Stranger Fruit

Over at Retrospectacle, Shelley briefly mentions a quote that William F. Buckley has been mumbling for aeons now.

“I’m taken with the reply of an elderly scientific scholar to an exuberant young skeptic. ‘I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop.'”

When I first heard it in the 1997 Firing Line Debate, I wondered who the “elderly scientific scholar” and “exuberant young skeptic” were. According to this Time article from 1960, they were Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall. If you know anything about this two, this seems a little … off.

Interestingly, here Buckley attributes it to a “crusty academic believer, his back to the wall at the dizzy height of the Darwinian offensive”. Hardly a description of Huxley!!!

And here it is attributed to C.S. Lewis.

So, does anyone know who said this and to whom, or is this another “fact”.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    February 23, 2007

    I can’t say I’ve ever heard or read it before. But it sounds like something from the 1870s.

  2. #2 John Wilkins
    February 23, 2007

    According to Janet Browne, Huxley said this: ‘Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Faust or Hamlet therefrom’, but there’s no reference.

  3. #3 John Lynch
    February 23, 2007

    According to p 239 (Vol 2) of Marchant’s “Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences”:

    [Wallace] was, then, a man of lofty ideals, and his idealism was at the base of his opposition to the materialism which boasted that Natural Selection explained all adaptation, and that Physics could give the solution of Huxley’s poser to Spencer: “Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet and Faust therefrom,” and which regarded mind as a quality of matter as brightness is a quality of steel, and life as the result of the organisation of matter and not its cause.

    So it could be Huxley to Spencer – both of whom are obviously evolutionists. Certainly Huxley was not a “crusty academic believer, his back to the wall at the dizzy height of the Darwinian offensive”!

    Buckley is, unsurprisingly, wrong.

  4. #4 John Lynch
    February 23, 2007
  5. #5 Sean
    February 23, 2007

    Marchant, James. 1916. Alfred Russel Wallace – Letters and Reminiscences. London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, Ltd, 1916. p. 239. Vol. 2.

    He was, then, a man of lofty ideals, and his idealism was at the base of his opposition to the materialism which boasted that Natural Selection explained all adaptation, and that Physics could give the solution of Huxley’s poser to Spencer: ‘Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet and Faust therefrom’ and which regarded mind as a quality of matter as brightness is a quality of steel, and life as the result of the organisation of matter and not its cause. link

    I’m guessing he means Herbert Spencer.

  6. #6 Sean
    February 23, 2007

    To quote Don Adams,”Missed it by that much.” Ah well. I also found out there is a fish, oddly enough called the Mutton hamlet (Alphestes afer).

  7. #7 John Wilkins
    February 23, 2007

    That makes a lot more sense. Spencer was well known for his tendency to see evolution as an unfolding of the innate potentiality of the physical universe. Huxley would be, as he often did with Spencer, making a wisecrack that had some point to it (as in “a beautiful hypothesis spoilt by an ugly fact”, which was supposed to be Spencer’s idea of tragedy).

    Wallace, of course, went on a crusade to find the physics of Spirit.

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    February 23, 2007

    And that was not quite right either:

    Huxley to Spencer, 3 August 1861 – “Tyndall is unfortunately gone to Switzerland, so that I cannot get you his comments. Whether he might have picked holes in any detail or not I do dot know, but I know his opinions sufficiently well to make sure in his agreement with the general argument. In fact a favourite problem of his is- Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet or Faust therefrom. He is confident that the Physics of the Future will solve this easily.”

    So it was Tyndall, not Huxley, who posed the problem. A typo in “mutton” means that you won’t find it by Googling for that term.

  9. #9 John Lynch
    February 23, 2007

    Imagining Tyndall (of all people) to be a “crusty academic believer, his back to the wall at the dizzy height of the Darwinian offensive” or “an elderly scientific scholar [speaking] to an exuberant young skeptic” is freaking hilarious.

  10. #10 John Wilkins
    February 24, 2007

    Nice quote from Tyndall’s Belfast address to the BAAS in 1874:

    “All religious theories, schemes and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.”

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 24, 2007

    Obviously an observation of the late Professor Isaac Asimov, with his famous muttonchop whiskers, from when he was actually a Time Traveler (and used Science Fiction as a cover story).

    Isaac Asimov certainly met Isaac Newton, as described in print by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, a Physicist and editor with unimpeachable reputation.

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