The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
LEVIATHAN: The War of Physics and Biology
Part Two

Cambridge as Jerusalem

2012 October 29

Oxbridge in the Eighteenth Century was an intellectual world exceedingly remote from our own. The ancient English universities existed in part to groom the aristocracy, in part to staff the parishes of the Church of England. Remnants of mediæval tradition lingered among the "dreaming spires", where celibate dons in monastic robes contemplated the abstract beauties of a divinely ordered cosmos, the great chain of being linking Matter to Man, and Man to God. This was a Christian universe, but as importantly it was a Platonist one. The radical thinking of the Continental (and Scottish) Enlightenment had little impact in the learned, clerical world of Cambridge and Oxford.

It should not be supposed, however, that the pious dons of the half century before and after 1800 were anti-scientific in the modern sense. On the contrary, and especially in Cambridge, these were men who worshipped mathematics, or rather worshipped their God through mathematics. In 1832, the geologist (and Anglican priest) Adam Sedgwick, discoverer of the Devonian and Cambrian periods of terrestrial history, delivered a sermon at the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on the text Psalm 116:17-19, "I will offer to Thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord ... in the courts of the Lord's house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord." Later published as A Discourse on the Studies of the University, the sermon was meant to justify the scientific trend in Cambridge education, and to criticise, on the basis of an elaborate apophatic theology, its main local ideological rivals, the tabula rasa philosophy of Locke and the utilitarian ethics of Paley.

Although later generations would tend to associate Locke and Newton as founding fathers of a rational, post-religious cosmogony, Sedgwick saw them as opposed. His critique of Locke and Paley need not concern us here; of more importance for the future is his support of Newton as a kind of prophet. "A study of the Newtonian philosophy ... teaches us to see the finger of God in all things animate and inanimate, and gives us an exalted conception of His attributes, placing before us the clearest proof of their reality; and so prepares, or ought to prepare, the mind for the reception of that higher illumination which brings the rebellious faculties into obedience to the Divine will."

It is extraordinary to read Sedgwick's comments on the familiar pantheon of scientific heroes: "[T]he illustrious men who have inhabited this our Zion ... Bacon, who, gifted almost with prophetic spirit, was enabled to climb the Pisgah of science, and point out the land of promise to those who were to follow him ... Newton, who, having achieved, by his single arm, the conquest of the natural world, was not puffed up, but gave God the glory ... [John] Ray, [originator of the modern concept of a species in taxonomy], who saw the finger of God in the whole framework of animated nature, and within these sacred walls taught the listeners to comprehend of those characters he himself had first interpreted ... [Seventeenth-Century mathematical physicist Isaac] Barrow, the learned and the wise, the inventive philosopher, the eloquent and single-minded Christian moralist ... " Bacon as Moses; Newton as Joshua; Ray as Daniel; Barrow as Solomon; Cambridge as Jerusalem.

Sedgwick was a geologist, and he included the botanist Ray in his list of Cantabrigian giants, but it was Newton, and Newton's mathematics, which loomed largest in his worldview: "Before [a student] can reach that elevation from whence he may look down upon and comprehend the mysteries of the natural world, his way is steep and toilsome, and he must read the records of creation in a strange, and to many minds, a repulsive language, which rejecting both the senses and the imagination, speaks only to the understanding. But when this language is once learnt, it becomes a mighty instrument of thought, teaching us to link together the phenomena of past and future times; and gives the mind a domination over many parts of the material world, by teaching it to comprehend the laws by which the actions of material things are governed. To follow in this track, first trodden by the immortal Newton --- to study this language of pure unmixed truth, is to be regarded not only as your duty, but your high privilege. It is no servile task, no ungenerous labour. The laws by which God has thought good to govern the universe are surely subjects of lofty contemplation; and the study of that symbolical language by which alone these laws can be fully decyphered, is well deserving of your noblest efforts ... "

Far from having an excessive opinion of humanity's role in the scheme of things, Sedgwick repeatedly emphasises the limitations of human understanding and the insignificance of what he calls "beings like ourselves --- so limited in time --- and confined to such a speck of the universe." For Sedgwick, the way of the physicist is the way of the ascetic: "[T]he study of the higher sciences is well suited to keep down a spirit of arrogance and intellectual pride: for, in disentangling the phenomena of the material world, we encounter things which hourly tell us of the feebleness of our powers, and material combinations so infinitely beyond the reach of any intellectual analysis as to convince us at once of the narrow limitation of our faculties. ... "

As striking as Sedwick's theism is his holism: "We find that no parts of the visible universe are insulated from the rest; but that all are knit together by the operation of a common law ... Every portion of the matter we tread beneath our feet (however insignificant as an object of sense) propagates its influence through all space, and is felt in the remotest regions of the universe." In an odd anticipation of a later age's language, he speaks of "the entanglement of phenomena" and places this entanglement at the frontier of physics, the place where Newton's system begins to break. Beyond it lies the realm of life-science, a new and unexplored country awaiting some Newton of its own.

Perhaps Sedgwick hoped to be, if not that Newton, at least Barrow, Newton's teacher. He proposed no new mathematics to explain life, but he knew that when such a mathematics arrived, it would have to deal with what today would be called "irreducible complexity" and some kind of escape from determinism. Although he vehemently rejected "transmutationism", as the pre-Darwinian theories of evolution were known, he was no Young-Earther: "By the discoveries of a new science (the very name of which has been but a few years engrafted on our language), we learn that the manifestations of God's power on the earth have not been limited to the few thousand years of man's existence. The Geologist ... finds strange and unlooked-for changes in the forms and fashions of organic life during each of the long periods he thus contemplates. He traces these changes backwards through each successive era, till he reaches a time when the monuments lose all symmetry, and the types of organic life are no longer seen ... Geology, like every other science when well interpreted, lends its aid to natural religion. It tells us, out of its own records, that man has been but a few years a dweller on the earth; for the traces of himself and of his works are confined to the last monuments of its history."

Why did Sedgwick consider this finding an aid to Biblical religion, rather than its destruction? "It proves that a pervading intelligent principle has manifested its power during times long anterior to the records of our existence ... It tells us that God has not created the world and left it to itself, remaining ever after a quiescent spectator of his own work: for it puts before our eyes the certain proofs, that during successive periods there have been, not only great changes in the external conditions of the earth, but corresponding changes in organic life; and that in every such instance of change, the new organs, as far as we can comprehend their use, were exactly suited to the functions of the beings they were given to. It shews intelligent power not only contriving means adapted to an end: but at many successive times contriving a change of mechanism adapted to a change of external conditions; and thus affords a proof, peculiarly its own, that the great first cause continues a provident and active intelligence ... Speculations like these ... take from nature that aspect of unchangeableness and stern necessity which has driven some men to downright atheism, and others to reject all natural religion."

In other words, for Sedgwick, biology opens a window allowing miraculous divine intervention into the seemingly inexorable clockwork of the Newtonian world-view. In some ways, his biology seems closer to the emerging life-science of the present century than to that of the later Nineteenth, with which he and his sympathisers would soon find themselves at war.

LEVIATHAN: The Victorian War between Physics and Biology