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Within a decade most scientists had started espousing evolution, but from the outset some expressed opposition to the concept of natural selection and searched for a more purposeful mechanism. In 1860 Richard Owen attacked Darwin's Origin of Species in an anonymous review while praising "Professor Owen" for "the establishment of the axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things". In December 1859 Darwin had been disappointed to hear that Sir John Herschel apparently dismissed the book as "the law of higgledy-pigglety", and in 1861 Herschel wrote of evolution that "[a]n intelligence, guided by a purpose, must be continually in action to bias the direction of the steps of change–to regulate their amount–to limit their divergence–and to continue them in a definite course". He added "On the other hand, we do not mean to deny that such intelligence may act according to law (that is to say, on a preconceived and definite plan)". The scientist Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), a member of the Free Church of Scotland, wrote an article called "The Facts and Fancies of Mr. Darwin" (1862) in which he rejected many Darwinian ideas, such as those concerning vestigial organs or questioning God's perfection in his work. Brewster concluded that Darwin's book contained both "much valuable knowledge and much wild speculation", although accepting that "every part of the human frame had been fashioned by the Divine hand and exhibited the most marvellous and beneficent adaptions for the use of men".

In the 1860s theistic evolutionism became a popular compromise in science and gained widespread support from the general public. Between 1866 and 1868 Owen published a theory of derivation, proposing that species had an innate tendency to change in ways that resulted in variety and beauty showing creative purpose. Both Owen and Mivart (1827-1900) insisted that natural selection could not explain patterns and variation, which they saw as resulting from divine purpose. In 1867 the Duke of Argyll published The Reign of Law, which explained beauty in plumage without any adaptive benefit as design generated by the Creator's laws of nature for the delight of humans. Argyll attempted to reconcile evolution with design by suggesting that the laws of variation prepared rudimentary organs for a future need.

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote in 1868: "Mr Darwin's theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill ... and I do not [see] that 'the accidental evolution of organic beings' is inconsistent with divine design — It is accidental to us, not to God."

In 1871 Darwin published his own research on human ancestry in The Descent of Man, concluding that humans "descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears", which would be classified amongst the Quadrumana along with monkeys, and in turn descended "through a long line of diversified forms" going back to something like the larvae of sea squirts. Critics promptly complained that this "degrading" image "tears the crown from our heads",[citation needed] but there is little evidence that it led to loss of faith. Among the few who did record the impact of Darwin's writings, the naturalist Joseph LeConte struggled with "distress and doubt" following the death of his daughter in 1861, before enthusiastically saying in the late 1870s there was "not a single philosophical question connected with our highest and dearest religious and spiritual interests that is fundamentally affected, or even put in any new light, by the theory of evolution", and in the late 1880s embracing the view that "evolution is entirely consistent with a rational theism". Similarly, George Frederick Wright (1838-1921) responded to Darwin's Origin of Species and Charles Lyell's 1863 Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man by turning to Asa Gray's belief that God had set the rules at the start and only intervened on rare occasions, as a way to harmonise evolution with theology. The idea of evolution did not seriously shake Wright's faith, but he later suffered a crisis when confronted with historical criticism of the Bible.


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