By the late 19th century, the majority of working scientists, including geologists, had come to accept that the Earth was a very, very old place, as evidenced by an extensive fossil record. This acceptance had not come easily, but the unearthing of strange Triassic mammals and marine creatures and pterosaurs, embedded in stratified quarries and cliffs, had gradually, over the decades, undermined the traditional view of the Earth and creation, including the literal reading of the Book of Genesis. The scientific view of origins was ascendant, the biblical view in retreat.
Except not exactly. At this moment in time, no less an eminence than William Gladstone, longtime British prime minister and accomplished classical scholar in his own right, attempted a feat of intellectual gymnastics. He did not refute the fossil evidence; rather, he flipped it on its head. He argued that the order of origins was identical in both Genesis and the fossil record—“water populations” and “air populations” first, followed by “land population”—and humans last of all. The clear principle was primitive first, followed by increasing complexity, leading to this rhetorical stroke:
How came the author of the first chapter of Genesis, to know that order, to possess knowledge which natural science has only within the present century for the first time dug out of the bowels of the earth? It is surely impossible to avoid the conclusion that . . . his knowledge was divine.
Gladstone’s analysis was part of a public attack on Thomas Henry Huxley, close friend and intellectual ally of Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been shaking up the accepted wisdom—and church authority—since its publication in 1859. But as Keith Thomson points out in this engaging and provocative book, the same rhetorical sparring could be taking place today—and is, in fact. Biblical literalists are still inventing new contortions, sometimes quite skillfully, that appear to accommodate scientific thinking and analysis, yet really want to deny their relevance to their world of miracles and divine revelation.
Thomson’s core argument, first delivered as the 2012 Terry Lectures at Yale and elaborated into this volume of essays, is that new knowledge always comes with a cost—often an intensely personal cost. His two examples of this personal agonizing are Darwin and Thomas Jefferson, who in very different ways advanced the scientific enterprise while struggling privately with the implications of their insights.
Jefferson is the more surprising case study, at least for those familiar with him mostly as a revolutionary, Founder, statesman, politician, and third president of a young nation. Jefferson was also, Thomson says, a “co-founding father of American climatology and geography, scientific archaeology, and paleontology,” and it’s this expertise and passion that interests Thomson here. Jefferson was an avid naturalist and somehow found time in his busy life to roam his native Blue Ridge region, studying the mountainous geology, fossils, and petrified shells. He compiled his observations and thought into his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), considered one of the earliest (and impressively accurate) records of the natural history
It was also his personal manifesto, and in addition to meticulous descriptions of the natural world, he held forth on the sublime quality of Virginia’s landscapes. The sheer beauty of the rivers and mountains and valleys, and their complexity, was to Jefferson evidence of a divine creator. He believed in the basic premise of natural theology: that the elegance of the world, especially life on Earth, could not have arisen by chance, but required intelligent design.
Many readers will halt at those words—“intelligent design”—because they are still in use today, often summoned to argue for miraculous creation and against the widely held secular view of evolution by natural selection. But Jefferson, unlike contemporary advocates of intelligent design and “creation science,” was anything but antiscience. He embraced natural theology in order to reconcile the flood of scientific evidence with traditional religious authority. He was a deist, never a churchgoer, and he rejected the divinity of Jesus, as he did all miracles. Indeed, he created a redacted version of the New Testament, deleting all references to the supernatural. Yet for all of his accommodation, he was vilified by evangelical Christians during the election of 1800 and slandered mercilessly even after leaving the White House.