Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Professor G. S. French


The Origin of Species in 1859 produced a revolution in the history of ideas. Arguing that species were not immutable but evolved through a process of natural selection, Charles Darwin challenged the basic scientific, religious, and philosophical assumptions of his age. The debate over his hypothesis extended to Canada where it coincided with a period of remarkable growth for Canadian universities. Canada's physical environment supplied numerous examples of the struggle for survival in Darwin's concept of nature. Its universities provided a nexus for the formulation of scientific, theological, and philosophical responses to the Darwinian revolution. Principal John William Dawson of McGill University, President Daniel Wilson of the University of Toronto, Professor John Watson of Queen's University, and Chancellor Nathanael Burwash of Victoria College were four Canadian Scholars whose responses to Darwin's hypothesis contribute to a better understanding of Canadian intellectual history in the last half of the nineteenth century.

The responses of John William Dawson and Daniel Wilson rejected Darwin's hypothesis for a theistic alternative. Beginning with an 1860 review of the Origin of Species, Dawson recorded an opposition which he maintained steadfastly for over thirty years. A noted geologist, he based his arguments on the geological record and on a defense of the inductive method in science. His writings on the subject, however, reveal that his religious faith prevented him from accepting the mutability of species. He held that nature reflected the operation of a divine plan and not the mechanistic development which he found in Darwinism. Although Daniel Wilson asserted his initial acceptance of evolution when applied to physical development, Darwin's The Descent of Man in 1871 prompted him to reply in Caliban: The Missing Link that man's reason and moral sense indicate the need for a Divine Creator. His position on evolution was also influenced by the fear that, if correct, the evolutionary explanation of man would unite all men in a brotherhood which contradicted his concepts of racial distinctions and the difference between primitive and civilized man.

An attempt to reconcile the Darwinian hypothesis and religious faith was central to the responses of John Watson and Nathanael Burwash. Canada's most important nineteenth-century philosopher, John Watson defended in 1876 the primacy of man' reason rather than the Darwinian concept of instinct as an explanation of morality. In his philosophy of Speculative Idealism, he subsequently presented a teleological view of existence which was not compatible with the mechanistic operation of natural selection. Believing, however, that the universe was rational and possessed a spiritual unity, he argued by the time of his Gifford Lectures, 1910-1912, at the University of Glasgow that a proper understanding of the Darwinian hypothesis led man to look beyond mechanism for the underlying motive and power of human development. Theologian Nathanael Burwash shared Watson's belief that Darwinism and religion need not conflict, although his reconciliation also could not encompass natural selection. From his days as an undergraduate and young Methodist minister, the intuitive certainty of his faith provided him with the means of accepting modern science. In lectures at Victoria College which culminated in his Manual of Christian Theology in 1900, Burwash found a place for a properly understood Darwinian hypothesis within the perfect harmony of the universe.

Natural Selection proved an insurmountable barrier for all four responses. All four embodied a concept of teleology in arguing against mechanistic development and reflected the need felt for a metaphysical answer to the questions raised by Darwin's hypothesis, especially concerning a theistic interpretation of man's mental and moral development. Dawson defended the two theologies' tradition. Watson and Burwash went beyond it to consider evolution as a revelation to man of the spiritual unity of the universe. Belief in the spiritual unity and teleological reality of the universe was complemented by a philosophical idealism most evident in Watson's response but found in the other three as well.

The enduring significance of each response is not equal and the four men exercised little influence upon the international debate on Darwinism. In part, this was due to their relative isolation in Canada. Their arguments, nevertheless, become distinctive within the intellectual context of late ninettenth-century Canada. A fervent and vigorous religios climate has had a fundamental effect upon the development of ideas in Canada. Through their responses to the Darwinian revolution, Dawson, Wilson, Watson, and Burwash revealed the continuing importance of their religious tradition and provided ideas which helped to ensure its survival during the perilous challenges of their age.

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