Baden Powell (1796-1860)
The Reverend Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, was a powerful clerical voice for the compatibility of evolutionary hypotheses and religious (specifically Christian) beliefs. Powell argued that there can be no exceptions to the laws of the natural world, and this placed him at odds with conservative forces within the hierarchy of the Church of England. As Powell stated forcefully in The Unity of Worlds and of Nature: Three Essays on the Spirit of the Inductive Philosophy; the Plurality of Worlds; and the Philosophy of Creation :
“That new species should be subject to exactly the same general laws of structure, growth, nutrition, and all other functions of organic life, and yet in the single instance of their mode of birth or origin should constitute exceptions to all physical law, is an incongruity so preposterous that no inductive mind can for a moment entertain it.” (page 377, The Unity of Worlds, 1855).
Baden Powell is also the father of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell (his third wife changed the family name to a hyphenated version of Baden Powell). Read more about Baden Powell’s contributions to evolutionary thought.
Baden Powell’s insistence on the investigative natural sciences as being essential to Christian natural theology (evidence for the existence of God derived from observations of the natural order) came at a time when the theological underpinnings of the Church of England were the subject of significant debate. His strong interest in the question of whether the world was an evolutionary one can first be traced to his 1838 essay, Connexions between Natural and Divine Truth (a response to the 1837 Bridgewater Treatises). Here, Powell broaches the species question – writing that the immutability of species is open to “philosophical investigation.”:
“The question respecting the immutability of species, and the possibility of a transition from one into another; of such modifications as we observe in intermediate races being perpetuated; of new species being thus eventually introduced; with the various collateral topics which are involved in these inquiries, have all formed the subjects of anxious debate, and even of animated controversy, among physiologists.” (page 150, Connexions, 1838).
Here is clear evidence of the extent to which species transmutation theory had permeated England’s intellectual atmosphere more than two decades before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
In 1845, Powell authored an entry entitled “Creation” in John Kittos’s Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature. After elucidating the current state of scholarly biblical exegesis on the Genesis creation story, Powell recounts various “theories” of creation based alone or in part on the scriptural account of creation; and he compares these with geological and fossil evidence for the appearance of life on Earth:
“As bearing then, on the subject of creation, or the origin of life and organized structures, the whole evidence which geology furnishes is certainly irreconcilable with the idea of one simultaneous general development of organized existence. It points, indeed, to a commencement of organized life; but shows that as successive forms and species of organization from time to time disappeared, new forms and new species were produced to supply their places; [that these changes corresponded to others in the physical conditions of the globe; but that none of them were at once universal in extent and simultaneous in time; lastly, that the human race (probably) did not come into existence till the period to which the present state of things belongs]”(page 484, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, 1845).
As would become even more evident in his later writings, the rapidly expanding and detailed geological and fossil record was central to his argumentation for an evolved world.
In 1855, Powell expanded on his earlier writings in a full-length book – The Unity of Worlds and of Nature: Three Essays on the Spirit of Inductive Philosophy; The Plurality of Worlds; and The Philosophy of Creation. In considering Powell’s contribution to and engagement with early evolutionary thought, his third essay, The Philosophy of Creation, requires particular consideration. The essay is divided into four parts: Evidence from Geology, Evidence from Physiology, General Considerations, and Bearing on Theological Views. The first two sections, in which Powell gives evidences for species transmutation from geology and physiology, draw heavily upon Lyell’s gradualism and uniformitarianism. Powell derived the majority of the physiological evidence from works of Owen, Carpenter, and Huxley (although he mentions Knox and others as well). As Darwin would do in Origin, Powell defends gaps in the fossil record as periods of poor preservation:
“If then, we find a bed containing certain species, and then superimposed on it another containing forms not only specifically, but even generically or still more widely different, instead of a real hiatus, an interruption, a destruction, and a sudden reproduction of life, the fair inference would be the occurrence of an indefinitely long interval of ages, during which, indeed, no fossiliferous deposits took place at that locality, but during which the slow progressive change of species went on, until whole genera were different, and then a deposit took place in which some of these latest remains were imbedded” (page 365, The Unity of Worlds, 1855).
Following the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote to Powell in January of 1860 (presumably in response to Powell reminding him of his own contributions to evolutionary theory– letter lost) that “I have just bethought me of a Preface which I wrote to my larger work, before I broke down & was persuaded to write the now published Abstract. In this Preface I find the following passage, which on my honour I had as completely forgotten as if I had never written it. “The Philosophy of Creation” has lately been treated in an admirable manner by the Revd. Baden Powell in his Essay &c &c 1855. Nothing can be more striking then the manner in which he shows that the introduction of new species is “a regular not a casual phenomenon” (Letter).
In fact, Baden Powell was invited to participate in the now famous 1860 Oxford evolution debate (in which Wilberforce and Huxley debated Darwin’s theory), but died of a heart attack two weeks before it was held. As the historian Pietro Corsi writes in Science and Religion: Baden Powell and the Anglican Debate, 1800-1860, “He [Powell] had become the most outspoken representative of liberal theology and the evolutionary approach to natural history. His sudden death, on 11 June 1860, deprived him of the possibility of linking his name with the evolutionary debate as the first outspoken theological supporter of Darwin’s theory”.
Although Powell wrote on similar themes throughout his life, he, perhaps spurred on by his zeal for educational reform in the university and desire to participate in the scientific discussions of the day, became increasingly outspoken in his adherence to the conclusions drawn from “inductive philosophy”, or empiricism. His 1859 publication Order of Nature rejected the reality of miracles, and was denounced by the Anglican church as marking a departure from accepted doctrine.
Despite being an ardent advocate of evolutionary theory, not every naturalist found Powell’s contributions to the evolutionary discussion wholly satisfactory. Darwin’s close friend and confidant Joseph Dalton Hooker wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray in 1857: “These parsons are so in the habit of dealing with abstractions of doctrines as if there was no difficulty about them whatever, so confident, from the practice of having the talk all to themselves for an hour at least every week with no one to gainsay a syllable they utter, be it ever so loose or bad, that they gallop over the course when their field is Botany or Geology as if we were in the pews and they in the pulpit. Witness the self-confident style of Whewell and Baden Powell, Sedgewick, and Buckland” (pages 477-478, Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker).
To read more about the botanist Joseph Hooker’s contribution to evolutionary thought, click here.