David N. Livingstone, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution

David N. Livingstone, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2014) x + 263 pp. £26 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1326-6

In the early 1990s, John Hedley Brooke upset the troublingly persistent narrative of a conflict between science and religion.  Instead, Brooke noticed the historical complexity and plurality of that relationship, configurations of which many subsequent scholars have traced.  Livingstone’s impressively detailed Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution examines that plurality from a new angle: cultural geography.  Focusing on Scottish Calvinists, the book explores divergent responses to and constructions of Darwinian evolution in five locations in the late nineteenth century.  Livingstone argues that what could be heard and said about Darwin depended on the established concerns and rhetoric of local communities.  Ultimately, the book is about how specific communities dealt with Darwin and what deals they made with Darwinism.  Along the way, Livingstone finds that responses to Darwin were also always about something else: control of education, national politics, or cultural identity.

There are five destinations in Livingstone’s world tour of Scottish Calvinism: Edinburgh; Belfast; Toronto; Columbia, South Carolina; and Princeton, New Jersey.  For each, there is generally an inciting incident, core themes of debate, and key voices backed by an multiple interlocutors.  Livingstone’s knowledge and analysis of the intellectual and social topographies of these communities is thorough and well-expressed.  Yet, beyond the support these discussions give to his larger argument about place’s importance for responses to Darwin, the details about each geographical destination are of interest primarily to anyone studying individual locales, incidents, topics, or contributors.

Livingstone starts with Edinburgh and Belfast, communities which could not have received Darwinian ideas more differently.  In Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment’s heritage created an environment friendly to new scientific theories.  Thus Scottish Calvinists, as ‘Darwinian peacemakers’ (50), sought an increasing ‘rapprochement’ (35) with evolution over the nineteenth century.  In context, biological evolution seemed perfectly acceptable compared to objectionable theories of cultural evolution (including Biblical history) outlined by the Free Church’s own William Robertson Smith.  Key interlocutors were Robert Rainy, Henry Drummond, James David Forbes, Robert Flint, Henry Calderwood, George Matheson, James Iverach, Horatius Bonar, Alexander Balmain Bruce, and James Orr.

In Belfast, by contrast, Darwinian evolution provoked hostility.  Livingstone argues that John Tyndall’s 1874 presidential address at the British Association for the Advancement for Science meeting in Belfast, which called for the liberation of science from theology, inaugurated a ‘winter of discontent’ (73) about Darwinian theories. Tyndall’s aggressive manner set the tone for debate, inducing return hostilities against Darwinian evolution from Presbyterians who had been unconcerned about Darwin’s ideas until then.  Attempting to regain control over discussion, the Rosemary Street chapel hosted a series of eight lectures designed to maintain firm theological boundaries against Tyndall’s materialism and naturalism.  Yet Tyndall’s perceived attack also played into local concerns, heightening Ulster non-conformism’s existing sense of being under siege within Catholic Belfast.  Thus the reactions of men like J.L. Porter, Robert Blakey, James McCosh, and Robert Watts were not just about origins, but also about public decorum, religious control of education, and anti-Catholicism.

Crossing the Atlantic, Livingstone investigates reactions to Darwin in Toronto, against the ‘relative absence’ (90) of debate over Darwinism in Canada.  Surprisingly, he finds that evolution was generally ignored by men of science while more warmly received by denominational leaders, particularly the heirs of Scottish theological culture.  This was true of Toronto’s Knox College, which achieved a ‘notable equipoise’ over Darwin by constructing its own ‘modus vivendi’ with his theories (91).  These seemingly reversed responses to Darwin were both rooted in the Scottish Common Sense tradition.  Where scientists focused on practical matters, disdained Darwin’s empirical weakness, and objected to speculation, Knox College’s theologians emphasized progress and thus easily welcomed evolutionary theories.  Through examining the work of John William Dawson, Daniel Wilson, William J. Hunter, Edward John Chapman, William Hincks, Robert Ramsey Wright, G.M. Milligan, William Hunter, William Dewar, and William Caven, particularly in the Knox Monthly, Livingstone shows how these writers achieved a ‘creative rendezvous’ (110) with Darwin which was evident in a tone ‘ameliorative, accommodating, and bereft of animosity’ (108), resulting ultimately in the ‘enlistment of evolutionary rhetoric’ (112) in multiple disciplines at Knox.

Moving south, Livingstone turns to Columbia, South Carolina, and Princeton, New Jersey, where opposing interactions with Darwin emerged.  As might be expected, Darwin was antagonistically received in Columbia.  The inciting incident was James Woodrow’s public and drawn-out dismissal from his professorship at Southern Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1886 for his evolutionary views.  Woodrow saw evolution as a description of 'what' not 'how' and sought to maintain a harmony between science and religion through ‘boundary maintenance’ (119).  His opponents, especially John Lafayette Girardeau and Robert Dabney, saw science, through evolution, as attacking the Bible.  Livingstone concludes that this hostility to science was not just about the Bible, but about defending an already-embattled Southern social order and its Christian roots.  Specifically, they objected to the polygenism they (mistakenly) perceived as necessary to Darwinian evolution because it upset the racist social order they had forged for themselves where black slaves required white paternalistic government.

The final chapter of the book turns north, exploring a ‘distinctly Princeton ethos’ (184) which involved an ‘anticipatory’ strategy (191).  Focalizing its argument through B.B. Warfield, the chapter compares the distinct yet overlapping views, rhetoric, and influences of anti-Darwinian Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary and pro-evolutionary James McCosh at Princeton College.  Noticing their shared commitment to teleology and concern about naturalism, Livingstone argues that it was their rhetorical stances which produced the perceived difference in their relationships to Darwinian evolution.  Defending theological conservatism, Hodge objected centrally to evolution’s implications for humans and sought to defeat the theory through carefully controlling the debate’s definitions.  Confident in the reality of evolution although not its Darwinian details, McCosh sought to create a space where faith and science could coexist. Thus, a number of followers, including Warfield, George Macloskie, William Berryman Scott, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Joseph van Dyke, Francis Landey Patton, and Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr., took up the ‘Princeton strategy’: ‘hold off on personal judgment in advance of strong empirical confirmation, lay out the evidence warranting caution, and at the same time consider what implication, if any, the theory might hold for theology’ (195).  Livingstone calls this ‘anticipatory rhetoric’ (191), ‘preemptive diplomacy’ (191), and ‘anticipatory apologetics’ (196).

In his conclusion, Livingstone offers two categories into which local reactions to Darwin could be grouped.  On the one hand are places where interactions with Darwin were dominated by ‘flash points’ (200), concerns which when challenged by Darwin led to rapidly rising anxiety (polygenism in Columbia, the compatibility of science and Protestantism in Belfast).  On the other hand are places which became ‘trading zones’ (200) where fruitful dialogue was possible (Edinburgh, Toronto, Princeton).  For those unfamiliar with scholarship on nineteenth-century science-and-religion, that relatively conservative Christian thinkers could accept and even welcome Darwinian ideas could come as a shock.  And here is the biggest problem with this book as I see it: those who believe - usually assume - the Christians-versus-Darwin metanarrative are unlikely to read this book.  For those who already understand the complexity of Victorian science-and-religion, this book has several new things to offer.  Its most original contribution is in using cultural geography to study science and religion.  Its most interesting point is that reactions to Darwin were also always about something else.  And finally, its most inspiring accomplishment is the way it makes microhistories serve a compelling larger argument: it is a comparative collection of local studies whose sum is more than its parts.  This book is essential reading for those seeking to understand the geography, whether actual or metaphorical, of nineteenth-century science-and-religion.

Courtney J. Salvey, Augsburg College