Sir Charles?

“… 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 #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]

10 thoughts on “Sir Charles?

  1. Desmond and Moore’s “biography” is, in my view, untrammeled mythopoiesis. They are not reliable on several issues.

  2. It is interesting that you start your very good post with a quote from Louis More’s Newton biography. Although outdated More’s book can still be read with profit by anyone really interested in Newton however in the middle of his book he launches a rabid attack against Einstein and the theory of relativity. The result of this tirade is that More is a hero for the YEC movement.

    On the subject of knighthoods it is a commonly believed myth that Newton received his for services to science, he didn’t! Newton’s knighthood was the result of purely political motivations. The Whigs (Liberal Party) were in danger of losing an election and with it political power. Newton was the Whig candidate for the marginal constituency of Cambridge University, so Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu), the most powerful Whig politician and Newton’s patron, arranged for Queen Anne to knight Newton on a visit to Cambridge in order to increase his chances in the election. It didn’t help Newton lost the election but kept his knighthood.

  3. @John – Any examples?

    @Thony – Thanks for the background info on More andNewton. I found the quote when looking on Google Book Search for any mentions of Darwin and knighthood. Specifically, I was hoping to find quotes from early biographies of Darwin.

  4. From Piers Hale:

    “The Palmerston Papers are online and searchable. In the 1850s-60s there are nine letters that are tagged for a search on “knighthood” (none for “Darwin”). Of these nine the majority are related to debatable cases of nomination. In July 1857 for instance, there is a letter recording the fact that the Queen is unwilling to honour a Mr. Kean with a knighthood, (I have not taken time to discover who Kean was) in 1861 though, Mr. William Fairbairn was nominated “for his distinguished services to engineering science and his presidency of the British Association” – the nomination was accepted and he was duly knighted. In 1863, there are a few letters discussing whether Mr. Airy, the Astronomer Royal should receive an honour and what title that might be – “in our civil and social order of precedence there is no rank assigned to public functionaries – excepting great officers of state…” However, one argument put in favour of a knighthood for him was the fact that George III had seen fit to so honour Sr. Wm. Herschel for his contribution to Astronomy.

    So, it seems that men of science were honoured, there is a record of discussion of several cases and where there was disagreement several letters are exchanged. I find it significant that there are no records of a discussion of Darwin in the papers. Neither is there discussion of Wilberforce. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, perhaps, but we might set some of our students onto ths one and offer a prize for the best research. The Wilberforce papers might turn up something, for instance, as might a more detailed search of the Palmerston “Home Affairs papers”.
    My feeling here though is that we will be looking to show that there is a total absence of evidence. – The Huxley papers have nothing to this effect, and you can imagine how much he would have made of it, as would those who wrote his history.”

  5. I find it strange that in a discussion about whether or not Airy should receive a knighthood as an astronomer the example of Sir William Herschel is mentioned but not that of Airy’s friend and colleague, William’s son, Sir John Herschel who not only received a knighthood, non-heritable, but also a baronetcy, heritable, for his services to science and in particular astronomy.

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  7. From James Sumner:

    I got the library staff here to dig up a copy of Bunting 1974 from the stores yesterday. It’s an odd production. The only clue to the author’s background is in his explanation of his motivation for writing in the preface: while “endeavouring to augment [his] meagre income by part-time teaching”, he was appalled to learn that the teenagers in his care, if they knew of Darwin at all, understood him as “the man who said human beings were descended from monkeys”.

    The book was presumably published with an eye to school use, but is a light general biography rather than a children’s text. The prose is digressive, a touch hagiographic, and not very critical of anecdotal sources. Occasionally Bunting clearly fictionalises, turning recollections of conversations or events into reported speech. The treatment of religion is not quite cartoon Conflict Thesis stuff, but “the Established Church” appears very much as a hostile monolith.

    Here’s the section cited by Desmond and Moore:

    [starts p88] One interesting fact concerning the dispute over The Origin has recently come to light following the perusal of certain State papers dealing with the period 1859-1862. [footnote here: “The author examined these papers whilst researching Parliamentary History in 1972.”] In 1841 Macauley had introduced Darwin to Viscount Palmerston, the distinguished Whig politician who served for many years as one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries Britain has ever known. Palmerston, who was keenly interested in the sciences, kept himself closely informed of Darwin’s progress and, some ten years later, suggested to the then Prime Minister – Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby – that the scientist should be honoured with a knighthood. It is not known whether Stanley communicate this recommendation to the Queen, but it seems doubtful, since he and Palmerston were not on particularly good terms. However, Palmerston himself became Prime Minister in 1855 and, after being ousted for a brief period between 1858 and 1859, was restored to that office after the General Election of 1859. He then took up again the question of Darwin’s knighthood and personally approached the Queen in the early autumn. It is [p89] unlikely that Victoria had much knowledge of Darwin and his works, but the recommendation was strongly supported by her consort, Prince Albert, who was a stalwart champion of all scientists.

    Then came the publication of The Origin. The Queen was at Balmoral at the time, but news of the stir that the book had caused reached her ears soon after her return to London. On being informed that the greatest condemnation came from the Church, she sought further enlightenment form her ecclesiastical advisers and was appalled by what they had to say. One of them was, in fact, the Bishop of Oxford, who had been the sternest of all Darwin’s critics.

    How could Victoria then approve the conferring of a knighthood upon a man who, from all accounts, was opposed to the basic principles of theology? What had disturbed her most was that the Darwinian theory was entirely contrary to Christian belief in life after death, and this had [sic] caused her even greater concern after the death of her husband in 1862.

    This all seems rather unlikely – but I don’t imagine that Bunting fabricated the story out of whole cloth. My best guess is that his “State papers *dealing with* the period 1859-1862” are not *of* that period, but represent a confused and part-mythic account which was in circulation later on.

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