beings, created according to one idea, into other living beings, created according to another idea.

It was thus relatively easy for Kingsley to become a proponent of the ideas set out in On the Origin of Species four years later and his support was appreciated by Darwin. In Fraser's magazine [5], Kingsley wrote:

..if any one shall hint to us that we and the birds may have sprung originally from the same type; that the difference between our intellect and theirs is one of degree, and not of kind, we may believe or doubt: but in either case we shall not be greatly moved. So much the better for the birds, we will say, and none the worse for us. You raise the birds towards us, but you do not lower us towards them. What we are, we are by the grace of God. Our own powers and the burden of them we know full well. It does not lessen their dignity or their beauty in our eyes to hear that the birds of the air partake, even a little, of the same gifts of God as we. Of old said St Guthlac in Crowland, as the swallows sat upon his knee, "He who leads his life according to the will of God, to him the wild deer and wild birds draw more near;" and this new theory of yours may prove St Guthlac right. St Francis, too, he called the birds his brothers. Whether he was correct, either theologically or zoologically, he was plainly free from that fear of being mistaken for an ape, which haunts so many in these modern times..

This view, supporting the similarities between living organisms, and thus the possibility of evolution, also provides opposition to the view, held by many literal Creationists, that everything was created for the benefit of humans. As Lynn Barber points out [6]:

..Kingsley exposed the question of usefulness to man for what it was: a red herring. The existence of so many different species in Nature was, he asserted, inexplicable on any anthropocentric basis.. ..There was no need to prove that everything in Nature was created for man's benefit. There was no scriptural authority for suggesting that it was. Kingsley's explanation was sufficient. God had created everything for His own enjoyment.

Given their opposition, it is difficult to imagine that Kingsley and Gosse could ever meet again on close terms although, as with Kingsley's help given to Henry over his son's application for a position at the British Museum Library, respect was not lost between the two men. Conflicts based on differences of opinion on the writings in Holy Books often seem to occur and the Creation debate certainly caused conflicts for some Christian believers in the Nineteenth Century and the debate continues today. It is difficult to sympathise with Henry Gosse on this issue and the flexible approach of Kingsley fits the evidence much better. Such conflicts are confusing when viewed from the outside and I am grateful that I do not believe in the supernatural.

Omphalos intrigues me and I have posted about the book before [7]. We know that Henry Gosse was challenged, it was the time of the painful fatal illness of his first wife, and he was very conscious that the Second Coming was imminent. Even those reasons cannot explain why he came up with the idea of prochronic existence and then be surprised that others didn't go along with it. Unfortunately, Gosse was unable to move his position because he was constrained by the straitjacket of his own religious beliefs.

[1] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[2] Susan Chitty (1974) The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[3] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: the Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[5] Charles Kingsley (1867) A Charm of Birds. Fraser's magazine for town and country 75: 802-810.

[6] Lynn Barber (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870. London, Jonathan Cape.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Being asked for views and opinions

Occasionally, I am asked to give my views and opinions on various subjects and I find the exercise difficult, preferring to write about the views and opinions of others. This year, my Alma Mater has an important anniversary and, as part of the celebrations, the University invited Alumni to write short pieces under different headings, feeling that we had worthwhile things to say. This is what I came up with (using the headings that we were given).

Life's turning points

I was a Freshman in 1965/6 (that's me in the picture above, taken on a 1st year field trip). Many things stay in my memory of that year: arriving at the University; buying an undergraduate gown (yes, really); buying a University scarf (very 1960s); finding the first lectures and practical classes a bit scary; and making new "friends", some of whom I lost contact with after a day. It was a time of many changes and I was certainly aware that I had left home and that there were new experiences ahead. As the first member of my family to attend University, there was also a feeling of pride and an awareness of being part of an important institution.

After three years, I was ready for new challenges, but didn't want undergraduate years to end. They were that good.

Life's turning points

University courses delivered some major surprises. We covered the basics of the three science subjects that I had chosen during the first year, but this was made pleasurable because we were taught by experts in each field, all being interested in teaching. I found it thrilling to be introduced to areas of study about which I knew very little and one stand-out course was a series of lectures on the History of Science. We started with Greek philosophy, and my admiration for the original thinking of Democritus and Aristotle continues to this day. The course put the topics I studied into context and all degree programmes should do this. We can have the feeling that the contemporary view is the "correct" one and studying the history of a subject shows that this may, or may not, be the case.

Life's turning points

Small children seem so curious about the world around them and are always asking questions, some of them very difficult to answer. As we grow, the number of spoken questions becomes less and we find out more for ourselves or, if we are passive, we accept things that we are told. Information may come from a parent, a teacher, books, sources on the internet, or television and radio programmes. However, it is essential to retain a child-like curiosity, to question what we receive and to fight the passive response. That's what education is all about – the more we learn, the more there is to learn.


Conventions are observed in the workplace and at social gatherings. Some of these are valuable, others just a matter of formality, but they give us a framework for interactions and for behaviour. There are also unnecessary conventions and we shouldn't be afraid to question them, just as we shouldn't be afraid of challenging widely-accepted viewpoints. Every individual is unique, and we all have our own views as a result: as long as we think out our position on any issue, we should trust our own judgement.

Health and wellbeing

In developed Western cultures, we are obsessed with health and ageing. In part, it comes from the knowledge that we are all going to die and we resist that idea, and the signs that death is getting closer. Our susceptibility to illnesses, and to ageing, is affected by our genes and the way that the products they code react within the environment, be that within a cell, an individual, or the world around us. Recent medical research seems to focus on genes and cells, often ignoring the wider environment. It could be argued that the research conducted in medical genetics will result in increased longevity, while the world beyond individual humans will become more and more impoverished. As we obsess about our own fears, we seem less interested in the environment in which we live and which supplies many of our needs, both physical and emotional.


We all have explanations for things that we don't understand: these might come in the theories of scientists, or the belief in a Superior Being. These two positions have been considered irreconcilable, but there are many scientists with strong religious beliefs. There are also many varieties of religion, all offering explanations for everything, but trouble results when the religion becomes organised and ceases to be solely personal. We've all had people knock at our door, whether in our homes, Dorm, or wherever we are living, to tell us about their views and why we should take their viewpoint. These proselytisers of organised religion are convinced they are right and, by implication, that those with other views are wrong. As we all know, this can lead to schism, family and community conflicts, and even wars. Shouldn't we accept that each individual is entitled to their own view and that what is right for one person might not be right for another?


Have you ever had the experience of listening to a piece of music and having a spine-tingling sensation and a feeling of being taken to another place? There are some pieces of music that do this for me over and over again, especially if I am in the right mood and listening intently. Can this experience be considered to be spiritual? The answer comes in whether one believes in the supernatural, or whether the deep feelings engendered are just the result of nerve impulses and chemicals travelling through one's body. I favour the latter explanation, but have no idea why some pieces of music have this effect and others not. Although I think we will never understand the nature of the mechanisms involved (some scientists probably think that we will), I don't feel the need to look for supernatural explanations.


Having my own family was never a priority; nor was pushing ahead in a career. I knew that I was fascinated by Natural History and was delighted that this took me to some interesting places, with agreeable research colleagues. I feel very lucky to have been able to teach the subject and I have also been fortunate in that my wife certainly did want to have a family. The result is two wonderful children who have given me so much and who have gone on to successful independent lives. My son lives with his partner in a beautiful house in Islington and my daughter was married last autumn in a lovely ceremony in Norfolk. It took weeks to come down from the glowing feeling of the day and, as Bob Dylan remarked about parenthood in his Sign on the Window, "that must be what it's all about".


Monday, 2 May 2016

Angels, Nike, Superman and Darth Vader

Before the invention of powered flying machines, humans could only move through the air using balloons carried by winds. Now we can travel more or less anywhere at speed, and we are no longer confined to Earth, so the mystique of flying is much less that it was hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, we are fascinated by birds because they evolved powered flight using their own bodies and there has always been a rich mythology attached to birds and the places that they can reach. Using our imagination, we borrowed one of their major attributes – wings – and used these in our depiction of flying creatures like angels that are portrayed as humans with bird wings that enable them to fly between Earth and Heaven. This image has persisted for centuries and probably originated in statues of Greek goddesses, such as Nike, that have a clothed human form, with wings in addition to arms (when they are not broken off... see above).

In paintings, most angels are shown having predominantly white wings, an example being Guercino's St Sebastian succoured by angels (below, upper), although there are exceptions to this convention, as seen in works by Fra Angelico (below, second) and Veronese (below, third). Bright colour was a common feature of places of Christian worship in the first half of the last millennium, so it is not surprising that religious paintings are similarly brightly coloured. White wings, however, have another symbolic role. They remind us of doves, released as symbols of peace and reconciliation, and long portrayed in paintings as representing the Holy Spirit, as in the Double Trinity of Murillo (below, bottom).

If white is good, then black is evil in western Culture and birds like crows have a quite different reputation to that enjoyed by doves. They are known from ancient folklore as bringers of bad luck and even death [1], and they are potent symbols of evil in paintings, such as those by Giovanni Bellini (below, upper) and Mantegna (below, middle). Even though these illustrations are details from larger works, the prominence, and isolation, of the birds conveys a powerful message. Crows add to the forbidding tone of Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows (below, bottom), painted shortly before he died from infection following a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Although the overall colours of the painting convey gloom, imagine how the work would look without the crows and then think whether the atmosphere would be more, or less, menacing.

From mythology then, we conclude that white, or brightly coloured, wings are features of good angels, while evil angels, or angels of death, have black wings. In contemporary culture, we extend this metaphor by using capes; items of clothing designed originally to provide freedom of movement. Note that Superman (below) has a red cape that is fastened at the shoulders, just like angel wings. We know that Superman can fly, and that he came from another world, and we also know that flight was achieved through superhuman powers, just like those of angels. The cape is a symbol of Superman's ability to fly, just as bird wings are for angels, and it separates him from the merely human.

Although they do not appear in the same fantasy, Darth Vader of Star Wars (below) represents the antithesis to Superman. We see him as an imposing figure in black with a black cape held at the shoulders, just like that of Superman. The colour reminds us of evil and the visual imagery works before we ever know of Darth Vader's intentions (by the way, the "baddies" often wore black hats in early Western movies).

It is fun to think of Superman as a good angel (with some messianic qualities) and Darth Vader as an evil angel, but how odd they would look if earlier conventions had been followed and they were given bird wings of an appropriate colour instead of capes. Can you imagine it?

[1] Steve Roud (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. London, Penguin Books.