Sir Richard Sulivan (1752-1806)
Sir Richard Joseph Sulivan was a British MP from 1787-1796 and 1802-1806; and the first baronet of Thames Ditton, Surrey from 1804-1806. He became known for his travel writings and his commentary on the politics, scientific advances, and philosophy of the late eighteenth century. He was the nephew of Laurence Sulivan, chairman of the British East India Company, who arranged for him to travel to India as a writer for the EIC. Sulivan’s time in India eventually resulted in the publishing of An Analysis of the Political History of India. A later tour through Europe would inspire his Observations made during a tour through parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, in a series of Letters (1780) and A View of Nature: In letters to a traveler among the Alps with reflections on atheistical philosophy now exemplified in France in 1794.
Sulivan’s contribution to England’s incipient evolutionary thought comes in the form of his commentary on the state of evolutionary theory in late eighteenth-century France. As a world traveler and a writer, he gained insight into the intellectual developments taking place in the wake of the French Revolution. In a passage of Letter LXIII in the fourth volume of his, A View of Nature: In letters to a traveler among the Alps with reflections on atheistical philosophy now exemplified in France, he documents the extent of evolutionary discussion taking place in France:
“At length a discovery was supposed to be made of primitive animalacula, of organic molecula, from whom every kind of animal was formed. It was found out, that nature one day teeming in the vigor of youth, produced the first animal; a shapeless, clumsy, microscopical object. This, by the natural tendency of original propagation, to vary and protect the species, produced others better organized. These again produced others more perfect than themselves, till at last appeared the most complete species of animals, the human kind, beyond whose perfection it is impossible for the work of generation to proceed.”
Sulivan, while strongly advocating theism and denouncing atheism, rejects a materialist explanation for the derivation of all life (Letter LXVI).
“Yet, let me ask those who reject the aid of an intelligent cause, if they have ever been able to offer any tolerable hypothesis for explaining how plants and animal have been formed. In these beings, matter and the laws of motion, are able to do nothing. There is no such thing as equivocal generation. The sun, and earth, and water, and all the powers of nature in conjunction, cannot produce anything endued with even so much as vegetable life. Hence all plants and animals were originally the work of an intelligent being; or they have been derived one from another in an eternal succession, by an infinite progress of dependent causes; which is a positive absurdity.”
Sulivan’s stance against materialism is best summed up in his invocation of the philosophical principle of the unmoved mover in Letter LXIII in Volume IV of a View of Nature:
“Does it mean anymore, than that one particle of matter is impelled by another, as each resists a change of state, and that still by another, until we come to the particle first moved?…if matter then, cannot keep up mechanical motion in itself, can it rise to perfection infinitely excelling both in degree and kind?…I can never conceive that a capacity of thinking can be the effect of the combination and motion of unthinking elements.”
Newspapers and scientific journals from the 1780s and 1790s show Sulivan to be a man at the forefront of the scientific circles of late eighteenth century London. His frequent references to Comte de Buffon in the first volume of A View of Nature make evident that he is well-versed in the scientific discussions of the day. A fellow of The Royal Society, he was also one of the first Managers for the Institution for Diffusing the Knowledge and Facilitating the General Introduction of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements, and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the Application of SCIENCE to the Common Purposes of Life, which later became the Royal Institution and still operates to make science accessible to the public in the UK today. In addition, his work appears to have been widely circulated and well-respected. A View of Nature was translated into German in the same year it was published in the UK, and a positive review of the work was published in the German Philosophisches Journal in 1794.