Archive for April, 2013

Dave Allen: God’s Comedian

April 30, 2013

Last night the BBC screened a documentary about the late Anglo-Irish comedian, Dave Allen. It was ironically entitled, ‘God’s Comedian’ as Allen was an outspoken atheist, who took a certain delight in mocking religion and particularly the Roman Catholic church. The show began with the great man himself saying ‘I’m an atheist – thank God!’ Despite his lampooning of the Church, he didn’t really sneer at its adherents. He always ended his show with the farewell, ‘Goodnight, and may your God go with you’. You can’t imagine any of the loudly anti-religious comedians who have emerged over the past decade, such as Paul Sina, uttering such a farewell of goodwill to the theists in their audiences. Allen’s wife stated that he wasn’t against religion. In fact, he had enormous respect for it. He just hated bigotry and being told what to think.

Allen’s Early Career in Australia and British Independent Television

The son of an English nurse and a Dublin journalist, Allen’s family moved to England after his father’s death. Allen’s father was a talented story-teller, and Allen hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a leading gentleman of the press. When this didn’t happen, he became a Butlin’s redcoat. His television career began when he was given a job hosting a chat show Down Under in the 1960s. Moving to England with his new wife, Allen was fortunate enough to get a similar job for ITV. This involved performing all manner of daft, and potentially lethal stunts in the studio. In one edition he demonstrated how to get out of a car underwater. To show how to do this, a car with him in it and the cameraman were dumped in a tank. Luckily nothing went wrong, and the show even helped to save the life of a young boy. A family wrote to him to say how appalled they were when their parked car fell into the sea with their son in it. Fearing that the boy was dead, they were amazed when he reappeared on the surface alive and well. He told them he knew how to get out of the car after watching Allen’s programme. Allen said that he was still in touch with the family.

Dave Allen At Large and Anti-Religious Sketches

He then moved over on to the BBC to star in his own comedy show, Dave Allen at Large, which ran from 1971 to 1976. Allen had turned against religion and the Church because of the cruelty he experienced at the hands of the Carmelite nuns who taught him at school. The show had a clip of Allen, sitting on his trademark bar stool, saying ‘I was taught by Carmelite nuns – the SS in drag!’ This contrasted strongly with the love and warmth he was given at home by his parents and siblings. As a result, he lampooned the Church and its clergy in sketches that were shocking in their day. Several of these involved sex, such as the sketch in which the crozier held by a seated bishop straightens out when his ring is kissed by an attractive nun, only to collapse again when it was kissed by a plainer, older nun. One sketch was particularly shocking and generated outrage and denunciations by the Roman Catholic church. This involved Allen, dressed as the Pope, doing a striptease in front of a chorus line of priests and nuns in front of St. Peter’s. The BBC was inundated with letters condemning the sketch and the Roman Catholic church boycotted his show. He even received death threats from the IRA and Provisional IRA. Various commentators described just how extremely shocking the sketch was at the time. Ireland in the 1970s was an extremely conservative society, and in the villages in the south and west of Ireland the priest was the most important person in the community. At the same time Allen caused further religious outrage by starring in a controversial play, A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. Footage was shown of Allen stating that the BBC took the death threats very seriously. Mercifully, the terrorists never carried out there threat, and Allen carried on to entertain and provoke Britain.

Documentary Work and Controversy for Swearing on ITV

The programme noted how, when alternative comedy emerged in the 1980s it didn’t really affect Allen. His material was very different from the other comedians of his generation against whom the alternative crowd, Alexei Sayle, Clive Anderson, Rik Mayall and Adrain Edmondson, reacted. Indeed, it’s been remarked before on a BBC arts show a long time ago in the 1980s that these angry, Politically Correct comics, actually like Allen and his observational humour. Allen also continued his career as a straight actor, appearing in a drama about a man undergoing a mid-life crisis who takes up home in an office block. He also tried his hand at making documentaries. One of the first was about British eccentrics, some of whom were very bizarre indeed. One of the eccentrics interviewed effectively lived in what looked like the main chassis of an old-fashioned coach. This tiny room was so small he couldn’t lie down, so he had built a small, box-like compartment bolted on to it in which he could put his feet when he wanted to sleep. Another wore a red top hot with white mice scurrying on its brim. This fellow lived only on what he grew himself, which seemed to be mostly cabbages. Allen and the other producers had decided beforehand not to interview anyone who was insane. The commentators – Allen’s wife, children, and writers – said how Allen didn’t judge them. Indeed, he seemed to like an admire the passion with which they lived their lives without giving a dam’ about what anyone thought about them. In his quiet questioning of these eccentrics and non-judgmental approach to their lives, the programme said, Allen paved the way for later explorers of the weird like Louis Theroux. I also remember that sometime in the 80s he appeared in a straight role as the title character in a production of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya on Radio 4.The programme noted that Allen was off the air for many years during the 1980s, concentrating on his career as a stand-up comedian. In 1990 he returned to television, this time to ITV. This show lacked the music, actors and sketches of his BBC shows: ‘Let’s face it’, he joked, ‘it’s cheap’. He then managed to outrage public opinion again during a monologue in which he used the ‘F’ word. The actual subject was clocks, and Allen joke was about how, after forty years of doing everything to the clock, when you retired they gave you ‘an f===ing clock’. The letters poured in condemning Allen’s foul language.

I remember this incident from when it happened. A Conservative MP got involved and attacked ITV for broadcasting such filth. Contemporary comedians are far more foul-mouthed, so it’s hard to remember just how shocking this was over twenty years ago. In the early 80s Jools Holland’s career on the great Channel 4 pop show, The Tube, ended after he said the ‘F’ word on air. He was suspended, but returned after a couple of weeks, only to say it again. This time the ban was permanent. In Allen’s case, I wondered if the attack by the Tory MP weren’t actually because of something else he’d said earlier in the show. 1990 was the tail end of the Thatcher administration. Just before the clock monologue, Allen had told another monologue attacking the Leadereen and her policies. It struck me that this was what really outraged the Tory MP. He couldn’t criticise Allen for that, however, without appearing humourless and an opponent of free speech. He could, however, join in the outrage at Allen’s foul language. Allen more or less retired from television after this. He devoted his life to his family and hobbies. He was, amongst other things, a talented painter. He died in 2005 at the age of 68.

Allen’s Anti-Religious Material Reconsidered

Watching the documentary about Allen I was impressed by his great talent, but also felt unease at his constant attack on religion and the Roman Catholic church. I’d seen some of his ant-religious sketches along with the rest of the programme when I was younger, and I never found them particularly blasphemous or shocking, though I was very much aware of his reputation. Some of this was simply denominational. I’m Protestant, and Allen was attacking Roman Catholicism, and so it didn’t really affect my church or offend my faith. Another reason was simply because many of the sketches simply didn’t have any relationship to the Catholic Church or doctrine, except that it was simply another group of authority figures who were shown behaving ridiculously. For example, in one of his sketches Allen plays a priest. Coming into the church, he kneels down and leans against a pillar. This falls over and knocks against the next pillar, setting off a chain of pillars falling over like dominoes until the entire church collapses. Is it blasphemous? Not really. The programme showed a later, but similar sketch in which a tourist leans against one of the great trilithons at Stonehenge, only to topple that and the entire monument over in a similar domino effect. Others seemed inventive, and based on rather mundane and inoffensive truths. In another sketch, a bishop is shown dozing off during a particularly boring sermon. His crozier then gives a beep, and he takes it off like a telephone to receive a wake-up call. Now sermons can be notoriously boring, so that sketch is actually a rather playful treatment of a simple reality, and the perceived similarity between the shape of a crozier and a telephone handset. Another reason why I wasn’t really concerned by the anti-religious content of his show at the time was because of the political background in Northern Ireland. This was at the height of the Troubles when bombings and assassinations occurred regularly. Against this backdrop of sectarian violence between Roman Catholic and Protestant, one could sympathise with his anti-religious stance. Speaking on Radio 4 in the early 90s, Allen said that he had played in Lebanon, and was critical of the role religion there played in dividing society and the country’s civil war.

Legacy of Anti-Religious Material in General Attitude of Contempt for Religion and Christians in General

Looking at his material now, however, I feel rather more uneasy. Church attendance has declined dramatically since the 1970s and there is, in certain sections of society and the media considerable hostility to religion and Christianity. While much of Allen’s material is actually far less offensive than it was considered to be at the time, I do feel that it contributed to the modern climate of indifference and hostility. It can produce a superficial familiarity with religion, a feeling that one knows all about it and is free to sneer at it, based on something a few comedians have said on TV or the radio. This extends to Christianity as a whole, not just to the Roman Catholic Church. I feel strongly that against the bitter attacks Christians now face, the churches – Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, need to support each other.

The way to combat these attacks on Christianity should be through good humour, and polite and witty rebuttal. No-one deserves death threats for their religious or political opinions, no matter how offensive they may be. The only decent way to combat anti-religious attacks, like those you can hear regularly on the Beeb or Channel 4, should be through rational counterargument. The churches are capable of this, and should use it more to rebut their critics. It doesn’t have to be very difficult. Quite often all the New Atheist crowd do is trade in prejudice and received opinion, without any background in philosophy, theology or history.

Dave Allen: One of the Great British Comic Geniuses

As for Dave Allen, it was brilliant being reminded just how good a comedian he was. One of his younger writers said that it was Allen’s monologue about explaining how to tell the time, in which the comic master was shown saying, ‘And the third hand on the watch is the second hand’ – that really he couldn’t teach Allen anything about comedy in a million years. Much of Allen’s material is about how absurd life can be. In one of his monologues he talked about how he went past a building. Painted on the door was the sign, ‘This is neither an entrance nor an exit, and should be kept closed at all times’. ‘Why then, ‘ asked Allen rhetorically, ‘don’t you just brick the dam’ thing up!’ Some of the sketches are simply morality plays on greed and vanity. There’s one which features Allen as a city gent. Walking past a car, he notices a ten-pound note jammed under its wheels. This sketch was made in the early 1970s, when ten pounds was worth far more than it is today. Unable to pull the note out, the gent spots a cafe over the road and walks to it to wait for the car to drive away. The gent is shown sitting in the cafe, ordering more and more cups of tea, having false starts when it just looks that the car is about to be driven away, only for the supposed driver to continue walking past. Finally the driver comes back, gets in the car and drives away. At last the commuter sees his chance, gets up to go to the door, only to be beaten by everyone else in the cafe. Another sketch was set during the Russian Revolution. Against a backdrop of stirring music and a map of Russia in flames, the streets are full of rioting mobs. The limousine of one of the capitalist masters and his chaffeur pulls into one of these streets, only to be halted. The two are pulled out of the vehicle and lynched. Two of the mob, played by Dave Allen and his long-time supporting star, Peter Vincent, take the duo’s clothes. Amid mocking cheers Allen puts on the capitalist’s fur coat and monocle, while Vincent dons the chauffeurs hat and jacket. Amid shouts of applause from their fellow workers they get in the car and drive off. They then turn a corner into the next street, where they meet another band of revolting workers, who take them out and lynch them in turn.

Despite his mockery of religion, Allen was indeed a comic genius. Nearly three decades later, I still find him far funnier than some of the comics who replaced him. Goodnight, Dave, and I hope the Almighty was with you in the end.

Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero Pt. 2

April 29, 2013

Yesterday saw the last part of Bill Bailey’s programme exploring the work of the Victorian explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and his independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The show followed Wallace’s expedition through Indonesia, Malaya and Sarawak collecting specimens, and the creatures that spurred his discovery of the motor of evolution. In Darwin’s case, this was the famous finches he found in the Galapagos islands. In Wallace’s case, it was the different varieties of macaque and a species of tree-climbing kangaroo. Bailey pointed out the dividing line in that part of the eastern Pacific dividing the types of animals in that part of the world. Still called the Wallace Line after him, it separated animals characteristic of Indonesia and Malaya to the east, while to the west were those of Australia. The macaques Wallace found in the rest of the Indonesian and Malayan islands were grey with tales. On the island of Ternate, they were black without tails. They also had a tuft of hair which Bailey described as a mohican. In a piece of self-deprecating humour Bailey posed for the cameras, showing the apparent similarity between his own features and those of the macaques. Like David Attenborough with the gorillas in Life on Earth way back in 1979, Bailey seemed to get on well with primates. He sat very still while the macaques came up to him, investigated and sniffed him, and accepted him as one of their own. In the Australian ecological zone, Wallace discovered the tree-climbing kangaroos. With their smaller front paws and large hind legs, these animals weren’t well adapted to the arboreal existence. The programme showed a few of them gingerly making their way up the trees, with several mis-steps. This conflicted with the Natural Theology of the day, which, according to the programme, declared that each species of animal had been separately created. When the environment changed, and the animals died out, God simply created a new species of that particular animal which was better suited to its environment. Wallace also noted that some of the animals on different islands differed strongly from their cousins elsewhere. Looking at maps of the sea depth in the Indonesian and Malayan achipelagos near Irian Jaya, he theorised that whwere the sea was shallow there were once land bridges allowing species to cross from one island to another. The ease of access between 5these islands meant that these species remained closely related. The much deeper waters around the other islands meant that these islands were colonised by castaways, which drifted there. Cut off from the rest of the world, the creatures there evolved into markedly more different forms. The question remained of the actual motor of evolution, the process that brought these species into being. A bout of acute malarial fever led Wallace to remember Malthus’ Theory of Population, and he realised that quite small differences in an animal’s constitution could give it an advantage in the struggle for existence, such as larger eyes for finding insects in the case of lemurs. He thus discovered Natural Selection.

Attempt to Restore Wallace to Prominence with Darwin

Bailey was keen to take his hero out from under Darwin’s shadow, and the shadow the maneouvering that had taken place to make sure Darwin was not pre-empted by Wallace. Wallace was delighted when Darwin accepted him as one of his collectors. However, when Wallace sent Darwin a letter discussing his activities and his formation of a new theory of evolution, Darwin sent a polite reply telling him that he was working on his own, and implying that he should stay away in the tropics and not hurry back. When Wallace sent Darwin his letter outlining his theory of Natural Selection, Darwin was shaken. He had spent the last eight years working on barnacles to support his own theory, which he still had not published. Quickly consulting his friends, including the geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin decided to rush his own account, The Origin of Species, into print. He also read out a paper he wrote on evolution to a meeting of the Royal Society with Wallace’s paper. He did not ask Wallace’s permission, and Wallace was not even aware this had occurred until he returned to Britain. Bailey stated that, depending on your point of view, it was either a delicate compromise or a highly shameful episode.Nevertheless, after over a century of undeserved relative obscurity, Wallace was being accorded the honour that rightfully was his. At a meeting in the Natural History Museum, Bailey unveiled a portrait of the great man to hang alongside Darwin’s statue.

Bailey and Wallace in Ternate

It was a fascinating programme. As I said in my review of the first episode, Bailey is an affable, knowledgable host. Not only did the programme have some superb footage of the animals in Indonesia and Malaya, it also showed some equally interesting episodes with the human inhabitants of these islands. Bailey attempted to recreate the style of Wallace’s expedition, including what he ate, and his historic meeting with one of the countries’ rulers. When on his expedition, Wallace was forced to eat what he found in the rainforest. Thus, in another moment worhty of Ray Mears, he was shown eating a fruit bat. Bailey picked delicately at it, while his Indonesian hosts downed it with gusto. Wallace had had to get the permission of the Sultan of Ternate before he could travel there on his collecting mission. So Bailey also sought an audience with his highness. He therefore appeared outside the Sultan’s palace dressed in white linen suit, cravat and panama hat, while liveried courtiers and guards ushered him in. Eventually he was allowed into the Sultan’s presence. As you’d probably expect, the Sultan himself spoke excellent English, and was voluble on the subject of Wallace. Wallace himself appears to have been the subject of local pride.
In a street near the waterfront Bailey found a mural of the eminent Victorian on the wall of a building. Beneath it, in Indonesian, was the legend ‘Alfred Russell Wallace, Ternate scientist born England’. Ternate clearly viewed him as one of their own.

Victorian Society Increasingly Inclined towards Evolution not Mentioned

It was an excellent programme, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I have a few, major objections to it. Firstly, it didn’t mention how Wallace’s theory differed from Darwin’s. Unlike Darwin, Wallace believed that evolution was teleological, working towards higher and better forms of life. He also believed that human intelligence and our moral sense could not have been shaped by Natural Selection, but were the result of the intervention of spiritual entities. The programme stressed that Wallace’s theory was in conflict with Natural Theology and the scientific and religious establishment. It did not mention how scientific and theological opinion in Britain was actually turning away from Natural Theology and embracing evolution. I mentioned some of the reasons for this in my last blog post on the subject. In addition to these there was the influence of John Henry, later Cardinal Newman. Natural Theology was closely associated with William Paley, whose book was the major work on the subject at the time. Paley, however, was linked with the Benthamite Utilitarians. By the 1840s there was a reaction against Utilitarian philosophy. Newman rejected Natural Theology as it reduced the existence and operation of the Lord to a purely scientific question. At the time Darwin and Wallace were working, there was already a large body of opinion, both inside and outside the church, that was favourably inclined towards evolution.

Links between Darwin-Wallace Theory and Lamarckianism

The programme also claimed that ‘Natural Selection’ was a radical theory. This is also open to question. Some of the Lamarckians, like Geoffroy, were also including it as an evolutionary mechanism before Darwin and Wallace. The Lamarckians had also discovered the theory of ‘adaptive radiation’, in which different species emerge as the parent species spreads out to colonise new territories before Darwin. Darwin even had one of their books on his shelf on the Beagle. The programme did mention that an earlier letter Wallace had written about the subject was dismissed as ‘nothing new’. There is therefore the question of how novel Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories actually were. In the case Darwin’s theory, it was still quite Lamarckian as Darwin believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Subtext of Programme against Intelligent Design?

The other problem with the programme is that it seems to be subtly written against Intelligent Design. The view that God creates new, improved species after the extinction of their predecessors sounds close to the modern Intelligent Design view that new species are created through an intelligence generating or inserting new information into the genome. For theists, this intelligence is the Almighty, though the official ID position is that the identity of the Designer is unknown.

Medieval Natural Philosophers accepted Some Speciation due to Natural Forces

Now I have to say, I don’t know how prevalent this theory of speciation by divine action was at the time of Darwin. It sounds like the views of Richard Owen, the great Victorian naturalist whose statue used to stand in the Natural History Museum until ousted by Darwin four years ago. But previous generations of Natural Philosophers had also accepted that some speciation was due to natural forces. Ancient Greek anthropologists, including the medical authority Hippocrates, believed that the different races of humanity and their different temperaments were the result of differing climates and geographical influences. In the Middle Ages authorities such as the 15th century bishop of Paris, Pierre d’Ailly, stated that new species had emerged after the Flood when different animals moved into different environments. The types of animals were roughly fixed, but new species could arise from these types through natural, environmental influences. I have to say, I don’t know if this view was still current at the time of Darwin and Wallace, but it certainly had been present in evolutionary thought before them. It would have been good if the programme had mentioned this. In this case the programme looks less like a simple attempt to restore a forgotten Victorian scientific hero and more like another piece in the attack on Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Wallace still Scientifically Disreputable

As for Wallace himself, Bailey stated that there seemed to be still some reluctance to be seen mentioning him. He said that while he was making the series, he had various scientists sidle up to him saying, ‘If you want any information on Wallace, here’s my card’, while looking around to see that they were not overheard. Bailey wondered why it was that the great Victorian should still be seen as somewhat disreputable and a danger to the careers of contemporary scientists. Though the programme didn’t say it, this might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s own theory of evolution still left explicit room for the operation of the supernatural.

Bailey’s exploration of Wallace and his almost forgotten contribution to evolutionary theory was a fascinating programme, and well worth watching. But it omitted the larger debates on the nature of the evolutionary process and the growing willingness of parts of the Church to accept evolutionary theory in favour of a simplistic narrative of lonely outsider battling class prejudice and religious ignorance. I hope that future programmes on the development of evolutionary theory will correct this view, and do more to place Wallace, Darwin and their predecessors into the context of the wider changes in scientific and theological opinion of which they were apart.

17th Century Apologetics and Modern Cosmological Problems

April 28, 2013

One of the most astonishing features of studying pre-modern science is the fact that quite often ancient, medieval or early modern natural philosophers and scientists came up with ideas strikingly similar to modern scientific concepts. The mathematician and Christian apologist, Richard Bentley in his 1693 book A Confutation of Atheism from the Origin and Frame of the World attempted to disprove the assertion that an unformed chaos of atoms in the early universe could have led to the formation of the modern cosmos. He wrote

‘That, though we should allow the Atheists, that matter and motion may have been from everlasting, yet if (as they now suppose) there were once no sun nor stars nor Eearth nor planets, but the particles, that now constitute them, were diffused in the mundane space in manner of a chaos without any concretion and coalition, those disperse particle could never of themselves by any kind of natural motion, whether call’d fortuitous or mechanical, have conven’d into this present or any other like frame of heaven and Earth’.

Part of Bentley’s argument was that in the early universe, composed of nothing except a chaos of atoms, matter was too rarified for gravitation to work to pull it all together into the present universe of stars and planets. Bentley estimated that

‘every particle (supposing them globular or not very oblong) would be above nine million times their own length from any other particle’.

He also concluded that this early chaos would have a uniform texture:

‘For if some particles should approach nearer each other than in the former proportion, with respect to some other particles they would be as much remoter. So that notwithstanding a small diversity of their positions and distances, the whole aggregate of matter, as long as it retain’d the name and nature of chaos. would retain well-nigh an uniform tenuit of texture, and may be consider’d as an homomgenous fluid’.

The problem was therefore that in order for the universe to be formed

”tis necessary that these squander’d atoms should convene and unite into great and compact masses, like the bodies of the Earth and planets. Without such a coalition the diffused chaos must have continued and reign’d to all eternity’.

Bentley then went on to attempt to demonstrate that this could not have occurred naturally.

Now modern cosmology has answered many of Bentley’s objections through the Big Bang theory, and observations of the proto-planetary coulds around forming stars. The problem of the even distribution of matter in the early universe after the Big Bang, however, still remains a problem. Modern theoretical physics after Einstein has stated that the universe can indeed be regarded as a kind of fluid. Astronomers and cosmologists are also still working to establish how the evenly distributed matter produced by the Big Bang came to form clumps, which then became stars and galaxies. One solution is Inflationary Universe of Alan Guth. This suggests that the universe experienced a phase of massive inflation after the Big Bang.

Now I am not suggesting that the problem of the coalescene of matter from the mass of high energy particles in the early universe will not be solved by science, or that it was not the result of physical law. What I am saying is simply that the great scientists of the 17th and early centuries wre able of forming opinions and identifying problems in physics similar to those of contemporary science. Their achievements can easily be overlooked by comparison with the great strides science took from the 19th century onwards. Historians of science like the great Roman Cathoic French physicist Pierre Duhem and more recently James Hallam have attempted to restore the great achievements of medieval science and give them the respect they deserve. The great achievements of the 16th and 17th century ‘Scientific Revolution’ and its leading figures, scientists like Newton, Boyle, Francis Bacon, Leeuvenhoek, Galileo, Descarte, Huyghens and Gassendi are much better known and appreciated. But there are other people also in this period, much less known, whose minds nevertheless attempted to grapple with the same problems while arguing against atheism.

Medieval Kingdoms of Infinite Space

April 27, 2013

There’s a little bit in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Q says to Picard ‘What is it your beloved Shakespeare said? ”All the Galaxy’s a stage, and all its people only players’.
‘World’, Picard corrects him. ‘It’s world, Q’.
‘Well,’ retorts Q sniffily, ‘it’s what he would have put.’ Yet a century before Shakespeare, European Natural Philosophers were discussing the possibility of other worlds and extraterrestrial life.

Medieval philosophy and science was based very much on Aristotle. Aristotle believed gravity was a universal force produced by each element seeking its own place in the universe. Thus, things fall to Earth because Earth is their natural place. He ruled out the possibility that there were other worlds, because he felt that if there were, this would mean there was no natural place. Other ancient Greek philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans and Plato, had a different view of gravity. According to Joannes Stobaeus, writing in the 5th century AD, Heraclides of Pontus and the Pythagoreans believed that each star was a world consisting of an earth surrounded by air. Plato in the Timaeus believed that objects naturally sought to rejoin their own kind, in whichever world it was situated. During the fifteenth century there was a revival of interest in Platonism. The leading churchmen Nicole of Oresme and Nicholas of Cusa both believed that gravity was a local phenomenon, and that each star was a centre of attraction holding its constituent parts together through gravity. Nicholas of Cusa went even further, and believed that every star was inhabited, just like Earth. There’s a myth that it was the belief in an infinite number of inhabited worlds which led to the Church burning Giordano Bruno for heresy. It wasn’t. The Church did not have an issue with that. It was Bruno’s pantheism and belief in magic which led to his condemnaiton by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Nicholas of Cusa went even further than believing the universe was inhabited. He considered that while the universe was not infinite, it had no boundaries, and thus had no centre, therefore denying that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. It’s a profoundly modern conception of the nature of the cosmos, even if he shared the medieval belief that each world was surrounded by rings, each ring composed of one of the four elements. It makes you wonder what someone like Nicholas of Cusa would have produced if, rather than writing tale of Romance, they had written Science Fiction instead.


A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo 2: Science in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Times 13th – 17th Century (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1959).

Lamarck: The Faith of An Evolutionist

April 27, 2013

In the last post, I criticised the otherwise excellent BBC series with Bill Bailey on Wallace for presenting evolutionary as leading to atheism. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, some of the founders of evolutionary theory were convinced it led in the other direction: to God. Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also formed a theory of evolution in his Zoonomia. This was a best-seller, though its popularity was cut short when the French Revolutionary Wars broke out. Scientific attempts to investigate the origin of species, in Charles Darwin’s later phrase, became associated with atheism, revolution and carnage. Erasmus Darwin, however, beleived his theory made the existence of the Lord ‘mathematically certain’.

The other, major figure of evolutionary theory before Charles Darwin was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarck was the professor of Insects, Worms and Microscopic Animals at the Jardin des Plantes. He articulated his theory of evolution in a seris of books, the Systeme des Animaux sans Vertbres of 1801, the Philosophie Zoologique, of 1809 and the Histoire Naturelle des Aminaux sans Vertebres of 1815. In his view, which became known as Lamarckianism after him, evolution progressed as animals acquired new characteristics, which were then passed down to their offspring. As a theory of evolution its has long been discarded, though the recent studies of epigenetics does show how the environment can affect the physiology and structure of living creatures as well as their genetic inheritance. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lamarck was a Deist rather than an atheist. He appears to have followed the 18th century German philosopher Leibnitz in believing that God created all possible things. He also had a teleological view of evolution, in which evolution led to higher forms of life. He also followed the ancient philosophers in believing that ‘Nature made no jumps’ – in other words, that organisms ultimately shaded into each other. Like later theistic evolutionists, he believed that evolution was only an instrument through which God produced new forms of life. In the first volume of his Animaux sans Vertebres he wrote:

‘The general power which holds in its domain all the things we can perceive .. is truly a limited power, and in a manner blind; a power which has neither intention, nor end in view, nor choice; a power which, great as it may be, can do nothing but what in fact it does; in a word, a power which only exists by the will of a higher and limitless power, which, having founded it, is in turth the author of all that it produces, that is, of all that exists …

‘And nature … is only an instrument, only the particular means which it has pleased the supreme power to employ in the production of various bodies, in their diversification; to give them properties, or even abilities… She is, in a way,, only an intermediary between GOD and the parts of the physical universe, for the execution of the divine will.’

Like Richard Dawkins, Lamarck believed that there was a blind watchmaker. This watchmaker, however, was wielded by one who was All-Seeing, and whose powers stretched beyond the tool He used for crafting His Creatures.

Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists (London: Bloomsbury 2012)

J.S. Wilkie, ‘Buffon, Lamarck and Darwin: The Originality of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution’ in C.A. Russell, (ed.) Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London Press 1973)238-281.

Bill Bailey on Alfred Russell Wallace and the Origins of Evolution by Natural Selection

April 27, 2013

Last Sunday the BBBC began a new 2-part series in which the musician and comedia, Bill Bailey, followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace to discover how he indpendently came to the theory of Natural Selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin. Russell’s been overlooked as the co-discoverer of the theory. Bailey points out that at the time, Natural Selection was known as the ‘Wallace-Darwin Theory’. It was Russell’s letter to Darwin discussing his theory of Natural Selection that prompted Darwin, after decades of independent research, to finally publish his own results. AS time went on, Wallace receded into the background until finally the theory was completely dominated by the towering figure of Darwin. Bailey went to the Natural History Museum in London to show the great statue of Darwin that was installed four years ago during the Darwin bicentennial celebrations. Wallace, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. He then briefly talked with David Attenborough, who duly paid tribute to Wallace’s genius and perserverance in researching and formulating the theory.

Unlike the aristocratic and university-educated Darwin, Wallace came from a humbler background. His education stopped when he was about 12 or 14, and he was forced to fund his expeditions by selling the specimens he collected. It was during his trip to Indonesia that he began to formulate his theory of Natural Selection by noting how the species very gradually shaded into each other.

It’s a fascinating story. Bailey’s a musician and comedian, as well as Rocker and SF/ Fantasy geek. His shows incorporate music, wittily playing on the different styles and genres. One of the funniest of his pieces about how the Dr. Who theme, when you slow it down, sounds like Belgian Jazz. He then does a Belgian Jazz song, to the amended Dr. Who theme, with vocals in French, about the Doctor defeating the Daleks ’cause they can’t climb stairs. A enthusiast of the theremin, he managed to seriously freak out Jonathan Ross by playing it on his show. In the programme, Bailey’s a genial, articulate and knowledgable host. He’s done some of the same pursuits Wallace did, such as butterfly collecting, and first travelled to Indonesia several decades ago. He fell in love with the place, and the programme shows him not only trekking through the Indonesia rainforest in search of exotic animal and poring over Wallace’s books and specimens, but also staying and talking with an Indonesia family. He talked about how Indonesians also ate dragonflies, downing a kebab skewer of them. He thus followed Ray Mears in eating insects and what westerner’s would consider revolting in the name of bushcraft and cross-cultural understanding.

Criticism of Programme for Presenting Evolution as Leading to Atheism

DEspite that, I have serious reservations about the programme. It’s underlying theme is that evolution naturally leads to atheism, and conflict with the Church. Bailey several times talked about how Wallace would eventually lose his faith, and the Church’s opposition to evolution, or transmutation as it was then called. The show presented a picture very much of the lonely genius ploughing his way to scientific truth against opposition from the religious Establishment.

Yet here and there there are hints to contrary. Bailey noted the setback to Wallace’s own research on evolution with the publication of Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. As well as angering the Church, it was also scientifically rubbish, with tales of a Platypus being produced by a bird. Bailey notes that the Vestiges was massively popular, and was even read by Queen Victoria. Wallace was afraid that without further research, his own theory of evolution would similarly suffer ridicule.

Philosophical and Theological Trends leading to Acceptance of Evolution

What the programme does not show or mention, is that attitudes at the time were changing. Victorian society was becomming much more open to evolutionary theory. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the work of the German explorer Humboldt in South America had made the Victorian public aware of the great variety of species in that part of the world, and the possibility that evolution may have played a role. A further boost came from Hegelian philosophy. Hegel believed that society advanced and evolved through a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. While his theory was confined to human societies, it nevertheless opened up the Victorian public to the possibility that other aspects of the world also similarly evolved. In the 1820s the Bridgewater Lectures led to Liberal theological opinion in the Anglican Church considering that the world and its creatures may similarly have been produced by natural law. In the 1840s Baden-Powell, the Savillian professor of Mathematics at Oxbridge set out his view considering that the world’s creatures had also evolved in a process similar to the contemporary manufacturing process. Just as the way an article was shaped and formed during manufacture by different industrial processes, so organisms were shaped and formed by the world. And just as the industrial techniques that produce a table, coat or pot are the products of an intelligent creator, so the evolutionary processes that create a living creature also indicated the presence and direction of a supreme intelligence: the Almighty. A number of other Anglican clergy, such as F.D. Maurice, also accepted evolution because it made the creation of the world less mysterious, and pointed to the action of a divine intelligence.

Wallace, Teleology and Spiritualism

Although he lost his Christian faith, Wallace’s own views departed considerably from a completely materialist view of evolution. He was a Spiritualist, who believed that evolution was teleological, working towards a predestined end. He also believed that the higher faculties in humanity – our intelligence and moral sense, could not have been the product of unguided evolution. Because of this there has been interest in him from the Intelligent Design movement. Yet Wallace’s unorthodox opinions were not mentioned in the programme, even if just to dismiss them. It will be interesting to see if they are mentioned in tomorrow’s programme.

In short, Bailey’s series is an excellent programme in many ways as an introduction to Wallace’s life and thought. There are some stunning footage of the plants and animals of the region, and eye-catching animated sections which bring Wallace’s notes to life. The series suffers, however, from the simplistic notion that evolution must always lead to atheism and its doctrinaire and uncritical acceptance of the belief that religion and science are in conflict. Very few historians of science accept this view, but it has been loudly promoted by Dawkins and many of his followers. The programme follows this line, thus distorting and obscuring oen of the most profound intellectual developments of the Victorian Age.

It’s The Reason for the Season

April 25, 2013

This follows on from my last post about Isaac Newton and his belief that the structure of the universe and its creatures revealed the existence of God. You may remember that a few years ago a number of atheist organisations started sporting a T-Shirt that lampooned the Christian motto, ‘Tis the Reason for the Season’. The slogan was meant to remind people that Christmas was a celebrations of the Lord’s birth. The atheist T-Shirts simply showed the Earth tilted on its axis, with an arrow, to show that Earth’s seasons were caused by its axial tilt. While it accurately describes the origin of the physical seasons, it misses the point that it’s the metaphysical season that’s being discussed. A number of prominent atheists actually came out against the design on the grounds that instead of making atheism attractive, it actually presented them as rather pretentious and intellectually condescending.

Some of Newton’s contemporaries however, wouldn’t have been fazed by the T-Shirts at all, but would probably have used it as a counterargument to demonstrate God’s existence. While Newton was sceptical of such arguments, Dr. Bentley, a leading mathematician, believed that the Earth’s axial tilt and its effects were another proof of God’s existence. Contemporary astronomy has explained much that was mysterious in Newton’s time, and I doubt many astronomers would be impressed by the argument for a deity from the Earth’s axial tilt. Nevertheless, it shows that the leading scientists of Newton’s time probably wouldn’t have been impressed by the glib arguments on atheist merchandising.


Burtt, in Russell, Science and Religious Belief (London: University of London Press 1973).

The Faith of Isaac Newton

April 25, 2013

As well as discovering the Law of Gravity, the author of the Principia Mathematica and one of the great founders of Enlightenment science was a man of profound religious faith. A Unitarian with a profound belief in God’s miracles, Newton wrote:

‘We are, therefore, to acknowledge one God, iinfinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of all things, most wise, most just, most good, most holy. We must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments, and set times apart for his service, as we are directed in the third and fourth Commandments, for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not grievous. 2 John, v. 3. And these things we must do not to any mediators between him and us, but to him and alone, that he may give his angels charge over us, who, being our fellow-servants, are pleased with the worship we4 give to their God. And this is the first and the principal par of religion. This always was, and always will be the religion of God’s people, from the beginning to the end of the world.’

He believed very strongly that God’s works – His creation – pointed to the Almighty’s existence, and believed that science could correctly demonstrate the Lord’s existence. In his Opticks he wrote:

‘The main business of natural philosophy is to argue from phenomena without feighning hypotheses, and to deduce causes from effects, till we come ot the very first cause, which certainly i snot mechanical; and not only to unfold the mechanism of the world, but chiefl to resolve these and such like questions… And these things being rightly dispatched, does it not appear from phenomena that there is a being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who, in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them; and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself?’


E.A Burtt, The Mataphysics of Newton, in C.A. Russell, (ed.), Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London Press 1973) 131-146.

The Advancement of Learning: Science in the Middle Ages

April 14, 2013

The title of this piece is taken from one of the great works of Sir Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan scholar who introduced the modern scientific method of experiment and induction. Bacon was advocating and looking forward to a new era of scientific progress in contrast to the Aristotelian system of the Middle Ages. This system was increasingly criticised and rejected by European philosophers and scientists during the 17th century in the period of the Scientific Revolution. This saw the creation of the modern scientific method, ‘the mechanical philosophy’, by scholars such as Bacon, Descartes and Galileo. The Middle Ages have a popular reputation as an age of religious faith where intellectual inquiry and particularly science were rigidly controlled and kept within strict limits by the Roman Catholic church, with much philosophical speculation and scientific research prohibited and suppressed. Many popular treatments of the history of science duly give detailed descriptions of the theories and inventions of the ancient world. These then often pass quickly to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, devoting only a few pages, if at all, to medieval science. These generally note that much ancient science was lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire, and what science was taught during the Middle Ages was Aristotelian.

It is of course true that scholarship and intellectual research was in the hands of the church, which would attempt to ban any religious, philosophical and scientific doctrines it considered a threat. Nevertheless, the idea that the Church was opposed to all intellectual inquiry is untrue. It is the creation of a number of hostile writers and movements from the early modern period up to the 19th century. These included the 16th century Humanists, who criticised the Middle Ages for its poor classical scholarship, to Enlightenment philosophers and historians such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon. It was the Humanist Petrarch, who first used the term medius tempus with the sense of a dark age lasting from the Fall of the Roman Empire to his own time. They attacked the Middle Ages for its religious intolerance and supposed ignorance and believed that proper scientific knowledge and endeavour had only begun with the Scientific Revolution of the preceding century. More recently historians have increasingly viewed the Middle Ages as a period of scientific and technological advance comparable to that of the 19th century. One of the first scholars who led the positive reappraisal of medieval science was Pierre Duhem, the French Roman Catholic physicist and philosopher of science. Duhem’s aim was partly to attack the views of the French Positivists, who accepted the view of Auguste Comte that society moved from a stage of magic, through theology to a final age of science. Other scholars since Duhem have followed him in viewing the Middle Ages positively as an age of philosophical innovation and scientific achievement. Medieval science has also benefited from the positive appreciation of medieval philosophy generally by historians. The French historian Jean Gimpel subtitled his book, The Medieval Machine ‘The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages’. While this is an extreme view, nevertheless the Middle Ages did see considerable scientific and technological research and progress.

It is impossible to present a detailed description of the medieval scientific worldview and its physics, biology and cosmology in a short talk. I will instead try to present an overview of the progress of medieval scientific and technical knowledge. Although much medieval science, such as the theory of the four humours and Earth-centred ptolemaic view of the universe was wrong, nevertheless it was an age when many European scholars took an active interest in questions of natural philosophy. Natural science in its turn inspired and was celebrated by writers and poets such as Jean de Meun and the anonymous author of the 15th century English work, The Court of Sapience. In addition to describing some of the advances and developments made in science during the Middle Ages, this paper will also discuss the theological and metaphysical views, that allowed the acceptance of natural philosophy in the monastic schools and universities and encouraged its further development.

Much ancient knowledge was lost during the chaos of the barbarian invasions. Even before the Roman Empire fell, Pliny complained that there was less scientific research under the Empire than when its constituent countries were separate, independent states. The Romans themselves largely left science and literature to the Greeks, the main intellectual centres of the Roman world were further east, in Alexandria, for example. Many of these areas were thus lost when the Middle Eastern and north African provinces were conquered by Islam. During the Middle Ages manuscripts were preserved and copied in monastic libraries and then in the new universities.

Medieval scientific works following the fall of the Roman Empire consisted of:

Natural History of Pliny
Boethius’ works on geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music, and translations of Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione. However, Geometry of Boethius only dates from 9th century.
Etymologies of Isidore of Seville
Cassiodorus in Institutio Divinarum Litterarum, urged study of herbal medicine.
Dioscorides’ Materia Medica
Lucretius, fragments of De Rerum Natura
Plato’s Timaeus, trans. Chalcidius 4th century, 5th century commentary by Martianus Capella..
Physiologus – ancestor of medieval bestiaries. Written in Alexandria and translated into Latin in 5th century.
Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales
Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis
Vitruvius De Architectura.

The Seven Liberal Arts in the monastic schools: 1st stage consisted of two stages, the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. From this, students passed to the 2nd stage of the Quadrivium. This was composed of the more scientific subjects of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Music was considered a science because of its basis in mathematical harmony. The texts used for scientific study were Pliny, Boethius, Cassiodorus and Isidore.

Despite the very limited number of scientific texts surviving from ancient Rome, the early Middle Ages did see the composition of new scientific works. In Anglo-Saxon England,astronomy and medicine were taught in 7th century Kent. The great Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede, wrote a book on natural philosophy, De Rerum Natura, based on Isidore’s book of same name, and Pliny. He also wrote several other scientific works, including De Temporibus and De Temporum Ratione. These dealswith time, and the calendar, date of Easter and the nature of the tides. There was also a medical manual, Bald’s Leechbook, and a work on herbal medicine, the Herbarius, attributed to Apulaius Barbarus or Platonicus. The 10th century also saw a textbook on arithmetic composed by Helperic.

In addition to translations of Arabic and Greek texts, the 12th Century was also a period in which original scientific works were produced. These included the Quaestiones Naturales of Adelard of Bath and Thierry of Chartres, De Septem Diebus et Sex Operum Distinctionibus. Adelard’s books was a question and answer lesson on the nature of universe between Adelard and his nephew.
The De Septem Diebus et Sex Operum Distinctionibus was a rational explanation of Creation.

12th Century Onwards: Period of Translation of Arabic Texts

Medieval Islam had preserved and expanded on the ancient knowledge that had been lost in the West. As a result scholars were active translating their works into Latin from the 12th century onwards. Toledo was an important centre of the new Arab science in the west, and scholars such as Daniel de Morley travelled there to enjoy the new learning. The authors translated into Latin included works on chemistry, arithmetic, physics, geology, alchemy, anatomy, optics, medicine, astronomy, botany, meteorology and mathematics by al-Battani, al-Fargani, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Al-Khwarizmi, Alkindi, Thabit ibn Qurra, Rhazes, Alfarabi, Haly Abbas, Pseudo-Aristotle, Alhazen, Avicenna, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Aristotle, Euclid, Apollonius’ Conica, Alhazen’s, Archimedes, Diocles, Nicholas of Damascus, Pseudo-Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Alpetragius, Averroes, Hero of Alexandria, Proclus, Ptolemy, Archimedes, Simplicius, Galen. It was also the period when Arabic numerals began to be introduced to the west. The first description of them is the Liber Abaci of Leonardo Fibonacci. In astronomy, the tables of al-Zarqali, known as Toledan Tables or Canones Azarchelis, were used before these were replaced in the 13th century by Alfonsine Tables, compiled under Alfonso the Wise.

This interest in natural philosophy was encouraged by the views of some of the early Church Fathers. St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen believed that all knowledge was good, as it led to the perfection of mind. They believed that the study of philosophy and natural science was not incompatible with Christianity. St. Clement compared the fear of pagan philosophy with a child’s fear of goblins. St. Augustine believed that before the fall Adam and Eve had practised all the lawful arts and sciences, and so recommended the study of nature and the sciences as a way of returning to the state of primeval innocence. He was followed in the Middle Ages by Hugh of St. Victor. In a universal history Hugh traced the restoration of God’s image in humanity through the development of arts and sciences.

The 12th century also saw the formulation of the conception of a lawful cosmos, based on ancient Stoic and Christian concepts of the Logos innate in and ordering the universe. St. Augustine in the De Genesi ad Litteram IX. 17, stated ‘The most customary course of all this nature has certain natural laws of its own according to which both the spirit of life, which is in a creature, has in some way certain settled desires of its, which even malevolence cannot overcome, and the elements of this corporeal world have their settled power and quality, what any one of them may or may not effect and what may or may not come from what’. Herman of Carinthia in the 12th century referred to a ‘law of a certain universal condition’ was involved in the definition of nature and the nature of things:

‘All movements of secondary generation are administered by a certain relationship of nature (by the decision, of course, of the Author of all things, and since every order of things which are living is perpetuated by a law of a certain universal condition which in common speech is called “nature”, from nature itself it seems most appropriate to begin … It is customary for the term “nature” to be used for two concepts … [I] [as] Seneca … says “What is nature other than God and divine reason inserted into the whole universe and its parts” … [ii] But the other is that by which Plato composes the soul of the universe … By taking up this “mature” natural scientists can attempt to describe individually the natures of all bodies – both of the heavens and of the lower world … ‘

There was conflict between the Latin Averroeists, who derived their doctrines from Aristotle, and Christianity on major theological issues of the nature of God, humanity and free will. Averroeism denied free will, and stated that God could not create a different universe to this one. They also argued that there was no individual soul, only single active intellect common to everyone. Some Averroeists, such as Jean de Jandun and Siger of Brabant, rejected Christian theology.
Prohibitions against teaching Aristotle were issued in Paris in 1210 and 1215. However, these did not forbid them from being privately studied, and lectures on Aristotle were still announced in the university of Toulouse. In 1231 Pope Gregory IX appointed a commission to revise some of Aristotle’s natural philosophy. By 1255 examinations on Aristotle had been established at the university of Paris. By the end of the century Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, had completed their expositions on Aristotle, and their attempts to reconcile it with Christianity.

Albertus and Aquinas rejected Aristotle when it conflicted with Christian theology. However, they also recognised that religion and philosophy frequently discuss the same subjects from different viewpoints, and so separated theology from science. In Chapter 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles St. Thomas Aquinas argued ‘That the Philosopher and the theologian consider creatures in different ways’. Aquinas also argued in the Summa Contra Gentiles ‘That the consideration of creatures is useful for instruction of faith’ (chapter 2); and ‘That knowledge of the nature of creatures serves to destroy errors concerning God’ (chapter 3). Despite this, in 1277 219 Aristotelian and Averroeist doctrines were condemned by Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris.This clearly was an attempt to limit philosophers’ freedom to think and speculate. Pierre Duhem considered that the condemnation of 1277 had a positive effect by forcing natural philosophers to consider non-Aristotelian explanations based on the notion that God could do anything He wished, so long as it did not involve a logical contradiction. For Duhem, the condemnation of 1277 was a positive advance which led to the birth of modern science.

The 13th and 14th centuries also marked the point at which mathematics was introduced into science through the work of Grosseteste and other philosophers.. The use of sophismata – argumentation – created a methodological unity between philosophy and theology. There was no sharp distinction in the later Middle Ages between theology and Natural Philosophy as theologians had developed natural theology, which, like natural philosophy, depended on experience. There was also no strict separation of science and magic, as both the Aristotelian and Neoplatonist systems suggested how magic could work through astral influences from stellar rays and the correspondences between the microcosm of humanity and the macrocosm of the world, and the occult properties of plants and minerals. Thus the fashioning of amulets, for example, and certain forms of astrology could be considered scientific. While magic, miracles and the actions of demons and angels were accepted in the Middle Ages, there was also considerable scepticism about how far the actions of demons and witches were possible. By the 13th century some philosophers were able to keep magic largely out of their scientific works, such as Albertus Magnus, Petrus Peregrinus and Rufinus. Thus William of Auvergne attributed some experiences of demonic possession not to demons themselves, but to the sufferer having eaten too much and the weight of the food in their stomach blocking the correct operation of their nerves, so giving rise to terrifying hallucinations.

The establishment of the new Aristotelian science at Oxford, as well as the study of mathematics, logic, languages and Biblical scholarship was due to Robert Grosseteste in his capacity as Magister Scholarum or University Chancellor. The medieval universities were not universities in the modern sense of research institutions, but rather vocational schools designed to prepare their students for a career in the church or in the bureaucracy of government.

Medieval philosophers were particulary interested in optics as St. Augustine and the Neoplatonists had viewed them as symbols of divine grace, It was also a subject that could be investigated mathematically. Robert Grosseteste was the first important medieval philosopher interested in optics, as he believed that light had been the first corporeal form, and was responsible for dimensions and space itself, and was the first principle of motion and efficient causation. As part of this interest, Grosseteste and other scientists investigated the rainbow, which they knew was produced through refraction. Spectacles were invented later in the 13th century, c. 1286, and were popularised by the Dominica Friar, Alessandro della Spina. Jean de Meun refers to this research into optics in the Roman de la Rose:

‘One may learn the cause
Why mirrors, through some subtle laws,
Have power to objects seen therein –
Atoms minute or letter thin –
To give appearance of fair size
Though naked unassisted eyes
Can scarce perceive them. Grains of sand
Seem stone when through these glasses scanned…
But to these matters blind affiance
No man need give: they’re proved by science…’

Other medieval natural philosophers researched and discussed problems in a range of sciences including astronomy, meteorology, mechanics, geology, chemistry, and biology and agriculture. The lodestone was first described in the west in the De Naturis Rerum of Alexander Neckham, while the first description of the compass is the Epistola de Magnete of Petrus Peregrinus of Maricourt in 1269. Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme before Copernicus suggested that it was the Earth that revolved, not the sun. Richard of Wallingford built an astronomical clock in 1320, while in Italy the clockmaker Giovanni de’ Doni built planetaria showing the movements of the stars. Jordanus Nemorarius, who may have been the second Master-General of the Dominican Order, Jordanus Saxo, analysed rates of motion. In Geology, Albertus Magnus argued that the Earth had originally been covered entirely in water. Dry land had been created through underwater volcanoes that pushed land above sea level. Those creatures that had been trapped in the mud became fossils. Jean Buridan and Albertus Parvus, by contrast, believed that dry land had been exposed through gradual changes in the Earth’s centre of gravity. The waters had receded as the Earth’s centre of gravity changed. Medieval chemistry remained largely based on that of the ancients and Arabs. Distilling was introduced to the west during the 12th and 13th centuries. The 12th century Mappa Clavicula is the first western account of the preparation of alcohol. By the end of the 13th century alcohol was used to produce drugs and perfumes, and by the 15th century the distillers had formed their own guild.

Albertus Magnus discussed plant morphology and biology in his De Plantis. Influenced by the ancient writer, Theophrastus, Albertus believed that new species could arise from previous varieties. He demonstrated this with examples from the domestication of wild plants, and domestic varieties that had run wild. In the 14th century his speculation was continued by Henry Hesse, who discussed the emergence of new diseases and the new drugs that would be needed to treat them. From the 12th century onwards human anatomy was seen as vital to medicine. Beginning with Salerno in the 12th century, a number of universities included the dissection of human and animals as part of the medical courses. Other inventions in medicine included improved forms of bandaging and the use of pulleys and weights to extend fractured limbs. Anaesthetics for surgery were also known. The Antidotarum Nicolai, written some time before 1150, recommended spongia soporifera. This was a mild anaesthetic composed of opium, mandragora and henbane soaked in water. John Mirfeld described the use of the tornellus for certain dislocations. In 15th century Italy the Brancas developed a form of reconstructive surgery to restore noses, lips and ears. Some medieval doctors had also been aware of the need to keep wounds clean. Medieval doctors used unguents on wounds to generate pus, which they associated with the healing process. This was rejected by Hugh and Theodoric Borgognoni and Henry of Mondeville. They instead recommended that wounds should be cleaned with wine, then stitched and left to heal naturally. Unfortunately the great French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac rejected their methods and under his influence doctors and surgeons returned to encouraging wounds to suppurate. A more positive development was the use of trepanation to drain fluid from the heads of hydrocephalic children. This process was described at the end of the 13th century by William of Saliceto. One of the earliest medieval surgical manuals was the Chirugia of Roger of Salerno, assembled from his students’ lecture notes c. 1180. This was translated into Anglo-Norman in the mid-13th century. The ancient Roman author, Soranus, was used by mid-wives. In the 14th century a manual of obstetrics was published, The Knowing of Women in Chylding, or the Science of Women in Childbirth.

Guy de Chauliac also described a number of dental techniques, such as the use of a powder from the bones of cuttlefish for cleaning teeth. He also described how piece of ox bone or human teeth could be fastened to the remaining teeth to replace those the patient had lost. Later in the Middle Ages other physicians described the use of a drill to remove the decayed parts of a tooth. Gold foil was then used for fillings.

The Middle Ages also saw the introduction of a number of important technological inventions. Agricultural productivity was raised by the introduction of the modern horse collar and the heavier medieval plough. Agricultural land was reclaimed from the sea using pumps, sluices and dykes. Lock gates were introduced to canals in the 14th century, and roads improved by the construction of surface of stone cubes on a bed of loose earth or sand. In the 15th century Konrad Kyeser and Jacopo Mariano Taccola drew ships with paddle wheels.

Printing appeared in Europe before Gutenberg perfected the use of metal type in the 15th century. Presses were developed for wine and to print cloth. The monastery of Engelberg used woodcuts to print the initial letter in its manuscripts in 1147. Block printing appeared in Ravenna in 1289, and became common throughout Europe by the 15th century. Movable metal type first appeared in Limoges in 1381. By 1417 its use had spread to Antwerp and then to Avignon in 1444.

Watermills were known in the ancient world and China, although their use in the Roman Empire was actually very limited. By the 5th century they were in general use across Europe, and there were a range of different types. During the Middle Ages they were adapted to mechanise the fulling, iron smelting and wood-processing industries. Triphammers had been added to watermills to full cloth, and crush woad and oak bark and tan leather by the end of the 12th century. The 14th century the mechanism was used to drive the bellows in forges. The treadle hammer was introduced to create the stamping mill for metal ore in the 15th century. By the 14th century there were sawmills driven by waterwheels. By the 15th century this mechanism was used to power iron-rolling and wire-drawing mills, pump mines and salt pits, and used on cranks and windlasses for hoists in mines. Indeed, in the Netherlands and Germany the use of such devices were so efficient for pumping mines that they were not overtaken by steam until the 19th century. Iron smelting was also improved through the used of a head of water to force air into the furnace under pressure in Italy and Spain before the 14th century. This, and the use of horse- and waterwheel-driven bellows created the first blast furnaces, which allowed the mass production of cast iron for the first time.

These Discoveries and innovations were also incorporated into general surveys of the sciences, and university courses. Hugh of St. Victor, in his Didascalion de Studio Legendi, including some practical subjects in the seven liberal arts. He divided the mechanical sciences into the manufacture of cloth and weapons, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine and the theatre. The Arts course at Paris university in the 13th century at the beginning of the 13th century included not only the seven liberal arts, but also the three philosophies of Natural Philosophy, ethics and metaphysics.

Apart from the Roman de la Rose, the sciences were also celebrated in the late 15th century poem, The Court of Sapience.In this story the narrator loses a game of chess with the World and Dame Fortune. Reason rebukes him for his stupidity, and he prays to God to find the way to Dame Sapience before falling asleep. In a dream he meets Dame Sapience and her companions Intelligence and Science, who takes him to her castle. This has seven towers, each occupied by the seven virtues, while Sapience, Intelligence and Science have separate courts. Also welcoming Sapience and the dreamer is Dame Philosophy. In the plan of the castle, the first courtyard is Science’s, and is where Scripture teaches. The second courtyard is the home of Intelligence with a parlour of theologians. Sapience’s own courtyard has a great hall, a chapel and parlours for each of the seven liberal arts. It is the most splendid of the courtyards.

The poem states

‘There was al natural philosophye
And in a goodly parlour see I syt
The philosopher with his companye
Tretyng of kynd, and what longeth to it;
There was clerk note, there was konnyng and wyt
They poynt, they wryte, they dyspute, they depure,
They determyne eche thyng that hath nature.

The philosophers include

‘Arystotyl, Averous, Avycenne,
Good Algazel, Galyene, Appollynus,
Pyctagoras, and Plato with his penne,
Macrobius, Cato, Boecius,
Rasus, Isake, Calyxte, Orbasius,
Salusius, Theophyl, Ypocras –
With many mo whoos names I lete pas.

These had delyte to serven Dame Scyence,
And to have knowledge in phylosophye;
They worshypped her, they dyd hir reverence,
They hole desyre was to her soveraynly;
They wake, they work, they study besyly,
Whiles that they ben with Dame Scyence expert;
Theym to byholde myght ravysshe every hert!’

C.P. Snow once referred to the ‘two cultures’ of the arts and sciences, and lamented how their members did not interact with their counterparts in the opposing group. This is a problem in contemporary culture, now being tackled by projects to link science and the arts. There have been plays like Copenhagen written about scientific concepts, in this case, quantum physics and its theory of indeterminacy. The ancients did not attempt to solve the problem of the two cultures. The first attempt to do so was in the Middle Ages, as this poem demonstrates. It failed, but shows the problem was taken seriously and there were attempts to tackle it.

Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (London: Icon Books 2009)

April 8, 2013

Bede's Book Cover

I received a copy of this book about four or so years ago when it was first published for review on my blog. Unfortunately, I was buy with other things at the time, and increasingly frustrated with arguing with some of the commenters. So the review has been delayed until now.

Subtitled ‘How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science’, the book is the result of James’ research for his doctorate into the history of medieval science. James’ is a Roman Catholic with a background in physics. He is also ‘Bede’, who runs the Bede’s Library website, and the Quodlibitum blog. These are Christian apologetics websites discussing science, philosophy and history. James is a Roman Catholic, but his website deals with issues that affect all Christians, and specifically those with an interest in science and its history regardless of their particular denomination. He states on his website that he initially found it difficult to get the book published. One publisher explicitly told him they rejected it because they were atheists, which should show that atheists are as capable of intellectual bigotry and censorship as their religious opponents.

The books’ chapters discuss technological innovation and advancement during the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of Rome, the beginning of medieval academic science with with the career of Pope Gerbert of Aurillac, the rise of rationalism and the intellectual prestige of theology, and the controversies of St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Roscelin and Berenger. It also covers the twelfth renaissance, including William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, as well as the translation of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Arabic, and the foundation of the first universities. It discusses the Church’s attempts to combat heresy during the thirteenth century, which included the University of Paris’ ban on Aristotle, the establishment of Inquisition and the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars. He also discusses the Christianisation of pagan Graeco-Roman science and philosophy by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and the controversies with the Latin Averroeists, such as Siger of Brabant. These followed Aristotle in believing in the eternity of the world, and that humans possessed a single, collective mind rather than individual souls. That chapter also describes the architectural innovations that led to the construction of the great cathedrals. There are other chapters on magic and medieval medicine, alchemy and astrology, including the philosophers stone and the elixir of life, and the occult forces which the medievals believed permeated the cosmos; Roger Bacon is also discussed along with medieval war machines such as the trebuchet and medieval optics, which had its background in the theological view that light illuminated not just the physical world, but also the mind and soul. There are further chapters on the great medieval clockmaker Richard of Wallinford, the Merton Calculators, and the culmination of medieval science in the great scholars and clergymen of the later Middle Ages, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and its decline following the Black Death. The book also discusses fifteenth century scholars and developments such as Nicholas of Cusa, medieval geography and the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World the Fall of Constantinople and the invention of printing. It also covers Humanism and the Reformation, the great polymaths of the sixteenth century, medicine and surgery in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Humanist Astronomy, as well as the further, radical developments in astronomy introduced by Clavius and Kepler. The last three chapters are on the career of Galileo, which also include a section on the execution of the renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno.

Throughout the book, James criticises and attacks many of the myths that have grown up about medieval science, particularly that the medieval church was hostile to it and that the Middle Ages was a period of scientific ignorance until the Renaissance and the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 17th century. In his introduction, James traces the origin of this idea from Petrarch and the Renaissance Humanists, through Enlightenment anticlerical and atheist writers such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, through to 19th century scholars such as Andrew Dickson Wright and Thomas Huxley. Popular science presenters such as Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski further promoted this myth in the 20th century. The book’s conclusion ‘A Scientific Revolution?’ further criticises this idea, and argues that there was never a scientific revolution in the sense that science somehow appeared only in the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the great advances of the seventeenth century were built on the considerable foundations of medieval science and its scholars. One of the most astonishing pieces in the book is the fact that in some respects Renaissance Humanism was actually a step backwards from the great advances of the Middle Ages. The popular view of Humanism, that generations of schoolchildren and adults have been taught, is that the revival of classical learning at the end of the Middle Ages led people out of the ignorance of the Middle Ages and into a new age of learning and discovery. The medieval scholars and natural philosophers were aware of some of the flaws in Aristotelian science. While they remained impressed with the Aristotelian system, they sought to refine and modify it so that it conformed to observed reality. The renaissance Humanists, by contrast, wished to purge natural philosophy of these accretions and so return to the original scientific views of Aristotle himself. This was the background to Galileo’s own attack on Aristotelianism in the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. This includes a passage where a natural philosopher attempts to show an Aristotelian that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of intelligence through dissection. The philosopher shows the myriad nerves running to the brain, compared with only a single, thin nerve leading to the heart. The Aristotelian agrees that he would be convinced that the brain is indeed the seat of thought, if Aristotle had not declared otherwise. Such scepticism towards Aristotle did not just come from developments in anatomy, but also from medieval revisions of Aristotle, such as Jean Buridan’s theories of motion. James also points out that the Reformation did not lead to advances in science, as has been argued in the past. He also shows that the medieval resistance to the Copernican sun-centred model of the universe were scientific, not theological in basis. One Spanish theologian wrote a book stating that the revolution of the Earth was perfectly acceptable theologically, as the Bible was written to express the view of the cosmos as it was seen from Earth, rather than from space. His next book attacked the idea that the Earth moved purely because it was believed to be scientifically nonsensical.

The book has numerous illustrations and a useful section for further reading. Its written for the popular, lay audience and provides a comprehensive overview of the development of medieval and sixteenth century science. This is much needed, as many of the classic treatments of medieval science and its advances, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine and A.C. Crombie’s Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages were published decades ago – Gimpel in the 1970s, while Crombie’s as long ago as 1952. Both of these are still well worth reading. Several of the recent books on medieval science are written for a university readership and can be very expensive. One encyclopedia of medieval science and technology costs about £300, which is beyond the pocket of most people. Despite books like the above, the image of the Middle Ages as an age of scientific ignorance is still extremely strong. One popular history of science for children I found in my local library went straight from the ancient Greeks to the renaissance. If it did have a section on the Middle Ages, it was so short that I missed it. Modern historians of science have rejected the view that religion and science are somehow at war and incompatible. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamental part of the New Atheism, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As for Sagan, Bronowski and Burke, they were brilliant broadcasters and science journalists who did much to popularise it. Like Bede, I can remember being enthralled by Sagan’s Cosmos when it was broadcast on the Beeb back in the 80s, along with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. As good as they were, however, their view of the Middle Ages and its achievements was partisan and extremely flawed. For a much better view, I recommend people read this book.