Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), a highly respected scientist, was one of the founders of geology as science in England. He was Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1818 until his death. He was a very talented and popular teacher and his lectures were open to women. He carried out field exploration and research in geology and paleontology in Britain and enlarged the geological collections of Cambridge University. In 1829 he became President of the Geological Society of London, and in 1845 a Vice-Master of Trinity College. He was known for his kindness and good character.
After Adam Sedgwick was elected as Woodwardian Professor in 1818, Dr. John Woodward’s collection of fossils, which was bequeathed to the university in 1728, was used for teaching on a regular basis. This collection, initially called Woodwardian Museum, was immensely enlarged by Adam Sedgwick, and later called after his name. The museum successively outgrew three buildings. A new building was built as a memorial to Adam Sedgwick, the present Sedgwick Museum of Geology, opened by King Edward VII in 1904.
Darwin did not attend Sedgwick’s lectures. He got his basic knowledge of geology while accompanying Sedgwick on a three-week walking tour to North Wales. In matters of geology, Darwin was never a match for Sedgwick. This, and Sedgwick’s superior power of mind, are evident from Darwin’s letter to Hooker, dated 1870. Darwin complains in it, that Sedgwick took him to the museum, and that he had “not recovered from the exhaustion yet” after being “killed by a man of eighty-six” in this way.
“…I laughed at till my sides were almost sore…”
…I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have deserted—after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth—the true method of induction, and started us in machinery as wild, I think, as Bishop Wilkins’s locomotive that was to sail with us to the moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved, why then express them in the language and arrangement of philosophical induction?
Darwin’s theory may brutalize humanity
Sedgwick had a prophetic vision about the future. He explains the effects that the different views of causation have on the world. He calls causation the will of God, who acts for the good of His creations. Darwin calls instead causation “natural selection”, nature being the selecting agent. The result is the “battle for life”; individuals of the same species fighting against each other for survival. This theory, widely accepted today, has a devastating effect on our society. We see men and women fighting against each other in workplaces, businesses and private life. It doesn’t even cross their minds that they would be better off cooperating and believing in God, who made whole nations disappear or be rich, depending on their behavior, as we read in the Bible. This demoralizing effect of Darwin’s theory had been foreseen by Adam Sedgwick. In his letter we can read the following:
…Tis is the crown and glory of organic science that it does through final cause, link material and moral… You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history… Passages in your book, like that to which I have alluded (and there are others almost as bad), greatly shocked my moral taste…
A few words about Darwin’s boasting
Lastly, then, I greatly disliked the concluding chapter—not as a summary, for in that light it appears good—but I disliked it from the tone of triumph and confidence in which you appeal to the rising generation (in a tone I condemned in the author of the Vestiges)…
(The Spectator, 1860)
Darwin’s theory is “as a vast pyramid resting on its apex, and that apex a mathematical point”
This is one of the best choice of words to summarize Darwin’s theory:
But I must in the first place observe that Darwin’s theory is not inductive,—not based on a series of acknowledged facts pointing to a general conclusion,—not a proposition evolved out of the facts, logically, and of course including them. To use an old figure, I look on the theory as a vast pyramid resting on its apex, and that apex a mathematical point.
New varieties are the result of (human) intelligence and design
As Sedgwick points out, new varieties (not species) appear as a result of human intelligence, design and action, not by mere chance, or by the power of selection of the mysterious “nature”.
The only facts he pretends to adduce, as true elements of proof, are the varieties produced by domestication, or the human artifice of cross-breeding… Again, the varieties, built upon by Mr. Darwin, are varieties of domestication and human design. Such varieties could have no existence in the old world. Something may be done by cross-breeding; but mules are generally sterile, or the progeny (in some rare instances) passes into one of the original crossed forms. The Author of Nature will not permit His work to be spoiled by the wanton curiosity of Man.
New species may appear as a result of creation
Although “species have been constant for thousands of years”, Sedgwick doesn’t exclude the possibility of the apparition of new species, if they are created by a power beyond us.
…I say by creation. But, what do I mean by creation? I reply, the operation of a power quite beyond the powers of a pigeon-fancier, a cross-breeder, or hybridizer; a power I cannot imitate or comprehend; but in which I can believe, by a legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws and harmonies of Nature.
Darwin’s theory reflects his materialist beliefs
A cold atheistical materialism is the tendency of the so-called material philosophy of the present day. Not that I believe that Darwin is an atheist; though I cannot but regard his materialism as atheistical; because it ignores all rational conception of a final cause. I think it untrue because opposed to the obvious course of Nature, and the very opposite of inductive truth.
Based on fossils found in geological deposits, the transmutation theory is untrue
Sedgwick turns our attention to the fact, that according to the theory of evolution, we should find deposits containing “none but the lowest forms of organic life”, yet each deposit contains well-developed, complex species. He then gives a series of examples. Another fact is, that there are no transitional forms in these deposits. These defy the transmutation theory.
This I do affirm, that if the transmutation theory were proved true in the actual world, and we could hatch rats out of eggs of geese, it would still be difficult to account for the successive forms of organic life in the old world. They appear to me to give the lie to the theory of transmutation at every turn of the pages of Dame Nature’s old book… On physical grounds, the transmutation theory is untrue, if we reason (as we ought to do) from the known to the unknown… Nor is there any proof, either ethnographical or physical, of the bestial origin of man.
The theory’s demoralizing effect
Sedgwick realized very early what effect this theory, which views man as an animal in the great “struggle for life”, may have on the minds of men and women. It might turn them into beasts in moral sense, indifferent to each other.
What is it that gives us the sense of right and wrong, of law, of duty, of cause and effect?… What is it that enables us to anticipate the future, to act wisely with reference to future good, to believe in a future state, to acknowledge the being of a God? These faculties, and many others of like kind, are a part of ourselves quite as much so as our organs of sense… Strip him of these faculties, and he becomes entirely bestial; and he may well be (under such a false and narrow view) nothing better than the natural progeny of a beast, which has to live, to beget its likeness, and then die for ever.By gazing only on material nature, a man may easily have his very senses bewildered (like one under the cheatery of an electro-biologist); he may become so frozen up, by a too long continued and exclusively material study, as to lose his relish for moral truth, and his vivacity in apprehending it.
Sedgwick’s conclusion on Darwin’s theory
But I cannot conclude without expressing my detestation of the theory, because of its unflinching materialism;—because it has deserted the inductive track, the only track that leads to physical truth;—because it utterly repudiates final causes, and therby indicates a demoralized understanding on the part of its advocates.
From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up. As a system of philosophy it is not unlike the Tower of Babel, so daring in its high aim as to seek a shelter against God’s anger; but it is like a pyramid poised on its apex. It is a system embracing all living nature, vegetable and animal; yet contradicting – point blank – the vast treasure of facts that the Author of Nature has, during the past two or three thousand years, revealed to our senses. And why is this done? For no other solid reason, I am sure, except to make us independent of a Creator.
1. David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics. The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community, Harvard University Press, 1973, pages 155-170