Sites of Speech at the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Earlier this month I mentioned Ciaran Toal’s “Preaching at the British Association for the Advancement of Science,” which argued that there was a “vast homiletic literature preached during the British Association meetings throughout the nineteenth century.” Narrowing his focus, a more recent essay by Toal, “Science, Religion and the Geography of Speech at the British Association: William Henry Dallinger (1839-1909) under the microscope” (2013), investigates how the “separation of scientific and religious knowledge played out in practice by examining the speech of William Henry Dallinger, the prominent English microscopical researcher and Methodist preacher.”

Reverend William Henry Dallinger “carefully navigated the speech space of the Association.” The example Toal discusses is the Association’s Canadian meeting in Montreal in 1884. According to Toal, “on the BAAS platform Dallinger presented his science without any religious commitments, yet in other venues, and away from the Association’s constraints on speech, he presented science and religion as harmonious and inexorably tied.”

Raised an Anglican but converted to Methodism in his teen years, Dallinger “played an important role in popularising science among his fellow Methodists.” He worked with the Christian Evidences Society, an ecumenical Christian apologetic association founded in 1870 which aimed to address the problem of unbelief in Victorian society. Among its positions, the Society claimed that Christianity had nothing to fear from biblical criticism and that there was no conflict between science and religion. Indeed, in its 1889 report, T. Vincent Tymms spoke on behalf of the Society:

We ask for facts, not fancies, nor assumptions, nor dogmatic declarations of what must have been and what could not possibly have happened, because fatal to a theory of texts. We have no horror of Biblical criticism; we have no jealousy of geology, or biology, or archaeology, or any other science; we have no desire to live among illusions, however fair; no wish to live or die in the faith of anything which the future must destroy. But we have convinced ourselves that the Gospels are narratives of facts, that Christ is the central fact of history, that God is a fact, that revelation is a fact; and if these are facts, nothing in the universe, nothing in the past or present, or in things to come, can be at variance with them.

What is more, beside this enterprise, Dallinger was also a member of the Wesley Scientific Society and a regular contributor for the Wesleyan Magazine, reporting on “almost all British Association meetings in the 1870s and 1880s.

When the BAAS came to Montreal, McGill University acted as host, its Queen’s Hall the site of lectures and meetings. Here Dallinger delivered a talk on the “Modern microscope in the researches on the least and lowest forms of life,” subtitled, “the theory of spontaneous generation not proven.” Discussing the life of monads, the “lowest and least forms of life,” Dallinger asked:

how do they originate? Do they spring up de novo from the highest point on the area of not life which they touch? Are they, in short, the direct product of some yet uncorrelated force in nature changing the dead, the unorganized, the not living into definite forms of life?

Dallinger answered “No.” “Careful and prolonged experiment and research” had shown that the “not living” could not be “changed into that which lives.” Turning to evolution, Dallinger moved to “distance the spontaneous generation hypothesis from the theory of evolution.” As Toal nicely sums things up, “the process of evolution outlined by Darwin, and in contrast to Lamarck, did not require continuous instances of spontaneous generation. Indeed, Darwin set aside the issue of first origins, and avoided controversy, by claiming that his focus was solely on the evolutionary processes form the emergence of the first primordial form onwards.”

Dallinger’s lecture at Queen’s Hall was an official BAAS event, and thus his speech was tacitly delimited. By contrast, Dallinger entitled his address at James Ferrier Hall, McGill’s theological college, “The probability of a divine moral manifestation on Man’s behalf considered in the light of recent science.” According to Toal, “Dallinger was speaking in a very different speech space, and somewhat reflecting this turn to more theological concerns, the local press now referred to him as ‘Rev Dallinger’ and not Dr Dallinger.” The details of the speech are told well by Toal, and here it will suffice to say that in this address, Dallinger put forward four propositions for divine manifestation: that God molded the atom; that the origin of life was a direct result of God’s intervention; that the injection of consciousness into man was another direct act by God; and therefore “if divine intervention was necessary to fashion the atom, ‘quicken the not-living in to the living’ and insert consciousness into Man, was it not logical, he queried, that God, through Christ, had intervened to further elevate the ‘moral nature of man?’”

On the same day, Dallinger also delivered a sermon at the St James Street Church, in downtown Montreal. Here, interestingly enough, Dallinger focused on how “science was, in fact, imperfect.” Science can only conceive God from nature; but this is, according to Dallinger, the God of pantheism, “a force you ‘may tremble at’ but ‘cannot adore’, a force that ‘awes you, but does not bend your knee.’” Only the Gospels could reveal the “moral grandeur” and “beauty” of God. Ultimately, knowledge of “God’s character—the knowledge that really mattered—was only accessible through revelation.”

According to Toal, “Dallinger’s lecture, address and sermon in Montreal neatly highlight the close connection between, what David Livingstone has called, ‘location and locution,’” and thus “should be recognized as another aspect of the geography of speech attached to the British Association.” At the same time, as Bernard Lightman has also highlighted, popular authors, as opposed to narrow groups such as the scientific naturalists, played an increasingly important role in presenting science to the mass-reading public.

Indeed, I am currently digesting two important volumes—Livingstone’s Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science (2011) and Lightman’s Victorian Science in Context (1997)—that deal extensively and explicitly with issues of “Sites and Scales,” “Practice and Performance,” “Guides and Audiences,” and the nature and definition of Victorian science. I will post on these volumes in the coming week.

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