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Moral facts and scientific fiction: 19th century theological reactions to Darwinism in Germany

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When the German translation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1860, it intensified a conflict that German theologians had been fighting since the early 19th century. Arguments against the secular relativising or even thorough dismissal of the scientific, philosophical and social importance of the bible now had to be supplemented with arguments against the anti-teleological consequences of Darwin’s theory. But though they all agreed in rejecting these consequences, German theologians considerably differed in respect to the epistemological status they granted to Darwinian and biblical accounts of man and nature. Whether they considered the truths of science and religion as corresponding, complementary, independent, or incompatible depended on their judgments on the relation between (scientific) facts, theories, and (cultural) convictions. These judgments were shaped in a specific way: Darwinism in Germany was mainly associated with Ernst Haeckel’s monistic evolutionism that explicitly claimed to be science as well as a new religion. Furthermore, romantic and idealistic natural philosophy were very influential in developmental biology, bolstering anti-selectionist theories that were easier to reconcile with religion. Though literal interpretations of the scriptural account of nature became more or less abandoned by the end of the century, the theological interpretation of the relation between nature and scripture seems to have shifted towards positions either stressing incompatible epistemologies of belief, or the complementarity of moral and empirical knowledge. The theological discussions of what counted as a fact, and what was held to be convincing evidence to establish facts, sheds light on the distinction between explaining and understanding that would become a major issue in 20th century epistemology.

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