Charles Southwell’s atheistical publication The Oracle of Reason, or Philosophy Vindicated is a primary example of the manner in which transformist ideas of the Victorian period could be co-opted and made to serve political, social, or philosophical aims. Southwell, the youngest of 33 children from a working-class English family, was a radical freethinker, social reformer, and an atheist. In 1841 he founded The Oracle of Reason along with William Chilton and John Field, and became the first editor of the periodical. In a 48-part series of short articles in the Oracle entitled Theory of Regular Gradation, Southwell drew on contemporary ideas of progressive evolution to further a materialistic and anti-religious worldview.
The series is heralded by a crude illustration of the French naturalist Pierre Boitard’s “L’Homme Fossile” and an accompanying quote from Boitard encapsulating the thesis of regular gradation: “…organic formation after organic formation has taken place, passing gradually from simple to compound bodies…”. Southwell then describes the clerical opposition to viewing man as having any relation to “the inferior animals”, denouncing those who “rest contented in most shameful ignorance, rather than their pride should be mortified by any discoveries in science, hostile to their cherished opinions” (I). Not a naturalist himself, Southwell attributed the scientific “facts” in his publication to an eclectic selection of naturalists-from the less reputable science of Boitard and Lord Monboddo to the more esteemed Buffon and Lamarck. (The Oracle’s co-founder, William Chilton, who would write the later articles in the Theory of Regular Gradation, drew more heavily upon Lamarck and Lyell.) Progressive evolution, Southwell claimed, proved that “there are no fixed modes (laws as they are styled) for each species and each part, there being nothing fixed in the parts of nature, which are in a continual state of flux or change (III).
Transmutation was helpful to the reformer and the atheist agenda not only because it debunked the theory of special creation, but also because it seemed to indicate a sort of fluidity in nature – a lack of any true distinction among natural kinds – which aided Southwell and his peers in portraying the existing hierarchical religious and social structure as having been arbitrarily imposed on the natural world by an aristocratic elite anxious to maintain the status quo. In the Theory of Regular Gradation, Southwell was particularly devoted to teaching his readers about Boitard’s “oscillatoires de murailles” – ambiguous simple-celled forms of life which were difficult to classify as belonging to either the plant or animal kingdom. His writing makes evident that he saw in this ambiguity in nature, support for a materialist, reductionist view of the world which made it possible to denounce both the existing social structure and traditional Christian teaching.
In fact, whereas other reformers of the period accepted at least a nominal association with Protestant Christianity for the sake of achieving their goals of social reform, Southwell had a particular virulence toward the Church of England and for this reason had broken from the socialist missionary group founded by Robert Owen before founding The Oracle. Ultimately, his denunciation of religion in The Oracle (he used particularly racist and offensive terms in his descriptions of the Bible) led to his arrest and imprisonment for blasphemy. As a result, William Chilton assumed authorship of the Theory of Regular Gradation series, picking up where Southwell left off after the sixth article. Eventually, The Oracle shut down in 1843 due to financial difficulties.
For a more in-depth treatment of Southwell’s use of evolutionary biology in the sociopolitical context of Victorian England, please see Adrian Desmond’s Artisan Resistance and Evolution in Britain, 1819-1848 and Beyond the ‘Common Context’: The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises by Jonathan Topham.