Saturday, February 20, 2016

Science and the Baleful Influence of the Anglican Church

One of the greatest disasters wrought by Christianity has been the suppression of science for the 1500 years when Christian ideas reigned supreme. We all know about cases of proto-scientists like Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno who were burned alive for questioning Christian views. We also know about cases where people were silenced by the prospect of being burned at the stake. 

A more subtle disaster was the waste of time caused by religious indoctrination. The greatest minds were trammelled in infancy so that (however great they were) they could never be fully liberated to achieve their full potential. Galileo was constrained by the orthodox view that planetary orbits must be circular. Kepler believed the traditional teaching that angels kept the planets moving. Newton wasted time trying to decipher the Bible's hidden secrets. Even Darwin frittered away vast amounts of time as a young putative clergyman puzzling over bogus prophecies in the book of Daniel.

Another way in which Christian teaching inhibited scientific progress was though social pressure.  As the Churches lost power, the threat of death diminished. The range of threat included clerically inspired mob violence (eg Joseph Priestly), loss of occupation (eg 19th century geologists), and social ostracism (eg William Godwin). This is one reason why almost all scientific progress up to the mid-nineteenth century was made by noblemen and rich scions of noble families. They moved in educated circles where traditional Church teachings were already held in contempt, and rich and powerful circles where the power of the Church was limited.

For others, social pressure could be enormous. One spectacular example of this was provided by Thomas Fairchild, a celebrated eighteenth century gardener in Hoxton, near the City of London. Fairchild was the first to create a plant hybrid in (perhaps before) 1717. He placed the pollen of sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) on the style of a gillyflower (Dianthus caryophyllus). A new hybrid flower, a type of carnation, looked like neither of its parents, establishing sexual reproduction in plants. This infertile flower became known as "Fairchild's Mule."

Hybrids had existed for a long time already (Shakespeare makes reference to a debate as to their natural or unnatural qualities in “The Winter's Tale”) but what Fairchild was doing was clearly blasphemous. It was “playing God”, presuming to tamper with God’s Creation (exactly the same religious objection still made by traditional Churches to modern genetic science). Fairchild worried about a backlash occasioned by his taking the power over creation into his own hands. To compound his crime, Fairchild had recognised that plants had sexes. He corresponded with the great Linnaeus who also recognised the existence of plant sexes. For Christians this was an abomination. Cross-pollinating species manually was obscene as well as blasphemous, and another cause of criticism of both Fairchild and Linnaeus.

The significance of Fairchild’s work was enormous. He became celebrated in scientific circles for his experiment, and presented a dried flower from his hybrid to the Royal Society in 1720. His work should have triggered much further research, but it did not.  Outside the scientific community it was blasphemous to attempt to create a new species, because God had already created all the species he wanted on Earth. Fairchild did not pursue the obvious lines of further research, and neither did anyone else until his ideas were taken up again by horticulturalists a century later when the influence of Christianity had diminished further.

Fairchild, a devout Christian, should have been a national hero. Instead he would live in fear of God’s wrath for the rest of his life. He died in 1729, apparently still terrified about the prospects for his soul. He bequeathed twenty-five pounds to St Leonard’s Church in the Hackney Rd for the endowment of an annual Whitsun sermon on either "The wonderful works of God in Creation" or "On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of creation". This annual event, a form of atonement for his sins, became known as the “Vegetable Sermon” and is still held each year, attended by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. It provides a baleful reminder of the influence of the Anglican Church in Eighteenth century England.

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