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How James Clerk Maxwell Rescued the Humanities in Verse

Few may realize that James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th-century physicist on par with Newton and Einstein who gave us electromagnetic theory, was a poet. One of his best takes materialists to task in playful yet incisive wit.

The occasion was the meeting of the British Association of 1874. John Tyndall, president, was a strong supporter of Darwin and Huxley. In an epochal speech, he advocated extending what Darwin had done to all of science: seeking to rid science of all theological explanations. Instead, in the tradition of Democritus and Lucretius, Tyndall proposed taking materialist explanations as far as they could go. After surveying the history of philosophy and of science, he proposed that "science claims unrestricted right of search," even into areas of human nature, creativity, and religion. Religion, a "mischievous" thing, should not "intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command, but capable of being guided to noble issues in the region of emotion, which is its proper and elevated sphere."

The text of his speech (see Victorian Web) reveals that Tyndall was walking on eggshells somewhat so as to avoid offending the audience at Belfast -- still a stronghold of religious belief at the time. Nevertheless, he had the young pro-Darwinian leadership of the British Association at his back philosophically. Despite the appeals to romantic ideals and religious sensibilities, Tyndall's main point was that materialism should henceforth be the philosophy of science. While theists viewed the address as an attack on religion, rationalists and skeptics have since considered this meeting a tipping point toward the metaphysical naturalism that continues to this day.

James_Clerk_Maxwell.pngSitting in the audience was 43-year-old James Clerk Maxwell, the eminent physicist. He knew what Tyndall was up to. A committed and informed Christian and supporter of intelligent design, Maxwell perceived what would be the outcome of Tyndall's program if unrestrained materialism took root: it would sweep away the humanities, and reduce all that is good and noble, including the human mind, to meaningless clashes of atoms.

Rather than respond with debate or a written treatise, Maxwell used the humanities to rescue the humanities. Employing his rapier wit and knowledge of history and philosophy, he wrote a poem. JCM was adept at poems for all occasions, sometimes for humor, sometimes for romance with his wife Katherine, sometimes to express deep philosophical subjects or worship. This one (reproduced below) is one of the sharpest rebukes of naturalism among his surviving poems. It's witty, biting in its satire, and just as relevant to philosophy of science as it was in 1874. If you want to take the road of materialism, be prepared to turn blue!

British Association, Notes of the President's Address

In the very beginnings of science, the parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel, made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods by the atoms, which last to this hour.
Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out of the way,
With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing to sway.
From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;
There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!
Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist,
To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?
But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,
Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.
So treading a path all untrod, the poet-philosopher1 sings
Of the seeds of the mighty world -- the first-beginnings of things;
How freely he scatters his atoms before the beginning of years;
How he clothes them with force as a garment, those small incompressible spheres!
Nor yet does he leave them hard-hearted -- he dowers them with love and with hate,
Like spherical small British Asses2 in infinitesimal state;
Till just as that living Plato, whom foreigners nickname Plateau,
Drops oil in his whisky-and-water (for foreigners sweeten it so),
Each drop keeps apart from the other, enclosed in a flexible skin,
Till touched by the gentle emotion evolved by the prick of a pin:
Thus in atoms a simple collision excites a sensational thrill,
Evolved through all sorts of emotion, as sense, understanding, and will;
(For by laying their heads all together, the atoms, as councillors do,
May combine to express an opinion to every one of them new).
There is nobody here, I should say, has felt true indignation at all,
Till an indignation meeting is held in the Ulster Hall;
Then gathers the wave of emotion, then noble feelings arise,
Till you all pass a resolution which takes every man by surprise.
Thus the pure elementary atom, the unit of mass and of thought,
By force of mere juxtaposition to life and sensation is brought;
So, down through untold generations, transmission of structureless germs
Enables our race to inherit the thoughts of beasts, fishes, and worms.
We honour our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers too;
But how shall we honour the vista of ancestors now in our view?
First, then, let us honour the atom, so lively, so wise, and so small;
The atomists next let us praise, Epicurus, Lucretius, and all;
Let us damn with faint praise Bishop Butler3, in whom many atoms combined
To form that remarkable structure, it pleased him to call -- his mind.
Last, praise we the noble body to which, for the time, we belong,
Ere yet the swift whirl of the atoms has hurried us, ruthless, along,
The British Association -- like Leviathan worshipped by Hobbes,
The incarnation of wisdom, built up of our witless nobs,
Which will carry on endless discussions, when I, and probably you,
Have melted in infinite azure -- in English, till all is blue.

James Clerk Maxwell


1) Possibly a reference to Tyndall.
2) Insider nickname for members of the British Association.
3) Joseph Butler (1692-1752), influential English bishop, theologian, apologist, and philosopher, a proponent of natural theology.

Image: James Clerk Maxwell, Wikipedia.