On one side spiritual freedom and truth, reason and culture, evolution and progress stand under the bright banner of science; on the other side, under the black flag of hierarchy, stand spiritual slavery and falsehood, irrationality and barbarism, superstition and retrogression.

Ernst Haeckel

From Anthropogenie: Keimes-und Stammes-Geschichte des Menschen (1874), translated by Stephen Jay Gould


Looking into the Mind of God

(Middlemarch, winter 1829–30)

The dark slates underfoot drank up the light, making the uneven ranks of specimen jars seem to float in the pools of candlelight whose yellow cast lent a lifelike tinge to their pallid cargoes. A sensitive soul could almost imagine that the bats and field mice the flickering beams picked out were still drowning, years after their deaths, were it not for the enveloping smell of spirit alcohol, catching at the back of the throat. Mr Farebrother picked up his pipe and occupied himself with overlaying the odour with the sweeter scent of tobacco. Once the stillroom of the old vicarage, the study was no cosy bachelor's parlour, especially in the winter months, but Farebrother had intuited that his new friend Mr Lydgate disliked his mother's sermons, though he was far too well bred ever to voice his boredom, and there was no other refuge in the house.

The doctor's back was turned; his tall form stooped, he was examining Farebrother's latest acquisition, a rare Bechstein's bat, by the light of the fire. 'I wonder sometimes if the lesser Mammalia might hold a clue to my puzzle,' he began.

'They would certainly be simpler to obtain!' said Farebrother, settling into an armchair beside the fire. 'If your lodgings adhere to the Middlemarch average, I dare say you might acquire five species of bat alone for comparative studies without leaving the house – though not my little Myotis bechsteinii there, he's no town dweller.'

'For if the mammalian embryo exhibits a tail and vestigial gills,' Lydgate continued, so caught up in the train of his thoughts that he hardly heard his companion, 'as von Baer demonstrates, then who knows whether, under the appropriate stimulus' – and he was recalling his galvanic experiments of the previous year – 'a feline embryo might develop the hooves of a pig, or a pig might sprout the wings of a bat!'

The young doctor flourished the specimen jar he still held a little too vigorously upon the last words, and the ensuing sound of liquid sloshing recalled him abruptly from grandiose dreams; if truth be told, he was anticipating that golden age when the name of Lydgate would be entered into the pantheon of anatomists alongside his two heroes, Vesalius and Bichat. Fearful of having damaged his friend's prize, he set the glass pot back in its place amidst its fellow Chiropterans with ostentious care, then brushed away the dust from the shelf that marred his perfectly tailored sleeve with a fleeting expression of distaste (so fleeting, indeed, that he might not even have been aware that his face had betrayed it).

'Ah, I must apologise for the liberal coat of dust,' said Farebrother, whose anxiety for the safety of his precious specimen had not blinded him to his friend's quick grimace. 'My mother holds the opinion that the preservation of specimens is both unnatural and ungodly, and will permit neither her sister nor mine to enter the room.'

Lydgate was idly pulling open one drawer after another of Farebrother's extensive Coleoptera collection. 'And your servant probably runs screaming,' he said, eyeing a tray of monstrous-jawed stag beetles.

The vicarage of St Botolph's had, in point of fact, lacked the services of a maid for several years, but as the Vicar was enjoined to secrecy on this subject by the distaff branch of his family, he merely assented.

'I believe the good burghers of Middlemarch consider me a veritable ghoul for my anatomical interests,' said Lydgate. 'Some of them, I'm sure, actually think that the New Hospital was established with no other purpose than to poison them in their beds, and cut them open from sternum to pubis whilst they're still warm!'

'Come, Lydgate, you cannot expect minds lacking in all the benefits of a Paris education to think as you do on the question of post-mortem dissection! At least not where it comes to those Middlemarchers of their acquaintance.'

'I note you say as you do! What do you think on the Warburton bill?'

The doctor referred, of course, to the Anatomy Act lately rejected by Parliament, which would have allowed those sharing the disposition of Mrs Shelley's scientist to pursue their enquiries upon the earthly remnants of the poor without recourse to the services of Messrs Burke and Hare. As the bill's champions included in their ranks such august personages as Mr Bentham, Mr Farebrother's opinion could scarcely be held to be of any consequence.

'I'm by no means qualified to pronounce,' he said, 'but when one has given the last rites as many times as I have, one knows as a fact, not as a supposition, that the soul does not linger in the body after death.'

'I fear the soul lies beyond the compass of science, beyond my compass.' Lydgate was striding restlessly about the room, his boots drumming an accompaniment to his words upon the stone floor. 'I will strive to support the body while it lingers to the best of those abilities that God has given me—but after the body is dead it is dead! To my mind, it no more matters whether it is subsequently dissected than whether it is buried with all ceremony or burned as the ancients did!'

Fortunately for the continuation of their friendship, Farebrother was an agnostic on the vexed question of whether the corpus integrum was actually essential to the bodily resurrection, holding with his habitual pragmatism that the God who could raise the dead might certainly reassemble a few earthly organs. He only said mildly, 'It might matter to the surviving relatives.'

'I suppose so,' Lydgate admitted. 'But if they could only be made to understand how important it could be for underpinning this shaky edifice we call medicine with a true, scientific, understanding! The post-mortem examination need not be irreverent – in fact, I would see it as an act of worship. Do you know, Farebrother,' he said, and at last he ceased his pacing, 'when a chink opens and I get a glimpse of what the primitive tissue might consist of, I feel as if I'm looking into the mind of God himself. I suppose you think that blasphemy?'

'No, not blasphemy. The firmament sheweth his handiwork. When I look at the perfection of the mouthparts of a beetle, or the web of a spider, I feel closer to God than I ever do in the pulpit.' Farebrother let out his quick laugh. 'I suppose that makes me a poor preacher.'

'I must come to hear you sometime, and judge for myself,' replied Lydgate. 'But for now I must take my leave. If I'm to make a fellow of the Royal Society before I am thirty,' he said, rendering into jest that thing dearest to his heart, as men are apt to do, 'then I must get back to my microscope!'

Now Lowick Gate lay on the path between St Botolph's and his lodgings – or if not on the direct path it must have been but a short step away. For Lydgate did chance to step that way that brisk winter evening, and the drawing-room curtains of a certain townhouse chanced to be still unclosed, the evening yet being young, and the daughter of the house chanced to be standing at the window, a radiant portrait against the black brickwork. A happy light illumed her long white neck and perfect features, and made a soft halo of her curls, but Rosamond was blind to the appearance she presented. To Lydgate, his imagination kindled by the high tone of his earlier thoughts, she seemed a butterfly blindly battering against the glass: soft, fragile, helpless. Microscope forgotten, hardly knowing what he did, he bent his blind steps within.

Thus it was that the young doctor was vouchsafed a vision, but whether it emanated from the heavenly spheres or from some other place only the passage of time and the pattern of events can inform.