If I am asked whether I would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man endowed with great ability and a splendid position who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make.
Thomas Henry Huxley, 1860
As related by Amy Cruse in The Victorians and Their Reading, these words by Thomas Henry Huxley served as a witty retort to the degrading comments of Darwin's foes. When examined closely, however, Huxley's statement can be recognized as a question of paramount importance-- a question that defines the core of the Victorian world. Neatly engraved between the lines of Huxley's reply lies the issue of belief. Huxley's belief in the pursuit of "truth" is evident, as is his belief regarding those who would hinder such a "humble" pursuit. Less evident, but nonetheless present, are the echoes of other important Victorian principles. As exemplified by Huxley's mention of apes, Darwin's belief in The Origin of Species was a vitally important aspect of Victorian thought. Traditional concerns, most notably religious conservatism, were inextricably linked to the revolutionary ideals of Victorian science. Interestingly, the dueling beliefs in science and religion were not necessarily diametrically opposed. Instead, both the pursuits of science and religion challenged Victorians to examine their beliefs regarding the natural world, God, and the meaning of their own humanity.
“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of [anyone],” claimed Charles Darwin in reference to The Origin of Species(Hart 1). Despite Darwin’s protestations of theological benignity, however, many Victorians were indeed shocked by the idea of evolution. Cardinal Manning, speaking for the Roman Catholic populous of England, for instance, “denounced…[Darwin’s theory of evolution as] a brutal philosophy—to wit, there is no God, and the ape is our Adam”(Cruse 95). Similarly, Bishop Wilberforce, at an 1860 meeting of the British Association, ridiculed T. H. Huxley about his ancestry (94). In open contempt of The Origin of Species, Wilberforce asked Huxley, “whether it [was] through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from ‘a venerable ape’?”(94).
The ideas contained within the covers of The Origin of Species clearly challenged the beliefs of many Victorian Christians. Contrary to the protestations of Cardinal Manning and Bishop Wilberforce, however, Darwin viewed the theory of evolution as theologically sound. As he claimed in his Explanation of The Origin of Species,
it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few
original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms,
as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids
caused by the action of His laws (Hart 1).
A far cry from the godless scientist portrayed by the Victorian media, Darwin sought not to discredit God with the creation of humanity. Rather, Darwin's book was a scientific approach to the ideal of Creation; Darwin's Genesis was based upon the belief that God created prototype species, capable of re-creating themselves via a process of natural selection (1).
"Does God exist? How can we know Him?… Does He intervene miraculously in the world?"(Everett 1). When T. H. Huxley asked this question, he was not merely expressing his own agnosticism. Instead, Huxley had given voice to the "uneasiness about religious faith already deeply felt by many educated people... destabilized by... new science [and] social values"(Tucker 27). Echoing Huxley's sentiments, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough likewise expressed religious skepticism. In his poem "The New Sinai"(1844) for instance, Clough wrote "Lo, here is God, and there is God!... / Though Old Religion shake her head. . / Receive it not, believe it not, / Believe it not, 0 Man!"(27). By ignoring the protestations of “Old Religion,” the speaker of Clough's poem deliberately disregarded Christianity. Also, as demonstrated by the speaker's appeal to disbelief and Atheism, Clough's poem challenges the relevance of the most important element of religion-- faith.
Similar to Clough's disbelief in God, other Victorians expressed their waning faith in Christianity. According to David Strauss,
vainly did we philosophers... decree the extermination of miracles...
Darwin has demonstrated this force, this process of Nature; he has opened
the door by which a happier coming race will cast out miracles, never to
return (Himmelfarb 388).
Certainly, the idea of "[casting] out miracles" is important; by casting out miracles, Strauss would also have discarded the fundamental principles of faith and Christian belief. Ironically, Strauss-- an advocate of “[casting] out miracles" and thus Christianity-- was a well-known "Biblical critic" (388).
To many Victorians, such declarations of religious doubt were both appalling and alarming. As expressed by George Romaines, "the flood-gates of infidelity are open, and Atheism overwhelming is upon us"(390). Amazingly, the religious ambivalence expressed by Huxley and Strauss was not universal. Instead, many Victorians-- Huxley included-- attempted to join science and religion into a harmonious union.
In keeping with Tennyson's observation that "[it is] strange that these wonders should draw some men to God and repel others,” science and religion were not always at odds in the Victorian era”(390). Based upon the principles of Darwinism, "natural selection [founded] a modern, refined variant of natural theology"(390). As demonstrated by the realization of Asa Gray,
the important thing to do is to develop aright evolutionary
[theology]…that [Christians] may be satisfied with, and perchance may
learn to admire, Divine works effected step by step... in a system of
In seeming conflict with his ambivalence towards Christianity, T. H. Huxley was perhaps the greatest advocate Gray's "evolutionary theology" (390). According to Huxley, spirituality and nature could coexist, for "souls secrete their bodies, as snails do shells”(Irvin 142). Clearly, such a belief was neither Atheist nor traditionally Christian. Instead, Huxley's naturalistic approach to spirituality can be understood as an evolution of its own-- Huxley had added a spiritual element to Darwin's belief that God's plan was dynamic, natural, and scientific.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, too, combined the spiritual realm with the world of nature. In Aurora Leigh (1856), for example, Browning wrote that “natural things / And spiritual, --who separates those two... / Tears up the bond of nature and brings death"(Landow 3). According to Browning, the human spirit could not survive without the natural world, for "the natural... / fixes still / the type with mortal vision, / to pierce through, / with eyes immortal"(3). Expressed in simpler terms, Browning's verse describes the dynamic interaction of nature and the human spirit. Since the "natural… [fixed] the type with mortal vision," for instance, it may be inferred that nature, not God, determined the mortality of mankind. Also, since nature was said to "pierce through... with eyes immortal,” Browning related nature to God. Similar to God, Browning's nature was powerful, creative, and everlasting.
Although the Victorian relationship between science and religion is complex and frequently contradictory, it is clear that these methods of understanding the world are related by their reliance upon belief. Charles Darwin, for instance, believed that nature was indeed a creation of God, albeit not the creation defined within the pages of the Bible. T. H. Huxley, too, relied upon a system of belief in order to understand the world around him; he believed in both the correctness of science and the spirituality of human beings. Agnosticism and Atheism (literally a belief in disbelief), clashed with the Christian faith in God. Ultimately, however, these systems of belief each served a greater purpose. In questioning the scientific theories of the Victorian age or time-honored, traditional religious doctrines, the Victorians also explored the realm of their own existence. As mirrored in Huxley's consideration of his ancestry (an argument between the theories of Darwinism and Creationism), the numerous scientific and religious beliefs of the Victorian age forced individuals to decide, for themselves, the nature of humanity.
Cruse, Amy. The Victorians and Their Reading: Boston: The Riverside Press, 1935.
Everett, Glenn, and George P. Landow. “Agnosticism. “ The Victorian Web. 26 Nov.2001. Brown University. 1987 http://220.127.116.11/victorian/religion/agnos.html>.
Hart, Thomas E. "Darwin and the Removal of Design." The Victorian Web. 26 Nov. 2001. Brown University. n.d. http://18.104.22.168/victorian/science/darwinth1.htm1>
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1962.
Irvin, William. Apes, Angels, and Victorians. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc.,1955.
Landow, George P. "Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought." The Victorian Web. 1 Dec. 2001. Brown University. n.d http://22.214.171.124/victorian/type/intro.html>.
Tucker, Herbert F., ed. Victorian Literature and Culture. Maldin: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999.