For thousands of years, the progression of mankind has relied on innovation and an accumulation of knowledge and skills. According to John Tyndall, a 19th century physicist, “Every system which would escape the fate of an organism too rigid to adjust itself to its environment, must be plastic to the extent that the growth of knowledge demands” (Tyndall, 1874). Tyndall suggests that the success of humans, or any living species, is dependent on its ability to integrate new information and expand upon its knowledge. While the past centuries had seen expansive changes in agricultural techniques and industrial advancements, Tyndall saw science as the dominant path for the evolution of society to continue. Unfortunately, at this time in 19th century Britain, science had yet to establish its position as a principal force in culture.
Due to a lack of governmental funding and support in educational programs, science in Britain was often only pursued by men wealthy enough to fund themselves or as a side interest of men working in other professions (Otis, 2002). Looking to redefine science and culture in Britain, Tyndall along with a large group of other Victorian intellectuals, put forward new interpretations of humanity, nature, and society which challenged the cultural authority of the Anglican church. Their intention was to remove the theological filter placed upon scientific investigations of the time period in order to promote a more evidence-based field of study (Lightman, 2010). As one of the most prominent promotions of rationalism and natural law, Tyndall delivered his Belfast Address at the 1874 annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In this highly controversial speech, Tyndall strongly contested religious or non-rationalist explanations of nature (Wyhe, 2016).
Although many saw Tyndall’s address as a religious attack, his overarching argument was that the progression of mankind relies on educated skepticism and an open mindedness, in which scientific inquiry and communication with other fields of study prevent the propagation of current misconceptions. Throughout the Belfast Address, John Tyndall cements his position on the undeniable importance of science in education and culture. To establish his stance on the role of science in society, he states, “All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it” (Tyndall, 1874). Through this statement, Tyndall claims that scientific findings trump assumptions and ideologies generated from other lines of thought. Science cannot be countered by theology or philosophy which lack experimental verification of their beliefs. Furthermore, any concepts contradicting science should accept defeat and give up efforts to support their assertions.
As an example of his demands, Tyndall suggests that society no longer look to explain the origin of the universe and other natural phenomena using faith or doctrine as proof. Tyndall claims that, “Acting otherwise proved always disastrous in the past” (Tyndall, 1874). Although he doesn’t provide any specific examples, one may assume he was referring to cases such as the heresy conviction of the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. In the case of Galileo, the Church had decided the idea that the Sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed, despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.