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24 Nov

Science must take her path & Theology hers: Mary Boole’s questions to Darwin

Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest & most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent,—I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine,—but with the following belief, viz:

That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.

That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.

That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.

And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.

The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been,—not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression,—but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion. Every year’s experience tends to deepen in me that impression.

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer & wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think,—I cannot know for certain, but I think,—that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse & probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.

At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path & Theology hers, and they will meet when & where & how God pleases, & you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off.

Letter from Mary Everest Boole, dated 13th December 1886, addressed to Charles Darwin (online at The Darwin Project).

Darwin replied to Mary Boole on the 14th December 1886, saying “ I cannot see how the belief that all organic beings including man have been genetically derived from some simple being, instead of having been separately created bears on your difficulties” and in a postscript thanking her for her judgement that Science and Theology were separate.

Mary Boole then (17th December 1866) thanked him for this reply, and for what she saw as Darwin’s “assurance that moral & religious faith are things quite independent of theories about the process of Creation.

Mrs Boole took this correspondence more seriously than Darwin did: in a letter the following year (8th February 1867) he alluded to the correspondence saying, “there have been so many allusions to what I think about the part which God has played in the formation of organic beings, that I thought it shabby to evade the question. I have even received several letters on subject. One was a funny one from a lady with a whole string of questions, & when I said I could not answer one; she wrote she was perfectly satisfied & it was exactly what she expected.

Boole was, however, only one of many seeking to reconcile Darwin’s theory of natural selection with religion and morality. Darwin had already encountered another Irish woman, Frances Power Cobbe, who on hearing Darwin was writing The Descent of Man, recommended he read Kant’s Groundwork of Morals. She later wrote on Darwinism and morality.

JJ Murphy like Boole started with declaring the separateness of religion and science, though he then went on to argue for selection directed by God (as did Asa Grey, also mentioned in the letter of 8th February 1867). The scientist GG Stokes also wrestled with the compatibility of science, publishing Natural Theology in 1893.

On the other hand Benjamin Kidd in his Social Evolution (1894) sees religious belief as an “integrating principle” and religion as a key to human social progress on an evolutionary level. You might call it the survival of the religious.

Darwin’s reassurance to Mary Boole that his science had no bearing on her religious questions may have cleared her mind, but it did not resolve the concerns of many in the 19th century, or indeed today.

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