The Sciences, Enlightenment and Schooling

The differences between Cadwallader Colden’s education and his father Alexander’s education in the classroom setting increased as time passed during Cadwallader’s academic career.  This decreased the likelihood that Cadwallader might achieve the same goals as his father once he graduated from Edinburgh.  This would ultimately result in Cadwallader making some life decisions regarding a career choice that his father might have never expected.  

When Alexander attended Edinburgh in 1675, only the program in Theology was fully operating.  Over the years, as knowledge about natural philosophy and religion increased, the topics taught at Edinburgh increased in number and amounts.  By the time Cadwallader was enrolled, several new departments with faculty were about to be defined, enabling students to begin to specialize a little more in natural philosophy and its interplay with the sociological and natural “laws of nature” as they were expressed by Pettendorf and others professed in this popular discipline.

Cadwallader’s decision to pursue some of these other topics was probably not expected by his father, much less by some of his father’s associates within the church setting.  One of the major issues Colden had to tackle with at this time pertained to Isaac Newton’s findings concerning the universe and its underlying predictability through mathematics.  To those familiar with Newton’s discoveries, this meant that the placement of the earth within the heavens and the age of the universe were very different from that which was taught to them during their childhood.  As the meaning of Newton writings became clear to these new followers of Newtonianism, the knowledge that gravity was an important cause for the motion and energy of the universe and not the hands of God, suggested that that there was a relationship between these motions for which a different story could be told about the universe and the events responsible for the current state of earth in the heavens. 

During Alexander’s years at school, scientists like Galileo and Newton did little to contest the most basic teachings of the church.  Now, almost thirty years later, this was very different during the years in which Cadwallader was enrolled.  One of the most traditional stories told about the earth, that of the Deluge and the Great Flood, stated that the earth underwent a single disaster which resulted in the total elimination of nearly everything requiring land in order to survive.   At first, the many remains found within the earth’s surface, such as fossils and some semi-fossilized or permanently frozen animals, appeared as “truths” in support this philosophy. 

Still, two problems with this part of natural theology philosophy remained.  The first was that many of these animals were never known to exist before their discovery within the bedrock; they were not discussed or conceptualized as a part of the Garden of Eden.  The second was that the placement of these creatures in different layers of the earth seemed to suggest that not all of the events that led to their demise occurred as a single event.  One could imagine these different layers formed due to the period of time in which the flood took place, laying down layer upon layer of strata as if the flood had occurred as one very long series of related events.  However, the differences between layers seemed to suggest that not so many different beings could have existed at the same time, so as to become extinct one major type of class of species at a time.  There was no logic to this conveyor-like, orderly demise of life in such a way that most learned individuals were willing to accept and believe.

This meant that to young students like Cadwallader, reading about some of these newer findings about fossils, nature and such, and the conclusions that could be drawn about them for the first time during their years at Edinburgh, brought about several important questions that remained unanswered:  did the Great Flood actually take place in the way that scriptures told us it did?  Was there a great Deluge in which all animals perished except for those saved by the Ark as well as those able to survive in the flood waters, like the Bible stated, or did the universe undergo this change and evolution in its varying life forms through some other means, one step at a time, in some slowly progressive and ever-changing fashion?  Did all of this take place between the time Adam and Eve first left the Garden, and the time of the Great Deluge?  Were these animals a part of God’s initial plans, before Adam and Eve were borne by God, only to be removed from the earth’s surface just a few days into it’s history?  This latter possibility seemed a very unlikely outcome of such natural events, at least as the Bible told them.  To students like Cadwallader, this meant there were other possibilities that might have taken place. 

By the time Cadwallader was born, there was already a common theory circulating about the possibility that the term ‘days’ was not really referring to its present meaning.  The Universe did not actually form in just 6 days like the Bible stated.  Rather this word ‘day’ was meant to refer to a period that was much greater in length, representing a series of events of Divine origin taken in order for the earth to form and for its various life forms to be established.  Much of this version of Genesis seemed to be matching what scientists were then seeing in the forms of “hieroglyphs” or “effigies” of the Creator.   These formations appeared as unique forms of gems, rocks, crystals of “planned design” or form.  Some of these effigies even resembled some of the life forms still extant on the earth’s surface, such as the shells of some of the shellfish that survived the Great Flood.   These effigies were God’s message to the scholars that the earth was in fact God’s invention.

As if there were not enough of these science-based criticisms against the Bible’s words, still many other lines of reasoning were developed by the scholars to contest such unproven metaphysical claims.  For example, ‘If the Garden fo Eden did exist, then where was it and can we find proof that it existed here and now?’  This too was an ongoing dispute between scholars, with many arguing that the proof could no longer exist due to the Great Flood.  Still others liked to claim that there was a place that appeared to meet the requirements of Eden as it was described in the Bible.  This description of the Andeluvian had in fact been linked to several places on the earth’s surface.  So by the time Cadwallader Colden was grown up, one of the more common theories about Eden was that it existed somewhere  near Australia, as an island or perhaps as a sunken or washed away piece of land.  Between Cadwallader’s time spent as a child about to enter Edinburgh, and his time spent completing his training in medicine, his mind was made up on this issue.  He became a believer and a philosopher of both.

Searches for Proof

A number of examples can be found in the literature documenting the kinds of events that took place during Cadwallader’s formative years of approximately 1700 to 1710.   Since Cadwallader Colden was probably personally interested in and devoted to learning about the mysteries of the universe, a number of questions were probably already well formed within his thought processes around the time he began his Master of Arts training.   These questions were probably posed as part of the many discussions he had with his family at the dinner table and with a number of classmates during their days off.  Whether at home or in public, these discussions could have raised eyebrows at times.  It is possible that some of the more controversial topics that he addressed, such as claims regarding the Great Flood and the discovery of “effigies”, resulted in criticisms at times by a curious local passerby within the university setting.   

The following hot-topics for the time have been reviewed in the literature from Cadwallader’s time.  The main topics that seemed to be of major influence include:

  • The Great Flood or Deluge and its underlying reasons
  • The questionable existence of certain mythical creatures
  • The questionable existence of certain mythical plants
  • The presumed existence of “monsters” at sea

There  were the topics that perhaps led Cadwallader to take the various courses in the wyas that he did.  Throughout these years of learning at Edinburgh, Cadwallader had available to him the teachings in the textbooks, and the Christian rationalization of these beliefs as they were conceptualized in various magazines sold on and off campus.  Such publications as Fugitive Pieces of Various Subjects and the writings of Thomas Brown and Pierre Pomet offered enough evidence to enable someone to believe in, or refute these claims.

The Great Flood or Deluge

During the early 1700s, a number of areas throughout Europe were found to have bedrock and landforms with “figured stones.”  An explanation for these formations led writers to refer to them as ‘effigies’.  Both natural theology and natural science experts lacked an explanation for these discoveries.   The following is a section of a popular journal for the time, Fugitive Pieces on Various Subjects in Two Volumes (1709, vol. 1),  a book review reviewing the details of such a find in Nuremburg, Germany. 


The common interpretation of fossils at this time included the argument that fossils were proof that some deluge of some form, and many of the animal in these fossil beds became extinct due to God’s choice.  To religiophiles, this supported the Great Flood theory.  To scientists during the Enlightenment Period, there were other possible reasons that could be used to explain why these varieties of life once existed and the natural events inferred by their replacement by more advanced life forms.  Similar questions about these discoveries were commonly argued amongst students like Cadwallader Colden, who turned these arguments into some form of contemplation of natural philosophy supportive of Newton, Halley and others.  News of such discoveries turned traditional natural theologians into natural philosophers, and for those who were descendent of a religious family, like Cadwallader, this also left parents concerned about their child’s “enlightenment.”   To some who imagined their sons to follow in the family footsteps after attending a college with such a religious background,  this “enlightenment” could become a more personal experience, resulting in concerns that their child might be labeled an ‘agnostic’ at best, and an atheist in the worst of social gatherings.

Still, the question concerning the natural theology versus natural philosophy meaning for fossils was really just the tip of the iceberg so to speak.   A numbers of myths and legends were being broken or about to become broken in science as a whole.  Take for example one myth which originated as a past claim of non-religious origin that was about to become disproven through science–the question concerning the Scythian Lamb.

Mythical Animals and Plants 

By the end of the seventeenth century, a number of mythical animals were diminished in popularity due to the lack of credible, reliable accounts and recollections of their discoveries.  This was particularly true for several animals common to Renaissance period writings.   Thomas Brown’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica . . . (6ed, London, 1672) included discussions of some of these myths, in an attempt to reveal the truth regarding those known to be just legends, and provide more detail about any others in need of further description and detail regarding their local history and reasons for persistence.  The following three legends for example were discussed at considerable length by Browne and so exist as their own chapters.

  • Of Griffins.  pp. 142-144.
  • Of the Phoenix.  pp. 144-149.
  • The Unicorne’s Horn, pp. 182-186.

Brown also reviewed numerous folktales and stores throughout his book about these legendary creatures.  Browne’s writings helped to reduce the popularity of some of the most basic of such countryborn legends, whilst others persisted.  The scythian lamb and unicorn were two legendary animals that often appeared in local popular writings.  The scythian lamb was popular more so during the 16th century and was a legend that Cadwallader’s father Alexander would have been familiar with. The second series of tales of about unicorns persisted well into the early 1700s, although with some of the interpretation of how this name was applied and what the unicorn actually looked like modified by various writers.

Brown also wrote briefly about a number of legendary plants used as medicines in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica.   His most significant chapter on this was entitled “Of sundry tenets concerning Vegetables or Plants, which examined, prove either false or dubious” (pp. 101-109). In this chapter he briefly recounts the “signatures of Crollius”and the “Phytognomony of Porta”, in order to discuss “how Vegetable Realities are commonly forced into Animal Representations.”  A large section of this Chapter was devoted to the mystical Mandrake root or Mandragora.

The Scythian Lamb.

The above illustration is from a mid-17th century article.

The Scythian lamb was written about extensively in old herbals and religious writings.  It is described in detail in herbals published during the 1500s, and has a history that can be traced back for several centuries based on a number of Jewish Classics.  The Scythian lamb legend stated that there was a tree that consisted of a lamb suspended by a trunk.  This lamb could only feed upon by plants that were growing within reach.  Once these plants were used up, this animal/plant died.

Later descriptions of this legendary plant retained its appearance, but due to examples provided of the mysterious creature, drawings existed that displayed this Lamb-like appendage of wood lying in contact with the ground.  This appearance was due to a wool-like coat that was colored brown.  Around 1867, an essay was published on this plant arguing that this legendary plant/animal was in fact a piece of a large tree-fern specimen found growing in the same environment that these lambs were found.

The Unicorn

A similar history related to whether or not the Unicorn existed.  Centuries earlier, the Unicorn in the classic sense (an equine with a single horn) was the classic impression circulating about its appearance.  This theory at first seem supported by the findings of numbers horns about the world, especially within the more northern colder climate settings along certain shorelines.  By the 1600s, it was beginning to be understand that these findings were in fact the single horns found on Narwhales, which following the death of the narwhale sometimes floated to the nearest ocean edge.  Even though the fact that the traditional unicorn was possibly not real, the use of the name ‘unicorn’ to define these animals at sea continued following their siting.  This led to one article published which leads the reader to think that perhaps the legend of the unicorn is real, and that it was only the interpretation of the original words describing this beast that set us along the wrong intellectual path.

“Monsters” with seven arms

One interesting article during Colden’s college years had a description of a unique “monster” included at the very beginning.  Until now, there were several legends about dangerous animals, ranging from water-dragons and the like to uniquely ugly creatures like the ‘manitou’ found along the Mississippi River during the early 1600s explorations.  One encounter with a large squid resulted in the description of a sea creature with many arms and legs.   This was most likely the creature spoken about in a section of Fugitive Pieces published during Cadwallader’s college years.

Since he was enrolled in classes at Edinburgh, Cadwallader Colden would prbably learn about these unique creatures on the side, or occasionally hear about them in the classroom.  Their only impact upon his education was not at all intellectual, but certainly one of a philosophical nature.  ‘Did these creatures really exist?’ Colden might be asking himself or others.  Since they had nothing to do with his first two or three years of education, they took second place to the main topics at hand.  By his fourth and last years of schooling at Edinburgh, the natural philosophy discussions could perhaps have veered off track sometimes to include mention and logical arguments engaged in about these stories and claims.  For the most part, it seems more likely that Cadwallader had enough of a distraction from the plants and animals of natural philosophy, he was focused on the mathematics of the universe and in particular the seemingly predictable cyclicity of stars, planets, weather and even life based on this aspect of the “Physics” being taught during his senior year at Edinburgh.

Dragon’s Blood 

Proof that the dragons existed took on the form of the blood which they left in the wild.  During Colden’s years at Edinburgh it was beginning to become common knowledge that certain plants in the tropics were often found covered by a deeply red resin.  The original hypothesis for this resin was that it resulted from the exhalation of a dragon and/or the exhaling and depositing of blood from its prey.  This resin was given a high leve of significance for use as a medicine, thus its name Dragon’s Blood or Sanguis Dracaena.  The fact that this resin appeared to be found on certain grass-like species in the tropics helped to further the argument for some that such a creature exists, a notion supported even more by the fact that most of these resins that were usually found in association with shrubs and trees, and not grasses.  By the late 1600s, the source for Dragon’s Blood became well documented and was published by Pierre Pomet in his History of Drugges.  As the sources for conterfeits or adulterants for this blood were uncovered, some from plants that were not tree- or shrub-like, the dragon itself was no longer the important part of the natural history of Dragon’s Blood.  Now it was mostly the appearance and related medical values that made this a popular product of nature, som much that the legend regarding its medicinal value remained intact, in spite of mistakes made about its origin and the original reasons these medical values were felt to exist.

Mandrake Root

Another myth about plants common to Renaissance and early Colonial herbalism (ca. 1500s) was the notion that a particular plant had a root that appeared like a man, and would make a horrendous sound or scream when picked.  Some even believed that this plant was capable of killing those who picked it, for which reason there were specially trained animals used to find and gather these roots.  This Mandrake route has a fairly strong toxin in it that is capable of knocking individuals out (pharmaceutically in much the same way that one part of the Zombie formula does, resulting in what appears to be dazed, sleep-walking).  By Colden’s lifetime, the Mandrake fears were still discussed in some popular books, such as Thomas Brown’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica.  For the most part, physicians by now were making sense of its value as a medicine, removing any fears their predecessors may have verbalized with them about the actual anima-like behavior of this simple plant.  For Colden, this medicine was a poison as well as a plant, which in future years, as he would discover, had its equivalents found in other parts of the world.  At least in theory.  The belief in Mandrake as a man-spirited root was dismissed by Colden and many of his comrades at Edinburgh, while its value as a poison remained intact.