“… but Wren and Sloane owed the honour to their public work rather than to their eminence in science. England was slow to reward scientific achievement by this distinction and I believe that Davy, in the early years of the nineteenth century, was the next to receive royal recognition; and even during that century such physicists as Faraday and Maxwell, and such a biologist as Darwin, were not knighted.”
- Louis Tenchard More, Isaac Newton: A Biography (1935)
A few days ago Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh, Whewell’s Ghost) tweeted:
Came across this yahoo Q&A on Darwin & lack of knighthood. That this wrong answer ‘resolves’ Q is dispiriting http://j.mp/eBdCFs #histsci
Here is the question and the various answers:
Question (Nick.391): How come Charles Robert Darwin never received a knighthood?
Answer 1 (Will): You must remember that Queen Victoria was not only the head of state, she was also the head of the Church of England. As Darwin’s theories were denounced by leading churchmen, it would have been virtually impossible for the Queen to have honoured him. He was simply too controversial at the time.
Answer 2 (Michael B): It was not common in the 19thC to knight men outside the service of the Crown. Soldiers and sailors who had done well and politicians or civil servants were knighted or even ennobled; the fashion for ladling out honours to entertainers, academics and sportsmen is comparatively recent. Controversy had nothing to do with it. Some of the political and military figures who were promoted to a K or even a peerage were, in their way, just as controversial. Simply, academics and scientists did not expect, and did not get, that type of recognition.
Answer 3 (NC): Church of England made sure of that. Many of its notable members (both clergymen and laymen) were openly hostile to Darwin.
Noted by the asker as the “Best Answer” is… #1, and he also commented “Great answer, thanks. Michael B [no, this is not me!] must be on drugs or something because none of that is even accurate” (referring to the second answer). So, the favored answer is that science versus religion tensions kept Darwin from receiving a knighthood, while the possibility of a more nuanced explanation is not possible because such a suggestion could come only from someone whose mind is not properly functioning. Dispiriting, indeed! (I’ll note that another Yahoo Q&A asks the same question, with the answer: “When deciding on who to knight not only must the nominee have done something notable but “usually” must also have a character that does not upset the status quo of the country or upset the citizens in general. Charles Darwin was such a controversial figure that there was “no way” that the monarch of the time could even have considered him for a knighthood.”)
Becky’s tweet started a short exchange between her, myself, Ian Hesketh (@ianhesketh, author of Of Apes and Ancestors: Evolution, Christianity, and the Oxford Debate, and Greg Good (@HistoryPhysics).
@darwinsbulldog – Interesting, any resources abt this? Seeing online that Wilberforce stepped in & stopped a proposal in ’59, don’t know if factual
@ianhesketh - Desmond and Moore (1991: 488) have a brief paragraph about this but cite a secondary source: Bunting (1974)
@ianhesketh - Desmond and Moore go on to say that they could not themselves locate Bunting’s sources (and he is now deceased).
@darwinsbulldog - So, Palmerstone suggests CD for knighthood, Wilberforce steps in and he doesn’t get it… Nothing in Browne’s biography
@beckyfh – Think Wilberforce thing a myth. Myth that establishment against CD. Wrong that people like him got knighthoods.
@beckyfh - Unless CD was sitting on govt advisory boards etc (like Brewster, Airy or Kelvin) honours wd be very unlikely.
@ianhesketh – Interesting! I also doubt the story about Wilberforce’s intervention given that no one can find Bunting’s sources
@beckyfh - I think all 19thc men of science with knighthoods get them for direct public work, not their science per se.
@HistoryPhysics - What is the primary record for reasons for knighthood? Personal corr? Prime Minister papers?
@beckyfh - Citations for honours are a matter of public record, I think, but also in newspapers etc.
@beckyfh – Eg Brunel: “For *public* services in the profession of Civil Engineering”, naming dockyard work
@darwinsbulldog - Was not Joseph Dalton Hooker, Lyell, and John Lubbock also knighted? Gov’t service? Def. for Hooker…
@beckyfh – Hooker govt employee, Lubbock MP & Uni VC, Lyell lawyer, prof & employed on geological survey.
@beckyfh - Obv doesn’t mean their status in scientific world irrelevant, bt I thnk explains the Darwin case
@ianhesketh - This subject (scientists and knighthood) would make for a great article (clearly it’s needed)!
@darwinsbulldog – So how do you explain McCartney and Elton John? What’s the criteria there?
@beckyfh - The criteria changed in 20thc! Scientific & creative work now rewarded
Let’s take a look at what Adrian Desmond and James Moore wrote, in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1992):
This Anglican censure had more personal repercussions. Darwin may even have lost a knighthood. Lord Palmerston, the incoming Liberal Prime Minister in June 1859, had apparently mooted Darwin’s name to Queen Victoria as a candidate for the Honours List. Prince Albert concurred; he was a friend of science, a friend of Owen’s, President of the British Association in September 1859, where Lyell had spoken of Darwin’s forthcoming work, and he had seen Sir Charles similarly honoured. Darwin would have been delighted and astonished. But then came the Origin. The Queen’s ecclesiastical advisers, including the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, scotched it. The honour would imply approval, and Palmerston’ request was turned down. (488)
As Hesketh noted, Desmond and Moore cite the short 1974 biography of Darwin by James Bunting:
Bunting, Charles Darwin, 88-89, based on evidence apparently found while researching Parliamentary history. The sources have not been located and the author is deceased.
So, we have two ways of looking at a little bit of history. For one, the historical documents purporting to show that indeed Darwin’s lack of a knighthood was due to religious criticism of his work on evolution are lacking. For the other, as Becky has nicely shown, there is good reason to suggest that Darwin did not receive a knighthood (was he even really suggested for one by Palmerston?) because he did not carry out work in service of the British government, as was the case for many of the scientists who did receive royal honours. For now, I will go with the latter. But one’s willingness to go with Wilberforce on this one is perhaps to insist on there having been an absolute science versus religion conflict in nineteenth-century Britain (the conflict thesis, or warfare thesis). Surely there were those who perceived it as such (Tyndall, for example), and classic books devoted to it (John W. Draper’s 1881 History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s 1896 History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom), but we must understand this time as one of not a simple dichtomoy of views but of plenty of in-betweens (such as Charles Kingsley). Moore addressed this in The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (1979). He dispelled the notion that religion was strictly separated from science in the nineteenth century. He notes that, although not the best way to describe what was actually going on in nineteenth-century exchanges between science and religion, the military metaphor of “conflict” or “warfare” was a common trope within the post-Darwinian controversies and that “testifies to its symbolic importance” (13).
Just as the Oxford debate between Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley has been demythologized, by Hesketh and Gould (and Brian Switek, too!), it seems – pending some graduate student tasking him or herself with finding the documents Bunting says are there and doing a deeper analysis of this moment – that Desmond and Moore, although acknowledging the sketchy documentation, like to tell a good story. What sounds more exciting: Darwin not a public servant, or evolution-hating Wilberforce knighthood-blocking Darwin?
Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of Darwin’s supporters and botanist to the British government, did receive several honours. In his case, however, he did not really care to receive them. When in 1869 Lyell and Murchison urged the Duke of Argyll to suggest Hooker for recognition of his service in India, Hooker’s response to Darwin was:
I do not think there is the least chance of my getting the offer of it. The K.C.S.I. is so rare an honour that I might well be proud to have it, for my Indian services; but I really do not desire Knighthood, and would infinitely rather be plain
Dr. Hooker with C.B. to testify to my having done my duty as well as others who have that certificate. So if it comes I shall be proud of it; if not, I shall be as well content. Please say nothing about it. The fact is the Duke might do it with a stroke of the pen, but he don’t like my Darwinism and my Address and I am right proud of that! [emphasis mine]