Receiving Darwin in 19th century Nova Scotia

By Andrew Reynolds, Christie MacNeil and Mitchell Jabalee

The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection created a storm of controversy touching on issues of religion and philosophy regarding the origins of human beings, our relationship to other species, and the future of each person (especially their soul) upon death. Even though it was far from his intention to address these issues—and he carefully avoided them in the book—Darwin was fully prepared for the reaction it would inevitably provoke. Darwin had earned a reputation as a sober and careful scientist, but opponents of his fully naturalistic theory which implied humans had evolved from an earlier form of ape criticized his method for setting up unproven hypotheses. Darwin’s method they objected was not that of careful Baconian inductivism, according to which one is supposed to simply collect the facts, allowing them to speak for themselves and to eschew hypotheses.

How did these debates about Darwinism and the theory of evolution play out in places far from the metropole of the British Empire? Did discussion of these matters even take place in regions like the colonies of British North America? And if they did, is there any record of them? In our paper, “Reception of Darwinism in mid-to late Nineteenth-Century Nova Scotia” (which appears in the latest issue of Scientia Canadensis) we discuss a number of papers and lectures on the topic that were published in the Proceedings and Transactions of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science, the official record of the provincial society founded in 1862 for the promotion of natural history, and in a private written recording of a local Mechanics Institute meeting. It shows that not only did these issues receive attention from the local community of naturalists and natural history enthusiasts, but that the discussion itself evolved over time in some surprising ways.

Image: Water-colour portrait of Charles Darwin, after his return from the voyage of the Beagle, by George Richmond, 1830s.

Andrew Reynolds is Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University and a philosopher and historian of science who has published on evolutionary, cell and developmental biology in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He is the author of Peirce’s Scientific Metaphysics: The Philosophy of Chance, Evolution, and Law (Vanderbilt University Press 2002), The Third Lens: Metaphor and the Creation of Modern Cell Biology (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and is currently writing Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences for Cambridge University Press’s Understanding Life Series.

Christie MacNeil is an archivist, curator, and educator of settler descent who lives and works in the arts in Unama’ki in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of L’nu’k, the Mi’kmaw people. As the Digital Archivist for the Beaton Institute, she worked with photographic, sound, and moving image media for over ten years. Christie has a BA (Hons) in Fine Arts Cultural Studies (York), BSc in Biology (Cape Breton), and MA in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (Toronto).

Mitchell Jabalee graduated with a BA (Hons) in History from Cape Breton University in 2017 and a Master in Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University in 2020.