dam Sedgwick was born in March 1785 in Dent in what was then North Yorkshire, the third child of the Reverend Richard Sedgwick and his second wife Margaret. He attended the local grammar school where his father was the teacher and won a scholarship to Cambridge University where he graduated in maths and theology in 1808. He became a fellow in 1810. In 1818 he was elected to be the Woodwardian Lecturer (later Professor) in geology following the death of the incumbent John Hailstone.
In order to hold this post Sedgwick had to be an ordained member of the Church of England. Sedgwick was given the post because he was financially insecure: he did not consider himself to be the best candidate: "I had but one rival, (George Cornelius) Goreham of Queen's [College], and he had not the slightest chance against me, for I knew absolutely nothing of geology, whereas he knew a good deal — but it was all wrong!" However having been appointed to the post he was determined both to teach - there was no compulsion for him to do so - and to do his best: "Hitherto I have never turned a stone; henceforth I will leave no stone unturned." Before starting to teach his students Sedgwick travelled to Paris to take instruction in geological mapping and comparative anatomy and palaeontology from Georges Cuvier, probably one of the best anatomists and geologists of the time.
He also joined the Geological Society of London in 1819 and went on a field expedition to the Isle of Wight with John Stevens Henslow where together they both mapped strata and collected fossils. (Henslow later became famous as a botanist and refused the offer to join the voyage of the Beagle: instead he recommended a young student who both he and Sedgwick had taught — one Charles Darwin). He did much to expand the Woodwardian museum collection of fossils by contributing specimens of his own and purchasing them from others, including Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, from whom he bought several ichthyosaur skeletons. In 1908 the museum was named after him in his honour. He was the president of the Geological Society of London from 1829 to 1831, and was awarded their Wollaston Medal in 1833. In 1830 he became a member of the Royal Society and was awarded their Copely Medal in 1863. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Cambridge university in 1860 and Oxford university in 1866.
Today Sedgwick is best remembered as a geologist. He was one of a number of men of geology in the 'Heroic Age" when the major time periods were established and key principles and techniques were worked out. Sedgwick's contributions to these foundations of the modern subject cannot be over-estimated. He was an indefatigable worker who gained a huge amount of invaluable field experience from a wide geographical area. He was, for example, the first to distinguish between stratification, jointing and cleavage in metamorphosed and/or highly folded rocks. He collaborated with the wealthy Scottish aristocrat Sir Roderick Impey Murchison who had given up fox-hunting in order to study geology. Together they travelled to the north-west highlands of Scotland to study some of the ancient rocks there: later they collaborated to set up the Palaeozoic Era which is represented by the group of rocks between the the earliest known fossil bearing strata and the then so-called Secondary rocks of the English midlands, and south and eastern England. Murchison worked in Wales, starting from the area between Brecon and Builth Wells in fossiliferous strata which lay conformably beneath the Old Red Sandstone: he called his group of rocks the Silurian System in 1839, after a tribe that had lived there in Roman times. Meanwhile Sedgwick worked in the Lake District, the Southern Uplands of Scotland and north Wales in strata which were very badly contorted and metamorphosed and poor in fossils. In the mid-1830s the two switched their attention to a group of rocks found in Devon that were older than the Carboniferous. They managed to work out that these were contemporary with the Old Red Sandstone of South Wales and thereby established a new period for them called the Devonian in 1839.
Sadly the co-operation and friendship of the two men deteriorated when Sedgwick tried to establish a Cambrian period (after Cambria, the old name for Wales), to represent the rocks which he had been mapping and which he believed lay below Murchison's Silurian rocks. Murchison accused Sedgwick of including in his upper Cambrian rocks from the lower Silurian. When Murchison became director of the British Geological Survey in 1855, (with the active support of Sedgwick), he ordered that all reference to the Cambrian be removed from government maps and documents: all fossiliferous strata were to be labelled Silurian. The dispute was not resolved until after the death of both men when in 1879 Charles Lapworth proposed that the disputed strata should be called the Ordovician, (after the Ordovices, a tribe from mid-Wales). This name was finally adopted in 1909.
When Sedgwick began his geological career he was strongly influenced by the biblical accounts of earth history, which was common practice among many contemporary geologists, and he seems to have adopted a version of Cuvier's catastrophism. Cuvier believed that the Earth's history had been shaped by a series of very large events catastrophic for life forms that were around at the time. Some of these events involved global flooding, which caused the extinction of whole faunas and floras, but he was careful to dissociate these from any biblical stories. Sedgwick tried to relate these catastrophes to biblical stories, and with William Buckland, professor of geology at Oxford university, he attempted to interpret the sands and gravel deposits of southern and eastern England and parts of Scotland as relics of former floods. However it became increasingly obvious to Sedgwick that this could not be justified by the rapidly accumulating evidence and in his presidential address to the Geological Society in 1831 he repudiated his former beliefs:
Having once been myself a believer and, to the best of my power a propagator of what I now regard as a philosophic heresy … I think it right, as one of my last acts before I quit this Chair [as president of the Geological Society], thus publicly to read my recantation. We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic Flood. For of man, and the works of his hands, we have not yet found a single trace among the remnants of a former world entombed in these deposits.
This was a remarkable statement for an academic, especially for one early in his career: such a statement would not be made by most academics, even today.
The political contexts and themes of Sedwick's geology
dgwick was a progressive thinker: he opened his lecture courses to women, (almost unheard of at the time), and he advocated science education for the working classes. He was a founder member of British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1830, an organisation set up to present to the wider public an interpretation of science which would reflect the political views of the Anglican political establishment, and counter the radical sciences being taught in some medical schools and by teachers who supported political and social reform. He toured the country giving lectures to groups of working men which were often received very well: Sedgwick was a gifted and inspiring teacher. He believed that God had created all things and that He had control over "natural" (i.e political and social), appointments and organic change. God was not a "uniform and quiescent" legislator but "an active and anticipating intelligence": there was no need for the kind of self-improvement or development advocated by the followers of Jean Baptiste Lamarck or Geoffroy St Hillaire. He was opposed to phrenology whose supporters he considered to be "crazy humourists" because they too were in favour of development from below, self-improvement and democracy. He praised the wisdom of the natural and social order to "black-faced rabbles" in towns in northern Britain and the midlands. In Newcastle he preached to colliers on the providential "economy of the coal-field" and their beneficial "relations to the coal-owners and capitalists". Geological, economic, and moral order were combined to justify existing class divisions: to challenge these was to challenge God's order and that threatened those concerned with eternal damnation and society at large with chaos and even revolution.
Following his renunciation of interpreting the geological record in biblical terms, he came into conflict with churchmen and others who retained a belief in biblical inerrancy. Matters came to a head in 1844 at the York meeting of the British Association. It was the rules of the British Association at the time that the senior local clergyman in the host town or city would act as president at the meetings. In this case it was the Dean of York, Sir William Cockburn who was a supporter of biblical literalism. He addressed the geological section and argued in favour of the scriptural interpretation of the geological record against the materialist ideas of Sedgwick and some of his colleagues. In reply Sedgwick spoke about the scientific method and purpose of the British Association: following the example of the Geological Society he stated that science is about facts and evidence, and that broader theoretical questions and cosmogonies were beyond the scope of the Association meetings and, by implication, of science itself. In fact he was trying to balance a personal Christian theology with a materialist understanding of the natural world because he felt that the threat from the materialist and atheist arguments of the radical supporters of political and social reform could be best countered in this way. Sedgwick had had a much closer contact with the sympathies of working class men and women than Cockburn, and better understood their sentiments.
This incident was very important in the the long debate between where the boundaries of science and religion were to be set in the nineteenth century, much more than the later and more notorious confrontation between William Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley at Oxford in 1860. Sedgwick was a man whose views could not be ignored: he was a highly respected geologist with an enviable reputation for working in the field, but at the same time he was an undoubtedly devout Christian. If he made a clear separation between his science and religion then other people would surely follow. After the meeting the whole Chapter of York Minster refused to sit down to dinner with Sedgwick, but he had laid an important marker in the division between faith and science. It was during the 1840's when the debate over this important issue reached its climax - the events of later decades which are better known were really only the echoes of earlier incidents.
Sedwick, The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and Origin of Species
edgwick was infuriated by the publication of The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844, a popular science book published anonymously, that advocated the development hypothesis for the entire cosmos, and argued that man was an evolved species. Initially he ignored the book as did many of his fellow academic detractors in the hope that it would not be a success and that the initial enthusiasm for it would quickly dissipate. When this did not happen he was persuaded to write a critical review for the Edinburgh Review: this turned into an 85-page attack on what he considered to be an atheistic and materialistic tract which threatened the existing social and moral order. Vestiges "comes before [its readers] with a bright, polished, and many-coloured surface, and the serpent coils a false philosophy, and asks them to stretch out their hands and pluck the forbidden fruit," he wrote. In spite of his attitudes towards the education of women he still thought that a woman must have written the book because: "it is so well dressed, and so graceful in its externals. I do not think the "beast man" could have done this part so well. Again, the reading, though extensive, is very shallow; and the author perpetually shoots ahead of his facts, and leaps to a conclusion….This mistake was Woman's from the first." Most of his readers, including his friends and sympathisers, agreed that he had failed in his aims because he had used strong language and not really challenged the central thesis of the book. In part this was because the anonymous author had used some of the progressive arguments that Sedgwick himself had described from the fossil record.
Sedgwick also reacted negatively to the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species because it too supported organic evolution. He wrote to Charles Lyell to tell him that, in his view, natural selection was
but a secondary consequence of supposed, or known, primary facts. Development is a better word because more close to the cause of the fact. For you do not deny causation. I call (in the abstract) causation the will of God: & I can prove that He acts for the good of His creatures. He also acts by laws which we can study & comprehend—Acting by law, & under what is called final cause, comprehends, I think, your whole principle.
He expressed similar views in a letter to Darwin in November 1859, views which had not changed since he had first read Vestiges 15 years earlier:
This view of nature you have stated admirably; tho' admitted by all naturalists & denied by no one of common sense. We all admit development as a fact of history; but how came it about? Here, in language, & still more in logic, we are point blank at issue-- There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro' final cause, link material to moral. . . You have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it--& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.
It was for his opposition to evolution that he was awarded the Copely Medal from the Royal Society in 1863.
When he died in 1873 he was recognised internationally as a great field geologist and scientist. The inhabitants of Dent erected a granite fountain in the centre of the village with his name and dates: no other words were considered to be necessary. He represented better than many a generation who lived during a period when world views were changing and he had always endeavoured to reconcile his Christian beliefs with his scientific principles. Consequently he was always in a state of intellectual tension as he tried to balance these two ways of understanding the cosmos, a task that cannot have been easy for him.
J.W. Clark and T.M. Hughes. The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick. vols. 1–2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1890.Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Robson, Douglas A. Pioneers of Geology. Newcastle upon Tyne: Natural History Society of Northumbria, 1986.
Secord, J. A. “Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873” in Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 49, 647-649. Oxford: University Press, 2004.
Web Sites (all accessed in March 2017)
A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge."Sedgwick, Adam (SGWK803A)".
Bonney, Thomas George. “Sedgwick, Adam.” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900x, Volume 51. en.wikisource.org.
Created 15 March 2017