Saint George Jackson Mivart

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(b. London, England, 30 November 1827; d. London, 1 April 1900)

biology, natural history.

Mivart was born of well-to-do parents who were members of the rising nonprofessional middle class. His father’s associations in natural history encouraged him to develop his own interests in that field, which he did through reading and collecting. An expected enrollment at either Oxford or Cambridge was prevented by his conversion at seventeen to Roman Catholicism. He prepared instead for a career in law and was admitted to the bar in 1851.

Mivart’s primary interests in natural history persisted, and he came to know many of the naturalists of his day, particularly Owen and Huxley. The latter demonstrated to Mivart the excitement of natural history as a discipline in its own right. It was undoubtedly through Huxley’s influence that Mivart worked in the 1860’s and 1870’s on his series of papers on Primate comparative anatomy. Huxley viewed the development of a precise body of knowledge about the Primates as significant to the elaboration and documentation of Darwinian evolution. The prosimians themselves had not been systematically studied as a group; and Mivart’s work, which culminated in “On Lepilemur and Cheirogaleus and the Zoological Rank of the Lemuroidea” (1873), was a major contribution to an understanding of this enigmatic Primate group and their systematic relationship to the rest of the order.

Meanwhile Mivart attained a modest reputation in comparative anatomy; he published a series of descriptive studies, lectured to lay audiences, and from 1862 to 1884 taught anatomy at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. Mivart had been a member of the Royal Institution since 1849, and he was elected fellow of the Zoological Society in 1858, of the Linnean Society in 1862, and of the Royal Society in 1869.

Although he was initially an adherent of the new biology for which Huxley was the most articulate spokesman, and for which Darwinism was the most influential method, Mivart regarded the tendency to universalize and to reify organic esolution as a threat both to the truths of his own Catholicism and to his more restricted definition of the canons of science. The conflict led to the publication of On the Genesis of Species (1871) and Man and Apes (1873); in both works Mivart criticized Darwinism as insufficient to explain anomalies in the data of observation or to answer the more general questions which dealt with the initiation of specific forms which must precede the action of natural selection. Such attacks on Darwinism—which were coupled with what were defined as insulting personal allusions—precipitated a formal break with Huxley and the Darwinians and through them Mivart’s removal from the main current of natural science, so that after 1873, although he continued to publish, his work appeared more and more dated.

Mivart’s attempts to reconcile his Catholicism with his science were equally destructive to his position as a prominent Catholic layman. In a series of articles and books which began with Contemporary Evolution (1873–1876), he sought to inject a modernist spirit born of the new science into the still conservative theology, structure, and practice of the Catholic Church. His arguments were attacked with increasing bitterness and finally rejected. Six weeks before his death he was excommunicated. Mivart stands as an important symbol and victim of the deep conflicts in science and in the intellectual milieu of the nineteenth century.


For descriptions of Mivart’s life and works see Jacob W. Gruber, A Conscience in Conflict: The Life of St. George Mivart (New York, 1960), and Peter Vorzimmer, Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy (Philadelphia, 1970).

Jacob W. Gruber


Saint George Jackson Mivart