Scientific Naturalism
edina! Scotia’s darling seat!
dinburgh is often thought to be ‘the pride of Scotland’ – but not everyone would agree. Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Perth, Stirling and particularly Glasgow are hard done by according to that verdict, each having had equal cause for a share of Scottish prestige. For example, Edinburgh wasn’t even the first Scottish university. It followed establishment of academic institutions at St Andrews (1413), Glasgow (1451) and Aberdeen (1495), becoming Scotland’s fourth university in 1583, at a time when England had only two (Oxford c.1167 and Cambridge 1209). However – and core to this book – Edinburgh’s academic pedigree took the fore for its cosmopolitan perspective and central role in the Scottish Enlightenment during the latter half of the 18th century. The Scottish Enlightenment arose out of a combination of social factors. The national programme of public education cemented by the 1696 Education Act achieved world-leading levels of adult literacy, and new international links throughout the British Empire, following the unpopular 1707 Act of Union, proffered opportunities for commercial prosperity. In addition an enduring ‘special relationship’ with France, itself undergoing a revolution in thought, brought a celebration of intellectual critique and rationalism, and paved the way for many of the advances in philosophical thinking to follow. The tangible products of this period included several that would be vital components of Darwin’s education in Scotland: debating societies, scientific journals and the explosive rise of the book industry. The Scottish Enlightenment movement was riveted in moral philosophy, history and economics. While it can be traced to the University of Glasgow (Francis Hutcheson 1694–1746, Adam Smith 1723–1790, Thomas Reid 1710– 1796, and John Millar 1735–1801) – and there were the likes of James Dunbar


Darwin in ScotlanD

(1742–1798) attending the Aberdeen Philosophical Society – many of the key figures were at the University of Edinburgh (William Robertson 1721–1793, Adam Ferguson 1723–1815, and Dugald Stewart 1753–1828), or outside academia but living in the city (Henry Home 1696–1782, Robert Wallace 1697–1771, James Steuart 1713–1780, and James Anderson 1739–1808). Outstanding in this latter group was David Hume (1711–1776), exponent of modern scientific empiricism (founded in ‘experience and observation’), upon which all scientific truth has rested ever since. Indeed, without Hume every gem of science would glisten with a significantly lesser light. So, the next time you are passing by his statue on the High Street (also known as the Royal Mile), or his graveside in Calton Hill cemetery, a moment of reflective tribute may be due. Also up on that smallest of the ‘seven hills of Edinburgh’ you cannot fail to see a Parthenon replica, the National Monument. This building is otherwise known as Edinburgh’s Disgrace and Edinburgh’s Folly, for its unfinished state through exhaustion of funds. It is only one of the reasons why the city earned its name ‘Athens of the North’. That Athenian parallel with the classical period extends to the influence that Scotland had on the modern world, just as Greece had once enlightened the ancient world. If those lines of association run parallel, then others arrange in series, as lineages of inheritance from those ancient philosophies. Hume, for one, was directly influenced by Pyrrho (c.365–c.275 bc), founder of Pyrrhonian scepticism (in contrast to Plato’s Academic scepticism). He was also indirectly influenced by the accumulation of independent, rational thought that had occurred across the two millennia since the beginnings of philosophy itself, a line going back to Thales of Miletus (624–c.546 bc). Thales was the first to attempt explanation of natural phenomena in rational terms. His approach replaced supernatural interpretations with scientific method and experimental protocol. This rationalism defines a clear line from Ancient Greece, via the Scottish Enlightenment, straight to the Victorian scientific naturalism (or methodological naturalism) to which Charles Darwin was first exposed at the University of Edinburgh. Today the University of Edinburgh contains three colleges (Humanities and Social Science, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, and Science and Engineering), consisting of 21 schools (e.g. Arts, Law, Science and Engineering, etc.). These sprawl across seven local areas (e.g. Central, King’s Buildings including the Darwin Building and Library, Bush Estate) but also extend nationwide and internationally (reaching as far as China), and in total comprise more than 2000 buildings. However, it started from far more humble beginnings. The original endowment in 1558, by Bishop Robert Reid of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, led to a few centrally located buildings that

Scientific naturaliSm

became known as ‘the Tounis Colledge’. This was followed in 1582 by a Royal Charter granted by James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, which released to the University land where the church of St Mary in the Fields, or Kirk o’ Field, had stood until the Scottish Reformation of 1560. The construction of today’s architecturally grand central buildings (now constituting Old College) did not follow until around two centuries later, being completed only a few years before Darwin’s arrival.1 In 1789 the great neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728–1792) re-founded the university buildings, a collection of random old buildings as they were then, and started building a double-courtyard system. He began at the northwest corner of Old College and the grand entrance range on to South Bridge, and continued until funding dried up because of Britain’s involvement in the French Wars (1793–1806). This interruption in development left only one corner of the college useable. After the wars new funding and a new architect, the young William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), were found. Playfair had to compromise Adam’s grand scheme, but by about 1820 the first buildings (Chemistry and Natural History) were completed, followed shortly afterwards by the east side. The north side was filled in with classrooms by 1824, just before Darwin’s arrival, but there remained a great gap on the south side, until the new library was finished in 1829. Why would Darwin choose to attend Edinburgh? The quick answer is that he didn’t – his father decided for him, and Edinburgh was chosen because it was a family tradition to go there to study medicine. In fact, anyone pursuing a career in medicine was wise to go to Edinburgh, as since the mid-18th century it had been the best medical school. Oxford and Cambridge could give you academic teaching, but only if you were an Anglican, and they had no hospitals. London had no shortage of hospitals, but they had no university at that stage. Edinburgh had both a hospital and a university, allowing the parallel teaching of both theory and practice not afforded by anywhere else at the time. And this is the simple reason why both Darwin’s grandfather and father had received their medical training at the University of Edinburgh – grandfather Erasmus (1731–1802) in 1755 (aged 22) and father Robert (1766– 1848) in 1786 (aged 20) – both forging family ties and friendships while they did. One Darwin never managed to leave: Darwin’s uncle, another Charles Darwin (1758–1778), died from meningococcal meningitis, contracted during a post-mortem, while studying in Edinburgh. He was buried in the Duncan family vault in the Chapel of Ease at St Cuthbert’s Church which is beyond the west end of Princes Street Gardens, on the corner of Lothian Road and King’s Stables Road. Hence, there was an ever-increasing inevitability that Darwin would end up in Edinburgh, given its prominence as a seat of medical learning and the Darwin family connections, together with his father’s growing exasperation

Darwin in ScotlanD

with his lackadaisical son. In 1825 his father chastised him thus: ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’. Darwin’s father also took action to rein in his wayward son, by removing him from his school in Shrewsbury, two years prematurely, for having achieved only ‘ordinary’ grades. Darwin’s exit was recorded in his journal with undertones of understandable apprehension and self-pity: ‘1825 June 17th. Left Shrewsbury school for ever.— 16 years old’. Darwin’s mother, Susannah (née Wedgwood, 1765–1817), had died when he was eight years old, so he had nowhere to turn for motherly sympathy. To make matters worse, his male relatives had set vertiginously high standards – for example, his grandfather and father had been elected to the Royal Society while still audaciously young (aged 30 and 22, respectively). This goal Darwin would eventually meet (also when aged 30), but at that time everything must have seemed pointless and unachievable. Amazingly this family tradition would be kept going by three out of six of his own sons: Francis (when 34), George (also when 34) and Horace (when 52). Reined in, and coming to appreciate the lifelong financial security promised by his father’s wealth (a benefit of having married into the Wedgwood pottery dynasty), Darwin obediently spent the summer of 1825 showing his own promise as a physician tending to around a dozen of his father’s patients. But at summer’s end, and in a repeat of history, he was forcibly sent to study medicine at Edinburgh, just as his father had been forced by his grandfather. By treading in the footsteps of grandfather and father, the intention was for ‘Bobby’ to shadow his brother ‘Eras’ (Erasmus Alvey, 1804–1881), five years his senior and embarking on his year of hospital study from his own medical course at Christ’s College, Cambridge. As soon as he was old enough, Darwin would also be expected to sit the medical examinations.2 When he did leave home, he had to pay seven pounds for his own travel northwards, to that new and alien environment: ‘October. Went with Erasmus to Edinburgh’. But perhaps the prospect was not that daunting: Darwin was used to living away from home as a boarder in Shrewsbury. Additionally, he was accompanying his beloved brother with whom he shared interests in chemistry and the outdoors. Young, yes. But from his schooling and adolescent letters one can see that he was also self-aware and rebellious – useful buffers in a foreign land, a land that was on increasingly good terms with his English kind, ceremoniously marked by a visit of King George IV in 1822 (which incidentally raised the kilt, banned by the Dress Act in 1746 and reinstated in 1782, to an emblem of national identity).


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