Conference papers and talks

‘Evangelical eschatology and the new cosmology in Scotland, 1817–1854’, Scottish Church History Society Autumn Conference, University of Edinburgh, 13 November 2021

B Jenkins - Evangelical eschatology

It was an article of faith among the intellectual elite of the Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland in the decades leading up to the Disruption, and after 1843 of the new Free Church of Scotland, that, if read aright, the book of scripture and the book of nature must be in agreement, having the same author. This led a number of evangelical writers with scientific interests to speculate on the relationship between the fate of the physical universe and the fate of the human soul in the working out the divine plan. Key thinkers in this debate included the theologian Thomas Chalmers, the natural philosopher David Brewster, the geologist Hugh Miller, and the popular science writer Thomas Dick. This paper explores the ways in which the history of the universe, as revealed by contemporary cosmology, was harmonised with key Christian doctrines such as the Fall and the Atonement from a characteristically evangelical perspective. Key concerns for these thinkers included the physical location of the afterlife in space, the applicability of the Fall to the inhabitants of other worlds, and the scientific evidence for the reality of the beginning and end of the world. The paper will go on to examine the ways in which these theological concerns fed back into the science of the North British School of physicists later in the nineteenth century, endowing the new field of thermodynamics with a profound religious significance for figures such as William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.

‘From model Baconian to Romantic genius: The cult of Newton in Scotland, 1770–1840’, British Society for the History of Science Online Conference, 15 July 2021

Isaac Newton played the role of a culture hero in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods well beyond the domain of natural philosophy. In the English-speaking world his name and achievements came to represent Enlightenment itself. However, the image of Newton constructed by later philosophers and historians was far from static. This shifting image of Newton can be particularly clearly observed in the works of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment and their nineteenth-century heirs. In the later eighteenth century Newton appeared in the writings of figures such as Thomas Reid and John Robison as the perfect exemplar of the inductive scientific method associated with Francis Bacon, which advocated the accumulation of facts from which generalisations could be made through induction to yield nature’s laws. By the 1830s, by contrast, he could plausibly be presented in David Brewster’s influential Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1831) in the garb of a Romantic genius, whose discoveries were the product of a scientific imagination more akin to ‘poetic fancy’ than to the rigid methodology of Baconianism. The transformation of Newton mirrored a concomitant decline in the reputation of Bacon, whose rejection of the role of hypotheses in science was increasingly questioned. In this paper I explore how the greatest example of a Baconian natural philosopher transmuted into a divinely inspired Romantic genius in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland.

‘David Brewster at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1808–37’, Scotland’s Historians of Science, 9 July 2020

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David Brewster’s became a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1808, when he was a little-known young divinity graduate and magazine editor with a passion for natural philosophy. He went on to become general secretary of the Society in 1819, vice-president in 1831 and finally president in 1864. He advanced himself through the Society’s ranks through assiduously contributing papers, proposing numerous new members and building a network of important allies. His career at the RSE can tell us much about the functioning of patronage and sociability in elite scientific societies in the nineteenth century.

‘Evolution before Darwin: The transmutation of species in post-Enlightenment Edinburgh’, University of St Andrews Open Association Friday Evening Lecture, 6 March 2020


Darwin is often understood to have developed his theory of evolution more or less from scratch, based only on his own observations. In fact, this is very far from being the truth. The origin and evolution of species was a hotly debated topic in and around the University of Edinburgh in the 1820s and 1830s at the very time when Darwin was a medical student there, long before the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. This lecture will introduce some of the key figures who took part in this debate, how they were influenced by the ideas of earlier European thinkers, and how they developed their own novel understandings of the living world.

Prisca astronomia: Charles Piazzi Smyth and the wisdom of the ancients’, Stars, Pyramids & Photographs: Charles Piazzi Smyth, 1819-1900, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 3–4 September 2019

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The idea that ancient history was a story of decline from a prelapsarian  state of both moral perfection and perfect knowledge of the natural world is often associated with such early modern figures are Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, or with the pseudo-archaeology of twentieth-century popular writers such as Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock. Charles Piazzi Smyth’s espousal of this model of world history  in his Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864) may therefore seem an anachronism in the Victorian age, often popularly perceived as an era of quasi-religious faith in universal progress. However, the vision of universal history as a story of decline was alive and well in the mid-nineteenth century. In this paper I will explore the work of prophets of decline such as John Stark, Edinburgh printer and naturalist, who read a paper denying ‘the supposed progress of human society’ to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1841, William Scott, the Evangelical phrenologist and author of The Harmony of Phrenology with Scripture (1837), and George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, who published a critique of progressivism entitled Primeval Man in 1869. Viewed in this context, Piazzi Smyth’s opinions appear not so much an isolated aberration, but an expression of an anti-progressivist discourse which had a significant following in mid-nineteenth century Britain.

‘The Physiology of the haunted mind: Naturalistic theories of apparitions in early nineteenth-century Scotland’, Science and Spiritualism, 1750–1930, Leeds Trinity University, 30–31 May 2019


The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw a resurgence of interest in the supernatural in Scotland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Interest in the phenomenon of apparitions was stimulated by the popular success of Scottish Gothic literature associated with James Hogg and Walter Scott, with its fascination with the weird and the inexplicable, while the growing influence of the voluntarist theology of the evangelicals gave the idea of supernatural intervention in the world renewed currency. In response to these developments a number of members of Edinburgh’s literati proposed naturalistic explanations for supernatural phenomena in the course of the 1820s, drawing on the legacy of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. These included the geologist and antiquarian Samuel Hibbert and the phrenologist George Combe. In these works they reframed the question of apparitions as essentially a medical problem, unchallenging to the contemporary dualist conception of the relationship between mind and body. Their theories can be interpreted as attempts to defend the secular, rationalistic legacy of the late eighteenth-century Edinburgh intellectual elite as the world of the late Scottish Enlightenment gave way to the Victorian age. This paper explores the interrelations between these theories, their roots in the troubled cultural politics of Scotland in the early nineteenth century and the reaction of different protagonists in the cultural conflicts of the period to their ideas.

‘Robert Jameson and the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal: Power, patronage and the diffusion of scientific knowledge, 1824–32’, Workshop: Editors and the Editing of Scientific Periodicals, 1760–1910, University of St Andrews, 18–19 January 2017


The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal and its successor the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal were edited from 1819 until 1854 by Robert Jameson, Edinburgh’s professor of natural history. His original co-editor, David Brewster, left in 1824 to found his own similar journal, the Edinburgh Journal of Science. ‘Jameson’s Journal’ established a significant reputation in the 1820s. Articles by Jameson’s friends and former students, including Robert Grant, Robert Knox and Ami Boué, appeared alongside pieces by international figures such as Audubon, Cuvier and Von Buch. The eclectic topics covered reflect the ill-defined boundaries of natural history in the period. This paper will explore how Jameson used his role as editor to consolidate and extend his circle of patronage in early nineteenth-century natural history and establish his status as a leading natural historian on the international stage. It will then make some important comparisons with a number of rival Edinburgh journals. It will also examine how Jameson used his presidency of the Wernerian Natural History Society to source articles, often at the expense of the Society’s own Memoirs. The paper will shed new light on the aims, scope and management of this important but so far largely neglected journal.

‘Robert Jameson and Edinburgh’s College Museum: The political economy of natural history in the early nineteenth century’, British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference, University of York, 6-9 July 2017


Robert Jameson (1774–1854) was regius professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh and keeper of the University’s College Museum from 1804 to 1854. He built up the relatively modest collection he inherited from his predecessor John Walker (1731–1803) into one of the most important natural history collections in the English-speaking world. In Great Britain it was second only to that of the British Museum in London, and fully justified Jameson’s boast that it was, in effect, the national museum of Scotland. Jameson’s papers held in Edinburgh University Library, as well as his detailed submissions in the Report of the Scottish Universities Commission (1826), provide a fascinating picture of how objects and knowledge of the natural world were collected and exchanged in the early nineteenth century. Jameson built up an extensive networks of collectors and fellow natural historians around the world, actively using his position as professor of natural history to encourage his students to travel and collect and preserve specimens to be sent  back to Edinburgh. He even wrote a short guide for them on how to do this. We also know that he established fruitful relationships with many external bodies, including the Admiralty and the East India Company, who both agreed to send him natural history specimens. In this paper I will explore the role Jameson played in the political economy of natural history in the early nineteenth century through the circulation and exchange of both specimens and knowledge about the natural world.

‘Introducing Curious Edinburgh’ (with Niki Vermuelen), British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference, University of York, 6-9 July 2017


Curious Edinburgh is an exciting new public-engagement project based at Science Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) at the University of Edinburgh.  It aims to raise public awareness of the history of science, technology and medicine through producing web- and app-based tours of the history of science in Edinburgh. All our content is available through an app for mobile devices and also via the project’s website ( We have created a platform which allows us to add content through an easy-to-update WordPress website which then automatically appears in the app. This model should be of interest to any colleagues wishing to create similar resources. Funding has been provided by the AHRC through a University of Edinburgh Innovation Initiative Grant, the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh’s Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme. In developing enlightening and engaging content the team have liaised with colleagues from many organisations in Edinburgh, including National Museums Scotland, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and Edinburgh City Council, as well as with colleagues from across the University. In this paper Niki Vermeulen and Bill Jenkins of STIS will present a brief history of this ongoing project, its origins, its aims and objectives and its outcomes so far. We hope that our experience will provide valuable inspiration to colleagues contemplating similar ventures to bring the history of science alive for a wider audience.

‘Evangelicals and extraterrestrials: the plurality of worlds debate in Scotland, 1815–55’, British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference, University of Swansea, 2–5 July 2015


In the first half of the nineteenth century a remarkable group of Scottish evangelicals set out to address the theological questions raised by the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. These included the popular science writer Thomas Dick, reformer and political economist Thomas Chalmers,  natural philosopher David Brewster and geologist and journalist Hugh Miller. All concluded that only a universe where life was ubiquitous would be compatible with the power and wisdom of the Deity. Each of them proceeded to formulate an answer to the problem of how the incarnation and atonement of Christ could relate to beings on other planets. The writings of these figures present a fascinating case study on how an important group of evangelical thinkers attempted to meet the challenges posed by modern science, not by rejecting its findings, but by developing a new synthesis between it and their religious beliefs.

‘Henry H. Cheek: A Transformist at Edinburgh University Medical School, 1826–31’, British Society for the History of Science Annual Conference, University of St Andrews, 3–6 July 2014

Evidence for the evolutionary beliefs of one of Charles Darwin’s fellow medical students at the University of Edinburgh in the 1820s sheds new light on the early influences that may have shaped the development of his theory of evolution. This evidence comes from journal articles and papers given to student societies by Henry H. Cheek (1807–33). His writings on evolution demonstrate how French theories were transmitted to a new generation of thinkers in Great Britain, with important consequences for the reception and development of evolutionary ideas in the decades before the publication of the Origin of Species.

‘George Combe, phrenology and heredity: Social Lamarckism in mid-nineteenth-century Edinburgh?’, British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference, University of Leeds, 8–10 January 2014

George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828) was one of the most significant publishing phenomena of the nineteenth century, selling 100,000 copies in Britain and 200,000 copies in America by 1860. In this work Combe argued that changes in the mental attributes of parents brought about by environmental factors can be transmitted to their children. While this could lead to degeneration, Combe was generally optimistic about the consequences of this inheritance of acquired characteristics. He argued it created the possibility of the human race ‘ascending to a great extent in the scale of improvement.’ This slow but sure progress was regarded by Combe as an inevitable product of the natural laws which governed the universe, which itself had ‘been constituted on the principle of a progressive system, like the acorn in reference to the oak.’ While Combe’s ideas clearly form part of a wider discourse on heredity in the early decades of the nineteenth century, John van Wyhe (2003) has also linked them with the transformist theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), and Victor L. Hilts (1982) has even spoken of Combe ‘resurrecting’ Lamarck. To what extent is it valid to link Combe’s ideas on inheritance with Lamarck’s theories? In the decades before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species Combe’s Constitution of Man , with its emphasis on progress through heredity, was the single most important vehicle for the dissemination of naturalistic progressivism in the English-speaking world. Is it reasonable to conclude that it in some way bridged the gap between the progressive cosmologies of the Enlightenment and the scientific naturalism of later nineteenth century?

“A Vulgar Error”: Transformism in Edinburgh, 1790–1844’, British Society for the History of Science Postgraduate Conference, University of Kent at Canterbury, 3–5 January 2013

There are few discussions of evolution in Britain prior to the publication of Robert Chambers’ anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. Arguably, the most significant is in an anonymous article entitled ‘Observations on the Nature and Importance of Geology’ published in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1826, which praises the ideas of the French transformist thinker Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. James Secord has made a strong case that this article was written by Robert Jameson, the professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh from 1804 to 1854. Secord went on to propose that a group of ‘Edinburgh Lamarckians’ existed in that city the early decades of the nineteenth century. As well as Jameson, this group would include the known transformist Robert Grant, who was a friend of Darwin while he was studying at Edinburgh in 1825–7, as well as a number of other individuals associated with the Plinian Natural History Society. This paper will present the findings of my ongoing research into the reception of transformist ideas in Edinburgh at this crucial juncture in the history of our ideas on the natural world.