Sir George Gabriel Stokes Gifford Lectures, reprinted by CUP as part of their Cambridge Library Collection form a fascinating insight into the intellectual condition of late Victorian or fin-de-siècle culture and provides essential insight into the intertwined relationship between theology and science. Stokes was a physicist and professor of mathematics, well known at the time for specialised work in optics and the motion of fluids. Stokes was also a well-known religious believer, heavily influenced by the philosophical theology of William Paley and set himself very much against the emerging Darwinian consensus, seeking to defend a design argument for the world.
As a result, the lectures collected in this edition showcase a dual focus, as Stokes seeks to find “hints as to Gods moral government of his creatures” (pg. 4) in an exploration of the natural sciences. The lectures range across cosmology, theories of light, the anatomy of the eye, metallurgy and chemistry and responses to evolution. In many cases the science contained serves more as a historical curiosity than anything else — hardly surprising, given the amount of time that has lapsed and the advances made since Stokes’s day. In the midst of what can be rather complex scientific exegesis, Stokes begins to articulate his own theological positions. The lecture on the intricacies of the eye does not just articulate an understanding of both the impact of light and physiology, but shows the details and design behind existence. Drawing from the conclusions presented from his broad and rather impressive scientific engagement Stokes finds a strictly materialist understanding of the universe, of earth and man to be untenable. It’s in the lecture on the Origin of Man that Stokes makes his case against an evolutionary understanding of the world, arguing that the gulf between man and animals suggests man as a ‘special creation.’
Given the breadth of scientific issues engaged with and the archaic nature of some of the arguments presented, the lectures serve perhaps best as a historical artefact rather than an introduction to debates around theology and science. The defence of Paley and the argument from design is well articulated but given advances in both theology and science perhaps no longer as compelling as it would have been at the time. The value of this volume resides in this truth as it shows with great clarity the intellectual dissonance at work in the Victorian intellectual mind, caught between the possibilities and new discoveries of science on the one hand, and the certainties of traditional theological belief on the other.