John Stevens Henslow

John Stevens Henslow


by David F. Coppedge

This biography is a case study in dramatic irony.  John Stevens Henslow is the scientist who made Darwin famous.  The eminent Cambridge professor of botany was like a father to Darwin.  It was Henslow who gave him the opportunity to go on the Beagle as naturalist, defended his right to explore new ideas, and presided at the famous 1860 debate between Wilberforce and Huxley – yet he rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Henslow was a Christian and creationist.

Don DeYoung writes this about Henslow in Pioneer Explorers of Intelligent Design (BMH books, 2006):

John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861) was professor of botany and geology at the University of Cambridge in England.  His enthusiasm for teaching botany made it one of the most popular subjects at Cambridge for several decades.  Henslow was a devout Christian and Anglican clergyman.  One of his favorite students was Charles Darwin.  On campus, Darwin was known as “the man who walked with Henslow.”  Darwin learned much about nature from his mentor but he rejected Henslow’s faith.  When Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1857 [sic; 1859], Henslow graciously expressed his opposition to the book with the words, “Darwin attempts more than is granted to man, just as people used to account for the origin of evil – a question past finding out.”

Darwin deeply admired Henslow throughout his life.  It was in Professor Henslow’s botany class at Cambridge that Charles, prior to this time an aimless and unmotivated student, really got interested in natural science.  Henslow gave Darwin all the observing skills that Darwin would use for years analyzing barnacles, pigeons and plants.  At this time, Charles was a creationist too, as were most scientists of the day.  It wasn’t till the the Beagle voyage and the years that followed that Darwin’s doubts and unbelief began to take root.  Henslow cannot be blamed for that.  The only criticisms that might be levied against this great man is that he was too gracious a gentleman, and too permissive of radical speculations.

Janet Browne adds some insights into Henslow’s character in her book Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002).  Apparently Darwin was sheepish about approaching his mentor with his new book, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection.  When sending the now-elderly professor a pre-publication copy in 1859, he prefaced it with a letter stating that, “I fear you will not approve of your pupil in this case” (p. 84).

One facet of Henslow’s philosophy is found in a comment he made to his brother-in-law about Darwin’s views.  Stating that Darwin had a right to his opinion, he objected, “God does not set the creation going like a clock, wound up to go by itself” (p. 153).  This statement indicates that Henslow was no deist or theistic evolutionist.  He denied that God had a hands-off policy, letting a mechanical universe run without his active participation.  Clearly that is what he saw Darwin proposing.

Henslow believed in freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry.  In an 1860 meeting at the Cambridge Philosophical Society, where fellow professor Adam Sedgwick was getting more and more riled about Darwin’s book, Henslow “vigorously defended Darwin’s right to investigate the question of living origins, although he, like the others, balked at jettisoning divine creation,” Browne says (p. 117).  “In this, Henslow showed the mettle that his friends still admired.  Elderly he might be, but he retained his inner fire.  Yet his affection for Darwin evidently pushed him further than his heart would otherwise have taken him.”

That gentlemanly tolerance even extended to his classroom.  In Henslow’s last botany class at Cambridge in spring of 1860, he even introduced Darwin’s principles to the students, not so much to endorse them, but to give them experience in facing differing views.  “While telling them of his own unshakeable religious faith,” Browne writes (p. 118), “he nevertheless encouraged them to respect intellectual endeavor wherever it might lead.”

At the historic British Association contest between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley at Oxford in June, 1860, Henslow presided as chairman.  He was the one who gave Huxley, then Wilberforce, an opportunity to speak.  When the audience reaction rose to a fever pitch at the debate, Henslow was among those trying to restore order, and defending the rights of each man’s opinions, including Huxley’s, to be heard.  Browne says that at the end of the meeting, when everyone’s blood was boiling, Henslow also made some “spirited remarks” and then dismissed the assembly with “an impartial benediction” (pp. 122-124).

Henslow would not live to see much of the aftermath, when Darwin’s supporters took this meeting as a cause celebre to launch their new naturalistic worldview.  He died the following May.  Darwin fell ill and used it as an excuse not to attend the deathbed or funeral.  Ever after, Darwin felt guilty about not having been there for his dear friend and mentor.  Browne writes, “Henslow had made him what he was, not only by giving him the chance of a lifetime with the invitation for the Beagle voyage, but also by his kindly attentions and support thereafter” (p. 153).  Henslow had been like a father to him, and his passing closed an important chapter in Darwin’s life.

We can only speculate on what Henslow would have thought of the subsequent decade, when Darwinism rose from a fringe speculation roundly denounced by most leading scientists to the vanguard of a new naturalistic world view.  As the years progressed, largely due to the tactics of what Janet Browne calls Darwin’s “Four Musketeers” (Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Asa Gray), as well as Darwin’s own scheming, the creationists were on the run.  The Darwinians captured the scientific journals, the media, and the British Association.  Few became willing to stand up against the growing naturalistic tide.  It became harder to criticize the new Darwinian view, because it seemed to stand for Victorian progress and intellectual freedom.  (As revealed in these pages, that was a highly contrived and manipulated opinion, not a result of scientific facts.)

Looking back at this story after 148 years of Darwin’s rise to power, the ironies are palpable:

  • Henslow gave his aimless and undisciplined pupil the chance of a lifetime to tour the world, traveling with a devout Christian captain, Robert FitzRoy.  Darwin used the experience to shred the foundations of Henslow’s and FitzRoy’s world view.
  • Henslow graciously received Darwin’s book and, though disagreeing with it, was reserved and respectful in his criticisms.  Now, Darwin’s followers unleash the most outrageous and vehement rhetoric at anyone who dares question Darwinian ideas.
  • Henslow was willing to let his students think about Mr. Darwin’s principles, even when he disagreed with them.  Now, one cannot even criticize Darwin’s ideas in the classroom – let alone present the beliefs of Henslow, a devout Christian and creationist.  The pro-Darwinist organizations and all the scientific societies will race to confront any teacher with an expensive lawsuit if he or she tries to return Henslow’s favor by exposing students in today’s Darwin-only science classrooms to alternative views, like intelligent design, no matter how non-sectarian and empirical they are.
  • Henslow was confident enough in his “unshakeable religious faith” to allow students to “follow intellectual endeavor wherever it might lead.”  Now, students and scientists are taught that they cannot make a design inference even when the evidence for it is compelling.  All scientific evidence must be force-fitted into the Darwinian picture.
  • Henslow tried to maintain order and civility in public debate, and insisted both sides have their fair say.  Today, the Darwinists do not want to give any public platform to alternatives, and fight to put prior restraint on debate.
  • Henslow was loyal to his friends despite their beliefs.  Today, professors and scientific societies will turn on any colleague who breaks ranks with Darwinian views, and will vote to deny tenure, deny degrees, or otherwise ostracize and marginalize the heretic.  (The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed provides many examples.)
  • Henslow understood the limits of science.  He knew what questions were past finding out by scientific methods.  Today, scientists shamelessly attempt to explain everything in the entire universe, even in imaginary parallel universes, in Darwinian terms.  Darwinism has taken over the entire university, including economics, psychology, political science, the humanities, and even religious studies.
  • Henslow was a consummate gentleman.  Darwin’s followers, particularly the Social Darwinists, have committed atrocities against their fellow human beings beyond all historical precedent in terms of viciousness and magnitude, justifying their actions on the basis of Darwin’s alleged “law of survival of the fittest.”  Today’s Darwinists continue to erode the sanctity of human life by supporting abortion on demand, cloning, and human-animal chimeras experiments; some support euthanasia and infanticide.

In hindsight, we might wish Henslow had been more stringent with his pupil.  We might wish he had used his reputation to denounce the rambling speculations of a younger upstart who ventured into realms beyond human ken.  We might wish he, and the other scientific critics of Darwinism, including Adam Sedgwick, Richard Owen, John Phillips and others, would have stood their ground with more fortitude to resist the foundational change that was being introduced to recast the definition and purview of science.  But this was mid-19th-century Victorian culture.  People were expected to be civil.  Progress was in the air.  Satisfaction with organized religion was diminishing as the prestige of science was growing.  Darwin’s ideas seemed fresh and controversial, appealing to the rebel and selfishness in mankind.  Some worried, but nobody knew, how things would eventually turn out.

Henslow must be turning in his grave.