Gladstone and the debate about evolution

Conlin, Jonathan (2009) Gladstone and the debate about evolution. Gladstone Bicentennial Conference, Chester, GB,


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Between 1885 and 1891 William Ewart Gladstone and Thomas Henry Huxley debated the relative value of evolutionary science and scriptural knowledge in the pages of James Knowles' review, The Nineteenth Century. Their dispute took its departure from the account of Creation in the Old Testament as well as the story of Jesus' miracle of the Gadarene swine from the New. If this querelle has been considered at all by scholars it has been seen as a case of Huxley running rings round the Liberal statesman, gleefully holding up Gladstone's ignorance of the latest evolutionary concepts to a baying crowd of allied scientific naturalists.
A closer look at this episode shows a very different picture. Gladstone's interest in the most powerful idea of his age went back to the 1840s. Indeed, his first encounter with 'development' (as evolution was then commonly known) came several years before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), in the context of John Henry Newman's early 1840s sermons and writings on the development of doctrine. Long before Gladstone tangled with 'Darwin's bulldog' he built a surprisingly evolutionary worldview that drew on the probabilism of Joseph Butler, Vestiges of Creation, and other scientific texts. Gladstone's understanding of 'primitive revelation' and in particular his understanding of the relationship between scriptural and scientific authorities was far more sophisticated than the scientism of Huxley. Huxley emerges from this discussion as something of a tragic figure, increasingly isolated from his erstwhile evolutionary allies and struggling to gain control over agnosticism (despite the fact that he had coined the word itself). This essay reveals a new side to a great Victorian polymath, and sheds light on the broader question of the relationship between knowledge and faith in the High Victorian era.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Invited Paper)
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CT Biography
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Divisions : University Structure - Pre August 2011 > School of Humanities > History
Faculty of Humanities > History
ePrint ID: 79884
Accepted Date and Publication Date:
30 December 2009Made publicly available
Date Deposited: 23 Mar 2010
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2016 13:16

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