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Adam Sedgwick (22 March 1785 – 27 January 1873) was one of the founders of modern geology. He proposed the Devonian period of the geological timescale and later the Cambrian period. The latter proposal was based on work which he did on Welsh rock strata. Though he had guided the young Charles Darwin in his early study of geology, Sedgwick was an outspoken opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Life and career

Sedgwick was born in Dent, Yorkshiremarker, the third child of an Anglican vicar. He was educated at Sedbergh School and Trinity College, Cambridgemarker.

He studied mathematics and theology, and obtained his BA (5th Wrangler) from the University of Cambridgemarker in 1808 and his MA in 1811. His academic mentors at Cambridge were Thomas Jones and John Dawson. He became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridgemarker and Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge from 1818 until his death in 1873.

Sedgwick studied the geology of the British Isles and Europe. He founded the system for the classification of Cambrian rocks and with Roderick Murchison worked out the order of the Carboniferous and underlying Devonian strata. These studies were mostly carried out in the 1830s. The investigations into the Devonian meant that Sedgwick was involved with Murchison in a vigorous debate with Henry De la Beche, in what became known as the great Devonian controversy.

Sedgwick investigated the phenomena of metamorphism and concretion, and was the first to distinguish clearly between stratification, jointing, and slaty cleavage. He was elected to Fellow of the Royal Society on 1 February 1821.

Opposition to evolution

The Church of England, though by no means a fundamentalist or evangelical church, encloses a wide range of beliefs. During Sedgwick's life there developed something of a chasm between the conservative high church believers and the liberal wing. After simmering for some years, the publication of Essays and Reviews by liberal churchmen in 1860 pinpointed the differences. In all this, Sedgwick, whose science and faith were intertwined in a natural theology, was definitely on the conservative side, and extremely outspoken about it. He told an 1831 meeting of the Geological Society of London:
"No opinion can be heretical, but that which is not true.... Conflicting falsehoods we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore, that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction. In this way we may rest assured that we shall never arrive at conclusions opposed to any truth, either physical or moral, from whatever source that truth may be derived.


This may seem even-handed; Sedgwick is saying that he does not expect to find contradiction between the bible and science. But contradictions did occur, both in geology (where he had genuine expertise) and in biology (where he did not).

His geological position was catastrophist in the mid 1820s, but following Charles Lyell's 1830 publication of uniformitarian ideas he came to accept that a worldwide flood was untenable and talked of floods at various dates before recanting his earlier ideas in 1831. He strongly believed that species of organisms originated in a succession of Divine creative acts throughout the long expanse of history. Any form of development that denied a direct creative action smacked as materialistic and amoral. For Sedgwick, moral truths (the obtainment of which separates man from beast) were to be distinguished from physical truths, and to combine these or blur them together could only lead to disastrous consequences. In fact, one’s own hope for immortality may ultimately rest on it.

While he became increasingly Evangelical with age, he strongly supported advances in geology against conservative churchmen. At the September 1844 British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Yorkmarker he achieved national celebrity for his reply defending modern geology against an attack by the Dean of York, the Reverend William Cockburn, who described it as unscriptural. The entire chapter house of the cathedral refused to sit down with Sedgwick, and he was opposed by conservative papers including The Times, but his courage was hailed by the full spectrum of the liberal press, and the confrontation was a key moment in the battle over relations between Scripture and science.

When Robert Chambers anonymously published his own theory of universal evolutionism as his "development hypothesis" in the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation published in October 1844 to immediate popular success, Sedgwick's many friends urged him to respond. Like other eminent scientists he initially ignored the book, but the subject kept recurring and he then read it carefully and made a withering attack on the book in the July 1845 edition of the Edinburgh Review. Vestiges "comes before [its readers] with a bright, polished, and many-coloured surface, and the serpent coils a false philosophy, and asks them to stretch out their hands and pluck the forbidden fruit," he wrote in his review. Accepting the arguments in Vestiges was akin to falling from grace and away from God’s favor.

He lashed out at the book in a letter to Charles Lyell, bemoaning the consequences of it conclusions. "...If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!" Later, Sedgwick added a long preface to the 5th edition of his Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge (1850), including a lengthy attack on Vestiges and theories of development in general.

Charles Darwin was one of his geology students in 1831, and accompanied him on a field trip to Walesmarker that summer. The two kept up a correspondence while Darwin was on the Beagle expedition, and afterwards. However, Sedgwick never accepted the case for evolution made in On the Origin of Species in 1859 any more than he did that in Vestiges in 1844. In response to receiving and reading Darwin's book, he wrote to Darwin saying:

"If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that... I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous — You have deserted—after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth—the true method of induction—& started up a machinery as wild I think as Bishop Wilkin's locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon. Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved. Why then express them in the language & arrangements of philosophical induction?."


Sedgwick regarded natural selection as
"but a secondary consequence of supposed, or known, primary facts. Development is a better word because more close to the cause of the fact. For you do not deny causation. I call (in the abstract) causation the will of God: & I can prove that He acts for the good of His creatures. He also acts by laws which we can study & comprehend—Acting by law, & under what is called final cause, comprehends, I think, your whole principle."


He emphasized his distinction between the moral and physical aspects of life, "There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly." If humanity broke this distinction it "would suffer a damage that might brutalize it—& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history".

In a letter to another correspondent, Sedgwick was even harsher on Darwin's book, calling it "utterly false" and writing that "It repudiates all reasoning from final causes; and seems to shut the door on any view (however feeble) of the God of Nature as manifested in His works. From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up."

Despite this difference of opinion, the two men remained friendly until Sedgwick's death. In contrast to Sedgwick, the liberal church members (who included highly qualified biologists such as George Rolleston, William Henry Flower and William Kitchen Parker) were usually comfortable with evolution. Sedgwick's opposition seems linked, not to his religion as such, but to the particular cast of his beliefs.

Notes

  1. von Zittel, Karl Alfred 1901. History of geology and palaeontology to the end of the nineteenth century. Scott, London. p432
  2. Rudwick M.S.J. 1985. The great Devonian controversy. Chicago.
  3. James Secord, Victorian Sensation (2000), pp. 232–233.
  4. James Secord, Victorian Sensation (2000), pp. 233, 246.
  5. Letter of Adam Sedgwick to Charles Lyell, April 9th, 1845, in The Life and Letters of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick vol. 2 (1890), pg. 84.
  6. Letter to Miss Gerard from Adam Sedgwick, Jan. 2nd, 1860, in The Life and Letters of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick vol. 2 (1890), pgs. 359-360.


References

  • J.W. Clark and T.M. Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Cambridge University Press, 1890, vols. 1-2.
  • Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1970-1990; vol. 12, pp. 275-279.
  • A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, Williams, T. I., Ed., Wiley, 1969, pp. 467-468.
  • Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (2nd Ed.), Doubleday: 1982, p. 299.
  • Quart. J. Geol. Soc., 1873, 29, pp. xxx-xxxix.
  • Dictionary of National Biography, Smith, Elder & Co., 1908-1986, vol. 17, pp. 1117-1120.


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