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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.9 'Graphic', cartoon

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A cartoon which appeared in the Graphic in 1871 was unusual, in that it pictured a serious scientific challenge to Darwin’s theories. Sir William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, a leading physicist based at the University of Glasgow, was President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that year, and he used his presidential address to the Association’s annual meeting, taking place in Edinburgh, to launch an attack on Darwinism. As a devout Christian, Thomson claimed ex cathedra that the theory of natural selection ‘did not sufficiently take into account a continually guiding and controlling intelligence’; in his view, ‘overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us . . . teaching us that all living things depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler’. Already in the late 1860s, Thomson had been embattled with the Darwinists, and notably with Huxley. Thomson’s theories about the gradual cooling of the sun, and therefore of the earth, flew in the face of uniformitarian assumptions about the immeasurably long duration and steady state of the habitable world, which, according to Darwin and Huxley, had allowed slow evolution through natural selection to occur. In a lecture of 1868 Thomson was ‘driven to the conclusion . . . that the existing state of things on the earth . . . must be limited within some such period of past time as one hundred million years’. ‘The limitation of geological periods . . . cannot, of course, disprove the hypothesis of transmutation of species; but it does seem sufficient to disprove the doctrine that transmutation has taken place through “descent with modification by natural selection”.’ The key role of a waning sun in Thomson’s hypothesis sharpens the satire of ‘Darwin Eclipsed’, which figured in a page of visual jokes about the ‘Humours of Science’ at the Edinburgh meeting. Darwin, with his caricatured fleshy nose and animal limbs, is surrounded by rays of light, but about to be blotted out by the floating head of Thomson, while a tartan-clad Scotsman starts back in amazement. It is noteworthy that the Graphic did not think these drawings needed any commentary: ‘They speak amply for themselves’ – showing the keenness with which the general public followed the scientific debates of the time. 

  • physical location Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection number NPR.C.53 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator of image unknown 

  • date of creation 1871 

  • computer-readable date 1871-08-01 to 1871-08-26 

  • medium and material wood engraving 

  • references and bibliography ‘The British Association at Edinburgh – Humours of Science’, The Graphic, 4:91 (26 August 1871), p. 197, and cf. p. 195. Sir William Thomson (later Baron Kelvin), ‘On the age of the sun’s heat’, Macmillan’s Magazine, 5:29 (1862), pp. 388-93. Thomson, Popular Lectures and Addresses, 3 vols (London: Macmillan, 1894), vol. 2, reprints of ‘On Geological Time, an address to the Geological Society of Glasgow’, 27 Feb. 1868, and ‘Of Geological Dynamics’, an address to the same Society, 5 April 1869.  Report of the Forty-first Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; held at Edinburgh in August 1871 (London: John Murray, 1872), ‘Address of Sir William Thomson . . . President’, pp. ciii – cv. On Darwin’s anxious reaction to Thomson’s attacks: Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), pp. 547, 566-7, 577. On George Darwin’s paper read at the Royal Society in 1876, defending his father’s theories and attacking Thomson’s: Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 436. 



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