St. George Jackson Mivart

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St. George Jackson Mivart bigraphy, stories - Biologists

St. George Jackson Mivart : biography

30 November 1827 – 1 April 1900

St. George Jackson Mivart PhD M.D. FRS (30 November 1827 – 1 April 1900) was an English biologist. He is famous for starting as an ardent believer in natural selection who later became one of its fiercest critics. Mivart attempted to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and finished by being condemned by both parties.Adrian Desmond, Archetypes and Ancestors: palaeontology in Victorian London. Blond & Briggs, London (1982), p. 137-142.

Controversy

Mivart met Huxley in 1859, and was initially a close follower and a believer in natural selection. "Even as a professor he continued to attending Huxley’s lectures… they became close friends, dining together and arranging family visits." However, Huxley was always strongly anti-Catholic and no doubt this attitude led to Mivart becoming disenchanted with him. Once disenchanted, he lost little time in reversing on the subject of natural selection. In short, he now believed that a higher teleology was compatible with evolution.

"As to ‘natural selection’, I accepted it completely and in fact my doubts & difficulties were first excited by attending Prof. Huxley’s lectures at the School of Mines."

Even before Mivart’s publication of On the genesis of species in 1871, he had published his new ideas in various periodicalsSt. George Mivart, The Month 11 (1869), p. 35-53; 134-153; 274-289. and Huxley,T.H. Huxley, "Mr Darwin’s critics". Contemporary Review (1871). Lankester and Flower had come out against him. According to O’Leary, "their initial reaction to Genesis of Species was tolerant and impersonal".

Darwin prepared a point-by-point refutation which appeared in the sixth edition of Origin of Species. But Mivart’s hostile review of the Descent of Man in the Quarterly Review, aroused fury from his former intimates, including Darwin himself, who described it as "grossly unfair". Mivart had quoted Darwin by shortening sentences and omitting words, causing Darwin to say: "Though he means to be honourable, he is so bigoted that he cannot act fairly.".J. Browne, Charles Darwin: the power of place. Volume II of a biography. Cape, London (2002). p. 329f. Relationships between the two men were near breaking point. In response, Darwin arranged for the reprinting of a pamphlet by Chauncey Wright, previously issued in the USA, which severely criticised Genesis of Species. Wright had, under Darwin’s guidance, clarified what was, and was not, "Darwinism".J. Browne, Charles Darwin: the power of place. Volume II of a biography, p. 353-356.

The quarrel reached a climax when Mivart lost his usual composure over what should have been a minor incident. In 1873, George Darwin (Charles’ son) published a short article in The Contemporary Review suggesting that divorce should be made easier in cases of cruelty, abuse or mental disorder. Mivart reacted with horror, using phrases like "hideous sexual criminality" and "unrestrained licentiousness". Huxley wrote a counter-attack, and both Huxley and Darwin broke off connections with Mivart. Huxley blackballed Mivart’s attempt to join the Athenaeum Club.

Mivart was someone Darwin took seriously. One of his criticisms, to which Darwin responded in later editions of the Origin of Species, was a perceived failure of natural selection to explain the incipient stages of useful structures. Taking the eye as an example, Darwin was able to show many stages of light sensitivity and eye development in the animal kingdom as proof of the utility of less than perfect sight (argument by intermediate stages). Another was the supposed inability of natural selection to explain cases of parallel evolution, to which Huxley responded that the effect of natural selection in places with the same environment would tend to be similar.

Though admitting evolution in general, Mivart denied its applicability to the human intellect (a view also taken by Wallace). His views as to the relationship between human nature and intellect and animal nature in general were given in Nature and thought (1882), and in the Origin of human reason (1889).