What underlies the Australian establishment's antipathy to and ignorance of nature? The conflict between religion and science, and the roles played by 'colonial rationalists', the Catholic Church, and the State in the suppression of flourishing scientific debate and celebration of Australia's unique ecology. How controversy preceding the passage of the Victorian Education Act 1872 (which was intended to secularise education) derived from a rearguard defence against the growing influence of Darwin, to the lasting demotion of natural science and respect for environment and other creatures in mass media and government. This article was published in response to
This article was originally written as background research for an as yet unpublished theory on the politics of natural science and environmentalism in Australia. I dusted it off in response to the comments above. Hope people will find it interesting.
Colin Finney in Paradise Revealed, Natural History in Nineteenth-Century Australia , writes that science gained ground in school curriculums during the 1890s. He attributes this trend to the role in its encouragement played by a group of liberal and influential schoolmasters associated with the council of the University of Melbourne. He names the Reverend Dr John Bromby, ex-headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School, and Dr Charles Pearson, royal commissioner, former lecturer in history at the University, and headmaster of the Presbyterian Ladies College, as important in this group. The group’s efforts were supported by friendly University professors who did duty as matriculation examiners. Not surprisingly, he notes that the teacher group was “often more sympathetic to science than were University professors such as Frederick McCoy…”
A Pageant of conflict between religion and science
A G Austin, author of Australian Education, 1788-1900, describes the conflict between religion and science, and the roles played by 'colonial rationalists', the Catholic Church, and the State. He attributes much of the controversy preceding the passage of the Victorian Education Act 1872 (which was intended to secularise education) to a rearguard defence against the growing influence of Lyell, Darwin, Huxley and Spencer. He writes of a 'spate of lectures and sermons on the topic' delivered by such as Professor Frederick McCoy. Dr John Bromby (mentioned above, for the other side) delivered a competing lecture at the same venue:
"This procession of learned divines and professors across the stage of the Princess Theatre in the winter of 1869 seems somewhat ludicrous until we realize that these men were not engaged in any academic reconstruction of the English debate, but were doing serious battle against a potent force at work in their own midst, for rationalism had been an active and vocal movement in Victoria for a number of years."
"In ever-hardening opposition to the rise of secularism stood the Roman Catholic Church which, almost alone, made up that group of denominationalists who were prepared to reject the secularists' claims as a matter of principle… Irish English and Spanish as they were, the bishops had had to adapt their European outlook to the concerns of the impoverished minority group which made up their flock."
Establishment of Catholic School system
But money and power were also at stake. The cost of renouncing State aid was too great for most religions and they did not seriously pursue the notion of establishing separate religious schools. But the Catholic Church stood its ground and set about establishing its own school system.
"This restatement of Catholic ideals, dogma and discipline could not help but collide, head-on with the whole liberal ethos of the late nineteenth century. Worse, this collision of ideologies would inevitably expose and inflame the sectarian bitterness and bigotry which has always formed an ugly scar across the Australian mind…"
"It had always been there … but in the closing stages of this struggle between Church and State it assumed a dimension which these three writers have not fully appreciated. It produced the form in which the secular Actis finally passed into law - designed, not to drive religion out of the State schools, but to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from continuing its assault upon the liberal, secular State with the aid of the State's own resources."
The question that arises in my mind is whether this historic situation has prevailed and the Catholic education system has continued to reject Darwinism at all but a superficial level. It certainly seems to be the case that the Catholic Church, at least in Australia and America, plays a special role in discouraging effective population policies to restrain growth by encouraging high migration, discouraging contraception and maintaining a weak and superficial line on ecology and the environment.  If my observation is true, then here is a further explanation of the extreme sensitivity and poor viability of debating and designing effective population policy in Australia and other countries with similar histories.
Secularists vs Sectarians in 19th Century Australia
In his fascinating history, A. G. Austin, Australian Education 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia,, writes that, in the 19th Century, apart from Edward Cohen's contribution, the secularist agenda to remove religion from education came from a small 'heterogenous' group. Cohen was a leading member of the Victorian Jewish community and a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, who said:
"This being a new and free country, let us leave behind us all the superstitious nonsense of the old world. Let us meet here on common ground. Let us send all our children to the same schools, irrespective of creed or country; and let them there be brought up in that creed of kindliness and friendliness which will make them forget that their other creeds divide them."
Austin asserts that historical study of the development in English thought through Lyell, Darwin, Huxley and Spencer, that focuses on New South Wales to the exclusion of Victoria, would fail to note the much earlier and vigorous manifestation of Darwinian secular thought in that State.
Victoria's rationalist movement, the press and popular debate
"Controversy was very lively in Victoria in the 1860s; to postpone its arrival until the 1870s is to miss the point of many of the arguments which preceded the passage of the Victorian [secular] Education Act of 1872." 
In support of this he cites the "spate of lectures and sermons which were delivered on this topic towards the end of the 1860s." Once again the name of Professor Frederick McCoy is raised, with reference to his lengthy condemnations of Huxley and Darwin's theories. Apparently McCoy and the pro-Darwinist Reverend Dr J E Bromby both appeared before a large audience at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on 28 June 1869. Two weeks later Bromby's bishop, Bishop Perry appeared at the same venue to retrieve the church's reputation. He delivered a two hour lecture on the theme that "the Bible has nothing to fear from Science."
Austin makes the point that "the procession of learned divines and professors across the stage of the Princess Theatre in the winter of 1869" was not just part of a debating festival. These men were seriously engaged in defending their positions as the rationalist movement steadily gained ground.
Austin cites E.W. Cole, owner of the "famous" Bourke Street Book Arcade," as renowned for "daily suffering Persecution for his heretical writings, which the boldest Melbourne papers are afraid to advertise." Cole’s publications Religions of the World, (1866); The Real Place in History of Jesus and Paul (1867) and Essay on the Deluge (1869) were all published in Melbourne. A.G. Austin also mentions Henry Keylock Rusden, "renegade son of the vicar of East Maitland and radical brother of George William Rusden", who was a pro-Christian but non-sectarian agent of the National [Education] Board for the whole of eastern Australia.
In 1871 Henry Keylock Rusden said this to Bishop Perry during a public encounter:
"...education is most valuable in so far as it is moral ... Morality is based - not upon religion - but upon men's social nature and necessities ... That very religious fervour which formerly prompted our ancestors to incremate each other for being conscientious - to subordinate real and natural to imaginary and supernatural duty - is precisely that which now interposes the principal obstacle to the establishment here of an effective (or secular) system of education ... The suppression of the broad distinction between moral and religious needs and objects is so general, that I grieve to say that I know no school in Melbourne much superior to the streets for acquiring moral training. 
Austin thinks Victoria was most influenced by the rationalist movement of all the colonies in Australia. Major Victorian newspapers, including The Age and the Argus, supported the rationalists' position on secularisation of education, if not their arguments. At the national level the Sydney Morning Herald, the Queensland Guardian, the Brisbane Courier, the South Australian Register, and the West Australian all eventually came to the same point of view.
George Higinbothom, editor of the Argus, lawyer, Member of Parliament, Minister of the Crown, Royal Commissioner and Chief Justice) stood somewhere between the rationalists and the more conservative non-sectarianists. The latter believed that education should be Christian, but not sectarian. As chairman of the Royal Commission into the Common Schools Act, he delivered a report denouncing a system that left more than half the colony's children completely unschooled. He introduced a bill for compulsory elementary school education. In the belief that religion was an essential part of education, the bill also sought to allow clergy to give non-sectarian religious instruction in schools at allotted periods.
The Age and the Argus both urged Higinbotham to go the whole hog and support the "absolutely secular" position.
Giving his reasons as due to the "ecclesiastical rivalry and dissension and ... the unpatriotic policy pursued by the leading Christian sects" he gave his support to a completely sectarian system.
The famous politician, Henry Parkes, who spent five terms as Premier of Victoria, and was a major legislator on educational issues, came out in defence of non-sectarian religious instruction, apparently in the spirit of ecumenicism. 
The Roman Catholic Church was by far the most discountenanced by the secular education movement. It was the only one to stand its ground. In the face of the threat of withdrawal of government grants for school salaries from denominational schools, all the other religions demurred to the secularist non-sectarian option.
Austin describes the Roman Catholic hierarchy as "Irish, English and Spanish ... the bishops had had to adapt their European outlook to the concerns of the impoverished minority group which made up their flock." This meant that they had become increasingly reliant on government handouts.
"By the [eighteen] sixties and seventies the ultimate result of this process [of concentrating power in the new secular school boards] was becoming clear: the Roman Catholic schools were gradually being squeezed out of the government system..."
Pope Pius IX, papal infallibility, and Darwin
The Catholic stance was bolstered by the publication of Pope Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura, which included the famous Syllabus of Errors. Darwinism historian, David L Hull, "Darwinism and Historiography" in The Comparative Reception of Darwinism, describes Pius IX as having put his stamp on one of the most scurrilous anti-Darwinian attacks to appear in the French language. Paul Collins in God's Earth, Religion as if Matter Really Mattered, p.32 attributes moves toward papal centralism and the declaration of papal primacy and infallibility in 1870 as in part reactions to Darwin's Origin of Species. He writes that in the Syllabus Pius IX stated his intention not to "reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and with modern civilization." Austin writes that this restatement of Catholic ideals, dogma and discipline could not help but collide, head-on, with the whole liberal ethos of the late nineteenth century.
In Australia as in Europe, this new statement of Papal infallibility and inflexible opposition to liberalism was experienced as a political threat by non-Catholics (and doubtless by Catholics as well.) In response to the Vatican decisions of 1870, Gladstone wrote:
"For the first time in my life I shall be obliged to talk about popery; for it would be a scandal to call the religion they are manufacturing at Rome by the same name as that of Pascal ... The truth is that ultramontanism is an anti-social power, and never has it more un-disguisedly assumed that character than in the Syllabus... The proclamation of Infallibility I must own I look upon as the most portentous (taking them singly), of all events in the history of the Christian church." (A.G. Austin, citing John Morely, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone.) 
Interestingly, the Australian environmentalist Catholic priest, Paul Collins, author of God's Earth, Religion as if Matter really mattered, later wrote a book called Papal Power challenging these very foundations of modern papal authority. (He then quit the priesthood before he was pushed.)
Catholic and Protestant jockeying for political power
A G Austin writes of such a sense of danger to liberalism as being all the stronger in Australia because they felt that "the enemy was so much more numerous".
"Never less than one-fifth of the population, and by 1870 close to one-third, the Catholics in Australia had always represented to the Protestant mind a very real political danger. Victoria's Registrar-General was not exaggerating when he told an audience at St. Patrick's College that he had 'seen it stated in broad print ... that Catholics are striving with all their might to obtain more than their due share of influence in the Legislature, and interest in the patronage of the Government." (A.G. Austin citing W.H. Archer, Noctes Catholicae)
Sixteen years later a Ministry under Irish patriot Gavan Duffy had lost government over a scandal where the Premier was charged as having abused privilege by preferring to appoint Irish Catholics for official appointments.
That same year, 1872, some voices, including that of the Protestant Rev. F.B. Bryce of Orange, suggested some sort of funding compromise in order to avoid totally alienating Catholics and giving rise to a dual system. But it was Parkes, the once persistent defender of non-sectarian religious instruction in schools, who finally drafted and sponsored the Bill to abolish all financial aid to denominational schools in 1879. All other States followed suit in time.
The Victorian State elections in 1872 degenerated into a sectarian struggle between Catholics and non-Catholics. The Argus came out in defence of the government. In Sydney the scenario was repeated in the 1880s. In Western Australia, where Sir John Forrest had a very good relationship with the influential Bishop Gibney, the abolishing of State aid to denominational schools did not occur until 1895. The protestant majority in that State had become increasingly vocal about its desire for this to happen and the elections of 1894 focused on the issue. 
A.G. Austin comments on the number of
"gold-seekers [who] came swarming into the colony [of Western Australia] from the depression-ridden colonies in the east. Overnight Western Australia was confronted with the eastern influences from which it had been so effectively insulated ..." "With every increase in eastern migration [Forrest's Catholic pacifying] policies became less acceptable, and his opposition more formidable.",
And so the Australia-wide independent Catholic education system was established on a basis of historic bitterness and alienation from the rest of the Australian community and within a strongly anti-Darwinian culture. Providing a lower cost private education, it continues to service a growing part of the Australian community, many of whom are not Catholics. It seems likely that these beginnings may have created barriers for the Australian Catholic Church to formulate a system for understanding Australia's ecological uniqueness. The Church's stance on birth control is well known to be prejudiced against artificial methods of contraception and abortion, although its policy on population control could be said, at least at an interpersonal level, to be Malthusian. However the Catholic Church, in Australia and elsewhere, has become an ardent advocate of open borders and high migration. Naturally Catholic migrants and refugees are more likely to receive assistance to migrate from the Church than others. The demographic impact of this on political processes affecting population policies has to be considered.
On the question of the Church's treatment of ecological imperatives Collins, writing as a priest:
"This [Cartesian-Newtonian] mechanistic view of nature has achieved a great deal for science and it still predominates in contemporary scientific thinking. But the mechanistic approach sees nature as a vast, inanimate storehouse of useable 'resources' that are there to be exploited for the short-term advantage of humankind. It is this attitude that has brought us to the tragic and disastrous environmental impasse that we face today. ... Up until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the revival of the philosophy of Aquinas was mandated for the training of priests by the Vatican, it was largely the philosophy of Descartes that was taught to student priests in European seminaries. Theology easily embraced the Cartesian notion of the mind in the machine because for so long the Christian tradition had been subverted by Neo-Platonic dualism. Descartes was simply the tag end of Platonism.
"In the Christian communities, such issues [as ecology] are usually swept aside by seemingly more anthropocentric issues, such as social justice and the liberation and development of the third world. ... Muscle-flexing by churches from developing countries led to a highlighting of the centrality of human liberation that largely pushed ecological theology into the background.... I mention the fate of ecology at the WCC Assembly because it is typical of the way the churches deal with this topic. It is good as window dressing, but it is not really taken seriously. ..."
Perhaps in fact the problem for the Catholic Church and for much of the non-Catholic population as well, lies in the lack of a Darwinian or equivalent concept of or aesthetic appreciation for our biosphere. How widespread is the Cartesian view of a mechanistic universe of soul-less animal servants and incidental flora and fauna peripheral to the human system in contributing to educated as well as unsophisticated [by which I don't mean hunter-gatherer] peoples' world views?
 Colin Finney, Paradise Revealed, Natural History in Nineteenth-Century Australia, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p 123
 A G Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in colonial Australia, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, Melbourne, 1961, pp 181-204
 A G Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in colonial Australia, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, Melbourne, 1961, p 183
 A G Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in colonial Australia, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, Melbourne, 1961, p 196
 A G Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in colonial Australia, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, Melbourne, 1961, p 197
 Paul Collins, God's Earth, Religion as if matter really mattered, Dove, Harper Collins, 1995, pp140-141, "In the Christian communities such issues are usually swept aside by seemingly more pressing anthropocentric issues, such as social justice and the liberation and development of the third world. … Muscle flexing by churches from developing countries led to a highlighting of the centrality of human liberation that largely pushed ecological theology into the background. .. [Ecology] is good as window dressing, but it is not really taken seriously. The seemingly incurable anthropocentrism of the churches means that the call to protect nature is soon swamped by the pressing reality of human needs. Human development quickly takes over from ecological conservation."
 A. G. Austin, Australian Education 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, 1961) p. 181.
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p. 182 citing C. Perry, Science and the Bible, Melbourne 1869, p.3.
 A.G. Austin Op. Cit., p 183, note 38, (citing B.S. Nayler), Cole's, The Battle of Science, Melbourne, 1869, p.12.
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p.49 and p.183.
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p.184, note 41, citing 'Hoker' (H.K. Rusden), The Bishop of Melbourne's Theory of Education, Melbourne 1871, pp.4, 6.
 A.G. Austin, Ibid. p.184)
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., pp. 189-190)
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p. 190 and p.197.
 A.G. Austin p. 194, note 72, citing T.P. Fogarty, The Principles, Origins and Development of Catholic Education in Australia, unpublished PHD Thesis, Univ. Melbourne, 1956, p.45.
 David L Hull, "Darwinism and Historiography" in Thomas F. Glick, (Ed.), The Comparative Reception of Darwinism, University of Chicago Press, 1988, p.392
 Collins, God’s Earth, Op.Cit. p.32, citing Colman T Barry (ed.), Readings in Church History, Vol III, Paramus, N.J.: Newman Press, p.74.)
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p.196
 A.G. Austin, Op. Cit., p.198, citing John Morely, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol II, pp.508, 510-12.
 A.G. Austin Op. Cit., p. 198, note 82, citing W.H. Archer, Noctes Catholicae, p.2.
 A.G. Austin Op. Cit., p 203-204.
 A.G. Austin Op. Cit., pp 206-216
 A.G. Austin Op. Cit., pp 214 -217.
 Paul Collins, God’s Earth Religion as if matter really mattered, Dove, Harper Collins, 1995, page number not available here.