THE YEAR 1859 WAS MOMENTOUS for science. That was, of course, the year Darwin published Origin of Species, which provoked a public outcry against science that continues to this day. But in that very same year, a French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier, who was already famous for the discovery of Neptune, found that the precession of the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit differed from the Newtonian-predicted value by 43 arcseconds per century.
One might think that this spectacular Newtonian failure would have encouraged the anti-Darwin forces to unite with the latent anti-Newton forces, so that they could jointly battle against secular Enlightenment philosophy.
But when the news broke about Mercury’s orbit, there were no voices demanding that Newton’s ideas should be removed from the schools, or that warning stickers should be placed on science book covers. There were no demands that the old “angel theory” of planetary motion should be revived and given equal time with Newton’s laws, nor claims that scriptural geocentricism had finally triumphed over Galileo’s heretical solar system theory.
Despite what was apparently a heaven-sent opportunity for the forces of anti-reason, there was no organized denunciation of Newtonian materialism, no promoting a “theory” of Intelligent Orbits, and no “think tank” was organized to churn out press releases demanding that schools “Teach the Controversy!” in order to “wedge” supernaturalism into astronomy class.
Although Darwin is blamed for all the evils of our time, including communism, capitalism (some creationists consider it evil), fascism, liberalism, and teen pregnancy, no one seized upon the “Gravity Crisis” to blame the evils of modernity on Copernicus, no one claimed that Galileo’s science was responsible for the Napoleonic Wars, and no one accused Isaac Newton of inspiring British imperialism.
This is all very strange, as Newton’s laws were indeed in crisis and should have been a tempting target for those of an irrational inclination. Darwinian evolution was in far better shape, because it didn’t contradict any observed evidence; rather, it explained the available evidence. Yet Darwin attracted strident opposition, and Newton didn’t. Perhaps it’s because Genesis provided a traditional alternative to evolution; but the planets aren’t really mentioned in the Bible, so those hostile to science had nothing comparable to Genesis upon which they could rely.
Mercury’s orbit, instead of triggering hysterical anti-science Luddism, was largely ignored by the lay public. What happened was that scientists went to work and tried to account for an observation that didn’t fit existing theory. The existence of another planet, given the name Vulcan, was proposed to account for the orbital deviation. This was an hypothesis that could be tested. Numerous “Vulcan sightings” were announced over the years. One alleged sighting, by Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, actually resulted in his being awarded the Légion d’honneur. Alas for all the Vulcan observers, none of their sightings were verifiable.
While the problem of Mercury’s orbit persisted, no lobbyists were needed to demand that schools “Teach the Controversy!” The problem, being demonstrably real, was openly taught in schools. Everyone who studied astronomy was aware of the issue. It was an anomaly; science has many of them. The situation continued until 1915, when Einstein’s General Theory was able to explain Mercury’s orbit.
It is a strange paradox that the theory of evolution has no evidentiary problem comparable to Mercury’s orbit, but the lunacy that never happened during the “Gravity Crisis” is somehow still swirling around Darwin’s theory.
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