Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution

by Charles Petzold

Abstract: Modern-day Christian creationists have claimed nineteenth-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell as one of their own. The author explores the historical evidence and discovers that Maxwell's attitude toward evolution was more nuanced than people assume. The characterization of Maxwell as a anti-Darwin creationist is based on exaggerations, misinterpretations, and (probably most of all) wishful thinking.

Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) is a towering figure of nineteenth century physics. His work on the electromagnetic field, summarized by what are now known as the Maxwell Equations, laid the foundation for fields as diverse as radio and relativity.

Maxwell is also one of several long-dead scientists who have become pawns in today's "evolution wars." He is frequently included on lists of "famous scientists who believed in Creation" and profiled in creationist books and Web sites.

Maxwell was 28 years old when Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) published his groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. It is well known that Darwin’s book was quite controversial among scientists in the several years following its publication. Prominent geologists and biologists, such as Adam Sedgwick and Richard Owen, wrote critical reviews. [1] The astronomer William Herschel called natural selection “the law of higgledy piggledy,” [2] and William Whewell banned Darwin’s book from the Trinity College library at Cambridge. [3]

But where does Maxwell fit into these controversies? Modern histories of the nineteenth-century Darwin debates don't mention Maxwell at all, so it's odd he should be tallied among the creationists in our own era. Have creationists uncovered new information about Maxwell? Or have they simply misunderstood and distorted Maxwell's writings to suit their own agenda?

Creationism for High-School Students

Much of the information circulating about Maxwell's views on evolution can be traced back to the high school textbook Physical Science for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 1974). The authors state in their preface: “Our textbook is not only a Christian book; it is a creationist book.” [4] Like five other “Christian Men of Science” (Lord Kelvin, Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, Michael Faraday, and Samuel F. B. Morse), Maxwell is the subject of a short biography in this textbook that unfortunately includes statements like this:

Maxwell had no use for any theory of evolution — cosmic, chemical, biological, or otherwise. In a paper presented to the British Association at Bradford in 1873, he stated, “No theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change.… The exact quality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.” [5]

This particular quotation contains two of the very few mentions of the word “evolution” in all of Maxwell’s published writings. Notice the ellipsis (…) in the middle of the quoted material, indicating that something has been omitted. By yanking this quotation out of context with no explanation of Maxwell’s subject matter, the authors are relying on the phrase “No theory of evolution can be formed” to have the dominant impact on the reader and to support their contention that “Maxwell had no use for any theory of evolution.” In fact, Maxwell is referring to a very specific type of evolution, as even this edited quotation makes evident.

One hesitates to accuse a book with a title like Physical Science for Christian Schools of deliberately deceiving its readers, particular because the readers are children, many of whom probably attend schools whose anemically funded libraries do not contain those books that would allow them to verify this quotation and other questionable statements made in this textbook. These students are relying on the authors of their textbooks to convey accurate information.

But the distortion of the quotation is also unfortunate because what Maxwell actually said is much more interesting when it’s not being laced up into someone’s personal theological straightjacket.

Maxwell and the Molecules Lecture

James Clerk Maxwell delivered his lecture on “Molecules” in 1873 during the annual weeklong meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held that year in Bradford. It was not a paper presented to the Association and it does not appear in the BAAS Report for that year. It was instead an evening lecture scheduled for 8:30 PM on Monday, September 22, 1873 in St. George’s Hall. Such evening lectures were open to the public and were intended to be popular and less technical than the hard-core science going on during the day. The lecture was subsequently published in the magazine Nature [6] and Maxwell’s posthumously collected scientific papers, [7] and it has been transcribed from Nature for the Victorian Web. [8] An extract of the lecture containing the pertinent passages also appears in the Campbell and Garnett biography of Maxwell. [9]

Maxwell's lecture is frequently misunderstood so it's worth a close reading. Much of the lecture focuses on properties of molecules and atoms, particularly as they relate to the diffusion of gases. Towards the end of the lecture, Maxwell discusses how the spectroscope has shown molecules of a particular type (for example, hydrogen) to be exactly the same regardless whether they are found on earth or revealed in the light from distant stars:

Each molecule, therefore, throughout the universe bears impressed on it the stamp of a metric system as distinctly as does the metre of the Archives at Paris, or the double royal cubit of the Temple of Karnac.

Maxwell is saying that, regardless of their age or distance from the earth, all hydrogen molecules are the same. This is unusual considering that everything else we’re familiar with in nature is subject to change. Molecules are unique in this respect. As Maxwell says:

No theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change, and the molecule is incapable of growth or decay, of generation or destruction.

This sentence contains the only two mentions of evolution in the entire lecture and it’s clear that Maxwell is speaking only of molecules. He’s saying that we can’t formulate a theory of evolution for molecules because molecules never change and don’t evolve. The next two sentences omitted from Physical Science for Christian Schools clarify how unusual this is:

None of the processes of Nature, since the time when Nature began, have produced the slightest difference in the properties of any molecule. We are therefore unable to ascribe either the existence of the molecules or the identity of their properties to any of the causes which we call natural.

These sentences are crucial because Maxwell is identifying a difference between the natural world and molecules. He’s implying that the processes of nature normally cause change, but that molecules seem immune to these processes. The constancy of molecules is unlike everything else in nature. Of course, everything in the natural world is made out of molecules, and natural processes change these objects, but the molecules themselves remain the same.

On the other hand, the exact quality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.

Maxwell is actually implying the opposite of what the authors of Physical Science for Christian Schools seem to want him to say. They want him to be opposed to evolution in nature, but he’s using evolution in nature to contrast the absence of evolution in molecules.

Maxwell is not saying that the universe doesn’t evolve, and he’s not saying that living things don’t evolve. What he’s saying is that molecules — and only molecules — don’t evolve and hence appear to be manufactured. Maxwell’s argument makes no sense if nothing evolves. It only makes sense if nature exhibits evolution but molecules do not.

Maxwell’s allusion to John Herschel (1792 – 1871) is to Herschel’s influential 1830 book A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which is where Maxwell first encountered the concept that molecules resemble manufactured articles. Herschel discusses the discovery that atoms of a particular type are always exactly the same, and asserts that these discoveries “effectually destroy the idea of an eternal self-existent matter” such as is implicit in the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius. Instead, atoms have “the essential characters, at once, of a manufactured article, and a subordinate agent.” [10]

Make no mistake about it: Herschel and Maxwell are making a theological point, but not the one that the authors of Physical Science for Christian Schools want. By noting how molecules have the “character of a manufactured article,” Herschel and Maxwell are implying that molecules were created, but with no implications concerning astronomical or biological evolution. This is not an anti-evolution argument; it’s a design argument, and a rather interesting one at that.

Rather than hammering the lesson home, however, Maxwell backs away in the next paragraph of his lecture:

Thus we have been led, along a strictly scientific path, very near to the point at which Science must stop. Not that Science is debarred from studying the internal mechanism of a molecule which she cannot take to pieces, any more than from investigating an organism which she cannot put together. But in tracing back the history of matter Science is arrested when she assures herself, on the one hand, that the molecule has been made, and on the other, than it has not been made by any of the processes we call natural.

Maxwell soon concludes his lecture still talking of the permanency of molecules but now in a more rhapsodic tone:

They continue this day as they were created — perfect in number and measure and weight, and from the ineffaceable characters impressed on them we may learn that those aspirations after accuracy in measurement, truth in statement, and justice in action, which we reckon among our noblest attributes as men, are ours because they are essential constituents of the image of Him who in the beginning created, not only the heaven and the earth, but the materials of which heaven and earth consist.

Maxwell certainly believed that God created the universe, but based on this lecture, it's simply not possible to label him as a “creationist” in the modern sense of the word, that is, someone who believes this creation took place relatively recently in accordance with the book of Genesis.

The Molecules lecture is one the rare allusions to God in the writings that Maxwell intended for publication. (His letters are another matter.) Concluding a lecture or address with a reference to God had once been very common at the BAAS, but the practice was on the decline during this period. Scientists were more wary of attributing design to the world ever since Origin of Species had presented an alternative model of biological complexity and adaptation, thus discrediting common design arguments that had dominated British natural theology and science from before the Boyle Lectures (begun in 1692) through the Bridgewater Treatises (early 1830s). A growing professionalism in the occupation of science also contributed to this trend. [11]

Criticism and Clarification

Like all design arguments, the identification of molecules as “manufactured articles” relies on an analogy that when poked a little bit tends to break apart. About a year after Maxwell's lecture on Molecules appeared in Nature the magazine published a letter concerning the lecture. In a train of thought reminiscent of David Hume’s thrashing of design arguments in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), the letter questioned if the manufactured uniformity Maxwell detected in molecules is really evidence of design or a poverty of imagination.

The nearest approach I can think of is to be found on a scale almost molecular, for number and sometimes for magnitude, in a London wilderness of similar and similarly situated houses. It is oppressive to walk past these boxes so identical in form, and to think of the infinite variety of their contents; to think how different they would have been, and how much fitter for their purposes, if their inhabitants could have secreted them as a snail secretes its shell. And why does it make all the difference that they have been manufactured? Why did not the manufacturer vary them according to the interests connected with them? Of course because he did not care about those interests; because he could not foresee them; and because it would not answer to try and provide for them. And now we understand the sort of manufacturer the new argument reveals: a manufacturer who does not care what becomes of his articles the moment he gets them off his hands by his formulas beginning to be interpretable; a manufacturer who cannot solve his own equations except in a grossly approximate fashion; a manufacturer who could not give his constants the proper values if he knew what values to give them.

Uniformity, in short, is not as such the sign of a manufactured article, except as it may be the sign of an imperfect manufacturer. [12]

The letter was signed C. J. Monro, and perhaps few readers of Nature knew that Cecil James Monro (1833 – 1882) was a friend of Maxwell’s since they were at Cambridge together 20 years earlier.

Maxwell tried to clear up Monro’s objections in his article on the “Atom” for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The article elaborates on the themes of the “Molecules” lecture but with less ambiguity concerning Maxwell's attitude towards evolution (Darwinian and otherwise). In this article Maxwell discusses “species” of molecules, and then compares them to species of living things. The following series of quotations comprise a single paragraph, which begins:

It is well known that living beings may be grouped into a certain number of species, defined with more or less precision, and that it is difficult or impossible to find a series of individuals forming the links of a continuous chain between one species and another.

Species of molecules are similar to species of living things in that they represent distinct groups without overlap. But obviously, species of molecules are more distinct than living things. You’ll never find a continuum of atoms between hydrogen and helium, for example. Biological species are not quite that rigid. The species are “defined with more or less precision” and finding a continuous chain between them may be “impossible” or otherwise “difficult.” The paragraph continues by identifying an even bigger distinction between molecules and living things:

In the case of living beings, however, the generation of individuals is always going on, each individual differing more or less from its parent. Each individual during its whole life is undergoing modification, and it either survives and propagates its species, or dies early, accordingly as it is more or less adapted to the circumstances of its environment. Hence, it has been found possible to frame a theory of the distribution of organisms into species by means of generation, variation, and discriminative destruction.

For those who believe Maxwell to be opposed to biological evolution, this passage is probably a bit disturbing. It is a clear and straightforward description of evolution by means of natural selection, with the charming phrase “discriminative destruction” substituted for “survival of the fittest.”

It could certainly be argued that Maxwell is only blandly reciting the rudiments of biological evolutionary theory while withholding his approval. However, if Maxwell didn’t believe in the legitimacy of the theory he’s just described, than the rest of the paragraph makes no sense. He needs the contrast to demonstrate how the lack of evolution in molecules makes them different from living beings:

But a theory of evolution of this kind cannot be applied to the case of molecules, for the individual molecules neither are born nor die, they have neither parents nor offspring, and so far from being modified by their environment, we find that two molecules of the same kind, say of hydrogen, have the same properties, though one has been compounded with carbon and buried in the earth as coal for untold ages, while the other had been “occluded” in the iron of a meteorite, and after unknown wanderings in the heavens has at last fallen into the hands of some terrestrial chemist. [13]

Again, molecules do not change and thus have the characteristics of manufactured objects. Maxwell’s mention of “untold ages” might also give a young-earth creationist pause.

A Textbook's Lasting Influence

It is clear that the authors of Physical Science for Christian Schools have, either deliberately or ignorantly, distorted Maxwell’s concepts of evolution regarding molecules. Although this is a 30-year old textbook, its influence didn’t end with graduation. The miniature biographies of Maxwell and other Christian scientists in this textbook continue to influence other creationist authors.

Henry M. Morris, for example, author of numerous creationist texts including the children’s book Men of Science — Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible (Creation Life Publishers, 1982, 1988) seems to have drawn on this textbook. (Or perhaps the textbook drew on earlier works of Morris.)

Ann Lamont, author of 21 Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible (Creation Science Foundation, 1995) doesn't hide her reliance on the textbook. She even uses Physical Science for Christian Schools as a source for Maxwell’s “Molecules” lecture without bothering to check the text of the original! [14]

Like a persistent virus, the flawed quotations and misconceptions of these books have also infested the Internet. Anyone attempting to use the Web to legitimately research Maxwell’s views on evolution must weed through sites whose sole purpose is promoting a creationist agenda, and for whom Maxwell is merely a pawn.

Maxwell vs. Spencer?

Let’s go back to Physical Science for Christian Schools for an even more blatantly grotesque fumbling of Maxwell’s writings. Immediately following the quotation from Maxwell’s “Molecules” lecture, Physical Science for Christian Schools continues with another example of Maxwell’s supposed opposition to evolution:

In his discourse “On the Telephone,” written in 1878, he took special pains to refute the evolutionary speculations of Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), an English philosopher who did much to popularize Darwin’s theory of evolution. [15]

Here again, other creationists have taken the textbook authors at their word. Henry M. Morris’s book contains a similar statement but with one of those little evolutionary mutations that often occur in paraphrased material:

He also wrote an incisive refutation of the evolutionary philosophies of Herbert Spencer, the great advocate of Darwinism. [16]

Now let’s go to the source. The setting is another public lecture, this time the Rede Lecture for 1878. Maxwell chose to speak about the telephone, which Alexander Graham Bell had patented just two years previously. As with the “Molecules” lecture, this lecture was first published in Nature [17] and reprinted in Maxwell’s scientific papers, [18] and a pertinent except appeared in the Campbell and Garnett biography. [19]

In discussing the mechanics of the telephone, Maxwell notes that the same mechanism serves for both speaking and listening:

One great beauty of Prof. Bell’s invention is that the instruments at the two ends of the line are precisely alike. When the tin plate of the transmitter approaches the core of its bobbin it produces a current in the circuit, which has also to circulate round the bobbin of the receiver, and thus the core of the receiver is rendered more or less magnetic, and attracts its tin plate with greater or smaller force. Thus the tin plate of the receiver reproduces on a smaller scale, but with perfect fidelity, every motion of the tin plate of the transmitter.

The next paragraph alludes to Spencer. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it:

This perfect symmetry of the whole apparatus — the wire in the middle, the two telephones at the end of the wire, and the two gossips at the ends of the telephone — may be very fascinating to a mere mathematician, but it would not satisfy an evolutionist of the Spencerian type, who would consider anything with both ends alike to be an organism of a very low type, which must have its functions differentiated before any satisfactory integration can take place. [20]

It’s a joke, people! Notice the word “gossips” used as an early-warning signal that further wit is on the way, and indeed it is. Maxwell’s use of a biological analogy in discussing the technology of the telephone is so obviously a moment of deliberate humor in the talk that its misinterpretation by modern-day authors is truly frightening. Everybody agrees Maxwell was a witty guy, and his humor really isn’t really that hard to recognize. Yet, this little joke is the full extent of Maxwell taking “special pains” for his “incisive refutation” of Herbert Spencer.

Nevertheless, this unmistakably jocular sentence may be interpreted to imply that Maxwell (the mathematician) is satisfied with the use of a single device for transmitting and receiving, whereas only an evolutionist would want the devices to be different. But in the next paragraph Maxwell himself indicates that differentiation is one of the keys to improving the system:

Accordingly, many attempts have been made, by differentiating the function of the transmitter from that of the receiver, to overcome the principal limitation of the power of the telephone.

Maxwell then goes on to discuss the work being done to improve the telephone, including Thomas Edison’s electrically powered microphones. As the telephone evolved in the years following 1878, the microphone and speaker soon became two specialized components just as Darwin and Spencer would have predicted for evolving organisms. When we examine an 1878 telephone today we indeed see “an organism of a very low type.”

The Battle for Maxwell's Soul

Why is it so important to modern-day creationists to claim James Clerk Maxwell as one of their own? Why do they covet Maxwell’s soul with such desperation that they would fabricate evidence and lie to children? And why does Maxwell simply refuse to cooperate? Why do these modern authors fail so miserably in painting Maxwell in their own colors?

Creationists want Maxwell in their camp because he’s one of the biggest trout in the pond. Maxwell is today considered the foremost theoretical physicist of the nineteenth century whose achievements are most famously summarized by Richard Feynman:

From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade. [21]

Moreover, getting a good anti-evolution quotation out of Maxwell should be a slam-dunk. Even by Victorian standards, Maxwell was unquestionably a very religious man, [22] mostly revealed in the letters to his wife, some of which are included in the Campbell and Garnett biography.

Yet, it’s probably wrong to speak of Maxwell as a “religious scientist” in the same way the term might be applied to Robert Boyle, for example. Maxwell was a very religious man who was also a scientist. His religion drove his scientific research in only the most general way. Maxwell’s religion is virtually absent from his scientific writings, and he never seemed to bias either his choice of research or his conclusions on preconceived religious notions.

Like all Cambridge students of his era, Maxwell was subjected to a strong dose of William Paley (1743 – 1805), the English utilitarian philosopher and theologian whose book Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802) summed up the prevailing contemporary arguments for intelligent design. Yet, the evangelical circle that influenced Maxwell so profoundly in his Cambridge years rejected both Paley’s utilitarianism and his natural theology. [23] To these evangelicals, a reliance upon intelligent design to justify religious belief was even somewhat offensive. Rather than Maxwell’s science supporting his religion or his religion supporting his science, “Maxwell’s evangelicalism committed him to an anti-positivist position, the separation of science from other realms of human life: religion, morals, and aesthetics.” [24]

In this way, Maxwell is not quite like fellow Scottish scientists William Thomson (1824 – 1907), later known as Lord Kelvin, and Peter Guthrie Tait (1831 – 1901). Thomson spoke of Paley’s “excellent old book” in his 1871 President’s Address to the BAAS, and spent some 40 years, on and off, trying to demonstrate that the earth had not been a suitable habitat for life long enough for natural selection to occur. (Thomson’s calculations didn’t take account of the warming effects of radioactive emissions of radium, which wasn’t discovered until 1898.) Peter Guthrie Tait wrote articles on this same theme and coauthored the book The Unseen Universe (1875) concerning, among other things, the spiritual implications of ether (the stuff that was supposed to permeate the universe and provide a medium for electromagnetic waves).

Maxwell’s involvement in the age-of-the-earth controversy is limited to one mention in his 1871 book Theory of Heat. After analyzing Thomson’s methodology, Maxwell concludes:

In this way Sir W. Thomson has calculated that, if no change has occurred in the order of things, it cannot have been more than 200,000,000 years since the earth was in the condition of a mass of molten matter, on which a solid crust was just beginning to form. [25]

Although Thomson later refined his calculation and brought his estimate down to 10 million years, the 200 million year figure was still unchanged by the 9th edition of Theory of Heat published in 1888.

Maxwell was not a signatory to the infamous 1865 Declaration of the Natural and Physical Sciences that stated “We conceive that it is impossible for the Word of God, as written in the book of nature, and God’s Word written in Holy Scripture, to contradict one another, however much they may appear to differ.” But then, neither were most reputable scientists in Britain. The biggest names among the signatories were David Brewster, James Joule, and Adam Sedgwick. [26]

Restraining from Conflict

Maxwell mostly kept his religious beliefs to himself. He was a private man with an “habitual reticence as to all that moved him deeply.” [27] It seems he found these controversies about the supposed “conflicts” between science and religion rather distasteful. Rather than conflicts, Maxwell perceived boundaries. A few examples:

In November 1876, Maxwell received a letter from the Reverend C. J. Ellicott, Lord Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, soliciting a scientific interpretation from Maxwell of the Genesis passage implying that light was created prior to the sun. Maxwell replied that “it would be very tempting to say that the light of the first day means the all-embracing æther, the vehicle of radiation, and not actual light, whether from the sun or from any other source.” [28] But that’s the science of 1876, and Maxwell wasn’t sure it would agree with the science of 1896.

I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by doing it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten. [29]

Maxwell suspected that the ether theory might someday be discarded (which, of course, it was), but the most intriguing part of this passage is his reference to commentary on Genesis “which has long ceased to be intelligible.”

Several times, Maxwell was invited to join the Victoria Institute, an organization founded in 1865 to bring together scientists and others in defending scripture and religion against the findings of science. Campbell and Garnett quote an unfinished draft of a letter from Maxwell declining the invitation:

I do not think it my duty to become a candidate for admission into the Victoria Institute. Among the objects of the Society are some of which I think very highly. I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is of the nature of science, especially of those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions to be continually — [30]

The draft ended there but a recent biography of Maxwell plausibly suggests that the next word would have been “changing.” [31]

Maxwell is most explicit in defining his concepts of the limits of science in his review of the book Paradoxical Philosophy (a sequel to The Unseen Universe), a review that was published in Nature [32] and the collection of his scientific papers. [33] Maxwell writes that “one of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods” and concludes

The progress of science, therefore, so far as we have been able to follow it, has added nothing of importance to what has always been known about the physical consequences of death, but has rather tended to deepen the distinction between the visible part, which perishes before our eyes, and that which we are ourselves, and to show that this personality, which respect to its nature as well as to its destiny, lies quite beyond the range of science.

This is why the “Molecules” lecture and the “Atom” article are so fascinating: They represent Maxwell’s few forays into theological and metaphysical concerns in his published writings. This brief flirtation with a design argument is, moreover, more sophisticated than the conventional (often anthropomorphic) astronomical and biological design arguments common earlier in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It's a post-Darwin design argument.

And how refreshing is Maxwell’s attitude when compared with those creationists who hold science hostage to Biblical literalism, and who shamelessly force Maxwell to conform to their agendas. The creationist biographies of Maxwell treat his scientific work as a battle against materialism and evolution, and imply that this is a proper way to conduct science. That attitude insults Maxwell and grossly distorts any type of reasonable scientific method.

The "French Atheist Laplace"

Here’s another except from the Maxwell biography in Physical Science for Christian Schools. This paragraph appears just before the one quoted at the beginning of this article:

An important work undertaken by Maxwell was the disproof of Laplace’s nebular hypothesis. In 1796, the French atheist Laplace proposed a theory that the solar system had “evolved” from a large cloud, without need of a creator. The cloud, Laplace claimed, contracted over a period of millions of years and gradually produced the solar system as we know it today. Many who were of an anti-religious turn of mind accepted this idea without question. Maxwell, however, upon analyzing it mathematically, found two major flaws in the theory: (1) The material would never condense into planets; (2) There would be no way to slow the rapidly-spinning mass in the center to form our present slowly rotating sun. The theory was discarded, and to this day it has never been replaced with one that is truly workable. [34]

The "French atheist Laplace" is apparently the accepted form of address for Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) in creationist circles. Earlier Physical Science for Christian Schools had conceded that Laplace was “a brilliant French mathematician” and quickly added “but an atheist,” and then smote him with a quotation from the book of Job. [35]

Ann Lamont’s version shows her keen skill at paraphrase, and forces us consider the scholarship standards of someone who does most of her research out of a high school textbook:

Maxwell was able to refute evolutionary thinking in another important way. He mathematically disproved the nebular hypothesis proposed in 1796 by French atheist, Laplace. Laplace suggested that the solar system began as a cloud of gas which contracted over millions of years to produce planets and so on. Laplace claimed there was thus no need of a Creator. This philosophy was eagerly embraced by the opponents of Christianity.

However, Maxwell demonstrated two major flaws in Laplace’s theory, and proved mathematically that such a process could not occur. Laplace’s theory was subsequently discarded. [36]

Morris in Men of Science — Men of God condenses the whole thing into one sentence:

He was strongly opposed to evolution and was able to develop a rigorous mathematical refutation of the famous “nebular hypothesis” of the French atheist Laplace. [37]

Whether Laplace was or was not an atheist is not known. “Nowhere in his writings, either public or private, does Laplace deny God’s existence.” [38] Laplace obtained this reputation mostly because his major scientific writings do not speculate about God, metaphysics, creation, or design. A famous story has Napoleon asking Laplace about the role of God in his universe, and Laplace replying “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (“I have no need of this hypothesis”). [39] If Laplace really said that, he meant it literally — as less a declaration of atheism then of unrelenting empiricism.

Ever since Newton, the whole idea of science was to explain the workings of the universe without recourse to supernatural intervention. What makes Laplace a dreaded "French atheist" in creationist's eyes is not this attitude, for that was common, but that he was so successful at it.

Newton's Theories of Intelligent Design

To understand why Laplace curls the toes of creationists, it's necessary to understand the scientific and religious concepts of Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). Like virtually all scientists of his era, Newton believed that his study of the universe ultimately revealed the glories of its Creator. Yet, Newton's goal in his masterwork Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) was to explain the movements of the cosmos without using the assumption of God. As Newton famously stated at the outset of Book 3 of the Principia, “The System of the World”:

No more causes of natural things should be admitted than are both true and sufficient to explain their phenomena. [40]

Or, as he elaborated in an abandoned draft of a preface to a later edition of the Principia:

What is taught in metaphysics, if it is derived from divine revelation, is religion; if it is derived from phenomena through the five external senses, it pertains to physics; if it is derived from knowledge of the internal actions of our mind through the sense of reflection, it is only philosophy about the human mind and its ideas as internal phenomena likewise pertain to physics. To dispute about the objects of ideas except insofar as they are phenomena is dreaming. In all philosophy we must begin from phenomena and admit no principles of things, no causes, no explanations, except those which are established through phenomena. And although the whole of philosophy is not immediately evident, still it is better to add something to our knowledge day by day than to fill up men’s minds in advance with the preconceptions of hypotheses. [41] [emphasis added]

But the first edition of the Principia doesn’t go even this deep in discussing the relationship between religion and physics. The first edition of the Principia doesn’t mention religion or God at all. It was only after Newton had been stung by criticisms of his materialistic approach in the Principia that he added the final General Scholium to the second edition (published in 1713), which discusses the nature of God for those readers who make it through to the end of the book.

Newton's concepts of God's role in creating and maintaining the universe are revealed more in letters and other works than in the Principia. When Richard Bentley (1662 – 1742) was preparing the very first Boyle Lecture, he asked Newton about evidences of intelligent design in the universe. Newton responded with four letters; [42] the first begins with a reference to the recently published Principia:

When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. [43]

Newton goes on to describe the fortuitous arrangement of the sun and planets of the solar system:

[H]ad this cause been a blind one, without contrivance or design, the sun would have been a body of the same kind with Saturn, Jupiter, and the earth, that is, without light or heat. [44]

Newton also sees design in the motions of the planets, which all revolve around the sun in the same direction and approximately the same plane:

[I]t is plain that there is no natural cause which could determine all the planets, both primary and secondary, to move the same way and in the same plane, without any considerable variation; this must have been the effect of counsel. [45]

In the 1706 edition of his book Opticks, Newton suggested that God still had necessary chores to perform in maintaining the universe. In reasserting his ideas about the revolutions of the planets, Newton now added a little caveat:

For while Comets move in very excentrick Orbs in all manner of Positions, blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted, which may have risen from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation. [46]

In other words, the gravitational interactions among the planets and comets eventually destabilize their orbits, causing irregularities that periodically need correction (“reformation”) through divine intervention. This got the attention of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 – 1716), who ridiculed Newton’s theology:

Sir Isaac Newton, and his followers, have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these gentleman; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it, as a clockmaker mends his work; who must consequently be so much the more unskillful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. [47]

Both Newton and Leibniz are wading into treacherous waters here. It’s the central paradox of natural theology: As the universe is increasingly shown to be governed by fixed laws, God’s perfect creation seems to require no further divine interaction, which implies a deistic cosmology. The need for miracles and divine intervention implies a flawed creation. Yet, the absence of miracles implies a God who no longer cares.

Newton's influence over British (and later, Continental and American) science, philosophy, and religion cannot be underestimated, but the influence manifested itself in several streams. Some Newtonians used the existence of natural laws — the order, harmony, and regularity of the universe — as clear evidence of intelligent design. This was the tradition of natural theology epitomized by the Boyle Lectures, Paley, and the Bridgewater Treatises. Others, however, found the perfection of these laws to be the best argument for deism. Miracles were increasingly doubted because they represented improbable violations of God's own laws. Even the most prominent Newtonian theologian — Samuel Clarke (1675 – 1729), who had delivered the Boyle Lectures of 1704 and 1705 and who was Newton's spokesman in the debates with Leibniz — was, like Newton, a disbeliever in the divinity of Christ.

It is a direct line from Newton to the deists, skeptics, and Unitarians of the late eighteenth century Enlightenment — to British writers such as David Hume and Edward Gibbon, French philosophes such as Denis Diderot and Voltaire, American revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. [48]

To modern-day creationists, Laplace provides a convenient bogeyman in this philosophical evolution. Laplace followed Newton’s dictum about admitting "no more causes of natural things" to the limit, and in that sense, Laplace was the ultimate Newtonian.

But if modern-day creationists really wish to identify the man who secularized cosmology, the man who planted the seeds of deism that took root during the eighteenth century, the man on whose shoulder Laplace stood, they really must attack Newton — just like late nineteenth-century Methodist ministers did. [49]

Laplace Solves Newton's Problems

By the time of Laplace, few people still believed that the solar system needs “reformation” — those little fixes and tune-ups to prevent catastrophes. Yet, there were still some problems to be solved. It was well established that Jupiter was accelerating in its orbit and Saturn was decelerating. In 1786, Laplace demonstrated that these two effects would balance out and reverse themselves in 900 years without the hand of God that Newton required earlier in the century. Laplace's calculations were considered at the time (and still today) as a triumph of the Newtonian method.

By the end of the eighteenth century, arguments for intelligent design had generally shifted focus from the astronomical to the biological. Natural theologians were now more interested in the adaptation of living things to their environments. However, the fortuitous arrangement of the solar system that had so impressed Newton — the massive warming sun in the middle surrounded by orbiting planets — was certainly not neglected. Here's William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology:

Amongst proofs of choice, one is, fixing the source of light and heat in the centre of the system. The sun is ignited and luminous; the planets, which move round him, cold and dark. There seems to be no antecedent necessity for this order. The sun might have been an opaque mass; some one, or two, or more, or any, or all, the planets, globes of fire. There is nothing in the nature of the heavenly bodies, which requires that those which are stationary should be on fire, that those which move should be cold: for, in fact, comets are bodies on fire, or at least capable of the most intense heat, yet revolve round a centre: nor does this order obtain between the primary planets and their secondaries, which are all opaque. When we consider, therefore, that the sun is one; that the planets going round it are, at least, seven; that it is indifferent to their nature, which are luminous and which are opaque; and also, in what order, with respect to each other, these two kinds of bodies are disposed; we may judge of the improbability of the present arrangement taking place by chance. [50]

Just six years earlier, however, Laplace had indeed suggested a natural explanation for the configuration of the solar system. Speculation and conjecturing were not in Laplace's nature. He rarely considered anything that wasn't the result of observation and experience, and he nearly apologized for proposing something that at the time was more hypothesis than anything else. Yet, a condensation of matter rotating around the sun seemed to explain all the characteristics of the solar system that Newton had attributed to divine providence and design. [51]

That’s perhaps what Laplace meant when (or if) he said he had "pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” Two centuries later, apparently, there are some who still hate him for it.

The Nebular Hypothesis Comes to England

According to Physical Science for Christian Schools, after Laplace developed the nebular hypothesis, “Many who were of an anti-religious turn of mind accepted this idea without question.” The history of the nebular hypothesis in scientific thought was never this simplistic.

First, Laplace’s conjectures of the origin of the solar system weren’t entirely the fabrication of a solitary atheistic mind. They were partially based on observations of nebulae made by astronomer John Herschel (which he interpreted as solar systems in the making) and can also be traced to Immanuel Kant, certainly no heretic.

Also, no one ever accepted “this idea without question.” There’s a good reason why it was known as the nebular hypothesis. Nor was the nebular hypothesis an idea accepted only by those “of an anti-religious turn of mind.” In fact, the term “nebular hypothesis” was coined by the Reverend William Whewell (1794 – 1866), “one of the central figures in Victorian science,” [52] who devoted a chapter to discussing the concepts in his book Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1833), one of the eight Bridgewater Treatises “On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation” commissioned in the early 1830s. Whewell assures his readers that the nebular hypothesis isn’t as materialist as it may first seem.

Leaving then to other persons and to future ages to decide upon the scientific merits of the nebular hypothesis, we conceive that the final fate of this opinion can not, in sound reason affect at all the view which we have been endeavouring to illustrate; — the view of the universe as the work of a wise and good Creator. [53]

Whewell had already assured his readers early on that the earth exhibited sure signs of divine creation. The length of the day and the length of the year, for example, had been set precisely in agreement with the needs and rhythms of the living things populating the planet. Even if the solar system and earth had formed as Laplace had described, it was clear to Whewell that God had guided the process.

The man who really spread the word in the English-speaking world about the nebular hypothesis was John Pringle Nichol (1804 – 1859). About the same time that the young William Thomson was attending Nichol's class in Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, Nichol published his extremely popular Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837). Pringle doesn’t let his readers forget what they are looking at when they gaze at the heavens:

Apart from all speculation, — surely the view of an actual order whose beginnings are hid in what seems in our eye nothing less than Eternity, cannot but elevate our thoughts of that BEING, who, amid change, is alone unchangeable — whose glance reaches from the beginning to the end — and whose presence occupies all things! If uneasy feelings are suggested, and I have heard of such, by the idea of a process which may appear to substitute progress for creation, and place law in the room of providence, their origin lies in the misconception of a name. LAW of itself is no substantive or independent power; no crucial influence sprung of blind necessity, which carries on events of its own will and energies without command. Separated from connection with an ARRANGER in reference to whose mind alone, and as experience of the Creative Idea it can be connected with the notion of control — Law is a mere name for a long order — an order unoriginated, unupheld, unsubstantial, whose floor sounds hollow beneath the tread, and whose spaces are all void; an order hanging trembling over nothingness, and of which every constituent — every thing and creature fails not to beseech incessantly for a substance and substratum in the idea of ONE — WHO LIVETH FOREVER! [54]

Among J. P. Nichol’s many readers was Edgar Allen Poe, who has his fictional detective Dupin mention “Dr. Nichols” [sic] and the “nebular cosmogony” in his story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Poe later heard Nichol lecture in New York in 1847-8 and in response wrote the prose poem Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe (1848). [55]

The nebular hypothesis was well known by the time Robert Chambers integrated it into his immensely popular (but scientifically flawed) evolutionary view of the universe, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844).

Maxwell and the Rings of Saturn

But we were considering James Clerk Maxwell here, and suddenly the connections between our subject and the nebular hypothesis dry up. They simply don’t exist. Maxwell never undertook to disproof the nebular hypothesis, he never analyzed the nebular hypothesis, and he never even wrote about the nebular hypothesis in any detail.

Nevertheless, Maxwell is sometimes mentioned in connection with the nebular hypothesis as a result of his research into the rings of Saturn.

Analyzing the rings of Saturn was the subject chosen for the 1856 Adams Prize, named after John Couch Adams, who had predicted the existence of Neptune. The Adams Prize was open to graduates of Cambridge. For the 1856 prize, entrants were to mathematically derive a structure of Saturn’s rings that would exhibit stability. James Clerk Maxwell was intrigued and his mathematical analysis won the prize (he was the only entrant) and was published in 1859 as a 71-page book. [56] Although Maxwell had previously published 18 scientific papers, this was the real launch of his illustrious career.

In his essay of Saturn’s rings, Maxwell is clearly standing on Laplace’s shoulders. He refers to Laplace several times, and never once calls him an “atheist” or considers that a reason to discount his work. Laplace had demonstrated that a single solid ring around Saturn would tend to break apart. Maxwell agreed, but found an odd case where a solid ring would be stable. A fluid ring, Maxwell determined, would not be stable. It was widely assumed (by Laplace and others) that a ring composed of disconnected solid particles would be unstable as well. Any collision or other perturbation would tend to propagate itself through the ring and shake things up. But Maxwell demonstrated— using mathematics from Laplace and Fourier (another theologically suspect French mathematician) — that a ring composed of particles would be stable.

Now, what has this got to do with the nebular hypothesis? Laplace thought that the rings of Saturn provided a small-scale example of the nebular hypothesis in action. But if the rings of Saturn are stable, a spinning ring of gases might also be stable, and hence, the gases would never coalesce to form a solar system.

However, the leap from Saturn’s rings to the nebular hypothesis is one that Maxwell never made. Maxwell briefly mentions the nebular hypothesis towards the beginning of his essay, but doesn’t touch on it again. He even concludes the essay with some speculation about the possible future evolution of Saturn’s rings. At the time of Maxwell’s research, some recent observations seemed to indicate that the rings had been changing over the years. Maxwell discussed the implications:

If the changes already suspect should be confirmed by repeated observations with the same instruments, it will be worth while to investigate more carefully whether Saturn’s Rings are permanent or transitionary elements of the Solar System, and whether in that part of the heavens we see celestial immutability, or terrestrial corruption and generation, and the old order giving place to new before our eyes. [57]

Maxwell’s last clause of evolutionary supposition alludes to the beginning of King Arthur’s deathbed speech in Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur”:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. [58]

Historian of science Stephen G. Brush, one of the co-editors of the book Maxwell on Saturn’s Rings, confirms that Maxwell had little to do with debunking the nebular hypothesis:

[I]t is correct that Maxwell demonstrated the stability under various perturbing forces of a system of rings composed of particles; in particular, he showed that the tendency toward conglomeration into a single satellite, suggested by the Nebular Hypothesis, would be effectively counteracted by the dynamical forces involved in the revolution of the particles around the massive central body. But Maxwell did not, as is sometimes claimed, infer from this that the Nebular Hypothesis is invalid as an explanation of planetary formation. [59]

Brush chronicles the rocky history of the nebular hypothesis in his books Nebulous Earth and Fruitful Encounters. [60] For much of the nineteenth century, the nebular hypothesis was the primary model for the origin of the solar system. Only around the turn of the century did the nebular hypothesis begin to be seriously challenged by alternative theories involving an encounter between the sun and another star. Since about the time of the Second World War, however, a modified form of the nebular hypothesis has again been favored.

If Maxwell indeed disproved the nebular hypothesis, then we should not expect a prominent Victorian scientist to be still talking about the nebular hypothesis decades after Maxwell’s 1859 paper and eight years after Maxwell’s death. And the last thing we should expect is for this prominent scientist to be none other than William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who helped develop the Adams Prize problem that Maxwell solved, who was as familiar with Maxwell’s scientific work as anyone, and who merits a mini-biography of his own in Physical Science for Christian Schools.

Yet, here is William Thomson delivering an evening lecture “On the Sun’s Heat” on Friday, January 21, 1887, before the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Thomson had explored the origins of the sun’s heat for a couple decades, but the problem (like that of the age of the earth) would not be solved until after his death. In this lecture, Thomson suggests that the sun was formed by the confluence of several million moon-like bodies. A vapor of gas is generated that

may settle into an oblate rotating nebula extending its equatorial radius far beyond the orbit of Nepture, and with moment of momentum equal to or exceeding the moment of momentum of the solar system. This is just the beginning postulated by Laplace for his nebular theory of the evolution of the solar system; which, founded on the natural history of the stellar universe, as observed by the elder Herschel, and completed in details by the profound dynamical judgment and imaginative genius of Laplace, seems converted by thermodynamics into a necessary truth … [61]

So here we have William Thomson, one of the primary figures in formulating the first two laws of thermodynamics — which according to the creationists are supposed to refute evolution — not only committing the unforgivable sin of failing to identify Laplace as an atheist, but also suggesting that the nebular hypothesis be accepted as a consequence of thermodynamics as “a necessary truth.”

Maxwell Dragged Into Battle

I suppose we can forgive Physical Science for Christian Schools for claiming that Maxwell disproved the nebular hypothesis because that misconception is quite common. Several popular authors of the past half-century have written something similar, including famous ones like George Gamow [62] and Isaac Asimov. [63] It even shows up in the current (15th) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica! [64] And from there it’s inevitable that the same mistake pops up lightly paraphrased in Wikipedia [65] and other online sources. Despite the claim in these three-and-a-half sources that Maxwell disproved the nebular hypothesis, all go on to discuss how the nebular hypothesis has regained acceptance since the 1940s.

Interestingly enough, the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910 – 1911) makes no such mention of Maxwell and suggests that the nebular hypothesis, while “emphatically a speculation” that “cannot be demonstrated by observation or established by mathematical calculation” is nevertheless “indicated by the general tendencies of the laws of nature” and “has not been proved inconsistent with any fact.” [66]

In 1916 James Jeans developed a “tidal theory” of the origins of the solar system involving a close encounter between the sun and another star. By proposing an alternative to the nebular hypothesis, Jeans would have good reason to enlist Maxwell in his support. But in his popular The Universe Around Us (1929) he writes that Laplace’s conception of the nebular hypothesis in 1796 “survived, and indeed [had] been generally accepted, for nearly a century before it encountered any serious opposition,” [67] that is, some 35 years after Maxwell’s essay and 15 years after his death.

If Maxwell really disproved the nebular hypothesis, nobody seems to have noticed it at the time, or for many years thereafter. So how has it become almost common knowledge that Maxwell was involved?

The blame for this misconception should probably be lain on the shoulders of George Gamow (1904 – 1968), the Russian-born American physicist who was instrumental in developing the Big Bang theory, and whose popular books on science (such as One, Two, Three … Infinity) have delighted generations of readers. Between 1940 and 1952 Gamow wrote a “cosmological trilogy” through which we can trace Gamow’s changing conception of Maxwell’s involvement in the nebular hypothesis.

In The Birth and Death of the Sun (1940), Gamow makes no mention of Maxwell with regard to the nebular hypothesis. Instead, Gamow indicates some problems with the theory and finds more probable that “the formation of the planets as due to an encounter of our Sun with some other stellar body of comparable size.” [68]

A year later, in Biography of the Earth (1941), Gamow discusses the cosmogonical theories of Buffon and Laplace, and introduces a role for Maxwell in the debate:

The stability of gaseous or liquid rings rotating around a central body was studied by the famous English [actually Scottish] physicist James Clerk-Maxwell in his investigation of the rings surrounding the planet Saturn. His results, published in 1859, indicate that such rings will actually break up into a large number of smaller bodies, distributed uniformly in a circular orbit instead of coalescing into single planets. According to his calculations, for example, the gaseous ring that Laplace supposed had given rise to Jupiter would break up into about fifty separate bodies, distributed along the present orbit of Jupiter and showing no tendency to coalesce. [69]

That’s a fair evaluation. Gamow indicates that Maxwell was studying the rings of Saturn and that these calculations could be applied to the nebular hypothesis. Gamow is not asserting that Maxwell had ever done so.

A decade later, however, in The Creation of the Universe (1952), Gamow describes Maxwell’s role as a much more active one:

The Kant-Laplace hypothesis, which dominated scientific thought for over a century, was, however, severely criticized by the British scientist James Clerk Maxwell, who thought he had proved that such a condensation had never taken place. [70]

What happened here? The idea that Maxwell “severely criticized” the nebular hypothesis is just plain wrong. Perhaps Gamow didn’t quite remember the very passive role Maxwell’s research had actually played, and blew it up into something it certainly was not.

Unfortunately, Gamow’s error has taken deep roots in the popular history of the nebular hypothesis, perhaps never to be extracted.

Bad Science History but Worse Science

Yes, we can forgive Physical Science for Christian Schools for repeating this misconception about Maxwell and the nebular hypothesis. But we cannot forgive the book for the way in which it portrays Maxwell as a creationist sheriff, hunting down blasphemous theories and eliminating them with blasts of brilliant mathematics. Are the authors really suggesting that this is how science should be practiced? The statement that the nebular hypothesis “was discarded, and to this day it has never been replaced with one that is truly workable” is true only in the sense that the origins of the solar system is a problem still being actively pursued. It is a common fallacy among creationists that the lack of a completely proven theory strengthens the most implausible theory, which even Physical Science for Christian Schools is reticent to spell out. Yet, a few unmistakable hints are dropped throughout the book: The Preface states of the book’s objectives, “A young earth model is offered when the scientific dating methods are discussed,” [71] and the chapter on thermodynamics states flatly “Creation was finished in six days.” [72]

The authors of Physical Science of Christian Schools are very proud of their chapter on thermodynamics: “In what is probably a unique chapter for a ninth-grade physical science book, the first and second laws of thermodynamics are discussed and then related to the concept of evolution.” [73] It is obvious, however, that the sole purpose of this chapter is not to convey information about thermodynamics, but to use thermodynamics to refute evolution. It is certainly, as they say, a “unique” chapter, and one in which the book’s favorite scientists remain oddly silent. Surely if evolution really violates the laws of thermodynamics, they could have found one little quotation from William Thomson or James Joule or James Clerk Maxwell to that effect. Just one.

It must be extremely frustrating for young-earth creationists to be so convinced that Maxwell is one of their own, and yet have no evidence to back up the claim. Maxwell so successfully separated his science and his religion that the few tiny connections are pounced upon by creationists with squeals of delight, treasured without comprehension, and worshipped as if they provide a full-view window into Maxwell’s beliefs.

The resultant miniature biographies of Maxwell and other “creationist scientists” have become an unseemly form of grave digging. Bodies of long-dead geniuses are exhumed and wired to some unholy machine from the cobwebbed backrooms of pseudo-science, where they are zapped with politicized biblical dogma and made to dance a bizarre creationist jig. Playing God must be easy for people who think they know the one true way to read the book of Genesis. But it’s not science, and it’s not history, and it’s certainly not theology.

And yet, the same globs of nonsense continue to be coughed up and recycled on creationist web sites. A recent mini-biography of Maxwell on the Apologetics Press site provides the sorry spectacle of a yet another author — said to be a scientist — cribbing from a children’s book:

He strongly opposed the theory of evolution, and was easily able to develop a rigorous mathematical refutation of the famous “nebular hypothesis” of the French atheist LaPlace. He also wrote an incisive refutation of the evolutionary philosophies of Herbert Spencer, the great advocate of Darwinism. [74]

Notice the evolutionary mutation: Now Maxwell was “easily" able to disprove the nebular hypothesis. Regardless of the implications of Maxwell’s essay on Saturn’s rings, the suggestion that he didn’t devote a lot of hard work to this essay adds yet another insult to those that Maxwell has already sustained at the hands of creationists.

Meanwhile, the successor to Physical Science for Christian Schools is entitled Physics for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 1996), and it’s somewhat tamer than the original text. It trims the Maxwell biography to one page and abandons all discussions of the nebular hypothesis, manufactured molecules, and the telephone. It says simply:

He strongly opposed the theory of evolution, which was becoming popular among scientists of his time. [75]

The authors of this newer book offer no proof or evidence of this outrageous statement. That’s because there is none.


[1] These and others are conveniently collected in David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Harvard University Press, 1973).

[2] Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (NY: D. Appleton, 1887), Vol. II, 37 (letter of December 12, 1859).

[3] Ibid., Vol. II, 43 (letter of January 2, 1860).

[4] Emmett L. Williams and George Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 1974). viii.

[5] Williams and Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools, 487.

[6] James Clerk Maxwell, “Molecules”, Nature, Vol. VIII, No. 204 (September 25, 1873), 437- 441.

[7] W. D. Niven, ed., The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (Cambridge University Press, 1890), Vol. II, 361-377.

[8] James Clerk Maxwell, “Molecules,”

[9] Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882), 358-362.

[10] John Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, London: Longman (1830), 38.

[11] Frank M. Turner, “The Victorian Conflict Between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” Isis, Vol. 69, No. 3 (September 1978), 356-376. Also published as Chapter 9 of Gerald Parsons, ed., Religion in Victorian Britain, Volume IV: Interpretations (Manchester University Press, 1988).

[12] C. J. Monro, “Manufactured Articles,” letter to Nature, Vol. X, No. 259 (October 15, 1874), 481.

[13] James Clerk Maxwell, “Atom,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1875), Vol. III, p 48.

[14] Ann Lamont, “James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879)”, Creation, Vol. 15, No. 3 (June, 1993), 45-47. Also available at

[15] Williams and Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools, 487.

[16] Henry M. Morris, Men of Science—Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible (Creation Life Publishers, 1988), 68. Because Physical Science for Christian Schools includes a number of books by Morris in its list of “Selected Creationist Literature” (page 17-18), I suspect that an earlier Morris book may have been the original source for this item about Maxwell.

[17] James Clerk Maxwell, “The Rede Lecture,” Nature, Vol. 18, No. 449 (June 6, 1878), 159-163.

[18] Niven, The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol. II, 742-755.

[19] Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, 361-364.

[20] Campbell & Garnett include some additional words: “who would consider anything with both ends alike, such as the Amphisbæna, or Mr. Bright's terrier, or Mr. Bell's telephone, to be an organism of a very low type…” (page 362).

[21] Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume II (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1964), 1-11.

[22] A good overview is Paul Theerman, “James Clerk Maxwell and Religion,” American Journal of Physics, Vol. 54, No. 4 (April 1986), 312-317.

[23] Ibid., 312.

[24] Ibid., 314.

[25] James Clerk Maxwell, Theory of Heat (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 248.

[26] William H. Brock and Roy MacLeod, “The ‘Scientists’ Declaration’: Reflexions on Science and Belief in the Wake of Essays and Reviews, 1864-5”, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. IX, Part 1, No. 31 (March 1976), 39-66.

[27] Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, 417.

[28] Ibid., 393-394.

[29] Ibid., 394.

[30] Ibid., 404-405.

[31] Basil Mahon, The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (West Sussex: Wiley, 2003), 37.

[32] James Clerk Maxwell, “Paradoxical Philosophy,” Nature, Vol. XIX, No. 477 (December 19, 1878), 141-143.

[33] Niven, The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, 756-762.

[34] Williams and Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools, 487. See also page 15 for a similar discussion.

[35] Ibid., 15

[36] Lamont, “James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879)”.

[37] Morris, Men of Science—Men of God, 58.

[38] Roger Hahn, “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe,” Henry Woolf, ed., The Analytic Spirit: Essays in the History of Science (Cornell University Press, 1981), 95. See also Roger Hahn, “Laplace and the Mechanistic Universe,” David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science (University of California Press, 1986), 256-276.

[39] Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes, 2nd edition (1915), Vol. II, p. 2. Unfortunately, De Morgan gives no source for the story.

[40] Isaac Newton, The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philsophy, trans. by I. Bernard Cohen and Ann Whitman (University of California Press, 1999), 794.

[41] I. Bernard Cohen, “A Guide to Newton’s Principia” in Newton, The Principia, 54.

[42] The four letters Newton wrote Bentley are most conveniently available in H. S. Thayer, ed., Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings. NY: Hafner Press, 1953, pp. 46-58.

[43] Ibid, 46.

[44] Ibid, 47.

[45] Ibid, 48.

[46] Newton, Opticks or A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light. NY: Dover Publications, 1979, Query 31 (Page 402).

[47] H. G. Alexander, ed., The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence. NY: Philosophical Library, 1936, 11-12.

[48] “Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.” — Franklin’s Autobiography.

[49] Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob, Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism, 86.

[50] William Paley, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature (London, 1802, ch. 22.

[51] Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827): A Life in Exact Science (Princeton University Press, 1997), 172-175.

[52] “Whewell, William,” Dictionary of Scientific Biography (NY: Scribners, 1981), Vol. 14, 292.

[53] William Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, sixth edition (London: William Pickering, 1837), 190.

[54] John Pringle Nichol, Views of the Architecture of the Heavens: in a Series of Letters to a Lady (NY: H.A. Chapin, 1840), 103. I have not been able to find a copy of the first edition of this book.

[55] Simon Schaffer, “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” in James R. Moore, History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 145.

[56] James Clerk Maxwell, On the Stability of the Motion of Saturn’s Rings (London: Macmillan 1859). The essay is reprinted in Niven, The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol. I, 288-376 but is most conveniently studied along with related documents in the book Stephen G. Brush, C.W.F. Everitt, and Elizabeth Garber, eds., Maxwell on Saturn’s Rings (MIT Press, 1883).

[57] Niven, The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, I, 374.

[58] Alfred Tennyson, “Morte D’Arthur,” Poems (1842). Some people cite Tennyson’s Idylls of the King as Maxwell’s source for this allusion. Although the first edition of Idylls was published in July 1859 (the same year as Maxwell’s essay on the rings of Saturn), this poem was not part of that collection. “The Passing of Arthur” (a revised version of “Morte D’Arthur”) first appeared in the 1869 edition of Idylls of the King. The “old order changeth” quotation is lines 408-410 of the latter version.

[59] Stephen G. Brush, Nebulous Earth: The Origin of the Solar System and the Core of the Earth from Laplace to Jeffreys (A History of Modern Planetary Physics, Volume I) (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[60] Stephen G. Brush, Fruitful Encounters: The Origin of the Solar System and of the Moon from Chamberlin to Apollo (A History of Modern Planetary Physics, Volume II) (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[61] William Thomson, Popular Lectures and Address, Volume I, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1891), 421-422.

[62] “Kant-Laplace views were severely criticized at the end of the nineteenth century by James Clerk Maxwell, who showed that, if the material now forming the planets had been distributed uniformly through the plane of ecliptics, gravitational forces would not have been strong enough to condense it back into the planets. Maxwell proved that such a condensation could not have taken place unless the total mass of the gaseous ring was about a hundred times larger than the combined mass of all the planets. Maxwell’s calculations, which seemingly disproved the Kant-Laplace cosmogonical hypothesis, led to a complete turnover in the theory of the origin of the planetary systems” — George Gamow, “The Universe and its Origin” in H. Messel and S.T. Butler, The Universe and its Origin (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), 52-53. Gamow seems confused here. He says that the nebular hypothesis was “severely criticized at the end of the nineteenth century by James Clerk Maxwell.” But the only work Maxwell did that could possibly relate to the nebular hypothesis was completed in 1859 and Maxwell died in 1879. Gamow goes on to indicate that updated analyses caused “another flip-over in planetary cosmogony” in the mid-1940s to the nebular hypothesis once again.

[63] “Maxwell’s mathematical analysis turned out to be applicable to the ring of dust and gas supposedly shaken loose by the contracting nebula on its way to condensation into the sun. It turned out that if Maxwell’s mathematics were correct, it was difficult to see how such a ring would condense into a planet. It would at best form an asteroid belt.” — Isaac Asimov, Extraterrestrial Civilizations (NY: Crown Publishers, 1979), 94. Asimov later indicates that the nebular hypothesis returned in the 1940s.

[64] “During the late 19th century the Kant-Laplace views were criticized by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who showed that, if all the matter contained in the known planets had once been distributed around the sun in the form of a disk, the shearing forces of differential rotation would have prevented the condensation of individual planets” — “Solar Nebula,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition (1998), Vol. 10, 942. As in Gamow’s article, the mention of the “late 19th century” makes this suspect. The article discusses the twentieth-century turnaround and concludes with “The nebular hypothesis has thus become the prevailing theory of the origin of the solar system.”

[65] “During the late-19th century the Kant-Laplace views were criticized by Maxwell, who showed that if matter of the known planets had once been distributed (around the Sun) in the form of a disk, forces of differential rotation would have prevented the condensation of individual planets.” — “Solar Nebula,” Wikipedia, (accessed December, 2004).

[66] “Nebular Theory,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition (New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company, 1911), Vol. XIX, 333-335. The 11th edition of the Britannica is online at

[67] Sir James Jeans, The Universe Around Us (NY: Macmillan, 1929), 220.

[68] George Gamow, The Birth and Death of the Sun: Stellar Evolution and Subatomic Energy (NY: Viking, 1940), 202.

[69] George Gamow, Biography of the Earth: Its Past, Present, and Future. NY: Viking Press, 1941, p. 15.

[70] George Gamow, The Creation of the Universe (NY: Viking Press, 1952) 102.

[71] Williams and Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools, viii.

[72] Williams and Mulfinger, Physical Science for Christian Schools, 401.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Taylor Reeves, “Pioneers of Science: Proclaimers of Faith,” (accessed December, 2004). The author is described as a “marine biologist.” His bibliography, of course, includes Men of Science, Men of God. This article has since been removed from the Apologetics Press web site.

[75] Rosemary A. Lasell and Paul Witt, Physics for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 1996), 421.

© 2005, Charles Petzold (
First Posted: February 2005

Cite as: Charles Petzold, “Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution,”

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