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THREE VICTORIAN THINKERS

DARWIN, BRADLAUGH & KROPOTKIN

Carl Pinel is a long serving member of our group and of the Sheffield Humanists, and a frequent contributor to the GM Humanist as well as the Freethinker. That this talk was given in such tremendous humour was an additional layer of icing on the cake.

Charles Darwin ( 1809-82) was sent to school in Shrewsbury, seemingly destined to join the clergy, for which he studied at Cambridge University. Darwin learned botany at Cambridge under Rev. Professor John Henslow, who first recognised that Darwin's talents lay in the sciences. Henslow helped Darwin to secure the position of unpaid naturalist on board ~e Beagle, captained by Robert Fitzroy. The Beagle set out on a five year voyage of exploration on 19th September 1831, taking Darwin to the Falklands, Tahiti, South America and many more lands on the way. Darwin catalogued findings on a vast array of flora and fauna. His boundless energy during the voyage was a marked contrast to his ill-health and fatigue in his later years. Medical experts surmised that he caught Chaga's disease or Brucellosis but he has also been called a classic hypochondriac. His biographer Kettlewell said that while his wife, Emma Darwin was 'the perfect nurse', Charles Darwin was 'the perfect patient'. Darwin's most famous book was called On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life. This opened up the fierce discussion question of whether or not Darwin was a racist, and in favour of social Darwinism. Some members felt that this was likely, as Darwin was a man of his times, while others felt that 'races' was a euphemism for species, referring to the animal kingdom. Carl pointed out that Darwin was an opponent of slavery and supporter of Kingsley's campaign to free children from working as chimney sweeps. Darwin suppressed his discovery of the mechanism in nature he called Natural Selection, from the need to be sure of his findings. He only published his devastating conclusions in 1859. Talk of evolution shook Victorian society. Philip Gosse, a Plymouth Brethren supporter and leading geologist, claimed that God must have created fossils when making the world in 4004 BC. Carl also made reference to post-Darwin controversies from the Wilberforce/Huxley debate of 1860, to the Tennessee Monkey Trial of John Scopes in the 1930's, where a teacher was prosecuted for no crime other than teaching students about evolution.

GM Humanist 3 Issue 16

Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) came from a poor family background, and worked as a coal miner's clerk in 1845 for 111- (55p) a week. Hearing fieethinking supporters of Richard Carlisle giving public discourse in Victoria Park, London, Bradlaugh was converted away from Anglicanism to become a passionate and outspoken atheist. He was to lose his job because of it. After an army career, he took to Iecturing again, using the pseudonym, 'Iconoclast' to avoid losing his job as a solicitor's clerk. He became editor of the leading freethought journal, `National Reformer'. Described by biographer Tom Mann, as the foremost platform man in Britain, Bradlaugh could be heard at the centre of debates in favour of compulsory education, land reform, the separation of church and state, and birth control education. When Bradlaugh, and fellow birth control champion Annie Besant, were prosecuted for promoting their policies in 1877, Darwin refused to give evidence in their defence. It is ironic, as Carl observed, that Darwin was critical of smallpox vaccinations and intense farming methods that could increase animal populations too rapidly, while opposing birth control itself. After losing in a few elections, and following a quashed legal case in which Bradlaugh and Besant were charged with Obscenity, (for their book, 'The Fruits Of Philosophy Or The Private Companion Of Young Married People), Bradlaugh entered Parliament in 1880 (representing Northampton). On entering office MP's had to take an oath which used the Phrase 'so help me God'. Bradlaugh wished to affirm instead, but a Commons Select Committee ruled such action unacceptable. Bradlaugh offered to take the oath with the offending words, but it was decided at the instigation of Lord Randolph Churchill that any such oath taken by Freethinkers would not be binding. Obliged to seek re-election, Bradlaugh was to win his seat back three times, and yet he was still denied office, and he was even forcibly escorted away by ten policemen. With Parliamentary procedure in chaos, Bradlaugh was granted the right to take the oath in 1886, and remained an MP until his death. In 1888 he pushed home the oaths act which secured the right of affirmation in both Parliament and in the law courts. He was fiercely critical of religious dogma. He wrote, "The so-called belief in Creation is nothing more than the prostration of the intellect on the threshold of the unknown." (A Plea for Atheism). Bradlaugh was a capitalist and highly critical of Socialist reform he would fall out with Annie Besant, among others.

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) lived a life in stark contrast to Bradlaugh. Kropotkin was born in Moscow, as a hereditary prince. He was respected .by Nicholas I, who ordered him to be enrolled in the exclusive military school, "The Corps Of Pages'. Kropotkin became sergeant of the Corps, and personal page to the new Tsar, Alexander II. Kropotkin's future seamed assured, but he was having doubts, and he was strongly influenced by liberal, progressive ideas. His knowledge of the science of geology was also growing. He applied to join a Cossack division in Siberia,

Issue 16

Primarily to investigate the penal system in the region, though he mainly hoped to examine the geography and rock-formations of the area. He was appalled by the sight of prisoners dying of scurvy and tuberculosis in the salt mines, and became deeply opposed to the 'evils of centralised autocratic power.' Kropotkin made significant geographical studies of the Siberian wilderness, and revolutionised our knowledge of then Largely unexplored regions. He offered theories of how climatic-geographical changes lead to westward migration of the people of the Steppes. It is this knowledge for which Kropotkin will be chiefly remembered in scientific circles. Invited to Iead the prestigious Russian Geographical Society in 1871, Kropotkin preferred to spend more time to the needs of the poor and oppressed. After mixing in Europe with leading anarchists such as Zhukovsky, he was arrested in 1874 and sent to the notorious Peter and Paul prison. He escaped, fled Russia, eventually settling in England. (1876). As he studied in the British Museum Reading Room, he developed the revolutionary anarchic teachings for which make him famous for the second time. He argued that

'the economic basis of capitalism proceeded not from overproduction but from under consumption, which lead to social injustice. He claimed that if all the division of labour into bureaucratic and military activities were replaced by socially useful tasks, it would only be necessary to work five hours a day from the age of twenty or twenty-five to forty-five or fifty.'.

Kropotkin was eventually arrested in France, and charged with belonging to the outlawed 'International Working Men's Association. (an organisation that no longer even existed, as was proved to the court). He was sentenced to five years in Clarvaux Prison, but he was released after three years, suffering from malaria and scurvy, rescued by a letter-writing campaign organised by many academics he had impressed over the years. He moved to England on his release in 1886 and stayed here for thirty years, founding the anarchist journal 'Freedom' which is still published today. Though critical of how capitalism and militarism go hand in hand, Kropotkin was to support the allies in the war against Germany between 1914-18, and after the Russian revolution, he went to live in Russia, but he was not a supporter of Lenin's Bolsheviks. Kropotkin took an interest in the great evolution debate. He challenged T.H. Huxley's assertion that nature pitched each life-form in 'a struggle against all'. .Kropotkin observed that "humans first lived in tribes and later in clans and that living in families is a more recent development. From this he concluded that co-operation is normal." Carl concluded with the words:

"All three of these thinkers have obliged us to look at our world. They all questioned accepted knowledge and had the courage to state their convictions. Whether we agree with their views or oppose them, we owe them a debt.'

This was a talk of learning and wit, which provoked many questions.

Copyright. Arthur Chappell                                  

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