Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature

Keith Stewart Thomson, Author . Yale Univ. $25 (313p) ISBN 978-0-300-10793-7

When aspiring naturalist and onetime divinity student Charles Darwin departed on HMS Beagle in 1831, tensions between religious and scientific accounts of the origins of life had already been building for at least two centuries. Thomson, emeritus professor of natural history at Oxford, sketches these tensions along with various attempts, ranging from conventional through ingenious to eccentric, to resolve them. Focusing on William Paley's Natural Theology , one of the young Darwin's favorite books, Thomson shows how conundrums about the age of the earth, nature's dark side and social ferment in Britain had complicated the search for divine design in nature even before Darwin's voyage began. Thomson's strong point is not philosophical analysis but historical scope, especially in discussing the British roots of historical geography and evolutionary theory. This volume includes not just the usual suspects—Hooke, Hume, Malthus and Lamarck—but also lesser known figures such as physico-theologians Thomas Burnet and John Woodward; pioneering naturalists John Ray, Gilbert White and James Hutton; and proto-evolutionist Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. The book's most engaging chapter relates the lively 17th-century controversy over the "enigma" of fossils: were they the remains of real creatures, or "figured stones" bearing only "a coincidental resemblance to real organisms"? Although Thomson is generally a clear writer, his habit of switching between thematic and chronological organization can be disorienting at times. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/16/2005
Release date: 04/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 314 pages - 978-0-300-12600-6
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