How does bodily matter become alive? Is the mind reducible to the brain? These
questions became crucial in the emergent discipline of life science at the turn of the
nineteenth century, when the term 'biology' was coined. The new scientific theories
that arose at this time directly impinged on contemporary religious beliefs
concerning the soul as the principle of immortality, and the mind as the divinely endowed
basis for human morality. Through an interdisciplinary study of three
episodes, all of which originated in 1816, this thesis examines the interface between
science and religion with regard to souls, minds, and the living body, in the half-century
before Darwin's Origin of Species.
The first episode focuses on a series of controversies (1816-1822) surrounding
William Lawrence, a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons. He postulated that
life could emerge from matter, and that matter could generate thought and sensation.
The express materialism in these views engendered strong scientific and religious
opposition. This study argues that the scientific opposition to Lawrence's views was
motivated largely by a desire to defend the institutional and professional standing of
the surgeons rather than by a commitment to oppose Lawrence's materialism. In
examining the religious opposition to Lawrence, this thesis concludes that ultimately
it was a concern for a secure institutional basis for morality rather than a wish to
defend the doctrine of the soul per se that was at stake.
The second episode revolves around George Combe, the influential author of The
Constitution of Man (1828). He was decried as an atheist because his phrenological
science allegedly reduced the mind to the physical brain. This thesis offers a new
interpretation of Combe's science as the means through which he framed a natural
religion with a code of morality based on natural law. It was a religion that sought to
recast the role of a more materialistic conception of the mind as the vehicle for
morality, and to displace the reliance on an immortal soul and a future state for the
enforcement of morals.
The third episode centres on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Through studying
the novel as the fable of its sub-title, The Modern Prometheus, I conclude that the
power of Mary Shelley's moral vision lies in its inescapable warning that an absolute
denial of the spiritual aspects of life is inimical to our humanity. Without being
explicitly religious, Frankenstein encapsulates a new kind of secular humanist
spirituality that denies outright materialism.
In summary, this thesis argues that the interface between religion and biology,
concerning the nature of the living body and the mind, despite initial appearances,
were not primarily over the issues of materialism. The three episodes studied
illustrate a spectrum of attitudes towards scientific materialism, and it is found that
ultimately, it was the necessity for a secure basis of morality that shaped the