6 Feb 2022

Evolutionary Thinking: On Darwinism, Doubt and Dunedin

From Standing Room Only, 2:45 pm on 6 February 2022

Fiery characters, staunch supporters and insult-slingers - Dunedin citizens were embroiled in a tempestuous public debate over Darwin's Theory of Evolution in the 1880s.

Strongly in the Darwin camp was the curator and director of Otago Museum, Professor Thomas Jeffery Parker, and it's his story that fascinated the museum's current honorary curator of science history, Dr Rosi Crane.

She has written a paper on Parker.

Dr Rosi Crane

Dr Rosi Crane Photo: supplied

Parker was just nine when the Origin of Species was published, she says.

He goes on to a medical career becoming a GP and in 1880 winds up in Dunedin.

The Dunedin public was keen to meet him, she says.

“But he slips in quietly in winter of 1880 and just gets on with lecturing. And when the university session starts again in 1881, he produces an inaugural lecture to start session.”

Parker had learned in England from Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog, some rhetorical flourishes, she says.  “A few rhetorical tub-thumping techniques of being absolutely adamant about where things are.

“But doesn't quite work with Parker, because he's naturally quite a shy chap and delivery tails off towards the end of the sentences, however it doesn't deter him.”

His inaugural lecture is heavily attended by the clergy, she says.

“He's standing on the platform with a whole bunch of clerics either side of him, and in the front rows a whole bunch of clerics, which would normally send the sort of fear of God into you.

“But undeterred, he stands there. And he says, and I paraphrase, ‘a better day dawns for biology, Darwin's brought the study of biology, with the all-embracing law of evolution, and making the theory of special creation once and for all an impossibility. It's unsupported by the evidence, and it is unthinkable.’

“So here he is 30 years old, and all the clerics are considerably older. And he has not realised quite what a hornet's nest is stirred up.”

Darwin’s theory had been a troubled topic in the preceding years in Dunedin, she says.

“Evolution was just an undercurrent in the cultural life of Dunedin and indeed the whole colony.

People were wrestling with the origin of life and man's place within it. But still, these questions were really troublesome to particularly the religious.”

 Special creation meant one of three things, she says.

“Either God created the world end of story, or God created the world, but God created all the living things in it several times over, so that allowed for fossils and living things, or God created the world and let everything get on with it. In each case, he distinguished man from other animals by giving him a human soul.”

The evolutionists come along and say this is all wrong, she says.

“But now along comes the evolutionists Parker amongst them to say, ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, that's not how it worked.’

“We've got evidence to show that it was actually the Descent of Man, one thing evolved into another into another over a very long time.”

The letters page in the ODT was abuzz, she says.

“One, for instance, talks about for ‘sober-minded reasons special creation is far more rational than evolution.

“And another one says, ‘if he thinks he can kill our faith in the Bible, he's much mistaken’”.

The controversy rumbled on for several months, she says, possibly because of the people who had settled there.

“I suspect that’s partly because of course it was a town dominated by a Scots Presbyterians who were Bible readers first and foremost.”