Narrating the Metaphysics of Evolution: Twentieth-Century Australian Scientists and Histories of Evolutionary Science

This paper explores historical narratives of the metaphysics of evolutionary science, as advanced by researchers in the biological sciences in mid-twentieth-century Australia. As the historian of medicine Adrian Wilson has argued, from the scale of the literature review upwards, doing science entails writing history. Scientists construct ‘imagined pasts’ that frame the work they are engaged in, shaping the meanings embedded within it. Historical narratives implicitly or explicitly form part of the motivating and legitimating intellectual architecture of scientific practice.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, a common narrative of the history of science, maintained by theistic-minded scientists especially, traced a supposed shift from nineteenth-century ‘materialist’ or ‘mechanistic’ models of science, to modern ones in which forms of organicism, vitalism or purposive design were increasingly recognised as critical to understanding the character of the natural world. Such narratives drew special inspiration from developments in physics, including quantum physics and relativity theory, but also from the works of twentieth-century philosophers of evolution such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Applied to the history of evolutionary biology, such perspectives framed the supposed ‘materialism’ of nineteenth-century Darwinian evolution as an orientation overcome in the course of the growth of scientific understanding.

The paper will examine the works of two scientist-historians who worked in Australian universities and advanced versions of this narrative in some detail. Frederic Wood Jones (1879–1954), professor of anatomy at Adelaide and then at Melbourne, and Charles Birch (1918–2009), professor of zoology (later biology) at Sydney, both wrote histories of the metaphysics of evolutionary thought that sat at the boundaries of science, philosophy and religion. In doing so their historical accounts provided discursive spaces within which to judge and to act, scientifically but also ethically and politically.

Joel Barnes is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, working on the history strand of the multidisciplinary Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. Previously he was a research associate in the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, where his work examined the history of humanities institutions in Australian since 1945.