Monday, January 22, 2007

John Wesley, evolutionist?

Jeremy Bruno recently posted Tangled Bank #71, the popular science blog carnival, at The Voltage Gate. Since many of the postings have a historical theme, especially to the 18th century, Bruno titled this edition of the carnival "Welcome to 1771!"

"As an idea, evolution was all but nonexistent in the 18th century," Bruno wrote, introducing a handful of relevant postings. Reading that sentence reminded me of an article I came across a few days ago in The Methodist Review (May 1924): "Why the Methodist Church Is So Little Disturbed by the Fundamentalist Controversy," by Philip L. Frick.

"A very interesting and suggestive phenomenon it is that, while some of the denominations of America are being shaken to their very foundation by the Fundamentalist controvery, the Methodist Church has so generally escaped," Frick wrote. He attributed this in part to the beliefs of John Wesley, generally considered the founder of Methodism: "Were John Wesley alive to-day, he would be considered a 'Modernist' regarding Evolution and the Bible.... Wesley believed that creation moves from the simple to the complex. He observed that there is a 'prodigious number of continued links between the perfect man and the ape.'"

Frick offers several Wesley quotations to prove this, the best being:

By what degrees does nature raise herself up to man? How shall she rectify the head that is inclined toward the earth? How change these paws into flexible arms? What method did she use to transform those crooked feet into supple and skillful muscle? The ape is this rough sketch of man; this rude sketch, an imperfect representation which nevertheless bears a resemblance to him and is the last creature that serves to display the admirable progression of the works of God.

Fascinating! But a little thought and investigation show us that this isn't quite what it seems.

First, Wesley didn't exactly write that passage. The quotation is from a book put together by Wesley titled A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation: A Compendium of Natural Philosophy. As the subtitle suggests, this multi-volume work, first published in 1763, was largely a collection of the writings of others. (The book went through many later editions, growing in size each time. One of the later editions is available here.) As it happens, this quotation is from Charles Bonnet's Contemplation of Nature.

Wesley didn't write it, but his inclusion of it in the Compendium suggests an acceptance of evolution. But a second point: Even so, the quotation does not prove that Wesley was a "Darwinist." Darwin was a century later (Origins of Species was first published in 1859). In Wesley's day, many people were evolutionists, and he had no problem finding popular works that he could use for his Compendium. In addition to Bonnet's, there were, among others, Oliver Goldsmith's History of the Earth, and Animated Nature and Louis Dutens's Enquiry into the Origins of the Discoveries Attributed to the Moderns. Incidentally, Dutens's work, like Bonnet's, was originally published in French. Frick suggested that Wesley himself translated such works; maybe he did, but he didn't have to, as published English translations were generally available within a year or two of the original publication.

And Jean-Baptiste Lamarck would appear just a few years later.

It's not obvious that Wesley and other 18th-century figures who accepted evolution would have been comfortable with Charles Darwin, who not only introduced a mechanism (natural selection) for evolution but also made God superfluous to the process.

Philip Frick was right: The Methodist church was less affected by the Fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century than were some other Protestant denominations. But Frick's discussion of Wesley as a "modernist" perhaps misses the mark a bit.