Book review: Alvar Ellegard, Darwin and the General Reader, University of Chicago Press, 1990.


Journal: Science & Christian Belief 3, 153-4.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
The subtitle of this book explains the title, it is "The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the British Periodical Press, 1859-1872". It was originally published in 1958, and this is the reprinted version. Considering the time scale that Ellegard considers, and the methodology used, we cannot say his book is outdated. It is of particular interest to those who want to go back and look at what the actual reaction of the Victorians to the theory of evolution was, as recorded in their writings.

He discusses the influence of religion, politics, philosophy of science and the scientific issues upon the reception of the theory. In 1989 Science and Christian Belief carried an article by Colin Russell on this topic, which may have wetted some people's appetite for this book. This book provides a very extensive reference list to newspaper and periodal articles (he covered over 100 periodical titles) in the British Press during that time, from the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species to the Descent of Man. The reception of these ideas was not only important to the theory of evolution, but to the whole philosophical basis of scientific method. Partly for this reason I found it more interesting than I initially thought it would be.

The book is divided into 15 chapters, and has two useful appendices. Appendix I presents a statistical analysis of the press reaction, and appendix II provides the list of periodicals. Of particular interest to Christians is the reception of the theory by Christians. Four chapters deal specifically with religion and science, including chapters on the argument from design, miracles and the Bible. The Unitarian and Broad church were generably favourable to the theory of evolution , but Methodists and the low church were opposed. The Catholic church was in between these opinions. The data for this is in the book, and the ideas that are seen in their comments are discussed.

The book also has chapters on the mid-Victorian philosophy of science, which was in the process of change; on the "immutable essence of species", a biological idea that species could not be changed; on the argument over the missing links in evolution and the geological time; and on the arguments against natural selection; and on the scientific support given to Darwin by other scientists. As Ellegard says, all the scientific debates would not have mattered to the ordinary public, what was more important was the ideological changes that the theory was associated with, such as transmutation of species which clashed with the belief that species were fixed since God created them. The hottest debate concerned the origin of human beings.

This is an interesting book, for those who want to look into history and how the Victorians responded to the change in ideology. It is more fundamental for those who are commenting about this period, in any way, to give them more facts for their thinking.


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