Topic: Tension between Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2009) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper uses Wallace and his relationship with Darwin as an example of the nineteenth century tension between science and religion as exemplified in the two-track model of scientific progress. It was written by Debbie McCauley on 15 April 2009 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

This essay seeks to explore the tension between religious and scientific views in the nineteenth century and, in particular, how religious thought at the time hindered the progress of science. To do this it will discuss the nineteenth century split between scientists and religious institutions, explore the lives of two great scientific minds of the nineteenth century, correspondents and contemporaries Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The essay will discuss the two-track model of scientific progress in relation to their theories.

Throughout history there has been an undercurrent of tension between the Church and what is now known as science or scientific thought.  Extreme cases of the persecution of people who sought to further understand the world we live in are illustrated by the treatment of Galileo (Galileo Galilei 1564-1642) and death of Bruno (Giordano Bruno 1548-1600). Victorian England itself was steeped in Christianity and theology was widely studied. The influence of the church was considerable as they ran educational institutions such as universities and schools. According to Christianity’s creation story, Genesis, humans were created by God and were therefore at the centre of the universe. Any divergence from the theme of Creationism seems to have been promptly suppressed. Later scientific work ‘would devastate accepted ideas of Biblical correctness and once more challenge the egocentric absurdities surrounding the place of human beings in the universal scheme of things’ (White & Gribbin, 1995, p. 109).

The major challenge to the Creationists world view eventually came from the fledgling field of science. In the nineteenth century science was still in its infancy and struggling to establish recognition as a discipline within its own right. The latter half of the century saw the increasing emergence of scientific thought with scientists at the forefront. The split from the ingrained Christian belief system and challenge this presented, along with the fear it engendered in some, often resulted in ridicule, derision and sometimes anger towards the instigators. As Morris & Grimshaw (2007) state: ‘The belief that religion and science are at war with one another began to surface only in the latter half of the nineteenth century’ (p. 161). A dramatic illustration of this tension was the bitter confrontation between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Professor Thomas Huxley (known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’) at a British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) meeting in 1860 where Darwinism and the theological establishment had their first and most famous clash. 

One of these nineteenth century scientists was Alfred Russel Wallace who was born into poverty in 1823 at Usk on the Welsh boarders. He was the eighth child of an unsuccessful solicitor, leaving school at age 14 to earn a living. Wallace gained an apprenticeship, working with his elder brother William as a land surveyor from 1837, the outdoor work fostering his interest in observing nature. They eventually ended up surveying in Wales where he developed his interest further, beginning a scientific collection of wild flowers. Wallace’s surveying background would prove extremely useful in the future, especially in mapping what is known today as Wallace’s Line marking a transition zone through Indonesia between Asian and Australasian flora and fauna. Wales opened Wallace’s eyes to the lack of principles and sense of injustice with which the cottagers were subjected to whilst living in abject poverty. This would prove to influence his future opinions on social justice and the human condition as Raby (2001) explains: ‘He championed the rights of the unprivileged, the exploited, the deprived, the dispossessed: the rural poor in Wales, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon or Papua New Guinea, the urban workers of London tenements, the victims of colonial oppression and misgovernment and militarism’ (p. 294).

In 1844 Wallace became a schoolmaster in Leicester where, for the first time in his life, he had a modest sum spare which he used to pay his subscription to the town library from whence he read as much as he could (Raby, 2001). This included Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. At the library Wallace met and befriended amateur naturalist Henry Bates (1825-1892) who was also self-educating himself. Bates showed Wallace his collection of beetles and British butterflies and together they set off on collecting excursions around the local area. Leicester is also where Wallace attended his first lecture on Mesmerism which was to influence his later life. He also bought a phrenological bust and explored this concept. ‘Wallace’s temperament was a mixture or rationality, enthusiasm and naivety. If he believed something was true because of the evidence of his own eyes he would not be easily shaken from the explanation in which he had placed his faith’ (Raby, 2001, p. 23). After William’s death in 1845, Wallace took over his business and went back to surveying, this time for railway lines. This same year he was reading Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers and re-reading Darwin’s Journal and by 1846 he was keeping his own natural history journal.

Bates later joined Wallace in Wales and, influenced by A Voyage up the Amazon, (published by William Edwards in 1847) they organised an expedition to South America to collect specimens to be sold in Britain. Wallace, when aged twenty-five, already believed in the theory of evolution when they set sail on the sailing barge Mischief in 1848. They based themselves in Pará, eventually going their separate ways. Wallace’s brother Herbert joined him in 1849, later dying of a yellow fever epidemic in Pará in 1851. Wallace spent four years collecting in jungles of Brazil, gaining firsthand knowledge and sending papers to be published back to Britain. On his return journey to Britain in 1852 the brig Helen caught fire and sunk taking his best specimens, sketches, drawings, notes and journals. Luckily the Jordeson came to the rescue after ten days of drifting at sea in open lifeboats. Wallace’s agent, Samuel Stevens, had insured the cargo for £200, thus saving him from financial ruin. 

After some time back in Britain, Wallace gained free passage on the P&O steamer Euxine heading for Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, arriving in Singapore in 1854. He then went on to wander the Malay Archipelago, reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology and visiting Bali and Lombock, the future biological division of Wallace’s Line. During a bout of malarial fever in February of 1858 Wallace developed a theory of how evolution came about, natural selection. Without delay he composed an essay entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type which he promptly posted off to his colleague, fellow scientist Charles Darwin, not knowing the turmoil that this one action would provoke and that it would become a pivotal point in the history of science.

Charles Robert Darwin is our second and more famous nineteenth century scientist, born fourteen years before Wallace in 1809. His was an affluent childhood and he received the best education money could buy. An interest in evolution seemingly ran in the family as his grandfather, the medical doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) had come up with his own theory of evolution expressed in the poem Zoonomia, published in 1796 (White & Gribbin, 1995, p. 42). Darwin’s upbringing was Christian, he later studied to become a minister and yet he died an agnostic. 

Before studying for the clergy, Darwin had neglected his medical studies as he became fascinated with biology and geology and later botany. Once he completed his ministry studies he was recommended for a place as an expedition’s naturalist on board the British Navy vessel HMS Beagle on a circumnavigation of the world. After initial objections his voyage (costing £500) was financed by his father Robert Darwin (1766-1848) and he set sail from Britain in 1831 at the age of twenty-two. Once of his early influences was Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell (1797-1875) which he read on board. The Beagle reached the Galápagos Islands in 1835. Unknown to Darwin at the time, this visit would prove to be of great consequence in years to come. The finches, tortoises and mockingbirds varied distinctly on each individual island, but the significance of this was unrecognised by Darwin until pointed out at a later date by his ornithologist friend John Gould (1804-1881) (Bryson, 2003, p. 341).

The Beagle returned to Britain in 1836 when Darwin was twenty-seven. He had amassed over 1700 pages of journal writing during the journey, ‘During the five-year mission he learned an enormous amount, not just about the species of plants and animals he investigated but about methods of working, a mental discipline derived from the need for strict, methodical practices aboard a cramped ship that travelled through often inhospitable regions’ (White 2001, p. 111). Darwin had spent five years immersed in the natural world and on return to Britain read Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population which, added to his experiences upon the Beagle and his continuing belief in evolution, began to synthesise his thoughts towards the theory of natural selection or why some species thrived while others failed.

It would be over twenty years later before Darwin’s theory of natural selection was published in 1859. Origin of Species provides a clear and logical answer to the question of how evolution works; natural selection. Questions remain about why Darwin did not publish his work much earlier. By all accounts he was a painstaking and meticulous researcher, preferring to work in solitude as he suffered from bouts of a debilitating illness. He adored his wife Emma, who was a pious evangelical Christian and he may have felt he would cause her offence by making public his theory, essentially, that God had become superfluous. Also, early publication would not have given him sufficient time to clarify his thoughts, build a sound body of evidence and thoroughly test and refine his theory. ‘Some have argued that by waiting Darwin did in fact write a much better book and that his theory of evolution via natural selection had been allowed to mature and many of the details to be clarified’ (White 2001, p. 108). 

Perhaps, if Darwin had published his volatile ideas sooner, it would have been too much for the fledgling scientific community to handle and he would have been vilified. The book propounded a radical viewpoint for the time and fear of persecution and scientific caution must have been one reason. Backing up this theory is the anonymous publication in 1844 of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by publisher and amateur geologist, Robert Chambers. The author kept secret his identity for the next forty years, possibly because his firm was a leading publisher of Bible’s, but the furore that followed the publication of this book may have been enough to convince Darwin not to publish. ‘Whereas Darwin saw only too clearly the implications of natural selection, how it would rock the foundations of religious faith, what its impact on attitudes towards society might be, Wallace appeared serenely insulated from such anxieties’ (Raby, 2001, p. 292). Darwin was being circumspect, that was, until he received Alfred Wallace’s provocative essay in 1858.

According to White & Gribbon (1995) ‘evolution as a concept can be traced back two and a half thousand years to the Ancient Greeks’ (p. 27). Wallace and Darwin each independently came up with scientific theory about how evolution occurs. These two remarkable scientists came from very different backgrounds, poverty and privilege, and yet they both arrived at the same destination, ‘The contrast between Darwin’s privileged life and Wallace’s own struggle for survival is striking, and worth highlighting as an example of how science at this time was ceasing to be the prerogative of the wealthy gentleman amateur’ (Gribbin, 2002, p. 350). They had both been influenced by the foundations already built their predecessor’s theories and publications, some of which included:

  • Essay on the Principle of Population Thomas Malthus
  • Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell
  • Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers

Also, they had both travelled to exotic places and developed their theories in their thirties. Both had intently observed animals, plants, rock formations and the differences between native peoples during their travels. 

Darwin had purchased specimens off Wallace and the two maintained a correspondence which is why Wallace sent his essay to Darwin for review. Darwin, at the time dealing with a desperately ill child, was naturally taken aback by this development and in truly gentlemanly conduct promptly forwarded the manuscript to his friend Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) with a covering letter offering to stand aside. Darwin wrote to Lyell ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence, if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!’ (White, 2001, p. 125). Lyell in consultation with another of Darwin’s friends, naturalist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), instead organised a compromise. Presentation of Wallace’s essay and Darwin’s abstract together occurred at a Linnean Society of London meeting on 1 July 1858. Darwin wasn’t in attendance as his son Charles had died of scarlet fever and was being buried on that day.

After the Linnean Society meeting Darwin promptly set to work, and in 1859 published On the Origin of Species. The first printing of 1,250 sold out on the day of publication (White, 2001, p. 135) and went into immediate reprint. Wallace, who found out about the presentation afterwards, was unperturbed and in fact called the concept Darwinism from that day forward whilst Darwin never failed to hail Wallace the joint discoverer of the theory. Darwin didn’t make his belief in human descent from apes clear until he published The Descent of Man in 1871.

By means of present day scientific knowledge and the value of hindsight as our guide we are able to examine historic scientific theories and determine whether these theories were heading down the correct or incorrect track. These theories can be seen to be either advancing (right track) or slowing down (wrong track) scientific progress. Using this notion of right track and wrong track science, we are able to evaluate the scientific and religious viewpoints of both Wallace and Darwin. This can lead us to believe that both men were to differing extents led astray by wrong track ideas such as mysticism and creationism.

Wallace had developed his theories but was then diverted by the spiritualism craze that swept through Victorian Britain in the mid 1860s. He claimed to have witnessed first-hand this phenomena at several séances he attended and the result of this can be seen in his work entitled The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (published in 1866). Wallace began to believe that the human mind was divorced from the body and lay in the supernatural realm and not just the physical body. He eventually came to the conclusion that there was something more than just physical about the evolution of the human mind, that a Creator was guiding human evolution. Spiritualism, along with Wallace’s early dabbling with mesmerism and phrenology are regarded by most people as the wrong track of scientific study and had the effect of tainting his scientific reputation, ‘Wallace possessed a deep spiritual vein and later drew considerable opprobrium upon himself because he tried to create a blend of religion and evolutionary biology by conjuring up a role for a guiding Creator’ (White, 2001, p. 126).

Despite Darwin’s firmly held belief in evolution and natural selection he hesitated before being forced to go public by Wallace’s essay. Unlike Wallace, he believed that the evolutionary process was entirely random, that there was no controlling hand or external force guiding evolution, the entire process worked by chance. Their independent views on the fundamental process of natural selection and Darwin’s dismissal of the Creator aspect meant that Wallace saw man from the spiritual dimension (wrong track) whereas Darwin saw man as a highly developed animal (right track). Despite this philosophical divergence of thinking the two scientists remained close friends.

In any discussion of nineteenth-century science the name Charles Darwin dominates. Until relatively recently Alfred Wallace had been obscure, relegated to a footnote in history. Little had been written about him and his theories and prolific publications until the past few decades. As Gribbin (2002) comments, ‘There were many dramatic developments in science in the nineteenth century, but undoubtedly the most important of these in terms of understanding the place of humankind in the Universe was the theory of natural selection, which, for the first time, offered a scientific explanation of the fact of evolution’ (p. 319). In 1908 the Linnean Society awarded the first Darwin-Wallace Medal, and again in 1958 for ‘major advances in evolutionary biology’. In 2008 the society announced that they would issue the medal annually from 2010 which seems a fitting tribute honouring both scientists.

In conclusion we can see that both scientists were influenced by both wrong track and right track of scientific thought. Several theologians have embraced the idea of Darwinism and adapted it to fit within their beliefs. Unfortunately, some people, such as the Nazi’s have used the ‘survival of the fittest’ to the extreme, in the Nazi’s case as a justification for murdering millions of supposedly ‘inferior’ races during World War Two. Despite these abhorrent uses Evolution still remains the best scientific theory of evolution the world has, being studied by scientists both religious and atheist. Groups still campaign both for and against the teaching of evolution in our schools. Both Wallace and Darwin were extraordinary men as well as brilliant scientists and thinkers and have left a lasting legacy with their contribution to scientific history and present day understanding of the world around us.


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Gribbin, J. (2002). Science: A history 1543-2001. London, England: Penguin

Morris, P., & Grimshaw, M. (Eds.). (2007). How is science related to the Judeo-Christian tradition? In The Lloyd Geering reader: Prophet of modernity (pp. 160-175). Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.

Raby, P. (2001). Alfred Russel Wallace: A life. London, England: Chatto & Windus.

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White, M., & Gribbin, J., (1995) Darwin: A life in science. New York, USA: Penguin.



Beckerlegge, G. (2005). An introduction to the humanities: Block 4, religion and science in context (4th ed.). Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: The Open University.

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Darwin, C. (2000). The voyage of the Beagle. New York, USA: Prometheus.

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APPENDIX: Some relevant key dates


1794             Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

1798             Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)

1809             Charles Darwin born 12 February

1823             Alfred Wallace born on 8 January

1830-33       Principles of Geology (3 volumes) by Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

1834             Darwin visits the Galápagos Islands

1836             Beagle returns to Britain

1837             Darwin starts first notebook on The Transformation of Species

1838             Darwin reads 6th ed. Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus

1839             The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

1839             Darwin elected a Fellow of the Royal Society

1842             Darwin comes up with the 35 page outline of his theory

1844             Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers

1844             Darwin expands his theory into a 189 page manuscript then put his notes away

                      with a letter to wife Emma Darwin requesting it’s publication after his death.

1848             Wallace travels to the Amazon with Henry Bates

1864             Principles of biology by Herbert Spencer: coined term ‘survival of the fittest’

1851             The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park

1852             Brig Helen catches fire and sinks taking Wallace’s best specimens with her.

                      Wallace returns to Britain almost penniless.

1953             A Narrative of Travels in the Amazon and Rio Negro by Alfred Wallace

1854             Wallace sets out for the Malay Archipelago

1854             3 volume work on barnacles by Charles Darwin earning him Royal Medal of

                      the Royal Society establishing him as a biologist.  Darwin starts collecting his

                      huge pile of notes together and testing his natural selection theory.

1855             Wallace & Darwin begin corresponding as a result of Wallace’s paper on the

                      variability of species of butterfly in the Amazon basin.

1855             On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species article by

                      Alfred Wallace.

1858             Darwin receives Wallace’s essay: On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the                Original Type

1858             Jointly presented to the Linnean Society of London which published: On the

                      tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and

                      species by natural means of selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

1859             Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

1862             Wallace returns to Britain having sent more than forty scientific papers back

                      to Britain to be published over the last eight years.

1863             Man’s Place in Nature by Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) – Huxley was also

                      known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for promoting the theory of natural selection.

1866             The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural by Alfred Wallace

1869             The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Wallace

1871             The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin

1872             The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

1882             Death of Charles Darwin on 19 April (buried in Westminster Abbey)

1889             Darwinism by Alfred Wallace

1893             Wallace elected a Fellow of the Royal Society

1910             Wallace receives the Order of Merit

1913             Death of Alfred Wallace on 7 November

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