If we glance for a moment at the various fields in which the idea of evolution is scientifically applied we find that, firstly, the whole universe is conceived as a unity; secondly, our earth; thirdly, organic life on the earth; fourthly, man, as its highest product; and fifthly, the soul, as a special immaterial entity. Thus, we have, in historical succession, the evolutionary research of cosmology, geology, biology, anthropology, and psychology.
The first comprehensive idea of cosmological evolution was put forth by the famous critical philosopher Immanuel Kant, in 1755, in the great work of his earlier years, General Natural History of the Heavens, or an Attempt to Conceive and to Explain the Origin of the Universe mechanically, according to the Newtonian Laws. This remarkable work appeared anonymously and was dedicated to Frederick the Great, who, however, never saw it. It was little noticed and was soon entirely forgotten until it was exhumed ninety years later by Alexander von Humboldt. Note particularly that on the title-page stress is laid on the mechanical origin of the world and its explanation on Newtonian principles; in this way, the strictly monastic character of the whole cosmogony and the absolutely universal rule of natural law are clearly expressed. It is true that Kant speaks much in it of God and his wisdom and omnipotence, but this is limited to the affirmation that God created once for all the unchangeable laws of nature, and was henceforward bound by them and only able to work through them. The Dualism, which became so pronounced subsequently in the philosopher of Koenigsberg, counts for very little here.
The idea of a natural development of the world occurs in a clearer and more consistent form and is provided with a firm mathematical basis, forty years later, in the remarkable Montaigne Celeste of Pierre Laplace. His popular Exposition du Systéme du Monde (1796) destroyed at its roots the legend of creation that had before prevailed or the Mosaic narrative in the Bible. Laplace, who had become Minister of the Interior, Count, and Chancellor of the Senate, under Napoleon, was merely honorable and consistent when he replied to the emperor’s question, “What room was there for God in his system?” “Sire, I have no need for that unfounded hypothesis.” Certain orthodox periodicals have lately endeavored to deny this famous atheistic confession of the great Laplace, which was merely a candid deduction of his splendid cosmic system. They say that this monastic natural philosopher acknowledged the Catholic faith on his death-bed; and in proof of this, they offer us the later testimony of an ultramontane priest. We need not point out how uncertain is the love of truth of these heated partisans. When testimony of this kind tends to “the good of religion” (i.e., their own good), it is held to be true. The Church soon recognized that the personal Creator was dethroned, and the creation myth destroyed, by this Monastic and now generally received theory of cosmic development. Nevertheless, it maintained towards it the attitude which it had taken up 250 years earlier in regard to the closely related and irrefutable system of Copernicus. It endeavored to conceal the truth as long as possible or to oppose it with Jesuitical methods, and finally, it yielded. If the Churches now silently admit the Copernican system and the cosmogony of Laplace and have ceased to oppose them, we must attribute the fact not to actual belief, but partly to a feeling of their spiritual impotence, and partly to an astute calculation that the ignorant masses do not reflect on these great problems.
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