- Darwin, Dharma, and the Divine: Evolutionary Theory and Religion in Modern Japan by G. Clinton Godart
G. Clinton Godart's detailed and exacting study is a rock-solid contribution to the historiography of the relationship between religion and science. It adds to the relevant dominant theoretical trend and expands on it by exploring a particular Japanese case study and its various nuances.
By way of background for japanologists who might not be up-to-date on the secondary literature about the relationship between religion and science: Many nonspecialists portray religion and science as locked in a state of continual struggle. This conflict is typically charted via a set of (largely fictitious) flashpoints, such as Christopher Columbus disproving a biblical flat Earth with Jerusalem at its center, Galileo's supposed imprisonment and torture for promoting heliocentrism, or the discovery of evolution destroying Charles Darwin's faith. All of these are myths,1 and indeed the whole conflict model was refuted many decades ago. But the myths are still widely [End Page 381] regarded as true by nonspecialists, which means that those of us who work in this field are routinely pushed to redemolish a long-defeated model again and again.
Part of the reason the conflict model lives on is that the main contemporary successor among specialists is the "complexity model," which essentially amounts to the statement that religion and science have historically interacted in complex ways about which no grand generalizations can be made. The complexity model is basically a nonmodel, given that it is largely incapable of making any broad claims. But it allows historians to do what we do best, which is to chart out the specific circumstances of local agents putatively representing "religion" and "science" in their particular contexts. Hence, while the original conflict model, and even many debates today, focus on issues particular to Euro-American Christianity, for several decades the complexity model has encouraged scholars to look farther afield.
Godart's work is explicitly in the complexity camp. For scholars interested in the relationship between religion and science writ large, the work therefore adds little. But Godart also in certain respects deepens the complexity model insofar as there has been an established historiographical discussion about religion and science (and more specifically the social impact of evolutionary theory) in Japan. The classical account has been that Japan had little problem with Darwinism in particular because Japanese elites were not so invested in any kind of creationist theology and because Darwinian thought was largely introduced into the country alongside Spencerian notions of social competition (p. 17). Godart's main contribution is to argue that it is more complex than that, and he spends the rest of the book working out these complications.
The first chapter, "The Religious Transmission of Evolutionary Theory in Meiji-Era Japan," focuses primarily on important early transmitters of evolutionary theory to Japan including three Americans—the zoologist Edward Morse, the philosopher Ernest Fenollosa, and the naturalist and Protestant missionary John Thomas Gulick. It argues that "the new presence of Christianity … thoroughly mediated the transmission of evolutionary theory during the early Meiji period" (p. 42). But this transmission was far from monolithic; the early transmitters presented a broad spectrum of positions on the relationship between evolution and Christianity. For Morse, Darwin had discredited Christianity. For Fenollosa, evolutionary theory validated his own particular version of pantheism at the expense of Christianity. For Gulick, Protestantism and evolutionary theory were compatible.
Chapter 2, "Evolution, Individuals, and the 'Kokutai,'" focuses on the next period in the introduction of evolutionary theory. Starting in roughly 1870, the translation of Herbert Spencer and what was later referred to as his "social Darwinism" became central to a set of debates in Japan about the relationship between evolutionary theory (broadly construed), national unity, and individualism. The problem was that on the one hand, some "Shinto" ideologues were in the process of centering a notion of the distinctiveness of the Japanese people on their collective descent from the...