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Miller, Hugh


(b. Cromarty, Scotland, 10 October 1802; d. Portobello, Scotland, 24 December 1856)


Miller was the elder son of Hugh Miller by his second wife, Harriet. His father, the master of a fishing sloop, was drowned when Miller was five. At school the boy was unruly and independent; and instead of following the conventional education that was open to one of his intelligence and social position, he apprenticed himself to a stonemason at the age of seventeen and thereafter used his leisure to educate himself in natural history and literature. His geological studies arose directly from his work as a mason and from his interest in the history, scenery, and folklore of the Highlands. Miller discovered that the Old Red Sandstone was not (as was commonly believed) virtually devoid of fossils but contained in certain strata an abundant fauna of spectacular bony fish that constituted one of the earliest vertebrate faunas then known. His Scenes ami Legends of the North of Scotland (1835) brought him recognition as a descriptive writer of striking power; in addition its chapter “The Antiquary of the World,” describing geology as “the most poetical of all the sciences,” led to correspondence with Roderick Murchison and thus to contact with the scientific community at large.

In 1834, after some twelve years as a journeyman mason, Miller exchanged an outdoor life for that of an accountant in a Cromarty bank; and in 1837 he married Lydia Fraser, an author of children’s books. In 1839 he entered the patronage controversy in the Church of Scotland by publishing a powerful open letter to Lord Brougham; his abilities were immediately recognized by the “nonintrusion” party, and he was invited to Edinburgh to edit their newspaper, The Witness, Miller’s leading articles (from 1840) made him at once one of the most prominent and influential figures in public life in Scotland. His eloquent style, passionate commitment, and independent position were deployed with great effectiveness in the protracted struggle for the right of Scottish people to control the appointment of ministers in the national church. When at the Disruption (1843) the Free Kirk seceded on this issue, Miller used his influence to try to prevent the new body from retreating into a “sectarian” position and to keep alive the ideal of a truly national but non-Erastian church. As an integral part of this ideal, he pleaded for public education to be undenominational and fully grounded in modern science: he believed that this would defend Christian faith not only against the “infidelity” of materialism but also against the “Puseyite” anti-intellectualism of the Oxford Movement and the literalistic obscurantism of the scriptural “antigeologists.”

Soon after Miller’s arrival in Edinburgh, the meeting there of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave him an opportunity to meet many of the leading British scientists and also Louis Agassiz, then the greatest authority on fossil fish. His subsequent articles in The Witness on his own research and its implications were amplified into his first scientific book, The Old Red Sandstone (1841). Like all his books this was not a conventional scientific monograph but a series of discursive essays, leading the ordinary reader from a starting point in everyday experience, through the details of the anatomy of the most ancient fossil fish and the reconstruction of their environment, toward the broader implications that geology held for the place of man in nature and his relation to God. Miller was no naïve literalist (he had, for example, a most vivid sense of the vast antiquity of the earth), but he did believe that the fossil record confirmed in broad outline the cosmic drama depicted symbolically in the Bible. More particularly, his strong sense of man as a moral being, ultimately responsible to God, led him to attack vehemently any attempt to diminish that responsibility by blurring the distinction between man and the lower animals. Hence Lamarck’s “theory of progression” by transmutation was abhorrent to him, and its revival in Robert Chambers’ anonymous Vestiges of Creation (1844) disturbed him particularly because he saw its “infidel” tendencies spreading to the artisan classes.

Miller’s reply to Chambers was delayed by a breakdown of health brought on by overwork and by silicosis contracted during his years as a mason; and in 1845 he left Scotland for the first time, subsequently publishing his First Impressions of England (1846) with perceptive comments on the new industrial society as well as frequent digressions on geology. On his return to Scotland he wrote Foot-Prints of the Creator (1847) in answer to the Vestiges. It was explicitly an attack on the metaphysical and theological implications of Chambers’ work, but Miller used his own scientific research to focus his attack on one of the weakest points in the “development hypothesis.” The fish of the Old Red Sandstone (and the few that had been found in still earlier strata) were not, he argued, the rudimentary quasi-embryonic forms that Chambers’ theory required; on the contrary, these “Ganoids”— earliest vertebrates then known—“enter large in their stature and high in their organisation.” The geological history of the fish suggested that they had been created already perfect, clearly distinct from other animals, and that a better case could be made out for their subsequent “degradation” than for their “progress,” since the earliest representatives were in some ways the most complex. Miller’s interpretation could be extended to the rest of the fossil record; and he thus derived (like Agassiz) a picture of overall “progress” achieved by distinct creative steps, each initiating a new and higher form of organization, culminating in man.

More accurately, however, Miller saw the final culmination of this vast history in an eschatological future kingdom of Christ. This Christological focus to Miller’s interpretation of science distinguishes his work sharply from that of most of his contemporaries, who were concerned to “reconcile” geology with religion. Miller was not interested in defending natural theology except as a prelude to existential commitment to God as revealed in Christ: dissociated from distinctively Christian beliefs, “a belief in the existence of a God is,” he asserted, “of as little ethical value as a belief in the existence of the great sea-serpent,” But by stating his opposition to evolutionary theory in terms of a characteristically slark antithesis— “the law of development versus the miracle of creation”—he placed his theology and his science in a vulnerable position during a period in which scientific plausibility was seen increasingly in terms of a metaphysical “principle of uniformity” that excluded the category of miracle altogether.

Miller published an attractive account of his life up to 1840 in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854), which romanticizes his early life and exaggerates his humble origins. In the last years of his life he suffered increasingly from mental illness, and he finally committed suicide at his home near Edinburgh while seeing his last collection of essays, The Testimony of the Rocks (1857), through the press.

Miller’s strictly original scientific work was of limited scope; his studies of early fossil fish did little more than amplify and correct some details of Murchison’s stratigraphy and Agassiz’s paleontology. His importance for nineteenth-century science lies, rather, in his use of outstanding literary abilities to broaden the taste for science in general and for geology in particular, and to encourage a humane concern for the fundamental significance of such studies: in the words of his biographer Mackenzie, “probably no single man since has so powerfully moved the common mind of Scotland, or dealt with it on more familiar and decisive terms.”


I. Original Works. Miller’s principal publications are Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland or the Traditional History of Cromarty (Edinburgh, 1835); The Old Red Sandstone: Or New Vulks in an Old Field (Edinburgh, 1841); First Impressions of England and Its People (London, 1846); Foot-Prints of the Creator: Or, the Asterolepis of Stromness (Edinburgh, 1847); My Schools and Schoolmasters; Or, the Story of My Education (Edinburgh, 1854); and The Testimony of the Rocks; Or, Geology in Its Bearings on the Two Theologies, Natural and Revealed (Edinburgh, 1857). Some of his correspondence is published in Peter Bayne, ed., The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, 2 vols. (London, 1871).

II. Secondary Literature. A short biography is W. Keith Leask, Hugh Miller (Edinburgh, 1896). W. M. Mackenzie, Hugh Miller. A Critical Study (London, 1905) is penetrating although somewhat unsympathetic; Mackenzie’s Selections From the Writings of Hugh Miller (Paisley, 1908) contains a well-chosen and balanced sample of Miller’s work.

M. J. S. Rudwick

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