Radical artisans, divine design, and evolution in Britain, 1819-36

Adrian Desmond’s studies of the British debates on transmutation in the 1820s and 1830s, and in particular of the role in those debates of radical artisans, permanently altered scholarly understanding of “the politics of evolution”. However, a closer look at radical publications from that period suggest that Desmond’s dichotomous picture, of radical artisanal supporters of transmutation pitted against conservative gentlemanly supporters of design theology, needs heavy qualification. This paper explores the topic afresh, drawing on evidence from the popular press of the era, and especially the Poor Man’s Guardian (1831‒35), which regularly carried editorials, verses and other writings that blended reformist politics with design theology. Recovery of this tradition of radical design theology can help us better understand both the religious condition of the British working class of the 1830s and the complex nature of religious alignments in the emerging debates over species.