The Interface of Natural Theology and Science in the Ethology of W. H. Thorpe

  • Neal C. Gillespie


It should be clear by now the extent to which many features of Thorpe's interpretation of animal behavior and of the animal mind rested, at bottom, not simply on conventional scientific proofs but on interpretive inferences, which in turn rested on a willingress to make extensions of human experience to animals. This, in turn, rested on his view of evolution and his view of reality. And these were governed by his natural theology, which was the fundamental stratum of his intellectual experience. Contrary to the scientific ethos, which restricts theory choice to scientific issues alone, Thorpe's career suggests that the actual reasons for theory choice among scientists often are not limited to science, but are multiple and may sometimes be difficult to discover. It is largely because Thorpe took a public part in the natural theology enterprise that we can know something about his religious beliefs and so can see their probable influence on his scientific decisions. Similar beliefs of other scientists are sometimes harder to get at. Most may be practically beyond discovery, for the ethos of science has discouraged public professions of personal belief in relation to scientific work.101 Yet does it seem plausible that, for example, the restriction of self-consciousness to humans by some scientists is a purely scientific decision?102 Surely not, any more than that the strong influence of natural theology on Thorpe's thought means that he was not a good scientist. His natural theology may have led him into incautious enthusiasms regarding the animal mind — such as the potential if unrealizable linguistic ability of chimpanzees — through a bias in favor of the continuity of emergents in a progressive evolutionary system, just as it led him to advocate animal consciousness long before the recent upsurge of interest, but the scientific integrity of his work overall is unimpeachable. And yet, that work is not comprehensible historically as science alone. Personal philosophy must not be discounted in writing the history of recent science. This somewhat obvious conclusion (obvious to historians of science) needs emphasis, for we are still prone to think that the sciences of our own time provide their own internal dynamic that is in itself sufficient to account for their content and development.


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How to Cite
Gillespie, N. (2021). The Interface of Natural Theology and Science in the Ethology of W. H. Thorpe. Religious Studies: An International Journal, 9(1), 69-84. Retrieved from