Evolution Quote Mining in the 19th-Century

Charles Darwin and two supporters, Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall

Charles Darwin and two supporters, Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall

Searching historical databases for material on John Tyndall (for my MA research), I came across an article in The New York Times of November 25, 1884, “Turn in the Tide of Thought: Thomas Kimber’s Lecture on Science in Relation to Divine Truths.” It is an account of a lecture by Kimber about a return to Biblical teachings and harmony between scientific discoveries and Scriptural statements. From the article:

As an illustration of the change of thought, the lecturer spoke of evolution’s failure as a strong theory and the downfall of Darwinism. When the theory came out it was seized upon with avidity, and most of the great scholars examined it and accepted it. Now they had given it up. Prof. Virchow in the Edinburgh celebration said evolution had no scientific basis. No skull had yet been found differing to any extent from the general type. Prof. Tyndall had lately said that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture.” Prof. Huxley, at first one of its strongest advocates, said the link between the living and the not living had not been found. It must be found to prove the evolution theory.

The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1884, p. 8

The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1884, p. 8

Tyndall, an Irish physicist and science popularizer, is known as an ardent supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, showing this support most famously in his 1874 Belfast Address and in an earlier lecture on the scientific use of the imagination. He was a member of the X Club, along with Thomas Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Herbert Spencer, and five others. This was a dining club and social network started in 1864 that supported the theory of natural selection and campaigned for the authority of science in British society. So when I read “Prof. Tyndall had lately said that ‘evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,’” I immediately questioned the quote. I popped it into Google Book Search.

In 1878, Tyndall published an article in The Nineteenth Century titled “Virchow and Evolution.” Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), a German doctor and biologist, opposed the theory of evolution (openly in an 1877 speech in Munich) based on the lack of fossil evidence, and he had an opponent in Ernst Haeckel.

Tyndall’s article addresses Virchow’s 1877 speech:

The keynote of his position is struck in the preface to the excellent English translation of his lecture—a preface written expressly by himself. Nothing, he says, was farther from his intention than any wish to disparage the great services rendered by Mr. Darwin to the advancement of biological science, of which no one has expressed more admiration than himself. On the other hand, it seemed high time to him to enter an energetic protest against the attempts that are made to proclaim the problems of research as actual facts, and the opinions of scientists as established science. On the ground, among others, that it promotes the pernicious delusions of the Socialist, Virchow considers the theory of evolution dangerous; but his fidelity to truth is so great that he would brave the danger and teach the theory, if it were only proved. The burden indeed of this celebrated lecture is a warning that a marked distinction ought to be made between that which is experimentally established, and that which is still in the region of speculation. (p. 822)

Two pages later:

In a discourse delivered before the British Association at Liverpool, after speaking of the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter as belonging to ‘the dim twilight of conjecture,’ and affirming that ‘ the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out,’ I sketch the nebular theory as enunciated by Kant and Laplace… (p. 824, emphasis mine)

Clearly Tyndall does not reject the theory of evolution. He is making a distinction between what can be known about evolution through experimental inquiry and what cannot. The New York Times piece takes Tyndall’s quote out of context and skews Tyndall’s intentions. This is a perfect example of quote mining. Tyndall did not state that “evolution belongs to the twilight of conjecture,” but rather that “the theory of evolution applied to the primitive condition of matter” belongs to “the dim twilight of conjecture.” Surely two different meanings. Darwin explained how species evolved, but not how life first originated. This is what Tyndall is getting at. “Virchow and Evolution” was also published in Popular Science in January 1879.

We cannot be sure of the intention of he who wrote the piece in The New York Times. The article is neither critical nor laudatory toward Kimber’s lecture. What is certain is that Tyndall is not presented accurately in this piece. Nor elsewhere.

In The Medical Record (Dec. 1, 1883):

In other quarters there are indications that the doctrine of Darwin is losing some of its charms for scientists. Some tell us that they accept it as a step to something else. Others find its demands on their credence too great. Your readers know pretty well the opposition it has encountered by such men as St. J. Mivart, Virchow, Wharton Jones, F.R.S., and others. A further indication of uncertainty in scientific minds is afforded by the statements of Prof. Tyndall, who, in the Popular Science Review, says that “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. . . Those who hold the doctrine are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. . . . Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not belong to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof are lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (p. 611)

In Friends’ Review (March 22, 1884):

Probably the following quotations from Prof. Tyndall’s utterances on Evolution, taken from The Popular Science Monthly, will surprise some of those who have hastily accepted the theory, and based assumptions upon it. “Evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture, and the certainty of experimental inquiry is here shut out. . . . Those who hold the doctrine of Evolution are by no means ignorant of the uncertainty of their data, and they only yield to it a provisional assent. . . . Long antecedent to his advice I did exactly what Prof. Virchow recommends, showing myself as careful as he could be, not to claim for a scientific doctrine a certainty which did not be long to it. … I agree with him that the proofs of it are wanting. I hold with Virchow that the failures of proof have been lamentable, that the doctrine of spontaneous generation is utterly discredited.” (p. 524)

In the Autobiography of Samuel D. Gross, M.D. (1887):

If we believe in a great First Cause, as all rational men must, why not assume that all things, visible and invisible, were the product of a special creation instead of a gradual evolution, as asserted by Darwin and his followers ? If God could create the earth, the stars, and the mighty planets, of which our world forms only an insignificant part, could He not also, by a special act, have created all the dwellers therein, from the most minute microcosm up to the most complicated form of animal life? I agree with Professor Tyndall that the whole subject of evolution belongs to the dim twilight of conjecture. (p. 186)

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9 thoughts on “Evolution Quote Mining in the 19th-Century

  1. “Clearly Tyndall does not not accept the theory of evolution.”

    ITYM “reject”, not “accept”.

    Nice post, by the way.

  2. Wow, I thought that wording looked weird, but it didn’t click to use “reject.” It’s fixed now, thanks!

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