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  • Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature
  • Jon H. Roberts (bio)
Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature. By Keith Thomson. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 324. Cloth, $27.00.)

During the last quarter of a century, a narrative that employs martial metaphors in characterizing the history of the relationship between science and religion has given way to a more complicated story that allows for harmony and even symbiosis as well as tension and on occasion outright conflict. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the fact that he acknowledges an "immeasurable" debt (283) to John Hedley Brooke, one of the chief architects of the more subtle "complexity" thesis, Keith Thomson provides readers with a less nuanced understanding of the historical relationship of science and religion. Before Darwin combines a rather flatfooted, triumphalist view of the history of science, which Thomson believes has taken humanity "ever onwards" toward the discovery of natural agencies that substitute for divine activity, with the dismissive view that efforts to employ reason in establishing the existence and attributes of God possess "no real value except to those who need no convincing" (265).

It would appear that scholars are not the intended audience for this book. The work breaks no new ground and ignores much of the available [End Page 704] scholarship published on the subject. Many of the author's claims are undocumented, many quotations in the work lack citations, and none of the footnotes that fitfully appear in the text include page numbers.

Thomson, a professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford, has a sharp eye for colorful detail. Using a series of nicely crafted sketches of familiar figures in philosophy, natural philosophy, and natural theology, he traces the history of thought concerning the natural world in the period between about 1600 and 1800 and analyzes the ways in which Charles Darwin's work drew on that thought. With the exception of a brief allusion to John William Draper, American thinkers are unrepresented in Before Darwin. The focus of the work is on England and to a lesser extent continental Europe.

For Thomson, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which witnessed the sustained use of reason in efforts to understand nature and nature's God, constituted a watershed in the history of the relationship between science and religion. He contends that whereas the problem at the beginning of the era of Enlightenment "had been to find a secure place for science in a religious world" (55), the problem by the end of that era was to arrive at an appropriate role for God in a world that seemed to be wholly the product of the activity of natural causes. By the end of the eighteenth century, Thomson maintains, the "epic inquiry" (xii) carried out by natural philosophers during the previous two centuries had forced adherents of a "besieged" church (45) to confront the "all-consuming challenge" (xii) of finding a way "to bridge two worlds that had long been threatening to pull apart" (5): the world of science and the world presupposed by traditional affirmations of faith. In spite of the fact that God's status as Creator and Designer remained, "for the moment, reasonably secure" (42), the idea that the cosmos could be ascribed to the capricious interaction of material particles put forward by David Hume and proponents of materialism had yielded a variety of versions of "the ultimate atheism: evolution" (55). In the face of this menace, as well as others less fundamental, religious apologists looked for salvation to natural theology, an enterprise that sought to demonstrate that the most likely explanation for the existence and arrangement of the entities within the natural world was that they had been created and designed by an intelligent, personal Deity. Of particular importance in this regard was William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), which Thomson describes as "the last and greatest expression" (xii) of the enterprise.

Thomson's claim that evolutionary conceptions of life played an important [End Page 705] role in shaping religious thought at the beginning of the nineteenth century is based more on assertion than on documentation. Actually, few clerics appear to have been concerned about the specter of organic evolution at...


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